A Reading and Commentary on Michael Kirwan’s Political Theology

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Political Theology: An Introduction. Michael Kirwan. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.


Breadth and suggestiveness recommend this book to us. The breadth is reflective of the map of views offered us, largely from within England and Western Europe, and to some extent North America, other than the “better known” liberation theologies. Of particular note, among these, is the presentation of Oliver O’Donovan’s “High Tradition” of political theology (roughly 1100-1650), along with O’Donovan’s contentious view of our modern ignorance of it. Kirwan exhibits some sympathy for that judgment, but without a noticeable antipathy toward liberationist styles of theology, the concerns and significant views of which are appreciatively noted at key moments. While it is important to ask whether the omissions skew the presentation, still what Kirwan offers us manifests the characteristics of a careful savoring and digestion of quite demanding materials.

The “suggestiveness” of the book is more subtle.  Kirwan strives hard to let his materials speak for themselves. He is letting them guide him into the matter, and consequently he is letting us be guided as well.  Occasionally an adverb or sentence here and there will alert us to an implied affirmation or critique. But my overwhelming sense was this: Allow an author’s question to become one’s own question. Avoid premature judgment. But Kirwan is striving after more than exposition. Calling this a “critique” of views might be presumptuous, although we find some of this. Nor does he offer a unified theory.  But he does suggest, by way of conclusion, one articulation of the range of possible tactics, strategies, and principles which flow from the rich tradition, especially Scripture, and which might guide us in our contemporary sociopolitical situations.

What follows is a map of the map, with commentary. The book’s form and content significantly interrelate. Book-ended by narratives, and with narrative patches throughout, the book suggests the need to keep argument anchored in the turbulence of life.

Prefacing the Discussion

Political theology’s possible relevance is tributary to how one assesses the debate between belief and unbelief. Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West [1] favors “unbelief;  Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, the creators of the “Great Separation” between the theological and the political, are its heroes; Rousseau, Kant, and even Hegel were less surgically severe in the “separation,” allowing a leakage between the theological and the political.  Lilla knows that the theological (as deriving political authority from a revealed, divine source) has a way of making a nuisance of itself, thus demanding a certain vigilance by political philosophy. The theological impulse is a dangerous one, culminating all too often in blood baths, either in its more disguised, secularized forms as fascism and communism, or in its religiously ideological form as terrorism, for example.

Commentary: Throughout Kirwan speaks of the “theological political,” echoing Spinoza, although he is nowhere mentioned. Context helps the reader decipher the range of meanings: the theological as “God” or some type of “divine source,” as the religion which is the carrier of belief in this “God,” or the doctrines and theologies of these religions, for example.  Political philosopher Eric Voegelin, partly because of such ambiguities, eventually focused upon the engendering experiences and symbolizations giving rise to various religious, institutionalized forms and doctrines and theologies as a way forward.[2]  If you want, the sociopolitical and “individual” instantiation of the “religious” varied with the nature of the engendering experiences. But with Kirwan, Voegelin did typically suggest that the deepest level of our problematic was that of belief or unbelief.  He also argued vigorously, contra Lilla, that the side of unbelief was not guaranteed protection from all kinds of disastrous consequences. He took the Augustinian view that when the Divine is denied, it returns in a disguised, destructive form. Kirwan wants to let his sources speak for themselves, and as his theological stew thickens, more light begins to shine on these issues.

Parameters (Part One)

Sources for Describing/Defining Political Theology

The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology [3] enables Kirwan to begin with three views of the political theological task offered by the volume’s editors, Peter Scott and William Cavanaugh.  First, politics enjoys its secular autonomy, even if theology might indicate relations between religious beliefs and societal issues.  Is this autonomy of the political a distinction within a greater union between them, or a separation? Distinction, division, separation, and cordon sanitaire are all mentioned, but the sense seems to be toward separation. Secondly, theology “reflects and reinforces just or unjust political arrangements,” serving as a “superstructure to the materialist politico-economic base.” It might reinforce a drive toward either justice or injustice, depending upon the base it is reflecting.  A third view is that the political always has a theological dimension, and that the theological implies the political. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, carries social implications, while the way a society functions carries theological implications. Kirwan puts it this way: “theology and politics are essentially similar activities: both are constituted in the production of metaphysical images around which communities are organized.” Political theology’s objective, then, might be to surface and problematize the theological assumptions embedded within a supposedly “secular” politics and to promote a better alternative.[4]

Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations [5], offering a retrieval of the “High Tradition” of Christian political theology primarily in the West (roughly 1100-1650), enables Kirwan to join with O’Donovan’s goal of offering an expansion of the political theological horizons of his readers beyond that of today’s liberation and other advocacy political theologies, which are likely better known and afforded more attention.  This might provide the political theologian with more tools and a widened horizon for evaluating the three options just noted in a manner which offers more likelihood of preserving the painfully carved out insights of the Christian politico-theological tradition.

A number of other authors provide Kirwan with a third source for reflection, Hent de Vries especially in his programmatic introduction to a collection of articles in Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World [6], and Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury.  De Vries recognizes the potentially constructive and/or destructive aspects of both the theological and the political in their interrelationships, the fact that various modes of interrelationship are possible in ever-changing ways (juxtaposition, strict separation, subordination of one to the other, interdependence), and the fact that “no unified theory is currently available to hold these trends together in a compelling explanatory account or historical narrative.”  Kirwan regards the volume as somewhat impenetrable, and that which contains Williams’ introduction on witness as the Christian approach to the political as even more impenetrable.[7]  But likely it is included here at least partially because Kirwan is a British theologian, and some rather important trends in British political theology are represented there.

Commentary: These sources offer a map with which to wade into and tentatively evaluate the material to follow. I agree that the “High Tradition” in political theology deserves a more serious look, in the sense that it represents a laboratory in which Christianity worked through many of the complex issues still confronting political theology today. The plurality of positions, even more intensive today than in the past, intensifies the quest for a more normative framework in the light of which a Christian form of political discernment might ensue. Kirwan, it seems, wants the reader to existentially experience the rich plurality of the field first, lest whatever normativity is sought and in fact possible remain too narrow.

Violent Beginnings, and Witness Contra Leviathan

A brief contrast of Orestes’ Eumenides with  Sophocles’ Antigone  suggests a distinction between “political mythology” and “political theology,” the former meaning the use of religion for the purposes of maintaining the legitimacy of the polis’ government (a “useful lie”), the latter, the use of religion as a critique of societal ideology. Antigone considered herself bound by the gods to bury her brother Polynices, even though King Creon had forbidden it because of her brother’s “ treason.”  Kirwan recognizes that she would not have likely been regarded as a hero in the polis of her time; Hegel, Kierkegaard, and others made her one because of her protest and subsequent punishment.  The Antigone, so read, becomes an example of a “political theology” unmasking the injustices of the polis.

The katēchon  (2 Thess 2:1-12), referring to the restraining of chaos during the endtime trials, offers another way of imagining the theological political. The Eumenides anticipates the “restraining” model of politics in that it offers a legitimation of the polis’ violence in the name of a certain view of justice, and projects outwards onto others the evils that must be restrained. The polis always contains aggressive forces, so to speak, and the Eumenides suggests that they can be successfully managed “if they are channeled outwards onto a common enemy.”[8]   Successful management is symbolized by the chorus’ “common friendship”; the projection outward onto the polis’ enemies, by its mentioning of “common hate.”

The “Leviathan” theme of Thomas Hobbes and the “Freund-Feind” distinction of Carl Schmitt[9] are noted as katēchon thinkers likewise, proposing  pessimistic views of the political as forms of restraint against aggression based upon an essentially pessimistic anthropology. Augustine exhibits some of this as well, and the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a more contemporary example of the restrainer.  The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, with his distinction between a covenant theology based upon a more optimistic anthropology[10], other political theologians in the modern German political theological tradition (Johann Baptist Metz, Dorothee Sölle, Matthew Lamb), and particularly René Girard’s mimetic theory are offered as examples of a political theology based upon a more optimistic anthropology, echoing Antigone and the quest for a just polis. It would generate a critical theology, to be sure, but not an essentially pessimistic one of restraint through scapegoating.

