And modernity

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Dated from the Medellin Conference, liberation theology is not yet thirty years old. Political theology, by contrast, has many centuries behind it, To define a High Tradition the period 1x00-1650 suggests itself: at one end the Gregorian Reforms bring the conflict between papacy and secular rule to the centre of theological discussion; at the other the Moral Science of the early Enlightenment lifts political theory out of the purview of theology. The dates are especially happy as they coincide with two striking contributions to the genre. From the turn of the twelfth century the anonymous York Tractates argue with theological urgency for the sacral character of monarchy, discredited by the new papalism. From the midpoint of the seventeenth century Hobbes's Leviathan, a work with considerably more theology in it than philosophy, seals the case, as early modernity understood it, for politics as an autonomous theoretical discipline. In between lie the great peaks of political theology, scholastic and reformed. But the High Tradition itself did not spring from nothing, but drew on thinkers and ideas of the patristic and Carolingian ages, Augustine is rightly taken as a founding figure; but before him there were Ambrose, Eusebius of Caesarea (notoriously), and from the pre-Constantinian period Lactantius, And why not mention the second-century Letter to Diognetus, which, in turn, was only building on ideas in x Peter and Philippians . ■ , ?

But the relation of contemporary political theology to the High Tradition can be summed up in a single bleak word: ignorance. The feeling of invigorating new departure is due in considerable measure to the loss of antecedents from our view. Occasionally our contemporaries seize on moments in the tradition and identify their importance: Boff has written on St Francis; and the authors of the South African Kairos Document used the doctrine of tyrannicide from John of Salisbury and St Thomas. But by and large the tradition, with all its wealth of suggestive theo-political debate and analysis, has been eclipsed by the shadow of the modern period. The purpose of this essay is not to criticise liberation theology for this fact (in which, arguably, it merely shares the fate of a great deal of twentieth-century theology), nor to engage in close interpretation of it; but simply to locate it on a rather wider stage of theological history than it is used to locating itself on, and to show how the occluding preoccupations of modernity have constrained its understanding of its own agenda. For liberation theology, like all other political theology of our time, stands in a double relation to modernity, both highly critical and highly dependent,

'Modernity' can be described in many different ways. For our purposes one way is enough. It is characterised by a twofold tradition of radical suspicion directed against the classical political theology. Both suspicions were derived from that theology; but the early-modern consciousness radicalised them and combined them in a way that undermined the theo-political project as a whole.

(i) The first suspicion is voiced in a famous pronouncement of Kant: can actually think of a moral politician, i.e. one who so interprets the principles of political prudence that they can be coherent with morality, but I cannot think of a political moralist, i.e. one who forges a morality to suit a statesman's advantage.'1 Kant meant, of coursc, ironically, that he could think of a statesman forging a pseudo-morality to his advantage, but could not think of anything else 'political morality* might mean! There is the decisive statement of a troubled motif which has recurred throughout the long tradition of Christian political reflection; distrust of a 'forged5 morality, a mere 'legitimation', as our current idiom would express it, for an arbitrary grip on power by given individuals or classes. Politicians are corruptors of moral discourse. Their moral sentiments are like bad coinage pumped into the currency, which can only lower its value and destroy it. This unmasking of political morality is what sets a distance between the Christian West and the Aristotelian conception of cthics as a subdivision of politics.

There are two sides to Kant's objection to the political moralist. In the first place it is a forger)', this morality which serves the convenience of the political order, when a true morality would dictate its terms to the politicians. This claim bears its theological ancestry on its face; there is a true morality to reckon with, not forged from within the political system but compelling it from above; and there is a true order which endures no matter who finds it inconvenient. In the second place, the political order itself should not be treated with too much solemnity, for it is, after all, only a 'statesman's advantage*, a certain constellation of benefits and disbenefits of power which happens to suit one person rather than another. Politics is historically contingent, and therefore arbitrary. Only when subordinated to morality can its claims carry weight with us.

