Beginning the week of March 16, James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, was the featured speaker for Union University’s annual Scholar-in-Residence Lecture Series.
Smith has been in publications like Christianity Today, Books and Culture and the New York Times. He also holds the Gary and Henrietta Baker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview at Calvin.
Smith spoke on Tuesday, March 17, Thursday, March 19, Saturday, March 21 and will speak today, March 23 about Christianity’s role in a secular society.
Monday’s will be in the Harley Recital Hall located in Jennings Hall at 7 p.m. as well.
On Thursday, March 19 Smith’s theme for the night was Rites Talk: the Worship of Democracy, playing off of the book Rights Talk by author Mary Ann Glendon.
Smith addressed political liberalism and strains of the ultimate and penultimate. He explained that ultimate beliefs have religious character about them, and penultimate contain political. Smith also stressed how important it is for Christians to be involved in politics and encouraged the audience to not choose between church and state.
“The political is often not content to remain penultimate,” Smith said. “Secularized culture is not void of religious fervor, it just finds other outlets.”
According to Smith, the distinction between religion and political is blurred as political is not content with strictly being penultimate.
“For religion, the ultimate vision is not content either, as the beacon for cultural renewal is ultimate,” Smith said. “This is where the bleeding of ultimate into penultimate occurs.”
Reeves Garrett, junior Biblical Studies languages major, thought that Smith offered a helpful critique of today’s politics for Christians in his lecture.
“While we certainly have a role in society, we also recognize that our ultimate end is not a worldly kingdom but the Kingdom of God,” Garrett said. “Dr. Smith helps us to distinguish between this ultimate goal and our penultimate responsibilities in a democratic society.”
Garrett also commented on the effects of political engagement and how that translates specifically to him.
“As a Christian, I recognize the importance of participating in politics, but I also recognize that my true allegiance remains wholly with my King and his Kingdom,” Garrett said. “Democracy seeks to claim my allegiance, but my task as a Christian is to fix my gaze on my eschatological end and to allow that to shape my understanding of my role in politics and government today.”
In closing, Smith left the audience with thoughts about how society shapes and influences culture.
“Every society makes a people, every culture has an influence,” Smith said. “I care about shaping, policy, practices and law of community because I care about the poor and vulnerable.”