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Kuyperian secularism and the persistence of dualism

Over at the new Comment magazine, I’ve just read the latest article by editor James K A Smith, Naturalizing Shalom: confessions of a Kuyperian secularist. It makes for a fascinating little case study after talking about mission as transformation.

Smith recounts a Jesuit university’s emphasis on justice, his own anti-justice fundamentalist background, and sets these stories in context with reference to Charles Taylor, who sees the Reformation as opening the way to secularisation, making justice possible without reference to God — and that, says Smith, is where he eventually found himself heading.

Smith is happy to speak of shalom, provided it carries its proper weight and meaning. Like ‘holistic’, shalom could reflect an integrated Kuyperian vision, or it could mean ‘progressivist social amelioration’. And that is the particular angle to Smith’s concern: ‘[When] eternity is eclipsed, the this-worldly is amplified and threatens to swallow all.’

There are a couple of questions at this point: is every evangelical always going to face this same risk? If we speak of shalom, do we automatically have to struggle against a trajectory from transcendence towards immanence towards secularisation? This is all debatable, I would’ve thought.

But I wonder if there’s something deeper going on. In this article about dualism, Smith doesn’t seem concerned about dualism so much as one particular side of the divide: the earthy/horizontal/social stuff, the amplification of the ‘this-worldly’. What we have in this article is a snapshot of Western Protestantism perpetually grappling with dualism, caught in a cycle of concern about which side of the divide we might be slipping down. The point is presumably to land in the middle, but if that is what we mean by ‘balance’, it is about holding two separate things in tension — and so, the divide is determinative. Even if our practice has escaped dualism, our categories have not.

Smith is concerned that our version of shalom might not really reflect shalom, because it risks secularisation by losing touch with transcendence — in other words, that it puts earth over heaven, deed over word, and so on. I suppose this is still a pertinent question in the West, but the fact that it is being asked shows how absorbed by dualism we remain. Sometimes it feels as if we are reliving the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, or re-experiencing the threat of a Social Gospel, stuck in a reaction to a reaction to a reaction. Our language attempts to solve the problem but succeeds only in reiterating it.

As I said earlier, I see this dualism not as an equation in need of a solution but as a dead end in need of a detour. And I reckon the way forward comes from beyond the West — as perhaps it must. This is the reason I’ve been drawn towards Mission as Transformation: the possibility of speaking as if dualism really is false, as if the Great Reversal never happened. It is to ask, What if we could unlearn the divide? What if we simply ceased to see it?

Categories: Uncategorized Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

1 reply

  1. ‘Even if our practice has escaped dualism, our categories have not.’ Interestingly, Smith makes a similar critique of Derrida: that he has tried to escape Cartesian dualism, but in the end just ends up coming down on the opposite side to modern philosophy.

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