Author: James K. A. Smith

On Fatherless Days

In memory of Franz Wright.

Father’s Day is easy for me: I have none.  They all left.

So I don’t have to find an awkward card amidst the cloying selection on offer.  I don’t have to make the clichéd choice between necktie or power tool.  I don’t have to endure the awkwardness of a largely wordless afternoon in the presence of my progenitor, or remember to call and then try to wrangle a conversation out of the receiver.  (“I don’t have to,” of course, is it’s own sort of spin, papering over the “I don’t get to” buried beneath it.)

So Father’s Day is easy for me.

It’s the rest of the fatherless days that are difficult.

When I was 12 years old, my father divulged his affair with my mother’s best friend.  He promptly kicked me, my brother, and my mother out of the house and moved in his mistress, her children taking over our bedrooms.  We moved to a different town and saw him only a handful of times after that.  The encounters I remember were abusive and terrifying.  The last time I laid eyes on him was when our oldest son was born.  That was almost twenty-three years ago.

My mother remarried.  Her husband was the male presence in my life during my teen years, a mostly spiteful, antagonistic father-substitute.  But I’d take what I could get.

He left too.

In many ways, I’ve been a father longer than I’ve been a son.  While I make no claims of being either good or exemplary, the most sacred call I’m trying to answer in my life is to be a faithful husband and father.  I’ve spent every ounce of psychic energy I have to try and make sure that Father’s Day is never “easy” for my kids by simply showing, on every other day: “I’m still here.”

I’m still here and I’m not going anywhere because I don’t want to miss a thing.  I don’t want to miss you wearing a cape and rubber boots to the grocery store, or the first time you got an earring (which we did together!), or watching you meander toward finding who you’re called to be, or seeing you blossom into the very image of your mother.  I don’t even want to miss the disappointments and darkest moments because I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to endure those without a father.  Or rather, I can, which is why I can’t imagine how my own father could let that happen and why I promise I’ll still be here.

I’m still here even on the days that I blow it and exasperate you.  I’m still here on the days I have to tell you, “I’m sorry.”  I’m still here even on those days when it seems like I’m a million miles away, distant and detached and aloof because I’m haunted by the overwhelming absence of my father who has torn a hole in my life. Like Keats’ “negative capability,” this is the sort of absence that is a presence, a hole that takes up space and eats you alive.  It’s an absence that makes it difficult to sometimes be present to others, even when you’re in the same room.  It’s this distance that Franz Wright finally named for me years ago, in a poem about the destructive presence of his own father who left.  As Wright puts it,

If I’m walking the streets of a citycovering every square inch of the continentall its lights outand empty of people,even thenyou are there 

If I’m walking the streetsoverwhelmed with this love for the living 

I will still be a blizzard at sea 

Since you left me at eight I have always been lonely 

star-far from the person right next to me, but 

closer to me than my bones you 

you are there

I’ll always be in the room and will ask you to forgive me.  It’s just that I’m fathering without a father, working without a net, trying my damndest to pull off this acrobatic trick of not leaving. That’s how I love you.

Thankfully, despite all these absences and departures, I have found a model and exemplar.  Or rather, I have been found by a model Father.  So there are no fatherless days because I have been found and adopted by a heavenly Father who promises to never leave me nor forsake me.  Indeed, I’ve been invited into the life of the triune God who embodies everything this deeply human heart of a son is longing for.  The God I worship is a Father who loves his Son, and who says what any and every son longs to hear:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17 ESV).

And I know that I am in his Son, I am his son.  I have spent a lifetime hoping to hear these words from my earthly fathers.  God only knows how much my frenetic, driven energies are still subconscious cries to be recognized by a father who left, who never asks, who has never come looking for me.  But the grace of the Gospel is to know that I am a son who is beloved.  It may be heretical, it may be indulgent, but one of my deepest eschatological longings is to be welcomed into the kingdom by the Son who shows me the Father (John 14:9), who will tousle my hair like a boy and simply say, “Good job. I’m proud of you.”

