Migrations of the Holy

W. Bradford Littlejohn
William T. Cavanaugh. Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, 208 pp. $18.00. 

Few political theologians over the past fifteen years have been as consistently stimulating or provocative as William T. Cavanaugh. Our author burst onto the scene in 1998 with his first book, Torture and Eucharist, which is adapted from his Duke University doctoral dissertation. His hard-hitting critique of the violence of the liberal nation-state - which weaves together themes from the work of Stanley Hauerwas, Radical Orthodoxy, Catholic Social Thought, and the Anabaptist tradition - came at an opportune time: it was chilling just how readily his critique of torture in the Chilean Pinochet regime could be adapted to speak to the approach of many Western nations and their stance on the War on Terror. His second and fourth books, Theopolitical Imagination (2003) and The Myth of Religious Violence (2008), along with numerous essays and articles elaborated this critique, and his newest, Migrations of the Holy (2011), continues to sound many of the same themes, albeit with some new nuances.

The first thing to say about Migrations of the Holy, however, is that it's not really a new book, but a collection of nine already-published articles and essays (published separately from 2004 to 2010). As a result, it lacks the coherence one would expect in a monograph, offering instead a set of essentially independent, but often repetitive, arguments loosely clustered around a theme.  Thankfully, this volume has much more coherence and linear flow than many such collections, even if several key concepts remain elusive and under-defined, as we shall have occasion to consider below. 

The first essay, "Killing for the Telephone Company," argues that the modern nation-state, as a political form which sought to "monopolize the legitimate use of violence" within a centralized regime, was never, and is not now, constructed as the guardian of the common good. Rather, it is simply an attempt to reduce internal differences so as to maximize the war-making potential of the state. The second, "From One City to Two," attempts to challenge the nation-state's claim to constitute public space, the life of the community, by situating the church as an "alternative public" that "complexifies political space." The third, "Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk," challenges the detachment of identity and space in a globalized world by recovering the hallowing of the particular and local that the categories of "pilgrim" and "monk" represent. The fourth, "Messianic Nation," offers a hard-hitting theological critique of American exceptionalism, along similar lines to those in the latter chapters of Peter Leithart's recent Between Babel and Beast (recently reviewed here). The fifth, "How to Do Penance for the Inquisition," insists that, far from being hypocritical, the church's opposition to torture today is a way of doing penance for its own past acts of torture. The sixth, "The Liturgies of Church and State," builds on the argument of chapter four by showing how the rituals of the nation-state often take on a sacral quality, and conversely, the rituals of the church can have public and political significance. In chapter seven, "The Church as Political," Cavanaugh attempts to elaborate and clarify the sense in which the church can be described as a polis. At this point, Cavanaugh enters into discussion with those who privilege this description of the church, namely, Hauerwas and Radical Orthodoxy. Chapter eight, "The Sinfulness and Visibility of the Church," tries to address just what we mean by "church"; that is, whether a fallen and sinful body is actually capable of fulfilling the ideal political role that Cavanaugh has assigned to it. The final essay, "A Politics of Vulnerability," offers a very thoughtful and enlightening analysis of recent dialogues between Stanley Hauerwas and the non-Christian democratic theorists Jeffrey Stout and Romand Coles. 

If one were to characterize an overall agenda of the book, we could describe it as Cavanaugh's attempt to restate his ongoing case against the liberal nation-state, and his alternative narrative of early modernity, but while introducing some important nuances in response to recurrent criticisms. In particular, Cavanaugh seems keen to respond to two important challenges to his work. The first is the concern that in his early calls for what he sometimes called "eucharistic anarchism," Cavanaugh was opposing not just the current configuration of political power, but civil authority as such--a concern heightened by his pacifism. The second is the objection (commonly raised against writers like Hauerwas as well) that in setting up the church as an "alternative polity" that could challenge or subvert the hegemony of the nation-state, he was presenting an idealized account of an abstract "church" that did not really exist. Given these two concerns, one might reasonably ask whether his political theology is implicitly papalist. The political identity of the church, on this reading, only appears in its institutional hierarchy, which rests on the hope of a more perfect kind of rule than that of civil authority. 

