Monday, August 9, 2010
Austin Smidt: A Witness to the Unpresentable
I am interested in carrying forward, through a prophetic imagination, the Messianic vision of the kingdom into the New. And this vision is not one that revolves around propositional statements about "what God is," or "what church is," or "what sin is," or "what the Bible is," etc. Rather, it is the same vision that has caught the attention of radical thinkers throughout history, in various "religious" and "cultural" contexts. It is the vision for a radically altered and transformed existence – here on this Earth.
This is the first edition of The EasyYolk 5-Question Blog Interview. We recognize the power of hearing autobiographical stories so, in the upcoming months, we will pursue Christian leaders who vulnerably share their unique spiritual journey with us. Enjoy and be transformed.
Back in the summer of '97, I met Austin Smidt when he was an incoming freshman on the basketball team that I coached at Capistrano Valley High School. That season came and went and I would see him around campus from time to time over those few years. He was always a pleasure to connect with, but I was absolutely certain he was constantly getting into mischief (he was the kind of kid who always looked guilty...no wonder I liked him so much). After he graduated from high school, I didn't hear from him for almost a decade, until I ran into him at the Filling Station in Orange getting breakfast with his dad. And after I finally caved in and signed up for Facebook, we've kept in touch over the past few months, finding out more and more that we've got a lot in common. Austin is in the final weeks of his MA program in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham and then he'll be heading to Scotland to start his PhD dissertation in Philosophy and Political Theory. In this first edition of the EasyYolk interview series, you'll see that Smidt has come a long way in his faith journey, but, thank God, he's still getting into mischief.
EY: Take me back to your initial entry into the Christian story. Where were you in life? What did “being a Christian” mean for you then?
AS: First of all, I just have to say thanks to EasyYolk. Getting the opportunity to share a bit of my story is actually something quite cathartic for me. It's a great reminder of the journey I've been on; something easily forgotten in the mesh of the present.
I was exposed to certain (Baptistic) forms of "Christianity" at a very early age. However, it wasn't until my early 20s when I was able to actually subjectivize some form of Christianity. Growing up in a semi-Christian environment in Southern California and attending Sunday School from the age of 8 or so until about 16 really afforded me the opportunity to learn Christian doctrine. My father and stepmother attended Saddleback Church when they first converted and then joined a branch of Calvary Chapel, where I was actively involved in youth groups. I went on a couple church retreats, participated in junior high and high school events, and even involved myself in assisting my parents with the 3rd graders whom they oversaw/taught on various Sundays. Then they had a second conversion: they fell in love with Reformed doctrine (although my dad wouldn't really call this a conversion because, as he says, "I was never Catholic."). They met a professor at Southern California College (now Vanguard University) who introduced them to the intricacies of Calvinism. They were hooked. They started taking part-time classes at the university, became voracious readers, and (in some ways) separated from their Calvary Chapel peers and influences (it's also probably important to note that their particular Calvary went through a church split at this same time, which may have been an event that effected a latent psychological paradigm shift).
At this time, I started to really lock horns with my pop, primarily over his increasing authoritarianism. As I entered my mid-teens, I really wanted nothing more than freedom from whatever he was trying to impinge. And he was increasingly trying to smother me with "biblical love and discipline." So, I stopped visiting my dad and stepmom (and lived exclusively with my mom and stepdad), which also led to a complete separation with any direct church influences.
Through my later teens and early twenties, I was heavily involved in the performing arts, which necessarily led me to tinseltown. Basically, I was trying my damnedest to live the MTV lifestyle. God, I wanted it so bad. I can vividly remember my roommate at the time and I having conversations about happiness. We were both living the dream, as it were. But we were both still longing for something. Our solution (as wise 22 years olds) was that we needed to party more; we needed more money; we needed more stuff. So, we started a recreational pharmacy business... not exactly legal, but we were convinced we were on the road to some quick cash and satisfaction. After one night of hitting up the local "pharmacy" for some supplies, I had a really bad trip back in our apartment; which was strange because I was not on hallucinogens. Basically, I was overcome by what seemed at the time a demonic presence (I know this seems crazy, but trust me, I'm a rationalist, so just bear with me). Whatever it was that was happening, spun me into a panic attack. I was convinced that I was going to die and go to hell. I actually thought that I was in the process of death. It felt like my life energy was literally being sucked from me. And in my mind, all I could envision were my parents and my friends, with the thought that my entire life had been a failure. Everything in my life had been completely self-indulgent. There was no concern for my fellow woman or man, no concern for my family, nothing – it was all about me. Oddly enough, one thing kept creeping up in my mind: "Your Bible is on your bookshelf." So, I ran into the other room, grabbed my NIV kid's edition Bible (one with all the funky illustrations of Jonah and the great fish and whatnot), ran into my room, and opened it up to the one passage that EVERYBODY who grows up in church knows – John 3:16. So, I read it aloud and cried out, "Jesus, save me." At that moment, there was nothing but calm, a peace.
