The Nicene Option: A Review

The Nicene Option: An Incarnational Phenomenology by James K.A. Smith. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2021. Hardcover. 253 pp. $44.99.

James K.A. Smith is an interesting figure in theology today. His popular books sell in the thousands, often to young conservative evangelicals who are trying to build counter-cultures in liberal societies. But he writes for the Christian Century, endorses progressive politicians, seems generally happy about social liberalism. He teaches philosophy at Calvin College, while he is the editor of the arts journal Image. And in his academic philosophy, he writes mostly on continental postmodern thinkers, though with an American accent that rings of a clarity often missing in most works by and about those thinkers. So, he is a man often at crossroads. And often, his work as a public academic tries to give others, especially non-experts, directions at those crossroads. For someone standing at the crossroads himself, that is difficult but admirable work.

It had been a while since Smith published an academic book, however. His recent The Nicene Option is thus a collection of essays that “show the work,” that is, the theory that has been underlying the popular work for which he has lately become known.

To begin, it is worth noting that the book sleeve’s cover art is strange for a collection of essays ostensibly interested in the incarnational and the bodily. Daniel Doning’s “Prayer Invites Chaos,” an abstract painting of a mishmash of a human being, is a chaos few would see as very incarnational or phenomenal. Such a slight aesthetic gripe is only worth mentioning as it shall turn into a substantive criticism.

The book is split into two parts, the first taking up four chapters and the second eight. The first, “Outline of an Incarnational Philosophy of Religion,” outlines his broad method of doing philosophy, which I’ll discuss presently. The second, “Derrida, Marion, and the Possibility of a Christian Phenomenology,” applies that method to contemporary conversations in phenomenology. Though some of these conversation partners, like Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, and John Caputo have either retired or gone on to their eternal reward, their conversations remain definitive in the somewhat alien world of “continental philosophy of religion.” Therefore, these chapters will serve as good introductions for newcomers to that world.

Smith’s general approach to thinking about religion is a “post-liberal philosophy of religion,” as he puts it in a footnote. The postliberal theory of Radical Orthodoxy contributed a new privilege of metanarratival comparison and argument between communities’ world views, and also turned attention to the embodied practices of communities that were wrapped up in those worldviews. Smith applies these two approaches to the current milieu of continental philosophy of religion. In short, today’s philosophy of religion spends too much time discussing arguments and ideas, which are all too cognitive and abstract. It should devote much more time to what believers (or unbelievers) are doinghow they are praying, making rituals, and otherwise involving their bodies in their beliefs. These practices reveal much more about religion and theology than do many arguments or esoteric texts.

There are laudable aspects to this thesis. First among them is Smith’s practical advice to those in the guild of continental philosophy of religion: we should read more widely, appreciate logical rigor, and write simply. That way, we might contribute to healing that infamous divide between analytic and continental philosophy. Second is his writing style, which is clearly a bit more attuned to the everyday than are the often-tortured and obscure proses of other continental philosophers. These are not just pieces of good advice. They reflect a greater attention to how and wherefore one practices philosophy in the first place.

Then there is Smith’s own deconstruction of the deconstruction committed by thinkers like Caputo and Derrida. He argues, rightly, that their deconstruction rarely attacks some key metaphysical terms taken for granted, such as the “flux” of an ever-chaotic, always unstable reality, the “postmodern subject” which is suspicious of everything except its own critical subjectivity, and “the Other,” a term denoting a kind of absolute, transcendent purity that any member of the Holiness school of Leviticus would’ve appreciated. Each of these terms is strangely ethereal, abstract, and—Smith argues—needs itself to be deconstructed in order to bring it into the true flux, the flesh-and-blood, incarnational world that is our daily life of practices. In short, Smith contends postmodern deconstruction is not so much postmodern as it is hyper-modern, assuming all the more a transcendent subject further buffered from the world. Faithfulness to deconstruction requires a deconstruction all the way down, which ironically does not result in such bogey-words like nihilism, but instead an awareness of (even, Smith ultimately contends, a love for) our daily, embodied lives.

This argument is effective, but I must disagree with it. I don’t think an “incarnational” approach calls for so total a deconstruction. Effectively, this deconstruction (in abstract philosophical terms) entails a total collapse of the transcendent into the immanent. There is a great danger here. The powerful acid of deconstruction dissolves itself. But two negatives do not always make a positive. I fear Smith’s pairing of deconstruction with his “incarnational” approach endangers any theological or phenomenological acknowledgment of transcendence. The Holiness School would not be impressed; they’d prefer Derrida.

