The church needs to ensure it is offering the true account of reality, rather than the account that the world is offering. That account, expressed through liturgy and worship, will form the Christian political imagination…
Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology by James K.A. Smith (256 pages, Baker Academic, 2017)
The present historical moment is a tense time for Christians in the West. The Church, as a whole, desires to be able to worship, evangelize, and, to quote the Apostle Paul, to “live peaceful, quiet lives.” But that is seemingly becoming harder and harder. And yet, the call to be a witness does not diminish with cultural marginalization or decreasing influence. Christians must put their hope in something beyond the current heavings of political and cultural life. Christians—indeed, all people—need to be reminded that politics is penultimate. A recent book by James K.A. Smith offers a way to ensure this happens: deliberate formation of the affections, of our loves, through the ecclesial liturgy.
Dr. Smith’s new volume is entitled Awaiting the King, and is the third in his Cultural Liturgies series. The first two volumes in the series (Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom) built the case that people are best understood as lovers rather than thinkers. In other words, we are people who make decisions, even ultimate ones, based on our (often irrational) affections, rather than careful reasoning. This is an Augustinian insight, which is put most vividly in his Confessions: It is our hearts, not our minds, that are restless until they find rest in God. Dr. Smith argues that we are first and foremost creatures of affection. We are not purely rational animals, logically acting out the principles of our philosophical commitments. Rather, we are formed primarily by our bodily and material habits, and by practices that shape our imagination.
The primary way Dr. Smith sees this playing out is through practices that incorporate embodiment, imagination, and story, which Dr. Smith rather ponderously calls “liturgies.” The world is filled with liturgical spaces and practices: the shopping mall, competitive sports, national political events, etc. These spaces all have narratives about us and the world we inhabit, and they invite us to participate in these narratives. Dr. Smith’s primary example is the shopping mall, where someone is told a story about how ultimate fulfillment can be found in material things and is then invited to immerse himself through participation in this narrative. I shop, therefore I am.
Dr. Smith’s concern is, firstly, for Christians, and so he makes a careful case for the centrality of carefully-constructed ecclesial liturgies in the context of corporate worship, which he says will shape Christian actions and imaginations as they live a world full of counter-liturgies. These liturgies, Dr. Smith argues, should be a kind of re-enactment of the gospel, where the worshipper is taken through the journey of Christian salvation. Think of the pattern typical in some traditions: call to worship, confession of sin, assurance of pardon, hearing from God’s word, fellowshipping with Him in a sacramental meal, grateful response, and a sending out into God’s world. Christian desire should be formed through worship, a desire which is to be supplemented, argues Dr. Smith, by imagination. Christian liturgy ought to shape our loves.
Dr. Smith operates in the Reformed Protestant world, and even more particularly in the world inhabited by the followers of the Dutch polymath Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). Evangelicals have emphasized Kuyper’s “common grace” motif; that God is at work in the world for all people, restraining the effects of the Fall and creating conditions in which temporal human flourishing is possible. This idea has spurred on Christian political and cultural engagement. But Dr. Smith observes that common grace is usually emphasized at the expense of Kuyper’s corresponding emphasis: the strong “antithesis” between Christian and non-Christian. There are two kinds of people, and two ways of thinking and living, both ultimately divergent.
Dr. Smith is concerned to correct what he perceives to be an over-emphasis on common grace, as he sees it leading to a “naturalization” of Christian theologies of politics and culture. This, he argues undermines Christian political witness as it flattens out the distinct Christian contribution to political life. Instead, Christian political witness should be flavoured distinctly by the gospel. Dr. Smith wants Christians to emphasize the antithesis, but not by condemning non-believers. Rather, Christians should hold out truths in such a way as to show how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have made a difference to political life.
In order to correct the imbalance toward common grace, Dr. Smith calls upon Augustine of Hippo’s “two cities” account, whereby politics is relativized in relation to the telos, or the ultimate end goal, of the Church. This end goal of the “City of God” is eternal bliss, and politics should be understood and analyzed in light of this. Augustine’s account overcomes what Dr. Smith calls the “spatialization” of political theology. Political theology is sometimes reduced to questions of church and state, or some other variation on this theme. But Augustine’s “City of Man” and “City of God” do not correspond to temporal institutions. They correspond to loves; the two cities are distinguished by their ultimate affections. The Augustinian diagnostic question might be: what do they love most? The City of God is driven by love for God and his ways; its aim is to reach the peace of God himself. The City of Man, on the other hand, seeks lower things and is ultimately directed toward earthly peace.
