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The Politics of Scripture

Fractures and Communion

The ecclesiological model that emerges from reading Paul and Mouffe could allow us to position the church itself as a politically and theologically diverse community within the larger society. The role of the church is not to strive towards articulating one uniform voice, both within or in public spaces, but highlight various and even rival voices.

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your livesin him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

Colossians 2:6-15

In a few days’ time around 650 bishops and their spouses from across the world belonging to the Anglican Communion will gather in Canterbury at the invitation of The Archbishop of Canterbury for the fifteenth Lambeth Conference. This major event within the Anglican community takes place every decade, which brings to focus some of the crucial issues shaping the lives of around 83 million Anglicans across the world. The theme for this Lambeth Conference is God’s Church for God’s World, drawing attention to the need to think through some of the crucial ecclesiological issues within the communion, which is experiencing significant fractures due to issues around human sexuality and women’s rights and their ministry. Part of the deliberation within the conference will be rethinking what it means to the body of Christ, the church, in the world today. It is becoming apparent that there are irreconcilable positions emerging within the communion on the scriptural understanding of human sexuality. How can the Communion in particular and the church in general hold multiple views? Reading together Paul’s view on the church drawing its identity from Cosmic Christ and Chantel Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism, we might be able to develop an expansive vision of the church.                    

Paul invites the believers in Colossae to reimagine life in Christ, who is the substance of Christian faith. Paul offers a significant theological foundation for the Church. Because Christ shared fully in our humanity, we share in Christ’s divinity and destiny. He also makes a substantial link between receiving Christ Jesus as the Lord and living accordingly.

Building on his Jewish cosmo-theological view, Paul suggests that the universe is founded not in an unknown elemental entity, but God revealed in Christ. This view stems from Paul’s critical comprehension of Cosmic Christ (Colossians 1:15–20) through whom everything on earth and heave was created. Such a view has ecclesiological significance, as the church, the community of faith lives within Christ, it embodies the complex diversity of the universe within itself.   

Paul does not hold back in his attack of deceitful philosophies and false teachings, which claimed that in order to have a relationship with God one needs to have ecstatic visions and mystical experiences. On the contrary Paul  grounds his logic in the living Christ, as we are rooted in Christ. For Paul, a trained philosopher himself, belief in Christ is not simply a matter of doctrine or teaching but an existential commitment to follow Christ. By extension, Paul questions the credibility of ‘traditions’ that are primarily based on human philosophical injunctions and not ‘divine’ in nature as in Christ.  

Paul’s theology is laid bare in Colossians 2:6–15: It is God working through Christ, the fullness of deity dwelling the human flesh. This theological rebuttal from Paul is to answer all the prevailing philosophical questions around the credibility of Christian faith. 

By rooting Christian faith metaphorically in the body of Christ, from which a Christian derives their sustenance, nourishment and confidence, Paul alludes to the possibility of receiving growth from God, therefore rejecting any human condemnation or disentitlement, because, for Paul, salvation is realized through a rapport between God and church. When the believers participate in the life of the community through baptism they are effectively partaking in the mystery of redemption.  

What Paul is trying to do here is encouraging the believers in Colossae to develop a shared identity rooted in Christ, which allowed diverse identities to be held together in the Cosmic understanding of Christ.Paul urges the believers to move from debilitating difference to life giving interdependence.

The philosophies that Paul is critiquing fundamentally opposed to such a view. Because, for Paul, redemption from God through Christ cannot be limited by human actions, the cosmic Christ is much bigger than human capacity to understand. Moreover, human sin is overcome when we die and rise with Christ in baptism. We are not limited by our individual identity but defined by our shared identity.    

The reality within the Communion and beyond is that churches are fragmented and fragmenting. Luke Bretherton observes that the church inhabits multiple modernities, each with their respective relationship to religious belief and practice, overlapping and interacting within the same shared spaces. I want to explore how the church with its divergent voices can play an effective role in the public witness of the Gospel as Paul articulated in Colossians.  For this purpose, I turn to a Chantel Mouffe for some insights. 

Chantel Mouffe, a post structuralist philosopher offers a critique of liberal democracy and its obsession with consensus. Mouffe draws attention to the conflicts and the plurality latent in modern societies. Mouffe questions the desire to homogenize public space in a Hebermasian sense and offers the possibility of multiple public spaces. This recognizes co-existing multiple public spaces across the social landscape rather than a single ‘public space.’ Public spaces are not necessarily for rational consensus and rather should be the space for ‘passion.’  

One of the philosophical ideas Mouffe works with is agonism, which means that conflict is an essential feature of public life and nourishes and protects pluralism. Further Mouffe argues that agonism is the mobilization of contesting interpretations and discourses that citizens identify and commit to constructive work. This perception operates on the view that pluralism means that “the people are not one.” This can be interpreted in two ways: as “the people are multiple,” or the “people are divided.” 

