Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Two Cheers for Postmodernism; Three for the Logic of Incarnation?

Jamie Smith's chapter, "The Logic of Incarnation: Towards a Catholic Postmodernism," in Neal DeRoo and Brian Lightbody's The Logic of Incarnation: James K.A. Smith's Critique of Postmodern Religion, begins with a clarification of the "post-" in "postmodern" and of a distinction between postmodernism and postmodernity (pp.3-4). The subtitle of the book is a little misleading as Jamie Smith has contributed lucid and entertaining expositions of philosophical postmodernism and postmodern Christianity to (evangelical) audiences who have often misunderstood and/or misrepresented both (see, for example, his chapters in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn and his monographs Jacques Derrida: Live Theory and Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church). So to describe his work as a "critique of postmodern religion" is more than a little confusing, given his engagement with postmodern thought. However, Smith helpfully summarises his position in relation to philosophical postmodernism:

"Insofar as the church (and mutatis mutandis, Christian theology and philosophy) has bought into key assumptions of modernity; And insofar as these assumptions (for instance, regarding the nature of freedom, the model of the human person, the requirements for what counts as “rational” or “true,” or what can be admitted to the “public” sphere of political or academic discourse) represent a rejection of biblical wisdom and the Christian theological heritage; And insofar as postmodernism articulates a critique of just these assumptions; Then the postmodern critique of modernity is something to be affirmed by Christians, not because it is postmodern, but because the postmodern critique of modernity can be a wake-up call for Christians to see their complicity with modernity, the inconsistency of this with a more integral understanding of discipleship, and thus actually be an occasion to creatively retrieve ancient and pre-modern theological sources and liturgical practices with new eyes, as it were." (pp.4-5)
So with his position clarified in such a manner, Smith gives "two cheers" for postmodernism - but stops short of the full three. Three cheers for postmodernism, Smith claims, is to "enthusiastically and wholeheartedly embrace all that is 'postmodern,' without critique and without reservation" (p.6). Acknowledging that the metaphor will eventually break down, Smith suggests that Christian thinkers like Merold Westphal (Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought and Overcoming Onto-theology: Towards a Postmodern Christian Faith) might also give postmodernism two cheers (or maybe two and a half), but that Jack Caputo (start with On Religion and What Would Jesus Deconstruct?) and Pete Rollins (How [Not] To Speak of God and The Fidelity of Betrayal) give postmodernism three cheers, and do so, according to Smith, "without critique and without reservation" (p.6).

In contrast to Smith's reading of Caputo and Rollins, his own work "is meant to be a critical appropriation of postmodernism and deconstruction that walks a long way with Derrida, but parts ways at a critical juncture—not out of a timidity or an unwillingness to 'go all the way,' but because of a principled critique of what I think are problems internal to Derrida’s thought." (pp.6/7)

So, with Smith's position with regards to postmodern thought clarified for the reader, he moves on to detail the "logic of incarnation" which was first articulated in Speech and Theology: Language and the Logic of Incarnation and developed as an "incarnational ontology" in Introducing Radical Orthodoxy. I blogged briefly about Smith's logic of incarnation yesterday, here. He contrasts his "two cheers" logic of incarnation with the "three cheers" logic of determination that he sees in the work of Jacques Derrida and the deconstructive theology of Jack Caputo. Though he acknowledges that there might be other strains, here's how Smith characterises these two:

The logic of determination
recognises particularity, uniqueness and difference as inescapably part of human finitude but deems this existence "regrettable, lamentable and problematic" and remains "haunted by the Enlightenment dream of universality and purity" (pp.8-9). As these dreams are understood to be constitutive of knowledge, knowledge is therefore impossible (p.9). Similarly, as particular entities, determinative religions are considered to be tribal and violent, unable to live up to the (undeconstructible) dream of pure religion (p.11; see Hent de Vries Religion and Violence). Visions of justice, for example, are determinate, and therefore exclusionary and violent, which enables Derrida to construct the notion of undeconstrucible, pure justice as necessarily always to-come. Smith views the result as "a political rhetoric with grand claims regarding justice but which is systematically unable to articulate concrete policies" (p.12). However, this logic of determination is assumed. As Smith suggests in The Fall of Interpretation, the particular and determinate is constructed as violent only on the assumption of finitude as "failure" (p.13).