This second claim was of ancient Cynic origin, but long naturalised into Christian thought. When Augustine rhetorically denied the difference between kingdoms and Marge-scale criminal syndicates', he took his inspiration from a popular story about what a pirate said to Alexander: ^Because I use a small boat I am called a robber; because you use a large fleet you are called an emperor!' What raised this quip to the dignity of a political principle was the theological point of view, Augustine was in a position to belittle the political culture of antiquity; he could dismiss its achievements as 'the fragile splendour of a glass which one fears may shatter any moment'; he could do this without turning his back on society as the Cynics did, simply because he could point to a divine authority and a more lasting social order/ Unmasking supposes a theological point of vantage, essentially an eschatological one. Christ has led captivity captive; he has disarmed the principalities and powers; the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. When we claim to have seen through the appearances of political power, we act, as King Lear says, Sas if we were God's spies',3

So Kant disposes of the political moralist. But it is evident that the political moralist is one and the same as the political theologian, Kant's idea of morality, modelled on the thought of conscience as a form of divine revelation, makes it precisely a surrogate for theology. So we may say that we can think of a theological politician, who interprets the principles of political prudence in a way coherent with God's will, but we cannot think of a political theologian, who forges a theology to suit a statesman's advantage, (Or, again, we can think of one all too easily, but not as a figure who commands authority,) Theological forgery came to the notice of the Christian Church directly from its contest with the religious ideology of the Roman empire. The actual expression 'political theology' can, it has been suggested, be taken back to the civile genus theologiae of the Roman philosopher Marcus Varro, which Augustine dismissed as 'mendacious',4 'Civil rel igion' is the title under which such forgeries are usually discussed today. More circumspectly, but with increasing conviction, Augustine seems to have found the same mendacious tendency in those historians of his time who made the conversion of Constantine and the dawning of the 'Christian epoch' an irreversible step in the unfolding of God's purposes/ But to the moralist of modernity, wielding the inner criticism of reflective consciousness rather than the public criticism of the Church's theology, this critique is directed categorically against all postures which unite theological and political judgments. The suspicion has become total*

(2) The second suspicion is apparently opposite: not the corruption of morality or theology by politicians, but the corruption of politics by theology.

This fear was voiced by the imperialist theologians of die fourteenth century, based on a classicising account of political authority (uniting elements of Aristotle, Roman law and feudalism) which derived it from the will of the people. The anxiety was: could divine authority intervene in politics in any way without overwhelming the authority of political structures? Revelation seemed to pose a threat to political freedom. The experience of confronting Islam, and in later centuries of inter-confessional war in Christendom itself, no doubt made this anxiety worse; but, once again, it was an early-modern philosophical development that extended its scope beyond theocratic hierarchs to reject every kind of political morality or theology.

In the seventeenth century philosophy came to lose confidence in the objectivity of final causes. Political communities, even when created from below, had been believed to be ordained by providence to serve the end of earthly perfection; but now there arose a tradition of explaining societies entirely by reference to efficient causes, focusing these in a notional compact whereby each individual was supposed to have surrendered sovereignty over his own person in return for certain protections. Individual agents had their ends; but objective structures only had their origins. Moral purposes and goals, questions of human virtue and fulfilment, seemed intrusive, another form of theocratic temptation. The internalising of morality, then, led modernity once again to radicalise its suspicions.

In the popular imagination of late-modern liberalism these twin suspicions have broadened and fused together. It is no longer the statesman who stands alone, uniquely suspect. All of us have our political interests, especially class interests, so that all fine public sentiments may be unmasked, from whatever source. Principles of morality, though not denied all claims to truth, may never shape the deliberations of a self-ruling people which determines its will in response to certain recognised and universal pre-moral interests. They are relegated to the status of 'ideals1. The original incompatibility of the two reasons for separating politics and morality (or theology) has been left behind, We still occasionally see old-fashioned sideshows, in which churchmen accuse statesmen of the blasphemous invocation of God's name - the Thatcher era in Britain, replete with atavistic moments, staged one or two of these - and others in which statesmen accuse churchmen of deploying 'the power of the crozier1 - Ireland, forever resistant to fashion, continues to replay this popular medieval morality play. But what has really happened is that the division has become internalised. Each of us has a mind partitioned by a frontier, and accepts responsibility for policing it. It was said of Harold Wilson, preacher and politician, that he would go through the drafts of his speeches removing every echo of the biblical inflexions that came too naturally to him. That is the paradigm for late-modern liberal culture, i*8

