The Emergent Tradition

What I am calling the "emergent tradition" of contemporary political theology,1 identifiable with certain postliberal theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Oliver O'Donovan, bears an unmistakable affinity for the alternative reading of the state and civil society which recognizes in the standard account an apologia for the eclipse of the proper public, political character of the church and, consequently, a distortion of its mission. Accordingly, the emergent tradition rejects politics as statecraft and envisions the church as a concrete public, political space in its own right. The contours of this postliberal political theology are best discerned by considering both what it deems problematic in the dominant tradition as well as the ways it attempts to recover an Augustin-ian vision of the church as the site of a distinctly theological politics.

The political captivity of political theology

From the perspective of the emergent tradition, the embrace of the modern mythos, with its account of politics as statecraft, by the dominant tradition is symptomatic of the political captivity of that tradition. An explanation of this charge begins with the politically reductionist nature of the dominant tradition. To suggest that the dominant tradition is politically reductionist is not to claim, as is frequently done, that political theology reduces faith to temporal, political matters and dismisses the transcendent-spiritual dimension of Christianity. Rather, the charge of political reductionism (ironically) pertains precisely to the ways the dominant tradition attempts to distance itself from the charge of reducing faith to politics. Whether it is Neuhaus's eschatological prohibition of sanctifying any political order, Gutierrez's condemnation of "politico-religious messianism," or Metz's and Moltmann's abhorrence of "political religion," the refusal to grant the Christian mythos a political presence more substantive than the "general" or "indirect" role accorded the church as a guardian of values reduces Christian political engagement to the options offered by the world, more specifically, by the regnant liberal order. This is to say, the dominant tradition conceives of Christian political engagement on the world's terms (Milbank 1990). Indeed, each strand is quite explicit in its embrace of modernity's cartography of social and political space. At the heart of the dominant forms of political theology is the insistence that Christians, under the influence of Christian values and vision, commit themselves to politics on modernity's terms, whether in its more conservative or progressive modes, and each strand is equally vehement in its denunciation as sectarian or narcissistically ecclesio-centric any effort to articulate Christian political engagement on terms other than those circumscribed by the modern mythos of statecraft.

What renders this symptomatic of political captivity is the way in which it reflects a certain forgetfulness on the part of the dominant political theologians. They have forgotten their own lesson, that all theology is always already political. The modern differentiation of life into autonomous spheres, the separation of theology and politics, is a ruse. Every theology embodies a mythos, a vision of human community. The political theologians rail against political religion, against the church's identifying with a concrete political program, even as they embrace the political vision of the modern West and insist that Christianity's political task is to nurture that vision. Although they claim that Christianity is not concretely or immediately political, they argue that Christianity is politically correlated with liberalism, statecraft, socialism, "the American experiment." In the end, political theology is but another, albeit modern, instance of the political religion its advocates profess to abhor.

That the dominant tradition is a modern instance of political religion, however, is not what renders that tradition liable to the charge of political captivity. According to the emergent tradition, political religion is not intrinsically problematic. What renders the dominant tradition problematic, and a form of political captivity, is that it sanctions the wrong politics. The dominant tradition is an instance of political captivity insofar as it identifies the Christian mythos with the wrong political correlates - the modern state and civil society.

The dominant tradition rightly fears the deadly results of bad Christian politics (although it erroneously attributes the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century conflicts to the Church simpliciter), but its solution fails. Instead of articulating a true Christian politics, it attempts in vain to distance the church from politics and as a result delivers Christians - body and creed - to the agony of modern politics as statecraft (statecraft has proven at least as bloody as Christendom). The emergent tradition seeks to escape this captivity by recovering a true politics.

