From State Soteriology to Eucharistic Anarchism: Cavanaugh’s “True Peace”

Under the category of “Things I will work on after tenure”, I’ve long wanted to more fully develop my ideas for an incarnational political theology.  Previously, I published the following here, but I repost it now because I believe readers at CLR Forum may be particularly able to offer constructive comments.  Whether in my reading of Radical Orthodoxy scholarship or my own writings on religious freedom in comparative perspective, I find myself returning repeatedly to the idea that sustainable pluralism will require a theological foundation.


William T. Cavanaugh is a scholar of Radical Orthodoxy – an intellectual movement that originated in 1990s Britain (especially Cambridge University and the University of Nottingham), and one that can broadly be characterized as postmodern Christian theology.[i]  It proclaims its radicality in four parts: 1) a return to patristic and medieval roots, most particularly to the Augustinian formulation of knowledge as divine illumination; 2) efforts to deploy this recovered sensibility to offer bold criticisms of modern society, culture and philosophy; 3) simultaneous to the criticism of modernity, a realization that the inherited tradition itself must be rethought in light of the challenges of the postmodern era; and 4) a recognition that, just as Christian critics of the Enlightenment identified the destruction by secularity of those things it claimed most to celebrate (e.g. embodied life, self-expression, sexuality, aesthetic experience and human political community), “only transcendence, which ‘suspends’ these things in the sense of interrupting them, ‘suspends’ them also in the other sense of upholding their relative worth over-against the void”.[ii]  Put briefly, Radical Orthodoxy refutes secularism in favor of a Platonic-Christian participatory theology “which alone can lead us to God”.[iii]  Though it is not unproblematic, Radical Orthodoxy is nevertheless a significant intellectual endeavor that merits serious engagement by scholars writing within a variety of disciplines and theological/philosophical traditions.

In his stimulating essay, The City: Beyond Secular Parodies, Cavanaugh opens with a Biblical narrative – the themes of which have appeared in the work of Luther, Calvin and Niebuhr, among others.  For example, he uses the New Testament writings of Paul and John, alongside patristic texts, to present Christianity’s story of creation, fall and redemption as “the loss and regaining of a primal unity”.[iv]  This is central to his political theology, for, as Cavanaugh argues, modern social contract theorists such as Hobbes (but also Locke and Rousseau) were attempting, fundamentally, to redeem human society from the effects of brokenness (e.g. pride, violence, theft, war) through the mechanism of the state.[v]  Cavanaugh deems these efforts a failure for three primary reasons.

He argues, first, that the mythos of the state is based on “a ‘theological’ anthropology which precludes any truly social process”: we relate to our fellows not as participatory creatures of the Imago Dei, but as bearers of individuals rights; thus, the formal mechanism of contract precludes full integration of the individual and the group by the state.[vi]  Second, Cavanaugh suggests that the resulting corporate body is perverse at its core, leading, as “Hobbes foresaw…with his usual clarity”, to a commonwealth in which “the members cohere, not as in a natural body to one another, but only to the sovereign”.[vii]  Hence, modern political soteriology obliterates local communities in favor of the universal state.

Third, perhaps most importantly, Cavanaugh observes that the state, which promised peace, has in fact brought about great violence and war.[viii]  This has resulted not only from the establishment of territorial borders governed by single authorities and the corresponding assumption that relations between states operate in a State of Nature writ large, but also from the identification of the state with the monopoly on the legitimate use of force – war thus becomes, for the liberal state, “a simulacrum of the social process, the primary mechanism for achieving social integration in a society with no shared ends…the state’s religio, its habitual discipline for binding us one to another”.[ix]

In response to these failures of Hobbes and other modern political philosophers, Cavanaugh proposes a vision of politics informed by Eucharistic anarchism.  The anarchy of which he writes is not chaos, but rather a challenge to the false order of the state – a true religio that binds us to each other and, ultimately, to the salvific Body of Christ.[x]  Cavanaugh offers the Eucharist as a diffusion of “the false theology and the false anthropology of will and right”, a sweeping effacement of the distinction between mine and thine, a radical questioning of property and dominium, the proper integration of the individual and the group, and the actualization of diverse communities through shared participation in the divine life.[xi]  “Whereas in the modern state the center either vindicates the rights of property against the marginalized or takes direct concern for the welfare of the marginalized out of our hands”, Cavanaugh writes, “in Christ the dichotomy of center and periphery is overcome”.[xii]  By resolving the dilemma of the many and the one, by unmasking the falsity of this antithesis of local and universal, the Eucharistic community redefines boundaries, citizenship, and earthly practices of peace and reconciliation.[xiii]

Lest he sound utopian, Cavanaugh hastens to point out that Christians have “to an alarming degree” adopted the state mythos as their own, giving up their bodies for war in the hope that the state will deliver on its promises of temporal unity.[xiv]  His primary argument is thus not that Eucharistic anarchism is fully realizable in the world in time, but that the salvation mythos of the state – the state religio – is a distortion of true hope, and that the resources for resisting this distortion are provided by the Christian tradition.[xv]  Nevertheless, Cavanaugh concludes his essay provocatively:

For the most part, Christians have accepted the integrating role of the state on the assumption that the state is a ‘secular’ and therefore neutral apparatus for the working out of conflict among disparate interests.  To see the state instead as an alternative soteriology is to begin to notice the inherent conflict between state practices and the practices, such as the Eucharist, which Christians take for granted.  True peace depends not on the subsumption of this conflict, but on a recovered sense of its urgency.[xvi]

Robust pluralism in this reading requires an explicitly theological foundation, and, what is more, a lived one.  It is almost as if Cavanaugh is calling believers to the very battle that Hobbes’s Leviathan was expressly designed to abolish.

