The Humility of Metaphor:
Catherine Keller’s Process Theology in Response to James K.A. Smith’s Radical Orthodoxy
Five months after my son was born, I was finally able to fit into my jeans. I’ve officially returned to my “pre-pregnancy weight,” and some would say that I’ve “got my body back.” But things aren’t all the same. Flesh has moved around; things sag. I have curves and bumps were I didn’t before. No amount of sit-ups or running is going to bring back my flat stomach, and a few grey hairs have begun to frame my face. My linea nigra is still the longitudinal line down my stomach. My skin gets drier faster, and I get cravings for protein and chocolate like I never did before. And yet, here I am, back in my old jeans, the ache in my back from carrying all that it takes to mold and form a child is gone, and all the bloating in my hands and feet and face has finally receded. I’m both the same, and different. And obviously, these physical differences mirror the emotional changes that have gone on inside of me. I’ve birthed a child, and now I am both the same, and different. Through grace, I’ve been swept up by the continuous movement of creation, swept up by the Creator, and where I was once just a daughter, I’m a mother now, too. This process of being swept into creation, being both creation and a creator, is a grand metaphor for our next steps into the realm of theology, and can be helpful in our attempts to forge “ahead” in what many have called our “postmodern” times.
Through the uncertainty and fear that Postmodernism can bring, James K.A. Smith has worked to interpret three of the major voices of Postmodernism so that the Church comes through the other side, from his perspective, stronger, more vibrant, and more “true” to its calling. The fear of relativism that Postmodernity often brings about is, according to Smith, a misguided fear. Smith claims that Radical Orthodoxy is not only the answer to the Postmodern “problem” but is actually truly postmodern. He claims, “[T]he postmodern church could do nothing better than be ancient[;…]the most powerful way to reach a postmodern world is by recovering tradition[…].”
Smith, however, runs into some problems. Smith manipulates the thought of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault in order to fit postmodernism into his Christianity box. But because he resists the metaphor in exchange for “The Revelation”, he ends up whittling away essential tenets of the “square peg” of postmodernism in order for it to fit in his “round” Christian hole. A possible solution, however, comes in the form of Process Theology, which enables God to be who God is, all the while admitting that we are in a process, that we don’t have the words or the adequate understanding to fully comprehend God as God is. Both Process Theology and Radical Orthodoxy have an element that claims that God is “Wholly Other,” but it is in their interpretation of where revelation comes from, how we have access to revelation and how we interpret that revelation that these two approaches differ. In Kantian terms, and at the risk of oversimplifying Kant, Smith and Keller, Radical Orthodoxy claims that the Wholly Other is the noumena that reaches into the phenomena in the form of God’s revelation. Radical Orthodoxy has Revelation come to all of us (or to those of us who are part of God’s chosen), untainted, unaffected by our perspectives and skewing worldviews. Revelation hovers above us all, and is somehow exempt from the issues brought about by postmodern thinkers such as Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault. Somehow, says Smith, if we just get back to the pre-modern, we will have a truly post-modern theology; all we need to do is shed the weighted skin of modernism from our philosophical and theological bones.
Process theology, on the other hand, has revelation come to us through the phenomena, through the particularity of our own worldviews, language, and power positions. This makes revelation messy, and it changes the revelation so that we don’t quite get to the “true” heart of who God is, but it brings us into relation with God, so that we are no longer the passive receivers of some untouched, perfect doctrine about God, but rather in a process of understanding that never ends.
A major issue that both of these forms of thought are trying to address is that of relativism. The greatest “threat” from postmodernism is that, if we accept that the “there is nothing outside the text,” that “there are no metanarratives,” and that “power is knowledge,” then our only choice is to fall into a sort of relativism, and ultimately, a nihilism, where nothing matters anymore, and where not only can we not attain the Truth, but that the Truth doesn’t exist at all. Radical Orthodoxy wants to claim that there is A Revelation that somehow escapes postmodernism’s deconstructive grasp, and Process Theology wants to claim that there is a “third way” between (around? beyond?) relativism and absolutes. And I would argue that metaphor is the best way to approach this “third way,” that metaphor grounds us in the phenomena, all the while pointing us towards and away from the noumena, that which we cannot know through reason or empiricism.
