March 12, 2021

Off the road and into the ditch with James KA Smith

In this brave new world of post-Christian sexual ethics, even among Christians, I am not sure what counts as a disordered love any longer. Well, maybe I am, but more of that later.

Calvin University Professor, James KA Smith, whose work interpreting Augustine’s moral and spiritual frameworks for post-moderns has rightly been hailed as groundbreaking, necessary, and making Augustine accessible to so many today, posted this on Twitter today.

The inevitable smith-storm ensued. Smith was, as far as we can tell, responding to a “tabling event” at Calvin in which messages were displayed that according to Calvin’s Instagram response were “suggesting that LGBTQ+ orientation is sinful“.

The Instagram message was at great pains to point out that the university’s position on sex is clear, and that it welcomes, but does not affirm same sex relationships and does not recognise same sex marriage. Welcoming, but not affirming. The torturous road to take, I would say. Which is why Calvin took such pains to point it out. In the current clime unless caveat after caveat is piled up around this topic you run the risk of being torpedoed. And even then.

Now I am careful about how we talk about orientation, and the likes of Sam Allberry and Ed Shaw (who I will be interviewing next week), while not using the LGBTQ+ lexicon to describe their own orientations, nevertheless acknowledge that same sex attraction is their orientation. And they see it as a disordered love.

Hence why it is not their affirmation. Never their affirmation. They know what the word “affirm” is saying. As does Smith.

So when Smith used “affirmed” he knew what he was doing. “Affirmed” is not just any word, it is the word that must be used by any who would themselves be affirmed by a revisionist perspective on sex. It is the shibboleth that either welcomes you to, or banishes you from, the cultural table.

Welcome all you like. Love all you like, But you MUST affirm. You MUST. Without affirming, then welcoming and loving are merely chimera, or worse still, screens for latent bigotry. As the Twitter comments below his post then demonstrated.

Yet while saddened, I have to say Smith’s affirmation does not surprise me. Several years ago I was speaking at an international Christian Education conference and two of Smith’s Calvin colleagues were there. More than 1200 teachers were in attendance. I spoke on what it would mean in the coming decades to create alternate ethical communities in our schools that were in themselves “social imaginaries”, places that created thick cultures that would counter the narratives of the world.

Yet both of Smith’s colleagues, in their public addresses and private conversations, were affirming. They ticked every other Christian education box that I think is necessary to tick in a secular frame, but welcoming and loving were not enough for them, they had to affirm.

The day after their talks I went for a run along Adelaide’s Torrens River with a couple of young teachers (who were schooling me with their pace!) and they expressed their dismay at what was said. Where, they asked, do we have to go, if this is all we are being offered? What is the future for us as young Christian educators if the 50 and 60 somethings would throw us under the affirmation bus? Where indeed?

Smith’s tweet simply confirms what I suspected. Calvin’s staff are at odds with Calvin’s stated policy, and by the looks of the twitter feed many Calvin students rejoice in this. How long can Calvin can hold out? That’s a question many an affirming tweeter was asking. Not long, if star faculty such as Smith are any indication. And cancel culture won’t stand for the cancelling of such a star. Smith surely knows the leadership of Calvin would be scorched should they try to remove him, or at least publicly discipline him.

Aside from the many puns utilising Smith’s book titles “How to be Secular”, “Off The Road With St Augustine”, etc, many a pertinent question was asked around why the man who gave us the brilliant Kingdom trilogy, and pretty much launched a thousand undergrad essays with the term “cultural liturgies”, would go there?

I fear that Smith has been seduced by the very mall that he declared wants our loves and shapes our loves. The sexualised mall of modern individualism and its search for ultimate identity has drawn him. Perhaps it is his proximity to those students who welcome, love and affirm that has shaped him. We are, after all shaped as much by what we do as by what we know. A once wise man once said that.

But it does raise the question, as someone put to me overnight, “What does this say of disordered loves?” Smith writes on this so well, and unpacks how Augustine’s disordered loves led him on a search down a fruitless road that had no destination. It was only when he reordered love that the road was not merely something to travel upon, but something to travel along towards a destination. Indeed it was his disordered desires around sex that led to his crisis moments.

Only when liberated from these could Augustine see the worth of a telos when travelling a road. Smith was at great pains to point out that Augustine’s road trip was not the Easy Rider of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper that so beguiled the Baby Boomers of the sexual revolution, but rather a pilgrimage with a destination that required guidance, direction, and a joyful determination not to wander down beguiling side streets.

Yet as I read the Twitter responses to Smith – much, though not all of it approving -, we start to see where the language of disordered loves will take us, now that Smith’s compass has been realigned.

For those of us who read Smith’s tweet and understand that he has swerved off the road and is in fact stuck in a ditch, we’re coming to the realisation that disorder is now being reframed.

Replete as the comments were with terms such as “bigotry” and “hate” towards those who questioned Smith or expressed dismay at his tweet, they reveal the new gospel of our sexular age. The new version of disordered love now includes those who would not affirm.

If you do not affirm then you simply love your bigotry and your hate. You are expressing disordered love right there. The category must remain, it cannot be left void. It is now to be refilled with something entirely antithetical to Augustine’s original intent. Perhaps only Smith himself will be creative enough – and genius enough – to write the book that embeds these new sexular age disorders into Augustinian theology. Time will tell.

So it is not the case that, since affirming, all bets are now off. Smith is not holding up his hands, saying “I quit!” and acquiescing to the disordered loves he once warned of. It is not that simple. Something must fill that category of disorder. The intellectual world of Smith demands it. He cannot continue to teach Augustine with any integrity should he junk his categories.

And speaking of Confessions, here’s mine. I’ve always struggled to finish a James KA Smith book. Not because they are not brilliant philosophically, culturally and sociologically. They are. But I’ve struggled to finish them because they are so thin in their practical ecclesiology. The requisite vision of an alternate ethical community that could withstand the howling furies of the cultural Chernobyl overtaking us is simply not strong enough in his books to capture my interest. For all of Smith’s observations that we are not heads on a stick, his lack of practical “how do we do this together?” just isn’t there.

It’s frustrating and more than a little saddening when a scholar you admire, who has intellectual clout, proves not to be the person who would lead you safely across the increasingly dangerous intersections that line the road we walk. And if all this is is the intellectually immoral equivalent of the sexually immoral Christian leader who lets us down, then so be it. But it does feel that non-revisionist orthodoxy needs some heavy hitters who understand the culture enough not to be seduced by it. The young teachers I ran with that rain sodden morning in Adelaide will need all the help they can get going into the next three decades.

Perhaps I will leave the last words to Smith himself from the last page of his On the Road With St Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, words that I hope are his own true hope on this road journey:

Running faster won’t help. Crumpling into the middle of the road and giving up doesn’t really solve anything either. And telling yourself “the road is life” over and over and over again starts to ring as a hollow consolation.

You can’t get there from here. But what if someone came to get you? You can’t get to that last thing. But what if it came to you? And what if that thing turned out to be a someone? And what if that someone not only knows where the end of the road is but promises to accompany you the rest of the way, to never leave or forsake you until you arrive?

That is the God who runs down the road to meet prodigals. Grace isn’t high speed transport all the way to the end but the gift of his presence the rest of the way.

Smith himself may have driven into a ditch, but at least he’s given the rest of us some vital directions for what is going to be an increasingly difficult journey. A journey in which the constant reordering of our loves will be opposed by those who would call order disorder, and disorder order. We’re going to need every bit of that grace of which Smith so eloquently speaks if we’re to make it to the end of that road.

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