Home > James K. A. Smith, Natural Theology > Natural theology FAIL

Natural theology FAIL

According to this article, redemption looks like the “boyish grin” of Brett Favre on a “good night,” simultaneously smells like the “oaky tease” of a Napa Chardonnay and the “outside smell” of the family dog in November, and tastes like the hoppy bitterness of an IPA and free range “Turkeyness.”

So, in other words, redemption is akin to shit middle-class white folks like to do in Grand Rapids, MI?

  1. January 15, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Ummm…redemption smells, tastes and sounds like these things to a middle aged white guy. To you, it means the smell of Volvo leather, poop in Al’s nappy, IPA’s, a bases loaded double to win the softball game. At least you guys could have an IPA together.

  2. Steve Martin
    January 15, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    You seem to be having a bad day and probably didn’t read the article to the end, so here you go:

    “It should not surprise us that redemption will not always look triumphant. If Jesus comes as the second Adam who models redemptive culture making, then in our broken world such cultural labour will look cruciform. But it will also look like hope that is hungry for joy and delight.”


  3. January 15, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    I hear his boyish grin was in full form the night he texted pictures of his dick to Jenn Sterger.

    Ahh, redemption!

  4. January 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Dad, then I’m an idolater.

  5. January 15, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Steve, I did read the whole article and that last part struck me as strange, because the majority of examples of redemption that Jamie provides could hardly be described as “cruciform.” But I cannot say I am at all sure what he means by the whole Christ as the one who “models redemptive culture making” bit. I really have no idea what he could mean by cruciform “cultural labour.”

    So, no, I don’t feel better about the article at all. This really is just a perverse natural theology.

  6. January 15, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    It didn’t actually strike me as strange that the language of “cruciformity” would be thrown in at the end. However, the inclusion of it is actually quite insidious. What it covertly does is identify all the other bourgeois pleasures described in the article with cruciformity. Or at the very least it declares the compatibility of bourgeois middle class pleasures with the cruciform life to which the gospel calls us.

    So now we get to keep our Napa Chardonay’s and our safe houses full of well-behaved, privately-educated, homework-doing children, and our cruciformity too. Cruciformity now gets reduced to nothing more than the stuff an upper middle class professor happens to be able to afford and enjoy.

    If anything the inclusion of cruciformity language in this article is all the more incriminating, in no way is it exonerating.

  7. January 16, 2011 at 12:32 am

    Those homework-doing children… veritable tools of Satan!

  8. January 16, 2011 at 1:16 am

    Nabokov, Lectures on Literature p 375: “From the commonsensical point of view the “goodness,” say, of some food is just as abstract as its “badness,” both being qualities that cannot be perceived by the sane judgment as tangible and complete objects. But when we perform that necessary mental twist which is like learning to swim or to make a ball break, we realize that “goodness” is something round and creamy, and beautifully flushed, something in a clean apron with warm bare arms that have nursed and comforted us.

    The excerpts you give are from a long litany of things that makes him feel good. OK, sure, not so deep as Ss Athanasius or John of the Cross maybe, and certainly lacking something if you are looking for a full-fledged theology of redemption. Is that what it was supposed to be? If so, it needs a big old dose of what Charles Williams called the way of negation: “neither is this Thou.” But for those who answer better to the way of affirmation (“This also is Thou,”) I can see how it would appeal and edify. Just my (aiming to be charitable) read.

  9. Halden
    January 16, 2011 at 1:41 am

    As the good Lord said, “I have come that your kids may do homework, and get straight A’s without ever knowing black kids. “

  10. January 16, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Could you clarify, Ry, why you take this to be a natural theology? It seems that Smith is saying less “the birth of a new child teaches us Redemption” and more “Redemption teaches us the birth of a new child”. That is, the redemptive truth seems to be working out for him in the world in a way we can identify under various modes. It doesn’t seem like he’s saying we can exactly come to redemptive truth by means of these various natural modes.

