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Mediaeval Religion

When it comes to theological politics a basic premise to begin with is the distinct differences between religion in the mediaeval period and religion in secularity. According to Charles Tayor, in A Secular Age, during the middle ages there were no distinctions “between the religious, political, economic, social, etc., aspects of our society… In these earlier societies, religion was ‘everywhere’, was interwoven with everything else, and in no sense constituted a separate ‘sphere’ of its own.” This is in stark contrast tocontemporary modern societies where varying spheres of activity function in autonomous domains, each having their own internal rationality. Similarly, religion in secular society fits this same category. In fact, it is anachronistic to say today, if one is being politically correct, that God permeates all of society. Certainly people continue to make references to God in varying public spaces, but they are only personal gestures. This is because society is no longer “connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality” at all in the same way as pre-modern societies were. God simply is no longer present “at all levels of society.”

There is an entirely different meaning to belief today, primarily because there are a plethora of reasonable options rather than a single uncontested assumption that everyone shares. God is no longer axiomatic, in other words, because there are a plurality of options and alternatives to choose from. Religion, therefore, as many theologians and historians have pointed out, is merely a private, individual matter that is relatively undemanding of political structures in comparison to the mediaeval milieu. It would be erroneous to assume from this that secularity refutes religion or crowds it out due to science, philosophy, or any other modern discourse. Rather, secularity changes the fundamental character and conditions of religion. “To put the point in different terms, belief in God isn’t quite the same thing in 1500 and 2000.” One of the largest contrasts between these two eras is that civilization has moved from an immediate certainty in a supernatural plane of reality to understanding that there are many ways to interpret existence. Unlike 1500 there is no longer a default option for everyone to live by and we instead must coexist with others who adopt and are engaged in differing standpoints. We no longer have a common background to take for granted in the sense that the Middle Ages had.

This shift in background, which brought on the coming of the secular age, also had to do with the separation between the immanent and the transcendent; the natural and the supernatural. This divide is unique to our modern culture and would have been unintelligible in 1500. This means today that religion in the West usually has to do with recognizing or believing in something transcendent whereas humanism slides to the other horn of the paradox and is concerned only with the immanent goals of self-sufficient humanity. Charles Tayor actually marks the emergence of this humanism as coterminous with the rise of a secular age. For the first time in history humanity no longer accepts any final goals other than human flourishing. God simply ceases to be relevant to human life in any way. But this was unthinkable in pre-modern societies because there was not yet any separation between the transcendent and the immanent. Back then it was either white magic or black magic. Spirits and cosmic forces were unproblmatically there in everyone’s lived understanding and the only choice one faced was whether to side with the gods or the demons. To choose not to believe in God at that time would have meant to choose a life vulnerable to the spiritual field of forces without protection. Disbelief simply was not intelligible and the conditions did not yet exist to choose between different options.

We can sum up by saying secularity “consists of new conditions of belief.” According to Stanley Hauerwas, and returning to the concerns of contemporary theology, this means religion is now “mere belief” and “practical atheism.” What this means for Hauerwas is that faith has been relegated to an autonomous and private sphere unlike any time before. Authentic faith for him is religion-as-culture, something all theologians of pre-modern times would have agreed with had they been able to step out of their own cultural surroundings and articulate what they always already unquestionably assumed. What many contemporary theologians are wrestling with today is how religion, or the church more specifically, returns to its authentic roots of penetrating all aspects of society from political and economic life to social relations as well. (For those interested, Halden’s got a good critique up of Hauerwas’s ecclesiology here). Unfortunately, or fortunately, mediaeval religion is from a bygone era and the real question is whether the new conditions of belief are legitimate or whether we are all just practical atheists. There is no returning to this pristine golden-age past and theology has made some serious headway in examining these historical differences. Charles Taylor for one gives an excellent introduction to the whole matter.


