Rethinking the Secular, Redeeming Christendom
Rethinking the Secular, Redeeming Christendom

Rethinking the Secular, Redeeming Christendom

The very mission of the church takes it into the imperial palace, the executive mansion, the halls of the capitol.

This week's article continues a new feature at Comment: our occasional "Works in Progress" series will publish excerpts from books in development by Comment friends and authors. We will see ideas unfolding and get a first look at books that will shape future conversations. Today, "Works in Progress" features part two of a selection from editor James K.A. Smith's third volume in his Cultural Liturgies trilogy. Part one from last week can be found here.

...we live in the seasons of contested rule...

Is an unapologetically evangelical public theology a recipe for sectarian irrelevance and the walling up of ourselves inside the echo chamber of our Christian enclave?

No, says Oliver O'Donovan in Resurrection and Moral Order, and for two reasons. First, what we know through the specificity of the Gospel and biblical revelation is still knowledge of creation and human nature, and as such, it still provides insight into the common good. Second, the "secular" order might be more Christian than it realizes. A crucial task of evangelical political theology is the patient, historical, genealogical work that points out the debts our "secular" order owes to the specificity of Israel and Christ—a task O'Donovan carries out in Desire of the Nations. "Like the surface of a planet pocked with craters by the bombardment it receives from space, the governments of the passing age show the impact of Christ's dawning glory" (DN 212).

Above all, such a political theology refuses to let the political remain sequestered from the specificity of the Gospel's impact. 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. Such a "political theology shaped by the Christ-event," O'Donovan points out, must first

criticize existing notions of political good and necessity, not only classical republican notions but imperial and theocratic notions, too, in the light of what God has done for the human race and the human soul. Public norms must be adjusted to the new realities when ordinary members of society may hear the voice of God and speak it in public, even, according to the prophet, men and women slaves. Ideas of what government is must be corrected in the light of that imperious government which the Spirit wields through the conscience of each worshipper. (DN 122-123)

This Gospel mystery—that the King of the universe knows the number of hairs on your head—unleashes its own political revolution: no individual can be a mere cog in a collectivist machine if the Spirit of the Creator King rules the conscience of individuals. This Gospel reality generates what O'Donovan calls "political theology in its liberal mode, attacking and overcoming the pretentiousness of the autonomous political order" (DN 123). Even Liberalism bears the pockmarks of the Gospel's meteoric impact.

But political theology also has an ecclesiological mode, a "constructive side to its task, which is to show how the extension of the Gospel of the Kingdom into the Paschal Gospel elevates, rather than destroys, our experience of community. […] The independence, then, of the individual believer is not antisocial. It arises from the authority of another community, centered in the authority of the risen Christ" (DN 123). The church embodies a way of being political otherwise that should spill over, as revelation and witness, to reconfigure even the politics of the earthly city.

No individual can be a mere cog in a collectivist machine if the Spirit of the Creator King rules...

The Saeculum as Time, not Space

This is all rooted in a core conviction of the Gospel that Christ now reigns, that "[t]he kingly rule of Christ is God's own rule exercised over the whole world. It is visible in the life of the church […]but not only there" (DN 146). 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. "Within the framework of these two assertions," O'Donovan observes, "there opens up an account of secular authority which presumes neither that the Christ-event never occurred nor that the sovereignty of Christ is now transparent and uncontested" (DN 146). Earthly rulers remain in place, but their authority is a kind of lame-duck authority. Or rather, their authority is not ultimate because they are now answerable to the King of kings. "Secular authorities are no longer in the fullest sense mediators of the rule of God. They mediate his judgments only" (DN 151). 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).

Something of this dynamic is illustrated in a scene from Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Arriving in Minas Tirith, Gandalf approaches the one sitting upon the throne with a kind of subversive respect: "Hail Denethor, son of Ecthelion, Lord and Steward of Gondor." Denethor, Gandalf reminds him, is a steward of the throne, not its rightful king. The fact is not lost on Denethor, who perceives Gandalf's presence as a threat to his power and dominion. "Do you think the eyes of the white tower are blind?," Denethor asks. "I have seen more than you know. With your left hand you would use me as a shield against Mordor. And with the right you seek to supplant me. I know who rides with Theoden of Rohan. Oh yes, the word has reached my ears of this Aragorn son of Arathorn. And I tell you now, I will not bow to this Ranger from the North, last of a ragged house, long bereft of lordship." The steward of Gondor understands very clearly who Gandalf represents: he is an ambassador of the rightful king (Aragorn). And as such, Gandalf represents a king who threatens Denethor's demand for allegiance. Thus Gandalf will never be a docile subject of Denethor; rather, he is a subversive. And his departing words remind Denethor of just this fact: "Authority is not given you to deny the return of the king, Steward." The result, as O'Donovan puts it, is a humbling of earthly rules and "desacralization" of politics by the Gospel (151). The penultimacy of the secular is now reasserted in a different mode. As he summarizes, "The most truly Christian state understands itself most thoroughly as 'secular'" (DN 219).

