Review of Cavanaugh's, Migrations of the Holy: God, State and the Political Meaning of the Church


[1] It is widely remarked that postmodernity is characterized by a certain “return to religion.” Bill Cavanaugh’s Migrations of the Holy might aptly be described as a work that simultaneously reflects and interrogates religion’s political resurgence in this postmodern era. It is a potent work of political theology by one of the leading voices articulating a new Christian theopolitical vision that espouses a forthrightly and unapologetically political church. As such, it will undoubtedly disturb the priests and prophets of modernity of all ideological persuasions.

Migrations of the Holy[2] Migrations of the Holy reflects our postmodern condition in that its appearance suggests a kind of ironic theological jouissance. After all, much of the waning energy of theological modernity has been spent denouncing the robust ecclesiologies emergent in the likes of Stanley Hauerwas as “sectarian.” Yet against the postmodern horizon it is this purportedly sectarian vision that is revealed to be political after all, and robustly so as it is particularly well-suited for the complex character of postmodern, globalized political space, with its varied communities, overlapping jurisdictions and interacting levels of authority.

[3] Moreover, what Cavanaugh helps us see with great clarity is how such sectarian charges and dismissals were less about purported deficiencies afflicting strong ecclesiologies and more reflective of the political commitments of modern theology. This is where Cavanaugh’s interrogation of the resurgence of religion surfaces. He argues in effect that religion, or more specifically the sacred, never really disappeared from the political arena, although, as we shall see, this is not necessarily a good thing.

[4] To make his case, Cavanaugh traces the contours of modern political geography by means of a distinction John Milbank draws between simple and complex political space. Modernity, which unsurprisingly includes, as Cavanaugh shows, the dominant strands of modern theology, imagined and then sought to construct political space as “simple.” By this, he means that political space was construed primarily as a matter of individuals before a sovereign state. While there were other political subjects or agents, such as the organizations and institutions of civil society, including the church, the political vision of modernity worked to subvert and subsume anything that interfered with the state’s authority over the individual. Indeed, notwithstanding much political rhetoric on both the right and left, civil society itself is not properly understood as a space of independence from the state but is rather an extension of state-sovereignty in a different key. In other words, modernity sought to clear the realm of politics of any community that would challenge instead of extend the sovereignty of the state over the individual.

[5] And this is where the charge of “sectarianism” arises. Cavanaugh argues that modern theology embraced this political cartography and defended it faithfully, dismissing any ecclesiology that challenged the sovereignty of the state and the simple political space it ruled with another jurisdiction or authority called church. In other words, the “sectarian” label had little to do with being politically disinterested or “withdrawing.” Rather, that aspersion was cast at theopolitical visions that rendered political space more complex by resisting the nation-state’s efforts to clear the political landscape of communities, jurisdictions, and authorities that interfered with the sovereign state’s claims on individuals.

[6] Furthermore, this defense of the simple space of modern politics from the intrusions of a political church was an act of faith. Which returns us to Cavanaugh’s interrogation of the commonplace assertion that postmodernity marks the resurgence of religion. He argues that the holy never evacuated the political in modernity. The secularization of modern politics was itself a theological move. It was theological in the banal sense that it was championed by modern theologians and church people, and it was theological in the more pernicious sense alluded to by the title of the book: migrations of the holy.

[7] One of the central claims of the book is that the rise of modernity and “the secular” was not a matter of the decline or marginalization of the holy so much as it was the occasion for the migration of the site of the holy. As Cavanaugh puts it, “the kinds of public devotion formerly associated with Christianity in the West never did go away, but largely migrated to a new realm defined by the nation-state” (1). Modernity, and much of modern political theology, is about the sacralization of the nation-state.

[8] In this vein, the book is a call to the examination of Christian conscience and political practice for the age-old sin of idolatry. Cavanaugh challenges us to consider how the nation-state has colonized the political imagination of Christians and to “unthink the inevitability of the nation-state” (3).

