Post-nationalistic Theology and Fictive Christian Ethnicity

There was recently a discussion at the Inhabitatio Dei blog about whether “postliberalism” was a defined and coherent school of thought.  Instead of searching for the commonality within one stream (“postliberalism”), I am interested in looking at a trajectory which holds together even a larger number of theologians (e.g., postliberalism and radical orthodoxy).  The trajectory linking many contemporary theologians can be called:  the production of Christian identity beyond nationalism, or to make it a little shorter, post-nationalistic Christianity.

E. Balibar, in “The Nation Form” (printed in __Race, Nation, Class__), clarifies the relationship between the rise of the modern nation state and religious identity.  Nationalism did not ultimately arise as an analogous form of religiosity, for despite whatever commonalities one can find between the two, the difference remains even greater.  The transfer of religious ideals–“the sense of the sacred and the affects of love, respect, sacrifice, and fear which have cemented religious communities” (95)–to the nation presupposes this difference.  Otherwise, “it would be impossible to understand why national identity, more or less completely integrating the forms of religious identity, ends up tending to replace it, and forcing it itself to become ‘nationalized’ (ibid).  To describe nationalism as simply a modern religion is to render oneself unable to account for the way nationalism absorbs, replaces, and modifies the very category of religion. 

Post-nationalistic Christianity attempts to interrupt this nationalistic absorption and transformation of the religious community.  Various post-nationalistic theologians attempt to rupture a kind of civic hold on Christian discourse by refusing to place Christian terms within a larger, broader, communal framework (enlightened, secular, American, religious).  The attempt to articulate Christian communal identity within the language of these (self-professed) larger communal forms is the acquiescence to a nationalistic absorption of Christianity.  Christianity loses its distinctness as it becomes merely one of many symbolic discourses striving to articulate something more fundamental than its own terms (human solidarity, transcendence, the divine, freedom, love, etc).  Christianity is ultimately subordinate to and supplanted by a community that transcends and determines it, as this community itself (America, Britain, Europe, the West, the global community) fully embodies the ideals symbolically expressed within Christianity.  

To escape this nationalistic absorption and domination of Christian identity, these theologians imagine/produce a Christian identity that is in some way prior to and hence uncontaminated by the rise of the nation. This Christian tradition is a viable, living tradition through its set of shared communal practices and grammar/language.  Whether through an embrace of liturgical Latin or a careful analysis of the grammatical norms of Christian speech, this traditional community actively re-produces its life, and therefore, is a living community today.  This language/grammar is embedded within the life and practices of this cultural tradition, and thus to enter into the language/grammar is to also enter into this cultural form that precedes or escapes the formation of national identity.  

Practices and grammar presuppose structures for preserving and inculcating the communal life.  To speak the grammar rightly is to be tutored by and formed within these communal institutions (the church, the confessional, the liturgy, the reading of Scripture, the sacraments, etc).  The nationalist absorption of this alternative community functioned both by insisting on alterations to the language/grammar and also splitting the language of the community from its cultural form (separating theology from liturgy or ecclesial life); therefore, these post-nationalistic theologians reclaim both the fullness of the Christian grammar and root it firmly in its ecclesial, communal life.  

Finally, these post-nationalistic theologies believe that, through this return to a traditional, discrete, and proper Christian form, the Christian community can engage the world confidently.  By critiquing the nationalistic formation of community, and by claiming to represent a significant and more appealing (whether aesthetically, virtuously, or rationally) communal life, these theologians imagine a Christian engagement with (and betterment of) the outside world that is not apologetic but is based on a robust self-confidence in the integrity and probity of their distinct cultural form.  

The problem is that this imagined “return” to a community somehow prior to the rise of the nation is itself part of the formation of nation.  To return to Balibar:  “It is fictive ethnicity which makes it possible for the expression of a preexisting unity to be seen in the state” (96).  The imagination of an ethnic community preceding the state happens after the state forms as a way to make such a formation seem natural.  Given that religious communal identity is altered by the rise of the nation, religious forms themselves will have become embedded in the production of “fictive ethnicity.”  To attempt to return to some pre-nationalistic religious form is to both ignore the way religion has become part of the production of fictive ethnicity as well as to reproduce the very ways in which fictive ethnicity is imagined.  To summarize Bailibar: language and cultural institutions (school, family) are the two pillars that support the production of the ethnic community.  Linguistic norms separate out the proper and improper instantiations of the community; schools ensure that these linguistic and cultural norms are instilled in the population; the family becomes a contested site since it is now necessary to ensure the proper and prevent the wayward reproduction of the ethnic community.  Racial identity arrises as ethnic communities merge into one large community seen as coterminous with the national community and undergirding the state.  