All of this was stirred up for me this week by another poem, by Seamus Heaney, a masterful meditator on the relationship between fathers and sons.  His poem, “The Follower,” stopped me in my tracks:

My father worked with a horse-plough,                             1
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing                                     5
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye                                        10
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back                                  15
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.                              20

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

I never want Father’s Day to be as “easy” for my kids as it has been for me.  Which is just a way of saying I don’t want them to have to endure fatherless days.  I’m not going away.  But I’m not haunting them.  I don’t want to burden them.  I’m cheering them on, ready to pick them up when they stumble. I want to be that net I never had, so they can acrobatically launch into their lives, confident in the love of a father loved by the Father that loves them, too.

In Memoriam: Helen Piett

As many of you know, I don’t come from a small “town;” I come from a small village.  Embro, Ontario had a population of just about 600 people when I was growing up, without even the one proverbial stoplight to slow down passers-through who would miss it if they blinked.  If you’ve read an Alice Munro story or a Robertson Davies novel–especially the Deptford trilogy–you’ll have a pretty good sense of what it was like.   A lot of stiff-upper-lipped Scotsmen who coached hockey and spent Thursday nights at the lodge; a lot of salt-of-the-earth women who tolerated them and ran things from behind the scenes.  Within a block of each other was the Presbyterian church and a local United Church congregation, and the green between them was where I remember celebrating Embro’s 125th anniversary in 1983.

I won’t romanticize it.  No doubt it was a difficult place to be an outsider.  And when I was young, the stability of the place was already eroding: the culture of divorce and dislocation would eat away at a more ancient fabric.  But the village and surrounding rural township forged an identity in two primary nodes: the hockey arena and our rural school.

I am just old enough to remember the original arena: a green ramshackle driveshed of a building on Argyle Street–basically corrugated metal and a roof over what would otherwise be an outdoor rink.  It was here that I would take my first steps on the ice, though within a few years a new arena would be built on the other side of town, the local temple of Canadian religion.  For a significant swath of the community, life revolved around the arena.

But even more of us were bound together by the school.  All of us were bussed from miles around to a country school north of Embro: Zorra Highland Park, whose name signaled the Scottish heritage of the township (“Embro” is said to be a garbled form of the “Edinburgh”).  My first teacher there in kindergarten also happened to be my great aunt, Helen Piett (née Smith).  I was terribly sad to learn that Aunt Helen died a few weeks ago, on November 22, 2014.  I feel like I owe her memory and legacy a word of thanks.

My first-hand memories of Aunt Helen are memories of “Mrs. Piett,” my teacher.  Because it was a country school, we went to kindergarten all day, every other day, so I remember her getting us settled down for nap time in the afternoons.  “Get your mats, children”–cushy, ugly, brown naugahyde mats for sleeping on the floor.  I remember her comforting me and putting a band-aid on my hair after Darryl Fraser hip-checked me into one of the cubby-holes, sending me off with the principal to get stitches in Tavistock.  I remember how every year, for generations, she created silhouettes of each student’s young profile by tracing the outline of our heads projected by the stark light of the filmstrip projector.  She would cut these out of black construction paper, mount them on stark white backdrops, label the name and date in her meticulous cursive hand, and then present them to the parents.  Often when I visited friends in their homes, these shadows of their younger selves adorned the walls like memories.

For reasons that are painful to discuss, I never really got to know Mrs. Piett as “Aunt Helen.”  Those corrosive forces that fractured families hit my own, leaving estrangement and dysfunction in their wake.  The entire “Smith side” of my life disappeared behind the walls erected by divorce–walls that are invisible and yet also block our way.

But then just before we moved to the United States in 1995, somehow Aunt Helen got in touch with me and passed along what is now a treasure to me: a family history of The Maisley McWilliams in Canada, 1846-1939, with five supplements tracing the history up until 1994.  Little did I know that Aunt Helen was also the family historian.  Most significantly, she had written me into the history I thought I’d lost.  There was my name in this story.  And even more: there was my marriage to Deanna in that final supplement.  And there were my two sons, their births in 1992 and 1994 etched into this family tree.  While I thought this family had forgotten me, Aunt Helen hadn’t.