The next morning, I had absolutely no idea what had taken place the night before. In fact, to this day I still have no reasoned explanation for that night (of course, scientific answers make sense, but there is always an excess that goes unanswered through naturalistic, visceral rationale). But I called my dad and told him about the experience and that I was ready to start "going to church." So, he got me in touch with a friend of his in the LA area who was attending The Master's Seminary and the parent church, Grace Community Church. Grace is a well-known church across America for its head pastor, John MacArthur. Strongly basing his ministry on the "exposition of the Word," I too was exposed to a hybrid form of Christianity that was at one time both Evangelical and Reformed. Much like my parents' conversion to Reformed theology, I became an avid student of the Scriptures and of Reformed doctrine. The first book I read as a convert was AW Pink's "The Attributes of God," just to give you a little insight to the path I started down.
Almost immediately after this conversion experience, I also decided that I wanted to go back to school. Intuitively, I knew I wanted to attend a Christian school. It seemed to make the most sense. So, I looked into a small handful of programs that I thought would prepare me for a theological/ministerial/academic future. Ultimately, after a year or so at JC, I decided to attend The Master's College, where John MacArthur still serves as president. Having a very conservative reputation, I knew what I was getting myself into... and really, that's what I wanted. There was little doubt in my mind that I was going to be involved in formal ministry. So, I began devouring theological literature.
But beyond intellectual satisfaction, I was also very influenced by the passions. So, Christianity was not merely something to satisfy me intellectually. It had to provide a great measure of satisfaction. Basically, I sought to abide by the Westminster Confession's opening words: "man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." To this end, I spent hours in prayer time, reading the Scriptures, studying theology, and of course, street witnessing (I was a nice guy though; not a fire and brimstone type). Ultimately, I was convinced that this world (and what I meant was this "existence") was deeply flawed by the power of sin, and that only through personal redemption in the name of Jesus Christ could someone be "saved." So, I tried to surround myself with opportunities to "be a light" so that God could use me to "save people." That was really the essence of my Christian life: although I was a staunch Calvinist, I also believed that God was a God of means, and that it was the job of "His people" to preach the Word so that the Spirit would affect them and bring them to salvation. I wanted this to govern the rest of my life
EY: What were significant events or sign-posts along the way that have changed how you experience God and faith?
AS: Well, it wasn't too long into my Master's career that I started to be challenged. I started to realize that many of the "beliefs" that I was holding were mere constructions of human intellect; they were elaborate interpretations of humans (just like us today) who were wrestling with things too vast for exhaustive comprehension. Of particular notice were two texts that shocked my system. The first was a text by NT Wright; the second by Jean-François Lyotard.
When I first "converted" to Christianity, I was convinced that the Bible was a book that had a very simple, straightforward meaning, and that to "get at" this meaning all one had to do was take the "simple meaning of the text." Of course, what this really meant was that I was reading the Bible through a 21st century lens. It was the work of NT Wright that shattered this unacknowledged presupposition. In "Resurrection of the Son of God," Wright spends considerable time tracing the conceptual and historical progression of ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish thought. Of particular interest to me, at that time, was his treatment of the Greek and Roman emphasis on escape from the world v. the Jewish concentration on transformation of the cosmos. The Platonic dualism that peppered much of the ancient Greek and Roman world seemed to have strong resonance with most contemporary Evangelical doctrinal positions. But the Jewish teachings seemed contrary to most Evangelical/Protestant doctrine. And it seemed that the Jewish hermeneutic that Wright was espousing was actually more biblical.
This text led me to others (by Wright, James Dunn, E.P. Sanders, Walter Brueggemann, Miroslav Volf, Stanley Hauerwas, Karl Barth, Richard Bauckham, John Howard Yoder, and many others) who all began to reformulate the Christian story in my mind. Of particular importance was Bauckham's book "God Crucified," which completely altered my sense of "who" God is (over against "what" God is).
