Saturday, March 27, 2010

James K.A. Smith's "fixation" with Francis Beckwith

In The Other Journal, James K.A. Smith reviews Francis Beckwith's Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic and, predictably, and doesn't like it. His complaint, in large part, is that Beckwith finds most appealing in Rome those aspects which engaged him as an Evangelical:
Beckwith’s project, then, is bent on justification. In particular, the book is largely written for evangelicals puzzled by such a move—though one can also hear Beckwith writing to himself, determined to convince himself, too, that despite his return to Rome he has not had to give up any of the core claims he affirmed as an evangelical. The basic gist of Beckwith’s defense is something like, “Don’t worry! I’m an evangelical Catholic.” Thus in his own little Retractationes in the opening chapter, Beckwith surveys some of his previous thinking (prior to his return to Rome) and concludes “there is nothing in these paragraphs I do not believe as a Catholic” (25). This becomes a persistent refrain throughout the book: he experiences no tension in thinking of himself “as both Evangelical and Catholic.”

In other words, in returning to the church of his baptism, Beckwith didn’t have to renounce any of his intellectual agenda up to that point. What that seems to amount to is proving that this former “Evangelical” culture warrior (the capital E gives that away) is not resigning his commission. The platform that occupied his labors as an Evangelical colonel in the culture wars—concern for “objective truth,” protecting the unborn, and a rabid defense of free markets—still drives him as a “Roman Catholic” culture warrior. In short, Rome’s not so far from Colorado Springs (or La Mirada) after all. What Beckwith gets in his return to Rome is evangelical plus: evangelical fixation on doctrine, fretting about relativism, affirming “objective” knowledge, and embracing a narrow political agenda plus tradition, the primacy of the Roman see, and liturgical adornment. The path to Rome was a straight shot for an evangelical like Beckwith because he doesn’t see any inconsistency in the core “beliefs” of Rome and evangelicalism (as articulated, for instance, in the Evangelical Theological Society’s doctrinal statement).

But is this because Beckwith has created Rome in his evangelical image? Whose Rome are we talking about here? Which Catholicism? Rome is no monolith—that picture itself is a Protestant myth. Catholicism is chameleon and we constitute, to some extent, our own Romes. Even those who convert to Roman Catholicism, especially North American academics, are always, to some extent, joining the proverbial “church of your choice.”

Beckwith has returned to the Rome of his evangelical dreams: a pure, pristine defender of truth, justice, and—not so surprisingly—the American way. No wonder, then, that he sees no tension between being “both Evangelical and Catholic.” His is an Evangelical Rome.

So what is highlighted in a former Evangelical's personal account of his journey to Rome are those aspects and emphases of the Catholic faith which appeal to him as an Evangelical. Well, imagine that.

But is it really so surprising to find that the Catholic Church is as accommodating of our various spiritual and intellectual dispositions as it is large? I'm reminded of my own spiritual journey. Leaning a little left-of-center in the 90's, I moved from Tolstoy's 'Christian Anarchy' to Dorothy Day's The Long Loneliness, impressed by her discovery within the Church room for her own anarchism, pacifism and political activism . . . "plus tradition, the primacy of the Roman see, and liturgical adornment."

Consider his feeble attempt to pit Beckwith against the Pope:

After reading Moreland a passage from an unnamed author who affirms that “the question about truth is the essential question of the Christian faith as such, and in that sense it inevitably has to do with philosophy,” Beckwith asks his colleague: “Guess who wrote this?” After Moreland reels off some favorite Protestant philosophers, Beckwith plays his gotcha: “It’s the Pope!” “He’s one of us!” Moreland replied in exuberance (78).

On a more macro scale, Beckwith’s Rome is evangelicalism by other means; that is, his is an intellectualized Catholicism—Rome as the home of the true set of Christian propositions or what Beckwith is wont to call “a Christian worldview.” Thus, he criticizes the Catholic teachers of his youth who “spoke of Catholicism as ‘our tradition’ rather than as a cluster of beliefs that were true” (36). The Rome to which he has returned is, ironically, the matrix of Christianity as an intellectual system—“ironically” because Cardinal Ratzinger (just a few weeks before becoming Pope Benedict XVI) has explicitly said that “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead,” Ratzinger emphasized, “an encounter, a love story; it is an event.”

Well, yes -- and Beckwith would agree. At the same time, one would be hard-pressed to find one more "fixated" on doctrinal truth than our present Pope, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- who, I seem to recall, also expressed his own concerns about "relativism', and is acutely concerned about the evils wrought when our human projects are divorced from truth.

Professor Smith's beef doesn't seem to be with Beckwith so much as Beckwith's own "fixation with truth." (I can imagine worse traits). And what passes here for a "book review" tells us more about Smith than it does about anyone else. As he admits:

[I]f I ever make the plunge, as I’m sometimes wont to do, I’m swimming across to that corner of Rome populated with cafes where “bad” Catholics like Graham Greene and Oscar Wilde rail against the formation that nonetheless fuels their imaginations. Beckwith returns to an intellectualized Rome, fixated on truth. I find it hard to share this evangelical concern (that probably makes me a “bad” evangelical). Instead, I find myself tempted by Rome’s fictions.