And she didn’t ever again.  Faithfully, every year, she would send our family a Christmas card with one of her lovely letters of reflection and gratitude.  And we would reciprocate, partly in gratitude, but mostly because she was the only set of arms reaching out to us from this lost side of my life.  In Children of Divorce, Andrew Root argues that divorce is traumatic because its effects are ontological: it rends our very being.  Aunt Helen was someone who was trying to keep me stitched together.

This week we received a letter from Aunt Helen’s daughter, Marlene Matheson.  Its first line both pierced my heart and cheered my soul:

It is with sadness that I write this last ‘Christmas’ letter for Mom.  Mom will be spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.

I am grateful for the quiet, steady witness of saints like Aunt Helen.  Thank you, Aunt Helen, for the gift you gave our family: the gift of a history, a story, but also the model of one who longed for the Lord of history.  Enjoy your well-deserved rest in the country you’ve been looking for your whole life.  I can’t wait to see you there.

Responding to a Common Critique of “Who’s Afraid of Relativism?”

Eduardo Echeverria has published an article-length critical review of my book, Who’s Afraid of Relativism?in the latest issue of the Calvin Theological Journal and the editors gave me an opportunity to respond.  I took them up on it, in part because Echeverria’s serious engagement deserved a reply, but also because his critique reflects a common mis-reading of my project (of the sort you might see, for instance, in Philosophia Christi).

I’ve uploaded my response, “Echeverria’s Protestant Epistemology: A Catholic Response,” at Scrib and embedded it below.

One contextual note about a joke embedded in the title: Echeverria is a former Neocalvinist who converted to Roman Catholicism; I, on the other hand, am a Reformed Protestant.  Get it?

Labor Day Lament: A Poem

This “last Friday” of summer has a feel of Fall about it: we’ll head to the first high school football game tonight with sweatshirts to guard against evening chill.  As I’m watching the kids on our street squeeze out the last dregs of summer, I’m reminded of how I approached Labor Day weekend as a child–which then reminded me of a poem I wrote several years ago.  It’s probably not worth the light of day, but it might capture how some of us feel about the twilight of summer:

Labor Day Lament
When did Labor Day lose
its apocalyptic tenor? 
its doomsday connotation? 
its autumnal terror?
For a boy of twelve
Labor Day comes like a thief in the night,
with the sound of a dreaded trump
announcing the end of
catching crayfish and walnut fights—
as if the first day of school
was a recurring Armageddon.
For a boy of sixteen
Labor Day is the Day of Judgment,
the parousia that quashes
a summer of paramours—
when teasing bikinis and spaghetti straps
become draped in the wool of
Catholic school uniforms whose
scratchy discomfort enacts
a tartan penance.
For the young man at twenty-seven
Labor Day is lost in the blur
of cubicled time,
barely a blip in the whir of ambition
and the tribulation of his toil.
But at twilight
in the yard—
in the cemetery of his play—
in the gloaming of summer,
the smell of that adolescent dread
briefly hangs on the unkempt lawn
like neglected manna,
a tenuous revenant lurking
between tricycle and sandbox.
Its haunting no longer spooks
his responsible adult disenchanted soul.
Tuesday will be no Second Coming.
Apocalyptic is kids’ stuff.
We’re too busy slouching toward success.

Sending our Daughter Off to College: A Guest Post by Deanna

Today we moved our daughter, our third child, into her dorm room at Calvin College.  It was everything we could have hoped for, and everything we’ve been trying to pretend wouldn’t happen all summer.  Our baby girl has been launched into the next season of her adventure with Christ.

My wife, Deanna, sent a note to our closest family to share an update.  I found her little note so lovely, so fitting, so poignant, I asked if I could share it here, and she agreed.  

I just got home from taking Maddie to Calvin. The day we have been both looking forward to and dreading all at once. We like her so much. 

All the cliches are true. It goes by so fast. It seems like just yesterday…Where does the time go? Of course, there were so many days that led to this one. 6649 to be exact. So many of them ordinary, trying, never ending. And then there were the magical ones. All of the “firsts.” All of the moments that have added up and been tucked away and made us into the people we are today. 

