How the Church Lost Power (thoughts on some reviews)

A couple of recent books–one reviewed on The Other Journal and one reviewed on Per Caritatem–seem to develop what is now becoming a commonplace argument in theological circles.  In the effort to revitalize a kind of Christian politics that is separated from American nationalism, this argument offers a genealogy of the religion-secular divide.  It could be titled:  How the Church Lost Power.

In this argument, the Christian West used to be a unified community where religion was not a private, intellectual belief but a virtue that bound this community together.  Then along comes “modernity” and the “rise of nation states.”  In an effort to discipline and control the bodies of its citizens, power shifts from the ecclesial community to the national community.  Religion arises from this shift:  “religio” is no longer this communal virtue explicitly tied to proper worship of the Triune God but is now a matter of an individual’s private, interior feelings or beliefs (about a set of doctrines).  Religion moves inside, and the secular–the realm of politics and bodies–is governed by the state (its powerful agents and the market).  The punch line is that this configuration of religion and the secular represents an appropriation of Christian ideas (salvation, etc):  the nation form is religious, and Christianity is inherently political.  The church’s task today is to regain its political form.  It should refuse surrendering our bodies to the violence of the nation state and once again display its (peculiar, peaceful, good, beneficent, liberatory, revolutionary, etc) political life.

A few quick critiques of this admittedly broad outline.  First, the stories about the “rise of modernity” or “the nation-state” generally–and quite oddly–have the church and Christian theologians as passive agents.  Quoting the review quoting Cavanaugh:  “The religious-secular distinction also accompanies the state’s monopoly over internal violence and its colonial expansion.”  In an effort to wash Christianity’s hands clean of the formation of the nation (and its colonial expansion), these thinkers have to attribute the evils associated with the rise of the nation state (capitalism, violence, colonialism) to the state itself, as if the state–and not Christianity–was the agent of its birth.

This leads to the second point:  the formation of “modernity” (and the nation, religion, the secular, etc.) needs to be placed in a broader context, specifically, the Crusades.  Quoting T. Masuzawa,

the efforts of early European explorers to reach India were aimed at more than lowering the cost of pepper or outwitting Venetian monopolists [global capital]; for, in the eyes of those navigational pioneers, their expeditions were veritable missions in the continuing crusade…The conquest of Islam…was the utmost exigency for European modernity at the moment of its inception (The Invention of World Religions, 185-186).

Third:  the virtue of “religio” (in the sense it is summoned from the past by these Christian political theorists) was formed as it is related to–deployed against–heretics, infidels, and the pagan rest.  If “religio” is the proper worship of the Triune God, then other “religions” represent heretical departures or failed approximations to Christianity.  Thus, you can have a book with the title:  Nazarenus, or Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity (1718; referenced by Masuzawa, p. 49).  The Christian community is the community of true “religion” or true worship, and thus all other human communities can be judged by comparison to this authentic, virtuous, fully human community (religion being a “moral virtue” considered as part of a discussion of justice, not faith, by Thomas Aquinas).  The reviewer of Cavanaugh picks up this point, stating (unfortunately without a hint of irony):

if the root of the problem of anemic ecclesial theopolitics is located partly in very particular and erroneous—even idolatrous—appropriations of the Christian theological tradition (Scripture first and foremost), then does Christian syncretism not override modern liberalism and state co-option as the primary problem for ecclesial identity and practice today?

There is much I want to say about this–in fact, a refrain from Battlestar Galactica comes to mind:  all this has happened before, and all this will happen again (meaning, this concern over syncretism–inquisitions, Jewish blood laws–attended the Christian production of the modern, colonial world).  Perhaps it is best, at least for my mental health, to end by quoting another source: Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy.  Lord have mercy.

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7 Responses to How the Church Lost Power (thoughts on some reviews)

  1. Tim, so many thoughts, so thanks.

    It seems like there are at so many Christianities (or narrations thereof) at work here:
    (a) Catholic empire (i.e., the Crusades and the colonies)
    (b) Protestant empire (in the Max Weber linking of Calvinism and Capitalism)
    (c) Post-colonial attempts at Christianity (Catholic via Cavanaugh, Anabaptist via Hauerwas), which at their best require repentance of Christianity and a return to Christo-(and cruci-)formity, but often become exactly what you’re talking about
    (d) One which you don’t mention, but which plays a role here is how the identification of culture and Christianity as a lost good is found in Orthodox theology (frighteningly so, given the history of church and state in Russian Orthodoxy, in some Schmemann)
    (e) Post-colonial attempts at Christianity which narrate the history differently and thus have a different idea of what the future might look like (Carter, Jennings, this blog post)

    (C) and (E) seem to be totally at odds with each other in the current discourse and in this blog post, and my question is whether there is room for a synthesis. To me, Hauerwas and Cavanaugh (and disciples) provide a hole-filled metanarrative for the past, then try to get to ‘true Christianity’ in terms of a work of ‘recovery’ or ‘rehabilitation.’ Carter and Jennings likewise provide a likewise hole-filled metanarrative of history and have as yet said much less about what that means for today. Is there room for synthesis (or, What makes them so intractably incompatible)?

