Cobblestone walkway in Nuremberg, Germany (photo by Ruben Rosario)

The Author’s Response

Traditions

Situated on this eschatological middle ground, political theology must reckon with how we live in a time when the kingdom of God is present, creating moments of transformation and rupture…To speak truthfully, political theology must also speak to the quotidian joys and everyday struggles that make up the ordinary time of our lives.

I am enormously grateful for the care and attention that Ruben Rosario Rodriguez, M. T. Davila, Stephen Long and Jonathan Tran accord my book in their responses. Such attention is a wonderful gift. I begin by reflecting on Davila and Long’s call for more critique, which leads to a response to Davila’s important questions to me; namely, where is my own confession of conversion in this book? I then question Long and Tran’s framing of the book as an articulation of Augustinian political theology and through that touch on some of Rosario’s concerns. I close by clarifying how, contra Long, the discovery of truth is a central concern of the book and why, contra Tran, missiology as well as ecclesiology should be a central concern of political theology.

The thread that connects the different parts of my response is the constructive edge to my project. Davila and Long are concerned with a lack of critique. For Davila it is the need for a more critical stance toward the church, whereas Long calls for more suspicion of populism. As both Davila and Long would no doubt recognize, there is a large amount of critique in the book, but, as Tran notes, the overall project is a constructive one. So, for example, chapter seven develops a strong internal critique of how social hierarchies shape the church and its liturgical practices through drawing on various class based analyses. But I complement this with a constructive account of how worship helps constitute the political witness of the church. Likewise, stringent criticism is laid out of both Pentecostalism and Anglicanism, but this is put in dialogue with the constructive dimensions of these traditions. If Davila and Long’s call for more critique is more than a question of emphasis and tone and relates to matters of substance, then my response is that I think there are good reasons for taking the approach I do, even if it can, at times, seem as if I am not critical enough.

The way I frame political theology is that it is always needing to speak of brutality and tragedy in the voice of hope, of love swaddled in death. I think this is how Scripture orientates us to reality. But alongside Scripture I am also influenced at a theoretical level by the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, the feminist literary theorist Rita Felski, and the philosopher Bruno Latour’s explorations of the limits of critique; and in terms of democratic politics, by the organizing rule that the price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. In the contemporary context, it is not enough for political theology to offer only critique of the church or broader political dynamics, it must also engage in the extremely hard work of imagining and rendering plausible constructive possibilities of life together amid the social and environmental ravages of our age while being ever mindful of how all Christian witness is, as Luther put it, simul justus et peccator. This brings me to Davila’s call for me to confess my own conversion.

I appreciate enormously Davila’s invitation to confess but find myself hesitant to do so. While coming very close to concurring, I finally disagree with her argument that a confessional approach is “a more important, and ultimately more effective tool, for engaging the kinds of conversations that might truly lead to cooperation and consociationalism on essentials for the human flourishing of all.” I worry this sets up a false binary. A confessional approach does indeed have a vital contribution to make. I myself make such an approach a central feature of my teaching practice, where I narrate how my own experiences and structural location situate me in relation to the topic or question under consideration. And in political settings I draw on organizer Marshall Ganz’s practice of public narrative (as well as teaching it in my class on organizing and advocacy in the context of Christian mission and ministry). Confession or personal testimony is a way for me to be accountable and make sense to others in the room, and in turn, for us to be able to do good work together amid our differences. And I recognize confession can function in this way in written work and have included it in previous books. Moreover, alongside the long tradition of confession as a genre of theological writing, it is an important part of methodological innovations in Christian social ethics, most notably, in womanist and mujerista theology and recent work informed by ethnography. But while I value the use of testimony in theology of all kinds, I don’t think it is always necessary. There is also a place for concept mapping, category development, structural analysis, history, identifying archives, generating analogies, critique, and framing as part of the ongoing work of theological ressourcement and aggiornamento. Such work is not simply part of the theological task of paradosis (p. 18 & 149) but also an essential part of the kinds of popular education that contribute to movement building and social transformation (pp. 448-449). This was an insight of the likes of Septima Clark, Ella Baker, Myles Horton and Paolo Freire. Effective organizing is not just a question of organized people, organized money, and organized action, it also entails organized knowledge. I take Christ and the Common Life to be a contribution to that task.

