Desiring a Better Country: Forays in Political Theology
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015
216 pp., 29.95
James K. A. Smith
Persuasion and Public Theology
Political theology may seem either impolite or imprudent—an uncomfortable wedding of politics and religion, or the amateurish forays of theologians posing as pundits. And yet, as Douglas Farrow remarks, "I do not see how any theologian can neglect political theology altogether." He testifies to his own experience of being propelled from systematic to political theology: "In my own case, work on the ascension made it unavoidable, for that doctrine is incomprehensible without its political dimension." Indeed, Farrow's landmark work, Ascension Theology, astutely reminded us of the cosmic kingship of the ascended King, pressing systematic theology to realize the political implications of orthodoxy.
Political theology is not, then, some misguided supplementary pursuit merely for young leftish idealists or soothsayers on the right who want to comfort princes. A political theology is entailed by the gospel. Farrow succinctly captures this on the first page of Desiring a Better Country:
Christianity is a very political religion. It aims at a polis, and not just any polis, but one whose builder and maker is God. In a certain sense, then, it is a politically subversive religion, for it has turned its back on the city that is built by men and populated with gods, in favour of that city that is built by God and populated with men. And it encourages others to do likewise. Yet its subversion is not of the kind that the rulers of men, or their court philosophers, commonly suppose. While it has not hesitated to offer stinging critiques of man-made cities, cultures, and empires, pointing out their more demonic dimensions, it has also taken a deep interest in those same cities and cultures.
Like Oliver O'Donovan, Farrow argues that the history of our Western democracies bears this out: as much as we try to tell ourselves that we live in "the common era" rather than "the Year of our Lord," the numbers tell the story of a dent made in history by the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of a King. Indeed, Farrow's title is emblazoned on Canada's coat of arms. His comment on this artifact exhibits the fine line he (rightly) walks: "In Canada we have taken as a motto desiderantes meliorem patriam. This sounds the note of transfiguration, drawn from Hebrews 11, a text that refers to those who put their hope in the heavenly city of which God himself is the builder. And, of course, the main motto on our coat of arms, a mari usque ad mare, is taken from Psalm 72, where it contains a messianic reference to the one whose dominion shall be over the whole world and whose kingdom shall have no end." But he doesn't invoke these relics of Christendom to underwrite any sort of theocratic project. "No one in their right mind," Farrow wryly remarks,
confuses Canada with the kingdom. Yet those who seek a better country by announcing a kingdom not of this world may also seek a better country in this world, in the saeculum, as our mottos suggest. They will do so … not by demanding establishment for the Church or by insisting that the state translate the teaching of the Church into the law of the land, so as to enforce conformity, but by inviting the city of man to organize itself in a way reflective of, or at least open to, the truth about human sociality revealed in the city of God.
The unapologetic Canadiannness of this case is refreshing, and helpful: there's something unique that Canadian theological voices can contribute to wider discussions. The physical proximity of Canada to the United States should not be confused with a political or intellectual closeness. Both its politics (a Westminster, parliamentary system; an overwhelming penchant for French laïcité in Quebec politics) and intellectual traditions will feel European to many US observers. But there is also a sense in which Canada is sometimes a peek into the future of the United States—a report from the vanguard of North American secularization.
Farrow calibrates our expectations by simply describing these as "forays" in political theology, somewhat occasional interjections and reflections often in response to specific matters of policy and public debate. For example, Farrow's direct involvement in the Loyola case in Quebec is a privileged case study for the book—the focus of chapter 3, "Pluralism, the New Catholicism," plus an appendix that reproduces his expert testimony for a lower court—a remarkable example of theology getting a hearing in judicial affairs. Here we see some of Farrow's finest analysis.
Some quick background: in 2008, the government of Quebec instituted a province-wide educational program on "Ethics and Religious Culture." Still recovering from a heritage of the Roman Catholic Church's rather stringent grip on Quebec culture (and politics), the provincial government tends to act like a post-fundamentalist twentysomething, eager to relive the Revolution (their recently proposed Charter of Values is another case in point). As Farrow notes in his Expert Witness Report, a "deconfessionalized society" like that of Quebec is most prone to institute a secular confession in its place. So in its desire to instill a uniform commitment to what it calls "normative pluralism" in Québécois youth, the Ministry of Education required that all students be formed (and not just informed) by the ERC program. This would be their induction into the relativism that parades under the banner of tolerance, the regimen that would produce a populace committed to the belief that no belief is better than any other.
As a result, the ministry stipulated that the teaching of ERC at Loyola, a Jesuit high school in Montreal, could not be taught from a Catholic perspective but had to adopt a feigned posture of neutrality. Aside from the incoherence of such a position, this requirement violated longstanding provisions of religious freedom secured by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in favor of Loyola in March 2015.