    At least two other things:
    (1) The idea that Christianity is the ‘true religion’ which all other religions fall short of is not a modern idea. Neoplatonic Jewish theologians were making the same arguments before Christ, and the earliest Christian philosophers and theologians made the same arguments as well. Even Paul’s discussions of the idol to an Unknown God in Acts could be read in that light.
    (2) Reading the Crusades as attempting the conquest of Islam is an important critique of Christianity, but the other side of that coin is reading the same history (or rather the centuries directly before the Crusades) as Islam’s attempt at the conquest of Christianity. Both Islam and Christianity have been strongly allied with empire. Are there differing standards for critique for those two equally empire-seeking religions? Is Christian colonialism worse than Muslim colonialism? (And if so, is this because of the differences between the two religions, including the claims made by the person and life of Christ which Hauerwas and Cavanaugh want us to focus on?)

    All the same, reading recent Milbank articles on Islam makes one wonder what he’s learned from reading Medievals during this most recent coming of Islam into ‘Christendom’, and how he plays into this ‘commonplace argument in theological circles’ that you’re talking about. I think of him when reading your last paragraph.

  2. Tim McGee says:

    Nick–
    Thanks for the thoughts. I think I’ll press more into the question of genealogy in a future post (I have one in mind, on the patrimonial nature of these histories: the secular as misbegotten child, properly, son, of theology).

    On the other things: (1) I’m trying to point out that a retrieval of “religion” in the Thomistic sense (as human virtue) involves a claim that the ecclesial community embodies the properly human (just, virtuous) community, of which every other community is a departure (heretics), sinful refusal (infidels), or failed approximation (pagans). This viewpoint is at the origin of the problem (which Carter will trace through Christian supercessionism) and hence shouldn’t be seen as a path forward. Paul was certainly up to something different.
    (2) The historical fact is that Islam did not, and Christianity did, divide the entire globe between its members and had the power to do so. I don’t think it is politically useful to imagine what a specific Islam would have done if it had achieved global dominance. The line of inquiry you are opening up seems to be Milbankian in the sense of: thank God Christians colonized the world because those Muslims would have been far worse (and, in contemporary politics, only a renewed Christian global power can save us from the dual Islamic / secularist threat). Obviously, I know that isn’t where you are intending to go but I think that is where the question is heading.

  3. Brad A. says:

    Tim, I appreciate your engaging with my review of Cavanaugh, though I’m not entirely sure you adequately distinguished between my voice and his, nor appreciated the modest scope of my comments. I certainly admit to subscribing to much of his narrative and his critique, but where I diverge (as only hinted at, really, in my critique) is somewhat in conjunction with a couple of your concerns here. I was indirectly pushing back against the very notion that the church is merely passively acted upon, rather than being directly complicit in the very problems he identifies. This is demonstrated for me in the nationalist interweaving of national narratives with the Christian salvation narrative (broadly speaking), a problem emanating largely from within the church itself. My last statement, which you quote here, was written with Christian nationalist discourse in mind as the “syncretized” faith, incorporating very particular theological traditions, posited over and against his notion of modern “religion” (which he would see nationalism relying upon) as transhistorical and transcultural. If you wish to argue that Christian nationalism is something we should uphold, then feel free to do so, but I doubt that’s what you mean, either. Inquisitions (another interweaving of narratives for the sake of upholding the state – check out Anthony Marx) aren’t at issue. And for what it’s worth, having the church in power or a restored Christendom could not be further from my intent or my argument – I’ve been too influenced by Yoder/Hauerwas for that (since they certainly do not necessitate the moves alluded to in Nick’s #3). And I’m not a fan of Milbank…

  4. Tim McGee says:

    Brad,
    Thanks for jumping in. I tried to fix the beginning to make it more evident that I’m trying to capture a general argument that has appeared in a couple of recent books. I apologize for not making that clearer. Also, I had a sentence in the post mentioning that you catch the problem of making Christianity the passive victim of the rise of the nation; it was edited out (the economy of space, especially on a blog).

    The reference to the Inquisition was intended to help set up what for me is the more relevant connection, the Jewish blood purity laws, laws enacted around the time the Christian West (through the Iberian peninsula) was crusading by exploration. At the birth of modernity is thus not just the conquest of Islam but also the definition of a pure Christian ecclesial body through the expulsion of a contaminated and contaminating form (Jewish converts). This moment is important in capturing how racial logic and the subsequent racial state was formed within the Church’s concern for “religio” (as human moral virtue and the formation of a properly human–just–community).