This Augustinian insight into these two ways of being in the world, as represented by the two cities, is key to understanding the role of liturgy in political and social life. We come to “the political” laden with the disordered loves of the earthly city, for the earthly city has its own liturgical message. This message, Dr. Smith suggests, is too easily imbibed by Christians. Part of that message is that politics, rather than God, is ultimate. Indeed, too often Christians are happy to imbibe, and then preach, the gospel of liberal democracy—the gospel of Augustine’s City of Man. Our loves need to be reordered toward the City of God. We need to do this through the church’s liturgical patterns. We need to be regularly reminded that the King is already on the throne; we are just waiting for him to come back.
The specter of politics-as-God is always a danger, and reveals itself as a constant temptation, even in traditions which retain the transcendent. Eusebius of Caesarea’s (263–339) virtual deification of Constantine the Great is in stark contrast to the stance of the Apostle Paul in Romans 13, who is very much a realist about the possibility of much good coming from civil authorities. And yet, as Francis Oakley has recently demonstrated in his work on the emergence of secular political ideas, sacred conceptions of kingship retained currency right up to the seventeenth century in Europe. And this despite the dominance of Christianity. This does not mean monarchs (or their subjects) thought they were actually God. But the deification of politics is (or was) a constant threat.
We enlightened liberals like to think that the secularisation of political ideas has done away with sacral politics. But this is a mirage. While we pat ourselves on the back for our progress in banishing religious opinion from the public square, thrilled that no-one would dare utter “Thus sayeth the Lord” on the floor of parliament, the banishment of religion leaves a vacuum. And this vacuum is filled by politics, by the pursuit of economic “growth,” and by the liberal state. God has to a large extent been removed from politics, but that means politics can now become God. Liberalism demands our allegiance, our commitment, our finances, and our faith.
The solution that Augustine offers is to put politics back in its place. The Church needs to do this as much as anyone. Dr. Smith argues that emphases on common ground through doctrines like natural law in the Catholic and classical Protestant traditions, or common grace in the evangelical Kuyperian tradition, have alienated God from the political. In the effort to normalize Christian contributions in a Rawlsian-style liberal society, Christians have virtually abandoned a gospel-shaped witness in political life. Dr. Smith’s effort to recalibrate Christian political witness (in the vein of Oliver O’Donovan) along more explicitly Christian lines has merit, even if one retains a place for natural law and common grace. Christ is risen, and Christ is King. That must (somehow) shape the Church’s contribution to our common, political life.
But with politics in its proper, penultimate place, how do we proceed? Dr. Smith’s Kuyperianism comes out at this point in his emphasis on politics as “solidarity.” Dr. Smith, following Kuyper, who seemingly followed Reformed luminaries like Johannes Althusius and John Calvin, sees political life as a co-operative endeavour rather than a combative one. Political life is a life of service and love towards one’s neighbour. One key Kuyperian insight, which Dr. Smith also utilizes, is that society and therefore political life, are necessarily pluralistic. There will be competing visions for the common good. What Kuyper offers for people in this context is a Christian basis for solidarity with others in working toward a common good.
So, it is a distinctly Augustinian and Reformed posture which Dr. Smith holds out to the Christian living in today’s increasingly fractured society. The Reformed insight is that politics is not a procedural battle among interest groups but is, rather, an opportunity to shape political things toward the good of our neighbour. The Augustinian insight is that as lovers, and as political lovers, we need our loves to be properly ordered so that our politics is properly ordered. Thus, rather than imbibe the disordered liturgies of secular liberalism or consumer capitalism, Christians ought to recalibrate their political imaginations through the liturgies of the church.
The church, then, needs to ensure it is offering the true account of reality, rather than the account that the world is offering. That account, expressed through liturgy and worship, will form the Christian political imagination. Most importantly, that imagination will know what is true about politics: It is penultimate. The Church’s liturgy will ensure that the Christian knows in her heart and mind that the real King is on the throne, and He has said that He will return to judge the living and the dead. All politics in the saeculum, the time between Christ’s enthronement and his return, is only placeholding for that day when our politics will become centered on Him.
It is fitting that this reflection should come during Advent. We are awaiting the King. And it is this waiting which is distinctly Christian. Our loves are properly ordered, and our affections are rightly directed, when we know that political life is not our telos. Which means that the Kuyperian call to get your hands dirty is actually an otherworldly call. Our political activity points to the eschaton, because we know the City of Man is not ultimate. We get our hands dirty because we know the King is coming back… which is true regardless of the cultural moment.
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