24 November 2017

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 2.0

(You can read my comments on Chapter 1 of Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (AtK) here.)

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Two things struck me as I finished Chapter 2--"Revisiting the Church as Polis: Cultivating an Ecclesial Center of Gravity." First was pleasant surprise. The chapter title had given me cause for concern that Smith was going to rewarm the trope that the church is a full-on alternative polity (alternative, that is, to the modern "imperial" state) in the mode of "empire criticism." Prominent in the 2000s (perhaps in reaction to the War on Terror*), empire criticism identified states with the "principalities and powers" arrayed against the Church and due as little respect as prudence allows. This is most definitely not Smith's take. To be sure, the authority of states (and empires) is relativized in light of the ascension and session of Jesus as the Christ but they can (or at least should) continue to bear witness to God's judgment in and on the nations of the world. One the one hand, Christ's death bore the full effect of God's judgment on the Church and, indeed, in an ultimate sense on the world. But on the other, while we wait for the paruousia, interim acts of judgment must continue to take place.

Second, Smith shows his O'Donovan chops as he works through The Desire of the Nations. The following points stood out for me:
There is an important sense in which Christ's redemptive work in the body of Christ renews society in more systemic ways. The Spirit-led, sanctified, sacramental renewal [?] of practical judgment includes, as Joan Lockwood O'Donovan describes it, "the renewal of moral agency" that has a spillover effect ...
This "spillover effect" is one of the principal contentions in the book chapter on which I'm (supposed to) be working.

Apropos of much of contemporary Christian "prophetic" critique of the State:
Any truly prophetic critique and identification of purpose 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 is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion ..."
But this critique should not be an eschatologically-couched version of modern Leftist programs as Smith suggests was once the case for him:
My Kuyperian conversion [from fundamentalist world-flight theology] to "this-worldly" justice and culture-making began to slide into its own kind of immanence. In other words ... even believers, in the name of affirming "this world," can unwittingly end up capitulating to a social imaginary that really values only this world. We become encased and enclosed in our own affirmations of the "goodness of creation," which, instead of being the theater of God's glory, ends up being the echo chamber of our own interests. ... My devotion to shalom became indistinguishable from the political platforms of the "progressive" party.
Smith does, however, make some off-handed, dismissive comments about natural law. I suspect he has not fully recovered from the neo-Kuyperian mis-take of what natural law is (and is not).  With respect to the place of natural law in a Christian understanding of the work of Christ, I recommend reading "Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed." Here, however, I'll let some comments from a post by author and friend Brad Littlejohn do the heavy lifting:
First, Scripture itself presupposes natural law at many points. It assumes a bedrock of sound moral reason and recognition of basic creational norms, and then confirms those and takes us further in understanding the implications of these. But to the extent that we neglect natural law and expect Scripture to do all the work for us, we will be apt to miss what it is telling us and place too much weight on the wrong places. ...
Second, true it may be that natural-law arguments are deeply contested in a culture in revolt against nature. But does that mean they have no persuasive value over and above straight-up biblical arguments? I find this highly doubtful. ...
Third, acknowledging the validity of natural-law reasoning enables us to recognize and embrace wisdom wherever we find it. We all instinctively do this, even the most hardened van Tillian. We come across something that some unbelieving philosopher or scientist or statesman has says that rings true, and we say, “Yeah, that guy knew what he was talking about!” But if we disparage natural law at every turn, we can’t consistently do this. We will have to deprive ourselves of useful allies in the search for truth, denying the shared reality that we inhabit and claiming that only the regenerate can ever see the world aright.
It seems that Smith leans toward imagining the well-established Protestant doctrine of natural law as if it were nothing more than a precursor to Enlightenment natural rights. If so, it remains to be seen if he'll smuggle natural law principles of judgment back into his discussion. For a discussion of the importance of natural law in the theology of the Reformers folks might want to read my article, God's Bridle:John Calvin's Application of Natural Law, which you can download here or here.

* Interest in empire criticism seems to have waned over the past decade. Whether because it was considered and found wanting or because Barack Obama was president remains to be seen.

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