Liberation theology, then, is the most effective, though not the only, twentieth-century challenge to this late-modern liberal consensus on the separation of theology and politics. But in framing its challenge, it drew help from secondary currents within late-modernity itself. For epochs are characterised not by positions but debates; it is the way they state their disagreements rather than their agreements that binds the thinkers of any age together. If the primary thesis of modernity has been the liberal one, there have been counter-theses which attempted to put together what liberal convention put asunder. Most notably, the idealist tradition, deriving through Hegel, has reasserted the old Aristotelian claim that morality is a sub-species of politics. This has been reconciled with the modern tradition of suspicion by way of a uniquely modern idea of history. The critical viewpoint was absorbed into the historical process. 'History* is the history of society, which embraces both the patterns of social order and of social right and the moments of unmasking in which these patterns are seen through and overthrown. The Enlightenment consensus itself, with its attempt to establish a pure ethics (whether theological or rational} in the light of which all political dynamisms can be seen through, can itself be seen through. Criticism can be turned back upon the critic ad infinitum* For criticism, too, is the strategy of some actor within the socio-historical polyphony, the representative speech of some historical grouping. With this move the two strands of suspicion in the liberal tradition are safeguarded; but they are woven back into a greater harmony in which ethics and politics are one again. But the matrix is political, not ethical. For it is the social dynamisms of history that provide a context in which moral commitments become intelligible. The autonomous self-justifying character of politics is thus preserved; so is the critical role of moral thought. The philosopher is licensed to go on being sceptical of every claim to authority; but this no longer seems to imply a perpetual distance from the political process; rather, it seems to make a useful contribution to it.

But for this attempt to reintegrate politics and ethics modern idealism paid a fearfully high price. The historical processes of society, offered as the matrix which would unify them, does not, apparently, leave either of them intact. Ethics, on the one hand, is deprived of authority when it is made to serve merely as a reactive critical function. It degenerates into little more than a rhetoric of scepticism- We can see this from the characteristic dilemma which besets the favourite causes of liberal idealism; how to claim moral licence for themselves without licensing their opposites. Each movement of social criticism draws in its train a counter-movement; and there is no ground in logic for paying more or less respect to the one than to the other. So black consciousness, for example, requires (logically), invites (historically) and licenses (morally) a movement of white consciousness; feminism entails male chauvinism; homophilia entails homophobia, and so on. Our intuitions tell us that some of these movements are worth more than their shadows, but our intuitions are allowed no way of justifying themselves, and we are compelled, by the logic of historical dialectic, to give away whatever it is we think we may have gained. Each generation of God's spies has to settle for being spied upon by the next. No one can have the last word. There is, therefore, no end in sight to any issue of contention, except its replacement by some other more urgent one or its collapse from exhaustion. The law of historical process is contingency, and that gives us no space to object when our liberal arguments attract redneck free-riders.

On the other hand, social process, which is supposed to fill the place assigned to politics by Aristotle, is not the same thing as politics at all. The account of society that it yields we call (non-technically) 'sociology1; and though sociology was obviously a classicising movement of thought in its eighteenth-century origins, it was never a classical one. It could not recover the classical innocence which had once conceived as one object of study both the natural ordering of society and the art of government. It had to take into its system the critical deconstruction of the art of government; and that meant that the society in which it hoped to reunite politics and ethics was conceived headless, shorn of its decision-making capacities, an organism that blundered forward undirected save by the unconscious dynamics at work within it. Hence the recurrent charge that sociology was, in fact, anti-political. A politics that does not encompass the direction of society ceases to be a politics at all. But there is no room for direction in a society ruled by the imperative of universal suspicion.

