04 January 2018

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 5.0

(You can read my comments on chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4 of "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology" (AtK)  herehere, here, and here.)

Smith continues his slow advance into his take on the specifics of a Christian public theology with "Redeeming Christendom: Or, What's Wrong With Natural Law." If the preceding chapter was a critique of Neocalvinist pluralism, chapter 5 represents an attempt to rehabilitate the notion of Christendom. Long discredited in the Liberal tradition (early or contemporary), Christendom is enjoying something of a comeback in Protestant circles through the works of Peter Leithart. (You can go here to read one of my posts about Leithart from six years ago.)

Smith's Christendom is hardly the sort popularly identified first with Constantine and then onto the Christianized culture of Western Europe. At least I don't think so. On the one hand, he quotes approvingly from Augustine's City of God:

We Christians call rulers happy if they rule with justice ... if they put power at the service of God's majesty, to extend his worship far and wide, if they fear God, love him and worship him ...
And then in his own words Smith writes "Our imaginations have been sufficiently disciplined by the assumptions of liberalism to be uncomfortable about and embarrassed by such forthrightly Christian hopes for temporal government." Duh.

But does Smith really mean that the only truly happy civil ruler is one who seeks to extend the worship of the one true God across the globe? I don't think so for in the course of the remainder of this chapter he walks back the Christian witness in political life to something like faithful presence: "The church is now the site for seeing what Christ's kingly rule looks like; and it will be from the church that the authorities ... of this world might come to recognize their own penultimacy." For Smith, for at least the foreseeable future, quoting (again) Oliver O'Donovan, "Christ conquers rulers from below, by drawing their subjects out from under their authority."

I'm not sure where that leaves us, which is one of my problems with AtK. Smith invites multiple readings by failing to define his terms and work out their implications. AtK is more a pastiche than a full-fledged program, or even the architecture for a program, of the relationship between the Church and the civil powers of the world.

Which leads me to my greatest objection thus far, Smith's offhanded and ill-considered rejection of natural law as a part of an architecture for a program of political engagement. Smith criticizes natural law for being insufficiently "evangelical" while his own approach reduces Christian involvement to a winsome well, I'm not sure what:
Christendom, then, is a missional [sic] endeavor that refuses to let political society remain protected from the lordship of Christ while also recognizing the eschatological distance between the now and the not-yet. From the center of the church as a political society, Christendom bears witness to how society should be otherwise in a way that imagines the possibility of conversion--not only of souls but of our social imaginaries.
(If you want to know what natural law really is (and isn't) don't look to AtK but instead see the short Davenant guide titled, appropriately, "Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense" (previously blogged here) or watch this video.) 

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