James K.A. Smith on Confident Pluralism

James K.A. Smith, the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview at Calvin College, engages with Confident Pluralism in his recent Bavinck Lecture, “Reforming Public Theology: Neocalvinism and Pluralism.”  Professor Smith raises some important challenges to both Neocalvinist and liberal accounts of pluralism.  Some of those challenges relate to my argument for the civic aspirations of tolerance, humility, and patience.  Smith asks whether “a secularized, post-Christian, increasingly anti-religious society [has] the sources (formative communities) to engender the dispositions/virtues needed for ‘a modest unity’ and a tolerant pluralism.”  (Here he draws an important link between Confident Pluralism and Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic.)  He raises a similar question about virtue formation in religious communities.

As Smith notes, I hedge (for MacIntyrean reasons) on the terminology of “virtues” and opt instead for “aspirations.”  But he is right to note that the possibility of confident pluralism will ultimately require something like habits or dispositions that move us beyond a thin and contingent agreement to play by the “rules of the game.”  And those habits will require institutions to cultivate and sustain them.

Smith’s reflection reminded me of a line from Stanley Hauerwas’s 2004 book, Performing the Faith.  In a footnote in the postscript to the book, Hauerwas describes an exchange he had with Jeffrey Stout after reading Stout’s Democracy and Tradition: “On first reading I called Jeff asking where I could possibly find his account of democracy materially instantiated. He replied I could find his democracy instantiated in the same place you could find my account of the church.” Hauerwas calls Stout’s response “clever” but “a bit misleading” because “the very existence of the church makes her internal critique possible.”  That might be right as a retort to Stout, but the deeper question to which this exchange points is the one that Smith raises: whether our actual institutions (religious and non-religious) are capable of forming and sustaining the aspirations of tolerance, humility, and patience upon which our shared existence depends.

You can find the full text of Professor Smith’s Bavinck Lecture here.