"For and Against Marx" in Milbank, Theology and Social Theory

Karl MarxFor Marx, political freedom cannot be distinguished from economic freedom. Furthermore, civil society is far from neutral in the matter, it embodies certain assumptions as will follow. Marx is critical of the secular insofar as he deconstructs its power and authority. Marx fails however, according to John Miblank, because he doesn’t offer an alternative to liberalism. First, Marx believes capitalsm was a necessary step in the process of human evolution/dialectics. Second, he confirms the secular definition of freedom (i.e., freedom from tradition). He is correct in not separating the public sphere of “making” from the private sphere of “values” (theory from practice), but he retains “modern natural law” as well as the “modern secular order.” He believed in the illusion that we were progressing towards utopian harmony by way of dialectic

In antiquity religion was “natural” and included everything about life. Only later did religion as we know it today appear. Marx identifies this time as the division of labor. With this specialization comes the priestly clas and the speculation of “theoretical objects” (i.e., the birth of theology and philosophy) apart from practical living. At this time, according Marx, metaphors and illusions were birthed. But, for Milbank, this sort of metaphorical substitution for “real objects” is ubiquitous linguistically. Thus, no “religion” or culture is natural as Marx supposed

Marx believed original human society was free of illusion because it created meaning “naturally”. Feuerbach is important for Marxist thought because Feuerbach believed our worship was misplaced, that humans should be the objects of worship rather than an imaginary/abstract God. His point was that God’s qualities were not of a transcendental source but a reflection of our own human ego. Similarly, Marx wanted to talk about the natural processes of ethics, religion, art and culture that arose in praxis. Thus he appropriated Feuerbach insofar as the theoretical should be returned to humanity’s practical existence. The “religious error” in other words is the chief mistake of humanity – that is, to alienate theory from real existence. Hence, Marx wants to return to nature/materialism. He extends this error to include how social power was originated by the priestly class and criticizes the state above the economy for exercising a similar role. Religion is analogous to the state therefore as it is over and above common humanity at an alienating disance (i.e., out of sight and touch of the masses). Like the Hegelian phenomenologists, Marx explained religion and the state as a phenomena at a very distant gaze.

Like religious belief, the state establishes/creates itself. Both are “superstructural”. Marx’s mistake, according to Milbank, is that he viewed all religions in this way, which is not historically valid. In other words, Marx considers all religions to occupy the realm of mere belief, ignoring the dimension of religious practice. In this way capitalism becomes like a god (removed from the people) and its commodities are treated as relics (fetishistic sacred objects). Similarly, only the clerics or business elites have access to god and the market respectively. But Marx believes that this sacredalization is an illusion (all rooted in material motives). Both capitalism and Christianity, his parallel, are abstract and contentless; both non-realities

A few powerful people in the capitalistic system, like the priests of the religious sphere/illusion, determine the value of a commodity (like the priests detemined the revelation of god). Human beings are alienated from the process of meaning/value making (detemined now by “exchange value” rather than “use value”). But Marx is only criticizing the version of Christianity appropriated by the political economy (used to explain finite realities – the hand-in-the-market – rather the creator/first-cause of finite reality). So he succeeds in querying religious immanentism or humanist/positivist metanarratives but fails at finally displacing Christianity

Marx also failed to see that identifying something as an illusion does not necessarily lead to its demise. All economies, after all, are illusory and cannot ultimately be founded rationally. No more or no less rational than other economies, capitalism is just more predictable. The production of an illusion therefore cannot simply be linked to a particular force of production because this process is ubiquitous. (Milbank also adds here that no economic theory is more “natural” than another. According to Baudrillard, for instance, political economies fundamentally distort/produce our perspective of what it means to be human. Therefore, capitalism is only sustained insofar as we continue to agree/reify its definition of “human nature”)

According to Milbank, religion can only be validly criticized if in fact there really does exist a “pre-religious”, “natural” state of existence (what Marx terms “pre-cultural humanity”). Since this perspective is ultimately unfounded religion can only be criticized from another religious or quasi-religious perspective. Thus, Marx still retains assumptions implicit to political economy by reifying its conception of “human nature”. Marx, following Hegel’s dialectic of history, believes capitalism actually reveals the “true nature” of economics which was previously concealed. Hence, he does not recognize the historically contingent character of economics.

In addition to Milbank’s critiques of Marx, there is not such thing as a pure “use-value”. Rather, desire is manufactured (i.e., advertisment) by those who want to gain the advantage of a profit margin. Thus, capitalism has to do with both production and exchange in determining value. Capitalism is also tautological in that its ends and means are identical: the increase of wealth and profit. Thus it does not contradict itself and does not appear irrational. Hence why it is able to sustain itself (i.e., it has sustained itself longer than Marx predicted) so long as people, “the losers”, do not interrupt it. However, workers are content with the illusion of capitalism because it delivers the goods so to speak. Even nihilists will accept capitalism because, while they don’t find it “natural” in the realist sense, it honestly acknowledges the arbitrariness of life – thus it can absorb and overcome all forms of ideology. Capitalism, rather than finding itself irrational (the many working for the few), persistently re-establishes itself with new modes of competition and work