Smith argues that the logic of incarnation can outnarrate that of determination. This logic does not lament particularity but rather, as a "more 'persistent' postmodernism," refuses to desire universality and purity as (modernist) requirements of knowledge (p.10). This, Smith writes, "makes it possible to conceive difference differently" (p.11). Rather than being violent, then, particularity and determination - "drawing boundaries, demarcating doctrine (as the 'grammar' of the community) and specifying it's confession" - are central to finite communities (p.18). Unlike the logic of determination's positioning of justice (or a kingdom of the kingdomless reading of the kingdom of God) beyond possibility, "the logic of incarnation, which flows from and re-affirms the goodness of creation, finds its completion in the doctrine of the resurrection and an eschatology of the new heavens and the new earth—which is not any kind of escape from finitude as if finite particularity were inherently evil; rather, it is the hope of well-ordered particularity." (18)

Smith frames these two logics as a debate between a the "religion without Religion" of Caputian Weak Theology (see Caputo's Weakness of God) and Smith's "reformed Radical Orthodoxy" (see Introducing Radical Orthodoxy) or what he is now articulating as a "Catholic postmodernism" (p.21). He argues that "religion without Religion" is not undecidable all the way down (i.e. "things have been decided with respect to the abyss" [p.24]), does not leave the question of revelation "open" enough (p.29), "makes religion a (still) largely private, individual affair" (p.32), and fails to affirm a catholic eschatology in which "a particular instantiation of the kingdom is coming and will arrive" (footnote 65, p.34).

I've skipped through Smith's critique of "religion without Religion" because there is a lot more work I want to do on his distinction between the logics of incarnation and determination. I think that the debate between Weak Theology and "catholic postmodernism" [surely it should be a lower-case "c"?] will be a very useful way to frame my thesis as I already have two theological strands which emerge from my data on the notion of truth: a modified Radical Orthodoxy (in conversation with Generous Orthodoxy) and Weak Theology. When I've done more work on this I'll let you know whether I have three cheers for Smith's logic of incarnation!


Adam Moore said...

This is very interesting - thanks for making me aware of this discussion. I've read Smith's "Who's Afraid" but that's it. Where's the best place to start with his more serious work? Or perhaps I need more RO background first...or can I get that at the same time...?

Katharine Moody said...

Hi Adam,

Jamie Smith has written a good but challenging introduction to Radical Orthodoxy (Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology) which is also an interesting conversation between reformed theology and Radical Orthodoxy in which each inform the other. However, Steven Shakespeare's Radical Orthodoxy: A Critical Introduction is more accessible as an intro to RO.

As for Smith's other stuff, Speech and Theology is in the Radical Orthodoxy series but is a bit tougher. To start with you could try Myron Penner's edited collection called Christianity and the Postmodern Turn which includes two chapters by Smith, "A Little Story about Metanarratives: Lyotard, Postmodernism and Religion" and a response to the other chapters - though I think you'll have got most of this from Whose Afraid of Postmodernism?

The book here I'm referring to here(Neal DeRoo and Brian Lightbody's The Logic of Incarnation) is a good academic place to start as it both introduces the reader to the underlying themes of Smith's work and engages at a higher level. However, it's quite expensive. Smith has yet to publish elsewhere a piece which extensively covers the differences between the logics of incarnation and of determination. A book currently in the pipe-line is The Violence of Finitude: Derrida and the Logic of Determination, but I have no idea when it'll be published and I think it'll probably be too late for my thesis deadline! Shame!

Other than that, break out the journals. If it helps any, next on my Smith reading list are: "A Principle of Incarnation in Derrida's (Theologische?) Jugendschriften," Modern Theology 18 (2002):217-230; "Staging the Incarnation: Revisioning Augustine's Critique of Theater", Literature and Theology 15 (2001):261-276; "Re-Kanting Postmodernism?: Derrida's Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone," Faith and Philosophy 17 (2000):558-571; ; "Determined Violence: Derrida's Structural Religion," The Journal of Religion 78.2 (1998):197-212; and "Originary Violence: The Fallenness of Interpretation in Derrida," Concept: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Graduate Research 19 (1996): 27-41.

Katharine Moody said...

Hope that helps some?

Adam Moore said...

That's great - thanks!

Steve Hayes said...

Thanks for an interesting review.

Katharine Moody said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for stopping by. Hope it was helpful to you?

Katharine x