Monday, March 23, 2015

The idolatry of the nation state

In the theology reading group on monday we will be discussing Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church by William Cavanaugh.

I found it refreshing, stimulating and provocative.

Christendom and Constantinianism [the close identification of church and state] has declined in the Western world. Overall this is a good thing as the church should be on the margins and stand again power, coercion, and violence. On the other hand, the hope and worship of many has shifted from God and the church to the nation state. It is their hoped source of security, identity, protection, and prosperity. This is idolatry.
Some Christians "tend to assume that the only solution to any given cultural problem is state enforcement".

The first chapter relates to the classic quote of Alisdair MacIntyre
The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf . . . [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.
One chapter makes a highly creative analogy between the Richard Strauss' opera, Ariadne auf Naxos,
which combines tragedy and comedy simultaneously, with Augustine's City of God. (p.63, 64)
"The earthly city and the city of God are two intermingled performances, one a tragedy, the other a comedy. Thee are not two sets of props, no division of goods between spriticual and temper oral, infinite and finite. Both cities are concerned with the same questions..."

Some essays/chapters focus on the case of the USA. One "Messianic Nation" is a trenchant criticism of American exceptionalism, particularly the views of Stephen Webb, who attempts to justify this on (shaky) theological grounds. I found Webb's arguments pompous, bizarre, and scary.

The chapter "Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk: Identity and Mobility in a Global Age" provides some nice contrasts between the past (Pilgrims and Monks) and the present (Tourists) which is concerned with the exotic, escape, restlessness, pleasure for the wealthy, and lacks hospitality for the needy (Migrant). Monks have a vow of stability.

The best line in the book is in the following (p. 135)
Metz is concerned that the legitimate separation of the church from the political sphere not result in the mere privatisation of the church, the handing over of the gospel to the anemic embrace of bourgeois sentimentality. Metz's solution is that the church take its place in civil society as an "institution of social criticism"..
Overall, I found the book a bit depressing because I agree with it, and yet I feel the views therein, are so outside the "mainstream".  I think the book would have been more hopeful if some concrete examples were given of churches and Christian organisations who are living in the "intermediate" political spaces he advocates: combining local social action, community development, and political advocacy.

1 comment:

  1. So relevant and punchy thanks Ross. unfortunatley it takes people like Dalrymple to awaken the church to its own sentimentality. This dependancy on State for " the agenda" was depressingly obvious at two Christian conferences i attended in my area of sustainability science . Tough loveand tough science and theological thinking is needed to avoid us just following fads in this area. If church people wisely withdrew from supporting the sentimental in politics ( which I see is its callling )- the public purse would justify less people meddling in meetings and more people on the ground - .