James K.A. Smith - "Awaiting the King"
7:26AM Jul 7, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
it is our delight to be speaking with Professor James K. A. Smith. Dr. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the author of a number of books, including the text that we're going to be discussing today, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, available from Baker in 2017. Dr. Smith, we're extremely glad to be speaking with you today.
Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks,
Dr. Smith. This this book waiting the king is the third and final text in your acclaimed cultural liturgies series. Would you be willing to explain to us what you mean by the phrase cultural liturgy?
Yeah, it's a great opening question. So I kind of coined the phrase a little bit.
Really make sense of a kind of cultural analysis. If I can give a bit of backstory I would say part of it. What interested me in this project in what I call a philosophical theology of culture, is trying to diagnose and make sense and understand evangelical assimilation to the dominant culture. I would say that that was one a sort of a prime motivator. It's not the only but it's a big part of the project. And so part of what I wanted to understand is how is it that Christians became so similar to the world it would be a very, very bold way of putting it and I started to realize it's not because, you know, necessarily because we'd been hoodwinked by bad ideas or convinced by you know, false arguments. It was more that we had been sort of CO opted by rhythms and routines and practices of a cultural mill you that kind of got hold of us on a register that we weren't aware of. And so, I coined this notion of cultural liturgies to Well to signal that there's a religious nature to this right? So it's small L. It's it's liturgies not just churchy sort of religious kinds of repertoires, but that, in fact, all kinds of rhythms and routines and rituals of our cultural involvement have a religious significance about them not because they're making us Christ like but because they are deforming us at the level of our loves. Our longings are our most fundamental desire. So cultural liturgies as a way of sort of naming these kinds of cultural practices that aren't just something that we do, but do something to us. It
sounds to me like you're attempting to give the church a wake up call, how you How did you yourself experience and awakening to understand that there was this shift taking place?
So I think there's probably a longer backstory to that I will say a couple things. I teach at a Christian liberal arts college, where we are very very intentional about what we're trying to do in terms of education. We often frame that in terms of equipping students with a Christian worldview would be our language of talking about that. And I think that's good. I think that's right. And I'm sold out to that project. But I guess I started to realize that our alumni weren't necessarily immune. They, they passed all the worldview tests, but that didn't necessarily make them immune to this cultural co option and assimilation. And so part of it was trying to make sense of that experience. I would also say, to be very honest, for me, it was there was a certain post 911 effect. If I really tracked it back, I would say, I remember some very stark examples, I thought of the way that Christian faith was just co opted by nationalist identities in 2002 2003. And I was living in Los Angeles at the time and and i think trying to make sense of how that happened also turned out to be fairly prescient and timely, you know, 15 years later as well.
Dr. Smith, you've written a number of books in this general area one of the texts that I also really admire is titled you are what you love, the spiritual Power of Habit published in 2016. Also from Baker and in this other text you are what you love you expound on the Augustinian principle of rightly ordered loves that is that we love everything properly only when we love all things for God's sake. And this is a significant theme also in a waiting the king how has a Gustin shaped your theology
everywhere and in everything in some ways. By the way, I just finished a new book on called on the road with St. Augustine, which will be my sort of, that'll be out next year. And my chance to sort of invite people. I'm a huge fan boy of St. Augustine. So it's my my invitation to join him on the road. But so maybe one way to get at this is I think a Gustin is that church father who most recognizes that we aren't just thinking things that that we are. We are as defined by what we love is what we know. But he's also very, very attuned to the ways that our loves are aimed, Miss aimed, crooked and distorted and perverted. And so in some ways I often invoke you know that that great line in the very opening of Augustine's confessions you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. To me, that means a Gustin sees that this sort of center and seat of the human person is the heart, which is the seat of our loves and our longings. And in the confessions, what you see him saying is, the problem isn't that we love the problem is isn't desire. It's a question of what we love, who we love, and how. So as you said, Gus has this wonderful notion of what he calls the order of Morris the right order of love, which is, on the one hand, loving God. And then using creation, he would say, in order to love God, but it also means sort of rightly ranking your love so that so the wonderful thing about a Gustin is, if you rightly love God, you don't have to hate the world. You don't have to hate creation. When you rightly love God in a way you get all of creation back as a gift. The problem is when you sort of glob on to creation, you try to seize it, you try to love it as an end in itself, an idol as a substitute. That's when ironically what happens is, is creation kind of falls through your fingers because it can't stand up to that infinite longing. So so that's the confessions. I'll just say I'm talking a little too long on this, but in the City of God, what you see is a Gustin analysis of the Roman Empire. A Gustin analysis of the body politic is really a ritual analysis of the way the rhythms, rituals, routines, liturgies of a society are a big part of what shapes and Miss shapes are loves. And so I think you get this great pairing between the confessions and City of God. On the one hand, it's a personal diagnosis, what do I love? Who do I love? How do I love? But then in the City of God, it becomes a communal and social diagnosis, who do we love? And who and what is society training us to love? And I think that's a very powerful and timely analysis.
