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Friday, February 2, 2018

"Awaiting the King" (James K.A. Smith)

TITLE: Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Cultural Liturgies)
AUTHOR: James K. A. Smith
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017, (256 pages).

What has theology got to do with politics? What has Church got to do with State? Is there a better way forward in public engagement without having to police the boundaries of such relations? For author James K A Smith, it is essentially about societal and human flourishing. Whether it is in the political or public sphere, we need to redeem them. Borrowing heavily from Oliver O'Donovan's works and Augustine's thoughts on "City of God," Smith seeks to present a Christian approach to active engagement in the public square, to see it as a calling and not simply something to be shunned or be afraid of.

The political arena today is strewn with bipartisan politics not just in Washington DC but also in various theological circles. What is the relationship today between Christ and Culture? The Church herself is a cultural center that could influence the world. With this in mind, in a nutshell, it is about cultivating a posture of theological engagement rather than policy formulation. Calling it "part diagnosis and part prescription," Smith believes that the Church plays that very vital role in adopting "Augustinian principles for public participation." At the same time, using O'Donovan's works on a "missionary order," which is putting the needs of society before government, we are able to develop a series of postures to help us think, re-think, and reform our public theology. Our main posture is patience and optimism in the coming kingdom. Let me try to summarize some of the postures advocated by the author.

The first posture is understanding what liturgical politics is about; that politics and liturgy are not meant to be separate but together. Smith states that "there is something at stake in our worship and something religious at stake in our politics." Using the parable of the Postman, Smith kicks off with  questions pertaining to our identity; our desires; and our destiny. The public square is an opportunity for believers to play their role in shaping the "we" community, the common good, and how we can influence government for the common benefit of all. This calls for wisdom in dealing with the tensions of liberalism and tradition.

The second posture is seeing democracy through the lens of religious rites. When it comes to public theology, we need a new paradigm beyond the traditional Church-State separation, because conventional thinking are too "spatialized." We also need to grow beyond politics as mere "rules and procedures" that guard space for interactions. Smith argues that politics is less about "space" but more about "way of life." He seeks to adopt an integrative approach that do not isolate politics into a separate sphere but to live it out as creatures with a vested interest in society. For public theology is an opportunity to shape our loves and to let liturgy inform public theology. Like Augustine, he pushes the envelope by painting the state as "religious" and the Church as "political." Just like one does not dichotomize the sacred from the secular, he urges the integration of political and liturgical spheres. Before that, Smith wisely explains what he means by "political" and "liturgical lens," which is essential to avoid misunderstanding of his main thesis. He starts the integration by alternating the discussion between  politics and liturgy. On democracy, we need to see our practice of democracy that flows out of a life of worship. Conventional views of democracy see the ends in terms of tangible benefits. The Augustinian view goes much further toward seeing our participation as acts of worship. Showing how worship and the Word inform our role in the world, we get lots of insights about how worship is the "rite of citizens of the heavenly city" as well as discerning the movement of God in public spheres. In other words, see the world through kingdom lens. See God reigning over all and we are free to participate in the redemption of the world, believing that God has saved; God will judge; and God will possess all eventually.

A third posture is inspired from Hauerwas's notion of Church being a center of influence for existing culture. Instead of seeing it as something Christians had to change, Smith offers the position of participation toward a common good. In addressing liberalism, something many conservative circles consider taboo, he shows us that our modern Western democratic liberalism has ecclesial roots. The political sphere only has temporal power. Like Christ representing God the Father, leaders sent to Capitol Hill are representatives of the people. They are under a higher authority. Governments are "representatives" and not power mongers. He also critiques the Church for their reluctance to engage based on timidity, arguing that freedom of speech is a mark of Christian legacy. The state has lots to learn from the Church, which also implies the poverty of society if they isolate and ignore what the Church has to say. Like O'Donovan's attitude of seeing "modernity as the child of Christianity," Smith urges readers to welcome people back into the Church-fold instead of bolting the door against their practices of liberalism. In other words, don't see the pluralist or liberal as the enemy. Rather, see them as a brother of a future brethren.