One view is plurality that can be reconstituted for harmony or on the other hand ‘the people are divided’ viewpoint which holds the view that there is a division and therefore there is conflict. It is not simply multiplicity, but the clear recognition that there is no ultimate reconciliation possible. The task then is not to neutralize conflicts, but rather to create the conditions for those conflicts to find their expression in agonistic, not antagonistic terms. Mouffe calls this agonistic pluralism. 

In this context politics is therefore seen as practices of disagreement among political adversaries that inscribe their confrontation in a democratic framework, that is, to see themselves as sharing a common symbolic space within which the conflict takes place, but with a commitment to work together for constructing counter hegemonies. To ensure equity among competing interests, Mouffe offers the notion, ‘chain of equivalences,’ where the diverse demands are not neutralized and homogenized but rather remain respectful and collaborate for a radical pluralist democracy.        

Drawing from Mouffe, it could be argued that reality is not essentially given to us; meaning is always constructed. There is no pure essence of the social, it is always constructed. Power is constitutive for the social; there is no social without power relations. The social is always the result of a hegemonic articulation; every type of social order is the product of a hegemony as a specific political articulation. Hence there will always be exclusion as consensus cannot be achieved without it. Complete inclusion is not possible in a hegemonic order. Something or someone always needs to be oppressed. Hence Mouffe suggests that there should be ‘disarticulation’ that contests such power relations and ‘rearticulation’ that captures the moment of politically constructing the alternative, a counter-hegemony to ensure equity of all people.   

A Pauline Agonistic Ecclesiology   

The Pauline cosmic Christ in whose identities we draw from and agonistic pluralism in public spaces of Mouffe challenges exclusive church hegemony or a ‘communion.’ 

There is a deep challenge to resist the temptation to think of the church as a homogenous political community.

In the context of a fractured communion across the church, is it possible for the church to speak with a different language, articulate ideas, critique and offer imageries that enrich and disturb the public debate, for example representing marginalized voices on human sexuality, racial justice or environmental crisis? 

The ecclesiological model that emerges from reading Paul and Mouffe could allow us to position the church itself as a politically and theologically diverse community within the larger society. The role of the church is not to strive towards articulating one uniform voice, both within or in public spaces, but highlight various and even rival voices. 

The church has retained the common space for whole communities in diverse contexts, whether they have faith or not. The church is best placed to be the voice of the collective, amplifying the diverse voices in the public square. The church can call for the common good, not just as a political issue but as a fundamental moral requirement. The church, as a political community has the language and imagination to offer an alternative—a critique. By pursuing multiple ‘justice and equity’ aspects in the form of a ‘chain of equivalence,’ the church could model a community that respectfully collaborates in bringing fullness of life to all.    

Recognizing the interpretive contingencies and diversity of Christian theological meaning making, agonistic pluralism could be a fruitful paradigm. In order to take the preliminary and open nature of the questions of theology seriously, it is important that the church not only allows but also stimulates various and different interpretations, theological ones as well as political ones. In this way, a church can be seen as a community of disagreement, or as Kathryn Tanner calls ‘a community of argument.’ 

In a community of disagreement, dissent on theological and political issues are part of the Christian self-understanding. Theological and political interpretations are sites of continuous contestation and struggle. The Christian community of disagreement is not a community without limits, but a community whose limits are constantly part of the debate.  If one accepts the church to be a community of disagreement, then it might be easier to see the clarifying function of disagreements, and to see dissent as a mobilizing factor that expands the interpretive and imaginative space, which also has the capacity of generating involvement and commitment. The role of the church is the creation of agonistic public spaces in which there is the possibility for dissensus to be expressed or different alternatives to be put forward. 

The Anglican Communion is at a crucial juncture in its ecclesiological journey. As a worldwide family, the communion has come to represent the diverse particularities of Anglicans living in different provinces shaped by social, political, cultural, economic and religious contexts. Therefore, differences are inevitable and part of the communion as a global family. The challenge for the communion is to overcome the negative connotations of ‘difference’ and embrace the beauty of its uniqueness and diversity. Such a process demands foregrounding love within the fabric of the communion life.

Pauline emphasis on shared identity and Mouffe’s recognition of agonistic pluralism within the church, could be a possible way forward in reimagining a new space for the churches that are deeply divided and fragmented due to irreconcilable theological or dogmatic viewpoints. In the process, the church not only deconstructs any hegemony but offer an alternative space, a counter hegemony—the Kingdom of God, which is a truly meaningful communion with a Cosmic Christ as its foundation.

For further reading:

Martin, James. Chantal Mouffe. Vol. 4, Routledge, 2013.

Mouffe, Chantal. On the Political, London: Verso. 2005

Mouffe, Chantal. The Democratic Paradox, London: Verso. 2000

Mouffe, Chantal. For a Left Populism. Verso, 2018.

Tanner, Kathryn. Theories of Culture. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997

Tanner, Kathryn. Economy of Grace. Fortress Press, 2005.

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