    The critique of bourgeois culture may still stick, but this strikes me as a somewhat different question than that of natural theology as idolatry. And while I can recognize the problems of oppression inherent in certain aspects of middle class American culture, I’m still at a loss to see why doing homework or drinking wine or fixing a meal together are so insidious, even within the context of a class critique. That is… I don’t see how Halden jumped to lumping school work with segregation, or why Jesus could drink his wine but Napa Chardonnay is somehow inherently antithetical to a cruciform life. Sometimes the moralizing seems to go a bit overboard, as if the oppressed are some cultureless bloc, solidarity with which entails an abandonment of anything that a middle class stance might recognize as good. That strikes me as overeager and in the end unintentionally demeaning.

  11. January 16, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    What Smith says is that the incarnation occurred “not to save our souls from this fallen world, but in order to restore us as lovers of this world–to (re)enable us to carry out that creative commission. Indeed, God saves us so that–once again, in a kind of divine madness–we can save the world, can (re)make the world aright.” For Smith it is precisely our commission to save the world; in fact, he goes so far as to claim that “In an equally scandalous way, we are now commissioned as co-redeemers. Redemption is the re-orientation and re-direction of our culture-making capacities.

    If he actually means what he says here we should then read Smith’s descriptions as more than just “parables of the kingdom,” more than just examples that exhibit a kind “likeness” to the coming kingdom, but rather as examples of concrete instances that are actually constitutive of our redemption. And so that IPA or that free range turkey or that new born baby smell (which, by the way, smells awful!) are all examples (even instances) of ourselves working out our own redemption. Grace does not even perfect nature in this view, it is simply a ‘re-orienting’ of nature. Indeed, our re-oriented “culture-making” actually seems to play a more important role than the idea of Mary as co-redemptrix in Roman Catholicism.

    And so, Evan, I don’t think Smith is really saying either that “the birth of a new child teaches us Redemption” or “Redemption teaches us the birth of a new child,” but rather the “birth of a new child is actually a concrete instance of redemption, for it is part of good culture-making.”

  12. January 16, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    I shouldn’t have said what I said about segregation. I retract that.

    But, this article quite clearly IS advocating natural theology. The article claims that redemption is “a small good thing” and “you will know it when you see it.” That is indeed natural theology at its best/worst.

  13. January 17, 2011 at 1:20 am

    This still doesn’t seem like natural theology to me. He’s saying that God’s redemptive works have some cultural effects open to empirical reception. That doesn’t mean that we are depending for our knowledge of God on some natural or human means outside of God’s self-revelation in Christ. It is God’s work in the world, after all. And I would note that while Smith insists that redeeming work “is not the special province of Christians”, he does not say that just anyone can recognize the work of God in the world. “We, too, can follow God’s lead and celebrate the same,” he says, and by “we” I take him to only mean something like the believing community that is pivotal for the visibility you discuss in the Siggelkow/Doerge/Kerr Thesis 9. (interesting to note, Geoffrey Hoschclaw’s response to this thesis at the church and postmodern culture suggested its similarities to an “ecclesiocentric” view of some sort)

    And again, one may still disagree with the sorts of redeeming cultural work that he mentions… it certainly has a different tone than what is described here or here (although, as I’ve mentioned above, I’m not really impressed by the idea that one can’t do these things and also enjoy chardonnay, or finish one’s homework, or read poetry… the assertion that “bourgeois” or “middle class” or “white” practices are opposed to a cruciform life just strikes me as completely driven by its own cultural gripes rather than any substantial reasons). One might even disagree with the idea of redemptive culture-making itself, or object to the idea of a co-redemptive role for human vessels of God’s work. I’m not denying there are other places that one might raise concern apart from the question of natural theology… although as is probably clear, I’m not especially concerned about these things myself.