Commentary: Kirwan is suggesting the distinction between uncritical and critical approaches to the theological political (his political “mythology” and political “theology,” respectively), as well as a further distinction between a pessimistic, more Manichean view of the political, and a more optimistic one.  The notion of “myth” is highly contested, and Kirwan is tentative on this. Others argue that “myth” changes with different political situations and different thinkers. Plato’s use of myth and his philosophy of myth, on Voegelin’s view, for example, is anything but uncritical. So Voegelin would appreciate the need for a distinction between uncritical and critical legitimations of the polis, but his and some others’ work would perhaps push us to a different lexicon here. Can we ever do without the myth, albeit in a critical sense? That would be a question put to us by Voegelin and some others.[11]

Is Political Theology Even Possible? Arendt and Zizek

For some, a Christian political theological project is impossible because Christianity is essentially “apolitical.” Such is Hannah Arendt’s claim, and dialoging with her enables Kirwan and the reader to somewhat confront this option, although, of course, other possible “dialogue partners” might have been brought forward (Nietzsche?).  Arendt offers an essentially inward and other-worldly view of Christian anthropology (care of the soul, individual salvation, heaven-focused); love and inner motives are hidden, non-public realities; and a divine revelation does not sit well with the pluralistic give and take of the civil realm. Arendt, as is well known, found in the Greek classical tradition her alternative of a public philosophy where speech, action, freedom, wordly love, and creative natality were valued.

Kirwan concludes that Arendt’s “critique contains only an important half-truth,” because Christianity did not actually reject the ideals of the classical Greek and Roman polis but was confronted by a new political situation. “The ancient world had already turned its back on the kind of classical politics envisaged by Arendt, in favour of a style of government that was more absolutist and coercive, and more explicit in its appeal to the trappings of religious transcendence.”[12]  There is, of course, an other-worldly, eschatological strain in Christianity fostering  a “schizophrenia” in Christian responses to the sociopolitical: obeying the empire (Paul’s Romans), resisting it (Revelation), the monastic movement, etc. One meets with a similar schizophrenia in the manner in which Greek and Roman political philosophy turned from the rich thought of Plato and Aristotle to the transcendentalizing of the empire and emperors in the shift from polis to empire.

Kirwan notes that some have found implicit religious themes in Arendt’s thought, suggesting that political theology of some kind simply cannot be avoided.  Ernst Bloch, Theodore Adorno, Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri, Terry Eagleton, and others have been characterized as taking a “religious turn,” which might further fortify the necessity of some form of political theology.  Walter Benjamin’s parable of “The Puppet and the Dwarf” is regarded by Kirwan as an announcement of his breaking ranks with the Marxists who regard political theology as ultimately an opiate.[13] The puppet (historical materialism) always seems to play a winning game of chess, when in fact it is manipulated by a hidden dwarf!

Kirwan ends with some thoughts on Walter Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute, or Why the Christian Legacy is Worth Fighting For[14], perhaps because it is (a/i)llusive, permitting several lines of interpretation, suggesting that all these thinkers can be similarly construed.  From within the Marxist and Lacanian traditions, Zizek draws a contrast between “global” and “universal” religions, the first fixing the individual’s place in the cosmos, the latter offering “the individual immediate access to universality” (49). The final goal is not cosmic or social, hierarchical balance, as with global religions, something which is irrelevant to a Buddha or a Jesus, on Zizek’s view. The universalist “uncouples” the tie between religion and politics, relativizing family, kin, ethnicity, given political structures, etc.

Commentary: The turn to Arendt at this point can be read as a return to Lilla’s “Great Separation,” this time on the side of political philosophy. Which is helpful, because this “political philosophy” raises issues always worthy of confronting, something like Leo Strauss’ Athens or Jerusalem? In other words, the would-be political theologian can likely never be done with this alternative; he/she needs its critique. On the other hand, Kirwan is not suggesting that Arendt’s work does not offer valuable resources to the political theologian. She perhaps thinned out the transcendental and “metaphysical” dimensions of Classical Philosophy, as Voegelin noted in his review of her work, but she was indicating the potential power of the classics at a time in which “modern” thinkers and the churches had rather miserably failed. The classics are classics, we keep finding our way back to them. At the same time, Arendt’s notion of natality/flourishing has become important among some of today’s advocacy theologians on behalf of women especially.[15]

On the other hand, the reference to Zizek et al., to which could have been added Gianni Vattimo’s After Christianity[16], perhaps represents political philosophy’s rethinking of the theological dimension, or at least a “guilty” conscience about its resourcefulness, and thus its own continual need of the challenge offered by political theology. Zizek’s fragile absolute suggests the experience of transcendence offered to all, in the light of which sociopolitical structures and ideologies can be critiqued.  Zizek’s “global” and “universal” also suggests a comparison with Voegelin’s distinction between “ecumenicity” and “universality,” respectively, in The Ecumenic Age.[17]  The friction between the two was certainly at work in the “High Tradition” of political theology as it worked through Christianity’s eschatological dimension.

Political Theology’s History (Part Two)

Kirwan returns to O’Donovan’s magisterial treatment of the “High Tradition” of political theology, amplifying the “schooling” of today’s political theologians, if it be true, as O’Donovan claims, that this tradition is unknown and needs rehabilitating. It certainly has not received the attention afforded today’s liberation and other advocacy theologies.  O’Donovan is an Anglican priest and theologian/ethicist, and his work displays the both/and catholicity and “measuredness” of some strands within the Anglican tradition. The High Tradition (1100-1650), falling within the period called “Christendom,” denotes the varying attempts within Christianity (mainly in the West) to develop a “Christian secular political order.”

Christendom” is a category in flux, expressing “the missionary impulse of Christianity.” O’Donovan sketches six phases: (1) the rout of the demons: Christ’s resurrection is the victory over the principalities and powers; Constantine’s victory and conversion and the Eusebian theology it engendered are expressions of this victory. (2) Redefining the boundary: a too easy alliance between empire and Christianity, bordering on identification, receives a crucial critique especially in Augustine’s magisterial themes of the two cities weaving in and out of church and empire. Augustine reestablishes the eschatological dimension nearly lost earlier; that is, Christendom is the result of an overlapping of epochs (time and eternity); the Kingdom is still coming as well. (3) “Two rules”: Tendencies to too closely fuse Christianity and empire keep asserting themselves (Otto of Freising, Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Empire, for example), and so we find attempts to reassert distinctions between priestly and royal power in Popes Gelasius I and Gregory the Great, for example. But something of the eschatological dimension seems domesticated, and Christendom becomes a form of “equilibrium” between priest and king at best. (4) Supremacy of spiritual authority: Pope Gregory VII in confrontation with Emperor Henry IV during the eleventh century’s investiture controversy reasserts the supremacy of the spiritual over the secular, and Popes Innocent III (d. 1216) and Boniface VIII (d. 1303) follow this trend. The infamous Unam Sanctam of the latter is the key document.

Kirwan does not take up O’Donovan’s fifth (authority of word alone) and sixth (restoring the balance) phases here, but pauses to consider further the implications of the investiture controversy.  He follows Steven Ozment in suggesting that what was working itself out between church and empire in the investiture controversy was the same kind of late medieval theology which was at work within the church in the conciliar movement/controversy; namely, “we can speak tentatively of two ways of justifying authority from ‘top down’ to ‘bottom up.’”[18]  As papal authority appealed to various biblical and traditional sources in justification of its position, so too did the princes. Likewise in the conciliarist controversy: each made its appeals to sources of authority. Ozment compared deposing a pope to executing the king: each was a difficult choice with high stakes. The decree Sacrosancta (1415) of the Council of Constance asserting the authority of the council over the Pope within the church was like the Magna Carta in the civil realm. Kirwan intimates that what was really at work was an appeal to divine authority in an emergency situation within Christendom, anticipating Calvin’s later view of a right of (a “call to”?) resistance against an unjust tyrant.

