James K.A. Smith’s The Nicene Option: An Incarnational Phenomenology offers a compelling philosophical theology rooted within the “continental” tradition as a deliberate and favorable alternative to the “analytic” approaches which tend to dominate Anglophone Christian scholarly spheres. Smith presents what he calls a “logic of incarnation” for his continental philosophy of religion, emphasizing not abstract doctrines but rather the flesh-and-blood liturgical practices of religious communities—this is affective, not analytic, philosophy. Smith has expressed this ritual/liturgical view elsewhere, particularly in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press, 2016) and his popular Cultural Liturgies trilogy. Where The Nicene Option differs is in audience and approach—as most of the chapters are previously-published articles from scholarly journals, this book functions as “the extended footnote” to Smith’s semi-academic books (8). In this way, this book complements and completes Smith’s larger cultural liturgies project; he’s showing us the foundational philosophical work underpinning his phenomenological approach.
Smith first outlines his logic of incarnation by critiquing what he sees as a modern and postmodern overemphasis on cognitive-based “intellectualism” rooted in René Descartes and Immanuel Kant, countering this with a view of religion as embodied practices and rituals. Drawing upon various figures ranging from Charles Taylor to Martin Heidegger to St. Augustine of Hippo, Smith declares that we ought to see “religion” as our social imaginary “inscribed through bodily practices . . . that carry a sense of ultimacy about them” (50). Upon establishing this logic of incarnation, Smith turns his attention to the significance of phenomenology for Christian philosophy of religion through engaging the work of Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion, two continental figures whom Smith both critiques and reveres. Along the way, he also considers Richard Rorty (chapter 7), John Caputo (chapter 8), Franz Rosenzweig (chapter 11), and Emmanuel Levinas (chapters 11 and 12). It’s these final two chapters on aesthetics which I found most intriguing, as Smith deftly explores the revelatory power of images and encounters with l’autre (the Other) through his incarnational and phenomenological paradigm.
Exemplary of Smith’s approach is his phenomenology of hope expressed in chapter 7, where he deconstructs the deconstructionist par excellence, Derrida and his immanent quasi-eschatology of “hope without hope.” By employing phenomenological tools à la Husserl to the experience of human hoping, Smith effectively reveals Derrida’s hope to be quite literally impossible as he also affirms the grounding and determination of hope available within the Christian faith. However, what Smith does not do is just as beneficial—he doesn’t outright dismiss or decry Derrida (nor Rorty, whose liberal utopian hope also receives a critical glance), but rather affirms the impulses and benefits of postmodern ways of thinking while simultaneously holding Derrida to account. I find this openness and generosity towards continental philosophy from a distinctly Christian perspective to be very appealing, as it’s still too often lacking in the sphere of Christian philosophy of religion. “Deconstructing” has become a misunderstood buzzword in certain American evangelical contexts, and Smith offers robust (though not uncritical) reasons for how and why deconstruction remains a beneficial resource for the Christian faith.
At the risk of criticizing a book for what I’d hoped it would be rather than for what it is: even as Smith’s topics are wide-ranging, there is so much more to continental philosophy of religion than just Derrida, Marion, and Caputo. For a book primarily on phenomenology, one wonders about the general absence of the French phenomenologists in the “theological turn”—Jean-Louis Chrétien, Michel Henry, Paul Ricoeur, and Emmanuel Falque—as well as a lack of acknowledgment and engagement with other recent continental philosophical considerations of religion emphasizing embodiment (I’m thinking particularly of Richard Kearney’s “carnal hermeneutics,” though there are certainly others). Still, a book should be considered for what it is, and The NiceneOption is certainly an erudite and compelling contribution to the Christian philosophical conversation in its call for a more incarnational posture. Indeed, a perhaps more accurate title of this book would be The Chalcedonian Option, as that definition of Christ’s nature at Chalcedon declared the Son to be “a rational soul and body.” Bodies matter, quite literally. If Christianity is thus both rational and bodily, both spiritual and incarnational, then philosophy like Smith’s, which attends to the embodied reality of religious faith, is certainly “Christian” in the truest sense.
Joel Maywardis Assistant Professor of Christian Ministries, Theology and the Arts at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.
Date Of Review:
May 31, 2022
James K. A. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin University and serves as editor in chief of Image, a literary quarterly at the intersection of art, faith, and mystery. He is the award-winning author of more than twenty books, including Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, How (Not) to Be Secular, You Are What You Love, and On the Road with Saint Augustine.
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.