All this goes some way to explain the difficulties faced by the renewed advocacy of political theology in our own time. The primary concern of this advocacy was to break out of the cordon sanitaire in which late-modern liberalism had imprisoned theology. When it has been at its clearest, it has insisted that theology is political simply by responding to the dynamics of its own proper themes, Christ, salvation, the Church, the Trinity: to speak about these has involved theologians in speaking of society, and has led them to formulate normative political ends which are very much more than (a statesman's advantage5. Theology turns out to know about the ends of politics, and perhaps something about the means, too, without being told. It is not a question of adapting to an alien demand or subscribing to an external agenda, but of letting theology be true to its task and of freeing it from a forced and unnatural detachment. Political theology must recover for Christian faith in God, Christ and salvation what scepticism surrendered to mechanistic necessity. Theology must be political if it is to be evangelical- Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God's saving power; you leave people enslaved at points where they ought to be set free from the power of sin - their own sin and other people's,

A theologian who begins from the political discourse of the Kingdom of God will need to prove bona fides by demonstrating how it illumines all the topics that responsible theology attends to: repentance and forgiveness, the incarnation, the sharing of the life of Godhead in the Spirit, justification and adoption, creation and the renewal of the world, the life of the Church and its ministry of word and sacraments. The régula fidei does not prescribe a single starting point for theology; but it warns against making any starting point the stopping point. This is the test of theological seriousness which when any theologian fails to meet, he or she may be charged with arbitrariness. In the High Tradition of political theology such interpénétration of political and doctrinal concerns could be taken for granted. One may think of Grotius's theory of the Atonement, or of James of Viterbo's exploration of the offices of Christ, The liberation theologians, too, have proved their seriousness in this way, not least by bringing back into circulation theological themes for which liberal modernism had no use: judgment, original sin, demon-possession, for example.

Of course, no major movement of thought is unambiguous, especially not a movement of reaction. It is therefore quite possible to see this movement, as some influential liberal critics have seen it, as the dog's return to the vomit of 'legitimation'. In place of the statesman's advantage, it is said, there is the class advantage of the poor. How does that improve matters? But, though this line of attack may find its targets, it fails to recognise the character and inspiration of the movement, which is to take up the cause of the poor as a theologically given mandate. If the question of the poor is, quite specifically, the question of the Latin Americans because it arises in their context, it is at the same time a question for us all, because it arises from scriptural warrants to which we must attend as carefully as they. The excitement which accompanied the rcasscrtion of political theology in the Latin American context was, as we should not forget, very evidently an excitement about reading the Bible,

But neither does the liberal attack identify the true points of weakness in the movement, which arise from its dependence on historicist idealism. We may notice three of these.

First, there is the question of epistemology. The liberationist critique of depoliticised liberal theology starts from a classic argument within the modern idealist tradition; does knowledge, which is by definition knowledge of history, arise retrospectively, as an aftermath, as HegePs famous 'owl of Minerva' metaphor suggests? Or does it arise tnediis in rebus, in the heat of action, as Marx maintained? The critique identifies liberal theology with an encyclopedic conception of theology, organising various departments of knowledge which function on their own terms; and in place of this it looks for a theology which makes its own discoveries on the ground. But can it do this without making 'the ground', i.e. the chosen field of social action, absolutely determinative for valid theological knowledge? Must theology be f?arti pris - and to that extent closed against criticism?

