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James K. A. Smith: Speech and Theology


James K. A. Smith, Speech and Theology: Language and the Logic of the Incarnation, Radical Orthodoxy Series (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 186 pages, ISBN 9780415276962.

The book is more complex than its title suggests. Speech and theology is a splendid inquiry into the question: how we can speak about God. More precisely, it addresses the question of why we can speak about God at all. Smith’s answer is indicated in the subtitle: it is the logic of the incarnation that allows us, and even compels us, to speak of the ineffable mystery of God.

Speech and theology is directed primarily toward an academic audience. It is published as part of Routledge’s Radical Orthodoxy Series which offers writings of a contemporary theological movement that operates across many Christian and non-Christian traditions, and which works alongside other academic disciplines such as politics, economics, the natural sciences, social and cultural theory. The increasing interest in the central themes of Radical Orthodoxy should also direct attention to this author, who seeks to create a new Christian phenomenology which asserts the Incarnation as the condition of possibility for language generally and for speech about God in particular.

Speech and theology is a splendid inquiry into the question: how we can speak about God.

Smith approaches the matter through the lens of contemporary phenomenology, responding especially to the works of Husserl and Heidegger as well as contemporary writers such as Derrida, Levinas and Marion. The interaction with these writers is a necessary one and should be stimulating to any reader who is familiar with the wide range of the subject matter. Those, however, that are new to the question of theological language and phenomenology will find the book challenging. The interaction with contemporary phenomenology necessitates that Smith, too, speaks the same language. And since he is out to provide a new Christian phenomenology, he is faced with the reality that contemporary theology does not provide a vocabulary or grammar that adequately expresses the divine mystery at this time. It is this challenge which lies at the bottom of the theological enterprise that Smith intends to resolve.

The dilemma of theological language is that every act of human speech about God, who is infinite and transcendent, must employ language and concepts that are finite and immanent. Smith proposes that this should not reduce us to silence. On the contrary, he argues that the transcendent God must appear in terms of immanence or, otherwise, cannot be revealed at all. Consequently, immanence and transcendence should not be viewed as opposites. In the Incarnation, the transcendent God entered into the finite world, not simply participating in it but being embodied by the immanent and thus allowing the finite and the infinite, the immanent and the transcendent, to exist side by side as the very possibility of finite language about an infinite God.

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Category: In Depth, Winter 2005

About the Author: Wolfgang Vondey, Ph.D. (Marquette University) and M.Div. (Church of God Theological Seminary), is Professor of Christian Theology and Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is an ordained minister with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). His research focuses on ecclesiology, pneumatology, theological method, and the intersection of theology and science.

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