Naturalizing "Shalom": Confessions of a Kuyperian Secularist
Naturalizing "Shalom": Confessions of a Kuyperian Secularist

Naturalizing "Shalom": Confessions of a Kuyperian Secularist

How I discovered I could long for justice in both this world and the next.

June 28 th 2013

The Idol of Justice?

About a dozen years ago I was on the campus of the University of San Francisco as a participant in "Western Conversations in Jesuit Higher Education"—an annual gathering of Jesuit universities west of the Mississippi devoted to exploring the issues of mission and identity. Though an evangelical Protestant, I was teaching at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles at the time and had been recruited to be part of the team taking up issues of liberal arts education in the Catholic tradition.

It turned out to be an opportune moment for us to be at the University of San Francisco since they were rolling out a new mission statement that same week. So here we were, professors from Jesuit universities, discussing the mission of Jesuit Catholic higher education, hosted by a Jesuit university rolling out a new articulation of their own mission. It was a case study unfolding right under our noses.

However, it didn't take long for some of us to notice something: the mission statement seemed to have a curious blind spot. Long on talk of justice, diversity, and service, the word "God" nowhere appears in the document. "Jesus" never makes an appearance in the mission of this Jesuit university. (This is the sort of thing that led my friend, a devout Roman Catholic, to quip: "I like teaching at a Jesuit university. But I would love to teach at a Catholic university!")

For the longest time, I thought of this as "their" problem—just one more indicator of the secularization of Catholic higher education in North America. But since then I've come to realize that this is our problem. In strange, often unintended ways, the pursuit of "justice," shalom, and a "holistic" gospel can have its own secularizing effect. What begins as a Gospel-motivated concern for justice can turn into a naturalized fixation on justice in which God never appears. And when that happens, "justice" becomes something else altogether—an idol, a way to effectively naturalize the gospel, flattening it to a social amelioration project in which the particularity of Jesus as the revelation of God becomes strangely absent.

Given the newfound appreciation for justice and shalom among evangelicals, we do well to see such trajectories as a cautionary tale, like a visitation from the ghost of Christmas future showing us where we could end up.

If this feels like I'm pointing my finger at others, there are three more pointed back at me. In fact, consider this (another) letter to my younger self. As a former fundamentalist, it was heirs of Abraham Kuyper who taught me the biblical vision of a holistic Gospel. But I've come to realize that if we don't attend to the whole Kuyper, so to speak—if we pick and choose just parts of the Kuyperian project—we can end up with an odd sort of monstrosity: what we might call, paradoxically, a "Kuyperian secularism" that naturalizes shalom.

A Cautionary Tale

Before I recount my own foray into Kuyperian secularism, let me provide some context. I've come to see my own story in a much bigger one, a back story told by Charles Taylor in his mammoth tome, A Secular Age. You might think of this as a tale about the Frankenstein-ish effects of the Protestant Reformation.

As Taylor so winsomely puts it, one of the world-changing consequences of the Reformation was "the sanctification of ordinary life." This was a refusal of the two-tiered Christianity in the late medieval ages that extolled priests and monks and treated butchers and bakers and candlestick makers as if there were merely second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Nein!, shouted the Reformers in reply. If all of life is lived coram Deo, before the face of God, then all vocations are holy. Everything can and should be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31) and as an expression of gratitude to God (Col. 3:17). In sum: there will not be a single square inch in all of creation over which Christ does not say, "Mine!"

This also transforms how we think about salvation, redemption, and restoration. On this picture, God is not just interested in "soul rescue," saving souls from and out of the world. He is redeeming this world. Jesus announces a kingdom that is characterized by justice: for the poor, for the oppressed, for the vulnerable, for all. The scope of God's salvation includes the material; Christ doesn't just redeem souls, he puts the world to rights. This is why Jesus heals bodies and feeds the crowds. And insofar as justice—shalom, flourishing—is God's concern, it should also be ours. Christians should be "this worldly" in the best sense of the term: participating in God's renewal and redemption of this world, and hence passionately devoted to the cause of justice.

However, Taylor points out an unintended, "Frankensteinish" turn that was the result: by unleashing a new interest and investment in "this-worldly" justice, the Reformation also unleashed the possibility that we might forget heaven. By rejecting the dualism of two-tiered Christianity, the Reformation opened the door to a naturalism that only cared about "this world."

Taylor describes this in terms of an "eclipse"—an eclipse of a "further purpose" or a good that transcends mere human flourishing. As he puts it elsewhere, "For Christians, God wills human flourishing, but 'thy will be done' doesn't reduce to 'let human beings flourish.'" In short, both agents and social institutions lived with a sense of a telos that was eternal—a final judgment, the beatific vision, and so on. And on Taylor's accounting, this "higher good" was in some tension with mundane concerns about flourishing, which entailed a sense of obligation "beyond" human flourishing. In other words, this life is not "all there is"—and recognizing that means one lives this life differently. It will engender certain ascetic constraints, for example: we can't just eat, drink, and be merry because, while tomorrow we may die, that's not the end. After that comes the judgment.