Within these phases we can note times when the political order was viewed more positively by the church, and periods when the contrary prevailed. The former is more like Thomas Aquinas’ position; the latter, like Augustine’s.  Although, suggests Kirwan, this contrast can be overdone, it has its element of truth. More optimistic political periods might tend to move in the direction of Thomas; more pessimistic, in that of Augustine.

Commentary: Kirwan is largely offering us an exposition of several expositions (O’Donovan and Ozment); one will need to refer to the latter for the greater number of original sources and scholars underlying the presentation. But this is what he intended, and no offense is taken by this reviewer. O’Donovan, by the way, largely views his own work in The Desire of the Nations to be expositional; Ozment’s is more interpretative in some ways, and has an eye for the wider political implications of the developing political theology of the churches, like Voegelin’s own treatment of the materials in his posthumously published History of Political Ideas.[19]  Voegelin’s treatment, however, was part of a “grander” narrative which he was working out, which eventually culminated in Order and History, and had he ever reworked those earlier materials it is hard to say how this particular patch of it would have changed. In the main, we can say that Voegelin seems to have had a “mystical” (in his sense) vision of humanity as a spiritual, transcendental communion variously incarnating itself within society and history, and this vision became ever more complexified and differentiated as it fanned out into the ecumenic world beyond the western orbit. Still, the struggle to work out the various manners in which the transcendent is present within society and history, and the tendencies to collapse one into the other, are the larger theme whose western form was playing itself out in the ”High Tradition” of O’Donovan, from Voegelin’s perspective.  Apart, perhaps, from this grander narrative, I sensed much complementarity between O’Donovan’s, Ozment’s, and Voegelin’s handling of the materials, although Kirwan’s “hesitation” that O’Donovan might be a bit too benign adds a bit of a Voegelinian dash to his stew.[20]

Occasionally the categories of “compromise” and “absorption” appear within Voegelin’s History of Political Ideas, and they might be useful here. He speaks of Paul’s compromises on a number of issues as one of the ways in which Christianity settled down to live within society and history, in effect reworking the “excessive” eschatologism of early Christianity. Here Voegelin, following largely the exegesis at the time he was writing this material, too easily took over the exaggerated apocalypticism of the then current scholarship, missing the “already/not yet” tension present within Jesus’ ministry.  So, if Christianity was to survive and prosper, compromising with the world would be required. This may not have been so much a compromise as a working out of the “not yet” dimensions of the “kingdom of God” preached by Jesus.  Still, the term “compromise” may articulate how it felt and seemed, and it brings out the very real tactical and strategic difficulties of working out the sociopolitical implications of the gospel. O’Donovan has also stressed the exceedingly difficult and complex nature of political decision-making/judgment.[21]

“Absorption” is a tactic permitting such “compromise,” or, if you will, MWT (muddling our way through), and Voegelin thought the medieval Church’s capacity for this had rather miserably broken down before the catastrophe of the Reformation. Mystics like Nicholas of Cusa or, later Jean Bodin, had something of a mystic’s capacity for such absorption, but they were rare. On the other hand, the Papacy’s ability to “absorb” the Franciscan movement represents one of the better instances of absorption at work. Compromise can be a rather coldly pragmatic move, but so be it; but if there is a complete breakdown in the will to compromise, hope lessens. But such a will requires, perhaps, a measure of love, if not affection, that is alive and capable of being even more enlivened. Mystics are rather better on love, which is a transforming purification of the will, along with much else. Pope John Paul II spoke of the need for the church to breathe with both lungs, referring to Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Well, lungs require a heart![22]

“Ventilation” is a category found in Luce Irigaray. “Absorptiveness” stresses taking elements in for the sake of preserving bonds of unity, but it runs the danger of domesticating and taming the “sting” of what is entering. This has been the Papacy’s tendency historically, when it has engaged in absorptiveness at all, and it is perhaps the tendency of any centralizing authority. Irigaray’s “ventilation” stresses the need to keep breathing in the freshness of diversity. One is reminded of Pope John XXIII’s metaphor of “opening of the windows” as he convened the Second Vatican Council. Of course, one runs the danger of breathing in odious factors, and so we need the healthy but critical dialectic between absorption and ventilation. The ventilation looks, so to speak, toward the “not yet” dimension of the eschatological; absorption, a bit more to the already. At times, this dialectic breaks down, unfortunately; it all depends, undoubtedly, upon the options confronting us as well.  Sometimes opposition or resistance is the only real choice, as the history of martyrdom illustrates.[23] Of course, ecclesial and political theorists might want to speculate on how these mechanisms play themselves out in Churches and societies at large. The sociology of movements and groups, or of Voegelin’s interplay between “social fields” and “societies,” would be relevant here. [24]

The Reformers’ Political Theologies and the Enlightenment

Kirwan returns now to the history with a treatment of the magisterial (Luther and Calvin) and radical Reformation political theologies. Other worthies are unfortunately bypassed (Machiavelli, Erasmus, More, etc.). The so-called “magisterial” reformers take their name from the fact that they maintain the more customary relationship with the civil magistrate, albeit in their “reformed” way, Luther with his own “Two Kingdoms” theology, and Calvin with his “Lordship of Christ” theology. The Radical Reformers, and Kirwan features Thomas Müntzer, are so named because they more radically alter the relationship with the civil magistracy, abandoning key elements of the “Christendom” model.

Luther’s two kingdoms view is a theological strategy allowing various tactical moves. Against the radical reformers, it can be more positive toward the civil magistracy. In this case Luther’s language is more commonly that of “Zwei-Regiment-Lehre” (two governments teaching).[25]  Against the tendency to collapse the distinction between the civil and religious (the Papacy, which all too often acted like a secular power, we might suggest, or the collusionist tactics of the Holy Roman Empire), Luther will become more Augustinian and eschatological, stressing the tension between the two kingdoms. This latter tactic can degenerate into a separation, and Luther’s language of the inwardness of the Christian could foster that. That is well known, and it has been critiqued by many over the years, because it could lead to an indifference to the political order, thus opening the door to a kind of Christian political quietism. On the other hand, it can also lead to an evangelical critique of the established order, and such was, it seems, Luther’s objective.

Calvin’s “On Civil Government” in Book 4 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion presents us with a Reformed view of the two kingdoms as distinct, but not separate, maintaining that a divorce between them can lead to either anarchy (the radicals) or absolutism (the Holy Roman Empire/civil tyrants). The developing democracies of Zurich and Geneva, of course, enabled him to take a more positive view of the civil government.  Calvin’s openness to the legitimacy of resistance to tyrants (this is called a “right,” but perhaps a “prophetic call” is preferable?), and his preference for a more covenant/collegiality style of governance are noted by Kirwan as surfacing in the literature.

Kirwan offers a nuanced treatment of the Radical Reform.  The Radical Reformers were not apolitical, but contra the “Christendom” model. The adult baptism of the Anabaptists was a direct attack upon Christendom, for it “would undermine the concept of a national ‘Church.’”  The radical reformers have fascinated political thinkers.  Engels considered Müntzer a symbol of the class struggle; Ernst Bloch, a mystical precursor of political utopian thinking.  He thought that the Christian was called to root out the tares from the wheat, rather than to tolerate their simultaneous presence, referring to the famous parable (Matthew 13:24-30). For the Christian is now living in the apocalyptic situation of the endtime, and even the civil magistrate should assist in cleansing the world of evil-doers. Combining Romans 13:1-3 and Daniel 2 in a sermon to the princes, he viewed himself as a new Daniel called to interpret the prince’s dream, and not surprisingly the fifth and final kingdom of the dream was the Holy Roman Empire of his own time, in which the princes are called to purge the world and aid in establishing God’s kingdom.

