Friday, December 14, 2012

Review: "Migrations of the Holy" by William Cavanaugh

From Toledo, IA, USA
[Note: The following review appears in the The Conrad Grebel Review 30, No. 3 (Fall 2012): 319-21. Reprinted here w/ permission.]

William T. Cavanaugh. Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011.

The animating thesis of Cavanaugh’s book is succinctly encapsulated in its title, “Migrations of the Holy.” The argument goes that the categories of “religious” and “secular” are recent constructs which hide the fact that “the holy” – far from having been removed from the public, political sphere and interiorized in the hearts of individual believers of various religions – is rather still fully public, having migrated from ecclesiastical orders to the halls of the modern nation-state. Cavanaugh makes use of Michael Novak’s helpful analogy of the “empty shrine,” the nation-state’s claim that disestablishment of religion has swept the shrine clean, allowing any religious tradition to provide the content for what constitutes “holy.” It has been one of the hallmarks of Cavanaugh’s work to show this is a lie, and, at least for the United States, at the heart of the nation-state’s holiest of holies lies its shekinah: consumer capitalism.

In some ways this book can be seen as a natural continuation of Cavanaugh's prior two books, The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford, 2009) and Being Consumed (Eerdmans, 2008). The former provides a detailed genealogy for how the terms “religious” and “secular” have come to function in modernity and serve to mask the nation-state's monopoly on legitimate violence, while the latter describes consumerism and globalization, holding the Eucharist up as a rebuke to both. These themes are picked in the book at hand, a collection of essays written between 2004 and 2007, just prior to the global economic collapse which he references in the more recently written introduction. There Cavanaugh states his purpose for the book as to help Christians “unthink the inevitability of the nation-state” and to “be realistic about what we can expect from the 'powers and principalities' of our own age, and to urge them not to invest the entirety of their political presence in these powers”  (3). As it relates to managing expectations of the powers that be, this book is a good companion to James Davison Hunter's To Change the World (Oxford, 2010), though the two authors' constructive theological suggestions do diverge at points.

For Cavanaugh's part, he hopes to “argue for a more radical pluralism, one that does not oscillate between individuals and the state, but allows for a plurality of societies, a plurality of common goods that do not simply feed into a unitary whole” (4). Such a vision may resemble what philosopher, Charles Taylor, has described as “Secularism B,” rather than the “Secularism A” of, for instance, French laïcité. At multiple points throughout the book, Cavanaugh makes use of the concept of “complex space,” borrowed from John Milbank's The Word Made Strange (Blackwell, 1997). Rather than political space conceived in the Hobbesian sense – individuals to the state as “spokes to the hub of a wheel” (20) – complex political space “would privilege local forms of community, but it would also connect them in translocal networks of connectivity” (4). For a political theologian writing within a magisterial tradition, it is perhaps surprising to see such an aim as his articulation of “a kind of Christian micropolitics that comes first and foremost from grass-roots groups of Christians” (5).

As a collection of essays around a small cluster of topics, this book does suffer from some degree of repetition. For instance, Cavanaugh engages in a lengthy critique of the work of Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, in the first chapter and ends up repeating most of the same critique in chapter seven. But these are small issues in a book that otherwise packs a lot of powerful political theology into a relatively small space. While it is true that this book is less academic than The Myth of Religious Violence, the intellectual bar still remains somewhat high. This book would probably not work in a Sunday school class, unless the class is unusually well-educated. Seminary-trained pastors with some patience will be rewarded with perhaps new ways to “read” the principalities and powers that be, offering tools for a more prophetic edge to their teaching and preaching. Christians in North America of all political persuasions, particularly the U.S., have indeed been deeply seduced by Western consumerism and politics, and ask entirely too much of the political system. This book offers a strong theopolitical corrective toward the edification of the public body of Christ, the church.

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