James K.A. Smith: Our Chalcedonian Moment - Christological Imagination for Scientific Challenges

(Daniel Deen) #1

The authors of Christ and the Created Order have noted the fact that, although Jesus Christ is in every way central to the Christian faith, christology is usually poorly represented in the science-faith discussion. The New Testament describes a cosmic Christ, who is not only the key to the unfolding new creation through his death, resurrection and glorification, but is also the source and purpose of the old creation - the world that science studies.*

The reviewers here (Daniel Deen and Jon Garvey) endorse this need for a more christological approach. As ever though, the devil is in the detail, and we seek in these chapter reviews to bring our own insights to bear on the views offered in the book.

James K. A. Smith is the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview at Calvin College. Smith’s chapter presents an alternative to the all too easy conflict and dialogue metaphors relating science and religion. He provides a riff on the independence model where the development of the Christological imagination provides “salutary tensions” between science and religion, tensions that will not alleviate until one “sees” the world through Christianity. I enjoyed the essay, but found myself scratching my head as to the nature of the intended take-home message.

The good of the essay is Smith’s ability to clearly articulate the errors of naive conflict and dialogue positions concerning science and religion. Smith correctly identifies conflict as often resulting from a problematic view of science and religion. Naïve conflict often adopts a vision of the disciplines as static, purely propositional. This singular focus on the propositional is a view that dehumanizes science and religion, dismissing the dynamic human relationships that constitute scientific and religious practices

Dialogue positions, on the other hand, tend to operate from naive secularisms (if non-Christian) or functional deisms (if Christian), two views that distort the relationship between facts and values from different angles. In the case of secularism, a narrative of courage is maintained in that one has investigated the (scientific) facts, gripping the disenchanted world by the horns in what Smith calls “a secular religion of life” (p. 189). This “objective” narrative neglects its roots in that the cold hard scientific truth results from previously made value judgments built into scientific practice. Likewise, Christians tend to adopt a functional deism for the sake of dialogue. A move Smith argues neglects the value of what a personal God might mean for understanding the world around us. If God is in Christ reconciling the world to Him, holding all things together, then that surely has significance for our understanding of creation.

The fallout from Smith’s analysis is that both the secularist and the Christian gravitate toward a position the late paleontologist Steven G. Gould described as NOMA. NOMA is short for non-overlapping magisteria where science is about facts, religion is about values and never the twain shall meet. This preserves peace, alleviating tension at dinner parties and other social affairs. However, the peace is purchased at a cost too great to truth to sustain itself.

I agree with much of what Smith discusses concerning the shortfalls of naive conflict and dialogue positions between science and Christianity. However, I am not sure how to make sense of his positive project. He ultimately argues, very much along a Reformed line of thought, that the key to understanding the natural world is conversion. He states,

“it is precisely our perceptual capacities that need to be healed. Our inherited epistemology is weak and stunted and fails to thrive. But the body of Christ is an ‘eye clinic,’ we might say, a hospital for modern minds” (p. 191).

The hospital is the congregational practices of the church. The daily/weekly flow of corporate worship, what Smith calls Christology in practice.

I agree that the power of Christ’s forgiveness is a visceral change in the existential condition of mankind. The corporate, along side private, confession and absolution is fundamental to a Christian life in a world of failures. However, I’m not convinced that conversion or life in the Church somehow rectifies our perceptual systems, ontologically changing my cognitive faculties. In fact, I often wonder at how often “the church” might be harming Christological imagination

Which brings me to my major critique of Smith. Christianity is blessed with many different forms of the Christological imagination. These imaginations often are at odds with each other, e.g., YEC, OEC, EC. Smith, while eagerly pointing out that scientism/secularism reduces to a “master narrative,” fails to unpack what the master narrative is within Christianity. He punts on the cognitive details, opting for Christian practice and community instead. However, he seems to disregard that those communities are built around fundamental “facts” influencing their worship communities. Does he think that all Christian communities, even in worship, are equal?

Thus, his article is not really saying anything more than it is important for believers to be active in the worship life of the Church. The hard task of sorting cognitive details about the Church and its communities are still before us. In fact, an astute secularist might respond to Smith’s argument by asking which version of Christianity has the correct Christological imagination? I find myself, not a secularist, raising the same question.


One of the ways of approaching this question is to separate the objective from the subjective. Science deals with objective reality while morality is subjective in nature. This is the best way I have found for dealing with these topics.

I think it can also help inform “Christological Imagination”. In science, everything boils down to observations and measurements, the things that all scientists ideally agree on. I think christian theology has the same thing in the form of the Nicene Creed which contains all of the most basic concepts of Christianity that ideally all Christians agree on. YEC, OEC, and EC accept the Nicene Creed, as do the major sects of Christianity. Outside of the creed, the rest is left to the individual Christian.

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(Jon Garvey) #3

Hi Daniel

I saw the argument of this chapter somewhat more positively, I think.

It seems to me his first major point answers your problem with the varieties of “Christological imagination”, but only as one takes account of the way he distinguishes “science,” as a human pursuit, from nature, the reality created by God in Christ. I believe he’s right to observe that there is also a wide variety of the scientific imagination, to which scientism usually blinds us. He doesn’t mention specifics, but could easily have shown various areas in which the same phenomena are viewed very differently both by different branches of science, or by different schools within branches, or even by different national flavours of a branch.

His point, surely, is that we deceive ourselves by believing there is one, objective, kind of science (after all, science only begins with the data, the rest being constructed understanding: and even data is sought by humanly specific inquiry and humanly targeted instrumentation.) This is standard PoS.

Given that consideration, he is not, I think, trying to reformulate science, nor even to programme a unified Christian view of nature. Rather, he is saying that since how one sees nature is in any case governed by ones worldview, the Christian’s view of nature ought to be consciously governed by Christ as he reveals himself personally, and Smith there emphasizes the role of ecclesia in developing such a relationship.

Does that produce unanimity of scientific outlook among believers, let alone non-believers? Of course not, but then in reality (as he has said) science itself only appears to do that if false (a-christological) metaphysics is imposed in some way (or if science is reduced to the easy questions). In that case, science becomes at best about instrumentality, not truth, and at worse potentially becomes (as, for example, with Lysenkoism or Eugenics) universally accepted but radically false.

In the end, it seems to me Smith is saying that we can no more move towards a true understanding of nature apart from letting Christ explain it, than we can move towards an understanding of God or relationships with our fellow-men apart from that personal engagement through his kingdom-structures. The problem of “ecumenism” is no harder for YECs or TEs engaging with origins than for Catholics and Lutherans engaging with Christ’s teaching on family.

Just as we begin to live as Christ only as we live in Christ, which is equally true for the Orthodox, the Baptist or the Pentecostal, so we only begin to comprehend the “meaning” of the world in the same way, and that is equally true for the YEC, OEC and EC. It boils down to whether we act on the concept of “Christ in us” as truth.