Introduction to Speech and Theology

From the first chapter of Speech and Theology.

Here are a sting of quotes with my comments interspersed as a summary of the Introductory chapter of Speech and Theology, a great book I’m reading through (James K. A. Smith is a Reformed Evangelical writing in the Radical Orthodoxy series). (If you are the type of person who wants to know why this is important before you read it, then skip to the bottom, and then start over. Also, while I’m not referencing Husserl and Heidegger in this post, this discussion bear on the one we are having over at generousortodoxy). So,…

“How can one speak without betraying the object of speech, giving it up and delivering it over to be manhandled by the interlocutor as something present-at-hand? How can language, and more particularly theoretical concepts, communicate without doing violence to the “objects” which is exterior to language? Do not concepts always already signal the violation of radical alterity?” (4)

These questions frame the horizon of Smith’s inquiry. How might we speak of God, who is transcendent otherness? The question of violence is particularly telling, and opens up Smith’s dialogue with contemporary French phenomenology (Levinas, Derrida, Marion), and how he might rehabilitate the understanding and use of the concept.

“In modernity–and marking a significant break from the late ancients and medievals–knowledge and comprehension are no longer distinguished; rather,
knowledge is only knowledge insofar as it comprehends.” (5)

Comprehension is a total knowledge of an object of inquiry. So in modernity, the indistinguishablitiy of comprehension and knowledge leaves no room for a partial, or ad hoc, tacit knowledge of things, or knowledge by faith.

“Inheriting the modern penchant for comprehension and certainty (what of faith?), modernist (and, unwittingly, antimodernist) theology is marked by an employment of language and concepts which seeks to define the divine, to grasp the essence of God…[But] if the “object” of theoretical articulartion is in some way radically exterior to language (God), then every unveiling of it within language will fail to produce the object; the phenomenon will fail to appear, precisely because of the failure of the concept to grasp that which necessarily exceeds its comprehension…It would seem that either one treats all objects as present-at-hand (a positivist kataphatics), thereby denying their alterity and unwittingly engaging in violence; or, one gives up any possibility of non-violent description and thereby give up theory (an apophatics which ends in silence).” (5-6)

But what if violence weren’’ the necessary condition of the concept? What if there were a third way between a positivistic theology (one I would, but Smith does not mention in this text, equate with many fundamentalist, and even evangelical systematic theologies), and a silencing of theology (or reducing theology to merely the status of us talking about ourselves in the third person of ‘god’, a typically liberal approach).

“The construction (or recovery) of just such a third way is precisely the task of this ook: to provide an alternative interpretation of concepts which do not claim to grasp their object, but rather signal the phenomenon in such a way that respects its transcendence or incommensurability rather than collapsing the difference and enying otherness. Such a reinterpretation of concepts will open a philosophical space for a reconsideration of theological method.”

So the purpose of this book is to recover a way of speaking about God that is full of knowledge, yet doesn’t not attempt to comprehend, to understand yet not domesticate, essentially, a speaking that “points” or “indicate” toward God truly, but does not grasp or hold. To do this Smith will investigate the early Heidegger and Augustine to outline a non-violent concept as praise and confession.

Why is this Important?

Well, for those in the emerging church, the church that is emerging,…for those post- and/or progressive evangelicals who are increasingly uncomfortable with the confidence of which some speak of God (preacher, teachers, professors), seeing in this speech the domestication of the mystery of God for the purposes of the speaker, Smith’s is attempting to show us how we might speak of God without doing violence to Him, and therefore to our relationship with God in Christ Jesus. But also, to those who have drunk more deeply of postmodern tributary, for whom it is increasingly difficult to say anything about God for fear that all our speech is inadequate and (self) deceiving, which is also an emerging church aliment, Smith is trying to help us speak again, and not lapse into silence or perpetual disclaimers. So, if you have trouble speaking of God, read this book, or just read my summaries is your book budget is too slim.

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