We are so very thankful. Profoundly grateful for our Maddie and her brothers. We look forward to watching her grow over the next 4 years and are trusting in God’s amazing love for her. 

One of my favourite pictures of her from when she was little is this one I have included. She was pretending to be  a bird. Arms open wide, face to the sun, looking ahead, soaring. It perfectly encapsulates who she is. She is ready to fly. 


We Need More Than Liturgy: AGREED

It’s always, er, let’s say, “intriguing” to read an article that purports to be a critique of your work which, in turns, criticizes what you have also criticized and espouses positions that, in fact, you have also argued.  In short, it’s puzzling to read an article that claims to disagree with you when said article argues for the same positions you hold.

I say “intriguing,” but what I really mean is frustrating, disappointing, and puzzling–especially when such a “critique” is not some random musing hastily posted to a blog but an article that appears in a major evangelical publication that (one assumes) has been vetted by editors who (again, one would think) exercise some critical quality control.  (I say this as someone who also edits a magazine and has had to reject articles–even articles I’ve commissioned–when authors weren’t willing to correct caricatures.)

This was my experience upon reading Kirsten Guidero’s puzzling, somewhat meandering article, “We Need More Than Liturgy,” published by Christianity Today.

The problem isn’t critique.  Critique is how knowledge advances and how authors continue to learn.  And I’ve appreciated some well-founded critiques of both Desiring the Kingdom (DTK) and Imagining the Kingdom (ITK).  Indeed, as I note in the Preface to ITK, insightful criticisms of DTK shaped how I approached volume 2 of the Cultural Liturgies Project.  I’ve also engaged the helpful criticisms of my project from “the Westmont Four” that appeared in Books & Culture (here and here).

Lots of other criticisms are simply mistaken and uninteresting and usually exhibit the critic’s inability to understand an argument (or that the critic has already decided before reading that book X is “wrong” because it is written by Y and Y is associated with Z, etc.).  Most of these sorts of “critiques” appear on blogs and I happily ignore.

Guidero’s is this sort of “critique,” but it appears with the imprimatur of Christianity Today and, one has to conclude, its editors.  It’s frustrating to feel compelled to write a response to such a piece since it’s required only because an author and editors failed to actually read what I’ve already written.  And if my response seems tedious, it’s precisely because I find it tedious to have to restate what Guidero should have already read (supposedly “has read”).  My response, then, is as much an indictment of the editors of Christianity Today as it is of Guidero.

Without further adieu, a few notes:

Liturgical Evangelicalism?

Guidero’s attributes to me a “defense of liturgical evangelicalism.”  I dare anyone to find any instance in which I have either used this term let alone “defended” it.  I have no idea what it would mean to be “a champion of the evangelical liturgy cause.”  To the contrary I have been persistently skeptical about what “evangelicalism” means.  Instead, ever since the final chapter of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (2006), I have argued for catholic faith. “Evangelicalism” is not my term nor my identity.  I’m a Reformed Catholic.

Only Bodies?

Guidero mistakenly thinks I argue for some kind of reductionistic materialism, as if we were only bodies–that I set up liturgical formation “against” cognitive processes and am engaged in “a continued zero-sum game pitting mind against body.”  Instead, she argues for the “enduring interrelation of our bodies, brains, and identities.”

Here’s the problem: that’s also what I argue for.  Both sides of her claim are so baffling to me I don’t even know where to begin, but I think it must stem from Guidero’s inability (or refusal?) to really grasp what I argue in chapter 1 of ITK (an admittedly challenging chapter, focused on Merleau-Ponty).

Following Merleau-Ponty, I emphasise the “hybridity” of our being–that we are mind and body (ITK, 43).  This “betweenness” and inter-relatedness of mind and body is almost the entire burden of the first chapter of ITK (see especially pp. 69-72 about the “wholeness” of our experience).

