Acton Institute Powerblog

Naturalizing Shalom: When ‘Justice’ Becomes an Idol

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A new generation of evangelicals is beginning to re-think and re-examine the ways they have typically (not) engaged culture, with theological concepts like Abraham Kuyper’s common grace leading many to stretch beyond their more dispensationalist dispositions.

Over at Comment, James K.A. Smith offers some helpful warnings for the movement, noting that amid our “newfound appreciation for justice and shalom,” we should remain wary of getting too carried away with our earthly-mindedness. “By unleashing a new interest and investment in ‘this-worldly’ justice,” Smith argues, “the Reformation also unleashed the possibility that we might forget heaven.”

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…

…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.

Smith goes on to discuss his own personal journey, offering a first-hand account of how leaving one state of lopsidedness can lead to another:

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.

I’ve touched on this previously, particularly as it pertains to the realm of economics. If we begin to view our economic scheming through a wholly materialistic, earthbound lens, neglecting the transcendent purposes God has for his people and his creation, whatever subsequent “flourishing” we might be able to concoct will be limited by the very constraints we strap on from the get-go.

As Smith concludes:

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.

Rooted & GroundedFirst rooted, then grounded,” Kuyper said, “but both bound together at their most inner core…The organism is the essence; the institution is the form.”

Read the full article here.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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