Awaiting the King (James K. A. Smith) -- A Review

AWAITING THE KING: Reforming Public Theology. (Cultural Liturgies, Volume 3). By James K. A. Smith.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. Xvii + 233 pages.

                Preachers are cautioned to steer clear of politics. Not only is there the issue of tax exempt status, but going political can cause dissension in the congregation. Stick to religion and stay out of politics. The only problem with this advice is that the biblical story is very political. Jesus himself was executed as political figure. The Romans didn't care about the intricacies of Jewish theology, but they did pay attention to talk about alternative kingdoms and kings not on their payroll. So, Pilate had Jesus executed. Then there are the prophets of Israel, who often stepped on the toes of the political establishment. Politics and religion have long been connected for as long as there has been human history, even if the relationship is often tenuous. This leads us to the book under review, James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King, the third volume of his Cultural Liturgies project. It is, as the subtitle claims, an attempt to reform public theology (by public he means more than simply the state, though he does include the state within those parameters).

I approached this book with a degree of eagerness. For one thing, I am very interested in public theology (having written a book titled Faith in the Public Square and having been actively engaged in public life as a pastor). Although I hadn't read the first two volumes in this series, I did read his book You Are What You Love, which is a more popular version of the earlier volumes. The point of that book, which I read and enjoyed, was this—we are what we worship. That is, liturgies help form us, whether they're Christian or secular (thus the liturgies of the mall or sports have an important formational effect on us.) Now that I’ve finished reading Awaiting the King, I’m ambivalent about its message. This may have to do with differing spiritual/theological inclinations on my part. I'm not evangelical in the current sense of the word, nor am I Reformed in the way that Smith is? In other words, I lean more toward Reinhold Niebuhr than to Abraham Kuyper. And for those who do not know James K. A. Smith, he is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, holding the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, and a confessed admirer of the Dutch politician/theology Abraham Kuyper. He is also a fellow of Cardus, a Canadian Christian think tank apparently interested in changing Canada’s “social architecture.”

What caught my interest, and the reason why I was intrigued, was the promise of an informed response to the Hauerwasian "church as polis" perspective on political theology. He does respond, calling into question that project, which suggests that the church should be an alternative polis separate from public life. My interpretation is that for the church as polis crowd, the church should focus on getting its witness straight, rather than reforming society. While I'm not a Hauerwasian, I can’t say that I’m a Kuyperian either. I believe that people of faith should engage the public square, but also recognize the limits of that engagement. That is, I affirm our pluralistic nature as a country, and I’m not interested in creating a Christian state. While some of the critique of Christendom is overdone, I’m not interested in returning to the old ways of Christian dominance. I don’t think it was good for the state or the church. Thus, my ambivalence. 

There is much to like in the book, but there are parts that I found less than helpful. I appreciate the emphasis on worship forming us as people of God who are sent into the world as change agents. I recognize with Smith that there are cultural liturgies that form us as people, which often stand counter to the Gospel. I appreciate the conversation about the "military-entertainment complex" that has so captivated us as a people. I appreciated as well the image of being a "resident alien" (a Hauerwasian term) who also is invested in the state (Kuyperian?). What I found unsettling was, what I perceive to be a longing for Christian dominance of the state. I don’t think that this is possible in the United States going forward, but I’m not sure it would be wise either.

Part of my problem is of my own making. I've not read Oliver O'Donovan, who is an important conversation partner. Neither am I all that acquainted with Abraham Kuyper, other than knowing that he was an important political figure who sought to bring faith and politics together in a way that has influenced Reformed political theology in the United States. As for the other important conversation partner, Augustine and his City of God, while I’ve read it, I’m not conversant enough with it to be truly engaged. I have my own love/hate relationship with Augustine to deal with.