[Also relevant is a footnote on ITK, p. 55, drawing on Alasdair MacIntyre: “The term animal (as in “liturgical animal” or “imaginative animal”) is just a philosophical way of naming our embodiment, of saying that we are not essentially souls or only minds but embodied thinkers that Aristotle called “rational animals.” We aren’t angels. Merleau-Ponty and Johnson press us to situate the rationality in our animality, in our embodiment. Alasdair MacIntyre makes the same point: “our whole initial bodily comportment towards the world is originally an animal comportment” (Dependent Rational Animals, 49).]

I’m not arguing that we are only bodies; I’m arguing that we are not less than bodies.  She takes my argument for irreducibility as if it were a reductionism.  But I don’t know how many more ways I could protest that in the book.  Guidero is working with a dichotomy that I explicitly refuse.  For example, I conclude ITK by emphasizing “that this attention to our unconscious habituation and embodied ‘feel’ for the world is not meant to denigrate or neglect the role of reflection and intellectual analysis.  I am not setting up a dichotomy: either practice or reflection.  To the contrary, my hope is to foster intentional reflection on practice in order to encourage reflective immersion in practice” (p. 186).  The entire Preface of ITK makes this same point: if my argument is anti-intellectual, both of my books sure ask people to do some really hard thinking about worship!  In that sense, I only wish Guidero would have thought a little more carefully about all of this.

Furthermore, I explicitly agree with her claim about how we ought to be engaged in worship: as I emphasize at the conclusion of ITK, “worship requires full, active, conscious participation even if it is also forming us in ways that elude our conscious awareness.  If our immersion in the practices of Christian worship is always and only a matter of ‘going through the motions,’ then we are not really practitioners” (p. 187).

If some of Guidero’s evangelical friends have latched onto “liturgy” as some kind of magical antidote, that’s not my fault.


According to Guidero, I argue, in DTK, that “Christian education must be entirely redirected in order to better foster such liturgical emphasis on the emotions.”  (Guidero has a habit of simply putting a title in brackets in a mode of vague reference–though this might have been a result of editorial trimming.)

Really? I’m baffled.  I’ve searched high and low throughout Desiring to see where I even talk about emotions.  All I could find was a critique of emotionalism on p. 79 and then a more substantial discussion on p. 224 where, again, I critique emotivism.  In the context of a discussion about campus worship, I push back on dichotomous models that emphasize either the intellect or emotions.  “[B]oth sides,” I point out, “tend to either reduce Christianity to a belief system or an emotivist experience.”  In contrast, I argue that “if we begin from the assumption that humans are liturgical animals, and that the Christian social imaginary is carried in the practices of Christian worship, then…the role of the chapel is not to stir our emotions or merely fuel our ‘spiritual’ needs…”

Guidero doesn’t seem to appreciate the nuances of the philosophical account of the emotions that is unpacked in ITK drawing on scholars like Merleau-Ponty, Mark Johnson, Iain McGilchrist, Bob Roberts and relevant work in neuroscience. (One can find further exploration of a nuanced account of emotion in my earlier book, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy). She also seems to confuse my (Burkean) sense of the “sentimental” (also per David Brooks) as if this was some kind of Oprah-fied Hallmarkism and the stuff of Nicholas Sparks’ movies–when, in fact, this is precisely what I criticize.

That I could be guilty of extoling “emotion-driven Christian liturgy” is almost laughable: you should come to my church!

No Guarantees

In what she takes to be opposition to my project, Guidero emphasizes that “liturgical formation does not guarantee virtue formation.”

But where do I ever make claims about such a “guarantee?”  I reject any sort of liturgical determinism (just as Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu also reject determinism, as I note in ITK).  And already in DTK, I noted the limits of liturgical formation.  Consider, for example, an important footnote on p. 208:

I suggest that my account of secular liturgies might be able to provide a framework for explaining why the practices of Christian worship don’t seem to transform those who participate in them. For instance, I can think of a congregation gathering week in and week out for historic, intentional Christian worship that includes all the elements discussed here; and yet, from the perspective of shalom, some of its parishioners are unapologetic and public participants in some of the most egregious systemic injustices. Does that falsify my claims here? I don’t think so, at least not necessarily. Rather, we will need a more nuanced account of how some liturgies trump others; in this case, we could suggest that though these parishioners participate in Christian worship, their participation in other secular liturgies effectively trumps the practices of Christian worship. Such a line of investigation might also require that we attend to empirical realities, drawing on a theologically informed psychology, sociology, and ethnography.