Consider the familiar epistemological programme: "reflecting upon praxis'. It can be taken to suggest certain features of good practical theology:

• that action demands its own proper form of reasoning - 'practical reasoning* the tradition used to call it, though 'deliberation1 is perhaps a better term;

• that as well as practical reasoning towards action we need reflection upon action that can situate our practical engagements within a vision of the world;

• that practical engagement is prior in experience to reflection, so that occasions for understanding open up to us only as we first give ourselves to action,

These three suggestions arc all true, and important. But in the space between reflection and deliberation, as it were, is a moment of transcendent criticism, a moment of obedient attention to God*s word; and that is squeezed out by the collapsing of the two, the backward and the forward glance, into one moment, 'reflection upon praxis5. Our practical engagements now seem to yield all the understanding that we need. We have snatched a knowledge of the world that is fait accompli, stolen from God by getting in first. So our action becomes the predetermining 'matrix' for anything which God may wish to say to us, ensuring that we hear nothing from him but the echo of our own practical energies. And with that we are deprived of the freedom which lies at the root of all freedoms, the freedom to repent-

Exponents of reflection upon praxis have turned in two directions when elaborating the context, which turns out also to be the content, of their theological knowledge. On the one hand, they have spoken of knowledge won in action: the act of 'transforming1 the world gives a privileged viewpoint on the world, a thought which was once meant to be conveyed by the term 'praxis*, now flabby from fashionable over-use. On the other hand, they have sometimes turned to knowledge won from suffering, making solidarity with the oppressed a primary category of epistemology. In fact, neither of these turns could give political theology the epistemological freedom that it sought. The one steered it in a technological direction, opening it to the influence of Western doctrines of progress, the worst possible platform from which to urge the cause of classes marginalised by progress. The other turned it towards the romantic, world-renouncing strands of the European tradition and cut its nerve for action. What it needed, but only sometimes seemed to achieve, was a concept of knowledge gained in obedience. But obcdience is a concept which historicist idealism finds it difficult to make room for, because of its transcendent reference.

Gustavo Gutiérrez seems to me to have articulated this point with perfect clarity: The ultimate criteria come from revealed truth, which we accept in faith, and not from praxis itself. It is meaningless - it would, among other things be a tautology - to say that praxis is to be criticised "in the light of praxis". Moreover, to take such an approach would in any case be to cease doing properly theological work.'6 'Meaningless*, possibly - if one can describe the whole Promethean self-positing of mankind against God as meaningless - and 'tautological', in the sense that all founding axioms are generated from tautology. And most certainly untheologicaL Yet I doubt whether Gutiérrez's repudiation of self-justifying praxis can accommodate the characteristic factitive and transformative language of liberationist epistemology. Take, for example, an earlier statement from the same author: Truth is something verified, something "made true". Knowledge of reality that leads to no modification of that reality is not verified, does not become true/7 Would it have made any difference to the force of these words if he had not highlighted Verified1 as a term of art, and had glossed it, more conventionally, as 'proved true'? Or if he had not spoken of 'modifying', but of acting into reality? Is it only rhetoric, that suggestion, supported from Vico and Marx, that praxis is more than the condition of knowledge, but in fact determines what there is to be known? How can a 'knowledge' by which human beings 'recreate the world and shape themselves' distinguish itself from a naked exercise of will?

Second, by relying on the deconstructive cut bono? question to empower its rejection of liberal secularism, liberation theology finds itself with an unsustainable combination of political affirmation and universal suspicion. It becomes tied in to the eternally inconclusive exchanges of historicism: allegations of sectional interest volleyed to and fro across the net, never to be ruled out of court, never to land beyond reach of return. In a political theology which hopes to be constructive about politics, the cui bono} question has a distinct but strictly limited usefulness- It alerts us to the fact that political theories are related to the actual political commitments of those who hold them. But it does not tell us whether those commitments are good or bad, generous or mean-spirited, true or false. It docs not entitle us to think that no theory ever looks beyond the interest of its proponents. It is therefore useful as an interpretative tool, to test the scope and integrity of any theory; but it cannot provide a vision of reality which could direct or encourage anyone. One cannot gain a truer understanding of the world by criticism alone, any more than one can make mince with a grinder and no meat. Once totalised, criticism evacuates itself and turns into a series of empty gestures. Totalised criticism is the modern form of intellectual innocence; but it is not harmless innocence, unhappily, as it destroys trust and makes it impossible to learn,

We may put the same point theologically by challenging the metaphor in King Lear's invitation, to 'take upon's the mystery of things as if we were God's spies'. God has no spies. He has prophets, and he commissions them to speak about society in words which rebuke the inauthentic speech of false prophets. But true prophets cannot speak only of the errors of false prophets. Their judgment of the false consists precisely in what they have to say of God's purposes of renewal, his mercy towards weak and frangible societies on which the fate of souls depends. Christian theology must assume the prophets' task, and, accepting history as the context within which politics and ethics take form, affirm that it is the history of God's action, not sheer contingency but consistent purpose. The prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion. After Ahab, Elijah must anoint some Hazael, some Jehu.