Toward a true politics

The emergent tradition's rejection of the modern mythos of politics as statecraft is founded on theological judgments concerning the church, salvation, and eschatology that differ from those that underwrite the dominant tradition. Refusing the modern nation-state's claim to the right to organize human community in its own image, the emergent tradition sees in the practices of the church the true politics. This is to say, the emergent tradition finds the political correlate of the Christian mythos, not in the secular state and civil society, but in the church (Hauerwas 1991; Milbank 1990). Hence, Christian political engagement takes shape in a distinctly theological politics that is not reducible to a Weberian correlation of abstract values with secular political options. The church is no longer viewed as the apolitical (or only "generally" political) custodian of values or worldviews, and its mission ceases to be the advancement of Western liberalism. Rather, Christian politics takes form in the distinct witness of the church to Christ's redemption of politics as the renewal of the friendship/communion of humanity in God.

It is no mistake that the works of two of the leading voices of this effort to recover a theological politics have been compared to Augustine's City of God, for the theologians in the emergent tradition see themselves as working out Augustine's vision of theological politics. Recall that in his City of God Augustine leveled the startling charge against Rome that it was not, in the true sense, a republic. He unmasked the Roman order as politically reductive, as less than a genuine politics, because, founded as it was on self-interest and violent dominion, it could not enact redemption. The communion it offered was but a simulacrum or parody of genuine human community, the true polity or politics. By way of contrast, Augustine lifts up the Christian community. Its life is truly public and authentically political. This is the case, observes Augustine, because the order of its life is liturgical, which is to say that because it eucharistically participates in Christ's reconciling sacrifice it is able to effect redemption - the renewal of human communion/community. And this is precisely what the true polity, the true politics, is about.

Reclaiming the church as the true politics, however, need not necessarily entail a wholesale rejection of other political formations like modern states and civil society. While these postliberal political theologians insist that a properly theological politics precludes a theory of such institutions and their relation to the church (on the grounds that such theories inevitably reify what is properly understood as temporal - meaning, as it originally did in Christian political discourse, "contingent," "passing," "temporary"), some of these theologians, such as O'Donovan and Yoder, have offered ad hoc judgments that amount to modest affirmations of some functions and forms of particular political (or, more accurately, in an Augustinian vein, "sub-political") formations distinct from the church. O'Donovan, for example, has developed a careful and nuanced defense of some forms of early modern liberalism, on the grounds that in some instances early modern liberalism could be construed as a form of statecraft that serves the church by maintaining an order that enables the church to carry out its properly public and political mission, which is the proclamation and ingathering of the true human communion/community (O'Donovan 1996; see also Yoder 1997). One should note that this is an instance, not of erecting the church within the parameters of the modern mythos as the dominant tradition does, but of positioning the early modern state within the Christian mythos, with the result that social and political space is shared by the church and a state for the sake of the church's mission. In other words, O'Donovan's recognition of the early modern state as an (admittedly ambiguous) servant of the church eludes the political captivity of the dominant tradition both by refusing to reduce the church to an apolitical (or only "generally" political) entity and by reversing the direction of authority in the Weberian model, where the church effectively serves the state.

What O'Donovan and Yoder make particularly clear is that the heart of the emergent tradition is not simply the replacement of a sovereign state with a hegemonic church, but a political rendering of the claim that Christ is Lord. For the proponents of the emergent tradition, the claim that the church is the exemplary form of human community is first and foremost a claim that the meaning of all politics and every community flows from participation in Christ. The true form of politics is visible only as every political form is drawn into relation with Christ, the desire of the nations.

Theological synopsis

The emergent tradition's rejection of the modern mythos of politics as statecraft in favor of a distinctly theological politics is founded on the conviction that God is active in history now bringing about a new age, the contours of which are discernible not in Western liberalism, democratic socialism, or the Pax Americana but in Christ, in the work of Christ's Spirit as it gathers Christ's body, the church. There, in that space where humanity is eucharistically joined once again in communion with one another and with God, we see the true community, the true polity, the true politics - a politics that modern statecraft, embedded as it is in the (dis)order of dominion and the endless conflict of self-interested individuals, cannot even dream of, but only mock.

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