Monday, March 29, 2010

James K. A. Smith vs. Francis Beckwith

It all started with a review of Francis Beckwith's book Return to Rome by James K. A. Smith.  Here's part of what Smith wrote:
"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. This plays itself out in a curious conversation with his comrade J. P. Moreland. 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).
But somehow, I can’t imagine Benedict XVI on the faculty of Talbot School of Theology any time soon. So what’s going on here? Beckwith’s Pope is like Norman Geisler’s Aquinas: an anonymous evangelical."
Well, Beckwith was not going to remain silent.  He responded on his blog Return to Rome. 

Here's how he started:
"If you want to read how someone from Calvin College can diminish, belittle, and caricature another Christian's heart-felt narrative of his own spiritual journey, read James K. A. Smith's review of Return to Rome. The meanness is palpable. I do not recognize the person Professor Smith describes as me. He is not reviewing the book I wrote. He is, apparently, reviewing the book he wishes I wrote so that it would fit his own philosophical project. In other words, as my New York relatives would say, "Oy vey, does that guy have issues or what?"
And here's how he ended:
"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 custodians 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."
Scot McKnight says "there's got to be something more going on here."  No doubt he's right.  I think part of it may stem from the rocky relationship that exists between Smith and what he has termed the "Biola School" (His reference to Talbot School of Theology is where I'm making the connection.  Talbot is part of Biola.)  He explains this in his essay "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: A Response to the Biola School" in the book Christianity and the Postmodern Turn
"I first had inklings of this line when I was on a panel with William Lane Craig where we disagreed rather passionately about perspectivalism in science. The notion of a ‘Biola School’ crystallized for me during a stay at L’Abri in Switzerland, where I presented a series of lectures on postmodernism and church. After repeatedly hearing knee-jerk student reactions that sounded all too familiar, I finally asked—somewhat exasperated—whether this was the ‘Biola School’ of philosophy. When three of the students raising criticisms indicated that they had indeed graduated from Biola, my suspicions were confirmed. . . The ‘Biola School’ is broader than Biola faculty, however; I would also include Douglas Groothuis, for instance, and the Evangelical Philosophical Society in general.” (226 n. 1)
Smith says there is a “contrasting ‘Calvin School’ of Christian philosophy—which is found at Yale and Notre Dame—which is less religiously devoted to analytic philosophy, offers a postfoundationalist epistemology that criticizes foundationalism, tends towards presuppositional apologetics, and adopts a less fundamentalist notion of revelation.” (226 n. 2)

I may be way off here but it seems Beckwith represents in a broad sense the "Biola School" and the question for Smith appears to be "Can any good come from Biola?"


Francis J. Beckwith said...

It's very strange, indeed. I have many friends at Biola, and have worked with J. P. Moreland, Bill Craig, and others. But I have my disagreements with them. My recent piece on intelligent design and Thomism is one such example. You can find it here: In fact, the template for that article is Alvin Plantinga's 1982 APA presidential address, "How to be An Anti-Realist." Not very Bioalean!

In addition, and Jamie wouldn't know this because he's never taken my classes, I have an entire section in one class in which I offer critiques of the "evidentialist" approach to apologetics and philosophy of religion. Just two weeks ago I gave two lectures on William James' Will to Believe and Plantinga's God and Other Minds as useful and important correctives to evidentialist apologetics. And what I stressed is how debilitating evidentialism can be on a believer's walk with Christ. Having said that, I also pointed out that that does not mean that arguments and evidence aren't important or relevant. They are. But they are just not the whole story. Rather, isolated from one's walk with Christ, they provide an incomplete and truncated narrative of the Christian life. It's the difference between Pottersville and Bedford Falls, IMHO.

Moreover, in the very book Jamie reviewed--Return to Rome--there is a section in which I write about how Reformed Epistemology altered the trajectory of my own intellectual development, and another section (though smaller) in which I talk about how my return to Catholicism has led to a deeper spiritual life via certain Catholic practices.

The reality is that people are complicated. We change our minds, incorporate good insights from diverse thinkers, and oftentimes find ourselves having shifted without knowing it.

I don't know whether it's a vice or a virtue, but I've never much cared for what "school of thought" I'm associated with (but I must confess a love of St. Thomas Aquinas). As a Catholic, I am part of a universal church that includes by John Finnis and Thomas Merton. There's room for every sort of personality type!

Louis said...

Dr. Beckwith,

Thank you for your comment. I've been a long time reader of your works and have appreciated them greatly. My connection of Smith's irritation with Biola and his review of your book is still speculation at best. Your comments here help distinguish you from the "Biola School" as Smith describes it in some significant ways. If he's aware of these differences perhaps my connection is baseless. At any rate I hope a healthy conversation can develop from what has started.