But Taylor sees an important shift in this respect, made possible by the Reformation but really taking hold in the work of Adam Smith and John Locke among others. Whereas, historically, the doctrine of providence assured a benign ultimate plan for the cosmos, with Locke and Smith we see a new emphasis: providence is primarily about ordering the world for mutual benefit, particularly economic benefit. Humans are seen as fundamentally engaged in an "exchange of services," so the entire cosmos is seen anthropocentrically as the arena for this economy. What happens in the "new Providence," then, is a "shrinking" of God's purposes, an "economizing" of God's own interests. So even our theism becomes humanized, immanentized, and the telos of God's providential concern is circumscribed within immanence. And this becomes true even of "orthodox" folk: "even people who held to orthodox beliefs were influenced by this humanizing trend; frequently the transcendent dimension of their faith became less central" (A Secular Age, 222). Because eternity is eclipsed, the this-worldly is amplified and threatens to swallow all.

Seeing Our Future in This Past

What Taylor is talking about amounts to ancient history for us. But I have to confess that it cuts pretty close to the bone for me. It's a history that I feel like I've re-lived in my own lifetime, and it's a story I see repeating itself among a younger generation.

My own rendition of this story is a "Kuyperian" variation. I was converted and nurtured in a largely dualistic stream of North American evangelicalism, complete with a robust dispensational view of the end times and a very narrow understanding of redemption. It was very much a rapture-ready, heaven-centric piety that had little, if anything, to say about how or why a Christian might care about urban planning or chemical engineering or securing clean water sources in developing nations. Why worry about justice or flourishing in a world that is going to burn up?

So when I heard the Kuyperian gospel, so to speak, I was both blown away and a little angry. I was introduced to a richer understanding of the biblical narrative that not only included sin and soul-rescue but also creation, culture-making, and a holistic sense of redemption that included concerns for justice. I realized that God is not only interested in immaterial souls; he is redeeming all things and renewing creation. Christ's work also accomplishes the redemption of this world. The good news is not the announcement about an escape pod for our souls; it is the inbreaking of shalom.

You might say I finally received an understanding of Christianity that gave me "this world" back. Again, in Kuyperian terms, here was an account of the biblical story that not only emphasized the church as institute ("churchy" church) but also the church as organism (Christians engaged in cultural creation, caretaking, and justice). Because I felt like this more robust, comprehensive understanding of the Gospel had been kept a secret, I harboured a kind of bitterness and resentment toward my fundamentalist formation. Having been given back the world, I was almost angry that my teachers had only and constantly emphasized heaven.

As a result, my Kuyperian conversion to "this-worldly" justice and culture-making began to slide into its own kind of immanence. In other words, as Taylor notes in the shifts of modernity, even believers, in the name of affirming "this world," can unwittingly end up capitulating to a social imaginary that really values only this world. We become encased and enclosed in our own affirmations of the "goodness of creation," which, instead of being the theater of God's glory, ends up being the echo chamber of our own interests. In sum, I became the strangest sort of monster: a Kuyperian secularist. My Reformed affirmation of creation slid toward a functional naturalism. My devotion to shalom became indistinguishable from the political platforms of the "progressive" party. And my valorization of the church as organism turned into a denigration of the church as institute.

Of course, this isn't really "Kuyperian." It's more like a slice of Kuyper, a side of Father Abraham. It was a very selective appropriation, as if concern for shalom could be separated from the resurrection of Jesus that subjects the principalities and powers; as if culture-making could be unhooked from sanctification and liturgical formation; as if the biblical vision of justice could be detached from justification by faith. As Rich Mouw has shown in his marvelous little book, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction, all of these hang together in Kuyper. We are the ones who detach and distort this into a functional "secularism."

But even if you know nothing of Abraham Kuyper, many would do well to consider how we pursue justice. When we "naturalize" shalom, it is no longer shalom. For the New Jerusalem is not a product of our bottom-up efforts, as if it were constructed by us. The New Jerusalem descends from heaven (Rev. 21:2, 10). And the light of the holy city is not a "natural" accomplishment, but is the light radiating from the glory of the risen, conquering Lamb (Revelation 21:22-25).

The holistic affirmation of the goodness of creation and the importance of "this worldly" justice is not a substitute for heaven, as if the holistic gospel was a sanctified way to learn to be a naturalist. To the contrary, it is the very transcendence of God—in the ascension of the Son who now reigns from heaven, and in the futurity of the coming kingdom for which we pray—that disciplines and disrupts and haunts our tendency to settle for "this world." It is the call of the Son from heaven, and the vision of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, that pushes back on our illusions that we could figure this all out, that we could bring this about. Shalom is not biblical language for progressivist social amelioration. Shalom is a Christ-haunted call to long for kingdom come.

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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