Thank you very much for those comments. Dr. Smith in your text in chapter one of awaiting the king reforming public theology. You write this on page 14 once we move away from a rationalist Intellectual paradigm that equates religion with beliefs and worldviews and instead identify the religious with rituals of intimacy, ie liturgies. Then cultural institutions and practices that we might have previously thought neutral or benign, are recognized as having a kind of religious force about them precisely because they aim to shape our loves. Unquote. Your theology removes the neat distinctions of religious on the one hand and political on the other hand, doesn't this message necessarily become a revolutionary? And by that, I mean, politically revolutionary message. What's your view?
Yeah, we should talk a little bit about what you mean by revolutionary there. I don't want to I'm not looking to burn anything down. But it's revolutionary conceptually, I hope.
It has two effects. I think on the one hand,
it reframes our attention to the political and to realize that there is an Kind of religious dynamic to a polis to a society, not necessarily because it's making grand claims about deities or divinities, but because it has these rhythms and rituals that are loaded with some ultimate vision of the good and by participating in the rhythms and rituals, the liturgies of a society of a nation of a people, we are being inculcated into a particular story and so we need to the political is not neutral. The political is not merely penultimate, it actually. It wants our allegiance they want hard loves, it wants our sort of our commitment in that sense. You know, it's it's, I've always thought that remember when Paul sort of lands at the area because on Mars Hill, and he walks down that that space where there are all these altars and he says, I see that you are very religious people and I've just always thought of You could sort of parachute St. Paul into the National Mall in DC, he would have exactly the same response that this is, this is a very sacred site. This is, you know, it goes from the the cathedral like dome of, of the Capitol. And then all the way at the other end, it looks at what literally we call a temple that houses Abraham Lincoln. So I'm just wanting us to kind of put out a new set of glasses and see what's religiously at stake in our political participation. But the flip side is also, I want us to see that when the people of God gather and worship, the rhythms and rituals of the people of God, the liturgies of the body of Christ, those are also not politically neutral. They are the instantiation of a picture of the City of God worship, I say, is the civics of the City of God. That doesn't mean it's partisan, it doesn't mean that it's primed to be co opted by one particular party, but what it means is it's not politically neutral so you can have just some simple Sacred secular divide going on. We can't compartmentalize our lives, so to speak.
Dr. Smith, I fear you're entirely correct. And I think that that sense that I have speaks to the compelling this the compelling way in which you write, and yet I can't fully get my mind around it. If you tell me that that sacred and secular divide is really a false dichotomy, then how do I as an American citizen or a citizen of any other secular country, reprocess that neat division that really is at the foundation of of national identity?
