The Dominant Tradition

As these visions of the state and civil society are incorporated into the various strands of contemporary political theology, they give rise to very different sote-riological, ecclesiological, and eschatological convictions regarding the character of Christian political engagement. What I identify as the dominant tradition of contemporary political theology embraces the standard reading of the state and civil society, whereby those institutions are heralded as agents of freedom while the church is shorn of a concrete political presence in favor of an apolitical or at most only abstractly and generally political presence as a custodian of values. This is to say, the dominant tradition takes as its starting point the modern, Weberian mythos of how human community is ordered. Consequently, the fundamental task of political theology becomes the propagation of the values and ideals deemed necessary to sustain and perfect the freedom that appeared with the advent of modernity. This is evident when we consider three of the major strands of contemporary political theology.

Political theology

"Political theology" proper, that movement begun in Germany in the mid-1960s by Johann Baptist Metz, Jürgen Moltmann, and Dorothee Sölle, arose as a reaction against a bourgeois Christianity that had been so thoroughly privatized that it left the social and political status quo unchallenged (Metz 1981). According to these theologians, as a result of its privatization Christianity is rendered effectively irrelevant in a situation where social and political life approaches the brink of barbarism, as evidenced by Auschwitz, the nuclear arms race, the reality of global poverty, and, more recently, ecological devastation (Moltmann 1999). Over against this domesticated Christianity, political theology envisions the church as an institution of "critical freedom." As such it is not the bearer of middle-class consolations, but the herald of an eschatological future that always calls into question the status quo, destabilizing the present in the name of a peace, justice, and freedom to come.

At first glance, it may strike one as odd to suggest that political theology embraces the modern mythos of politics as statecraft. After all, one of the hallmarks of political theology is its rejection of the bourgeois privatization of the church that deprives the church of any political influence. However, when it is considered how political theology positions itself in relation to the advent of modernity, it becomes clear that the state and civil society are embraced as the principal agents of social and political change while the church's political presence is reduced to that of a guardian of abstract values. Opposed to what it calls a "traditionalist" theology that resists modernity, political theology is forth-rightly and enthusiastically a modern movement (Metz and Moltmann 1995). Indeed, it understands itself to be the theological vision that corresponds to the advance of freedom in the world that went hand in hand with the emergence of the modern West. According to political theology, modernity's emancipation from tradition, the advance of secularization, the Enlightenment, and the rise of the nation-state are all manifestations of a spirit of freedom that infuses history. Of course, political theology is not uncritical in its support of modernity. After all, the freedom that modernity promises has not yet been realized in its fullness - witness the continued struggles against injustice and oppression. Hence, even as they embrace modernity as a stage in the advance of freedom, the political theologians insist that the church function as a permanent critic of any and every social order in the name of a more just future, in memory of history's victims (Metz 1980).

How the vision of political theology correlates with the modern mythos of the state and civil society should be evident. Even as it criticizes the privatized theology of the bourgeois, political theology does not challenge the modern, Weber-ian vision of how social space is ordered. Politics remains a matter of statecraft and the church, as an institution of permanent critique, is political only in the most general and abstract sense that it announces values that have political consequences, that should inform political engagement in the realm of the state and civil society. Indeed, any attempt to give Christianity a more substantive public or political content - whether by associating Christianity with concrete and specific political programs or suggesting that the church is a public, political formation in its own right that might contest the state's hegemony - is denounced as a pernicious form of "political religion" from which modernity has rightly liberated us (Moltmann 1999). Political theology amounts to the demand, in the name of an eschatological future, that Weber's correlation of religious ideals and political realities be completed. In the writing of political theologians this becomes support for progressive politics, whether associated with social democracy, democratic socialism, or human rights more generally.

