Political Affections

Article by   September 2014

Joshua Hordern. Political Affections. Civic Participation and Moral Theology. Oxford Studies in Theological Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. x + 312 pp. $99.00/₤64.99

How might theology contribute to reflection upon the recognized democratic deficit of western political societies? How might the church contribute to a renewal of civic participation? The answer for Oxford University Lecturer in Christian Ethics, Joshua Hordern, is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Participation in the kingdom of God characterized by joy and hope allows Christians to recognize and reflect upon the affective vision of Scripture. For Hordern it is a clear and coherent account of the role of affections that is so often missing from political theorizing: 'This book was written because of a conviction that ultimate questions about the human condition must be kept at the heart of political discourse. [...] By examining affections such as joy, compassion, sorrow, fear, shame, and hatred as aspects of national and international political activities, the argument that follows attempts to show that political practice must not ignore or obscure the very humanity of the people it serves' (p.13).

A reader might immediately fear that an appeal to affection would turn out to be grounded on irrational brute loyalty based on feelings, or a politics of emotion. This, in part, drives Hordern's choice of affection as the term to be used throughout. He recognizes and seeks to counter an understanding of affection that is driven by a contrast with reason, the rational or intellectual. In this he draws heavily on and goes beyond Martha Nussbaum. Although only alluding briefly to Jonathan Edwards, theologically informed readers will at least recognize the heritage of the word 'affection'. Certain philosophical traditions in the enlightened west have exaggerated this supposed conflict. Hordern, although he does not say this so bluntly, is getting his readers to a sophisticated account of what readers of Scripture recognize as the 'heart'.

As Hordern is perhaps over fond of reminding his readers, he seeks conceptual clarity or precise conceptualization. This predilection for discussion of concepts can become limiting in terms of offering concrete instances of affective politics. So Hordern's phenomenology of churchly civic participation that sustains loyalty in joyous praise is sketched rather than fleshed out. Yet even here, upon reflection, the patient reader may take this as a gospel invitation to freely imagine one's own discipleship and ecclesial context rather than some failure to lay down the law of prescribed affective political participation. 

Hordern's argument is mapped roughly in the progression of his chapter headings: 1. Politics and Emotions, 2. Affections, 3. Affections and Political Institutions, 4. Affections and Locality, 5. Renewing Political Affections; with a final epilogue entitled 'The Joy of all the Earth'. Hordern's account begins by simply recognizing that in obvious but often untheorized ways emotion shapes political discourse and fuels some kind of participation. We might say that collective anger or grief or fear can be and is tapped by political representatives in a war on terror or a border tightening, as can joy and compassion in consumer confidence to buy national, or collectively fund public works, benefits or patrimonial conservation.

Hordern builds his complex argument in conversation with philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Roger Scruton, and social theorist Jürgen Habermas, drawing on the theological wisdom of Bernd Wannenwetsch and principally his doctoral supervisor, Oliver O'Donovan. In some ways his project is an 'affective' companion of O'Donovan's Augustinian political theology project in Desire of the Nations and The Ways of Judgment. That being said, it will not surprise readers familiar with these theologians to see moments of sustained attention given to exegesis of Scripture. Hordern particularly focuses on the political affections commended in the texts of Deuteronomy and Luke-Acts. His closing commendation of praise naturally draws on the Psalms. I enjoyed these sections immensely and only wished they had been more extensive. But this observation opens up the question of the book's primary audience. It is published in a high level monograph series in theology, and clearly confessional in doctrinal content and tone where required for the convictions of the argument. However, the text assumes a familiarity with political philosophy in particular that suggests that readers in this discipline are the intended hearers. This presumption is borne out, for example in the instance where the name of the political philosopher John Rawls is wielded assuming familiarity with his 'original position' argument from Theory of Justice. I am not convinced, but hope that his publishing venue and the desired conversation will coalesce because Hordern's voice is an important one. I note that he is not afraid to commend authors and publishers sometimes overlooked through snobbery at this level of publishing, citing John Piper, and Matthew Elliot and Christopher H Wright with IVP and Hendrickson respectively.

A word about the 'placing' of Hordern's argument for readers of this site. His perspective, although recognizing the American polity on occasion, is still European focused from the British edge of that polity. North American readers will ask how the contested loyalties of a European Union of nations relates to a federal union of states that crosses cultural sensibilities and red and blue affiliations from East to West coast, not to mention North-South-West historico-political legacies that shape loyalty in different ways than simple national belonging (even if that were ever simple).

In brief, Hordern recognizes the affective quality of our intelligent moral agency, to be discerned and enacted publicly through a constant process of intersubjective verification. This process needs to be brought into reflective clarity to be appropriated for the health of political discourse that must recognize the 'epistemological penury' of individual participants. Hordern's concern is not for a universal, still less procedural answer to his question. Rather, he is concerned 'to renew affective wisdom and critical loyalties in diverse localities in order that the common good might be pursued both locally and globally' (p.250). So his final chapter takes up his conviction that 'the Holy Spirit's work in and through the body of Christ as it expressed itself in diverse local churches might bring renewal in societies' political affections' (p.251). 

Mine is a small attempt to offer a glimpse of the riches of Hordern's scholarship. He is widely read and comfortable connecting theology to the disciplines he engages. Problematically, his very dense prose is alienating. In part this is due to the unavoidable complexity of the argument's interdisciplinary reach. There is nothing wrong with a book that tells you what you don't know - the series is aimed at the 'serious student'. It definitely falls into the specialized monograph slot. Yet, at other times, sentences could have been trimmed or simply sliced up to make the prose more readable.

Finally, it will interest the reader that Hordern allows his own affective experience and memory to foster his intellectual journey. The book is dedicated to his parents, and the author deliberately speaks of the death of his mother, upon which event he reflects consciously in his prose. Like another theologian of far greater and long standing renown, Augustine of Hippo, with whom Hordern would be happy to stand, the argument of the text, however erudite or at times recondite, is shaped by affection for those near and those departed. Ultimately, I have been encouraged to labor with great gain through an academic text so forthrightly joyful in hope and love for the person and work of our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit at work in the life and witness of the local church.

Andy Draycott is Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University



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