In Wisdom from Babylon, Gordon T. Smith tackles the question, “What does it mean to provide leadership for the church in an increasingly secular context?” Smith is president of Ambrose University and Seminary in Calgary, a long time Teaching Fellow of Regent College, and author of several books on spirituality and vocation.
The book is written for leaders of Christian training institutions to offer them guidance on theological education and formation that is consistent with the times, but also has emerging leaders themselves and church leadership teams in mind. Smith’s primary focus is western English-speaking societies “that are in the midst of the shift to a secular society,” with the European scene less in view, as he considers that shift to be largely complete in Europe.
Wisdom from Babylon comprises two parts. Part One focuses on reading and understanding the times. Part Two is about forming an alternative community that can weather a secular environment. In Part One, Smith provides an analysis of secularism followed by a description of four main Christian responses to it: accommodation, retreat, warfare, and engagement (his favoured response). In each of the following four chapters, he selects key voices who have experienced what it is to be a minority believing group in their respective cultures. He essentially invites them to sit down with us and share their stories and insights as a way of speaking into our Christian experience as a minority living amidst secular culture. This is where Smith’s wide reading and engagement really shines. He introduces us to exilic and post-exilic prophets, church fathers, historic minority churches outside of the West, and Christian voices from secular Europe. In their own words, the prophet Jeremiah, church father Ambrose of Milan, Lebanese seminarian Martin Accad, and 20th century French philosopher Jacques Ellul join a chorus of others to describe how they have navigated faith and life in similar circumstances to ours. Having sat at the table with these great thinkers, Smith circles back to the four Christian responses to secular culture, analysing them in turn: does this response help us keep our distinct identity and also be present as a witness?
Part Two seeks to make the theory of Part One practical, asking what kind of alternative community, with its associated competencies and dispositions, do we need in order to maintain our distinct identity in such times? Chapters eight through ten make the case for developing leadership for a church that is liturgical (helping people encounter Christ), catechetical (teaching folk to think Christianly), and missional (intentionally witnessing to the reign of Christ). Smith believes that to thrive we must embrace the theological and practical necessity of ecumenism, learning from and working with the church outside our tradition. Additionally, we must cultivate interiority, following the monastic wisdom of being rooted in Christ through spiritual habits. Finally, he presents hospitality as an ideal posture from which to engage the world.
Smith says we need to accept secularity as the new reality. I think he makes a fair point: I don’t see us going back to Christendom, nor would that necessarily be a good thing. He is skillful at drawing together the wisdom of various voices and applying their insights to the present day. Identifying and evaluating the four possible responses to secularism is a helpful exercise. Balancing analysis with an outline of specific practices makes the book useful. The recommended practices span liturgy, catechesis and mission – heart, head, and hands; they also call us to move wider, deeper, and more generously – it’s a very holistic vision of leadership.
Much as I loved this book’s insight, writing style, and breadth, I have a few critiques and concerns. I would have liked to see Smith give greater clarity of definition and critique to secularism (and ‘secularity’) itself, since that worldview is at the heart of the book’s argument. Amidst the brilliant range of conversation partners in Wisdom from Babylon, I can’t recall one female voice; I doubt that’s because no woman has spoken as clearly to the topic as her male peers. Smith provocatively argues that we need to exchange battling over abortion and sexuality (legitimate concerns notwithstanding) for a commitment to defend principled pluralism in the public square and economic justice for the poor. He says Ambrose referred to the church as the conscience of the state; while Ambrose may have been for pluralism and certainly for the poor, I am not sure Ambrose, if he lived in our society, could agree to be quiet about abortion.
WHAT ABOUT EVANGELISM?
My main concern is Smith’s discussion of mission and gospel. First, mission. On the one hand, in the chapter on the catechumenate he envisages spiritual seekers turning up in church whom we may welcome, teach, and lead on a conversion journey. Very good. Yet the entire chapter on “mission” does not touch the subject of evangelism. Mission is envisaged in terms of political presence, peacemaking, and being a gentle influence. “Preaching for Monday morning” boils down to “[equipping] men and women to be agents of peace” in the world. I wish this were an overstatement, but it seems Jeremiah 29:7 has replaced Matthew 28:18-20 as the church’s commission.
He also states, “For the church to be shaped by the gospel refers not to its ideas or theology or doctrine so much as that the people know it is the encounter with the ascended Christ in real time that defines them and their shared life.” I must disagree. I find this statement odd since Smith spends so much time elsewhere in the book emphasizing the importance of theological teaching for the church. Yes, the church must not simply know of Christ but needs to experience him. However, we cannot pit doctrine against experience, least of all gospel doctrine. Why does our experience have substance? It is because of the historical and doctrinal realities of the person and work of Christ. In St. Paul’s words, “faith comes from the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). That is, as a rule, our existential experience of faith cannot be divided from doctrine and derives from it. What God has joined together, I won’t say Smith is pulling apart, but he seems unhelpfully close to it.
Gordon Smith has written a very helpful book for twenty-first century church leadership in the West, though I feel there is a fundamental gap in the discussion on mission, and I wish he was clearer on the gospel. Nevertheless, discerning educators, church leaders, and lay readers will find much useful insight worth chewing on and discussing. Not least, they will discover a range of conversation partners, ancient and modern, whose works they may soon be reading as well, thanks to Smith’s effort to gather them together at the leadership table.