Saturday, 10 February 2018
Smith's Awaiting the King - a review
Reforming Public Theologies
James K. A. Smith
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic
Pbk, xvii+233, £14.99
This is the third and final part of Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project. As Smith notes in the introduction ’it’s a very different book than the one I envisioned when Desiring the Kingdom was published in 2009’ (xi). Rather than being a ‘Hauerwas for Kuyperians’ it is now more a riff on Oliver O’Donovan as Smith wants to ‘work out the implications of a “liturgical” theology of culture for how we imagine and envision political engagement’ and hopes to ‘“reform” Reformed public theology, offering something of an “assist” to the tradition in order to articulate what I hope, in the end, is a catholic proposal’.
I was pleased to see his avoidance of a natural law approach that seems to be having a resurgence even among Reformed scholars. There is a renewed emphasis on church as institute. He develops a liturgical view of politics. By liturgical he means more than church liturgies. He sees them as communal love-shaping practices. And by politics, he means more than government: he evokes Aristotle's view of polis as our civic life that we share in common. His desire is that the church in its broadest sense embraces the polis, the common civic good.
The book is in one sense a warning against an over-optimistic view that Christians can easily transform culture. Particularly pertinent is his warning of a secularised Kuyperianism. Unfortunately, he doesn’t name those whose approach he criticises and I don’t recognise any of his critique in those of the Reformational stand of Kuyperianism (perhaps that’s my blind spot?). In fact, much of the critique Smith offers is an echo of that provided by some Reformational philosophers and Reformational political theorists. These all advocate a robust confessional pluralism but reject theocracy, see the need for organisations to be unfolded to develop culture, and who see the good in politics. All themes Smith seems keen on.
Smith seems to be moving away from Kuyper to embracing a more Augustinian approach shaped by O’Donovan and Hauerwas. It is a shame he hasn’t engaged more with Dooyeweerd, whose starting point for philosophy is the heart rather than the mind. Smith might have found there other (more) useful resources.