A fourth posture is reforming "reformed public theology" to venture beyond the conventional limits of Neocalvinism and the avoid the other extremes of pluralism. Smith issues a challenge for all of us to seek new ways to unite people of diverse worldviews, especially the wide-ranging perspectives of what a common good means. Moreover, the secular liberal state lack the tools to formulate a healthy public square. It will be a shame if Christians boycott being involved in the public policies on the basis of disagreement with the general ways of the way. Staying engaged is far better than nonchalance. For the opportunities include being peacemakers, policy makers, and witnesses of God's goodness. Lest the Church be accused of being egoistic, as only being interested in matters pertaining to their religion. Smith points out that that for all the freedom pluralism boasts about, society still lacks the capacity to live well. How do we live alongside people in a pluralistic culture? How do we know when to forge a common lifestyle and when to avoid compromises? He warns us from attempting to impose a version of common life on society because such efforts risk cynical pushbacks. For our human nature easily turns society into some kind of "an archipelago of egoists." Believers start by initiating dialogue and neighbourliness and carefully avoids the extremes. They could recognize the different kinds of plurality (structural; cultural; directional). Link our participation with an aspiration toward a common good on earth and a heavenly hope in future.

A fifth posture is to redeem Christendom from mere liturgical status toward a more missional thrust.  We learn about the way to navigate the tricky relationship between Church and State, not to settle for a Church minimalist approach to engaging the government, but to be prophetic and rethink our involvement in the secular world. This begins with an affirmation that the existing secular climate has ecclesiastical roots. Plus, the Church if we were to await the king, should not the Church be doing what she could to prepare the way? Be interested not just in souls but in "social imaginaries" that lead to flourishing.

A sixth posture recognizes the "godfather problem" which is about tensions between what Church people want versus what the Church stands for. For all the liturgical background of the Corleone's family, there is an array of violence, bloodshed, and trickery, all of which stood against the virtues of Christianity. Like one who claims to go to Church on Sundays but behaves like an unbeliever on the other six days, this "godfather problem" shows us the complexities of good intentions falling flat in a world of imperfection and corruption. When Christianity falls under the power of capitalism, the Church loses her light and her saltiness. Plus, we must seek forgiveness for the wrongs and crimes committed in the name of Church. We need to repent from the way we do bad as well as the failure to do good. Smith offers this solution to the godfather problem: "Ultimately, ecclesiology as ethnography is a set of disciplines for paying attention to the lived reality of our congregations, diagnosing our betweenness, our hybridity, but also our complicity and compromise." The Church's role is "formative," not manipulative and "cultivating," not just apocalyptic. The author adds in a few helpful tips for pastors to play the role of a "public theologian."

Some Thoughts
Smith advocates a position to if we are convicted about how to be human in the light of God's Truth, we would seek to "bend" social practices for the good of our neighbours. What do we need to do to help our neighbours flourish? We are warned against ceding control to atheists who use the name of secularism to use human reason to upend the Sovereignty of God. Key to our response as believers is to assert that citizens of earthly city are future citizens of the Heavenly City. This is the author's third instalment of the series of "cultural liturgies" that gives an updated discussion on the clash of worldviews. The first book, "Desiring the Kingdom" is about Christian learning, and how it is connected to worship, spiritual formation, and discipleship. It is a focus on what Christians do and what education is for, that Christianity is not just a perspective but a practical concern, going beyond ideas and information toward "formation of hearts and desires." Ultimately, it is about desire, about what we love. The second book, "Imagining the Kingdom" talks about worship and how worship itself transforms our basic orientation toward the world. This third book builds on the Education and Worship aspects to look at politics and Public Theology. I am impressed with how Smith is able to challenge the common paradigm of fear that seeks to keep Church and State separate. He reminds us that the Church is partly at fault for the rise of modern secularism. Upon breaking the modern paradigm, he goes further and makes no apologies to affirm the people of God being a significant player in the formation of culture all for the sake of the common good.

We should not wait for the call to enter politics for we are already involved in politics. We don't need a title, just a conviction to make a difference for the sake of the common good. The key is to separate the erroneous boundaries imposed by artificial and misguided perspectives. The title of the book shows us the way, that we need not fret when our best intentions come to nought. For each act done in the Name of God, through the ways of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit will prepare the stage for the coming of the King. Perhaps, in the future, churches need not worry about trying to be relevant to society all the time, when they are already seen, heard, and felt in all aspects of society. 

James K.A. Smith is is a Canadian philosopher who is currently Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, holding the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview. He has been a visiting professor at Fuller Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and Regent College in Vancouver, BC.

Rating:4.75 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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