Friday 3 April 2015

James K.A. Smith on Rethinking the Secular

Having posted about Jamie Smith’s short piece on public theology last week – which effectively provides a taster of his work in progress for the third volume of his ‘Cultural Liturgies’ project – I thought I’d link to part 2, ‘Rethinking the Secular, Redeeming Christendom’. As with last time, he’s reworking Oliver O’Donovan here.

Here’s an early paragraph:

‘Our political institutions, habits, and practices are contingent cultural configurations that are included in the “all” that Christ redeems (Col. 1:16-17). The political is not insulated from the impact of the Christ-event and the specific witness of the church in history – including the political habits learned in the polis that is the church.’

Smith helpfully summarises what is known as the saeculum, the significance of which I think is often overlooked in discussions of pubic theology and cultural engagement more generally (for instance, in ongoing debates between two-kingdoms protagonists and so-called advocates of cultural transformation).

‘Everything is now in subjection to Christ (Heb. 2:5-8); he has already disarmed the principalities and powers (Col. 2:15). But we live in the “not-yet” where this victory is not universally recognized. It is this time – between cross and kingdom come, between ascension and second coming, between the universal scope of his lordship and its universal recognition – it is this time or season that is “the secular,” the saeculum, the age in which we find ourselves... It’s not that “secular” authorities have full authority over a limited jurisdiction; they have also only been delegated their authority for a time (the saeculum).

‘So we don't shuttle between the jurisdictions of two kingdoms; we live in the seasons of contested rule, where the principalities and powers continue to grasp after an authority that has been taken from them. The church is now the site for seeing what Christ’s kingly rule looks like – and it will be from the church that the authorities (the “stewards”) of this world might come to recognize their own penultimacy.

‘On the one hand that means relativizing the “secular” authorities. But on the other hand it also means the church’s mission can make a dent there, too. In the church’s proclamation and her embodiment of a polis in which Christ reigns... It is the very mission of the church that takes it into the imperial palace, into the executive mansion, into halls of the capitol.’

So, controversially, as Smith says...

‘This, O’Donovan points out, was the Christendom project: a fundamentally missional endeavor in which the regnant authorities recognized the lordship of Christ, recognized they were simply stewards for a coming King.

‘[A]s O’Donovan points out, most of the examples of Christendom held up for critique are, in fact, examples of something else – a church that has lost its missional, evangelical center and has forgotten how to pray “Thy kingdom come.” Once the church forgot this was still the saeculum – once it fell into the trap of thinking the kingdom had arrived in their configuration of society – the result was a “negative collusion”: “the pretence that there was now no further challenge to be issued to the rules in the name of the ruling Christ” (citing O’Donovan).

‘Christendom, then, is a missional endeavor that refuses to let political society remain protected from the lordship of Christ while it also recognizes the eschatological distance between the now and the not-yet.’

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