The Enlightenment returns us to the great separation noted by Mark Lilla, whose heroes are Hobbes and other likeminded “modern” thinkers, and for whom political theology is the great “menace” needing to be replaced by political philosophy.  Kirwan contrasts that view with that of Roman Catholic theologian William T. Cavanaugh, for whom “political theology … is essential for the wellbeing of human communities.”[26]  Cavanaugh is a relatively prolific author and speaker who, Kirwan notes, “is less sanguine than O’Donovan about the merits of political liberalism.”[27]  A particularly provocative essay of his called into question the “standard narrative” whereby the modern secular state saved the West from the savagery of the religions in their wars with one another. “The ‘Wars of Religion’ were not the events which necessitated the birth of the modern state; they were in fact themselves the birth pangs of the State.”[28]  The “standard” narrative all too easily makes a savior out of the secular state, removing it from the eschatological critique of the gospel. The so-called wars of religion were wars between rival dynasties. Protestants and Catholics fought on both sides during the Thirty Years War (1616-48), which were really a conflict between the catholic Bourbons and catholic Hapsburgs.

Historians Michael Burleigh and Adam Zamoyski  illustrate the standard narrative, Kirwan suggests. The “political religions” of the Jacobins and later fascists, National Socialists, and Bolsheviks were manifestations of a utopian fanaticism (so Burleigh) which the English, French, and German Enlightenments sought to avoid (so Zamoyski).[29]  Kirwan’s appeal to Cavanaugh helpfully problematizes this narrative inasmuch as it is used to legitimize Lilla’s “Great Separation.”  Kirwan then offers a brief reading of Kant and Hegel, surfacing a religious dimension in each which makes of them, although this is contentious because there are ambiguities in the texts, potential dialogue partners for the political theologian.

Commentary: I was surprised not to see a consideration of the rich Anglican contribution to political theology, given Kirwan’s British location. In a way Anglicanism, because of the tight interplay between state and religion from its origins, is an intriguing replay on a slightly different register of the two kingdoms struggle, with perhaps a more collegial, less centralizing attempt to cope with the interplay in the end. It bends more toward ventilation, in other words, but knows all too well an excessively absorptionist tendency from the state’s side.[30]  On the other hand, the treatment of the magisterial and radical reformers at this point within the larger narrative provided by O’Donovan helpfully enables the reader to see the larger issue of the struggle between the already and not yet dimensions of Christianity’s eschatological constitution at work and being worked through. It is neither a simply “political” nor a simply “theological” matter, but the ever complex struggle to articulate the interwovenness between the two.

The nature of the church was naturally partially in dispute here, because of course, working out the tactical and larger strategic relationships between church and state requires some kind of basic understanding of what the “church” is. In a way, one implication is that ecclesiology was (and still is) developing, and that the later, more “solidified” view of the “church” held by various confessions was still largely in a state of fluidity and genesis at the time of the Reformation.[31] Another implication is that the development of the nature of the “state,” likewise in fluid genesis at this time, would perhaps enable the church to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of its own constitutional makeup.  For example, in what way might the monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements within the state find their analogous instantiation within the ecclesial constitutions? These were and are issues more thunderously emerging at the time of the Reformation, and they remain issues to this day, it would seem.

Here a few comments on Voegelin’s  posthumous Renaissance and Reformation might prove helpful, since there are likely still many who continue to share some of Voegelin’s perspectives on the Reformation noted below, and they might want to consider an alternative.  As noted, Voegelin had his own “grand” narrative and sadly and unfortunately his view of it at the time led him to a very undifferentiated and intemperate view of the Reformers. And this is all the more surprising, because he clearly stated that the greater blame for the breakdown of the Reformation lay with the Papacy and the Roman Catholic side. Yet, he was much more temperate with the latter. It is not that we cannot find superb insights here and there, particularly his very suggestive treatment of sectarian movements (which is still a very relevant sociology of religious movements), of compromise and absorptiveness, and his careful exegesis of particular texts and thinkers. His revisionist reading of Machiavelli is quite provocative, for example. Nonetheless, there is a kind of “apocalyptic” tonality to his treatment of Luther and Calvin, as if he were in battle with the anti-Christ. It has been suggested that Luther had something of this apocalyptic tonality in his view of the papacy, which was for him the anti-Christ.  The crude string of epithets which Luther could hurl at the pope is at times not too different from the harsh epithets which Voegelin hurls at Luther, and even more, at Calvin. Had Voegelin picked up a bit of an apocalyptic virus?

Part of this may have to do with the fact that Voegelin wrote some of this around the years of the Second World War, and of course Nazism was a kind of apocalyptic nightmare, unleashed in the very land of the birth of the Reformation. Voegelin’s “grand” narrative did draw a connecting thread between the apocalyptic destructiveness of the Reformation and the emerging “neo-apocalypticism” of the Nazis. Voegelin missed or ignored the elements within Luther and Calvin which worked to restrain an excessively utopian or realized eschatology. Luther was always working against the enthusiasts whom he characterized as “thinking they had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all”!

Voegelin also relied too uncritically upon the “standard” counter-reformationist portrait of the Reformers put forward by Jacques Maritain and others before him. The notion that the Reformers denied the role of “works” in favor of “faith,” the common Roman Catholic charge, has not withstood the test of time, although some Protestants as well did and have thought this. Deny the efficacy of works, and you undercut the efficacy and importance of the civil order. That was Voegelin’s charge against Luther. Exaggerate the role of salvation by faith (apart from the nitty-gritty of having to do works), and you end up in an exaggerated apocalypticism. That was also Voegelin’s charge. And when the latter is secularized, it becomes the inflated egocentric individual, unrestrained by society and church. That was also Voegelin’s charge against the Reformers, following Maritain. It seems much clearer now that the Reformers were targeting a view of works severed from its grounding in grace, despite some ambiguous texts (which did not help the Reformers against the Papacy). Unfortunately, as well, Voegelin took up the standard stereotype of Calvin as the dictator and butcher of Geneva, when apparently he did not even enjoy the rights of citizenship, being a refugee from France, and exercised at best a moral authority as a pastor, lacking the authority to execute (this was in the hands of the civil magistrates). In one celebrated case, that of Michael Servetus, he in fact recommended mercy to the magistrates.[32]

Kirwan’s reading of the Enlightenment thinkers, although brief, nicely brings out some of the theological dimensions of some of the principals, Kant and Hegel especially, and he draws helpful connections between Kant’s critique of practical reason, where Kant notes the ever-present religious dimension of humanity, and later accents upon a more practical style of political theology over against a more abstract, apolitical style. Hegel’s account of false consciousness has also been taken up, not only by Marxist thinkers, but also by some political theologians.  Kirwan offers a “generous” reading of these principals, always attending to the different strains if and when they are present. His reading reminds one of David Walsh’s revisionist reading , which balances the more deconstructive but still powerful readings of an Eric Voegelin or Leo Strauss.[33]

The Crisis (Part Three)

National Socialism and the Shoah reset much of today’s political theology in Western Europe. Kirwan comments that, apart from individual cases of resistance, the response of the churches was “a sad one … a mistaken or inadequate ‘doctrine of the Two.’”[34]  He offers a number of likely causes (the Vatican concordat with Hitler tamed the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Church had become too much a child of the secular Enlightenment, sacrificing its obedience to God’s Word to the State, the dangers lurking in Luther’s two kingdoms theology). The happy exceptions – whether by individuals or by the evangelical Confessing Church – only serve to confirm the commonness of inadequate response by being exceptions.  Kirwan notes Lilla’s lengthy, controversial section on Karl Barth and the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, which suggested that, although they resisted Nazism, nonetheless they shared a messianism in common with those who acquiesced (a moment of historic destiny, thought some, like Friedrich Gogarten or Emanuel Hirsch).[35]

