I’ve had a rather odd relationship with James K.A. Smith since 11th grade. Until this book, I had never read him or actually listened to him, beyond the odd lecture on Youtube here and there. However, I felt like I’d read him as my High School more or less mediated his Cultural Liturgies project to me as its official position–something I’m quite grateful for.
Since my parents quasi-homeschooled me, I only went to this school once a week. Yet I came to anticipate it. The staff carefully baked Christian liturgies into every aspect of the school day, and strove to create the sort of thick community I wanted. I loved it.
I approached Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, then, with a somewhat odd lens. I’m certainly nowhere near well-read enough to evaluate Smith’s engagement with Jeffrey Stout, Jonathan Chaplin, or Oliver O’Donovan. I came to Awaiting the King as a young Christian citizen, interested in politics, and soon to vote in his first election. Happily, it turns out I’ve been asking many of the questions Smith addresses in the book. Is Liberalism (classically conceived) incompatible with Christian faith? What habits of the heart does democracy or capitalism cultivate? What–if any–is the place of the church in politics? Is there a single political order the Bible mandates?
Smith begins his answers to these questions by redefining how we think of politics:
“Across different theological streams that counsel quite different modes of Christian engagement with (or distance from) politics, we can nonetheless discern a common assumption that ‘the political’ is a kind of realm, a turf, a territory. In this sense we spatialize political theology and reduce it to boundary management and border patrols. Second, we tend to assume that citizens (i.e. political agents) are ‘rational actors’ of the sort economists like to dream of–decision making machines whose actions are the outcome of conscious deliberation rooted in beliefs and ideas.” (pg. 8)
Contrary to these assumptions, “the political is less a space and more a way of life; the political is less a realm and more of a project.” (pg. 9) With this, he sets up the point of his first two chapters. Politics is not something Christians can escape entirely, nor is it a realm Christians can separate from their spiritual life and merely step in and out of for some door-knocking and voting. Politics is baked into the fabric of our lives.
Perhaps this is easily visible in our time. One can hardly open social media or turn on a TV show or a movie without being inundated with politics. Even further: do you shop at Target or boycott it due to their bathroom policy? Do you get your news from Fox or CNN? Do you give money to the homeless man on the side of the street? Do you buy oil from BP? Do you use an electric car? Do you send your children to public school?
Politics is everywhere. “Laws, then, are not just boundary markers; they are social nudges that make us a certain kind of people.” (pg. 10)
Thus, we must examine how our political order deforms or re-forms us. We have no choice–even the most mundane law does something to us. As an (important) aside, Smith points out that politics in our day includes economics:
“In the current configuration of globalized capitalism, the state has in many ways been trumped by the forces of the market and society. Wannenwetsch points out that in Western societies–and globalized societies more and more–the economy functions as a ‘structure-building force’ that shapes everything. The market no constitutes ‘the inner logic’ of society itself: the dynamics of society are ‘moulded by the laws of the market: as a contest between participants competing for an increase of their shares.'” (pg. 12)
How do we engage with the political order, then? Smith emphatically, throughout his work, reminds us that a proper political theology starts by recognizing that politics is not neutral. In one of his more provocative lines he drives this home: “It shouldn’t be surprising when an institution that wants you to ‘pledge allegiance’ is not happy with anything less than your heart.” (pg. 14)
In the rest of the book, Smith argues that Christians must–for their own peace and for love of their neighbors–try to bend the loves of the earthly city towards the Kingdom of God. We might say that we are required to nudge the kingdom of man towards the Kingdom of God. This is an aspect of our calling to serve as lights to the world (Matthew 5:13-16). We must pursue the peace of the earthly city: “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
The sticky point is how Christians are to do this without resorting to an authoritarian “convert-or-die” methodology. We must have something constructive to add:
“Any truly prophetic critique and identification of purpose, then, needs what we’ve called a canon and criterion: some outline of the substance of how things ought to be, some delineation of what ‘kingdom come’ looks like. ‘The prophet needs a point of view from which it is possible to criticize without criticism becoming a mere form, empty of substance. The prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion. After Ahab, Elijah must anoint some Hazael, some Jehu. (Desire of the Nations, 12)” (pg. 65)
In the face of these required paradoxes–thorough Christianity without sheer theocracy, tolerance and love for others without concessions to neutrality, etc.–it may be tempting to simply opt for some neutral stance. Smith points out how many have appealed to St. Augustine’s “two cities” theology, arguing for a notion of dual citizenship. I’m in no place to judge the legitimacy of Smith’s critique of this position, but he argues that Augustine had no such intent. For Augustine, the earthly city and the heavenly city are fundamentally opposed because they are organized not around beliefs (“Abortion is wrong,” “Gay marriage is right,” “Capitalism is just,” etc.) but around loves. The earthly city has no object of love beyond itself. Its own peace, prosperity, justice, and equality is everything. Because there is no Lord to claim vengeance, we must claim vengeance. Because there are is no Second Coming to overcome injustice, we must inaugurate whatever kingdom of peace and justice we desire. This is why conservatives and liberals are unable to have discussions of policy. They aren’t talking about policies, they’re talking about gods.