(There is a third crucial objection to Cavanaugh's work to which he does not attempt to respond in this book; indeed, which he further invites at several points. This is the complaint that his historical narrative--which is a crucial pillar of his overall argument--is romantic and unhistorical, ignoring everything prior to 1000 AD, treating the later Middle Ages as Eden, and offering a distorted account of the early modern period as Fall. For the sake of space, I will omit consideration of this issue here, pointing you to some of my remarks in a recent post for Political Theology.)

In response, Cavanaugh in these essays seeks to clarify that his attack on the nation-state is an attack only on a certain configuration of political authority. His aim is to
 "complexify political space" and refuse to let the nation-state speak for "the whole." What this seems to boil down to is a call for a more localist, community-oriented, grassroots, and informal configuration of political power, in which no temporal authority may claim responsibility for the common good of the whole "nation" (this is developed most fully in the final essay). Such a localist turn is, of course, quite fashionable these days - and understandably so given the obvious bloat of centralized government power in America, along with most developed countries. 

Although Cavanaugh's localism is in need of considerably more definition, there is much of value here. In particular, this focus enables Cavanaugh to clarify the political role of the "the church" in a way that seeks to avoid the danger of a reified abstraction or a hierarchical institution. In several places, particularly chapters eight and nine, he talks about the church's political activity as another mode of grassroots engagement, sometimes undertaken as the Christian community, sometimes working alongside other individuals and groups - who may or may not be Christian - in pursuit of common concerns of justice. This kind of account helps him to avoid the idea of "the church" as a unitary actor over against the state, contending for the same political space, something he clearly wants to avoid (and something of which the Catholic Church has often been guilty). 

He is not entirely successful, however, in answering the two challenges we have identified, and not just because, in a disjointed collection of essays, his terminology is far from consistent. At least three major conceptual ambiguities remain. First, he remains quite vague about how this grassroots politics, "radical democracy" as Romand Coles calls it (discussed in chapter nine), relates to the central authority of the nation-state. Is Cavanaugh actually trying to bring down the nation-state and re-establish local sovereignty? Or is he trying to sidestep the big structural questions, in order to focus on effecting piecemeal social and political change on concrete issues of justice, while leaving the reigning structure largely intact? Second, the church is not merely local in his sketch. On the contrary, it is the only thing that is larger than the state. It is a transnational body, capable of trumping all merely national loyalties, and "discerning" the limits of those loyalties. What does and doesn't this mean? For a Catholic, it might seem to mean that, ultimately, the Pope has the final say over political obligations; for a Protestant, it is not clear what it might mean. 

Third, on a related note, and of particular interest to Protestants, Cavanaugh still seems unable to resolve the problem of a perfectionist ecclesiology. It is important to him that "the church" be perceptible as a unitary community of redemption, one that embodies a different kind of politics, creating "an alternative social space" (p. 42), a "fully public community" (p. 57). In other words, the holiness and unity of the church must be visible. And yet this seems quite patently contrary to reality. Where is one to identify this "fully public community"? The problem is readily resolved by Protestant ecclesiology, with its insistence on the church invisible and visible, simul iustus et peccator, and Cavanaugh, when he wrestles most directly with the issue in chapters seven and eight, at times comes close to conceding very Protestant-sounding formulations. 

In the end, however, he has to pull back from such moves as he worries they render the church too invisible and individualistic. The best he can do is resort to the idea that the church becomes visible as a penitential community: the church is the body that mourns its failure, and the world's failure, to rightly conform to Christ. This is quite helpful, but it's worth pointing out that penitence is still something we do--and don't do very well. If the church's visible holiness is its penitence, then the church still mostly lacks the visible holiness Cavanaugh is looking for. Most of our churches are not in fact very penitential for the things Cavanaugh wants them to be, namely, the injustices of capitalism and American imperialism. Perhaps they should be, but then we need to recognize that our use of "church" here is essentially prescriptive, rather than descriptive, and the church is not yet close to being "a fully public community," if indeed it can ever be this side of the eschaton. This realization should prompt us to be correspondingly modest in the claims we make for the church as the locus of an alternative political identity.

W. Bradford Littlejohn is completing a Ph.D under Oliver O'Donovan at the University of Edinburgh and has written several articles on political theology.