Jewish theological responses to the Shoah range from traditonalists who view it as either a divine punishment, or a call to be suffering servants atoning for others’ sins, or as cosmic repair/tikkun, among others; to revisionists, who think the way we understand God has gone wrong and needs rethinking, sometimes quite radically; to a kind of Jewish liberation theology of resistance and protest, or at least working with liberation theology in a Jewish way; to a stress upon the Shoah as a unique event and radical rupture, which demands that all theology “after Auschwitz” must be in some way a response to the Shoah to have legitimacy of any type. Literary critic George Steiner, particularly in his Real Presences (1989), postulates on aesthetic grounds God’s presence, calling on us to view ourselves as between the Friday of brutality and the Sunday of justice and love. We are on a sabbatarian journey, called to avoid ever giving Hitler a “posthumous victory.” And for Steiner, that happens when Jews torture or abuse non-Jews too. Kirwan notes, however, that Steiner thinks both Jews and Christians remain lamed, like Jacob, so far unable to generate “a theologico-philosophical renewal; perhaps [the laming] cannot do so.”[36]

“Critical Theory,” associated with the Frankfurt School, is a group of Neo-Marxist and psychoanalytic thinkers who sought to respond to the horrors of Fascism and National Socialism. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (philosophers/sociologists), Walter Benjamin (literary critic), Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and others will come to mind. Christian political theologians seeking to do theology “after Auschwitz,” Kirwan suggests, either dialogued more directly with these thinkers, or less directly by way of engagement with the theory of communicative action proposed by Jürgen Habermas.  Johann Baptist Metz represents the first approach, although Kirwan groups Jürgen Moltmann (a Reformed theologian) and Dorothee Sölle (an Evangelical theologian)) with Metz (a Roman Catholic priest and theologian) because of analogous concerns. All are Germans, and so of course confronting Nazism was especially formative for their thinking.

Metz eventually developed an attunement to the social and political dimensions of anthropology, especially targeting the consumer, market-driven conditioning of bourgeois Christianity, which fosters the expendability not only of products but of humans. Kirwan helpfully notes that this represented a turn toward a practical style of theology, echoing Kant’s second critique of practical judgment (“What must I do?”), after an earlier period of focus upon Kant’s first critique of pure reason under the guidance of his theological mentor Karl Rahner. The “practical” here is, we know, reflective of the Marxist stress upon “praxis,” however. Kirwan emphasizes  Metz’ retrieval of an apocalyptic imagination, regarded as an antidote to the “paralyzing numbness” caused by “evolutionary time.” Apocalyptic interrupts this numbness. It is a “rhetorical device” which expresses the radical hope needed by history’s victims for their survival, and needed by others to assist in that mission. And Metz has in mind not only those living now, but all victims. Those who have perished are not expendable items but promised their “victory” in the kingdom to come. “Metz [redescribes] the Enlightenment subject in terms of the ‘freedom to suffer the suffering of others.’”[37]

So Metz wants to reawaken the kind of imagination found in the eschatological/apocalyptic tradition, shorn, however, of any notion of revenge, and he is not particularly positive toward so-called “postmodern” thinkers, who strike him as rather tired, trapped in the numbness of evolutionary time, because they have given up on the modern project of striving for emancipation. There is a certain kind of utopian strain in Metz which he shares in common with Moltmann’s reworking of Bloch. Sölle, however, goes her own way, but Kirwan thinks some of her thought resembles the later, more “pessimistic” Metz, inasmuch as she describes her age as a kind of “Ice Age.”[38]

Kirwan notes some theological attention to the work of John Rawls, who enjoys in the United States a stature comparable to Habermas,’ the other key figure associated with critical thought, but someone who has generated a (perhaps?) larger theological following. Habermas seeks to continue the work of the Frankfurt School by developing “an integrated theory of the subject and of intersubjectivity, a theory of society and of history.”[39]  The German theologian Helmut Peukert has sought to dialogue with Habermas and to develop a theology of communicative praxis, arguing that there are implicit theological assumptions behind the universalist goals of fostering a society based on equality, reciprocity and solidarity through reaching a truly universal consensus (as goal, not as actual attainment). For what about history’s victims? “If there is no possibility of solidarity with them, then an ideal communication ethic is a sham,” Kirwan suggests with Peukert.[40]  Such a universal and “anamnestic” solidarity is only possible if history is subject to a universal Lord uniting all in solidarity and promising that history’s suffering can be faced and overcome.

For his part, Habermas has practiced a methodological agnosticism, although the attention to his work by theologians, even including a dialogue with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope emeritus Benedict XVI) has led him to at least acknowledge this theological interest. He has argued that critical theory and critical theologians do share common goals, although he worries about theology and philosophy each losing their distinctiveness, and he maintains that for now the appeal to a universal Lord of history remains an insufficient appeal for the philosopher. Kirwan takes this to mean that theology is not communicative for Habermas; at best, theology’s claims must be translated into a public language accessible to all. Habermas’ later thought has moved along this translation model, as he recognizes the need for a rethinking of the role of religion in society, especially in the wake of 9/11, noting religion’s ability to link motivation with thought, but remaining unconvinced that only a theological grounding can serve as the adequate precondition for a liberal democratic state.[41]

Commentary: This section illustrates something of the fissures between “first generation” and “second and third generation” (Habermas and followers) critical theorists, only now in a theological form. Metz is more first generation, reflecting a neo-Marxist analysis of the market system, along with an attunement to the sociopolitical nature of humans and society. His attempted retrieval of apocalyptic rhetoric is his most celebrated “Christian” twist, so to speak, and he has nicely enhanced this through a form of “open-eyed” mysticism and prophetism. The first generation was rather less systematic , except perhaps for Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s  1944 programmatic Dialectic of the Enlightenment, and Metz’ post-Rahnerian aphoristic and narrative style, reflective of the “turn to praxis,” Illustrates this.[42]

Habermas, on the other hand, tends toward the systematic in his writings, although he is constantly reworking his thought, most of which make enormous demands upon even the most willing of readers. The theological “reading” and “critique” of his thought noted by Kirwan reflects something of the difference between Habermas and some of his third generation followers. Habermas tended to distinguish questions of justice from questions of ethics and morality, suggesting that today’s pluralism precludes agreement on the latter. On the other hand, a view of justice as a kind of fair, impartial, and pragmatic adjudication between conflicting interests seemed more reachable. Some of his followers, on the other hand, more emphatically take up the ethical/moral dimension, recognizing its importance and yet searching for a form of it different from traditional moral theories. This takes up a strain in some of Habermas’ work, but pushes it much further. [43]

From the point of view of theological political analysis, we have here the “dialectic” between analysis of the sociopolitical situation and the appropriate response(s) thereto.  Get the analysis wrong, and the response will likely be wrong too. But it is always more complicated, because only some prior apprehension of the good enables one to discover through contrast the bad. Metz’ appeal to an apocalyptic mystical prophetism seems to be guiding him, and perhaps then it is not surprising that he senses a “fit” to some extent between that and a more Marxist form of analysis of the market economy and its consequences. Apocalyptic and Marxism do overlap in terms of their messianism or utopianism in many ways. Metz’ “Marxism,” however, is allusive and it is hard to know how much of it is a matter of tactics and strategy, and how much one of principles. Obviously his Christian loading would severely alter the latter.

