James K.A. Smith’s cultural liturgies project has concluded with his volume on political theology, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. In the three volumes, Smith makes an argument about the formative nature of Christian liturgical prayer. From the beginning of the project, Smith founds his liturgical theology of culture in an Augustinian anthropology: we are what we love. While secular culture has done an adept job at forming us in rites that shape our desires and imaginations (including shopping malls), Reformed Christianity has focused primarily on developing a worldview through an intellectual formation carried out in the Christian college or university.
Smith argues that Christian education must turn away from an exclusive focus on the formation of the intellect to an approach grounded in liturgical practice. If we are what we love, then we need to cultivate those practices that shape the human imagination to love God and neighbor well. The first volume of the cultural liturgies project (Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation) established the anthropological basis of the argument, focusing on the manner in which human desire is formed through Christian liturgy. The second volume (Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works) was a study of the way that liturgy works as a practice that inculcates human beings in narratives that shape and reshape the imagination.
The third volume takes up the topic of political, or, public theology, discerning how the Church should relate to the world in a liturgical or sacramental key. Smith chooses a via media between an approach to political theology grounded in natural law and a sectarian ecclesiology that sees in political liberalism a form of anti-Christianity. Yes, Smith argues, political liberalism does form us in habits that are hostile toward the reign of God. At the same time, this political system has emerged in conversation with Christianity from the beginning. A political liturgical theology requires a capacity to discern the signs of the times, aware that the boundaries between the city of God and the city of man are not always immediately evident.
Smith’s Augustinian account of politics is a gift to political theology. Too often, Augustine’s De civitate Dei is read as an argument for a sectarian ecclesiology that seeks to cultivate the city of God and not the city of man. Augustine is more subtle than his often ideologically determined interpreters. Smith writes:
For Augustine the earthly city begins with the fall, not with creation. The earthly city is not coincident with creation; it originates with sin. This is why Augustine sets the city of God in opposition to the earthly city: they are defined and animated by fundamentally different loves. So the earthly city should not be confused with the merely “temporal” city or the material world. It is not identical with the territory of creation; rather, for Augustine the earthly city is a systemic—and disordered—configuration of creaturely life. However, this does not mean that Augustine cedes material, cultural, creaturely life entirely to the evil one. The city of God is not just otherworldly; it is that “society” of people—that civitas—who are called to embody a foretaste of the social and cultural life that God desires for this world (47).
Smith’s political theology is liturgical because it is grounded in Augustine’s account of the city of God, the transformation of the polis into a space of divine worship. Later chapters deal with the call of Christians to discern political wisdom grounded in the manifestation of divine love revealed in the story of Israel and Christ. Christians have a responsibility to engage in the public sphere as Christians, seeking to create spaces in which a Christian vision of reality can transform the political life of humanity. Even Christendom is viewed positively insofar as it “is a missional endeavor that refuses to let political society remain protected from the lordship of Christ while also recognizing the eschatological distance between the now and the not-yet” (162). Christendom is not about the seizing of power but the evangelization of culture, the transformation of human existence into a space for divine worship according to the logic of the cross.
Chapter Six is perhaps the most important chapter of Awaiting the King. Smith’s claim that liturgical prayer provides an alternative formation to the “cultural liturgies” of the saeculum has been rightfully critiqued by those who recognize that the Church’s liturgical life has often buttressed practices of racism, of consumerism, and of violence. Here, one need only read William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ for a counter-narrative to the formative nature of the liturgy. Smith answers his critiques adeptly, arguing that the practices of the Church can fail to be informed by the narrative of salvation made available through Christ. Instead, they can be suffused with the power politics of the state, with the very cultural liturgies that they seek to respond to. Thus, the liturgical practice of the Church must be critically examined by each generation: “We are liturgically deformed; and by the grace of the Spirit, we are liturgically reformed, albeit inadequately, in fits and starts, in need of the Spirit’s counter-formation throughout our lives” (207). Liturgical practice is formative and reformative not in a single moment but in the course of a lifetime of practicing the art of self-giving love.
Smith’s Awaiting the King is a significant contribution to an Augustinian liturgical-political theology, one that avoids the twin dangers of sectarianism and cultural capitulation. But the work, composed for an audience of Reformed Christians, at times does not go far enough relative to examining the adequacy of Reformed Christianity’s own liturgical practices. Augustine’s political liturgical theology in De civitate dei is not about “general liturgy.” Instead, at the heart of the city of God is the Eucharistic worship of the Church, the sacrifice of Christ that transforms men and women into creatures made for praise:
This is the sacrifice of Christians: “We, being many, are one body in Christ.” And this also, as the faithful know, is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, by which she demonstrates that she herself is offered in the offering that she makes to God (Augustine, De civitate dei X.6).
The Eucharistic nature of the Church is the source of its possibility for political engagement. Augustine emphasizes a politics of love because the Church becomes the society of love through receiving the sacrificial love of the Word made flesh in the Eucharist. To receive this love means that one seeks to become one with other members of this Body, a unity that makes possible love unto the end in society. An Augustinian political theology may be liturgical; but it is also an ecclesiology, recognizing that the unity of the Church grounded in the Eucharistic sacrifice made present in the Church is part of the political wisdom that the Church offers to the world.
In this sense, one reading Smith might begin to wonder what liturgical practices, specifically around the Eucharist, provide the best possibility for the kind of political engagement he suggests. It is liturgies that are not self-constructed but ones grounded in tradition, that adequately provide an experience of transcendence rather than adoration of the community’s values. Yet like much of Smith’s liturgical theology, he is short on specific liturgies. Yes, he quotes liturgical texts but does not deal with the aesthetic and ritual dimensions of these practices. And thus, he cannot offer the liturgical critiques that are perhaps needed not just among Reformed Christians but also Roman Catholics and the Orthodox alike.
Notwithstanding these objections, Smith has made a major contribution with this concluding volume. Awaiting the King should be profitably read by all those interested in the relationship between Church and world, all those seeking to develop a cultural of encounter where divine love influences every dimension of the polis.
All those interested in the formative nature of liturgical prayer will find few places better to begin their project than through reading Smith’s trilogy. I suspect Catholics will find an important interlocutor in Smith’s work for generations to come.
Editorial Note: Throughout the month of November, Church Life Journal will explore the Catholic imagination as an imagination of sanctification. By sanctified imagination, we mean the imagination which highlights the core narrative of the Paschal mystery, as radiantly incarnate in the saints. We seek to reflect on the manifold ways Christ becomes all-in-all through the men and women of his mystical body, the Church. As our authors explore the various dimensions of the sanctified imagination (please click the link for a list of the posts), we invite you to think along with us.
Featured Image: Rembrandt, Abraham’s Sacrifice, 1645; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.