Yeah. And it's, and it's a great, this is the $64 million question in some ways. And I would say, I understand why the first thing that people will be nervous about, and it would be a misunderstanding is that I'm trying to, for example, erase the distinction between church and state. I would say that's a different kind of distinction. That is a distinction between two different kinds of institutions that have have two different kinds of responsibilities within the fullness of God's creation. So so let's let's first clarify it's not erasing that distinction. Secondly, and I hope this doesn't add to the confusion since we're trying to clarify but one of the things I want to point out and I tried to make this point in the book is San Agustin in the City of God says the secularism is not a place or a space. It's an era. It's a time. And I think this makes a big difference. What is the secular, the secular? Is this era, or season or epic between the cross and kingdom come? It's it's an inherently tensed time in which we are always trying to follow Jesus. Still waiting for the Christ, the king to fully Arrive right for that reality to be fully arrived. And yet, even now Christ has ascended and is king. So we live after the the the world historical impact of Christ, the king, having entered history, been raised from the dead and ascending to the cross. So the reason why I think that makes a difference is it means that Christians are always participating in whatever public space public life shared social projects with this kind of tentativeness, because we know the kingdom hasn't come yet, and it's not up to us to make it arrive. But we also know that the king has come and has given us revelation and clues about what human flourishing looks like what good societies look like. So I think, on the one hand, I'm trying to argue against this compartmentalization of sacred and secular. On the other hand, I'm also saying this should motivate Christians to be sent to answer the call. To participate in the messiness of our public life in our shared institutions, trying as we are able, maybe to bend our social institutions a little bit more towards kingdom come, but also with a great tempering of our expectations because we know the eschaton has not arrived and it's not up to us to build it. Does, I don't know. Does that help?
That does that does? Thank you for that comment. Professor Smith, one of the most famous passages in an earlier of your books desiring the kingdom published in 2009 is the passage in which you like and enjoy the experience of entering into a shopping mall, to the experience of entering into an ancient temple, and the architecture of shopping malls and the rituals celebrated there are more than simply reminiscent of the temples of antiquity. In this passage, you craft a brilliant metaphor, but it seems to me that you mean more than Just a metaphorical relationship between modern materialism and ancient idol worship. Your theology demands that Christian practice be deeply and clearly countercultural. Is that correct?
Yeah, I mean,
I guess what it demands, I don't want to make it just simply countercultural as if that's the measure it is, Christian practice needs to be indexed to what God desires for us and for his world. And insofar as that runs counter to the idolatrous forms in which we've set up our societies, then it will be countercultural. Do you see that there's, there's just a important qualification there because there is the possibility I see I don't ever want to hold out the possibility and I think this has happened at times, and still does in certain ways in which a culture can actually be captivated by gospel effects and culture can have an adopted rhythms that are themselves more aligned. So it's not just being anti, it's, it's being rightly ordered and in cases like consumerism, I would say that what that means is Yes, absolutely. Christian formation has to look like an alternative formation a counter formation to the cultural liturgies in which we find ourselves.
Yes, thank you. Thank you very much for that clarification. What does this mean for discipleship? Would you be willing to speak about maybe practical ways that pastors or lay leaders in their congregations could apply some of this thinking to the practices of discipleship?
