Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Heresy of the State

Just begun reading the superbly invigorating Theopolitical Imagination by W.T. Cavanaugh.

In it he exposes the heretical theology at the heart of the nation state.

This false theology holds that the state 'saves' us as individuals from our violent 'nature' - a nature displayed in our presumed innate tendency to competitively vie for autonomous control over the limited resources of the world. The state subdues such competition and creates a false unity by monopolising violence and placing it the hands of the sovereign.

By contrast Christian theology begins with a different vision of human nature: comprising an interpersonal society made in the image of the interpersonal Trinity. The marring of that image through the erroneous belief in individual autonomy is rectified in the Christ event.

This alternative theology therefore concludes with a story of genuine social peace (salvation) being established through the recreation of a society based upon the principle of the giving of self-for-other. This is achieved in the free self-giving of Christ to the Father, in our participation in that self-giving via the Eucharist, and in our self-giving to others.

The Church is thus intended to be a true interpersonal society based on mutual self-giving, whilst the State merely offers a pale reflection of this based on atomised individuals.

As Cavanaugh puts it himself:

"In exposing some of the false theological imaginings of modern politics, I hope to give hope to the reader that the iron cage of modernity does not inevitably hold us in its grip. I focus on the Eucharist as an alternative imagining of space and time which builds up a body of resistance to violence, the body of Christ. This is a body that is wounded, broken by the powers and principalities and poured out in blood offering upon this stricken earth. But this is also a body crossed by the resurrection, a sign of the startling irruption of the Kingdom into historical time and the disruptive presence of Christ the King to the politics of the world."


At 2:32 am, June 20, 2007, Anonymous Michael said...

Hi Mark,

This is almost certainly an extremely obvious objection, but I'm afraid the idea of a 'theology of the nation state', faulty or not, is a flawed one, at least in the general terms in which you've expressed it. The fact is, surely, that political ideas concerning the justification of the existence of the state and the Christian vision of a renewal of society, in harmony with itself and with its creator, exist to answer fundamentally different questions.

You are, of course, correct that Christian theology on this question begins with the creation of a humanity in relationship with itself and God, and that this relationship is marred by 'the erroneous belief in individual autonomy'- otherwise known as sin. However, I think it should be fairly clear that the renewed vision, and reality, of society that the Gospel offers can only be rightly considered a work in progress, without much immediate prospect of becoming anything else(barring of course the return of Christ to Earth, itself a contentious topic I know). Quite apart from the many (all too human) flaws in the Church's attempts at being, or creating, this 'Gospel society', the scope of its influence and membership is far too limited, in the West let alone in places that are 'closed' tp Christianity, like Saudi Arabia, or where its penetration has been limited, such as India.

By contrast, the theories of the state to which you allude (and, a little 'naughtily' I might say, assign alien theological categories to), most famously that of Hobbes, address a situation in which human beings require to be protected from each other, before they can begin to engage with the adventure and demands of the Kingdom of God (or indeed any other religious or ideological worldview). The view of Hobbes, and many others, that human beings are, at heart, self- interested individuals, may be rather simplistic, but in its essentials it surely consonant with our experience and knowledge of humanity without contradicting what Christianity has to teach. Anarchists, and others, have long denied that human nature is essentially self seeking, arguing that in the absence of the state cooperation and mutual coexistence would emerge naturally, but this is a view with precious little backing in the real world. Pre- state societies, such as those of the native Americans, despite many undoubtedly admirable qualities, were hardly free of competition and violence, while contemporary situations where the trappings of the state have been removed, such as Somalia, are hardly encouraging. So perhaps our 'innate tendency' to competition is not so presumed after all.

The unity imposed by a Hobbesian state is certainly false, but it isn't meant to be anything else. Of course, there have been, and are, plenty of visions of the state that have sought to promote, or even impose, a 'positive' vision of what society ought to be like, but that of Hobbes and other proponents of a 'negative' state isn't one of them. Despite Hobbes' belief that the avoidance of his 'state of nature' required the exercise of absolute and arbitrary power, his vision was essentially to provide an arena within which human beings could flourish, not to determine what form that flourishing would take.

None of which lengthy rambling is to deny the truth and vital importance of the ultimate renewal of society through reconciliation with God and each other through the work of Jesus Christ. It's just that you impose a false dichotomy between that and a political structure, open to criticism as all transitory, human works are, designed to provide a measure of peace and security in the mean time. And which, I might say, could well have done a far worse job of it.

My, that was really quite absurdly long. Sorry 'bout that.

At 9:15 pm, June 28, 2007, Blogger Mark Laynesmith said...

Thank you Michael for your comments. I'd just begun to read Cavanugh's first chapter when I wrote. Some of the issues you raise are indeed dealt with (to my mind well) later on.

I'll respond briefly, though. I think Cavanugh would agree with parts of your comments and not others. He, too, for example thinks that the Church is a work in progress. He is not suggesting the creation of a theocracy. Nor is he romantically espousing anarchy. He is though making some comments about the use of power.

His 'beef' is that State and Church do (particularly as seen from his Roman Catholic point of view) overlap. They do not deal with different realms (nor 'fundamentally different questions'). After all, both Christianity and political theory are concerned with how human beings live on earth socially. (Naturally Chrisitanity also has things to say about life beyond death - but then so does the state, too: e.g. the regulation of organ donation, cryogenics, wills, etc...)

It may help to know that Cavanaugh's work is in large part based upon his observations of the clashes of Church and State in South America (the subject of his earlier work 'Torture and Eucharist').

Often Christians do describe the function of the State as a preparation for the proclamation of the Gospel. Cavanaugh's arguement though is that while any state may provide considerable social benefits to its members, it is ultimately predicated upon a model of humanity in which people groups are divided and identity is focused upon a centralised authority.

The myth of the nation state implies that there is, for example, a fundamental distinction between (say) an Iraqi and a Brit. My state may with realitive impunity bomb one, and simultaneously decry the death of the other.

In the process of the formation of nation states it has usually been the case that any sense of super-national unity (for example as espoused especially by the Roman Catholic Church) is
treated as traitorous - hence the anti-Catholic stance of many States.

Cavanugh simply makes the, to my mind, justifiable claim that for a Christian the Kingdom trumps the kingdoms. Following Augustine, he argues that any Christian is an exile and a pilgrim resident among the nations. Where he may differ is with those Christians (especially, but not exclusively, Protestant ones) who too quickly resort to spiritualization. For him we are called to remember that this world is supposed to be the venue for the (always) coming Kingdom; we should not short-cut ecclesiology and aim straight for a postmortem heaven, and in the meantime leave the running of human affairs to the state.


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