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.