The Clasp of the Catena; The Circle and Diameter, or, How to Make Our Eschatology Clear

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In his brief essay, Jamie Smith responds to Peter Ochs’s “prophetic call” to “nurture philosophy otherwise” than being in the (illusory) self-founded and self-transparent rationality of secular reasoning. [1] It is hard to see his response as anything more than a polite gesture and a light critique. Smith fundamentally sees Ochs and Scriptural Reasoning (SR) as an ally in that work which he and Radical Orthodoxy (RO) also perform, a return of philosophy to its roots ( radix ) and thus a reordering of thinking so that it self-consciously stems again from its more primordial religious ground. The merit of Ochs’s project, according to Smith, is not merely that Ochs’s “postliberalism” is a postfoundationalist “philosophical investigation of religious themes,” but further, that it attempts to articulate modes of reasoning not merely based in “the particularity of confessional tradition,” but rather, ab fontibus , from the sources of our traditions, the Scriptures. [2] Yet, for Smith, though Ochs and SR rightly locate the necessity of a change of habits for religious thinking, “repair” fails to offer a sufficiently complete overcoming of modernity and liberalism, and therefore tends to retain implicit elements of that which it seeks to overcome. [3] In short, Smith’s criticism is founded on a perception that Ochs (and SR) is “not radical enough” (as John Milbank would say). In order to adequately understand Smith’s essay, which—no fault of its own—functions completely on the surface, we must turn over some earth in order to expose the root. In the following sketch I will not make further inquiry into Jamie Smith’s basic critique of Peter Ochs’s proposal for liturgical transformation of modern subjectivity, viz., that it still harbors that which it seeks to overcome—a lingering modern rationalism—by privileging judgment and cognition in its conception of the human person. Neither will I explore the logic of Ochs’s concise response to Smith, viz. (as I interpret it), that his essay on Morning Prayer as a means of “alternative nurturance” for a religious thinker seeking to escape the grip of Cartesian rationalism is not a mode of ‘repair’ modeled on protestant reformation, but rather a subtle, deeper practice of learning a habitus of a deepening spiritual discipline, and as such is merely the first steps out of the spirituality of Cartesianism to the logic of Scripture. [4] Ochs’s model, one could observe, is more akin to spiritual direction—and thus not Heideggerian Destruktion —built on Jesus’s logic of the mustard plant, not the “cedars of Lebanon” (cf. Mark 4:30-4 and its prophetic background, Ez. 31 and esp. Ps. 29:5) or again, more akin to St. Paul’s remedy of “milk, not solid food” for the particular problems that beset the Corinthian community (cf. 1Cor. 3:1-4). I will leave it to the reader to develop further the lineaments of this debate and to draw his own conclusions. Rather, it seems necessary to me first to take a step back and seek to discern what animates Smith’s approach as it emerges out of the ‘sense’ or logic of Christianity (bracketing judgments of veracity) in the most general terms possible. We must dig with as little violence as possible in order to leave the transcendental root intact. To that end, via a sort of phenomenological viewing, I would simply like to develop a set of orienting observations, with special reference to RO, regarding the historical sense of Christian thinking as it stems from its root in the eschatological dimension of the New Testament, and what this logic means for Christian engagement in SR.

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Open Access Journal Article

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Open Access