James K. A. Smith is currently Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI where he also teaches in the Department of Congregational and Ministry Studies. He also serves as Executive Director of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation was awarded The 2010 Word Guild Award in Leadership/Theoretical, as well the Christianity Today2010 Book Award in Theology/Ethics. His new book, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition, was just published by Brazos.
1. You’re currently teaching philosophy at Calvin College, and you’ve written a series of books, from academic philosophical studies to collections of op-ed essays about contemporary Christianity. For Patrol readers who aren’t familiar with your work, tell us a little about your journey: when you became a Christian, when and why you decided upon a life in academia.
I wasn’t raised in the church and became a Christian when I was 18 years-old, back in Canada (through my girlfriend—now wife—doing a little missionary dating). This was a sort of Damascus Road experience for me, not because I’d been a licentious frat boy but because I quickly discovered why I had a brain. I immediately abandoned my plans to become an architect in order to pursue what I sensed was a call to pastoral ministry. When I was a sophomore in college, I discovered Reformed theology and then, shortly afterwards, began reading Francis Schaeffer and later Alvin Plantinga. All sorts of lights went on for me and I began to sense that perhaps my calling was to be a Christian scholar.
So at the end of college, I had to choose between seminary and grad school in philosophy. It was a real struggle for me—one of the few really existential choices I had to make. But when we settled on the academic direction, everything sort of fell into place and I was at peace with the decision. I’m sometimes still tempted by pastoral ministry a bit, but it’s a heck of a lot more work, so that usually passes pretty quickly.
However, I do think it’s been that sort of “pastoral” side that has always made me inclined to be a scholar who tries to serve the church—trying to think through issues and challenges in order to help the church be a faithful witness in our late modern culture. I think that’s what’s behind my more “popular” work: I sometimes describe that as “outreach scholarship.” My exemplar here is Rich Mouw, one of my predecessors in the philosophy department at Calvin and now president of Fuller Seminary. Rich is the model of what we might call an “ecclesial scholar.”
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