Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018

Book Reviews

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology

James K. A. Smith, Baker Academic, 2017, 233 pp,
£12.48 (Amazon) / £9.01 (Kindle)

Awaiting the King is the third volume of James K. A. Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” series of studies. In his Preface Smith traces the origins of this volume: having set out to engage with the legacy of Abraham Kuyper, and in particular to confront the triumphalist strain which some have taken up and developed, Smith sought to balance the affirmative with the more antithetical in Kuyper’s theology. In the process he found himself engaging with the massive contribution of Augustine’s City of God and also with the contemporary thinking of Oliver O’Donovan and Peter Leithart. As a result he envisages his place in the world as being a “resident alien” and investing in the state. His goal in Awaiting the King is to reform Reformed public theology rather than raze it to the ground, nuancing the work of Kuyper, Bavinck, Wolterstorff, Mouw and others. Thus, drawing on Augustine, Smith says, “the first political impetus is one of calculated ambivalence and circumspection tempered by ad hoc evaluations about selective collaborations for the common good” (xiv). The question is how we are to be resident aliens.

Smith’s Introduction sets out the main lines along which his thinking has developed. He indicates that he has two aims in Awaiting the King: The first is to work out the implications of what he terms a “liturgical” (more on this term later) theology of culture for how we imagine and envisage political engagement. The second is to offer an alternative paradigm that moves beyond contemporary debates in theology, or, as he puts it, that “reframes the questions in view of, and with a view to, practice” (8). He offers a “catholic proposal” based on a Reformed model that draws on Kuyper, Bavinck, Dooyeweerd, Wolterstorff, Mouw and Chaplin.

There are, Smith believes, two problems that must be confronted. The first is a tendency to think of Christianity and politics in largely “spatialized” terms (the language of “the public square”) and the second a rationalising that assumes people are “rational actors”. These ignore the fact that “the polis is a formative community of solidarity” (9) and political participation assumes such formation.

At this point something needs to be said about Smith’s use of the terminology of “liturgies”. He defines liturgies as “rituals of ultimate concern” that “are formative for identity”, inculcating visions of the good life (10). He argues that, since our identities are rooted in desire/love (drawing on Augustine), liturgies are love-shaping practices “that function as pedagogies of ultimate desire” (10). Based on this, Smith argues that if politics is habit-forming, it is also love-shaping and so we enter the realm of liturgies. Although the terminology may be unfamiliar, it is clear that Smith seeks to widen our view of “politics” considerably.

Politics, Smith argues, is bound up with virtue and the dynamics of virtue require a teleology, a vision of the good to animate our common life. For the Christian, teleology is inseparably related to eschatology and that eschatology is one of hope. This, Smith says, runs counter to the cynical political ideologies of despair that reduce human life to what he terms the machinations of power and domination, as well as running counter to postmillennial progressivism.

He concludes that Christian hope reframes the political in the light of eternity and resituates it in the light of creation. He prefers the term “public” theology to “political theology” to avoid a narrow fixation on electoral politics. Much that constitutes the life of the polis is modes of life in common that fall outside the interests of the state or of government. Thus “public theology” deals with “how to live in common with neighbours who don’t believe what we believe, don’t love what we love, don’t hope for what we await” (11). This involves institutions and communities beyond those of government, involving the forces of the market and society which outweigh the influence of government.

In contrast to many treatments of the Christian’s relationship to state and community, Smith’s position is that citizens are not just thinkers or believers – they are lovers (drawing on Augustine, as indicated previously). In building his argument he is aiming to make things more complex, not more simple. He wants to move away from a rationalist/intellectual paradigm which equates religion with beliefs and worldviews, to identifying the religious with “rituals of intimacy” (14), i.e. liturgies. Cultural institutions and practices are “religious” if they try to shape our loves; they have formative pretensions. Smith sums up his aim as reprising Augustine’s liturgical analysis of the earthly city’s “civic theologies” in the context of late modern liberalism.

Careful readers will have noticed that so far this review has addressed only the Introduction to Awaiting the King. That is not a cover for failing to read the rest of the book, but a recognition that Smith’s project is radical in its fundamental sense of going to the roots of the matter. The Introduction sets out the main lines along which he will develop his engagement with “public theology” and so it is essential to grasping the “big picture” he is painting.

In the body of the book Smith works out in detail the implications of the position he has outlined. In Chapter 1 (“Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy”) he seeks to clarify the Augustinian perspective on the “two cities”, arguing that the identity of the cities is determined by the loves that they promote and also that Christians are citizens of only one city. They are, however, to be engaged as disciples of Christ in the earthly city where they are resident aliens. Chapter 2 (“Revisiting the Church as Polis”) deals with the identity of the church as an organised community with a God-given telos and so one with an eschatological orientation. Whilst some have argued that Augustine’s perspective on the cities is exclusively antithetical, Smith in chapter 3 (“The Craters of the Gospel: Liberalism’s Borrowed Capital”) presents a more nuanced view of Augustine, drawing on his idea of the permixtum of the two cities in the present world. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 then offer Smith’s consideration of how Christians can collaborate in the public sphere for the common good, including issues of the place of common grace, pluralism, social reform and Christendom. The contribution of Neocalvinist thinkers such Abraham Kuyper is both mined and critiqued in the course of Smith’s wide-ranging exposition.

Many of the issues Smith deals with are highly controversial, both inside and outside the Christian Church. Approaches differ radically, from the “Benedict Option” through to those who look for substantial transformation as a result of Christian engagement in society. Most will disagree with Smith at some points, some profoundly and comprehensively so. Those who engage thoughtfully with his arguments will, however, find much to challenge and illuminate.

The book is not easy reading. Smith evaluates and critiques a wide range of authors from all periods of history, drawing on philosophical and theological discussions which will not be common currency for all readers, and sometimes using unfamiliar terminology. He frequently refers to matters discussed in the previous two volumes of the trilogy and does not repeat material found there, which can at times be frustrating and perplexing. Awaiting the King is not a book that can be read quickly or casually: It demands hard thinking and critical engagement. It will, however, repay the effort in the stimulus it provides to wrestle with the key issues of Christian life and witness as citizens of the heavenly city currently located in an increasingly hostile earthly city.

David McKay
Minister, Shaftesbury Square Reformed Presbyterian Church, Belfast, and Professor of Systematic Theology, Ethics and Apologetics at the Reformed Theological College, Belfast.


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