What I’d like to do is give a brief overview of the book, beginning with chapter one, which explores the notion of liturgy and worship in relationship to democracy, bringing us up to date on the Cultural Liturgies project so we can move forward with reforming a Reformed public theology. Drawing from Augustine he suggests that Christians are citizens of the heavenly city, who live within the earthly city. This is not, he insists, a dual citizenship. As resident aliens of the earthly city, in Smith’s view, Augustine speaks of resisting and reordering the cultural liturgies of the earthly city, which are born in sin. With that as a premise, Smith begins to develop his public theology, one that is invested in resisting and reordering what is disordered in earthly culture. In chapters 2 through 4, he gets to the heart of the issue, that is understanding what it means for the church to exist in this political context. He addresses the question of the church as polis, and then moves into a discussion of the influence of Christianity on liberal democracy. He suggests that are many ways in which the church has influenced the development of democracy, he calls these craters of the Gospel. Thus, it is appropriate to engage what is disordered, in order to reorder. It is here in chapter three, as he begins to engage with Oliver O'Donovan, that I became uneasy. There is a strong inclination here toward affirming the priority of law and order. I'm not against law and order, but I'm more open to the need for revolution on occasion than is Smith (I didn't know that the name of Kuyper's party in Holland was the "Anti-Revolutionary Party."). There is in this proposal a certain conservativeness that doesn't resonate with me, and again I’m not as confident in our ability as Christians to live in harmony with others when we have power. One of the issues raised here concerns "school choice," which Smith seems to endorse, and which Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education is seeking to install nationally. DeVos comes out of this Kuyperian milieu, which gave me pause. The chapter that follows, on pluralism, also gave me pause, because Smith appears to me to be suggesting that we should embrace a "Christian Diversity State." It seems that in his view, there is room for pluralism in the land, but one granted by Christians. I'm not sure this works out well in practice. In any case, these are questions we need to wrestle with in this time and place where religion and politics are increasingly intermingling, not always with beneficial effect. 

Chapter five raises questions about natural law that are worth exploring, but more important is chapter six, which is subtitled "Our 'Godfather' Problem." The point of this very important chapter, in which Smith engages in conversation with Willie James Jennings, an African American theologian who is a graduate of both Calvin College and Fuller Seminary (we overlapped briefly as M.Div. students). The focus of the chapter is addressing the reality that Christian liturgy has too often failed to form us into good citizens. That is, one can worship and still be a racist. Thus, the point of the Godfather films, which the Godfather participates in religious ritual, but then engages in criminal behavior. There seems to be a disconnect. Smith understands this dilemma because it challenges his premise that liturgy forms us. So, the question is, why do we see malformed persons engaging in worship, but living contrary to the Gospel. In this chapter he invites pastors to become ethnographers who examine the culture and its liturgies, so as to be better prepared to respond. He suggests that "part of the pastor-theologian's political work is to enable the people of God to 'read' the practices of the regnant polis, to exegete the liturgies of the earthly city in which they are immersed." (p. 195). This is good advice, though it is dangerous, for we have too often merged cities in such a way that the faith side gets submerged. By helping cultivate heavenly citizens, resident aliens, who can engage in public life in ways that are just and right is good, but not easy.

So, what do I do with this book? I'm not sure. There is much to engage with, especially the conversation about how liturgy (worship) can help form us as resident aliens invested in public life. I appreciate his willingness to acknowledge that Christians have been eager to worship God on Sunday and live very differently on Monday through Saturday, but there are elements I'm uncomfortable with. I’m not as confident that a return to Christendom, even a reformed one, will work. While I acknowledge that Niebuhr lacked a strong ecclesiology, I wish Smith had engaged him to see how the two visions intersect. At the end of the day, I remain ambivalent about the book and its project. 


Brad said…
Thanks for your thoughtful engagement on the topic. I'm still at the beginning phases of forming a political theology. Can you help me distinguish between the thought of Kuyper and Niebuhr? You state that you are more embracing of Niebuhr. Why?
Robert Cornwall said…
Brad, thanks for posting and for the question. I should say first that my knowledge of Kuyper is somewhat limited, but as I read Smith and others, it would appear that Kuyper envisioned a Christian public polity -- a Christian political movement. Niebuhr on the other hand believed that faith empowered public witness, but as I read him he never envisioned the creation of a Christian state. His was a chastened social gospel. His realism assumed that sin impacted even our best efforts, and thus Christendom was open to corruption. I would recommend as a good introduction Jeremy Sabella's book An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story -- which is the companion to the PBS documentary. Ultimately, as to why I like Niebuhr is that he was a strong proponent of social action, while tempering the optimism that pervaded earlier efforts at social change.

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