Habermas has moved further from Marxist analysis and has a seemingly more optimistic view of the potential of the modern liberal European state. A belief in the modern rational project guides him, although he has recognized, as noted, the important role of motivation. He still recognizes in a somewhat “Marxist” manner, however, the increasingly difficult contradictions in the modern capitalistic state. The utopian strain in Habermas is more muted, but still operative, and his Christian followers, I think, seem to have sensed here the connection with the biblical promises of the vindication of the victims of history.

The anti-utopian (Voegelin, for example, in philosophy, Augustine in theology) or at least non-utopian tradition of political thought, along with the other than utopian dimensions of the Bible and Christian tradition, seems missing here, although it is very hard to express this adequately.[44] This may be one of the reasons we do not associate a prominent critique of the Communist gulags with this trajectory of thought.  Marxist-inspired forms of analysis may not be so inspiring to thinkers from the Eastern European zone.  Whether a more friendly attention to the non-utopian strain would issue forth in a more friendly if still critical view of the market system remains to be seen. Is the time ripe for an “economic theology”?[45]

The anti-utopian dimension also makes us think of the biblical critique of evil and sin, especially from the prophets and Jesus, and the later development of this by Augustine and others. The mystics, who know a thing or two about the mystery of illusion, evil, and sin, are also very relevant here.[46]  A more concentrated dialogue between these sources and the more recent “sciences” of personal and social pathology would be quite helpful for a political theology.

The Gift (Part Four)

“If there is one indispensable skill for doing political theology, it is probably the ability to handle sacred texts responsibly.”[47]  This would be a first gift, were it to be realized, Kirwan suggests, giving the lion’s share of attention to O’Donovan. O’Donovan’s proposals mostly come down to refusing to exploit Scripture for one’s own ends, not ignoring “inconvenient” traditions, or more positively, respecting its history as history.  For example, a more liberationist style of theology might isolate out the Exodus, and ignore the later monarchical period. O’Donovan  considers “authority” to be a critical political concern, surveying its dimensions through an analysis of “Yahweh malak” (God reigns), suggesting salvation, judgment, and possession of the land as three interrelated dimensions. Here we can glimpse the earthly, sociopolitical dimensions of such authority. For salvation (“jeshuah”) typically is expressed in military victories, judgment (“mishpat”) is typically God’s judgment over the nations, while land possession (“nahalah”) is the very concrete result.  Praise is our human response to this, although “salvation” is not dependent upon Israel’s response.

Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God links the Old with the New Testament: “In the Christ-event we found the elements of God’s rule: an act of power, an act of judgment and the gift of possession … in which God’s rule was mediated and his people reconstituted in Christ.”[48]  As Christ’s life moves from advent, to passion, to restoration, and on to exaltation, so the Church “recapitulates” this. Christ’s exaltation is a new form of kingship, and now all secular power derives from him. And from this, of course, come all the much contested “political” texts of the New Testament : disarming the principalities (Col 2:15), praying for secular rulers (1 Tim 2:1ff), Romans 13:1-7, the Book of Revelation, and others.

Kirwan, whose own earlier work was on René Girard, notes a certain contrast between O’Donovan’s “confrontational, ‘dialectical’” reading of the New Testament materials, and a more Girardian one, in which the first words of the risen Jesus are “peace be with you” and in which mercy is key, scapegoating having been vanquished (relying upon the Jesuit Raymund Schwager’s reworking of Girard). This enables him to surface the thorny question of the eschatological texts of scripture and how they are to be used.  They are thorny because they contain violent language, and what is to be made of that? We have already noted Metz’ retrieval of eschatology, although he considerably “restrains” and reworks it. Kirwan suggests that liberation theology does less of that, but that might be rather contentious, I suspect. In any case, a certain tension between an apocalyptic rhetoric and one less violent can be read in the biblical witness, and Kirwan concludes that we need both.

Political theology’s second gift would be a rethinking of the Church’s political mission. Kirwan offers six “informal, overlapping models.” (1) The Church in continuity with Israel and Christ: O’Donovan particularly expresses this, viewing the Old Testament and Christology as central for political theology; (2) “The Church as an instance of socio-critical freedom and dangerous memory,” not only of society but of itself (Metz, Moltmann, Sölle, liberation theology, advocacy theologies in general); (3) “The Church as an ideal speech community” (followers of Habermas); (4) “The Church as a public agent in civil society”:  Kirwan describes this as a style of “public theology” in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray, who sought to “undergird liberal democracy with Christian values.”[49]  This has been characterized as losing its critical edge vis-à-vis society, but Kirwan thinks much of it is a response and alternative to rightist fundamentalisms, with much quality to it. (5) “The Church as a city on a hill”: Kirwan characterizes this as the opposite of public theology, inasmuch as it problematizes democratic society and secular society in general, seeing the church as a contrast/alternative community which at best engages with society in an ad hoc manner, tactically so to speak (Stanley Hauerwas, for example). This continues the tradition of the Radical Reformers (John Yoder’s celebrated The Politics of Jesus [1972], for example).

And finally, (6) “the Church as an alternative (Eucharistic) performance”: Kirwan associates Milbank, Cavanaugh and others with this trajectory. “The position looks similar to that of Hauerwas, but is perhaps more programmatic than tactical.”[50]  Cavanaugh especially is critical of the modern state and is seeking Christian alternatives, drawing upon the eucharist and martyrdom traditions as distinctive ways of performing our Christian political witness. We have noted above his earlier, revisionist reading of the so-called Wars of Religion. In the spirit of Milbank’s and Radical Orthodoxy’s “post-modern critical Augustinianism,” Cavanaugh is charting a move away from an Augustinian interpretation which simply turns the temporal/eschatological  into the spatial, leading to a subtle baptizing and legitimizing of nations and states.  “For Augustine, neither city is a space with clearly defined boundaries, but both are sets of practices or dramatic performances … the task of the church is to interrupt the violent tragedy of the earthly city with the comedy of redemption.”[51]

Kirwan’s epilogue modestly notes that political theology is not simply confined to Middle Europeans and Americans (South and North, presumably). There is the “silent Church” of the Second World, and he suggests that “when we factor in the mistrust engendered by political theology’s reliance on traditions of quirky Marxism, it may be that a major task presents itself, of finding a new, common starting-point for political theologies across the region.”[52]  He suggests a mixture of anamnestic solidarity with and remembrance of the victims, ecclesial repentance for collusion, and finding a way forward by reclaiming the person, conscience, living in the truth, and more.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn merits more attention from this perspective.  On the other hand, we typically characterize Eastern Orthodox political theology as one of a symphony between church and empire, rather more of an equilibrium, but this is a vast generalization, one fears.[53]  Western political theology needs to know much more about its “other lung.”

Commentary: Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation famously credited Israel with the emergence of an historical consciousness: “When the order of the soul and society is oriented toward the will of God, and consequently the actions of the society and its members are experienced as fulfillment or defection, a historical present is created, radiating its form over a past that was not consciously historical in its own present.”[54] This historical consciousness was, for Voegelin, crucial for his own project of order within history. For it enables one to grasp in a more critical way the changing forms of order, and the need for that change, as one grows in deepening awareness of what it means to be attuned to a transcendent God. The person discovers his or her own personhood in this way, and it is from the attuned person that Voegelin expected the true prophet to emerge, thus fostering better forms of social existence under God.

This historical consciousness, of living in the present under God, recognizing  God as the Lord of the past as well as the future toward which his will moves us, creates the eschatological tension between the already and the not yet, which are the two great tensive poles within all forms of political theology. As we have noted, much of the drama of political theology is the struggle to get this tension right, and we will have no end of debate on this, it would seem. Scripture seems to sanction a more utopian reading in its apocalyptic passages, and a more restrained reading in others. The canon of Scripture as a whole as received within the tradition leads biblical interpreters and political theologians to interface and debate the various tendencies. O’Donovan seems to lean in the non-utopian direction; others (perhaps Brueggemann, Gottwald, for example) tend to give a primacy to a more “revolutionary,” (anti-imperial) reading of the Exodus and prophets.[55]  Voegelin was critical of the utopian strain in the prophets, but he did accord a primacy to the Exodus covenant and the prophetic deepened retrieval of it, eventually drawing a distinction between apocalyptic and a more restrained eschatology.[56]  For Kirwan, the debate remains open.