Francis Beckwith responds (and here as well):

Perhaps, given my own journey and academic life, I should by now have grown accustomed to the scores of insults that have been hurled at me since my return to the Church. But the insults do not usually come from those, like Professor Smith, who pretend to be the lone virtuous custodian of Christianity's lost liturgical kernel. Since becoming a Catholic, I have a better sense of my own smallness. I know that if I died tomorrow, the Church would go on just fine without me. I would not, and should not, be missed. But if Professor Smith were to vanish from this mortal realm, the postmodern, liturgically aware, emergent, anti-modernist, radical orthodoxy Reformed Protestant movement will have lost one third of its intellectual firepower.

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  1. Hey Christopher. Thanks for the kind comments. I'm still stunned about Smith's review.

    I've had my work reviewed negatively before. So, it's not like I'm not used to it. But I had never had such hateful drivel targeting my personal life in such a rude and unprofessional manner. Of course, I had never published a quasi-autobiographer either. So, I guess you live and learn.

    I gotta confess that I am a bit creeped-out about someone I've never met telling the world what he knows is in my heart. The good thing is that because he doesn't believe in "truth," readers will take his comments with a grain of salt. That is, you can't claim to the tell truth if you don't believe there's any truth to tell. But a person who does not believe in truth also must believe that one cannot lie. In this way, Smith can both intentionally not tell the truth while at the same claiming to have not lied. This comes under the general heading, "Eat the fruit, you will not die." And we all know how that story ends.

    Coincidentally, Smith will be speaking at Baylor on April 23. Unfortunately, I will not be in town. I will be at Samford University participating in a dialogue with Timothy George on Evangelicals and Catholics.

  2. Dr. Beckwith,

    I've read both Smith's review and your comments on your blog but I haven't read your book. I think you took him to be saying something personal when he wrote "Where is the love?" when in fact he was saying something about how you view the relationship between truth and tradition.

    Also, I've read a number of Smith's books and he does believe in truth. For you to say otherwise is false.

  3. "Also, I've read a number of Smith's books and he does believe in truth."

    Eric, I myself am not that familiar with Smith, but I confess his review could have fooled me. He seems largely, and sharply, critical of Dr. Beckwith for his "fixation on doctrine, fretting about relativism, affirming “objective” knowledge" -- in short, Beckwith's interest in truth and the claims to the truth of divine revelation made by the Catholic Church.

    Having read his books, I'm wondering if you could elaborate on what Smith was getting at.

  4. Well, as I said, I haven't read Beckwith's book, so it is hard for me to say exactly what Smith is referring to. But in Smith's latest book his argument is that human beings are ultimately desiring beings, not thinking things. That is, he thinks our identities are primarily formed by "what we ultimately love," not by what we think. By "fixation on doctrine" I'm guessing Smith is talking about this - the belief that our church doctrines are more important than our liturgies.

    I don't know exactly what he means by "fretting about relativism," but Smith's position is that human knowledge is both finite and situational but not relative.

    Regarding "affirming 'objective' knowledge," Smith's position is that while we can know things, we can't know anything objectively. By objective, he usually means unmediated and uninterpreted.

  5. I think that was a very good summary of Smith on this topic, Eric! But, having read both men on numerous occasions (and as a real fan of Smith's short book "Whose Afraid of Postmodernism"), I also do think that Smith is imposing a "Cartesian dualism" on Beckwith that isn't actually there. Despite what Smith implies, believing in Truth and our potential union with it is not so much Cartesianism as it is Neo-Platonism (and orthodox Christianity). And I think that Smith would generally agree- but his fear of "intellectualized" Christianity causes him to read that into Beckwith's own story in a way that is actually unwarranted by the book.

    My own analysis is that much of this dispute actually comes down to two differences between the men: temperament and religious culture. I think that Smith, for all his emphasis on the embodied practices and situational nature of Christianity, wrote the review as an abstract philosophical inquiry that should not be taken personally- which indicates to me that he emphasizes those elements that he does precisely because such abstraction is his own temptation. Beckwith, for whom such a disembodied and unpersonal intellectualism is not really a danger, reacts to what he perceives as personal accusations with anger and confusion precisely because the things he is being accused of are so foreign to his way of living out his faith.

    But I also think that it is really the religious culture, even more than temperament, that is the division in this discussion. Beckwith has Catholic family, grew up Catholic, and knew what he was converting to far better than Smith does even now. Smith's target is really those Evangelicals who turn Catholic only to turn Traditionalist- those who enter the Church in the first place precisely because their narrow vision seeks in Catholicism the same kind of clarity and perfectionism that is possible in sects for self-deluded "saints," from Donatist to independent Baptist. Smith confesses that his own temptation would be to become Catholic and hang out with his own equivalent saints, those "cool Catholics" whose imaginative vision draws him in and who he repeatedly derides Beckwith for not paying sufficient attention to. But Beckwith always knew that being Catholic means you get them all- the ones you like and the ones you don't. But Smith, who has not yet joined the Church and lived within the whole set of practices and situations which make up the life as a Catholic, is to some degree incapable of fully comprehending this- even though he is smart enough to understand it in a pure intellectual fashion.

    Matthew G. Minix

    1. This diagnosis of Smith (and I love his writing) could be said of many Protestant theologians who "know" Catholicism in the abstract, yet are completely clueless about it's spiritual power (the Rosary, Mary, etc). No matter how much Protestants try, academics like Smith must talk trash about evangelicals who go Catholic --it's another academic credential, bottom line.

  6. Matthew:

    You really nailed it. Wow! Thanks for that.

    If you read my book's introduction and the first two chapters you will see that I entered the Church "eyes wide open."