I turn now to Long and Tran, both of whom interpret Christ and the Common Life as communicating an Augustinian approach to political theology. Admittedly, Augustine does show up a lot in this book and was a key interlocutor in one of my previous books. But when presenting an account of Western traditions of political thought one cannot get around Augustine. He is a key figure to think with and against. It is also true that I have learned a great deal from Augustine’s work. Perhaps that is enough to earn one the label Augustinian. However, my sense is that Long and Tran’s view of me as an Augustinian goes deeper, with their claim taking two possible forms. The first is that I am committed to defending Augustine’s take on the nature and meaning of politics over and against other “schools” of thought such as liberationist or Thomist approaches. I hope the book makes clear that there is nothing at stake for me in defending Augustine’s overall approach as somehow superior to any other. The form of the book and its constructive arguments demonstrate not only that this is not the case but also that I think drawing hard and fast lines between different approaches is itself a mistake.

The second sense in which the claim that I am an Augustinian could be heard is that Augustine’s work sets the basic grammar of my thought. This is harder to dismiss. There are aspects of Augustine that have shaped my understanding of politics; most notably, his understanding of the saeculum as a field of wheat and tares and how this connects to a non-idealistic and anti-Manichean approach to politics and a non-binary conception of church-world relations. This is the aspect of his thought that Tran points to in his ascription of my work as Augustinian. I do take it to be an Augustinian insight that all politics, east of Eden, is in some measure idolatrous and at the same time, in however misguided a way, an effort to attain a genuine good. The implication is that even while political endeavors can have real and penultimate value, there is no space of innocence, not even for revolutionary vanguards acting in the name of (but too frequently entirely instrumentalizing) the oppressed. It is partly on this basis that I am suspicious of turns to the proactive use of violence for political ends (as distinct from self-defense)—or what Rosario Rodriguez calls revolutionary violence. Instead, I advocate a turn to democratic politics as the primary means to address structures of domination.

Thinking with Augustine has also helped me bring into focus the threefold challenge that has animated much of my work—namely, how to integrate the need to simultaneously live out and bear witness to the particularity of Christian beliefs and practices, while cultivating just and loving relations with various non-Christian others, and at the same time, agitate and render accountable everyone, especially Christians, given the fallen and finite conditions of life in this non-eternal age. Something else I have turned to Augustine for help thinking through—but I would also put here the influence of Irenaeus (see p. 326)—is how to keep sociality, spatiality and temporality together and always in play in the outworking of creatureliness. Augustine uses the social and spatial topos of the city as a framework for narrating his eschatological temporality (earthly city/city of God trope). It is an intentional mixing up of basic dimensions of creaturely existence. Augustine is trying to lay out how peoplehood, place, and history are co-constitutive and inextricably entangled. I would go beyond Augustine and say that peoplehood, place, and history are each, in themselves, a social, spatial, temporal and ecological configuration.

All or some of the above insights are shared by a broad range of theologians not ordinarily identified as Augustinian: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Maritain being but two examples. By way of illustration, here is Bonhoeffer laying out an “Augustinian” conception of the relationship between revelation and history:

The concept of a historical heritage, bound to an awareness of temporality and resistant to all mythologizing, is only possible where thought, consciously or unconsciously, is determined by the entry of God into history at a definite place and time, in which God became human in Jesus Christ. Here history becomes serious, without being sanctified. God’s Yes and God’s No to history, as we understand it in the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, bring a lasting and irremovable tension into every historical moment. Through the life and death of Jesus Christ, history becomes not the transient bearer of eternal values but, for the first time, thoroughly temporal. Precisely in its temporality, it is history affirmed by God. The inquiry about historical heritage is not, therefore, the timeless question of the eternally valid values of the past. Rather, it is here that human beings, placed in history, must give an accounting to themselves about the present time as it has been taken on by God in Christ. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 6, Ethics, ed. Clifford Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 103-104].

I don’t think that working with such an insight qualifies anyone as an Augustinian per se. Rather, it is a key theological insight that Augustine helped articulate.

Where I move beyond the orbit of specifically Augustinian thought is in my Christology, pneumatology, theological anthropology, missiology, ecclesiology, eschatology, and overarching cosmology. I do not have the space here to go into each of these in detail, but to point to some examples, rather than Augustine, I turn to the New Testament use of the term kosmos/world to conceptualize this age before Christ’s return (pp. 233-235), to a very different pneumatology and missiology than Augustine’s to further develop my conception of church-world relations (pp. 128-143), and to a very different theological anthropology to that of Augustine (pp. 291-322), one that Rosario Rodriguez highlights as central to the book. Together these operate beyond Augustine’s amillennial and anti-apocalyptic eschatology, articulate a more porous and open-ended ecclesiology, and involve a much stronger sense of the transfigurative possibilities available here and now even as I hold these in tension with the tragic realities of politics in this age. Another way to put this is my Pentecostalism modulates my Anglicanism (with its latent Augustinianism). Together these generate a more hopeful, constructive, and pragmatic/phronetic orientation to the earthly city. It is this orientation that is the other dimension of “Brethertonian” thinking that Tran points to but which I take to be decidedly non-Augustinian in tone and form.

