An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Thinking in Tongues by James K. A. Smith - a review


James K. A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2010, 155 pages. ISBN 978-0-8028-6184-9

What has Azusa Street to do with Geneva or even Amsterdam? Is it possible to integrate pentecostal and Calvinist or even neocalvinist views? Smith maintains that it is and with this manifesto he tries to do just that.
Reformed charismatic is obviously not an oxymoron. However, most Reformed charismatics tend to be pietist in outlook. Smith writes from a neocalvinist perspective, a perspective that rejects pietism but embraces a transformational perspective on culture and society. Smith taking his cue from Alvin Plantinga's seminal paper 'Advice to Christian Philosophers' here issues advice to pentecostal philosophers; advice that comes with more than a neocalvinist assist. Smith makes no claim to being exhaustive or comprehensive but claims to be offering an outline, a manifesto.
I must confess that the Pentecostal/ charismatic perspective sketched by Smith here is one I don't fully recognise - I wish that it were. I left a charismatic house church two decades ago because it was dualistic and had a tendency towards neo-gnosticism; if Smith is correct things have changed over the years. Smith's program[me] for pentecostal philosophy strangely warmed my heart. He identifies five 'key aspects of a pentecostal worldview'; aspects which owe much to neocalvinism:

1. A position of radical openness to God
2. An 'enchanted' theology of creation and culture
3. A nondualistic affirmation of embodiment and materiality
4. Affective, narrative epistemology
5. An eschatological orientation to mission and justice.

To each of these I would shout a loud 'Amen, preach it!' If this is pentecostal philosophy, then give me pentecostal philosophy! Smith has ably shown that a charismatic neocalvinism is a viable option. Pentecostalism is often caricatured by an escapist world-denying mentality, one that stresses the heart over the head, emotions over the rational and is profoundly anti-intellectual. Smith has adequately demonstrated that it need not be.
In chapter 3, the longest in the book, he sketches a pentecostal epistemology, making a good case for understanding it as resonating with a "'postmodern' critique of autonomous reason" (p. 52). It is not antirational, but antirationalist (p. 53). His 'core claim is that 'pentecostal worship constitutes a kind of performative postmodernism, an enacted refusal of rationalism' (p. 59). I love the way he describes a Pentecostal epistemology as being 'more like dance than deduction' (p. 82).
Chapter 4, subtitled 'Science, Spirit, and a Pentecostal ontology', takes a look at a pentecostal contribution to metaphysics. Smith maintains that a pentecostal ontology is one of 'radical openness and thus resistant to closed, immanentist systems of the sort that emerge from reductionistic metaphysical naturalism' (p. 88). He describes it as an 'enchanted naturalism' and contrasts it with reductionalistic naturalism and naive supernaturalism. He views naturalism as a spectrum from the reductiuonistic naturalism of Dan Dennett to the interventionist supernaturalism of naïve pentecostalism, passing through non-reductionistic rationalism of Arthur Peacocke, and Philip Clayton and the enchanted or non-interventionaits supernaturalism advocated here by Smith. This is a rich typology and one that will bring clarity to the discussions on naturalism(s). Smith is arguing for a supernatural materialism that contests the natural/ supernatural distinction. Here he draws, perhaps predictably considering Smith's previous works, on radical orthodox's 'participatory' ontology (p. 100).
The philosophy of religion comes under scrutiny in chapter 4. The contemporary paradigm is that doctrine is prior to worship and that ideas trump practice (p. 111). Pentecostalism challenges this. Chapter 5 is perhaps the most explicitly pentecostal, it takes a look at glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and the challenge with which it confronts the philosophy of language. Smith side steps the theological issues and focuses on the philosophical. This chapter provides a model for how pentecostals can do philosophy.
The book concludes with a heart-felt plea for others to take up the baton and so see, as Smith has stated elsewhere First Things (April 2008), pentecostals at the academic table rather being on the table as a topic of study.
Al Wolters once wrote: 'I believe that neocalvinism, if it remains true to its radical original intuition, can truly embrace the riches of other traditions, even as it shares its own with others.' Smith has done just that with this book.

 [First published in Philosophia Reformata 76 (2011): 160-162]

1 comment:

Mike A Robinson said...

I enjoyed the review. Pentecostalism is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world; some stats seem to imply the fastest.