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Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism
  • William T. Cavanaugh

Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism By William T. Cavanaugh New York, T & T Clark, 2002. 126 pp. $22.95. G. K. Chesterton once challenged the sense of resignation in the adage "You can't put the clock back" by retorting, "You can. A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed." His point was not that we should in fact retrogress, but that the future and the present can be imagined differently. I do not know if William Cavanaugh knows this passage, but I think he might agree with it, because the consistent thesis of his book is that "politics is a practice of the imagination." We created the current state of affairs out of our imagination, and we could imagine it differently. Our present understanding of the state, its relationship to the church, and, consequently, the role of the church in the state-indeed, the very concept of religion itself-are all humanly invented concepts, and not very good ones, at that. Although modernity is ill-accustomed to "regarding political theory as mythological in character," nevertheless Cavanaugh persuasively contends that the modern state is "founded on certain stories of nature and human nature, the origins of human conflict, and the remedies for such conflict in the enactment of the state itself. . . . [T]he modern state is best understood . . . as an alternative soteriology to that of the Church." For Cavanaugh, it is an idolatrous soteriology and a disastrous alternative. The book consists of three essays brought together at the suggestion of a Swiss publisher. By rearranging and rewriting the material for this collection, Cavanaugh is able to present his thesis more completely. His clarity of expression and accomplished grasp of material will enable both theologians who do not know much politics and politicians who do not know much theology to follow along as he takes an x-ray of the current situation and asks why we think the way we do. Chapter one, "The Myth of the State as Saviour," critiques Enlightenment political theory, which saw humanity as a collection of individuals with conflicting desires who need to be saved by voluntary submission (via the social contract) to a power (the nation state) that can adjudicate these conflicts, coercively if necessary. Since attitudes toward the church differed in the sixteenth century, the state felt it should save us from that organization, too. Thus, the Enlightenment concept of "religion" was born: private convictions that will not conflict with public loyalty to the state. Chapter two, "The Myth of Civil Society as Free Space," continues to explore the themes of public and private by looking at the work of John Courtney Murray and Harry Boyte as they try to justify religion's involvement in the public square. As laudable as their goal may be, Cavanaugh thinks their strategy inadequate because "the very distinction of public and private . . . is an instrument by which the state domesticates the Church." Chapter three, "The Myth of Globalization as Catholicity," dissents from a prevailing view that transnational trade and the internet will solve our predicament. "Globalization does not signal the demise of the nation-state but is in fact a hyperextension of the nation-state's project of subsuming the local under the universal." Can we think in any other way? Is the way it has been the way it must remain? Is political structure fixed? What could jolt our imaginations with sufficient force that we could envision change in our time? At the end of each chapter, Cavanaugh considers the theopolitical consequences of the church-at-Eucharist. This is not another one of those books that merely sprinkles some sacramental salt on the political pretzel. When Cavanaugh takes recourse to the Christian sacramental life, it is for the purpose of untwisting the knots in the body politic. "For Christians the only fruitful way of moving forward in this context is to tap the theological resources of the Christian tradition for more radical imaginings of space and time." At the Eucharist, the church becomes a body of a peculiar type: the body of Christ. This body is spatial, temporal, social, catholic-that is, it is political. It is the only political body that can adequately contend against the unjust and inhuman consequences of our current situation. Eucharist has political consequences because it re-imagines and re-presents a different way of being in political relationship with the other. DAVID W. FAGERBERG Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame

  • Liturgy,
  • Political Act,
  • Politics,
  • Consumerism,
  • Politics and Consumerism,
  • Global,
  • Theopolitical Imagination
Publication Date
T. & T. Clark
Citation Information
William T. Cavanaugh. Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism. Edinburgh(2002)
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