Monthly Archives: July 2013

Cavanaugh and the Liberal Order

There is an interesting set of posts over at Political Theology between Bill Cavanaugh and Brad Littlejohn over a review Littlejohn gave of Cavanaugh’s body of work.  (The link takes you to the last post – work backwards from there if you’d like).  Littlejohn’s essential point is that Cavanaugh is overly critical of the modern liberal state and seems (though doesn’t quite come right out and say it) “invert” the modern political soteriology associated with liberalism (e.g. religion caused the terrible wars of the 16th and 17th century and secular liberalism saved us or just go read Stephen Pinker) and make the development of the modern state itself a kind of Fall that can 0nly be “saved” by the Church.  Cavanaugh’s response is to deny that the liberal state is all that it’s cracked up to be and also deny that he’s romanticizing the pre-modern West.

Of the two, I think Littlejohn’s got the better of the argument, quite honestly.  Canavaugh’s Myth of Religious Violence is indeed a nice effort at puncturing the idea that religion and religion alone was responsible for the terrible wars of the early modern period.  (Though he probably plays down too much the fact that the nationalizing princes who “used” religion could do so because there were plenty of people motivated by religion to do their bidding).  Where he goes wrong, I think, is the notion that there is something sui generis about the modern state, a point that Littlejohn seems to miss as well (or at least only gestures at at the end of his post).  Cavanaugh has this idea (one that I think John Milbank shares) that there is something utterly new in the modern idea of sovereignty.

Of course, there is something new in the Hobbesian idea of sovereignty, but as a practical matter, it hardly seems plausible to suggest that the late middle ages, with their overlapping spheres of authority, represented the norm.  Rather, it seems more plausible to think they are the exception.  Ancient city-states, empires, and the like were hardly models of shared or divided sovereignty, and while Hobbes may have pretended to do away with the conflict between the divine and the political, that conflict is (and until the eschaton always will be) with us.  The real problem with Cavanaugh’s work is that he thinks there is something unique and uniquely bad about the modern state.  That’s implausible and, in my view, makes serious criticisms of modern liberalism harder, not easier.


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David Brooks, Jamie Smith, Charles Taylor, and me!

With that subject line the game to play is the old Sesame Street standby, “which one doesn’t belong?”

But David Brooks’s column yesterday summing up Taylor’s massive tome while mentioning Smith’s work gives me an excuse to link to the PDF of my own review of A Secular Age. An excerpt:

It is undeniably the case that there has been a massive shift from 1500 to the present day, and the orthodox believer owes Taylor a great debt for debunking the simple myth about the rise of reason at the expense of religion. But how to measure the extent of the shift? Taylor is nothing if not careful and circumspect in his observations, and he is surely correct to note that many believers recognize their faith as one option among many, and recognize this in a way that seems entirely anachronistic to ascribe to believers in the sixteenth century (31). Modern believers, Taylor argues, no longer understand themselves as open to external spiritual forces or seek objects which impart divine favor.

I’m not so sure. Because Taylor is interpreting underlying conditions of belief, he cannot rely on surveys or social science to support his claims. This is both a strength and a weakness. The strength is that Taylor can investigate those elements of our culture not amenable to statistical measurement; the weakness is that he seems often to resort to his own sense of things. One wonders how ubiquitous the “we” is that he employs when describing the modern mindset.

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Ambivalences of Christian Patriotism (Happy Independence Day)

In his book Desiring the Kingdom (2009), Jamie Smith adds his voice to the familiar tradition of a deep skepticism of Christian patriotism. He suggests that many of our culture’s liturgies (especially those associated with sports, film, and education) are fundamentally nationalistic and compete with Christian liturgies (103ff). In Smith’s words, “…it’s tough for the weekly recital of the Creed to compete with daily utterance of the Pledge” (109). Smith’s skepticism of the state runs deep. He wonders: “…can there be a ‘natural’ affection for an artificial reality? If there ever was something like a ‘natural’ fatherland, (I’m not convinced there was), the modern nation-state is a long way from such a reality.” (111) Smith doesn’t develop these ideas very far in Desiring the Kingdom, but promises to in a planned third installment in the “Cultural Liturgies Trilogy.”

Smith’s warnings about the dangers of nationalism are–in many respects–quite salutary. Christians have a long and unfortunate history of erroneously conflating the political community and the Christian community in a wide variety of disastrous combinations.

But, borrowing David Koyzis’ language, nationalism is like any idolatry inasmuch as it takes a created good–that is actually good–and elevates it beyond its station. Oliver O’Donovan’s thinking may be helpful here. In an article titled “The Loss of a Sense of Place” (originally published in 1989 in the Irish Theological Quarterly and republished in Bonds of Imperfection (2004), O’Donovan suggests that “place” undergirds the the idea of a ‘natural fatherland’ of which Smith is skeptical. “To think of a place is simultaneously to think of a natural space on the one hand and the community that is defined in relation to it on the other. It is to grasp the reciprocal relation between nature and culture: geographical space mediating a possibility for human community…. A place is precisely a setting where a communication of some kind takes form.” (304). He continues, explicitly linking shared place to neighbor love–even for the itinerant pilgrim on his way to God. O’Donovan insists that while the call to Christian neighbor-love is universal, it must not be an abstract universalism but a concrete one: “Concrete universalism consists in seeing the particular place as an instance of the universal” (318).

Drawing on Simone Weil, O’Donovan applies this to the modern nation-state and calls for the “acceptance of the contingent” nature of the nation-state. “Contingent historical circumstances have thrown the nation together in this form, which is at once infinitely open to challenge and yet the only form available to us. Compassion for the nation-state is bred of the knowledge that it is neither necessary nor inevitable, yet it mediates good. Whether compassion is always safe, I strongly doubt. But it is certainly the case that if national patriotism is to have any moral claim on us, it will be based on this recognition: ‘The nation is a fact, and a fact is not an absolute value’ [Weil]. That there should be any form of solidarity is something for which we have to take moral responsibility; it requires our will to recover the particular out of the universal. Perhaps only compassion can draw the gifted and the able back from the great world capitals and universities to the regional and local communities from which they sprang, to put the gifts and skills which they possess at the service of their neighbors.” (319).

National and local communities may be contingent (though such contingency should by no means belie the fact that some of these communities are configured in better and worse ways!), but they are an essential context for neighbor love and are an important good. O’Donovan notes in closing: “Evil are the conflicts of nations, but many times more evil are the conflicts that oppose communities without the identities or disciplines of nations. …We may well shed tears for the nation-state and lament the fragility of its good” (320).

If O’Donovan is right–and in some important respects I suspect that he is–then American Christians may well be able to celebrate Independence Day as a humble and grateful acknowledgement of the goods of place and relationship into which they are called to live alongside and serve their neighbors.

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