9 Sep

The Church as a public reality

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/09/15

William Cavanaugh on how we must be disciples in public, not just citizens

In his book, Theopolitical Imagination, William Cavanaugh challenges the common modern understanding of the necessity of privatizing religion, “whereby the price to the Church of admission to the ‘public’ is a submission of its particular truth claims to the bar of public reason, a self-discipline of Christian speech.” According to the rules of liberalism, “Theology must submit to what ‘the public’ can consider reasonable, where ‘the public’ is understood in terms of the nation-state. Christian symbols must be run through the sausage-grinder of social ethics before coming out on the other hand as publicly digestible policy. . . . ”

“I think the deepest problem with the [conventional Christian] models of civil society . . . is their anemic ecclesiology. Their search for a public Christian presence that is neither private nor in the thrall of the state simply bypasses the possibility of the Church as a significant social space. Missing is even a basic Augustinian sense that the Church is in itself an alternative ‘space’ or set of practices whose citizenship is in some sort of tension with citizenship in the civitas terrena. For Augustine not the imperium but the Church is the true res publica, the ‘public thing;’ the imperium has forfeited any such claim to be truly public by its refusal to do justice, refusing to give God his due. For the [conventional] models, on the other hand, what is public is that space bounded by the nation-state. To enter the public is to leave behind the Church as a body. Individual Christians, fortified by ‘basic orienting attitudes,’ can enter public space, but the Church itself drops out of the picture. The Church is an essentially asocial entity that provides only ‘motivations’ and ‘values’ for public action. Christians must therefore find their politics and their publicness elsewhere, borrowing from the available options presented by the secular nation-state. If we wish to go public, we must take on the language of citizenship. . . . ”

“The modern construction of religion interiorizes it, and makes religion only a motivating force on bodily political and economic practices. The modern Church thus splits the body from the soul and purchases freedom of religion by handing the body over to the state. . . . ”

“A public Christian presence cannot be the pursuit of influence over the powers, but rather a question of what kind of community disciplines we need to produce people of peace capable of speaking truth to power. . . . ”

“We must cease to think that the only choices open to the Church are either to withdraw into some private or ‘sectarian’ confinement, or to embrace the public debate policed by the state. The Church as Body of Christ transgresses both the lines which separate public from private and the borders of nation-states, thus creating spaces for a different kind of political practice, one which is incapable of being pressed into the service of wars or rumours of wars.”

—from William Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (T & T Clark, 2002)

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