30 November 2017

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 3.0

(You can read my comments on Chapters 1 and 2 of Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (AtK) here and here.)

The heart of Chapter 3: "The Craters of the Gospel: Liberalism's Borrowed Capital" retells the story of how political liberalism (an earlier short post of mine here), comprised in equal parts of a commitment to democracy in the political realm (autonomy) and to the market (efficiency) everywhere else, owes its very origins to Christianity (if not to Christendom). Others have told this story but what makes Smith's version helpful is his use of the works of Oliver O'Donovan as a resource for explaining what liberalism is (or at least was) and does on a deeper level than most popular accounts. Recognizing the continuities as well as discontinuities between liberalism and the preceding (and continuing) Christian tradition in the West is important because Smith does not want to fall into either ditch: a near-wholesale reconfiguration of Christianity as liberalism (e.g., much of Mainline Protestantism or as au currant among evangelical Social Justice Warriors) or, on the other hand, a rejection of all that liberalism has meant and done tout court (in either its neo-Anabaptist or Kuyperian-antithesis forms).

Some examples of what I mean.

My heart was strangely warmed by this quote from O'Donovan's "The Desire of the Nations":
What has become clear … from half a century of research in political history, is that the roots of this new organisation of political priorities [the contemporary liberal order] run deep into the centuries that preceded it, not only through the late scholastics who are recognisably forebears of the Reformation, but through the earlier scholastics back into the Carolingian and patristic eras; and not only through theologians and their disputations but through the various concrete forms of life in the Christian community: corporations, monastic communities, canon law, penance and so on.
In other words, Brad Gregory is wrong: the deforming effects liberal order of democracy and the market was not brought into being by the Protestant Reformation. (For a pithy refutation of Gregory's "blame it on Martin Luther" thesis see Brad Littlejohn's review of Gregory's "Rebel in the Ranks" here.)

By the turn of the eighteenth century the slow-cooker influence of Christianity on Western society had lead to four principles on which liberalism, according to Smith (channeling O'Donovan) built its modern edifice:
  1. An affirmation of natural equality
  2. Structures of affinity
  3. A sense of reciprocity
  4. Openness to speech
Smith elaborates on each of these features at some length so here I'll merely state my quibble. As far as I can tell, many in the Classical world would have asserted that features 2 and 3 were present apart from Christianity. What, in my opinion, made Christian versions of affinity and reciprocity different than their Classical conceptions is number 1. Equality in the Church in Christ by the Spirit created a new and ever-expanding form of affinity that transcended the "natural" affinities of clan and class and reached even beyond the borders of the Empire.

Similarly, the notion of equality was fundamental to reciprocity. The expectation of reciprocity (which underlay the secondary virtue of commutative justice for Aristotle) was no longer limited to one's class. The biblical notion of covenant with its reciprocal divine and human obligations was crucial for bringing home to rulers their obligations to their subjects (who increasingly with the leaven of Christianity became citizens).

Speech, of course, was indeed crucial to the growth of Christianity and so I write merely to concur with Smith's (O'Donovan's) number 4.

Of course, the contemporary liberal state has forgotten its roots in the Christian tradition and is thus becoming illiberal. Apart from reminding the state (and church) whence liberalism came, what does Smith suggest be done about the prospect of increasing marginalization of Christians? His answer, such as it is, is embedded in a looong discussion of some insights of Ephraim Radner, the difference between common grace and providence, the relationship of the work of the Church and the common good, and so on to a meandering conclusion. Tightening up the final dozen pages of this chapter wouldn't have hurt.

But not to worry: there are three chapters and a conclusion to go.

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