Yes, we could say this. So okay, a few things. First of all,
I do think pastors need to become ethnography of a sort. And what I mean by that ethnography is a term we talked about the social sciences where you learn to read not just what a culture says about itself, its stated claims about it so you learn to read Its rhythms, its routines, its practices and say, Okay, what do they say in what they do? And in that sense, I think pastors need to become ethnography of the cultures in which their parishioners find themselves to help their congregations See, the water that they're swimming in and to see how sort of liturgically loaded that water is to, to help them to see that the things that they take for granted the things that seem benign, like say the mall, are actually much more fraught and loaded for them. So the pastor ethnography, one part of discipleship is that critical moment, that prophetic moment of helping them see the deformation in their lives. Then second, I would say two things. For me. Worship is the heart of discipleship. Now when I say worship, one of the things I have to qualify when I talk to evangelicals is I'm not just talk about music and singing, which sadly, is the what we have tended to reduce worship to we reduced it to the song set before the sermon. When I say worship, I'm talking about an entire repertoire of practices that the people of God enter into when they answer the call to worship. So in that sense, I think my project has this twofold implication for how we think about worship and approach worship. The first is I think we need to be much more critical of the ways that we've wheeled in secular liturgies into the heart of our worship in the name of relevance. So in other words, I think way too many Christian churches. When they gather together as the people of God, they aren't actually necessarily rehearsing the biblical story. They are rehearsing a Jesus FIDE version of a commodified story or they are rehearsing a consumer story or they are rehearsing an egoistic story. Because they've, they've naively thought that they could distill the content from the forms And therefore they've wielded I'm using this Trojan horse metaphor, they've kind of wheeled in these cultural practices that they thought were neutral and thought we're going to disseminate Jesus by these means. But they didn't realize that those practices themselves are fraught and loaded and de formative. So I think we need to take some stock taking internally and prophetically. And then secondly, a big part of my project and you You are what you love is kind of the most succinct articulation of this argument. I'm suggesting that the really the practices and spiritual disciplines of historic Christian worship are just some of the best resources we have for counter formation. So that you know, we don't have to reinvent the wheel in some ways we can discover the buried treasures that we forgot in modernity. And in this sense, I'm really just swimming in the wake of a spiritual giant for me named Robert Weber. Bob Webb taught for Wheaton that years for years, always advocated what he called an ancient future faith. That is, here's what missional faith looks like going forward, it looks like a creative reappropriation of the wisdom of the tradition. And I that's, I think I'm placing my bets on that, so to speak, not that you should gamble. But that's the wager. Thank you so much.
Professor Smith, what are practical ways that you would advise that Christians whether Christians and leadership, pastors, etc, or lay folks separate out these spheres of secular secular space in as much as it's proper to keep to that space and sacred space, for example, in the question of political processes and voting, how ought the church body to interact with those with those processes.
So on the one hand, I actually think it's really important that we have a much more holistic set So the gospel and the Christian faith and to realize that Christ takes preeminence in everything, and that in a way Christ is redeeming all things. This is a sort of Colossians one vision, right? And so insofar as Christ is redeeming and reconciling and renewing all things, what that means is, is that the Christian life is in many ways, a renewal of the creaturely life that we see in Genesis one and two. So the way I would I would frame the continuity is to say, what's going on in a redeemed life is the renewal of a creaturely life, which includes the good work of being, you know, parents, and citizens and artists and engineers, and all all of those spheres of cultural labor that God commissioned us for in Genesis one and two, those are all things that Christians ought to be doing. On the other hand, we then need to wake up to the sort of messy pluralistic realities of the spaces In which we find ourselves and this is where I think Dustin's notion of this temporal notion of the speculum is helpful. Because when a Gustin says is, look, when you live in the speculum, you expect disagreement, you expect frustration, you expect the territory of God's creation to be contested. And so you expect Christians in some ways to have a different vision of what flourishing looks like, then your neighbors. But we are called actually to bear witness to that vision for human flourishing for the sake of our neighbors for the sake of the vulnerable for the sake of those who are around us. So I still think that there's a lot of wisdom for example, in saying the church is not a place to hand out voting instructions.