  14. nate kerr
    January 17, 2011 at 5:09 am


    I’m not so sure that your comments regarding “doing homework” and race need retracting, at least not without qualification. For one, there is indeed a long history to consider as regards the relation of education to racism in America, which history includes the fact that the growth of private Christian schools in America has reached its highest points in history during the battle for national sovereignty and racial segregation. And we should consider carefully what the phrase “doing homework” has signified in much of recent history. It should not be overlooked that having time to do homework is something that much of middle class America takes for granted, while for many children in poor urban (and predominantly black or hispanic) neighborhoods such time to do homework is a luxury they simply cannot afford. Oftentimes these children of low income families are left to fend for themselves without parents in an evening, parents who are either working a second or third shift to just pay the rent or, in many cases, spending time in jail for crimes often related to lack of income. This is not to mention that many national campaigns which have sought to fund after-school programs for the sake of giving such children a chance to do their homework have used the phrase “doing homework” as code for allowing these children to improve themselves in such a way as to eventually set them on the path towards the upwardly mobile, middle-class life. Now, while I’ve surely got nothing against “homework as such,” it is the case that “doing homework” is as much code for fulfilling the American dream as it is anything else.

    It should also be pointed out the the idea of “culture” is not some benign idea, expressive of some kind of general “cultivation of life,” or something. It is interesting to note that the first usage of the English term “culture” dates back to about the mid-1400s, about the time that the Spanish and French terms for “culture” emerge as particularly dominant with the language. The usage of the term “culture” emerged as necessary during the process of colonization (which also comes from the same Latin root colere). True, the word goes back in its Latin usage to the noun cultus and refers in its popular usage to the cultivation of the soul. But this gets combined in fifteenth century colonialism with the cultivation of land, etc. The argument was that because the colonizers had “culture” (a cultivated soul) vis-a-vis the “barbaric” natives, then they were uniquely qualified to colonize and to cultivate the land. In other words, the creation of “culture” throughout history has been inevitably bound up with the fulfillment and propagation of a given groups (usually nationalist or religious) highest ideals. Thus, the long historical link between the cultivation of Christian cultus and Christian nationalist “culture” with supersessionism and anti-Semitism. The origins Christian anti-Semitism, as both Yoder and Daniel Boyarin have shown, among others, are arguably and almost undeniably bound up with the emergence of an identifiably “Christian” religious cultus considered in necessary distinction from the synagogal worship that early Christians shared with first century Jews. And we are all aware of the inability of the old German Kulturprotestismus to resist Nazism.

    It is little wonder that Barth was led to declare, as he did, that “the acts of Jesus have no direct connection with cultural activity.” For the problem with “culture” is that it is bound to conform the active life of any given particular human being to the norms of a given society or group. “Culture” is inherently self-reflexive, you might say. And so, what we find in Scripture is a Jesus who acts almost exclusively to liberate those who have been bound by, outcast from, and marginalized with relation to what we would most often identify with culture — eating and drinking with tax collectors and prostitutes, healing the blind, the lame, the lepers, and casting out demons not, as Luke 17:11ff. so poignantly illustrates, so that these persons might be restored to the hegemonic powers of the dominant “cultic” activity, but rather that they might be free from definition by these cultic powers for the praise of the one God who alone is Lord. “Cultus/culture,” if anything, is associated in the New Testament not with “redemption” but with one’s willful obeisance of the (demonic) powers and principalities.

    So while I have many problems with Smith’s article, my main problem is that it does not speak anywhere of redemption in the kinds of concretely liberative terms that Jesus does: in terms of bringing good news to the poor, of freeing the prisoners, the captive, and the oppressed, of recovery of sight to the blind, of the resurrection of the dead. Say what you will about IPAs, free-range chickens, and doing homework. That is not what is at issue here. What is at issue is that a Christianity that defines itself according to a notion of “culture” crafted to justify what are predominantly white, middle-class conventions is a Christianity that has denied solidarity with the enslaved and oppressed in discipleship of the crucified one in favor of the so-called goodness of its own cultic self-fabrications.

  15. January 17, 2011 at 10:26 am

    What Nate said! (It is ok to continue to drink my non-redeptive Red Zin, right?)

  16. January 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    It should also be pointed out the the idea of “culture” is not some benign idea, expressive of some kind of general “cultivation of life,” or something.

