Doing Political Theology, Waiting for King Jesus

Every once in a great while you encounter a book, author, or preacher that dramatically changes the way you view something. He or she shifts your paradigm. Maybe you remember the book that turned you into a Calvinist or a non-Calvinist, a progressive dispensationalist or a covenant theologian.

Yet now let’s talk about the relationship between politics and religion. Open recent books on the political theology shelf, and throughout the footnotes you’ll encounter names like Oliver O’Donovan or Stanley Hauerwas, and of course Augustine. That’s because these writers and a few others have acted as “worldview ushers” or “paradigm shifters” for a growing number of us. They were the “gateway drug” out of an unconscious, default Enlightenment liberalism and into what’s sometimes called Augustinianism, for lack of a better unifying label. And that’s a big shift. Thus O’Donovan and Hauerwas influenced my own doctoral work.

The shift from liberalism to Augustinianism moves you from viewing politics and religion as separate or partially overlapping domains to viewing all your politics as religious and all of your religion as political. Further, you as a Christian begin to view the church as the center and source of your political life.

Augustinianism moves you to [view] all your politics as religious and all of your religion as political. . . . You begin to view the church as the center and source of your political life.

Just a few days ago, for instance, I stumbled across this line from a Christian in a national newspaper: Faith and politics “occupy different realms, and my faith has a far more important and cherished place in my life than politics.” I’m sympathetic to what the author is trying to communicate, but I think he gives away more than he intends. There is no area of his politics uninformed by his faith. That’s true of everyone—from the Christian and Muslim to the agnostic and atheist.

Your Politics Is Religious and Your Religion Political

If everything I just said sounds unfamiliar and maybe even threatening, the greatest value of James K. A. Smith’s new book, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, is that he might help you understand, and maybe even undertake, this same paradigm shift. His goal, he writes in the preface, is to explain O’Donovan and Augustine for a broader audience. And, certainly, he’s easier to read than O’Donovan and shorter to read than Augustine.

The afternoon I began Smith’s book I couldn’t help but tweet a few of his pithy formulations, which capture the essence of this Augustinian worldview in contrast to philosophical liberalism:

There is something political at stake in our worship and something religious at stake in our politics. (3)

Implicit in the practices of Christian worship is an economics, a sociology, a politics. (54)

The church’s worship does not “become” political when it is translated into policy or hooked to partisan agendas. The politics of worship is tied to the renewal of moral agency of the people of God, who are formed to be sent. (59–60)

[I]t is equally important that we see Christian worship as political in nature—not in the sense of being “partisan” or tied to “earthly city” special interest groups, but insofar as it is the enactment of a public ritual centered on an ascended King. (53)

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Cultural Liturgies)
James K. A. Smith
purchase
Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Cultural Liturgies)
James K. A. Smith
Baker Academic (2017). 256 pp. $22.99.

This book offers a well-rounded public theology as an alternative to contemporary debates about politics. James K. A. Smith explores the religious nature of politics and the political nature of Christian worship, sketching how the worship of the church propels us to be invested in forging the common good. This book creatively merges theological and philosophical reflection with illustrations from film, novels, and music and includes helpful exposition and contemporary commentary on key figures in political theology.

If you’re new to Augustinianism or this broader movement in political theology, you might puzzle over some of these statements, tilt your head, perhaps want to argue. That’s fine. I would put an “Amen” after each of these tweets, but I’ll leave you to jump into the book to be convinced.

Should you follow Smith into the Augustinian room, you’ll discover a host of other writers arguing about the best way to organize that room. On the one hand, Smith—professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and editor of Comment magazine—represents the Kuyperian Reformed corner of the room. And one of his goals is to speak back to his friends in that camp and try to improve it. On the other hand, Smith wants to bring his “Cultural Liturgies” project—begun with two earlier books in the series, Desiring the Kingdom (2009) and Imagining the Kingdom (2013) [read TGC’s review]—to bear on the whole room. That means he characterizes the many cultural practices and habits that make up our lives as “liturgies,” and life’s liturgies inside and outside the church form or de-form us as a people. Your trip to the mall, your Monday Night Football party, your standing for the national anthem both express your worship, identity, and morality and also shape them, for better or worse. You’re not just a “thinking thing,” you’re a desiring and a loving thing, and these various cultural practices shape your desiring and your loving, like the liturgies at church.

