Theopolitical Imagination - Reflections, comments, and questions

I am in deep sympathy with Cavanaugh in his trying to formulate a theological politics, his critique of public and political theology for not being public and political enough. His emphasis on the Church as a true res publica in its own right is welcome. The Church cannot inhabit the private, apolitical space that has been assigned to it by modernity without being suffocated, without loosing its true relevance in the world. But this political relevance is not to be found in striving for power within the apparatus of the state, does not begin and end with lobbying for influence over state policy (in the hope that the state is the potential solution to any given social ill), because in doing so it will be difficult for the Church to escape the salvation story the state and the market embodies, and the temptation to translate the politics of Jesus in more universal and neutral terms - in so called "public terms" accessible to policy-makers - will be too strong.

Civil society may seem to be the rescue path, but that is to miss how colonized or fused it is with both the nation-state and the market, and accepting as a given that the Church is but one particular interest association among many, just a bridge between the supposed universal state and the free individual, whose main role then is to form good citizens.

The Church is itself (or is meant to be) an ekklesia, a sphere were politics proper happens.

To reclaim its true relevance and responsibility (these hallowed words of modernity!) the Church must break its imagination out of captivity to the nation-state and the market. It must see and constitute itself for what it is: an alternative social space. The Church is itself (or is meant to be) an ekklesia, a sphere were politics proper happens. It is a public body with a universal claim, because "it participates in the life of the triune God, who is the only good that can be common to all"[20] and has become part of a salvation adventure with cosmic proportions, that knows of no borders, neither in space (the Church as international and inclusive) nor time (the Church as a memory and presence of the future).

But even if I am in fundamental agreement with Cavanaugh, there are some issues, or rather tendencies, which I find problematic. From what he says in passing in Theopolitical Imagination and elsewhere I can see that he certainly is aware of them, but I can't find that he really get down to them.

One problem is a lurking absolutifying tendency. This is especially visible in his critique of civil society as a free space. Isn't he often painting too much in black and white? In spite of his expressed intention, isn't there a risk of portraying the Church as only a separate space, only a rival performance, which just borders on society (maybe my own formulations above also could be interpreted in that way)? Even if we can't rely on the state to do justice and even if the Church shouldn't just be considered as one particular interest organisation among others within civil society, isn't there still a loot of room for ad hoc relations, creative non-systemtic possibilities for co-operation in acceptance of the messiness and contingency of the society and the world? Cavanaugh rightly refuses to accept Constantinianism and withdrawal from the public reality as our only choices when talking about the political nature of the Christian story of salvation. But he seems to prefer Augustine's model of the two cities (which, admittedly, he tries to interpret narratively rather than spatially) before the Jeremian diaspora model ("seek the peace of the city", Jer 29:7), even if he in passing mention the latter.[21] Isn't there a risk to succumb to the Constantinian temptation of self-absolutization in the former model? Anyway, I think the latter is a more fruitful model if we want to imagine a church with a clear and visible (but not static!) identity given by the grace of God, which lives in the middle of society, working for its good, without trying to be in control, without trying to set the agenda, without using any form of coercion, without trying to be "everyone". Is it symptomatic that the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who developed an account of the nomadic, diasporic, non-territorial existence of the church, can see dispersion and scattering as mission, as vocation, as expression of the grace of God, while Cavanaugh only can see it as a sin, an evil?[22]

Is Cavanaugh's view of the Church social and bodily enough?

But there is also another, maybe related, problem: is Cavanaugh's view of the Church social and bodily enough? I ask because of his (as a Catholic?) rather one-sided emphasis on the Eucharist as the primary basis for the Church's counter-politics. There is a tendency here to reduce the church to the Eucharist. But is it really possible to separate this practice from all the other practices that should constitute the Church? Of course, Cavanaugh doesn't believe that. He can say: "In the Church, then, the practices of the liturgy, the creeds, the scriptural canon, hospitality, binding and loosing, the exercise of Episcopal authority, all constitute the Church as a distinctive public body."[23] And he mentions its social reality when balancing his discussion by pointing out the problems that exist. In Theopolitical Imagination, for instance, he says: "the Eucharist can be falsely told… many of our Eucharist celebrations … have been colonized by banal consumerism and global sentimentality."[24] But I don't find that he really expand on all these (and as far as I remember I haven't seen one reference to the ecumenical scandal of separate Eucharistic tables!). Instead he develops a vision of the Eucharist that stresses its sacramental aspects at the expense of its social, and its forming imagination at the expense of its forming character and desire.

And all this marks his overall view of the Church. In his contribution to The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, "Discerning: Politics and Reconciliation", he writes: "We hardly need reminding of the manifest sinfulness of those who gather in the name of Christ and his Church. In this light it is helpful to think of the Church not as a location or an organisation, but more like an enacted drama; it is the liturgy that makes the Church. In this drama there is a constant dialectic between sin and salvation, scattering and gathering."[25]

Is it really enough to see the Church as a drama of a constant dialectic between sin and salvation, in a time when capitalism has taken over as a therapy and discipline of the constitutive human power that we call desire? Is perhaps Cavanaugh's view of the global market too simplistic? If Daniel Bell, another Radical Orthodoxy theologian, is right when he says: "Capitalism is an ensemble of technologies that disciplines desire according to the logic of production for the market,"[26] then perhaps it is time to recover a view of the Church as an alternative way of life together that counters nation-state and capitalism by liberating and healing desire. Doesn't this need an everyday life together, strong enough to form character and heal desire?