Given the previous outline of post-nationalistic theologies and Balibar’s analysis of the production of fictive ethnicity, one suspects that this Christian communal identity operates as a kind of fictive ethnicity.  The Christian community is distinguished as a distinct linguistic and cultural form.  Behind the various institutional components (church, liturgy, catechesis, confession, creeds, etc) lies a singular Christian community (hence it is an ecumenical theology); the institutional forms function to create, reproduce, and display the natural life of this community (hence a focus on ecclesiology and liturgy).  The institutional forms display the inner logic of this community (its virtues) as well as preserve the (distinct, peculiar) community from outside, contaminating influences (hence the genealogical quest to identify the moment of corruption and to remove the lingering effects).  Renewed attention is paid to the proper formation and reproduction of the community (“orthodoxy”)–the past historical forms (“tradition”) must be preserved for the sake of the survival and proper salvific function of the community (hence the urgency of the theology and its interest in missions).  Outside sources must be excluded, or at least rigorously purified, before entrance (one sees this not only in theological discussions–where a source is excluded from conversation by virtue of its improper, unorthodox, origination–but also in the wish for longer and more rigorous paths towards conversion).  “Though formally egalitarian, belonging to the linguistic community–chiefly because of the fact that it is mediated by the institution of the school [church]–immediately recreates divisions…The greater the role taken on by the education system [ecclesial institutions] within bourgeois societies, the more do differences in linguistic (and therefore literary, ‘cultural’, and technological) competence function as caste differences, assigning different ‘social destinies’ to individuals” (103-104).  As a fictive ethnic group, the Christian community inherits the same unresolved tension between assertions of egalitarian universalism and the rigorous concern to preserve its particularity.  

I share many of the concerns that drive these post-nationalistic theologies but unfortunately, I do not think they take into account the way race and fictive ethnicity intervene in any attempt at “retrieval.”  The religious world is set inside the racial world, and one cannot imagine a religious community that escapes “the nation form” without giving serious theological thought to the way Christian identity functions as a “fictive ethnicity.”  

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7 Responses to Post-nationalistic Theology and Fictive Christian Ethnicity

  1. Tony Hunt says:

    Couldn't this be redirected into a constructive co-operation? You could contribute a proper account of race into the critique of nationalism rather than pitting them against each other?

  2. Tony,Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure I get exactly what you're driving at, so if this response misses it, please let me know. If the underlying communal logic is still being governed by a kind of fictive ethnicity, then I'm not sure how one can add a "proper account of race" without first interrogating and redirecting the theological "critique of nationalism." If the communal form that is taken to provide a critique and alternative to the nation form actually exists within a racial ossature, then any critique of this ossature will necessarily unsettle (at a minimum) that account of religious community, and therefore, its critique of nationalism as well. Obviously, this doesn't mean one should abandon the critique of nationalism (as I said, I'm quite sympathetic to this concern) but simply that the current critique being offered by these theologies is still situated within–and hence unintentionally reproducing–the core of the problem (fictive ethnicity).

  3. Tony Hunt says:

    Tim,I wondered if that was the direction you were going to go with this. Doesn't this succumb to a sort of new foundationalism of critique? "*First* one must build a proper account of race, and only then can a proper account of nationalism be given…" You did say that race was more fundamental than nation. To which it might reasonably be said that gender in fact is more fundamental than race since gender divisions and creations exist within races, or even tribes within race, etc..I would suggest that trying to locate a more and less fundamental standpoint for critique misses how liquid such positions in fact are. Have you read Graham Ward's work? Specifically his "Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice" spends a fair amount of space clearing out an account of "standpoint epistemologies" which seem to me to be complimentary to your concerns and open to expansion via a racial examination.

  4. Tony,I would stress not "first" but "within": one cannot critique the nation form outside of or apart from race. I don't see any reason to think that this entails a quest for "the" most foundational term or problematic. E. Balibar, in the chapter I'm discussing, does in fact discuss the role of sexism within the production of fictive ethnicity, as well as the transition from ethnicity to race. I'd also like to think that I'm not striving to find some epistemological pure ground or complete perspective from which to critique and then theologize (and thus need not get caught up in securing a solid foundation or making sure I have a pure/purified beginning). As for G. Ward, I have to confess that reading Milbank gave me a strong skepticism of all things RO (which, I admit, isn't fair to G. Ward and isn't meant as a critique-in-advance but as an explanation for why I haven't turned to him as a potentially helpful theological interlocutor).

  5. Tony Hunt says:

    Tim,If you're not looking to make race more foundational for critique then I don't see how your points can sustain themselves because that seems to be your main thrust; that these particular theologians are creating a post-nationalist fictive ethnicity that is fundamentally eschewed because it doesn't seem to take account of race as you think it ought. To which again my response is that I don't see why you can't collaborate alongside some of these, even if in an appropriately critical way. As to Ward, his work, especially in his 'christology' book "Christ and Culture" as well as his cities trilogy, "Cities of God," Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice," and "The Politics of Discipleship" – especially the latter two and especially "Cultural Transformation…" (though Cities deals with gender issues, these two seem more relevant to the interests described by your post). Ward is both like and unlike Milbank, some draw a sharp distinction between them but I don't.

  6. Tony,Thanks for the recommendations on Ward; our last statement however only activates my suspicions. As for critique, I still don't see why my claim that one cannot account for the formation of the nation without attending to race necessitates some kind of commitment to a certain foundational order (for I'd also say that one can't account for racial formation outside of the nation form). I'm not saying junk it all but simply that we should take a better look at what a large group of theologians is actually producing.

  7. should be "your last statement"

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