Thursday, October 05, 2006

Evangelicals, culture, politics

A Third Way?

James K. A. Smith puts Greg Boyd's The Myth of A Christian Nation firmly in the pietistic half of a dichotomy, opposed by triumphalism. Knowing the Pentecostal background of both Boyd and Smith, I'm pleased that both aim their admirable intellectual and theological resources on the topic of Christian faith and its relation to culture, politics being a key sphere within culture. And I happily side with Smith: "[C]an't we see in-breakings of the coming kingdom here and now, better in some places than others?" Surely the reign of (confessedly fallen) democracy in South Korea at least approximates the reign of God more than life under Kim Jong-il's tyranny in the north. If not, why should people of faith ever concern themselves with" speaking truth to power" (a phrase I first heard from a Quaker friend) -- unless only to pronounce judgment without mercy or hope for redemption.

But Smith joins "Constantinianism" with "triumphalism" without remainder, rejecting both it and pietism, while calling for a third way. But given the dichotomy, Constantinianism holds out more hope for correction -- righteous restraint in its agenda of this-worldly engagement -- than does a pietism that identifies spirituality with disengagement. In fact, Robert Louis Wilken's review of recent works on Constantine urges that within earliest Constantinianism, Lactantius, the Latin apologist and contemporary of the emperor, establishes the basic political and ethical argument for freedom of religion that, refined for 1500 years, constitutes a core value of the secularized West:

Lactantius’ Institutes deals with a grab bag of theological and moral topics, but at places in the work one can see that he had an additional agenda: he wished to deprive Roman authorities of a philosophical and legal justification for the persecution of Christians by appealing to their own ideals of toleration, which they had abandoned in this case. Lactantius moved beyond the usual apologetic gambits to offer a positive argument as to why religion of any sort cannot be coerced. Religion, says Lactantius, has to do with love of God and purity of mind, neither of which can be compelled. “Why should a god love a person who does not feel love in return?” he asks. Religion cannot be imposed on someone, it can only be promoted by “words,” i.e., by persuasion, for it has to do with an interior disposition, and must be “voluntary.” “Nothing,” he writes, “requires freedom of the will as religion.”

Whatever the excesses of Constantinianism -- and they should not be minimized -- Wilken argues that early on Roman society accommodated to the church far more than the church accommodated (read "compromised") to pagan society.

So the third way Smith calls for may already have been occupying the world stage for centuries: a limited Constantinianism that expresses kingdom Spirit through earthly structures in a dialectical journey toward Zion, toward the coming down of the heavenly city to earth (Rev. 21:2 -- 10).