It doesn't seem that Cavanaugh is willing to go this way. In a radio interview in June 2005 he says, with reference to his book Theopolitical Imagination: "A lot of what I am saying I think can be constructed as … an appeal for a leaner and meaner church, as it were, a kind of tighter, more disciplined, more organized church that would be smaller. … that is not the kind of vision of the church that I am really seeing at all. … I think there is an unfortunate tendency amongst some in the church today to put a little bit too much emphasis on drawing boundaries and not enough emphasis on the centre of the church".

Of course we should put our emphasis on the centre of the church, but doesn't that today mean a more disciplined social and bodily life together, strong enough to break out of a life of endless consumption? We have to draw boundaries, not boundaries of exclusivism, not boundaries of a fixed, unbending, and self-sustaining identity to be persevered at all costs, but boundaries of renewal - in "receptivity to God's ongoing generosity" and in "an ongoing negotiation with the other"[27] - that "makes" the church a visible, social, and non-coercive alternative, an inviting example worth considering.

[20] Killing, p. 269.
[21] Theopolitical Imagination, p.114.
[22] See For the Nations, pp. 63ff and compare it with Cavanaugh's account in Theopolitical Imagination, p. 12; see also Yoder's book Jewish-Christian Schism.
[23] Theopolitical Imagination, p. 90.
[24] P. 121.
[25] P. 205.
[26] Liberation Theology, p. 99.
[27] Chris Huebner on Yoder in A Precarious Peace, p. 125.

ABC: Encounter, "Cardinal Pell and the Theology of the Nation State", (26 June, 2005).
Bell Jr., Daniel M., Liberation Theology After the End of History (London: Routledge, 2001).
Cavanaugh, William T, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
-, "Discerning: Politics and Reconciliation," in Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, 2006), pp. 196-208.
-, "Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good," in Modern Theology 20:2 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
-, The Myth of Religous Violence Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
-, Theopolitical Imagination (Edinburgh/New York: T & T Clark, 2002).
-, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998).
Huebner, Chris K. A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, and Identity (Scottdale, Pennsylvanis: Herald Press, 2006).
Yoder, John H, For the Nations: Essays Public & Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
-, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, edited by Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

Bild för Bengt Rasmusson

Av Bengt Rasmusson

Bengt Rasmusson är teolog, förläggare och mediakonsult.

Bengt Rasmusson is a theologian, publisher and a media consultant.

Kommentarer (7)

  • anonymous
    Anonym (ej verifierad)

    Good post, I agree with many of your thoughts on Cavanaugh, as far as I have read and understood him.

    As to the question about "a more disciplined church", I noticed during his lecture at ÖTH last autumn that he new about the New Monasticism-movement, and spoke about them as one way of embodying what he spoke about (his theme was from his (at that point) latest book, Being Consumed). And they definitely see as a part of their mission to awaken the church to a more disciplined and alternative way of life. So I´m not sure how to understand WC in this regard.

    /Jonas Lundström

    maj 04, 2009
  • anonymous
    Bengt Rasmusson (ej verifierad)

    Jan Eckerdal sa (i en annan tråd här på bloggen)...

       Bengt: Jag har läst din recension (och boken) med stort utbyte. Cavanaughs kritik är viktig. Hans kritik av nationalstaten såväl som hans problematisering av en enkel tro på det "civila samhället" som en neutral arena, skulle exempelvis kunna vara ett ord i rättan tid i det sammanhang som jag finns i (Svenska kyrkan). Mycket läsvärt alltså.
       Men jag måste säga, att för att vara en teolog som är så kaxig och definitiv i kritiken av staten (skall man kalla honom anarkist?), så är han förvånande vag när det kommer till vad hans alternativa ecklesiologiska perspektiv konkret innebär. Om man först förkastar varje centraliserad auktoritet som har mandat att bruka våld för att utöva kontroll över ett område, måste man väl ha en enorm tilltro till det alternativ som man föreslår - i Cavanaughs fall då det som han kallar "a political body based on the Eucharist." Man måste verkligen ha en tilltro till att den gemenskapen, när den befriats från staten som allmän reglerande auktoritet, skulle klara att som gemenskap konkret gestalta alternativet. Att den skulle klara av att på ett ickevåldsamt sätt härbärgera skillnader internt och i mötet med andra grupper, en tilltro till att inte gruppens starkare medlemmar skaffar sig fördelaktig position på bekostnad av de svagare etc.
       Själv har jag i hela mitt liv ingått i gemenskaper där den eukaristiska praktiken varit central. Men det överraskar väl knappast någon om jag säger att det också i dessa gemenskaper har visats prov på rivalitet, oförsonlighet, exploatering av svagare etc. I vårt gestaltande av Kristi kropp är vi väl inte bara ett tecken för världen, utan har också behov av att få hjälp från andra perspektiv, för att få syn på sådant som frodas i vår egen fallenhet? Men Cavanaughs "eucharistic body" tycks inte behöva ngn hjälp. Eller har jag missuppfattat honom?