What Smith wants us to take away from the book, then, is more awareness concerning how the world’s liturgies affect and shape our worship and politics, and then to center our political life around the church’s liturgies. Doing so will cause us to take a more ambivalent posture toward public engagement. We shouldn’t withdraw, but nor should we expect to transform this world to into the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. Perhaps we can, however, make a few dents in the governing institutions of this world by pursuing all our political activity with a gospel-motivated worship. In fact, Smith points to certain ideals of liberalism—like freedom, mercy in judgment, natural right, openness to speech—as rooted in the gospel’s influence on political history. Still, we need to make sure our worship and politics aren’t subverted by worldly ideology, liberal or otherwise.

We shouldn’t withdraw, but nor should we expect to transform this world to into the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.

To sum up Awaiting the King in two steps, I’d say Smith wants (1) to help us all become Augustinian in how we approach the relationship between religion and politics (primarily using O’Donovan), (2) and to do so through the lens of his Cultural Liturgies project.

What about Religious Liberty and Separating Church and State?

Now, I have questions about Smith’s book and his overall project, but to be clear I’m speaking from inside the same Augustinian room. Consider me a friend who sits on a different couch.

I expect that the biggest concern Christians might have about the string of sentences posted above is this: Does Smith preserve religious liberty and the separation of church and state? I’m not sure. Smith briefly points to Kuyper’s opposition to an established church, and Kuyper on sphere sovereignty, and Kuyper on the distinction between the institutional and organic church. All reasonable ideas. The trouble is, Smith himself offers no theology that I can discern for affirming religious freedom or for an institutional separation of church and state, which I view as biblical ideas.

Meanwhile, Smith’s heavy reliance on O’Donovan—an ordained Church of England minister—might push him toward an established church more than he realizes. O’Donovan argues that the Christ event changed history (true!), and that all rulers and authorities are subject to him (true!), and that all our ethics must therefore be gospel-driven (true!). O’Donovan wants to speak “analogously” of the “conversion” of systems, institutions, and governments (hmmm!). And Smith follows him. He includes “our political institutions, habits, and practices” in the “all things” that “Christ redeems” (158). Does this mean the House of Lords, with its gospel-denying bishops, is redeemed?

Smith footnotes O’Donovan taking the next logical step by explicitly critiquing the First Amendment of the United States Constitution guaranteeing free exercise and non-establishment of religion. O’Donovan argues the First Amendment excludes government from an evangelical obedience. Does Smith agree? It’s not clear.

The deeper problem here is hermeneutical. O’Donovan—and following him, Smith—fail to give sufficient attention to the Bible’s covenantal storyline, and how that storyline affects the authority of church and state. Specifically, the lessons of the kingdom of Israel transmit directly to Christ and then the church, not directly to Donald Trump (the president of the United States) or Theresa May (the prime minister of the United Kingdom). Trump, May, and every other government has been authorized by God’s covenant with Noah, first articulated in Genesis 10:5–6 and further explained in passages like Romans 13:1–7. Covenantally, nothing changes between Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Pilate, and Trump and May. The authority of governments before and after Christ remains the same. Their jurisdiction remains the same. Yet O’Donovan’s enterprise, which Smith seems to adopt, presumes otherwise, and without biblical backing. As such, O’Donovan and Smith view governments as directly subject to the new covenant gospel in a way that effectively bends them toward an established church.

By the same token, Smith’s doctrine of the church remains under-developed, at least as I encountered it in this book. A proper ecclesiology has two parts: waterspout and bowl. The water of God’s Word pours out through a liturgy—or what we might call the ministry of the Word—giving life to a people. The bowl of membership, signified and sealed through the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), catches that water and holds it up on display. Smith’s liturgical emphasis focuses his ecclesiology almost entirely on the waterspout. When he refers to the sacraments, he tends to refer to their power as signs, more than their binding/loosing function as seals. His final chapter on the “godfather problem”—what do we make of churchgoers whose lives hypocritically mimic the world?—never raises the question of church membership or discipline. He argues they need a more frequent dose of liturgy. Yes, they do. But that’s only half the answer. Paying more attention to your membership and discipline practices is the other half.

An underdeveloped doctrine of church or state allows pastors and princes to tromp around in one another’s yards.

God’s distinct authorization of governments (Gen. 9:5–6) and churches (Matt. 16:18–19; 18:15–20; 28:18–20) requires them to be separate. It also requires a doctrine of religious tolerance. Yet an underdeveloped doctrine of church or state allows pastors and princes to tromp around in one another’s yards. I think of a comment O’Donovan once made to me over a breakfast: “Charlemagne has the ability to say ‘right bishop’ or ‘wrong bishop.’”