Radical Orthodoxy fights relativism with the “certainty” and “groundedness” of Tradition. Smith argues that “the most persistent postmodernism should issue in a thickly confessional church that draws on the very particular (yet catholic) and ancient practices of the church’s worship and discipleship. In other words, ‘radical orthodoxy’ is the only proper outcome of the postmodern critique.” This Radical Orthodoxy relies on Revelation, that there is some sort of “untouched,” “pure” perspective of who God is, what God has said to us, and how God interacts (or maybe has just interacted?) with the world. In this way, Smith claims that we can still have knowledge, still have truth, even if we don’t have certainty: “On this ancient-medieval-properly-postmodern model, we rightly give up pretensions to absolute knowledge or certainty, but we do not thereby give up on knowledge altogether. Rather we can properly confess that we know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, but such knowledge rest on the gift of (particular, special) revelation, is not universally objective or demonstrable, and remains a matter of interpretation and perspective (with a significant appreciation for the role of the Spirit’s regeneration and illumination as a condition for knowledge). We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity.” This knowledge is understood and grasped through the creeds, liturgy and ancient tradition of Christianity.
But as is clear by the above, somewhat enigmatic, quote, Smith doesn’t really solve the problems brought about by Postmodernism. According to Susan Kendall, “Smith is saying that Christianity itself is legitimated as an autonomous system that is emancipated from the conditions, that it transcends [the creed at least] all political and ethnic borders, and transplants itself into other cultures.” Smith claims that his approach to Christianity is truly postmodern, but what he is really saying is that his approach hovers above postmodernism, somehow exempt from the philosophical criticisms of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault.
Smith’s reliance on Revelation does not really address the idea of Derrida’s simplified, but descriptive statement that “there is nothing outside the text.” Smith translates Derrida’s description into a prescription, and applies this prescription in the specific form of Christianity: “to say that there is nothing outside the Text, then, is to emphasize that there is not a single square inch of our experience of the world that should not be governed by the revelation of God in the Scriptures.” He’s turned Derrida’s observation that this is how things are, to “this is how things should be.” Maybe he is right that, for us Christians, our lives should be directed by the God who is revealed in the Scriptures, but this does not make us postmodern; only the realization that this is our language that we use to understand the world, with its own perspectives, biases, strengths and weaknesses will make us “postmodern.” In fact, Smith wants us to be “unapologetically confessional, which requires being unapologetic about the determinate character of our confession… This should translate into a robust appropriation of the church’s language as the paradigm for both thought and practice.” Does Smith really want us to fully embrace the language of the church which has been formed, to some extent, by patriarchy, violence, and a Western perspective, and to do so without apology? In what way is this “postmodern?”
Smith focuses on the “primacy of revelation,” but one must then question, which revelation, whose revelation, where did this revelation come from, and will there be any more? Smith doesn’t really address the full consequences of Lyotard’s statement that there are no more metanarratives. He just replaces one metanarrative (that of modernism) with another: “But isn’t it curious that God’s revelation to humanity is given not as a collection of propositions or facts but rather within a narrative – a grand sweeping story from Genesis to Revelation?” Yet, strangely, he claims that this is truly postmodern: “Theology is most persistently postmodern when it rejects a lingering correlational false humility and instead speaks unapologetically from the primacy of Christian revelation and the church’s confessional language…Indeed [Radical Orthodoxy] is ‘intended to overcome the pathos of modern theology, and to restore in postmodern terms, the possibility of theology as a metadiscourse.” But in Smith’s paradigm, we still have a “primacy” of a particular revelation, language, and metanarrative / “metadiscourse”.