Third, what positive cause, then, shall the prophet anoint? A broad answer can be given in wholly theological terms: the poor. As a theological starting point this has proved a strong answer, capable of opening the way to serious biblical and theological explorations that have captured the imagination of the Church in the Northern as well as the Southern hemisphere. Yet in developing it into more detailed policy, liberation theologians have needed to call on analyses of political events and structures from outside theology. Typically these have been described as "social scientific1 analyses, a reference not to the empirical social sciences as they are usually studied in the English-speaking world, but to the more philosophical tradition of social theory that has emerged from Germanic strands of idealism. The problem with this answer does not lie with the strategy of borrowing conceptual assistance as such. Theology has often done this to its benefit; the important question is how well such borrowed material from secular disciplines has been metabolised into its own system of theological intelligibility. (There are instances both of successful and unsuccessful borrowings in liberation theology. To my mind the use of class-conflict analysis remains wedged in the theological oesophagus like an undigested bolus, whereas dependency-theory has yielded authentic theological nourishment,)

The problem is that the choice of such guidance is a restrictive one, closing off the possibility of a fully political conceptually. As we have observed, in speaking of 'society' we abstract from questions of government, This abstraction can serve as a useful ascetic preparation for thinking about politics; it can correct the blight of formalism to which theories of government are exposed; it can remind us that society is a vital dynamism that controls its leaders as much as it is controlled by them. Yet the societies we actually inhabit are politically formed. They are dependent on the art of government; they are interested in the very questions which the study of society abstracts from. We know that is the case whenever we see a society slide into the dreadful abyss of sub-political disintegration. The epithet *socials, however, forecloses the agenda against these vital questions, often narrowing it to economic matters which are only a fraction of what a living society cares about.

These three weaknesses can be focused in one. Building itself on an acephalous idea of society, dissolving government in deconstructive scepticism, lacking a point of view which can transcend given matrices of social engagement, liberation theology has lacked a concept of authority, I say 'a1 concept, because it would be inauthentic to make advance stipulations for what kind of concept of authority it might derive from the reading of Holy Scripture. But it is proper to say to liberation theologians that, just as poverty was their issue first but also ours, so authority is our issue first, but also theirs. Authority is the nuclear core, the all-present if unclarified source of rational energy that motivates the democratic bureaucratic organisations of the Northern hemisphere; but it is also a central theme of the High Tradition (their tradition, as well as ours) which sought to derive criteria from the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel to test every claim upon authority made by those who possessed, or wished to possess, power. To form a critical concept of authority, contemporary political theologians need also to revisit that tradition.

The question of authority, when raised, has often been met with a massive deployment of suspicion by political theologians. Some have rejected the idea outright: Dorothee Soelle, for example, thinks that political theology is concerned with 'the conditions under which authority can be seen through, controlled and ultimately destroyed*.8 But those who take this ground are fewer than those who simply keep their silence, not knowing how to address the subject without relapsing into 'legitimation'. Historical dialectic has made the category seem unusable; and the result is a political incoherence at the heart of contemporary politico-thcological aspirations.

oliver o'donovan are good or bad, generous or mean-spirited, true or false. It does not entitle us to think that no theory ever looks beyond the interest of its proponents- It is therefore useful as an interpretative tool, to test the scope and integrity of any theory; but it cannot provide a vision of reality which could direct or encourage anyone. One cannot gain a truer understanding of the world by criticism alone, any more than one can make mince with a grinder and no meat. Once totalised, criticism evacuates itself and turns into a series of empty gestures. Totalised criticism is the modern form of intellectual innocence; but it is not harmless innocence, unhappily, as it destroys trust and makes it impossible to learn.