[i]Cavanaugh is also the author of TORTURE AND EUCHARIST: THEOLOGY, POLITICS AND THE BODY OF CHRIST (Blackwell 1998).  Please note that many who write under the RO banner claim that it is not a movement, but rather a sensibility – one oriented theologically and finding expression in such wide-ranging subjects as philosophy, linguistics, music, aesthetics and politics.

[ii]RADICAL ORTHODOXY 2-3 (John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward, eds., Routledge 1999).

[iii]Id. at 3.

[iv]William T. Cavanaugh, The City: Beyond Secular Parodies RADICAL ORTHODOXY 183-85 (John Milbank et. al., eds., Routledge 1999).

[v]Id. at 183, 186-90.

[vi]Id. at 192-93.

[vii]Id. at 193.

[viii]Id. at 194.

[ix]Id. at 194.

[x]Id. at 194-95.

[xi]Id. at 195-96.

[xii]Id. at 196.

[xiii]Id. at 196-97.

[xiv]Id. at 197.

[xv]Id. at 198.

[xvi]Id. at 198.

5 responses to “From State Soteriology to Eucharistic Anarchism: Cavanaugh’s “True Peace”

  1. Mark L. Movsesian

    Kristine, very interesting. I’m not familiar with this scholarship. I’m not sure I see why you think Cavanaugh’s view would be a basis for political pluralism, though. Is it because religious communities – for example, Christian churches with a eucharistic, sacramental worldview — are uniquely powerful competitors to the state? That makes sense to me. One has to admit, however, that such communities historically have tried to overpower opposing centers of loyalty, themselves. In the long run, pluralism may require that religious communities have powerful competitors, too.

  2. Hi, Kristine. I’ve got a question too, but it sort of comes at things from the other direction from Mark. I think it is a very good thing that the state has taken on exclusive control of some of the functions Cavanaugh lists above. For example, it’s very good that Christians (as well as everybody else) have accepted the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force — both from the point of view of criminal punishment and warfare. If that is a mythos, it’s one I have embraced and don’t really wish to challenge. Does Cavanaugh? I’m not sure what a Eucharistically anarchic view would change, and I’m not at all sure that I’d like what it would offer in place of what we’ve got now.

  3. kristinekalanges

    Thank you, Mark and Marc, for your interesting observations. You both raise excellent points, and I’ll try to address them by explaining my concern in different terms. I’ve always been interested in the ways religious beliefs and practices inform legal and political institutions. One major argument of my first book was that the case for religious freedom in the Muslim world will have to come, at least in the near future, from within Islam. But I noted in the conclusion that defending religious freedom in the West will ultimately require, to some degree, a recovery/renewal of the Judeo-Christian foundations of our culture. Why? As I think we are witnessing now in all sorts of challenges to religion and religious groups in the West (Jews, Christians, Muslims, and beyond), the state is increasingly hostile to the notion of distinct sacred and secular spheres. Whether in Augustine, Aquinas or the Reformation Protestantism of the early modern period, the defense of separate spheres emerged within theological frameworks. It seems to me that so long as culture remained diffusely tied to those traditions (in other words, and as Tocqueville observed, so long as the West generally and America specially remained generally united in its norms and mores), those two spheres could continue to exist (albeit uneasily at times). What I think we’re witnessing now is the transformation of the secular state from its original conceptualization to something less willing to recognize legitimacy or authority outside of itself (to tolerate, for example, that significant portions of the population – often organized religiously – do not support same-sex marriage or the ordination of women even as they affirm the dignity of all persons). Do I want a theocracy? Absolutely not! Do I think the state should preserve its monopoly on the legitimate use of force? Yes, although I want to reflect more on the meaning and manifestation of this. But apart from a theological defense of the secular state/City on Earth, I’m not persuaded the state will be willing to let civil society exist as such. So when I say that I’m wrestling with pluralism, I mean that once we recognize that there is no such thing as a theologically-neutral political theory or jurisprudence, the challenge is how to construct institutions that respect the diversity of religious and non-religious views while preserving human freedom and the common good AND not collapsing in on themselves/defaulting into soft despotism.

  4. kristinekalanges

    As a follow-up, one possible way forward relates to how I think about constitutional law. Now, I will say up front that I am stepping outside my areas of research, and I’m quite sure constitutional law scholars would be better equipped to address this with nuance and sophistication. But I’ll throw the idea out there anyway.

    It seems to me that both the originalists and the living constitution folks have it wrong. As I understand them, the originalists don’t leave much space for the fact that the world changes in profound ways that can’t always be captured by plain text readings or the intentions of the Founders. The living constitutionalists, on the other hand, lose sight of constitutions as founding documents and at the very least risk a fancy form of mob rule. I think a better alternative, one that may fit with what Robbie George has argued, is that the U.S. Constitution embodies natural law principles. These are accessible to right reason without regard to theological claims, and they are philosophically defensible across traditions. Contra the living constitutionalists, the moral laws do not change over time. But contra the originalists, constitutional interpretation may need to evolve to preserve those moral laws in new contexts.

  5. The U.S. Constitution embodies natural law principles because our Founding Fathers recognized the self-evident truth, from the beginning, that every human individual, from the moment of their creation, Has been endowed by God with certain unalienable Rights, The Right to Life being our very first Right upon which our Right to Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness depends.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s