Smith once again puts the Christian (or, the one who accepts his interpretation of the Christian Revelation) into the power position. But this just reinforces Foucault’s observation that knowledge is power, and power is knowledge. Those who “get” the revelation are in power, and those who are in power interpret the revelation in their own language, from their own perspective. But this seems extremely arrogant, let alone dangerous, for if our belief is “fixed,” “locked-in,” then isn’t our concept of God also unchanging? What prevents us from claiming that we comprehend God? And if God can be comprehended, is that truly God? Smith tries to address this issue by making interpretation into a kind of democracy: “the context for understanding a text, thing, or event is established by a community of interpreters who come to an agreement about what constitutes the true interpretation of a text, thing, or event. Given the goals and purpose of a given community, it establishes a consensus regarding the rules that will govern good interpretation.” But who makes up this consensus? Who has a voice in this so-called “community?” This does not address the issue of the other, those outside of a given community, so, as Reiger argues, how can it truly understand how that text, thing or event points to the Wholly Other?
Radical Orthodoxy tries to fight relativism with either/or theology. Smith makes this clear himself: “[W]e see a tension between a modern, scientistic worldview on the one hand, and an ancient-postmodern, mythic worldview on the other.” And Smith makes clear that the “right” answer is to embrace Revelation through ancient tradition, liturgy and creeds, seemingly eschewing any developments or points of criticism brought about by modernism’s focus on reason or science. Smith still functions under a “truth regime.” Keller writes, “Such a ‘truth-regime’ (Foulcault) brooks no uncertain terms, no slant: a simple yes/no, either/or proposition is exacted.” For Smith, there is certainty in postmodernism/pre-modernism, and chaos in modernism.
But interestingly, Smith wants it both ways, even if he can’t admit it. Smith’s problem is summed up in one quote: “Acknowledging the interpreted status of the gospel should translate into a certain humility in our public theology. It should not, however translate into skepticism about the truth of the Christian confession. If the interpretive status of the gospel rattles our confidence in its truth, this indicates that we remain haunted by the modern desire for objective certainty. But our confidence rests not on objectivity but rather on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit (which isn’t exactly objective); the loss of objectivity, then does not entail a loss of kergymatic boldness about the truth of the gospel.” Which does he want, humility or certainty? What is the difference for him, really, between “objective certainty” and the “convictional power of the Holy Spirit”? Even as we try to embrace both/and perspectives, rejecting either/or dichotomies, these concepts do seem to be mutually exclusive.
In response to Radical Orthodoxy, Keller suggests a messy, embodied mystery, a process of discovery, and a metaphoric perspective to theology – tools that both point towards and away from that which we are trying to define. She claims that revelation isn’t exempt from the biases of human power, perspective and language. She writes, “Though its taste for an infinite and trustworthy depth flows close to a [process] theology, radical orthodoxy identifies that depth with the stability of a foundation, and so depends upon shallow dichotomies of order vs. chaos, solidity vs. flux, behind vs. face, One vs. nothing – and of course, Christ vs. atheism. By contrast, we are exploring […] the possibility that this theologically orginary indeterminacy generates order not in opposition to but upon the face of chaos. That face expresses an infinite interrelationality that at once negates and proliferates metaphors of finite personality. Having gone so far as to theologize the indeterminate, why retreat into a tidy neo-classism – as though only one unchanging order can save us from a chaotic nihil of meaning?” We cannot escape relativism by holding on to an imaginary “firm” foundation. This is scary territory. Relationships are messy, and there are often no “right” answers. This doesn’t negate creeds altogether; rather, “Ancient traditions still live, their truths still moist within us – inasmuch as they morph into new transcultural possibilities. The past can either dam or support the new flow of the spirit.” God didn’t just speak once. God still speaks in ancient creeds and traditions, sometimes evolving those creeds and traditions, sometimes supporting traditional interpretations. But God also speaks in new ways, is revealed with new eyes and in new languages.