[9] In support of this effort to disenchant the state and correct the Christian theopolitical imagination, Cavanaugh offers a genealogy of the modern nation-state that dispels the notion that the nation-state either aspires to or can serve the common good. In the face of the widespread assumption in Christian social and political ethics that the nation-state is the proper locus of the common good, Cavanaugh traces both the theoretical (through the likes of Hobbes and Locke) and empirical roots of the nation-state to show that the nation-state emerged with little regard for the common good; instead, war (incited by nascent nation-states), resource extraction from the populace (in the form of taxation), and jurisdictional-legal struggles with competing authorities fueled the centralization of power that eventually became the modern nation-state. The common good was nowhere to be seen. Furthermore, Cavanaugh draws on Alasdair MacIntyre to suggest that the sheer size of nation-states precludes their being the kind of deliberative communities capable of discerning and promoting the common good. At best, he says, (still following MacIntyre) Christians should regard the nation-state sort of like the telephone company, that is, like a large bureaucratic provider of goods and services that contribute to a certain limited order (42).

[10] Simultaneous with this disenchantment, the church must begin to constitute itself as an alternative social space or public community. Drawing on Augustine’s vision of the two cities, Cavanaugh gestures toward a theopolitical vision that avoids both the Constantinian option (where the church uses the state to conquer and rule) and the sectarian option (where the church renounces the state entirely and lives apart). Following Augustine, he suggests that history is the stage on which the drama of salvation is being played out and on this stage both the earthly cities, with their coercive governments, and the city of God – of which the church is part – are performing, simultaneously and intermingled, dealing with the same questions and making use of the same material goods and so forth. No separate realms or jurisdictions. No safe division of functions. Simply the church interrupting the tragedy of the earthly cities by enacting the comedy of redemption in Christ in the midst of this world’s politics (64).

[11] In the process of sketching what this looks like, Cavanaugh offers a striking account of the sinfulness and visibility of the church. Against those who associate a robust ecclesiology with claims of moral perfection, Cavanaugh suggests that the church, far from trumpeting its holiness, inhabits the world in a penitential mode. This is to say, this theopolitical vision, which includes a renunciation of violence, does not rest on a vision of moral purity. Rather, it is profoundly christological in the sense that it acknowledges its own sin and bears with sinners just as Christ, who knew no sin became sin. As he unpacks this, Cavanaugh treats the simul justus et peccator, although he unpacks this in a more Augustinian (and, arguably, more in keeping with Luther) than 20th century Lutheran manner. This is to say, Cavanaugh recognizes that the simul, no less than church’s christological and scriptural claims for Christ becoming sin, is about the church’s reflecting the entire drama of sin and salvation, a drama that necessarily includes both the acknowledgement (confession) and repentance of sin as well as sanctification and holiness. Said differently, this ecclesiology is founded on the recognition that even sin, when and so long as confessed, glorifies God. It does so as it witnesses to the drama of salvation that finds it center in Christ who does not simply deny or negate sin but bears it in order to bear it away. Thus, Cavanaugh argues, the Christian eschewal of violence is not a matter of some imaginary moral purity but simply born of our penitential way of inhabiting the world: the church realizes that it is not pure enough to direct history through violence (169). In other words, don’t give Hauerwas a sword, lest he actually use it!

[12] It follows that a public, political church whose mode of being in the world is penitential is a church that knows its center – Christ – but recognizes that its boundaries are always less clear. The boundaries are vague because the city of God exceeds the parameters of the church on pilgrimage no less than Christ refuses to be contained by the Body of Christ that is the church and because the Trinity works outside the church. This permeability or undecidability necessarily leaves this church open always to work with others, be they sinners, non-Christians, and the like, a point Cavanaugh makes repeatedly.

[13] This in turn, raises the question of democracy. Cavanaugh takes this up by way of a consideration of Hauerwas’ engagement with two significant recent advocates of democracy, Jeffery Stout and Rom Coles. Probing the ways Hauerwas’ vision has not entirely shed modern political habits that would inscribe the church within the simplified political space of the nation-state such that either the church must rule or accept the marginalized status of a mere part under the whole that is the nation-state, Cavanaugh returns to the Augustinian vision of the two cities: the church is neither a rival polis nor an enclave. Rather, the church instantiated in a proliferation of local Eucharistic communities, united by charity, finds its horizon in the universal (catholic) sweep of Christ’s body and God’s reign (189). It turns out that the nation-state is too narrow, even sectarian, a vision for the politics of the church.

[14] Thus recognizing its pilgrim status in this world, the church enacts a politics of vulnerability. It does not claim that orthodoxy offers a grand narrative that contains all the answers, thereby excluding any need for engagement with others. Rather, orthodoxy, the gospel, simply tells the story of who we are to worship (192). Which means that in the final analysis the critics of this theopolitical vision who call it sectarian miss the mark. What it is, is theocratic (5,191), although it is a kind of de-centered or cruciform theocratic vision insofar as it eschews violence and does not simply equate God’s rule with the church’s influence and power. To the contrary, this theocratic vision frees the church from precisely the kind of striving for influence and power that would tempt it to wield the sword in order to protect itself from vulnerability.