In this sense, Christianity has something quite political to say:
“Embedded in Israel’s narrative is a transcending of tribalism–the conviction that because Yahweh is ‘a great king over all the earth’ (Ps. 47:2 ESV), his ‘law can be extended in principle to other nations than Israel’ (DN, 65). ‘The political structures of other nations had the same vocation to exercise just jdugement as Israel’s did’ (DN, 68). Israel was called to model this, to show them how, not through colonial rule, but through witness. Whether or not Israel succeeded in this (spoiler alert: Israel failed), this entails a responsibility of the nations. The nations are expected to obey God’s rule, which is precisely why the prophets call the nations to account. It’s also why, as we’ll see, nations are still called to obey God’s rule and, after the resurrection of Jesus, some will answer that call, albeit fallibly and imperfectly.” (pg. 75)
This political witness Smith proposes is encapsulated best in his critique of Kuyperian Sphere Sovereignty:
“To give Caesar what is his is a bit like granting someone the right to occupy a building that has been condemned to demolition, or giving someone currency that is going to be decommissioned in the near future…The question at issue…is not jurisdictional (who rules what?) but temporal (who rules now?).” (pg. 76)
This is all quite clear, up to this point. At the name of Jesus, every knee must bow, and the call of the church is to bring more people into the Kingdom of God. How, then, can we possibly exclude political authorities from such obedience, or order them to privatize their spiritual lives? How can we assent to political habits that deform us from from the image of Jesus? The resurrection of Jesus inaugurated a new kingdom where Evil and Death and Injustice no longer reigns, and in which all nations are called to surrender their authority to the King of Kings.
The question is how. Smith spends the rest of the book exploring some possibilities, but this is where it is least clear. What political order follows the standard of Jesus?
For example, how ought Christians handle pluralism? Smith nuances this question out quite a bit, but the kind of pluralism possibly objectionable to Christians he labels as “directional” pluralism. This pluralism “names ‘the plurality of religions, worldview, or other fundamental spiritual orientations’ that animate people and communities in diverse societies.” (pg. 136)
As one of my teachers often emphasizes, pluralism is first a fact rather than a policy. There are diverse “spiritual orientations,” we simply have to decide what to do with them.
From a Christian perspective, we can’t just shrug our shoulders and surrender to a procedural relativism when we start engaging in the public sphere. What, then, do we do? This is where the books becomes unclear. Smith gives us no final direction, he does not resolve the dispute one way or another. The closest he comes is a sort of, “well, we have to deal with pluralism and allow some form of religious freedom.” The question, of course, is whether that itself is not a deeply formative habit. In other words, when dealing with penultimate political issues, if we must treat all religions equally, will that not deform us, making the sheer exclusivity of Jesus’ claims politically unacceptable, at best, and morally repugnant, at worst? Unfortunately, Smith doesn’t seem to give a clear answer.
Another frustrating part of Smith’s book is his response to the challenge oft-leveled at the Cultural Liturgies project, namely that there are (many) individuals who grew up fully immersed in liturgical Christian worship and are still deformed and passionless about Christianity.
While Smith clearly takes the critique seriously, he fails to give a satisfying answer. In all honesty, it seemed like Smith himself hadn’t decided what to say in response, or how to nuance his project to accommodate. The best of the answer is simply that there are many liturgies in the world, not just Christian ones, and Christian formation requires whole-hearted devotion to Christian liturgies.
Unfortunately, this answer sounds like the apparent failure of liturgy to deform individuals is solved by more liturgy. I do want to emphasize that I highly doubt this is actually Smith’s answer, but it is the way it came across to me in the book, a point that frustrated me a bit.
With all this in mind, then, I finished the book with many questions unanswered, but with a solid theological foundation. In many ways, I believe this is all Smith tried to do. He sketches a political theology that refuses the liberalism and faux-neutrality of post-Lockean democracy, and recognizes the total rule that Christ has over all nations. He does not tell us how to work out this paradox, but perhaps
Perhaps Smith simply wants us to live with our feet firmly planted in the New Creation Jesus inaugurated in his resurrection while surrounded by the Old Creation. Somehow, Christians are called to serve the Lord of Life while immersed in the Kingdom of Death. We cannot pretend to serve only Reason or some Neutral Common Good on election day and worship Jesus on Sunday.
Christians are called to live as citizens of the City of God all the time, where final justice and real peace are postponed till the last days. Yet we are called to be agents of this Kingdom of Light, bringing others into it. We cannot surrender our Christianity when we engage in politics. Instead, while we fight and pray for the peace of the earthly city, we must remember that we are praying to the One who sits on the throne and says, “Behold, I am making all things new.” We pray not for some carnal peace, but for the Kingdom of Life to conquer Death forever. And we pray for our Father, not our President, to make all things new. May we always remember that.
Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.