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. Thus O'Donovan takes up an analysis of "the true character of the church as a political society" (DN 159). It is when we fail to appreciate this—when we "cease to understand the church as a society ruled by 'another king' (Acts 17:7)"—that the church "becomes accommodated to existing political societies as a system of religious practice that can flourish within them, a kind of service-agency […] which puts itself at the disposal of a multitude of rulers" (DN 162). Instead, the church should be the political center of gravity that shapes how we relate to the authorities of this passing age.

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, "the nations and rulers of the world [are] confronted with the rule of God" (DN 193). It is the very mission of the church that takes it into the imperial palace, into the executive mansion, into halls of the capitol. "The church addressed society," O'Donovan notes, "and it addressed rulers. Its success with the first was the basis of its great confidence in confronting the second. […] Christ conquered the rulers from below, by drawing their subjects out from under their authority" (DN 193).

Christendom not Constantinianism

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. More specifically, it was a vision of government and society that was captivated not by mere recognition of "natural" laws but by a distinctly Gospel-ed imagination—by submitting to Christ, by modeling the forgiveness and mercy and compassion of Jesus, and by reflecting political realities first practiced in the church. Thus O'Donovan brings us back again to Theodosius: "In censuring him the church took up the task of judging judges, and began the slow work of reforming the criteria of earthly justice" (DN 201)—a work to which we liberal democrats remain heirs!

This, of course, is not what we're used to hearing associated with "Constantinianism." But as 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" (DN 213). O'Donovan's name for this collusion and eschatological forgetting is blunt: this isn't "Christendom," this is "Antichrist" (DN 214). This is why any true Christendom has to always be ready for martyrdom even as it must also be "prepared to welcome the homage of the kings when it is offered to the Lord of the martyrs" (DN 215).

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. From the center of the church as a political society, Christendom bears witness to how society should be otherwise in a way that imagines the possibility of conversion—not only of souls but of our political imaginations. This is a vision of political witness and engagement that proclaims the political significance, not just of "nature" or "creation," but of the Gospel as that revelation that truly shows us how to be human and what the world is called to be in the resurrection of Jesus. Thus Christendom bears witness from the specificity of the Gospel.

Christendom as Love of Neighbour

This boldness and scandalous specificity is ultimately an act of love. Here we might connect O'Donovan's discussion of Christendom with an earlier question in Resurrection and Moral Order: What does it mean to love my neighbour? "In the first place, we are to love the neighbour because the neighbour is ordered to the love of God" (RMO 228).

True neighbourliness requires the recognition of the supreme good simply in order that we may see the neighbour for what he is. But that means that our pursuit of the neighbour's welfare has to take seriously the thought that he, like ourselves, is a being whose end is in God. To "love" him without respecting this fundamental truth about him would be an exercise in fantasy. Saint Augustine used to say that our first duty to the neighbour was to "seize him for God." This does not mean, as some critics would pretend to warn us, that every gesture or act of love towards the neighbour will have a religious goal or an "ulterior motive." It means simply that there is, in our love for the neighbour, a recognition of his high calling and destiny to fellowship with God and a desire to further that destiny in the context of concern for his welfare. (RMO, 229)

If we truly love our neighbours, we will bear witness to the fullness to which they are called. If we truly desire their welfare, we should proclaim the thickness of moral obligations that God commands as the gifts to channel us into flourishing, and labour in hope that these might become the laws of the land (though with appropriate levels of expectation). This would be political action that recognizes that humanity's natural end is supernatural: that the fullness of human being is elucidated in the Gospel not the minimalism of "nature."

This is why I suggest that the civil rights movement was a kind of 20th century Christendom project. Bearing witness from the specificity of the Gospel's injunction to love, informed by the specifically Christological exemplar of nonviolence, and fostered by the practices of the Christian church, the civil rights movement in its animating impetus was an endeavor that refused to imagine society was impervious to the rule of Christ. Rather, it imagined it could become "a beloved community." As Charles Marsh comments in his remarkable history of the civil rights movement, "the beloved community" they sought should "finally be described as a gift of the kingdom of God introduced into history by the church, and thus it exists within the provenance of Christ's mystery in the world." It was in the church nourished by the Word made flesh and with imaginations fueled by the Gospel that they learned to long for a better country (Heb. 11:16), but also imagined that this country could look more like it.

Topics: Religion Theology
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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