[15] This is a powerful work of political theology that calls for careful reading because it challenges deeply rooted modern habits of faith, mind and body. Its confession of theocracy will alarm some even as its suggestion that modern theology’s commitment to the nation-state is idolatrous will anger others.

[16] Even for those who are already persuaded that the church is forthrightly political, though, this work prompts questions. For instance, if the nation-state is not and cannot be the locus of the common good, what does this mean for Christian participation in national politics, in terms of voting, running for office, and government employment (just to name a few examples)? Cavanaugh hints that nation-states need not be rejected, only approached “realistically,” that is, without investing “the entirety of [our] political presence in these powers” (3) and he affirms the goodness of mail carriers. What is missing, though, is help discerning how to connect the limited goods and order the government provides and secures with the common good. Is there any connection? Should there be? As it stands, there appears to be a bit of dichotomy between the common good and limited good and order and I am not sure that such a dichotomy is either intended or theologically appropriate.

[17] Put differently, should Christians encourage politicians and governing authorities to pursue the common good? Not in the sense of nurturing the illusion that the nation-state does or can but in the sense of pursuing another form of government that can. That is, once we recognize that the nation-state cannot serve the common good, are Christians called to work on behalf of other forms of government – perhaps from within the current forms – that can contribute to the common good? Or do they simply resign themselves to serving limited goods and a limited order, say, what is good for the US without regard for what is good for Haiti?

[18] This is a particularly pressing concern in light of the Augustinian recognition that sin is parasitic on the good, a matter of the disordered pursuit of goods. In other words, limited goods can begin to look like private goods or disordered goods and so without further elaboration, the claim that the nation-state should pursue limited goods and provide a limited order might easily morph into the kinds of modern realism (both theological and political) that Cavanaugh rightly resists. How are limited goods and a limited order not lesser evils? I suspect the answer requires an account of the relation of limited goods and a limited order to the common good, such that some limited goods cannot properly be pursued and some limited orders cannot be supported. Said a little differently and echoing something Hauerwas has said, how can we tell the difference between a “limited order” and chaos or disorder?

[19] The answer, I think, requires an account of the common good for which neither the nation-state nor any secular government is finally responsible – but to which they should be ordered (perhaps providentially) and in which they participate in some limited form and to which they can be held accountable by means of the church’s proclaim and the witness of Christian lives. Which witness, as Cavanaugh helpfully reminds us, does not a priori require either ruling (Constantinian polis) or marginalization (sectarian enclave).

[20] If Cavanaugh’s recovery of the Augustinian vision of two cities leaves questions of the relation of the common good to limited goods and order, and so of the forms of Christian participation in nation-state service, so too do his claims regarding Christians and violence. After all, the Augustinian vision of the two cities did not prohibit Christians from bearing arms (although Augustine’s endorsement of violence was quite narrow). What is at stake here is not the necessary if threadbare just war versus pacifism debate, which is not the subject of this book. Rather, what is at stake is whether and how Augustine’s justification of violence is integral to his account of the relationship of the two cities such that Cavanaugh’s rejection of violence requires a substantial revision of or perhaps even break with Augustine’s account of the relation of the two cities.

[21] It is my suspicion that the rejection of violence does require a refashioning of Augustine’s account of the relation of the two cities, at least insofar as Cavanaugh has presented it here. After all, defending the earthly cities with arms may be a limited good in service of a limited order, and yet according to Cavanaugh it is not a limited good in which Christians can faithfully participate. At the very least, the difference between Cavanaugh and Augustine on the legitimacy of violence further suggests the need to clarify the limited goods and limited order nation-states pursue and how Christians may or may not participate in those limited goods and order.

[22] Migrations of the Holy is a brilliant work of political theology that advances the conversation about the church’s political presence and practice beyond the conceits of the nation-state and its church, all the while lifting up the promise of a church vulnerable to the migrations of the Crucified One whom both approaches and calls it from within and without those earthly cities called nation-states.

Daniel M. Bell, Jr. is professor of theological ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC. 



© July 2012
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 12, Issue 4