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Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology

James K. A. Smith
Published by Baker Academic in 2017

Awaiting the King is the third installment in James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series. In this book, as in the previous two, Smith impresses upon the reader the importance of liturgies, or rituals and practices, that form and shape us. Smith is clear in explaining how the liturgies of the church compete with the liturgies of cultural and political life in shaping our hearts and actions. But this book goes well beyond describing this battleground for our hearts and minds. Smith describes his goal as working “out the implications of a ‘liturgical’ theology of culture for how we imagine and envision political engagement” and in doing so move “beyond contemporary debates in political theology,” specifically the tendency to “spatialize” Christianity and politics (8). Smith takes on natural law approaches as well as tendencies in his own Kuyperian tradition. He draws heavily on Augustine and Oliver O’Donovan, seeing himself as “translator and teacher” of them in this book.

Smith does an admirable job in explaining how the liturgies of the church are political in nature. Worship for Smith is inherently political, but not in the sense of partisanship, ideology, or any set of policy commitments. Instead, worship is political for him in the sense that it is a “public ritual centered on—yea, led by—an ascended King” (53). Rites like confession, offering, baptism, and communion carry a “social imaginary” that is an inescapably “political vision of a people called as a royal priesthood and sent as ambassadors of the King above all kings” (53).

Smith states that there are two overall aspects to this view of the church’s political identity: when the church forms its members as political agents through liturgies, and when it proclaims to “legislators and lawmakers that the created order of culture is subject to a higher law” (60). Additionally, Smith points out that religious language parallels political language, with the use of terms like “kingdom,” “nation,” “liberation,” and “people” (63).

Smith is not naive about the church’s record in successfully forming its members for political engagement. He spends considerable time on what he calls the “godfather problem,” when Christians go through selective rituals of worship but fail to internalize and live out the meaning of those rituals. So he counsels the importance of catechesis, or the need for the church to teach and explain why we perform the liturgies we do, and also the importance of worship as a way of life. If we do not understand and live our faith in this way, we are likely to succumb to being formed to a greater degree by secular political liturgies.

The next, and most interesting, stage of Smith’s argument has to do with the specific nature of Christian political engagement. He rejects “quietist” approaches that urge withdrawal from political life, blaming such approaches on a mistaken “spatializing” of politics. He says we “can’t be satisfied with any kind of neat-and-tidy compartmentalization of the spiritual and the political” (16). True to his Kuyperian heritage, Smith accepts that we are resident aliens in this world, and he says the church and its members need to bend this world toward shalom and the kingdom of God. He describes this as a missional endeavor of Christendom focused on how we are to live in common with the people of the earthly kingdom.

But this is also where he breaks with the natural law tradition and with what he describes as a “Kuyperian secularism” that “naturalizes shalom” when it relies too much on the doctrine of common grace. The pursuit of justice in this way runs the risk of leaving God on the margins, or entirely out of it (82-83). Smith even describes these tendencies within some Kuyperian thought as a sort of “macroliberalism” that has more in common with Rawls than it might care to admit (33-34, 140). Smith’s basis for this charge is a belief that such Kuyperians resist the adoption of a specific directional vision on the public order (in the name of pluralism) and try to avoid imposing a vision of the good that explicitly descends from the gospel. He goes so far as to say that the political theology of such Kuyperians seems “anti-ecclesial” (86). He also charges that the “virtue focus has been largely absent from Reformed accounts of pluralism and politics” (145).

For Smith, it seems, the open and unabashed declaration of the biblical story is what is needed in public life. He says the “index and criterion for justice and the right ordering of society is not some generic, universal, or ‘natural’ canon but rather the revealed, biblical story unfolded in God’s covenant relationship with Israel and the church” (60). For Smith, “Christian political witness is nourished by the Christological specificity of the gospel and the model of Christ the King and his relationship to his body” (151). In fact, he says Jesus’s “life and revelation are the only way we could possibly understand how political life should be rightly ordered” (138).

Christian liturgical practices offer, according to Smith, what reason cannot achieve. He says, we need a public theology “to proclaim what it [reason] couldn’t otherwise know— and to do so as a public service for the sake of the common good” (153). So, for example, he points to the connection between the practice of confession, which “engenders an epistemic humility that should characterize our public posture” and public virtue formation (147-148). Similarly, he says penance, mercy, and forgiveness are religious practices that have utility in public life, but are not likely to be discovered with reason and natural law methods.

Smith claims he is not endorsing any type of theocracy. He writes:

We shouldn’t shrink from hoping to bend our policy and public rituals in the direction of rightly ordered love, not so we can “win” or “be in control,” but for the sake of our neighbors, for the flourishing of the poor and vulnerable, for the common good. (34)

Yet Smith does seem to want to impose a normative vision based on revealed biblical truth. For example, he associates a failure to speak biblical truth in public life with problems like the “erosion of family stability … widening inequality, exposing the most vulnerable to even more social threats” and “eviscerating the working class” (33-34). Additionally, he singles out the failure of natural law and reason to convince people of revealed truths related to family, marriage, and sexuality (155-156). Arguing that Christians frame truths in biblical language and concepts is a bold choice, especially in societies that are largely biblically illiterate and prone to see Christians as theocrats with impulses to control. It also is not clear (if it matters to Smith) why non-believers would be more receptive to arguments explicitly based on biblical revelation than on natural law or other universal reasoning. This points to a significant limitation of Smith’s work—that he does not discuss the methods by which this vision of political theology could be implemented. He gives no attention to important matters of political strategy—whether to seek influence through political parties, interest groups, advertising, lobbying, or how to frame public debate on contentious issues on which people are divided.