Even deeper, however, I fear there is a contradiction at the heart of Smith’s privilege of the affective, the bodily, and the liturgical over and against the cognitive and conceptual: because Smith is doing philosophy, he cannot but discuss the former using the tools of the latter. Any philosophical discussion of liturgy, qua philosophy, is bound to be a conceptual and cognitive affair. This unfortunate contradiction is no denigration of liturgy; it is a demand that liturgy can only be dealt with as liturgy, precisely if the logic of Smith’s argument holds. The same goes for poetry, aesthetics, emotion, desire, and so forth. The post-liberal attempt to include and highlight these non-cognitive aspects of human being can only fail. Second-person discourse cannot be treated, even positively, in the third person. The result looks a lot like the artwork on the book’s cover: abstractive as it tries to capture the affective through a different medium, and thus failing to resemble the real flesh-and-blood liturgical act it thinks it’s phenomenologizing.

If Smith takes his argument seriously, I fear, he must stop doing philosophy.

Now, do not mistake this criticism for a prejudice that all language is conceptual and cognitive, or that conceptual philosophy holds the keys to the kingdom of truth. There are many other ways to truth. Christian theology could be one. Smith could commit to theology. But if his argument were taken as theology, the Christian theologian would have severe reservations. Smith calls liturgical and bodily conventions moments of “revelation.” But this claim is, frankly, unacceptable. Revelation belongs solely to the historical action of God and God’s Word, as recorded in Holy Writ. Even Catholic and Orthodox theologians have long accepted this position, only adding that the Church was always and ever shall be the authoritative keeper of this revelation. (At a conference on phenomenology and revelation I recently attended, it was a Catholic scholar who sternly reminded the participants that capital-R Revelation ended with the Apostles). Simply put, Smith’s treatment of revelation is so broad as to reduce its transcendental status in theology to the immanent practices of the believer or believing community.

That reduction is thanks to Smith’s method of deconstructive phenomenology, which can only rely on the phenomena it describes. There is nothing outside the text, the text here being expanded to communal practice. But revelation, theologically speaking, can never be reduced to the visible or vis-able. (Neither can the phenomena, I might add, but that contention is a much larger and more boring argument for a realism which I cannot give in this short space.) Smith thinks it can be, for he argues that “incarnation” is the locus of Christian revelation, which means the Holiness of God is not contrary to, but revealed just within, the embodiment of creation. Indeed. But the incarnation is not the locus of revelation: that title belongs to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And even and precisely when the incarnation is manifest in the visible, it manifests itself as authoritative and transcendent over and against the rest of creation. Whether He takes the form of the Suffering Servant or the Consuming Fire, the God of the Bible is Lord. The many turns which Smith takes in his argument for a post-liberal philosophy of religion only manage to evade this striking fact—a fact that must be understood as the ground of any Christian discussion of God’s revelation. But this striking fact is, strictly speaking, not accessible to just any observer of a phenomenon. Transcendence manifests to faith, not sight. And that is why theology alone has “things invisible” as its object of study. That is no failure. It is theology’s great dignity.

Therefore, Smith’s attempt at a post-liberal phenomenology of religion ends in curtailing the methods of both philosophy and theology, an attention to rituals being its only upshot.

Now, there is one path forward for phenomenology which Smith does not take, and it’s ironic he doesn’t, since he is teaching in the heart of the Dutch country of West Michigan at a Christian Reformed university. That path is a distinctly Protestant phenomenology, not the post-liberal “Catholic” one he tries here. A Protestant phenomenology would aim to let the transcendence of the Word of God manifest itself, as it is itself, in its self, or to use plain theological language, its Holiness. Frankly, that would turn this phenomenology into a theology, one which Martin Luther and Karl Barth would appreciate—which is ironic, because the latter was quite suspicious of phenomenology or Christian uses of it. But this theology would also satisfy the criterion one of the earliest phenomenologists, Martin Heidegger, gave for phenomenology in Being and Time: to let that which shows itself, show itself, in its own self-showing. But then again, Heidegger agreed with Barth, that there’s no such thing as phenomenological theology, just phenomenology or theology. Never the twain shall meet, and theologians should get to work studying the Holiness that was given to them.

By way of conclusion, all this suggests that phenomenology and theology stand together but not comfortably. The two always seem soon to converge, but just when they seem close, their deepest contradictions come to the fore. As admirable as Smith’s attempt is here, and as rightly as it applies the post-liberal method to conversations unaddressed by others, it does not solve this deepest confrontation. I think it is yet another example of the unsolvable contradiction. So Smith still stands at the crossroads. Much like the rest of us, to be sure.

Casey Spinks is a Ph.D. candidate in theology and ethics at Baylor University, where he currently teaches in the religion and philosophy departments.

*Image Credit: “Philosophy, Final State 1907” by Gustav Klimt.


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