Farrow rightly sees in this case fundamental challenges to the church's freedom in a secularized society. He homes in on the repeated but unsustainable claims to "neutrality" by the secular state. In fact, the state's advocacy of "normative pluralism" under the guise of neutrality "signifies a determination that valuing diverse moral and religious practices or perspectives should become the norm, such that 'no one principle, ideal, or way of life can dominate.' None, that is, save pluralism itself, which is to serve society as the norma normans non normata." What we're left with is a merely "procedural republic," a "realm of common process, but not of common good."
This then requires a swelling of the state: the new norma normans is the only one allowed to throw its weight around (here, surely, is where US readers might catch a glimpse of their future). If we need to be saved from the parochialism of religion which dares to specify a substantive vision of the Good, then the state—and its evangelistic outreach, the universities—"steadily accrues to itself functions that once belonged to social institutions." Such expansion of the state's role diminishes the power and freedom of institutions of civil society. What we get, Farrow suggests, "is the emergence of a kind of inverse catholicism"—the "new catholicism" that is pluralism. We swap the Holy Roman Empire for the Sacred Liberal State.
Farrow's critique is incisive, and there is much to learn here, especially in the second half of the book. In fact, the book might be better read in reverse. The final chapter, Farrow's inaugural address as Knight Professor of Catholic Studies at McGill, is a programmatic brief for "the doctrine of the Two"—the historic, orthodox appreciation that we live in the time of the saeculum, and hence need to make a careful distinction between the coming complete reign of Christ and the foretastes of that we might hope for in the present. Pushing back on the soppy compromise of John Courtney Murray, who conceded too much to the "procedural republic," Farrow argues for a thick public witness to the state: "For the doctrine of the Two is simply the gospel proclaimed to homo politicus," a reminder that there is "an authority higher than the state." But he also criticizes those ("Lefebrvrists") whose political theology is confused with a realized eschatology. "The doctrine of the Two is good news of a Master Architect who is building a better city and a better country in the midst of ours, but not at the expense of ours."
However, because these various forays are spoken in quite different voices, it's not clear just who Farrow has in mind as an intended audience. On the one hand, the model of Christian engagement with the state he extols—for theology to bear public witness to the eschatological calling of the state, to be heard beyond the choir—should mean he wants to be heard by those who disagree. On the other hand, Farrow's tone can, at times, alienate even those who agree with him. I can't imagine an opponent having much patience with his sometimes inflammatory prose, especially in the opening chapters. This is another reason Farrow might have reordered the book. As it stands, the best stuff is buried near the back, where his work is careful, original, and provocative—winsome without being wishy-washy. I fear the first two chapters will alienate precisely those who need to read the last three. And that would be shame.
"Christians, wherever they live, seek a new homeland," Farrow reminds us. "They desire a better country, a heavenly one. Yet they do not lose all interest in the present earthly one. They do not abandon concern for its welfare, whether in this age or the age to come." But sometimes seeking the welfare of this city will entail radical critique, prophetic proclamation of what the city is called to be—and the recognition that kings answer to an ascended King.
On this point, Farrow's provocative book left me with an oddly uncomfortable worry: that the prospects for the church's influence on the state are inextricably bound up with the church's evangelistic mission. While we might rightly hope to influence law and policy and work at systemic levels, the prospects for persuasion depend on a hearts-and-minds strategy of more and more people actually believing the gospel. I say this is "uncomfortable" only because such an "evangelical" concern would be considered gauche in so many salons devoted to "political theology."
This is precisely why lowest-common-denominator approaches to public theology (like natural law) are misbegotten. Hoping to convince a wider public of some scaled-down, "acceptable" facet of a merely theistic worldview, we get even less. We stop talking about Jesus in public in the hope that people might let us at least have a vague "God." But our neighbors can smell the minimalism and sense our lack of conviction. What's needed is unapologetic witness to the robust specificity of the Gospel. What will get a hearing—and what alone deserves to be heard—is the audacious claim that a crucified Jew has risen from the dead and ascended to the throne.
James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Reformed Theology & Worldview. He also serves as editor of Comment magazine and as a senior Fellow for Cardus. He is the author most recently of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, coming in March from Brazos Press.
1. Which makes it all the more odd that Scot McKnight's supposedly comprehensive account of "the kingdom" in the New Testament, Kingdom Conspiracy, fails to address the Ascension. Not surprisingly, he ends up with a political theology much different from Farrow's.
2. In the Authorized Version: "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth."
3. One might compare Charles Taylor's succinct assessment of the Quebec situation: "closed secularism is still in the mindset of confessional states, only we change the confession." In other words, in those states where the Church's grip was totalitarian, the secular state assumes a similar role. See Charles Taylor, "Imagining an 'Open' Secularism: A Conversation with James K. A. Smith," Comment (Fall 2014), p. 50.
4. Farrow gets at this in a footnote about the important work of Oliver O'Donovan: "Even critics of his project often acknowledge it as the most important work of political theology in our generation. Many of them, unfortunately, are either unwilling or unable to reckon with its christological claims."
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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