However, Smith does argue that it is fine for Christians to operate within existing liberal democratic practices, emphasizing the Christian heritage upon which liberal democracy depends. While acknowledging the good of liberal democracy, he criticizes its liturgical formation because it often “disorders our loves” (17). One of his most serious charges is that liberal democracy claims to be agnostic on “the ultimate,” but its rituals and practices often suggest otherwise. Smith writes, “Democracy and freedom are not just good ideas for the ‘meantime’ of our earthly sojourn; they are the ultimate goods for which we die (and kill)” (23). Another serious charge he levels against liberal democracy is that “the liberal state lacks the formative resources it needs to engender citizens who have the know-how to live well in pluralistic societies” (132).

In good Kuyperian fashion, Smith emphasizes how important “microsocieties” or “little platoons” are in cultivating virtues necessary for a flourishing society. However, Smith is not naive about this either. He says that an “overreaching state and creeping marketization of everything” have severely diminished these microsocieties (129). Nonetheless, they play a central role in Smith’s vision of civil society, especially religious schools, while state- organized institutions play a minimal, or temporary, role (130). Smith seems to take for granted that Christian, Jewish, and Islamic schools will all cultivate the necessary virtues for a flourishing society in a way that government schools cannot.

One of the main limitations of this book is that it does not delve deeply into the specifics of Christian political engagement. Smith states early on that this work “is most concerned with the cultivation of a posture, not the recommendation of specific policies” (xiv). Guiding principles he identifies include pursuit of the common good, love for neighbor, and flourishing for the poor and vulnerable. Fair enough, but this does not take us very far. For the millions of Christians already committed to a gospel centered Christian political involvement, there is not much specific direction. For example, it is not at all clear what Smith’s argument might imply for Christian political approaches on issues like gun control or abortion. Or what does Smith’s argument imply for healthcare, routinely an issue at the top of the public agenda and one of the largest categories of government expense? Smith generalizes about excessive reliance on government (in favor of associational and institutional pluralism in civil society, especially in the realm of education), but does that also mean universal, single-payer healthcare is inconsistent with it? There is little direction in his public theology for thinking about an important issue like this.

Another major problem is that today’s Christian church is deeply divided within and across countries. For example, there is great diversity within the global church on issues like divorce and human sexuality. The scope and nature of liturgical practices also varies widely, as does the extent and involvement of Christians within the church, and the degree to which churches find institutional public advocacy acceptable. Maybe more problematic is fact that, in the American context, only about one third of the population attends church regularly (far less in many other liberal democratic countries), and probably far less have deep commitments that immerse themselves in Christian liturgy and catechesis. And, as Smith acknowledges, many of the remaining faithful are deeply captured by the secular liturgies of liberal democracy in a way that is often at odds with biblical teaching. An inescapable conclusion is that the church just needs to do better.

A more significant challenge might come from the empirical reality of those social democratic countries in the world that routinely rank near the top of the list on a variety of measures of human flourishing, such as life expectancy, low levels of poverty, low levels of crime and social conflict, gender equality, and so on. Scandinavian countries are often at the top on these measures of human development, but these countries have very low levels of church membership and commitment. Therefore, the church has a minimal role in shaping the things their citizens love. Moreover, such societies have very large and expansive states that seem at odds with the type of limited government Smith seems to advocate. Yet there are many virtuous citizens in such countries and high rates of human flourishing relative to other countries. While it is more complicated than this, at the very least we can say these societies do a remarkable job of reflecting the very specific aspects of Christian political witness that are identified by Smith, such as mercy, humility, forgiveness, flourishing of the poor and vulnerable, and the pursuit of the common good. It is not because of effective contemporary liturgical formation by the church, but perhaps it is the legacy of prior Christian formation. Or perhaps it because of common grace. Or perhaps such social democracies do not “disorder our loves” to the same extent, or in the way, that liberal democracies do (through “consumerism, militarism, nationalism,” 201).

Overall, I recommend this book because of its importance to reflecting on how we are all formed and directed to love the things we love. The church should be a stronger force that forms us and sends us out as bearers of shalom. And Smith is right in saying that we cannot really opt out of politics, because political life is not spatialized in a way that cuts it off from the rest of life. He is also right to direct our attention to how, if we are not careful, the liturgies of political life can form us in ways that are contrary to biblical teaching.

Cite this article
Fred Van Geest, “Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:1 , 104-107

Fred Van Geest

Bethel University (MN)
Fred Van Geest is Professor of Political Science at Bethel University.