Political church and the profane state in John Milbank and William Cavanaugh
Davis, Richard Arthur
Contemporary political and public theology is predominantly statist, with a view of the state as the solver of human problems, and with the church urging the state to do more to bring about social justice and peace. This practice of politics as statecraft has been forcefully challenged by a number of recent theologians, such as those within the theological movement known as Radical Orthodoxy. Against such a backdrop, this thesis examines the work of two of Radical Orthodoxy’s most political writers: John Milbank and William Cavanaugh. Their characterization of the state, as based in nominalist philosophy and violence, is highly negative. This negative assessment renders statist theologies and the practice of statecraft profane and deeply problematic for Christians. They prefer instead to see the church as the only true politics. Yet this move places their ecclesial and sacramental politics in the overall modern movement of the politicization of Christianity. This thesis argues that the state is neither sacred nor profane, but if accepted as mundane, it is something that can be freely engaged with by the church as part of its overall witness to politics and society. In order to outline and assess the political theology of Milbank and Cavanaugh three biblical and doctrinal lenses – creation, preservation, and redemption – are used to judge their work. From the viewpoint of creation we see where Milbank and Cavanaugh find the origins of the state in comparison with other theological positions. This carries through to the commonly held view that the state is in the order of preservation, as an ordinance of God preserving human society from the chaos caused by human sinfulness. Finally, in redemption we see how in both Milbank and Cavanaugh the state becomes an anti-redeemer in competition with the political salvation found in the church and voluntary associations. The thesis concludes by drawing on the work of Jacques Ellul in advocating the desacralization of the state from being either sacred or profane. Such a perspective enables the Church to freely engage in statecraft as just one tactic in its political advocacy without corrupting itself.