The other intellectual breakthrough came through the words of Jean-François Lyotard. At Master's, and in most conservative Christian circles, I have found that the catchphrase for all things wrong with the world fit under the signifier "postmodernism" (or "postmodernity"; often used interchangeably, although I've come to realize wrongly). This (supposed) epoch is the contemporary world, the one that "replaced" modernity. I was taught by my Christian leaders that postmodernism was equivalent with "moral relativism." It meant that whatever is right for one is unchallangeable and as equally valid as any opposing viewpoint (or "worldview"). Thus, it was claimed, the primary ethos of the day is one that is contrary to the absolute, dogmatic claims of Christianity.
So, being an inquisitive person, and one who enjoyed reading philosophy, I decided to read Lyotard (the guy that coined the phrase "postmodern"). For him, postmodernity meant "incredulity toward meta-narratives." In other words, what Lyotard was really addressing was not individual worldviews per se, but rather, what he called, self-legitimizing meta-narratives – those grand, totalizing discourses that shaped the Modern world through a reliance on rationalistic self-legitimation. Thus, while Lyotard does mention Christianity as a nefarious "meta-narrative," he is not implying that Christianity as such is irredeemable. His critique was more focused on what humans have made Christianity into – as a Western, imperialistic, State-saturated, political device of oppression. (Lyotard was likewise critical of all Modern projects that promised ultimate emancipation through human cunning). Thus, I realized that actually, the message of Jesus, the proclamation of the cross in its non-Westernized efficacy is not necessarily opposed to "postmodernity." And I also realized, for the first time, that my teachers were wrong! This latter realization aided me in the recognition that authorities are fallible, and that people often interpret things in life that they don't understand, that seem dangerous and challenging, in ways that miss the meaning of that particular object of inquiry. In other words, my confidence in the authority of "expert" Christian academics was profoundly challenged.
These two experiences led me to delve deeper and deeper into other "philosophies" and "theologies" that had been previously considered "beyond the bounds of orthodoxy." And through continued engagement with both conservative voices and non-traditional theological and philosophical voices I have come to see that we are all on a similar path of understanding; and that none of us really has it all right. This is not falling into a relativism, because I do believe there is truth. But it's to assert that there is always something more, there is always an excess to Life that is (as Lyotard would say) "Unpresentable." And my mission ever since then has been to be a "witness to the Unpresentable."
EY: What do you think it means to “be a Christian” now?
AS: You know, I'll be honest: in one sense, this question is one of the very reasons I exist. Some more traditional, "confessional" Christians might not even affirm that I am "a Christian." And if truth be told, I'm fine with that. I'm not really interested in embodying some pre-configured role. I'm not really interested in wearing the used clothes of a past generation, and their ideas of what it means to be faithful to certain doctrinal formulations. I am interested in carrying forward, through a prophetic imagination, the Messianic vision of the kingdom into the New. And this vision is not one that revolves around propositional statements about "what God is," or "what church is," or "what sin is," or "what the Bible is," etc. Rather, it is the same vision that has caught the attention of radical thinkers throughout history, in various "religious" and "cultural" contexts. It is the vision for a radically altered and transformed existence – here on this Earth.
Therefore, in truth, I don't really think Christianity is a term that even ought to be embraced by followers of Jesus. I think that "Christianity" is a signifier that needs to be abolished insofar as it is an identity-marker, and only used by those outside the tradition to identify that community of people whose collective (and individual) lives embody the Messianic, kingdom vision. In other words, I think that Christianity is something that is not yet in existence. And one is never actually (i.e. ontologically) a "Christian." We are all always in becoming-something. Thus, one never IS a Christian. One can only be striving towards becoming-Christian. Embracing the latter, I think, would help us resist the temptation to ever be satisfied, to ever become static in our resting in mere "eternal truths" that would mark us "Christian." Quick side note: I'm not advocating some form of "works-righteousness" in new clothes (as some Protestants might object); for the latter already presupposes certain theological formulations that themselves need to be addressed. Rather, I'm advocating a complete restructuring of the foundations of thought that have given rise to what we currently understand as "Christianity," and suggesting possible ways beyond the static formulations of the latter that are still ever-faithful (and I would argue MORE faithful) to the message of Jesus.