Latin American liberation theology

Latin American liberation theology appeared in the late 1960s and gained global attention through the efforts of theologians such as Hugo Assmann, Leonardo Boff, and Gustavo Gutiérrez. Like its northern cousin, Latin American liberation theology arose as a reaction against a Christianity that was too closely wedded to the status quo. In particular, it was a response to a crisis of faith sparked by an irruption of the poor in Latin America, raising their voices against the poverty that inflicted premature death and the programs that inevitably failed to mitigate their plight (Gutiérrez 1988). Against a church that traded in spiritual verities while ignoring the material plight of the masses, the liberationists articulated a vision of the "church of the poor" that proclaimed the good news of God's "preferential option for the poor" by championing the revolutionary cause of justice and the rights of the poor (Sobrino 1984).

Given that the liberationists are often considered to be among the most politicized of theologians, it is counter-intuitive to suggest they embrace the modern vision of politics as statecraft and cordon off the church in the apolitical realm of values and ideals. Nevertheless, that this is the case is evident in several aspects of their work. Even as they urge the church to opt for the poor, the lib-erationists are adamant that there can be no return to the era of Christendom, when the church directly wielded political power. In this way, the liberationists are as committed to the freedom modernity brought from the ecclesiastic domination of politics as the political theologians. They too recognize the modern desacralization of politics as a victory in the march of freedom through history

(Gutiérrez 1983). The rise of the secular state, and the clear differentiation of the religious dimension of life from the political and economic realms, are achievements rightly celebrated. Yet, as was the case with the political theologians, the liberationists' embrace of modernity is not uncritical (Gutiérrez 1983; Sobrino 1984). They too recognize that modernity's freedom has not yet materialized in its fullness. While political freedoms, such as freedom of speech and thought, have largely borne fruit, social and economic freedoms remain elusive. Hence, modernity's promise is incomplete, and the liberationists prod the church to proclaim justice and support those who struggle for it.

This revolutionary vision, notwithstanding the force of its challenge to the current politico-economic order, is firmly grounded in the modern mythos of politics as statecraft. Whether one considers their early hopes that the oppressed would seize the state and establish a just social order (then usually identified with some form of socialism) or their more recent turn to civil society in the hope that the voluntary associations located there might influence the state, the libera-tionists consistently embrace statecraft and accord the church a public presence that can be characterized as political only in the most general and indirect sense that it, in true Weberian fashion, fosters the values and ideals that should motivate and guide engagement in secular politics. Any more substantive and directly political presence for the church is rejected as a return to the misguided "politico-religious messianism" of a bygone era (Gutiérrez 1983, 1988).

Public theology

"Public theology" is a broad movement of predominately North American theologians that attained prominence in the latter half of the twentieth century. Although their political views range widely from progressive to conservative, these theologians share a commitment to resisting the sectarian impulses in Christianity that would acquiesce in the disintegration of the moral consensus that has underwritten Western liberal polities for generations. These theologians derive from Christianity a "public philosophy" or "public theology" capable of underwriting the moral consensus necessary to sustain the health and vitality of Western liberal society.

In its Catholic manifestations, for example in the work of Richard John Neuhaus and Michael and Kenneth Himes, public theology is a conscious attempt to continue the project initiated by John Courtney Murray (1904-67) of articulating a "public philosophy" for society. According to the neoconserva-tive Neuhaus, it is Christianity's eschatological vision that provides such a foundation (Neuhaus 1987). That vision is a paradoxical one that even as it holds out the transcendent promise of the kingdom of God, recognizes that such a promise must remain a promise, the gift of a transcendent future, and as such it stands in critical judgment upon every human political program. Such a transcendent critique of all politics finds its political correlate in the "American experiment in ordered liberty" insofar as a democratic and pluralist polity linked to a free market economy rightly wards off efforts to impose a single social-political vision while nevertheless nurturing what limited good and freedom is realistically attainable now. The Himeses, too, argue that Christianity provides the moral foundation for a pluralist, liberal democratic social order (Himes and Himes 1993). Their version of public theology seeks to deduce the social significance of the central symbols of the Catholic tradition. This is to say, according to their vision of public theology, Christianity provides a worldview or orientation, expressed in such symbols as the Trinity, Incarnation, and Grace, that founds the core values of Western liberalism at its best - desacralized politics, human rights, solidarity, justice and equality, and so forth.