How this constructive edge to my thinking departs from Augustine is illustrated by drawing a contrast with a modern theologian who squarely sits within the Augustinian fold, Reinhold Niebuhr. His Augustinian emphasis on the tragic and ironic dimensions of political life tends to flatten all problems into versions of the same, so that, for example, racism becomes just another instance of human sin and pride on a par with any other on a laundry list of issues. Such a view emphasizes the big picture pattern while downplaying the need for a particularity of theological analysis. For Augustine, the sack of Rome in 410 is not something radically new, it is just an iteration of the same old problem of the libido domandi in human history. Or more pressingly, in being reduced to a symptom of a wider problem, Augustine renders relations between masters and slaves unproblematized as an analogy or metaphor for divine-human relations. Such an approach also fails to reckon with the surprising newness made possible by the Spirit and the need for radical change, tending as it does to a conservativism and emphasis on the need for order and stability. It thereby leaves us with few tools to reckon with novelty or processes of change or the need for change.

Long makes the surprising suggestion that truth is absent as a concern in Christ and the Common Life. It is surprising as it is a central concern animating the book as a whole, which is focused on analyzing the conditions for the possibilities of discovering the truth about who God is and who we are relation to God, each other, and the rest of creation, and how a specific conception of politics can serve that quest. As I put it on p. 2: “Politics is a crucial arena of human activity through which we come to grasp the truth of many theological concepts, learn how to love our neighbors, and discover what it means to flourish as creatures.” I repeatedly discuss how a preferential option for the poor is a truth-telling measure (e.g., pp. 77-78), and it is an explicit focus of chapter five where I lay out, through an analysis of Catholic social teaching, how democracy becomes a means of pursing truth under modern conditions of finitude and fallenness. This may be unfair, but I suspect the problem is that Long—at least in his response—tends towards a cognitivist, incorporeal, and atemporal conception of truth as somehow existing outside of actual forms of life. I take a key starting point for theological reflection on the nature of truth to be the Spirit-empowered person of Jesus Christ who is the paradigm of truth (e.g., John 14:6). By implication truth is embodied, relational, participative, and dynamic. As creatures, we can only know truth, or the term I use more often in the book, reality, in and through time, space, and social relations and each of these dimensions must be attended to if the holistic, all-encompassing nature of truth/reality is in some measure to be articulated. To put this paradoxically, the truth of the Gospel speaks only dialect.

In my view (with a nod to Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante), a properly Christian conception of the condition of being a truth seeker is that each of us is situated as a viator—one on the way—rather than a comprehensor—that is, one who has arrived or who comprehends the truth. As a viator we are always already having to act in a world we did not make and do not control. The implications of being a viator are firstly, this means that truthful reflection on politics must wrestle with what it means to act together with others in a context shaped by the violence and brutality we inherit from ages past. But we also find ourselves in an eschatological middle ground, living between Christ’s ascension and return when the Spirit is poured out on all flesh. An eschatological orientation to politics means a truthful account of politics must trust that history is open to change, a new creation is coming, and that the Spirit can bring into being a radical, surprising, and unanticipated newness in the midst of history, often in response to the cry for justice and love by those on the underside of history. Situated on this eschatological middle ground, political theology must reckon with how we live in a time when the kingdom of God is present, creating moments of transformation and rupture; in a place where new beginnings are possible, and so established ways of doing things need re-evaluating; and in a season when it is not good enough to simply go with the flow because the messianic age is dawning and all we do is subject to the judgment to come. Lastly, we always already find ourselves in the middle of the everyday world of ordinary life that must be cultivated if children are to be raised, crops planted, and life is to go on. To speak truthfully, political theology must also speak to the quotidian joys and everyday struggles that make up the ordinary time of our lives. These too are crucibles of divine disclosure and constitute part and parcel of political life.