Furthermore, I conclude ITK with an entire section emphasizing the importance of reflection and liturgical catechesis, inviting worshipers to think about what they’re doing when they worship (pp. 187-189).  There, drawing on the wisdom of my friend John Witvliet, I explicitly name and reject the kind of liturgical superstition that Guidero attributes to me.

Liturgies from Heaven?

I’m not quite sure what to make of Guidero’s section, “Who Decides?,” but she seems to attribute to me some kind of traditionalism as if I think there is “one, true” Christian liturgy that was handed down from heaven to…who?  Cranmer? Calvin? Bob Webber?  I’m not sure because, simply, I don’t hold this view.

If some people are prone to liturgical positivism and traditionalism, what does that have to do with me?  I explicitly reject this kind of static, “deposit” model of Christian liturgy, even though I do argue for a core, catholic liturgical inheritance that is the accrued wisdom of the body of Christ, led by the Spirit over the course of history (see esp. ITK, pp. 169-171).  But I also explicitly note that this does not preclude innovation in liturgical forms (p. 174n.61):

This is not to say that there is no room for innovation or improvisation in Christian worship or that affirming the formative wisdom of historic Christian worship requires merely repeating status quo forms. The point is rather that improvisations and innovations of worship form need to be attentive to the narrative arc of the form and the unique “incarnate significance” of worship practices. Innovations that are “faithful” will preserve the plot of that narrative arc and deepen the imaginative impact of worship. Unfaithful and unhelpful innovations will be developments that are detrimental to the imaginative coherence of worship.

Was there some other way I could have said that so Guidero could hear it?


These notes still don’t quite capture the gulf between the positions she ascribes to me and those I actually argue for in DTK and ITK.  To do so would be to rewrite those books.  The best I can do is invite you to read the books carefully (even if Guidero didn’t) and assess for yourself.

Do we need more than liturgy?  Absolutely.  In fact, I wrote a book called Desiring the Kingdom that concluded with the same point.  And that we need nothing less.

On “Courage” in the (Christian) Academy

[a few thoughts composed on my iPhone on the shore of Little Platte Lake]

Someone has said that academic squabbles are so nasty only because they are so unimportant. Nonetheless, many academics like to see themselves as “courageous”–exhibiting intellectual heroism, taking stands that are unpopular, leading to some kind of “martyrdom.”  This is the kind of “courage” you claim when you’ve dodged the draft and type with hands never blemished by a callous. 
This self-understanding of academic “courage” takes specific forms among Christian scholars, and is perhaps ramped up by adding religious stakes to the mix. Again, the scholar likes to imagine himself or herself as “courageous” for saying unpopular things, for speaking truth to power, for questioning the status quo. 
There are “progressive” versions of this in which the courageous scholar-martyr is marginalized by evangelicalism for taking unpopular stands that are nonetheless supported by “science” or “justice” or “democracy” or “experience” or what have you. As a result s/he is critcized, bullied, rejected, ostracized, ignored, excluded, etc. But the courageous scholar is willing to endure such sacrifices for the sake of Truth, Justice, Science, Progress, Diversity, etc. 
But progressives don’t have the corner on the courage market. There are conservative Christian scholars who tell themselves the same story: they are willing to risk marginalization, exclusion, derision, even appearing the fool in order to stand up for The Truth against academic trends, intellectual fads, and the temptations that roll into the university under the guise of Progress.
But when one looks at these scenarios more closely, I think one will see that, in fact, neither is risking very much. Those “courageous” progressives don’t really value the opinions or affirmations of conservative evangelicalism anyway. What they really value, long for, and try to curry is the favor of “the Enlightened”–whether that’s the mainstream academy or the progressive chattering class who police our cultural mores of tolerance. Sure, these “courageous” progressives will take fire from conservative evangelicals–but that’s not a loss or sacrifice for them. Indeed, their own self-understanding is fueled by such criticism.  In other words, these stands don’t take “courage” at all; they don’t stand to lose anything with those they truly value.