    Intressanta synpunkter! Jag håller med dig i mångt och mycket. Hans vaghet beror kanske till en del på bokens manifest-liknande karaktär, men han har å andra sidan inte varit mycket tydligare i senare böcker. Själv menar jag att grundproblemet är att hans ecklesiologi inte är tillräckligt kroppslig. Angående tilltron till kyrkan så håller jag med WC, men inte pga av någon förträfflighet hos kyrkan själv, utan pga min tilltro till den Gud som har valt att låta sin tysta revolution ta konkret gestalt genom ett folk (Israel och kyrkan), hur ofullkomligt och bristfälligt detta folk än är. Kyrkan bör kunna stå på egna ben, vilket dock inte alls utesluter att hon hela tiden lär av andra. Beror inte många av kyrkans problem just på att hon inte vågat vara en positiv "motkultur" i sin egen rätt?

    Jan, jag gissar att det är du som har skrivit artikeln "Folkkyrkans kropp: Einar Billings folkkyrkoteologi ur postsekulärt perspektiv" (Svensk teologisk kvartalsskrift 2008:4). Har tyvärr inte läst den (det är inte så att du har en digital kopia av den och kan skicka den till mig (cp.bengt[snabela], men det skulle vara intressant att höra lite om hur du själv tänker om kyrkan (i ett postsekulärt perspektiv)!

    maj 14, 2009
  • anonymous
    Fredrik Wenell (ej verifierad)

    Varför inte be att du Jan gästbloggar hos oss utifrån din artikel om Billing - det kunde varar intressant med ett mer folkkyrkligt perspektiv? har du lust?

    maj 14, 2009
  • anonymous
    Jan Eckerdal (ej verifierad)

    En gästblogg, ja det skulle jag gärna skriva när jag får möjlighet. De närmsta dagarna är späckade, men kanske mot slutet av nästa vecka.

    Bengt, jag håller med dig när du skriver:

    ”Kyrkan bör kunna stå på egna ben, vilket dock inte alls utesluter att hon hela tiden lär av andra.”

    Båda leden i den meningen är viktiga och förmodligen beroende av varandra. Vi behöver stå på egna ben för att på allvar kunna låta oss påverkas av andras insikter utan att löpa ständig risk att absorberas upp av det andra.

    Men min fråga är nog delvis om inte konsekvensen av WCs perspektiv omöjliggör en sådan ömsesidighet exempelvis gentemot staten, men också gentemot andra aktörer i det civila samhället. Staten är för WC en sorts institutionaliserad ondska. Vad skall vi lära av den? Och eftersom WC på ett i min mening övertygande sätt lyckas visa hur det civila samhället som arena är i direkt beroendeställning till denna stat blir det väl svårt att lära sig ngt av de ”aktörerna” heller.

    Om man jämför med WCs radikalortodoxa kollega Milbank, så är ju han verkligen inte heller en teolog som lägger fingrarna emellan i sin kritik av staten. Men trots det så menar han att, i denna tid mellan kristushändelsen och hans återkomst, så har staten ett berättigande. Jag tänker mig att det trots-allt-berättigandet grundar sig i en insikt om att vi, i den här tiden, inte mer än glimtvis kommer att få erfara förkroppsligandet av den alternativa fridsgemenskap som vi kallar kyrkan.

    maj 15, 2009
  • anonymous
    Jan Eckerdal (ej verifierad)

    Just det. Jag glömde säga att du Bengt förstås gissat rätt ifråga om artikeln i STK. Jag skickar den.

    maj 15, 2009
  • anonymous
    Bengt Rasmusson (ej verifierad)

    Tack för artikeln, det ska bli intressant att läsa! Vi ser fram mot din gästblogg (skicka texten till mig, så sätter jag in den)!

    Som jag antyder i mina kommentarer så har WC i denna bok en tendens till svart och vitt: "In spite of his expressed intention, isn't there a risk of portraying the Church as only a separate space, only a rival performance, which just borders on society (maybe my own formulations above also could be interpreted in that way)?"

    Det är inte WC:s avsikt att kyrkan ska vara sig själv nog och stå vid sidan om, men han ligger farligt nära att ibland ändå ge uttryck för en sådan åsikt.

    Oavsett vad WC anser, så tycker jag inte att hans kritik av staten etc. behöver leda till att man säger att staten inte fyller vissa berättigade funktioner i en trasig värld. Men kyrkans uppgift är inte att försöka "kristna" staten eller att bli en del i dess apparat. Däremot finns det plats för mängder av, som jag säger, icke-systematiska, ad hoc relationer. Och talar man i diaspora-termer, så tänker man sig ju inte heller kyrkan som ett eget separat "rum".

    maj 15, 2009