    To put it in genealogical terms (which are linked to the problem of syncretism): I don’t think one should counter conservative nationalism through the invention/re-creation of a properly formed ecclesial body that can ensure it (re)produces itself free from, or at least maintain power over, such syncretic contaminations (I am intending to draw the discourses of race, nation, and sexuality into this ecclesiology). I find your identification of syncretism as the political problem troubling because I see this concern over syncretism and the production of a proper, Christian body as the root of the problem. To oversimplify: one should not counter the messianic state with the messianic church because the latter is what actually formed the world in which the messianic, racialized nation state could function (and this kind of messianic ecclesiology is what binds, I think, someone like Hauerwas to a Milbank figure).

  5. Brad A. says:

    Tim, thanks for the clarifications. Without our understanding each other’s research, this discussion can only go so far, of course, but suffice it to say that I find an explanation that makes the church exclusively culpable as untenable as one that completely acquits or exalts it. Matters were always more nuanced than that, hence my reference to Anthony Marx’s argument regarding the Inquisition as primarily the consolidation of state power via “selective domestic exclusion,” in the very form you mention here. Where the authors you’re suspicious of might neglect or understate the church’s role in that, I don’t, but I also don’t see it as singularly responsible.

    While I don’t buy into your interpretation of these arguments (or Hauerwas’s, or mine) as aiming toward a “messianic ecclesiology” (again, a great deal of unclear prior knowledge and interpretation assumed there), I would be interested to know what you perceive as the better alternative to the problem in your last paragraph here.

  6. Tim, I think we might be talking past each other on the ecclesiology issue. And the same might be happening as well on the ‘world religions’ side.

    Ecclesiology–what does either the Carter view or the view you see in these reviews say about what the kingdom of God that Jesus is always on about actually looks like? And do the communities which are formed to be a proclamation of that kingdom have political lives? Finally, can those political lives be more or less faithful in comparison to each other? I certainly agree that an overemphasis on any type of ideological or doctrinal purity is a problem, but those are the basic questions that the conversations of Hauerwas/Yoder and Cavanaugh about theopolitics are about, and I think they’re important conversations which theologians more formed by postcolonial theory need to take part in.

    Islam–My point is that the Masuzuwa quote that you provide fails to give *enough* context in limiting the causes of modernity to the desire for conquest of Islam. There is both offense and defense on the part of Christendom in the Crusades (at least the early ones) and throughout the history of Islam meeting Christianity in Europe. To read it as the quote seems to, that only Christianity desires conquest of the other, is a poor reading of the history of empire. And to build historically-based theology on poor history produces problematic theology.

    I don’t need to say this, but I’m not at all glad for Christians colonizing the world or for contemporary attempts (particularly in Western Europe) at racializing Europe against a racial Islam, but when Christian colonialism is scrutinized by a different standard than Muslim colonialism, the reasons need to be on the table. Milbanks is wrong, but at least he’s talking about it.

  7. Tim McGee says:

    Brad and Nick,
    To get at a few questions (on something other than messianic churches), here’s a Bonhoeffer quote I find helpful:

    “But if Jesus is the Christ, the Word of God, then I am not primarily called to do the things that he does; I am met in his work as one who cannot possibly do the work he does. It is through his work that I recognize the gracious God. My sin is forgiven, I am no longer in death, but in life. All this depends upon the person of Christ, whether his work perishes in the world of death or abides in a new world of life….There remans just one more chance to gain access to Jesus Christ. This is the attempt to be in the place where the Person reveals himself in his own being, without any compulsion. This is the place of prayer to Christ [and Bonh. has earlier stated that “The proletarian does not say, ‘Jesus is God’. But when he says, ‘Jesus is a good man’, he is saying more than the bourgeois says when he repeats, ‘Jesus is God’.”]”
    (from Christ the Center, 38).

    I might try to put a post up later exploring what the “Incognito” of Christ (Bonhoeffer, following Kierkegaard) means for an ecclesiology (a church that cannot define itself, or whose identity is deferred or hidden, e.g., Matt. 25).

    Matters are way more nuanced then the account I gave as well. It’s a matter of emphasis for certain political and theological points (e.g., cutting off the turn to ecclesiocentric or pre-modern/Thomistic discourses as “solutions” to the problem of colonial modernity). I am not saying that crusading explorations against Islam are a sufficient explanation for colonial modernity (the quote also mentioned concerns of global capital) but simply that it is necessary and failure to take account of it risks the formation of an answer that reproduces the problem.

    Nick, in my previous post, I suggest that Europe cannot discuss “islamic extremism” productively until it takes into account how it this desire to police “the jew, the arab” (Anidjar) is at the heart of Europe’s history. I don’t think imagining what an Islamic, global imperial would have looked like is helpful here. The question is about a history of the present, and the present was formed out of this theological moment.

    More needs to be said, but I got to get to church!

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