World View
World View

World View

An annotated reading of your world, including Seerveld, the U.S. Supreme Court, Trayvon Martin, and Detroit.
September 1 st 2013
Appears in Fall 2013

Poetic Justice

A number of us involved with Comment are indebted to the inimitable Calvin Seerveld, longtime Senior Member in Philosophical Aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto and author of the classic Rainbows for the Fallen World. Seerveld introduced many of us to the daunting intricacies of Herman Dooyeweerd's "modal" theory of creaturely reality—which is way cooler (and illuminating) than it sounds. The upshot is this: every single thing in creation exhibits a diversity and richness because it is embedded in the relational web that is creation itself. For example, you might say this calculator before me is defined by the "numeric" aspect, obviously. But it's also so much more: there's a chemical aspect to its composition, an aesthetic aspect to its design, and a moral aspect to how it is put to work in my business. The Christian doctrine of creation, then, is not only a theory of origins but also a celebration of this richness. Delight is often found in the interplay between these multiple modes of creaturely life. I've sometimes said that even when my wife and I argue, there is an oddly literary quality to our repartee that keeps things interesting.

This all came to mind when we were reminded of an exchange between U.S. Supreme Court Justices. When Justice David Souter retired to the tranquility of his New Hampshire retreat in 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, on behalf of the court: "We understand your desire to trade white marble for White Mountains, and to return to your land 'of easy wind and downy flake,'" citing Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Justice Souter responded with a similar poetic cadence by quoting from Frost's "Two Tramps in Mud Time" as "words that set out the ideal of the life engaged, 'where love and need are one.' That phrase," Souter mused, "accounts for the finest moments of my life on this Court."

Therein lies a beautiful vision of work as a place where need and love meet—or, as Frost also put it more fully,

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

But the exchange itself is an illustration of the delightful play that work can be when the other modes are fanned into flame, when law is carried out with a poetic imagination, when the work of economics is infused with play. In the kingdom that's coming we expect such poetic justice.

Lament as Public Theology

But more recently many of us have witnessed a judicial decision that was far from poetic. The "not guilty" verdict for George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin continues—and will continue— to reverberate in the United States, a country with a painful history of racialized violence, part of its past that isn't even past. In the wake of this decision we felt once again the inability of "social" media to grapple with the scope and complexity of such issues. Instead we trade ideological barbs that oversimplify matters, all the while eager to exhibit the posture that our tribe will value. From the comfort of our Twitter feeds, we celebrate or denounce, demonize or lionize, flying high the flags of binary camps ranged across the river from one another.

But seekers of shalom will—should—find themselves uncomfortable in neat and tidy "camps." This, of course, is a recipe for disappointing just about everyone. In this particular case, Christians should zoom out from the particular decision and consider the complex web of cultural habits and institutional biases that yielded this conclusion: a gun-ownership culture wed to an ideology of independence that yields notions of self-defense in the Stand Your Ground Law, all within a cultural context where investigating officers could all too easily believe a story about a "threatening" young black man and hence cut short a proper investigation. But we will also recognize the constraints of law, the parameters within which a jury has to deliberate, the penultimate goods of a judicial system with stringent criteria and standards of evidence.

In response to such complexity and tragedy, we should note an important difference, perhaps, between protest and lament. Protest sometimes seems overconfident in its knowledge of the situation, too often simplifying complexity to a story that fits our sensibilities. Protest can also devolve to a mode of display, a way to demonstrate our righteousness, that we are right and good and pure and on the side of justice. One could hope for all of those things, but it only takes a small dose of a Calvinist understanding of sin to mitigate our selfconfidence in this respect.

Instead, we lament. With the psalmists, we protest that this is not the way it's supposed to be; we plead for the God of justice to take up the cause of the oppressed, the violated, the poor; but we do so in the mode of prayer, remembering that the God to whom we pray—to whom we express our anger—is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that Jesus, who bears the scars of our injustice, has already preceded us in this intercession. So we lament without illusions of our own purity, and then we set to work with others to change those laws and habits and cultural biases, bending them toward that City in which people from every tribe and tongue and nation are singing the same song, in praise of the Lamb who was slain.

We're All From Detroit

In the wake of 9/11, many proclaimed, "We're all New Yorkers now." Can we imagine a similar refrain about Detroit? A city that was once the hub of a vibrant industrial economy is now under the administration of an "emergency manager" who, with the permission of Governor Rick Snyder, declared the largest case of municipal bankruptcy in history—with debt in the range of $18-20B. Unemployment remains at staggering levels. And with twenty square miles of vacant land and abandoned buildings within the city limits, parts of Detroit look like the set of Will Smith's dystopian film, I Am Legend. The city can't turn on the lights for everyone, and police response times are upward of 15 minutes for emergency calls.