The trick is to do that is to honor that without
falling into the trap of thinking that the gospel is a political or neutral, right? It's not. So I think probably what it means is pastors and elders regularly disappointing different factions within your congregation, because they're bearing witness to what God wants for the world. Do you know I mean, like, I don't know how practical we could get. I'm a philosopher. So I don't do super practical give you an example. One of the reasons why I think one of the great disciplines of the body of Christ is something called the lectionary, which is a way for congregations to be taken through the entirety of Scripture every three years, three years, through a common set of readings that the worldwide Body of Christ sort of encounters together. And one of the reasons I think that's significant and is a good discipline is because it means we run into themes and claims that God makes on us apart from our choosing and our pet projects. So what that will mean to be very concrete, what it will mean is some people in our congregation are going to become uncomfortable because they're going to realize how often God talks about immigrants, strangers, aliens among us. On the other hand, other people in our congregations might be sort of discomforted by the fact that God also regularly talks about knowing us in our womb, and and the uniqueness of the human creature before birth, right and the dignity it speaks to of the unborn. So, in a sense, I think the church should be unapologetic in recognizing the political implications of the gospel without that simply translating into some sort of partisan agenda, especially because in the United States, there's just no way that you can suggest that the gospel simply lines up with one party's agenda. I just can't see any manifestation of that reality. So there's, there's probably a dance of of discipline. Pointing everyone. But while also calling everyone to something bigger,
it's are delighted to be speaking with Professor Smith, author of awaiting the king reforming public theology the third in his trilogy on cultural liturgy. Professor Smith, how can the church know when it's being unduly affected by the broader culture? What are the signs to tell us that something's amiss? Yeah,
great question. So I will say that the one way I've been thinking this, I don't think that this is an ultimate question, but I'll say right now. I would say one of the most important things that we can be doing, let's assume the church in North America is to be in conversation with Christians from outside of North America and the global church. I think one of the greatest checks and balances on our self understanding and self perception is the gift of others. I mean, this works personally too, right? How can I become a Were of the cultural liturgies that are co opting my heart and imagination. Well, the thing is the cultural liturgies that are probably most de formative for me, are the ones that are also closest to me. And and like like my hand on my chest right here. I can't see this, this falls outside of my purview and envision but you can see it. So I need the gift of you pointing out to me and say, you know, there's something you're not seeing here. Like, I think in terms of our, our collective co option, and assimilation, I do think that this is where global Christians will love us precisely by coming and saying to us, you know, it's crazy that you accept this or you consider this normal or you have don't have a problem with that. That's where I think the mutual you know, the prophets are subject to the prophets kind of dynamic and I I think that's one way to think about it. The other way you would hope is, you keep assessing it in light of the biblical narrative that we're supposed to be rehearsing in worship. The problem is, obviously, I just think we have to name this and be honest, we can all bend the biblical narrative, or the Select parts and chapters that fit our comfort zone. So this is why I think we need something more than that. And to just pray for the spirit to be ruthless with us, even though it'll be hard.
Professor Smith, if I can close with one final question, and that is a question that we've been asking all of the interviewees on this program. What would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we recognize this unity and what is it that we can do as individual Christians to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed and john 17?
Yes, john 17 is a passage that so haunts me because you see that Jesus says our witness is pegged to our unity, right? It's such it should be such a scandalizing concerned first, I the one thing I would say is I tend to want to talk about unity in the language of catholicity. Now, let me explain if, if small c helps us to think about that. But what I mean is to me to talk about unity in terms of catholicity is to look for a kind of expression and reality of oneness in which we all find ourselves as friends of God and friends of God's friends, because we actually share a history of the Spirit across time. So I guess one of the things that I'm I'm part of my project is really invested in trying to remind evangelicals that they're Catholic. And what I mean by that is that that we are all unlike other streams of Christians. We are the heirs of an indebted to the working of the Spirit across the history of the church. Which bequeath to us gifts of spiritual disciplines, doctrinal insight creedal, illumination and liturgical practices. And and I think the more that we could sort of look to that common inheritance, then what happens is old borders and boundaries and fights look less significant, especially in a post Christian and secularized context. And we realize, okay, what matters is actually these things that we share in common, but they are concrete because we enact them together. And I think I don't I don't have big hopes about institutional unity. But I do place a lot of hope in a kind of enacted capitalist city as as a way for us to witness to a post Christian world.
It's been our distinct pleasure today to be speaking with Dr. James K. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of the text that we've been discussing today waiting the king reforming public theology. Thank you so much, Professor Smith for joining us today.
My pleasure, great conversation. Thank you