Or let me update and unpack that point: Donald Trump has the authority to say who should and should not be baptized, and which statements of faith are and are not orthodox.

If that sounds crazy to you, you’re right. But if you’re also going to insist, “There is no politics that isn’t ultimately religious” (223), like Smith does and like I would, then you need to have a clear reason for why you wouldn’t give Trump such authority. One reason is a robust explanation for how God has distinctly authorized church and state.

It’s not enough for Smith to state we all act according to our loves in all of life, as true as that is. These good anthropological impulses need a more institutionally defined house to live in.

And the Cultural Liturgies Project?

As for Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, it offers a great critique of culture, but a less helpful program for our churches.

Facing outward to the world, Smith’s sociological descriptions are fresh, powerful, and (frankly) ingenious. The liturgical rubric deftly diagnoses the de-forming power of our cultural habits and practices. It exposes their idolatrous substrata. This is Smith at his best.

Facing inward to the church, I’m grateful for Smith’s emphasis on liturgy insofar as some church liturgies are filled with more Scripture than others (61). Yet we quickly run into the limitations of philosophy and sociology for providing churches with a ministry and public program. My suggestion is to instead stick with the Bible. Do what it says to do, and emphasize what it emphasizes. Does it emphasize liturgical calendars or preaching the Word?

Smith’s underlying instinct seems to be to fight the power of culture with the power of another culture: “Only a liturgical anthropology and theory of culture can adequately make sense of our deformation and assimilation, which then also undergirds claims made about the counter-formative nature of Christian worship” (202). And there’s something to that point. Yet remember, the Bible consistently fights strength with weakness, the wisdom of man with the folly of God. Why? To demonstrate that the de-forming power of fallen culture and the new-creation power of the church’s ministry of Word and membership are not symmetrical. The battle isn’t between one kind of liturgy and another. It’s between human words and divine words. Human power versus Holy Spirit power:

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Cor. 10:4–5)

Church work is supernatural work. It’s unlike anything else. Our job is to raise the dead by the Spirit’s power.

So, sure, let’s talk about the sociology of liturgies. But sociology isn’t strong enough to wake up a graveyard. Instead, let’s emphasize what God emphasizes in Scripture. God declares that “faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), so let’s emphasize reading, preaching, singing, praying, and (in the sacraments) seeing God’s Word. God’s Spirit uses God’s Word to do God’s work.

Let’s talk about the sociology of liturgies. But sociology isn’t strong enough to wake up a graveyard.

I don’t care if the water of God’s Word is flowing through the pipes of a high liturgy or a low liturgy. What matters is that the water of the Word flows. To focus entirely on the particular shape of those pipes, and to say that this is the key to the successful church and the flourishing Christian life, whether in public or private, is to sound like one more pragmatic megachurch pastor who found something that works for him and then wrote a book about it.

Perhaps another way of saying all of this is, Awaiting the King is clearly informed by much biblical thinking, yet the Bible remains almost entirely backstage. The Bible is assumed, as it is in so many church-growth books that appeal to “best business practices” for guiding the church. The appeal here is to “best sociological practices.” In that sense, Awaiting the King works like most church-growth literature, only it won’t be the business-minded megachurch pastors reading it, but the smart folks who like to read learned books.

Balanced

I’ve emphasized two broad areas of concern. If you read the book, I’d want you to keep them in mind. But I’d still encourage you to read the book. Minus the tendency toward establishment, Smith pushes our political theology paradigm in a good direction.

Did you notice the title? The call to waiting isn’t a call to disengagement, but to the posture which must inform all our engagement.

He exposes our tendency to political idolatry. He rightly diagnoses the tendency of the penultimate to mask itself as ultimate. He offers sound counsel on how we must always pay attention to our moment in order to discern what’s best politically. For instance, his discussion of the conservative preference for small government, and its failure to observe how depleted other layers of civil life have become, is astute. He nails the call to a posture of political ambivalence. Other than the tendency toward an establishment Christianity, he strikes a good balance between utopian triumphalism and cynical withdrawal.

Perhaps best of all, Smith lands the plane exactly where a Christian should land any discussion of faith and politics: on the idea of waiting for our coming King. Did you notice the title? The call to waiting isn’t a call to disengagement, but to the posture that must inform all our engagement.

My two areas of concern aside (which I think are important), I find Smith’s book balanced and wise. You’ll no doubt benefit from it, maybe even swap one paradigm for another. His reputation as one of the keener Christian philosophers and cultural observers of our time is deserved.

LOAD MORE
Loading