In a positive sense, I think that theology is completely contained in ecclesiology. In other words, the "church-in-becoming" (which I equate with the realization of the Messianic kingdom vision) is the very essence of what "Christianity" ought to be. And this kingdom vision is one that would seek to realize radical social equality for ALL, the complete dissolution of oppressive institutions, a renewed relationship with and tending of the Earth and its resources, and an overall sense of global solidarity that would celebrate cultural, racial, sexual, biological, functional geographical, etc., differences.
EY: Who have been mentors, heroes, authors and leaders that have impacted you and how so?
AS: This list could be endless...
As much as we now differ in our theological stance, I would still have to say that my pop has influenced me greatly. His repetitive insistence that I “think critically” is something that still echoes in my mind daily. And his passion for and commitment to God is something that is enviable.
Regarding more non-traditional influences: in my undergrad days, NT Wright was a huge theological influence. He opened me up to a whole new world of scholarship and "Christian" praxis. And Karl Barth also served as a huge influence in my understanding of the Word of God (as Jesus NOT the Bible).
Since then, Slavoj Zizek has had a profound effect on me. His unique hybridization of Christianity, Hegelianism, Psychoanalysis, and Critical Theory has really aided me in understanding the possibilities of what "Christianity" might be able to become and do. And, while completely counter-traditional, the work of French Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Jean-Paul Sartre have also shaped possible parameters for rethinking "the church" (and social and political theory in general).
My list of heroes/mentors is extensive, sometimes a bit cliche, but always colorful: anyone from Jesus, to Socrates, to Spinoza, to Robespierre, to Marx, to Che, to Gandhi, to Mother Theresa, to Martin Luther King Jr., to Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, to Glenn Beck (jk jk JK JK), to "V" (from "V for Vendetta"), to Julian Assange (Wikileaks), to my girlfriend (who has the biggest heart of anyone I've ever met!).
Basically, anyone whose life is devoted to social change is someone that I'd be interested in encountering (in some way).
EY: What aspect of Jesus do you think is most misunderstood in our culture?
AS: Honestly? Most of the foundational things that people think about him, particularly (1) his sonship and (2) his message of salvation.
There is so much emphasis on Jesus being the "Son of God" that I think people miss out on what that title means. It is NOT some ascription of being divine posterity. But when we survey the Christian-ish landscape of the West, I think it's pretty safe to claim that most people view Jesus in a Herculean sense; like he is the son of God in the same way that humans or Greek gods have sons. But this is not so. Jesus' sonship is a title that is given to him in light of his position as Messiah. In other words, "Son of God" is a Messianic ascription. But this is not something less than it being a description of deity. Rather, it is something eminently profound (especially within an ancient Jewish context). This is the highest ascription one could receive. For to be THE Messiah (not just an OT "Messiah" as was David, et al) is to be the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant ("I will bless the nations through you"). In other words, we tend to focus way too much on Jesus as "Son of God" (as though it primarily refers to his ontological relation with God) rather than on his role as "Son of God" (which refers to his FUNCTIONAL relation to God). (Of course, questions about Jesus’ divinity are important and need to be addressed, but not so much in relation to the phrase “Son of God”).
The latter also ties to the misconceptions of his message. Primarily, I think the biggest misunderstanding is that Jesus was a preacher of individual salvation, and of salvation from hell, out of this world, into heaven. However, the consistent theme of the OT prophets through to Jesus and the NT apostles is that salvation (while having implications for "the afterlife") is a complete transformation of this world. It is not about escaping the world marred by sin. It is about transforming it. And through the latter the kingdom is ushered.
But strangely enough, Jesus seemed to actually claim that the kingdom was already inaugurated in his lifetime. Speaking to the Pharisees in Matt 12:28 (and Luke 11:20), Jesus remarks, "If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." The implication is of course, in contradistinction to what the Pharisees were saying, that Jesus is indeed performing miracles by the power of God, and that this conclusively proves that he is indeed the Messiah that was expected. In other words, wait no more, God's covenant faithfulness is realized, in the here and now.
The implications this passage has for those who would take up this mantle and follow Jesus is that the kingdom is NOT merely some distant idea-in-becoming. Rather, it is a present REALITY that is only partially realized for us today because of transformation yet completed. Thus, it is the church's responsibility to carry Jesus' task forward with hope that the kingdom might be fully realized – in the here and now.