In conclusion, we always live under illusions and ideologies. The question then is not whether we will be guided by a religion/quasi-religion but rather which one. To replace the amoral and expedient quasi-religion of capitalism with a moral and just society is the kind of proposal Milbank has in mind; to integrate economic society with virtue. In a religio-political community that is concerned with truth and beautry ethics/aesthetics would be coordinated with production and exchange. This sort of telological integration is missing in Marx, who is at fault of “craft idiocy” or the production of crap material. At least the antique polis and the medieval guilds provides a comparison to capitalist oppression where friendship, caritas and reconciliation were exercised. Ultimately, according to Milbank, “dialectical synthesis” for Marx or Hegel fails to replace antagonistic tensions with peace and harmony.

Origins of the Secular Age

William Cavanaugh, in the essay “The City: Beyond Secular Parodies” which can be found in the book Radical Orthodoxy: New Theology, argues that the modern state is a bad imitation of the church in that it offers salvation to its participants. He locates this promise in the writings of theorists such as Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke who all agree on a  competitive condition of nature. Therefore, in their words, the only way individuals can be saved from this inevitable social violence and protect their their person and property is to enter into social contracts with others. Furthermore, religion should be limited to private opinion and belief because if it should actually make a practical difference the result would be inter-societal discord; e.g. the “Wars of Religion” (Cavanaugh makes an important point that religious wars have actually had much more to do with money and land conflicts than beliefs). Cavanaugh concludes that while the state might at best keep individuals from interfering with the right’s of others, it does not have the ability to “enact a truly social process.” In other words, it is unable to unify people as contributing participants working together towards a common purpose like the church can.

On the other hand Jeffrey Stout in his book Democracy and Tradition argues that the “secular state” has much more humble origins. Rather than emanating from high theory, secularization was the practical result of differing theological perspectives. According to Stout, by the end of the seventeenth century Christianity was having trouble finding agreement on what biblical interpretations were authoritative so they resolved their differences by turning to grounds other than their religious beliefs to settle disputes. Simply appealing to the “Bible’s answer” or a “plain sense” to Scripture did not work because a plurality of hermeneutics existed . Hence, religious diversity – even with shared common texts – gave way to secularization and the need to dialogue with others in public over the reasonableness and persuasiveness of our practical commitments.

The Politics of Jesus

YoderThe phrase, the politics of Jesus, is somewhat peculiar to most contemporary evangelicals because it is assumed that Jesus did not have anything to say about politics and perhaps if he did, it is only for his age and has no relevancy for today in our cultural milieu. Jesus is predominantly dismissed as having no social ethic so we fault by going to other sources, such as natural law, to answer political questions. Therefore Jesus is limited to effecting the individual believer rather than societies. Jesus only dealt with spiritual and personal matters, not social matters it is argued. But what isn’t political about the word kingdom which Jesus used so regularly and without accident?

“Jesus’ concept of the coming kingdom was borrowed extensively from the prophetic understanding of the jubilee year,” Yoder argues (36). It is a social and political reality where people are freed from oppression and suffering in this age. The parables and prayers of Jesus stem from this theme of Jubilee. Slaves are made free, debtors are forgiven monetary debts, and land is returned – all social realities of jubilee. Jesus was killed for the political implications of the gospel he preached and he didn’t correct people when they accused him of such. It is for these reasons that the “Gospel record refuses to let the modern social ethicist off the hook. It is quite possible to refuse to accept Jesus as normative; but it is not possible on the basis of the record to declare him irrelevant” (99). Jesus had a lot to say that has political implications for us Christians today. By looking to the early church, prior to Constantine coming to power and establishing Christianity as the religion of the empire, we see this sort of political implementation evident.

Unfortunately the gospel has been influenced far too greatly by individualism which has limited Jesus to the “heart” and it is assumed then that we have to go to other sources for social ethics and political insight. So what is the social political reality that Christ called into existence through his life? It is the church. The church is to be an alternative kingdom that stands in contrast to the rest of the world. This is often not the case though because in reality the church often ends up mimicking the surrounding culture with its own Christian version (much like the Christian music industry). Our sanctuaries look like theatres, our messages are therapeutic to help you have the best life now full of happiness and cash, and our presentations are slick, polished, and timely just in time for you to get home in order to catch the kickoff of that day’s game. But the gospels and epistles present a different reality of the church. The world teaches individualism but the church teaches self-sacrifice, discipleship, and a shared life. The world teaches power and coercion, even violence, but the church teaches peace and reconciliation. Not only does the church teach these truths and virtues but it embodies them as well.