    Well, it’s not just that… but of course it includes such life-giving things within its scope. I think “culture” is just an incredibly broad concept, and so its history is wrapped up with colonialism and nationalism as well as agriculture or meal etiquette or multiplication tables. I take it that’s why Smith wants to point out some redemptive cultural work in particular… precisely because he doesn’t take culture of any sort whatsoever as redemptive or edifying of life. Certain cultures are not cultures of life. Now, saving a watershed from unsustainable chicken farms may not have the same ethical depth as standing in solidarity with Palestinian victims of occupation, but I think the point is that there are life-affirming ways to live one’s life and there are life-denying ways.

    But I’m not sure how any significant human act… redemptive or otherwise… could have “no direct connection with cultural activity”. What would that even look like? A Left Behind style rapture or something?

    In the end, however, your problem seems to be “that it does not speak anywhere of redemption in the kinds of concretely liberative terms that Jesus does”, and I think this is a critique that is much more sensible than calling the article an idolatrous natural theology or condemning the small life-affirming aspects of certain middle-class cultures in and of themselves, as if this is a zero-sum game where we have to choose between sustainable chicken farming and liberating the poor from corporate or government abuse.

  17. Nate Kerr
    January 18, 2011 at 2:37 am


    I do think that Barth’s statement about the activity of Jesus having “no direct connection with cultural activity” is to be read apocalyptically. So let me say a little about how I’m thinking through these things right now. Within the long history of ideas, I think of culture as a mode of human making that is in-itself self-reflexively related to nature. It is, undoubtedly, a fundamentally pagan notion, the activity of human beings by which physis is molded and structured as cosmos. In itself, “culture” is essentially a human work of self-preservation; it is just simply that work by which we seek to preserve and to extend life in the world for the sake of the happiness thereof. For me, its weakness as a theological category is that, rather like the concept “nature,” “culture” does not finally get the human off of itself. In this sense, I tend to think that culture belongs to what Paul calls the stoicheia tou cosmou, those elemental principles of the cosmos to which we have died in Christ (Col. 2:20), that world to which we have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 6:14). “Culture” thus belongs to the “world” that is passing away in the face of the new creation that is now “coming to pass,” if you will; “culture” belongs to that world which we must “unhand” in order to be given anew to receive what is “at hand” (to draw upon the language of both Yoder and more recently Christopher Morse) — the kingdom of God’s agape. We must think of human work then not “culturally” as a kind of “taking up” in order to create, but rather as a “letting go” in order that we might receive. As such, I don’t think that we are created for culture-making, as some kind of natural capacity for co-creative work, or something. I think whatever it is that we mean by work belongs to the groaning of creation that is in bondage to decay, the liberation from which is anticipated in those moments in which we are given to work and to live, to breathe and to play, in such ways as “give up” our practices of culture making in such a way as to be given over to the kind of love for the other that does not need to preserve life but goes to the cross in hope of resurrection into a new creation that is beyond anything the work of “culture” can give us to make or to imagine — viz., the eternal novum of God’s singularly Christic agape. This is what Paul, it seems to me, means by Christian “freedom.” It is to live in such a way as to always be riffing on Galatians 6:15 in the following way: “Neither culture nor nature is anything; but a new creation is everything.”

    Now, I’ve been leaving off the question of culture and natural theology for a reason, in part because I’m currently working on an essay which attempts to work out these questions. But suffice it to say that I do think Jamie’s position is a form of natural theology, insofar as depends upon the fundamental methodological procedure of identifying within natural humanity a general cultural ontic which then provides the “point of contact,” if you will, for articulating the supposed superiority of “Christian” culture making.

  18. January 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    I am confused about if Kyper’s statement “no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'” is an endorsement of natural theology? Because when I read this article when it appeared in Comment I saw it more as riff of Kyper’s statement more than an endorsement of natural theology. But does Kyper’s statement automatically mean natural theology? Just trying to clear that up in my mind.

  19. January 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Should have looked up his name first: Kuyper.

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