But Keller’s Process Theology does not lead us into a relativism where “anything goes;” instead it fights relativism with what Keller calls “relativity.” She says, “ Relativity, which we must strictly distinguish from relativism, just describes the reality of a relational universe. The human observer belongs to that universe. Therefore all human truth-claims are relative to context and perspective.”  God is continually creating, and through our relationship with God and with what God creates, we are continually learning more about God. This does not minimize or limit God, only our language about God: “[…] even if we understand God to be ‘absolute’ – nonbiblical but conventional language – that understanding does not make, or need not make, any human language (however inspired, however truthful, however revealed) itself absolute.” Keller refers to a kind of “linguistic violence that theology itself can perpetrate,” and Smith’s insistence upon maintaining the Church’s ancient language, no matter what, has the potential for falling into this kind of violence. Keller’s Process Theology leads us away from relativism by giving us a way to discover the truth; the truth is out there, even if we cannot hold it or tame it. This is Truth, not “anything goes,” but it is a relational truth: “This truth of faithful relationality in which we are called to walk and talk has everything to do with con/sciousness (‘knowing with’) and nothing to do with certainty.” It is a “trusty truth” that takes a tentative step forward, in humility, trusting that we will find just a little speck of what we’re looking for. She writes, “If this trusty truth cannot be boiled down to any cognition or confession, it nonetheless offers a way of knowing. […] It requires a holistic thinking that draws deeply on our intuitions, our passions, our bodily experiences, and our relations – even as it tests them, tries them, keeps them in process. A theology that would unfold ‘in truth’ does not confuse itself with ‘the truth.’” And yet, we are still in the realm of truth – a far cry from relativism or nihilism.
Smith still wants to function within a closed system of Christianity, where revelation is fixed and static, but Keller warns us of the dangers of this: “When abstract propositions of belief (like ‘Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior’ or ‘I believe in the triune God’) that are rare in scripture become fixed in a closed system, the fallacious factualism kicks in. The propositions then draw our concern away from the concrete processes of our shared creaturely life, rather than spiritually illumining them. Metaphors (like the Christ, Lord, Savior, Trinity, and so forth) then lose their metaphoric valency, their open-ended interactivity: for metaphors are language in process, not in stasis.” Metaphors, then, can point us to truth without binding us to someone else’s potentially abusive language, power, or metanarrative.
The way forward for theology, then, is not to tighten our grip on our interpretation of revelation, but to use metaphor. Metaphor will point us both away from and towards a God who is dynamic and in relationship with us, “[a]nd it is such a relation that cannot be consummated within the terms of any orthodoxy that refuses divine receptivity, passion, multiplicity. For if God receives our active responses She is also affected. The moved mover breaks free of the extrabiblical straitjacket of impassivity,” what could be interpreted as Smith’s form of “revelation”.
Just as I am both “the same” as I was before my son was born, so am I also changed. We can use metaphors for God and for our theological language that express both “sameness” and “otherness.” I can use the metaphor of my own coming into motherhood to understand a small part of how God can be both the same and different. God, too can be a mother who births creation and is also the same and changed. God can be both. In the same way, God can be both known to us and unknown, and both only partially. God is neither completely known, nor completely unknown. God is wholly other and intimately connected to us. Process theology, though not perfect, directs us toward a path where we can dance with the Spirit, sometimes clumsily and with many missteps, but with humility and Grace, and still in relationship with the One we so long to know. It is the relationship that keeps us from falling into relativism or nihilism, but also keeps us from the absolutism that equally misdirects us from any speck of understanding of God that is possible for us who live fully in the phenomenal world. We can be “mothers” who can fit into our “old jeans.”
Keller, Catherine. Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. New York: Routledge, 2003.
---. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
---. “Reciprocating Gifts: Truth, Politics and Participation in Process.” The Global Spiral. (Metanexus Institute, 2008). http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10218&SkinSrc=%5 G%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_defaul %2fNo+Container.
Kendall, Susan. Class Notes, Critical Theory and Postmodern Critique. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. 18 February 2010.
Smith, James K.A., Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
 James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). 25.
 Ibid, 25.
 Ibid, 120-121.
 Susan Kendall, Class Notes, 18 February 2010.
 James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). 34.
 Ibid, 55.
 Ibid, 123.
 Ibid, 64.
 Ibid, 74.
 Ibid, 126.
 Ibid, 53.
 Ibid, 63.
Catherine Keller. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008). 30.
 James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). 51.
 Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. (New York: Routledge, 2003). 38. (Italics, hers)
 Catherine Keller. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008). 34.
 Ibid, 4.
 Ibid, 4.
 Ibid, 35.
 Ibid, 38.
 Ibid, 38.
 Ibid, 15-16.
 Catherine Keller, “Reciprocating Gifts: Truth, Politics and Participation in Process.” The Global Spiral. (Metanexus Institute, 2008). http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10218&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container