Speech and Theology (James K A Smith)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Smith, James. Speech and Theology.

The problem is how can finite language speak about the infinite God. In answering this question, Smith gives a tour-de-force of continental philosophy.

Concept and Violence

In modernity the concept becomes a means of dominating and seizure (5). Absolute knowledge erases differance.

“If the object of theoretical articulation is in some way radically exterior to language (God, differance, pretheoretical experience), then every unveiling of it in language will fail to produce the object” (6). “Concepts” make claims to totalization. In modernity one who has the concept of “a thing” has the thing. Concept is domination. Knowledge is knowledge only insofar as it “seizes” the thing and has complete certainty.

Violence of Immanence: The French Critique

Husserl and Heidegger had privileged immanence over transcendence. If the phenomenon has to appear within these horizons of knowing, it can never give itself from itself. Marion suggests, rather, reducing it to pure givenness and opening the space for revelation.

The violence of the concept: revisited

problem: how can transcendence appear and how can we speak of that which defies description? “Factical lived experience, the Other’s consciousness, and God all point to sites where description is at a loss” (43). Factical lived experience is always pretheoretical. The only way for the transcendent to appear is for it to take the properties of phenomena.

Praise and Confession: How (not) to speak in Augustine

signs and things: Signs are words; things are other than words. Smith and Augustine say words are not things (114), but in Hebrew debar also means thing. Augustine does allow that words can become things when understood iconically (123). Interior transcendence: self (also unbridgeable to the Other); metaphor is of depth, not height.

Praise bridges the verbal gap. Does not reduce God to concept, but maintains his alterity (128).

Incarnational Logic

Can truth be learned? No, per Plato, it can only be recollected. Truth on this account is timeless and cannot enter the particularities of history. Platonism is a theologia gloria. Writing as image of speech (cf Derrida on mediation and signs). But even speech is mediated at the origin

Scale of being
*images are appearances; “fall from being”
*Participation (ascent) and Incarnation (descent) are antithetical
*Salvation as achieving dis-embodiment (Laws 12.959a-d)

The Logic of Incarnation is a logic of don-nation, of giving (receiving from the outside). Contrast with Platonic recollection (Republic 518b-c).

Observations: Smith critiques Jean-Luc Marion as remaining within the ontology of estrangement. Grace perfects/completes nature = revealed theology (eucharist?) completes phenomenology. This might correlate with jlm’s emphasis on the icon (points beyond). Same as pagan magic, though.

Criticism: Smith’s solution to the problem is simple enough: God must condescend to us and in order to maintain the bounds of phenomenology, must meet us as phenomenon. Easy enough and no argument here. Something bugs me, though, in that he seems to think that God needs a mediating concept. Not saying that is wrong, but..


Puritan Board Graduate
While you're in this territory, let me recommend Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology and Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding.


Puritanboard Clerk
I will look into Lints. I am a big time Vanhoozerian. Lord willing, for my birthday I plan to get V's Remythologizing Theology.
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