How then are we to regard the government placed over us, for aren’t we to recognize that authority? As Yoder puts it, “What is ordained [by God] is not a particular government but the concept of proper government, the principle of government as such” (201). We are therefore called to subordination but not necessarily obedience. “Subordination means the acceptance of an order, as it exists,” but not unreflecting obedience. “Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying” (212).

What is also important for Yoder is the use of law in the Bible. Law is not primarily intended to strike our hearts with fear of failure, as commonly perceived by Protestants, thus leading us to an inevitable and necessary redeemer who takes away our individual sin and granting us a personal secure spot in heaven. Rather the law, both in ancient Israel and for the church post-Pentecost, is primarily for the purpose of distinguishing God’s community as a different social reality in the world. “The work of Christ is not only that he saves the soul of individuals and henceforth they can love each other better; the work of Christ, the making of peace, the breaking down of the wall, is itself the constituting of a new community” (223). For the early church this was most evidenced by the inclusion of both Jew and Greek, male and female in the church – a new social reality. Do we have the courage today as the early Christians did then to live into an alternative community and an alternative story in contrast to the rest of the world?

Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur – Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow him.

Democratic Dialogue

How is it possible for citizens of various viewpoints to agree on fundamental political questions? This seems even more implausible in an environment that is politically charged with caricatures and inflated demons thus leading to separate camps that are incapable of healthy interaction.

stoutThe unrealistic strategy up to this point has tended to be a multicultural ethos of tolerance and cordiality that overlooks deep commitments and differences in favor of finding lowest-common denominators we can all reasonably agree on; the outcome of which has been managerial proceduralism. Jeffrey Stout hopes for a more radical democracy in line with the tradition of Emerson and Whitman among others. A common thread to his book Democracy and Tradition is that political dialogue in democratic societies requires citizens and politicians to articulate the premises underlying their practical commitments in as much depth and detail as possible so that other parties may evaluate the reasonableness of such arguments and critically evaluate them. If they don’t, Stout correctly observes that “we will remain ignorant of the real reasons that many of our fellow citizens have for reaching some of the ethical and political conclusions they do” (64). This is precisely why freedom of religion and expression should be upheld.

In this way conversation need not begin from “an already-agreed-on, common basis” as was the objective of Enlightenment thought. Instead, by respecting each persons’ dialectical location citizens can comfortably demonstrate the persuasiveness of differing points of view as well as face skeptical objection from the public.

The democratic thread in Luke

The Gospel of Luke, as elaborated by Rowan Williams in Christ on Trial, is written for those who are not Jews for the purpose of elucidating the boundary-less inclusivity of the Gospel. The main characters of the story therefore are outsiders such as shepherds and tax collectors. Through the narrative of Luke Jesus is continually coming into contact with these “insignificant” characters of society thereby relocating where the “center” of society is perceived to be located. By associating ourselJesus with Childrenves with the marginalized of society we join and become the unheard people of society. This of course has no “useful” outcome, but that is exactly the point. We correctly associate ourselves with the marginalized of civilization not because they are superior or morally pure, this would only flip right side up the upside down politics of Jesus, but because they represent that which we do not have control over.

Rather than placing ourselves in liminal places, it is our constant temptation and anxiety to situate ourselves with the “insiders” of society and suspend the enactment of reconciliation. To be silent and listen to others on the hand is to allow God to make the kind of connections we cannot make on our own. Listening to the stories of others is often an unsettling encounter since it is our desire to have others see things the same way we do. By allowing strangers to remain “strange” and different is to learn from the stranger, unsettling our sense of control. Conversation beyond proselytizing is the opportunity given to us to listen to others and enlarge our world. This of course begs the question of whether or not we are in a place, literally, where we can listen to the outsider.

The startling presence of the powerless reminds us that we do not live in a world that is nicely organized and categorized. Jesus is radical for us because he doesn’t compete in a competitive market, but becomes the outsider himself. As Christians, we not only seek solidarity with the excluded of society, but also recognize the poverty and helplessness in ourselves that we fear and hide from others. To adhere to Jesus’ advice that we should become like children therefore might mean our need to recognize our own helplessness and lack of control.