In its Protestant versions, as developed by theologians such as Ronald Thiemann and Max Stackhouse, public theology locates itself in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), whose career exemplifies the public potential of Christianity, and of theology, in particular. The Lutheran Thiemann develops his vision as a contribution to the effort by Christians to regain a public voice and a sense of public responsibility (citizenship) in a pluralistic culture (Thie-mann 1996). Beyond merely finding a voice, however, like his Catholic counterparts Thiemann believes that Christianity can actively contribute to the construction of a new public philosophy for American public life. In particular, he sees Christianity as a fount of the moral renewal of liberal democracy, which in its commitment to freedom, equality, and tolerance reflects values that correspond to the basic convictions and principles of the Christian faith. Because the Christian Gospel entails the recognition of God's enduring presence in the public realm, it is a source of the hope that is crucial to sustaining the effort of pluralistic liberal societies to work for a common human good. For Max Stackhouse, a Reformed theologian, Christianity rightly understood provides the moral and spiritual fiber for Western civilization (Stackhouse 1984). More specifically, Christianity set in motion a historical trajectory that, under the impact of the Protestant Reformation, eventually blossomed in modern liberal democracy, with its limited (and secular) state, flourishing civil society, and abiding commitment to the universal moral law summed up in modern human rights. Starting from the biblical notion of covenant, the Hebrew prophets, and the life and teaching of Jesus, Stackhouse argues that the basic values of Christianity entail pluralism, the separation of powers, ordered freedom, and a broad social space free from coercion where voluntary, self-governing associations can flourish.

In this brief sketch of several of its prominent incarnations, the affinity of public theology for the modern, Weberian mythos is readily discernible. In each of these conceptions, politics remains a vision of statecraft. The public theologians share an aversion to the medieval vision of an immediately public and concretely political church as a terrible distortion of the faith. Indeed, they insist that Christianity, rightly understood, is essentially a matter of values, world-views, or basic orientations from which no specific political agenda can be inferred in any direct and unmediated fashion. Hence, what constitutes the public character of public theology is the insistence that the Weberian correlation be completed. More specifically, the "publicness" of public theology takes the form of the call for the recognition that Christianity's value-system or vision is necessary for the enduring viability of modern liberal social orders. And at the pinnacle of those social orders, suitably restrained and guided, as these theologians insist, by a vibrant civil society, rests the sovereign state.

Theological synopsis

Earlier I suggested that the most significant division in contemporary political theology was not that between more politically progressive and conservative visions, but rather was fundamentally theological in nature. Important theological judgments underwrite the approaches of the various political theologies to the state and civil society. Ecclesiologically, the dominant tradition consistently portrays the church as an apolitical (or political only in the most general and abstract sense) space that traffics in values and visions, which leaves politics - the concrete arrangement of bodies - to the state. Likewise, the Christian eschatological vision is interpreted either in terms of an absence - named "the future" or "promise" by Neuhaus and the political theologians - that impinges upon the present as a permanent critique or in terms of a presence - the libera-tionists' identification of the Spirit in the revolutionary movement of history or Thiemann's sense of providence in liberal democratic processes - that stimulates political responsibility. Soteriologically, the dominant vision endorses the salvific mission of modern politics (recognizing, of course, that this does not exhaust the fullness of salvation, either temporally or eternally). For at least this time between the times, here and now, salvation takes social and political form in the success of statecraft, whether construed in terms of the universal recognition of human rights, the spread of liberal democracy, the strengthening of the "American experiment," or the establishment of some form of democratic socialism. And the church, as the herald of salvation, is called upon to advance that salvation by fostering the (critical) vision and values that undergird the success of statecraft.

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