For the Christian community some form of Christology, as presented in the New Testament and reflectively understood in the Church’s tradition through the Spirit, will likely provide the decisive norm of discernment. The matter is not easy, if only because for Christian believers the promises of the eschatological kingdom have been intensified by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus. We are now living in the in-between time in a climactic manner, and this would seem to intensify the eschatological impulse. On the other hand, the Jesus of the New Testament (excepting the apocalyptic Revelation) is one of inclusive love and no vengeance, in the Spirit calling us to live with one another in relative harmony. In other words, a case can be made that the New Testament, and certainly later tradition, developed a distinction between the more radical apocalyptic tradition and an eschatological one, which has critiqued the apocalyptic in the light of Christology. Further, it would seem that it is this eschatological tension which validates Kirwan’s proposal that we can and should speak of models of political strategy and theology within the church, each possessing its possible relevance in specific pastoral situations, each needing to be argued out.

But for the Christian, this is more than an intellectual, scholar’s argument. We have not developed it here, but the role of the Holy Spirit, and the entire area of pneumatology in relationship with Trinitarian thought in general, is involved. If you want, the Spirit links the person with the incarnate Word and that Word’s revelation within church, society and history, all the while leading ever more fully into the never fully comprehended Mystery of the Father.  By way of suggestion, only, among many possibilities: An exclusive monotheism of the Spirit tends to lead to an excessively realized eschatologism and/or apocalypticism. An exclusive monotheism of the Word, to a legalism and rigorism, which in its own way is a form of institutional utopianism. An exclusive monotheism of the Father tends toward a kind of vague other-worldliness and dualism. Trinitarian monotheism fosters a critical interrelationship between these three tendencies within history and society. Trinity and political theology is a rich storehouse for the political imagination.

Concluding Thoughts

As suggested, Kirwan has offered us an articulation of the range of possible tactics, strategies, and principles which might guide the church and Christians in our sociopolitical situations. The sketch of the tradition, past and contemporary, especially biblical, offers a view of the historical “laboratory” in which these tactics and strategies and the principles guiding them were appropriated. All the theological mysteries and their disciplines, understood within the tensive, eschatological poles of the already and not yet, have interconnectedly surfaced, providing the principles of discernment. But the historical and even geographical matrices push us to avoid a theological rationalism: Principles are articulated by persons and communities within church, society and history under the Spirit’s guidance. A pneumatic, engendering experience and symbolization process is guiding the whole.  The book-ending narratives, and the historical materials in the center, enabled Kirwan to very effectively suggest this historical and geographical matrix of it all.

Kirwan’s book is an introduction, and he rightly wants it treated that way.  It really cannot be comprehensive, as suggested by his study. We might recall Zizek’s “global” vs. “universal,” or Voegelin’s “ecumenicity” vs. “universality,” or Critical Theory’s concern for the victims of history. These categories, while not always identical, all point us to the awareness that political theology is concerned with the emancipation of everyone, not only those living now, but those of the past and those still to come. So political theology is enfolded within the eschatological  in-between. Even understood geographically as embracing all living now, Kirwan’s book is not – nor is it intended to be –comprehensive, and likely that remains at best a future, collaborative and unfinished task.  Kirwan modestly noted the need to attend to the Second World. Although liberation and feminist theology were seriously and effectively noted at key points, they remained largely untreated. Are they better known, as alleged? Likely. But is their at least partial absence problematic to the presentation? Without precautionary measures, very likely.  Women, or the poor and other silenced, are not isolated regional matters.  And what about Africa, or the Far East, for example? What styles of political theology are emerging from there?

Kirwan’s suggested  models flow from his materials and seem helpfully reflective of them. He effectively suggests that there are times when each of them has their pastoral appropriateness. Some might want to say that is especially true in our era of the wide disestablishment of the Churches. But one might argue the reverse, namely, that the Church’s political establishment represents the greater danger. By and large, the picture presented is one of either friction or collusion between Church and “state” and even within each. But might there not be room for a further “dialogical model,” perhaps analogously reflective of the Trinitarian dialogue, and even of recommendations flowing from some styles of feminist thought and communion ecclesiology? It might overlap with some of the models given, but a special niche seems worth considering.  With the political we typically encounter friction, but perhaps the ability of the Spirit to maintain connections, even in the worst of arguments, gives us hope that dialogue can always resurface.  Dialogue gives expression to the two-way relationship between Church and society/state, but now in the better sense of each enriching the other. It is not just the Church which is called to critique and potentially enrich the other. It works the other way too. At times society and state call the Church back to its “better self.” That seems particularly true in the case of women’s emancipation, among other forms of emancipation, the freedom of conscience being one of the premier ones.




[1] New York: Knopf, 2007.

[2] At an earlier time, Voegelin  used the notion of “political religions,” but he came to see its inadequacies.  See his Autobiographical Reflections, CW 34, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 78.

[3] Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

[4] Kirwan, Political Theology, 5, 6, 9.

[5] The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: University Press, 1996).

[6] Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan, eds. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

[7] Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Zizek, eds., Theology and the Political (London: Duke University Press, 2005).

[8] Kirwan, Political Theology, 24.

[9] Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934/2005).

[10] “Covenant or Leviathan? Political Theology for Modern Times,” Scottish Journal of Theology 47 (1994).

[11] Helpful here are Dante Germino, Political Philosophy and the Open Society (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), 27-65, and Luc Brisson, Plato the Myth Maker, trans. and ed. Gerard Naddaf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[12] Kirwan, Political Theology, 47.

[13] Ibid., 48, citing Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, ed. Michael W. Jennings et al. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), conclusion of vol. 4, from Theses on the Concept of History.

[14] London: Verso, 2000.

[15] The Arendt-Voegelin exchange appeared originally in Review of Politics 15 (1953) 68-85. On feminism and Arendt, see Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt (Re-Reading the Canon), ed. Bonnie Honig (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).

[16] Trans. Luca D’Isanto (New York: Columbia University Press. 2002).

[17] Order and History, IV: The Ecumenic Age, CW 17, ed. Michael Franz (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000, 192.

[18] Kirwan, Political Theology, 65, summarizing from chapter 4 of Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform: 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of the Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 135-81.

[19] See the interview with O’Donovan on The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology blog, “SAET Interviews in Politics and Theology #5: Oliver O’Donovan,” @saet-online.org, Oct. 29, 2010.  A convenient study of Voegelin’s treatment of the “High Tradition” can be had in Jeffrey C. Herndon, Eric Voegelin and the Problem of Christian Political Order (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007).

[20] Kirwan, Political Theology, 64.

[21] O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Bampton Lectures) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). Paul’s compromises, in Voegelin, are with history, human weakness, providing ethical guidance in the interim, and confronting societal problems like slavery and governmental authority (History of Political Ideas, I, Hellenism, Rome, and Early Christianity, CW 19, ed. Athanasios Moulakis (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 169-72. He also adds some further comments on this in HPI IV, Renaissance and Reformation, ed. David L. Morse and William M. Thompson, ibid., 1998, 136-43, along with the notion of “absorptiveness.”