Some Christians would see this litany as pessimistic, highlighting what's wrong instead of celebrating what's right. Instead, they want us to look past the headlines and accumulate anecdotes about those who are seeking the welfare of this city. Certainly it is right and good to celebrate those furtive, faithful efforts to embody the kingdom in a city that sounds, at times, like a region of Dante's Inferno. But community gardens and intentional communities and start-up non-profits aren't going to pay the pensions of retired city workers or cover the healthcare costs of bus drivers who will be some of the "creditors" sure to lose in this bankruptcy. Seeking the durable welfare of the city can't happen by freelance good works of creative enclaves. It also requires people willing to get dirty in the work of unions and city hall, city planning and education, making laws and changing policy in the institutions that impact the least of these. It's easy to celebrate sincere do-gooders; can we imagine celebrating an emergency manager who will be scapegoated on almost every side, but who might nonetheless be doing more, in the long run, to establish the welfare of the city? That's a conversation we need to have.

Speaking of Institutions

You may have heard a word or two about the institution of marriage over the past few months. Recent Supreme Court rulings in the United States are the effect, rather than the cause, of a fundamental redefinition of marriage that has been happening since at least 1969, when then-Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, enshrined no-fault divorce as law, beginning a ripple effect that would become the law of the land. And Charles Murray's important analysis, in Coming Apart, statistically documents the negative repercussions of this redefinition—out-of-wedlock births, teen (single) parents, and divorce—all hurting the poor most of all.

So you might say we got precisely the Supreme Court rulings we deserved. In their carefully argued book, What Is Marriage??, authors Sherif Girgis, Ryan

Anderson, and Robert George rightly note that the legal recognition of same-sex marriage is not an "expansion of the institution of marriage, but a redefinition . . . finishing what policies like no-fault divorce began." The redefinition—which Christians did little to contest forty years ago—reduced marriage from a creational institution to a romantic expression.

But if marriage is just a way for us to say, "I really feel like I love you," why on earth would the state have any investment in it? Why would there be any laws about marriage? The state came to recognize (not invent) marriage precisely because it is a foundational institution for society, not least because it is the institution that produces and cares for children. That's why marriage was between a man and a woman, and why it was to be permanent. Research produced by social scientists like Bradford Wilcox at the University of Virginia confirms the wisdom of this "traditional" view: children flourish in homes with a mom and a dad. But this doesn't tend to be research you hear highlighted on NPR or in the New York Times. In fact, when the Times reported on the groundbreaking Harvard-Berkeley study on economic mobility (equality-ofopportunity. org), they fixated on the factors like location, completely ignoring the even more significant factor of family structure in determining economic possibilities.

As with many aspects of secularization, Canada has been well ahead of its southern neighbour. But for just that reason, Christians in the U.S. might have a thing or two to learn from Christians in Canada who have been living with the legality of same-sex marriage for eight years. We would especially recommend the important work of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada ( Their July eReview, for example, describes the shift that has taken place from an "institutional" view of marriage to the "soul mate" model. They also consider the first reports of what the legalization of same-sex marriage has meant for Canadian society. No, the sky hasn't fallen; but it would be equally wrong to say "nothing has changed." Reading this Canadian report might be a good glimpse into the future of the United States.

Many Christians are trying to think carefully about these swirling issues around marriage and family. But it is especially important that those Christians who think of themselves as "progressive" find the time to think carefully about the web of implications involved. Let's not hastily confuse love with affirmation. Nor should we confuse the "traditional" model with fundamentalism. We need to exhibit an independence of mind—held captive to Christ—which is willing to entertain the possibility that concern for flourishing could lead to positions that feel "conservative." This might be a way of aligning our theory and practice, in fact, since studies show those who tend to be "liberal" in their views of marriage nonetheless act quite "conservatively." Does action speak louder than words?

September 2013 | Cardus, the think tank that publishes Comment magazine, is dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture, drawing on 2,000 years of Christian social thought. In addition to our publications like Comment and Convivium, Cardus also fosters original research in three strategic spheres of society: work and economics, social cities, and education (see

To date, our education research has centred on the Cardus Education Surveys: national surveys of the effects and outcomes of religious education in both the United States and Canada. One of the primary effects of this research, notes Ray Pennings, Executive Vice President of Cardus, is to push back on the default sense that the state has a monopoly on education. "The term 'education' in public parlance," he points out, "is understood as meaning 'governmentfunded, government-provided' education. What happens outside of the public school system is seen as 'private' and not in the interests of the common good." But the Cardus studies have challenged such assumptions. Pennings emphasizes: "The education that takes place in religious schools and homeschools is public education and is producing results that are in the public interest and for the public good."

To extend and deepen this work, this summer we announced the establishment of the Cardus Religious School Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, under the directorship of sociologist Dr. David Sikkink. The program will also partner with the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, directed by Christian Smith, also a sociologist at Notre Dame. In collaboration with a wide array of religious schools— both Protestant and Catholic—the initiative will deepen our understanding of the impact of religious schooling through evidence-based studies. This will include further analysis of existing data, generating new research (both qualitative and quantitative), and forging networks of scholars who focus on religious education.

But such research isn't just "parochial." "Our work," Pennings emphasizes, "includes studying innovations that are taking place outside of the public system that can provide insights and best practices for the reform of education as a whole. Part of this also includes thinking about the cost and funding models for education and the public policy context within which education is delivered." Nor is this work undertaken merely to shore up self-congratulation within the religious schooling community. Partner schools are interested in being held accountable to their claims and promises, and this research provides a way to assess their work. In short, as Pennings puts it, "This is a very tangible expression of Cardus's mission to renew North American social architecture within an educational setting."

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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