16 January 2018

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 7.0

(You can read my comments on chapters 1 through 6 of "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology" (AtK)  herehereherehere, here, and here.)

Reaching Smith's concluding remarks fully justify reading the previous six chapters. My previous posts have suggested something of a mixed response to Smith's venture into political theology. His critique of neo-Kuyperian transformationalism in light of a biblical eschatology (the now and the not-yet of God's work of restoration) was trenchant. I hope hIs introduction to Oliver O'Donovan will send many to O'Donovan's works. And his frank acknowledgment that reviving serious liturgical practices is not a panacea for what deforms the loves of Christians is consistent with this book's title: awaiting the king.

On the other hand, I have criticized Smith's dismissal of the insights of the natural law tradition. The proponents of natural law, from the Stoics to the Medievals to post-Reformation Christians, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, understood natural law as a set of mid-level principles derived from human nature that should be applied in each polity with an eye toward the history and practices of its particular people. Smith (and O'Donovan, for that matter) pick up the story of natural law from its nineteenth-century despisers. I wish Smith had done better on that score. Other criticisms have included some confusion about the separation of church and state and some overuse of movie metaphors. But these were minor nits in the grand scheme of AtK.

Smith brings his Augustinian insights to his conclusion that is dialectically clear. Dialectical because Augustine, drawing from a biblical eschatology, correctly frames Christians' penultimate political concerns in light of their ultimate eschatological telos. On the one hand, "both the Religious Right and the Christian Left are evidence that evangelical Protestants have shed their otherworldly quietism. ... Politics is affirmed as one of the 'spheres' of creation over which Christ resolutely says, 'Mine!'" On the other hand, those same Evangelical political activists need to be reminded that "one of the dangers of eagerly diving in to the political sphere is that it tends to underestimate the strength of the currents already swirling around in that 'sphere.'" In other words, "the political" is not simply something we "do;" political activity does something to us. And the direction in which the formative activities of politics bend can be deeply deforming.

Enough on-the-one-hand-and-the-other, what are Smith's take-aways? How does he recommend we calibrate the tension between penultimate public interest and the ultimate love of God? Summarizing his concluding points:
  1. Recognize that even the disordered loves of the earthly city attest to creational desires. The idolatrous loves (and lives) that find expression in the practices of politics are derived from the ontological reality that human beings were created to love.
  2. Every critique of the practice and results of political activity is ad hoc; there is no such thing as the one-size-fits-all Christian theory of penultimate earthly justice. Because there cannot be (and certainly should not be) a Christian "theory" of how to harness misdirected earthly loves, the only "theory" of Christian political activity is "Come quickly Lord Jesus.
  3. Yet we should be able to recognize penultimate convergence even where there is ultimate divergence. Practical compromise (as I discussed here) to make our earthly sojourns less bad, less deformed, and more just should be pursued.
  4. "Don't lose your eschatology: cultivate a teleological sensibility." Since for the time being the City of God and the City of Man are intermingled, "it is in the interest of the 'pilgrims' of the city of God to seek the welfare of the earthly city."
  5. Nonetheless, there are limits to political participation by Christians. We must always ask the question of the extent to which the configuration of a polity's political practices--"these secular liturgies--deform and deflect the people of God from their longing for the heavenly city."
Even before I reached the end of AtK I concluded it is an excellent book that I recommend to everyone reading this post. My criticisms notwithstanding, AtK is more than an onramp and it is deeper than a roadmap to reforming public theology. It provides thoughtful readers with a means by which to frame and guide our lives and loves in the City of Man while waiting for the full and final revelation of the City of God.

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