[22] For more on mystical transformation, see Robert Davis Hughes III, Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2008), and Sarah Coakley, “Is There a Future for Gender and Theology?,” Criterion (Spring/Summer, 2009): 2-11.  The reference to “MWT” was inspired by a story told about Churchill by Leo Strauss: “I may refer to the story told in England of H. G. Wells meeting Winston Churchill and asking about the progress of the war. ‘We’re getting along with our idea,’ said Churchill. ‘You have an idea?’ asked Wells. ‘Yes,’ said Churchill, ‘along the lines of our general policy.’ ‘You have a general policy,’ Wells persisted. ‘Yes,’ answered Churchill, ‘the K.M.T. policy.’ ‘And what is the K.M.T. policy?’ asked Wells. ‘It is this,’ replied Churchill: ‘Keep Muddling Through’” (in Steven B. Smith, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006], 197).

[23]Luce Irigaray, I love to you: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History (New York: Routledge), 121-28. These poles are developed in William Thompson-Uberuaga, Jesus and the Gospel Movement: Not Afraid to Be Partners (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 158-60, along with Voegelin’s social fields and society, 151-58; see also the online supplements to chap. 3, “a consideration of the role of eschatology and geography in the advancing Jesus movement,” and to chap. 4, “prematurely ending history and absolutizing space in Christian belief and practice” @www.home.duq.edu/~thompsonu.

[24] Voegelin, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, CW 6, ed. David Walsh, trans. M. J. Hanak (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 400-01, for social fields and societies; for the further elements of the elemental, existential, and transcendental in social and political formation, see his The New Science of Politics, CW 5, ed. Manfred Henningsen (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 109-28, 147-49, helpfully used by John von Heyking, Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), 79. On groups, see Thompson-Uberuaga, Jesus and the Gospel Movement, 36-40, 98-133 and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1971. On movements, Gregory Baum, “Present Impasse, Future Hopes,” The Ecumenist 40 (2003) 1-5, and Brendan Leahy, Ecclesial Movements and Communities: Origins, Significance, and Issues (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2011.

[25] Kirwan, Political Theology, 75, refers to John Stephenson, “The Two Governments and the Two Kingdoms in Luther’s Thought,” Scottish Journal of Theology 34 (1981): 322-23.

[26] Ibid., 103.

[27] Ibid., 86.

[28] William T. Cavanaugh, “’A Fire Strong Enough To Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the  Rise of the State,” Modern Theology 11 (1995): 398.

[29] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (London: Macmillan, 2000), Earthly Powers: Religion and Politics in Europe from the Enlightenment to the Great War (New York: Harper, 2005), and Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda (New York: Harper, 2006); Adam Zamoyski, Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries 1776-1871 (London: Phoenix, 1999).

[30] Here and there O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, notes something of the Anglican perspective, ranging it with the Lutheran perspective, for example (209). He also seems to appreciate John Wyclif, whom he regards as “sadly neglected” (26).

[31] Helpful on these questions is Richard R. Gaillardetz, Ecclesiology for a Global Church: A People Called and Sent (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008).

[32] Admittedly the “mercy” sought was hanging rather than burning, but Calvin had limited options. Execution by burning for heresy was common in both Catholic and Protestant territories. See the editors’ introduction to History of Political Ideas, IV, Renaissance and Reformation;  Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999); Jacques Maritain, Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau (New York: Sheed and Ward, l928); and William M. Thompson, “Viewing Justification through Calvin’s Eyes: An Ecumenical Experiment,” Theological Studies 57 (1996): 447-66.

[33] See David Walsh, The Growth of the Liberal Soul (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), and The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (Cambridge University Press, 2008); and Lee Trepanier and Steven F. McGuire, eds., Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition: Explorations in Modern Political Thought (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011). Also see Leo Strauss, An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss, ed. Hilail Gildin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), and The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss, sel. and intro. Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

[34] Kirwan, Political Theology, 117.

[35] Ibid., 117; Lilla, The Stillborn God, 258-95.

[36] Ibid., 121.

[37] Ibid., 135.

[38] Ibid., 205, referencing  Dorothee Sölle, “Sin Is When Life Freezes: a meditation on 1 John 1:8,” The Christian Century (May 12, 1982).

[39] Ibid., 141-42, citing Edmund Arens, “Interruptions: Critical Theory and Political Theology between Modernity and Postmodernity,” in D. Batstone, et al., eds., Liberation Theology, Postmodernity and the Americas (New York: Routledge, 1997), 229.

[40] Ibid., 143.

[41] See the helpful study by John Ranieri, “Grounding Public Discourse: The Contribution of Eric Voegelin,” in Glenn Hughes, ed., The Politics of the Soul: Eric Voegelin on Religious Experience (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefields, 1999), 33-64.

[42] Metz, A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity (New York: Paulist, 1998), 69, 163, for the distinction between “a mysticism of closed eyes” and an “open-eyed mysticism.” Gaspar Martinez, Confronting the Mystery of God: Political, Liberation, and Public Theologies (New York: Continuum, 2001), and J. M. Ashley, Interruptions: Mysticism, Politics and Theology in the Work of J. B. Metz (University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), are among the leading interpreters of Metz.

[43] See Thomas McCarthy, “Habermas,” and Max Pensky, “Third Generation Critical Theory,” in A Companion to Continental Philosophy, ed. Simon Critchley and William R. Schroeder(Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999), 397-406, 407-13.

[44] A fine first entry to Voegelin on the anti-utopian is Michael Franz, “Brothers under the Skin: Voegelin on the Common Experiential Wellsprings of Spiritual Order and Disorder,” in Hughes, The Politics of the Soul, 139-61. For Augustine, Herbert A. Deane, The  Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963).

[45] Could we hope for a theological, updated equivalent to Robert L. Heilbroner’s classic, The Wordly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, 7th ed. (New York: Touchstone, 1999)?

[46] See William Thompson, “The Dark Night: A Theological Consultation,” and “St. John of the Cross as Pneumopathologist: A Mystic’s Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” in Fire and Light: The Saints and Theology (New York: Paulist, 1987), 76-117, 118-41, for some suggestions. The biblical theme of hardness of heart is also relevant.

[47] Kirwan, Political Theology, 163.

[48] O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, 133; see 27-29, for his hermeneutical principles; chapter two for the Old Testament; chapters three and four for the New Testament; chapter five for the church.

[49] Kirwan, Political Theology, 184.

[50] Ibid., 187.

[51] William T. Cavanaugh, “From One City to Two: Christian Reimagining of Political Space,” Political Theology 7 (2006): 315. See his Torture and Eucharist (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998). See Kirwan,  Political Theology, 178-79, for some observations on the complicated and diverse Radical Orthodoxy movement, particularly John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1990), which Kirwan characterizes as a revived Augustinianism in which the church “has all the social theory it needs within its own scriptural and patristic traditions” (179). Milbank does offer provocative readings of the sociopolitical tradition, however.

[52] Kirwan, Political Theology, 196.

[53] See Daniel J. Mahoney, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), esp. 99-134. John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979), 213-16, offers a more standard but fine view of the “symphony” (between church and empire) view of Orthodoxy, while a more revisionist approach is in John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture(Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2008), 380-98. Cf. O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, 165-66.

[54] Voegelin, Order and History I, Israel and Revelation, CW 14, ed. Maurice P. Hogan (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), 169. For a range of views, see Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation: An Interdisciplinary Debate and Anthology, ed. William M. Thompson and David L. Morse (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2000).

[55] For example, see Walter Brueggemann, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), and Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Brief Socio-literary Introduction (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009).

[56] “There was something of the liberator in the man [Moses] who led his people from servitude to political independence; but he was not an Israelite Garibaldi, for the people, in order to be freed by him from the bondage of pharaoh, had to enter the service of Yahweh” (Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, 440).

William Thompson-Uberuaga

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William Thompson-Uberuaga is an Emeritus Professor of Theology at Duquesne University and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. He is author of eight books and a co-editor, with David L. Morse, of Eric Voegelin's Collected Works Volume 22: History of Political Ideas - Renaissance and Reformation.