We may put the same point theologically by challenging the metaphor in King Lear's invitation, to 'take upon's the mystery of things as if we were God's spies'. God has no spies. He has prophets, and he commissions them to speak about society in words which rebuke the inauthentic speech of false prophets. But true prophets cannot speak only of the errors of false prophets. Their judgment of the false consists precisely in what they have to say of God's purposes of renewal, his mercy towards weak and frangible societies on which the fate of souls depends. Christian theology must assume the prophets' task, and, accepting history as the context within which politics and ethics take form, affirm that it is the history of God's action, not sheer contingency but consistent purpose. The prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion. After Ahab, Elijah must anoint some Hazael, some Jehu.

Third, what positive cause, then, shall the prophet anoint? A broad answer can be given in wholly theological terms: the poor. As a theological starting point this has proved a strong answer, capable of opening the way to serious biblical and theological explorations that have captured the imagination of the Church in the Northern as well as the Southern hemisphere. Yet in developing it into more detailed policy, liberation theologians have needed to call on analyses of political events and structures from outside theology. Typically these have been described as 'social scientific' analyses, a reference not to the empirical social sciences as they are usually studied in the English-speaking world, but to the more philosophical tradition of social theory that has emerged from Germanic strands of idealism. The problem with this answer does not lie with the strategy of borrowing conceptual assistance as such. Theology has often done this to its benefit; the important question is how well such borrowed material from secular disciplines has been metabolised into its own system of theological intelligibility. (There are instances both of successful and unsuccessful borrowings in liberation theology. To my mind the use of class-conflict analysis remains wedged in the theological oesophagus like an undigested bolus, whereas dependency-theory has yielded authentic theological nourishment.)

The problem is that the choice of such guidance is a restrictive one, closing off the possibility of a fully political conceptually. As we have observed, in speaking of 'society' we abstract from questions of government. This abstraction can serve as a useful ascetic preparation for thinking about politics; it can correct the blight of formalism to which theories of government are exposed; it can remind us that society is a vital dynamism that controls its leaders as much as it is controlled by them. Yet the societies we actually inhabit are politically formed. They are dependent on the art of government; they are interested in the very questions which the study of society abstracts from. We know that is the case whenever we see a society slide into the dreadful abyss of sub-political disintegration, The epithet social', however, forecloses the agenda against these vital questions, often narrowing it to economic matters which are only a fraction of what a living society cares about.

These three weaknesses can be focused in one. Building itself on an acephalous idea of society, dissolving government in deconstructive scepticism, lacking a point of view which can transcend given matrices of social engagement, liberation theology has lacked a concept of authority. I say V concept, because it would be inauthentic to make advance stipulations for what kind of concept of authority it might derive from the reading of Holy Scripture. But it is proper to say to liberation theologians that, just as poverty was their issue first but also ours, so authority is our issue first, but also theirs. Authority is the nuclear core, the all-present if unclarified source of rational energy that motivates the democratic bureaucratic organisations of the Northern hemisphere; but it is also a central theme of the High Tradition (their tradition, as well as ours) which sought to derive criteria from the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel to test every claim upon authority made by those who possessed, or wished to possess, power. To form a critical concept of authority, contemporary political theologians need also to revisit that tradition.

The question of authority, when raised, has often been met with a massive deployment of suspicion by political theologians. Some have rejected the idea outright: Dorothee Soelle, for example, thinks that political theology is concerned with 'the conditions under which authority can be seen through, controlled and ultimately destroyed'.8 But those who take this ground are fewer than those who simply keep their silence, not knowing how to address the subject without relapsing into 'legitimation'. Historical dialectic has made the category seem unusable; and the result is a political incoherence at the heart of contemporary politico-theological aspirations.

oliver o *donovan

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