Similarly, “courageous” conservatives who “stand up” to the progressive academy aren’t putting much at risk because that’s not where they look for validation and it’s not where their professional identities are invested. They are usually “populists” (in a fairly technical sense of the word) whose professional lives are much more closely tethered to the church and popular opinion.  And in those sectors, “standing up to” the academy isn’t a risk at all–it’s a way to win praise. When your so-called contrarian stands win favor from those you value most…well, it’s hard to see how “courage” applies. 

But here’s what we don’t often see: Christian scholars who have vested their professional lives in the mainstream academy willing to take stands that would be unpopular at the MLA or APA or AAR. Conversely, we don’t see many conservative scholars willing to defend positions that would jeapordize their favored status with popular evangelicalism. 

Now both of those options would require courage.

O.K. Bouwsma on philosophers and philosophy

O.K. Bouwsma, a graduate of Calvin College’s philosophy department, was a longtime professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska and, later, the University of Texas.  He is one of four presidents of the American Philosophical Association who was an alumnus of our department here at Calvin.  He was also one of the first U.S. interpreters of Wittgenstein and influenced students like Norman Malcolm who went on to play a significant role in the reception of Wittgenstein in North America.

I was recently re-reading one of Bouwsma’s classics, a little review essay on Wittgenstein’s Blue Book that first appeared in the Journal of Philosophy in 1961.  It includes one of my favorite passages of philosophy ever, and makes me think being a student of Bouwsma must have been spell-binding:

I have been trying in these paragraphs to represent a certain source of misunderstanding, an obstacle to misunderstanding.  It may also be represented in this way: Philosophers are people who investigate what sorts of things there are in the universe.  They are, of course, scrupulous in these investigations beyond the scrupulosity of any other investigator.  They stand at the gate and wait, fearing to tread where angels rush in. And what do they ask? They ask questions such as: Are there angels, universals, pure possibilities, uncrusted possibilities, possibilities with a little mud on them, fairies, creatures made of beautiful smoke, relations, the Lost Atlantis, real equality among tooth-picks, sense-data, ghosts, selves in prison with two feet, everlasting shoe-makers, heaven, thinking horses, pure uncontaminated acts, absolutely independent tables, the minds of stars, the spirits of an age, perfect circles, the geometrical point of a joke, the devil, floating impressions, categorical don’ts, one simple called Simon, perspectives waiting to take their places as the penny turns, gods, any ding-dong an sich with a bell so one can find it in the dark, trees, houses, and mountains of the mind, itches of necessary connection, two impossibilities before breakfast, blue ideas, enghosted pieces of furniture, etc. 

 And if now anyone comes to the reading of this book [Wittgenstein’s Blue Book] expecting the author, for instance, to say: “Yes, yes, God exists,” and then to show him a new and knock-out proof that is guaranteed for a thousand years or to help him to an old one, long buried in a Kant heap, but now freshly washed and polished, well, the author is more likely to remind him that thought Nietzsche some years ago read an obituary notice to the effect that God is dead, he, the author, had not even heard that God was sick.  “The living God!”  And as for inventing any new apriori synthetic, a new drug to cure this or that, or any and all, sorts of incertitude, though he seems at one time to have been interested in inventing a new type of airplane propeller and showed a keen interest in all sorts of gadgets, a milk bottle, for instance, from which with the use of a spoon, one could pour off the cream—“Now, there’s America for you!”—this particular form of invention he seems not to have been interested in.  He was more inclined to recommend a few old home remedies and common herbs, garden variety simples which he was insistent one should not confuse.  And as for those readers in general who want answers to their questions and who, if they already have answers, want better reasons, the author givens neither better reasons for the old answers nor any answers, and those readers who keep their questions may be considered either fortunate or unfortunate as the case may be. 

I have tried to show how it is that this book should disappoint some readers, supposed that they had expectations in reading it.  I have suggested that the reason why such readers have such expectations is that it is, or is read as, a book in philosophy.  And it is a book of philosophy, surely?  Well, it is and it isn’t.