Docetic political theologies, whether in the form of blueprint programs or the call for a philosopher king, are refusals of the nature and form of truth, and the conditions for the discovery and reception of reality, given the kind of creatures humans are and the ways in which we live and move and have our being. They attend neither to the wreckage and devastation we inherit, nor the eschatological future we anticipate, nor the quotidian world we inhabit. I have tried to articulate a political theology that does attend to each of these dimensions of reality. And it is the incarnational and pneumatological nature of truth that lies behind, among other things, my emphasis on the priority of practical reason, how talk of God and talk of politics are co-emergent and co-constitutive, and advocacy of democratic politics as means of pursuing the flourishing of creation. Attempts to rule in the name of an ideological blueprint or set of abstract principles or the dictates of a philosopher king will be inherently destructive as they are attempts to deny the goodness and the limits of creation re-affirmed in the Incarnation and falsely realize political goods without paying sufficient attention to the fall. They also legitimize elite and technocratic forms of rule of the kind Long seems to desire while delegitimizing the simultaneously Christian and democratic insight that no one has a monopoly on wisdom.

This brings me to Tran’s important point about the criteriological role of the church in discerning truth and naming the work of the Holy Spirit. Tran is right insofar as naming Jesus as the Christ and discerning the work of the Spirit cannot be done without and apart from the people of God and the beliefs and practices they curate and pass on (paradosis). The church is central to any such work of naming, and I explicitly identify political theology as a discernment of spirits (p. 7). But the church cannot undertake this task alone. It is a task that must always take place at the interface between church and world. I name this dialogic interface “mission,” which, if it is to be faithful, hopeful, and loving, necessitates listening coming before proclamation. And as Davila rightly notes, it entails the conversion of the church not just the world. It is at this interface that not only the world understands itself as world, but also the church understands what it means to be church. As I argue in the chapter on hospitality (and in my first book), for Christians, our encounter with strangers is more often than not a means of grace for the healing and renewal of our institutions and traditions, so that they remain conduits of creaturely flourishing and bearers of faithful witness to the Lordship of Christ. It is through encounter with others not like us and with whom we disagree that we not only forestall the church from becoming an idolatrous and oppressive repristination of a dead faith, but also encounter the new work of Christ and the Spirit in creation. Mission is the primary modality of this encounter and involves trusting that truth and the work of the Spirit may be found not just among those I understand or like or who are like me, but also among those I don’t understand and find strange or even scandalous. On my account democratic politics can be a faithful, hopeful, and loving mode of listening and discernment.

If the church is not to become a self-referential and self-serving entity (and thus idolatrous), then its integrity and faithfulness depends on mission. And mission, as Lamin Sanneh argued, involves the decentering of Christian speech and action by handing over the naming of God to a pagan, or gentile, or foreign, or non-Christian other. Without a sufficient emphasis on pneumatology and missiology, ecclesial ethics is always in danger of collapsing into a rarified form of ancestor worship through an over emphasis on tradition and narrative and a refusal of the radical newness of God’s living presence here and now. Amazing and perplexing as it is, regular Temple worshippers in Jerusalem must turn to “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Act 2.8-12) to hear let alone understand the new thing that God is doing. And it is the interface of church and world that is the meeting point of the Noachian and Abrahamic covenants that Rosario Rodriguez highlights as central to the book. Outside of faithful mission, in which listening is the first act, these covenants become disconnected and oppositional and Jesus is converted into either a tribal deity or abstract universal principle imposed on others.

Again, I am deeply grateful for the responses to the book by Rosario Rodriguez, Davila, Long and Tran and very much look forward to further conversation as we each struggle to bear faithful witness in our work and lives.

Stephen Long

The Underside of Populism

Populism seems to have at least these advantages: it privileges practical reasoning over theoretical; it binds us to place; it recognizes modernity’s political gains; it does not posit reactionary declension narratives; it affirms “common folk;” it avoids elitism…It also gave us President Trump.

Rubén Rosario Rodríguez

Unresolved Tensions: Common Humanity vs. Ethnographic Frameworks

At stake is the very possibility of democratic politics. Without minimizing or devaluing the experience of oppressed and marginalized communities, the way forward—as Luke Bretherton has convincingly argued—necessarily entails nurturing some form of cohesive social vision.

MT Davila

Dreaming of a democracy driven by the preferential option for the poor…

Bretherton’s robust yet flexible understanding of democracy and politics offers the promise of engaging diverse others in constructing the common good for all, with particular care for the destiny of the poor and vulnerable…[but] I need to hear Bretherton witness to how the process of decentering the canon became foundational for building a Christian political theology.

Jonathan Tran

Brethertonian Thinking

According to Luke Bretherton, theologians, in forgetting that prophetic critique presumes eschatological affirmation, have yet to understand what the work of theology comes to.

The Author’s Response

Situated on this eschatological middle ground, political theology must reckon with how we live in a time when the kingdom of God is present, creating moments of transformation and rupture…To speak truthfully, political theology must also speak to the quotidian joys and everyday struggles that make up the ordinary time of our lives.

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