Smith, Christian. To Flourish or Destruct: A Personalist Theory of Human Goods, Motivations, Failure, and Evil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 342 pp. $45.00. Purchase at Amazon or on Kindle for less.
Christian Smith may not be known to many readers here at Christian Book Notes, but at least one of his key phrases he has developed is. If you have ever said or heard the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” then you are somewhat familiar with Christian Smith. This phrase, coined in 2005 was popularized in his work Soul searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. In 2010 he published another volume, What is a Person? that is the forerunner to To Flourish or Destruct. You can find all of his other books here.
Dr. Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. It is here that he directs the Center for the Study of Religion and Society. You can read more about his work on Critical Realism here.
Divided into 9 chapters over 278 pages with 56 pages of end notes, this is not going to be a Sunday afternoon leisurely read. After introducing the subject matter and reason for writing this book, Smith looks at the basics of what he calls Critical Realist Personalism. This is where I was introduced to his work on What is the Person? The second chapter lays a foundation for rethinking why we do what we do, or what are the motivating factors for the actions we take.
Chapter three is an argument against social situationism (relativism) and chapter four offers a historical look at the various theories of human nature and motivation that have found traction in sociological studies and understandings of the person.
In chapter five, Smith begins to unpack the paradigm shifting understanding of personalist theory and how and why we are motivated to action. This is contingent upon his understanding of human goods (which he finds six) and interests that exist across time and cultural boundaries. Chapter six, the shortest chapter, explains how and why we must be motivated toward flourishing as a person and consequently as a society. He spends the last chapter seeking to understand failure, destruction, and evil.
First, please allow me to say that this review for this website will not do justice to the critical review that is necessary for a work of this magnitude.
Second, I am not going to get too technical in this review, but you must understand that this is very much a technical book. It is more a college level text book dealing with social theory.
I picked this book up to read along with a friend who wanted to understand Personalism. He explained to me that it was helping him to understand the importance of the second greatest commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (see Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:39). As I read the first 35 pages or so, I could see hints of this.
I was not prepared, however, for the paradigm shifting view of the person versus the individual. He argues, “To be a person…is to exist and operate as a governing center of consciousness and action oriented toward pursuing certain purposes” (p. 42).
As he unpacks this definition, albeit briefly (which is why I purchased What is a Person?), he moves to what I believe is the linchpin of his entire argument. He explains why humans should never be called individuals because, “The individual is not what a human being is, but rather a construction of a misguided theoretical tradition, foisted upon humanity by intellectual visionaries and ideologues” (p. 48). I wrote in the margin that the individual is sovereign and independent and can be abstracted while the person is dependent and is an intimate reality.
This was a watershed moment for me in that I hadn’t realized how deeply influenced my way of thinking was as I wrestled with the Imago Dei. In other words, this theory of Personalism is the outworking of understanding what it means to be created in the image of God. Furthermore, as you read his brief historical overviews, you will quickly understand that we have all been impacted by the individual view of sociology because it is taught in every single high school and college introductory level class as it has been the prevailing view for over 150 years.
My greatest critique of the book is Christian Smith’s obstinate refusal to apply the Christian worldview as the foundation for this argument. I have talked with him and he assures me he offers his reasons in a couple debates, but at the time of my writing this review, I have not been able to read the abstracts of those debates.
All throughout the book I have struggled with the theological aspect of Personalism and, according to the end notes, seems to be largely rooted in the theology of Thomas Aquinas.
Personally, I find this theory to be rooted in Scripture. What has most amazed me is as I did my research I found that this view was held by many of the leaders in the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s as well as some mainstream Christian denominations and Roman Catholic theologians.
Regardless of this critique, Smith tackles the problem of evil as well as the solution of love even though most sociologists shy away from both discussions.
I will surely continue unpacking what I have read for a long time to come. It has already helped me to understand and see the world from a new perspective…one I thought I had but did not.
My point in writing this review is to bring attention of this view to a wider audience. I believe many conservative evangelicals, and I dare say many in the Reformed community, would do well to read this book. While it is not written from a theological perspective, Biblical Christian theology is inescapable. It has proven to be a paradigm shifting book for me and a book that I have told others has already been one of the most non-theological books I have ever read.
If you are a Christian who enjoys thinking hard, I highly commend this book to you. I have not found a better and more accessible treatment of the subject matter yet, but I am looking.