Review: Migrations of the Holy by William Cavanaugh

William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 200 pages.

I would like to thank Eerdmans for providing a review copy.

Amazon | Eerdmans Migrations of the Holy

Migrations of the Holy is the latest book from a political theologian who is rapidly becoming one of the most significant in the field. The work represents a continuation and further development of Cavanaugh’s main arguments, as well as responses to some recent criticisms. Wheaton College was privileged to have Dr. Cavanaugh at our Spring 2013 Theology Conference: “Christian Political Witness.” A video recording of his lecture (“Citizen and Consumer: A Theological View of the Relationship of the State and the Market”) at the conference can be found here and an audio recording can be downloaded here.

Technically, Migrations of the Holy is not a completely new work. It is a compilation of essays and articles written from 2004 to 2007. The downside to this is that many of the chapters are available elsewhere in their original form (almost all of them are available in some form at his website); the upside is that they are helpfully here in one (affordable!) volume for easy classroom use. 


(The book’s nine essays vary widely in length from 5 pages to 39 pages. My summary of each chapter reflects the disparity between each essay.)

Chapter one, “Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State Is Not the Keeper of the Common Good,” is Cavanaugh’s history of the origins of the nation-state as a uniquely modern institution. According to Cavanaugh, the “state” is not a natural or ancient way of organizing political communities, but one that was born in early modernity because of its ability to effectively impose taxes and make war. What is most important about the nation-state is its creation of a “simple political space” that is unitary and all-encompassing. While the medieval feudalism had complex overlapping allegiances to king(s), nobles, and church, the early modern state claimed absolute sovereignty. It had direct access to each individual, instead of mediated through local communities. Cavanaugh claims that along with new concept of “state” came the concept of “society” as a singular unity. The “nation-state” is the building of a unitary sense of shared culture by the political apparatus of the state (coercive power), not a limited “part of” society, but fused with society.

In contrast to some historical narratives, the state came into being not because of “rights” or “the common good,” but over war, taxation, and centralization. The goal of the state was not “the common good” but to keep individuals from interfering with each other’s private goods. It dissolved traditional social groups and allowed only two poles: the state and the individual. Any lesser association was deemed a creation of the state. The state also fused with the market, and politics and economics became indistinguishable.

The second essay, “From One City to Two: Christian Reimagining of Political Space,” deals with the topic of unity and pluralism, the one and the many, in political theory. In modern nation-states, Cavanaugh argues, there is one public space with two spheres: civil society (pluralism, religion) and political institution (unity, secular). The basic assumption is that the nation-state is one city, within which there is a division of goods and labor, usually in binaries: civil society and state, sacred and secular, eternal and temporal, religion and politics, church and state. What happens, though, is that the drive for unity will overtake the pluralism and divisions of goods/labor and the nation-state will become a religion. The church will be seen as “particular” and the state as “universal.” The church is subsumed under the state.

In contrast to this, Cavanaugh turns to Augustine’s model of two separate cities with two competing visions of the public. They compete because they use the same goods but for contradictory ends. These are two different ways of seeing how the goods of life fit into the purpose of life.

Cavanaugh argues against the idea that the state can be in a peaceful relationship with the church, as long as it is seen as a keeper of public order, not the arbiter of the common good. Even with such a limited role, the state will take on more expansive roles as the summum bonum of humanity. Cavanaugh argues that this is the case historically in the United States. The nation-state needs a “crisis of pluralism” to step in and supply unity. The primary means of unifying the many is in a common enemy that has to be fought in a patriotic war. Nationalistic devotion to the state itself provides the unity needed. Plurality can be managed at a low level as long it does not interfere with the sacred allegiance to the nation itself.

The problem is in seeing one city in which the church must contend for space, for example, in imagining religion and politics as dealing with different goods (spiritual and physical, sacred and secular). Rather, there are two completely different societies/ that use the same goods, which is why they are in competition. They are separated not by space, but by referent in time: temporal and eschatological. Both are “religious” at their heart.  Cavanaugh argues that the two cities are not institutions (church and state) but sets of practices, activities with an orientation.

Importantly, the earthly city cannot deal with the one and the many, unity and diversity. In particular, pluralism is always tragic in the earthly city. But the city of God “joins with others” to show how life can be lived with unity-in-diversity.

“Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk: Identity and Mobility in a Global Age,” the third essay, is a short reflection on travel and movement in a world characterized by globalization and nation-states. Globalization would seem to be the death keel for nationalism, but Cavanaugh argues that globalization and nationalism thrive off each other. His answer to identities as migrant and tourist is a return to the Christian personas of pilgrim and monk.

Chapter four, “Messianic Nation: A Christian Theological Critique of American Exceptionalism,” is Cavanaugh’s argument that religion has not gone away but simply migrated to patriotic nationalism. Nationalism sees the relationship between God and the nation as direct and unmediated. American exceptionalism presents itself as theological enough (but not too much) that each religion can fill in the gaps with its own meanings (“the empty shrine”). Correspondingly, the modern nation-state does not claim to be a common good but the formal structure that allows each individual to realize his or her own particular good. What it asks in return is blood sacrifice in fighting holy wars of freedom.

In the short fifth essay, “How to Do Penance for the Inquisition,” Cavanaugh argues that it is not hypocrisy for modern Christians (especially Roman Catholics) to oppose torture. Rather, churches should acknowledge torture in its past history and make amends for that mistake by standing up against any continued use of torture.

Another short essay, “Liturgies of Church and State,” contends that national liturgies are not “secular” and churchly liturgies are not “sacred.” The state’s liturgies are primarily about “sacred” duty in fighting war and the “sacrifice” and “martyrdom” of dying in national wars. Similarly, church liturgies are not only about heaven and eternity but the things of this created life. Christian liturgy is universal—transgressing national boundaries—while the nationalist liturgy is particular and sectarian.

“The Church as Political,” chapter seven, argues that the church is political because: 1) salvation is imagined as political (a kingdom, a holy city), and 2) the church is indispensable for salvation. Cavanaugh critiques the idea of the church as having “indirect influence” on politics but itself not being political. He rejects the idea that we need to “translate” Christian theology into abstract principles suited for politics. He especially rejects how this indirect influence is seen as going from church to individual Christian to state.

The church as society is universal, unlike the nation-state. The church is not a subset of society, one particular actor among many, within the nation-state. The church is God’s bearer of salvation (which includes political dimensions) because it is creation-wide. He argues for a “directly political ecclesiology,” although one that admits that the boundaries of the church are not clear. The church is not a polis, per se, but more a “culture,” a dialogical relationship and bearer of the salvific drama (“God’s politics”).

Chapter eight, “The Sinfulness and Visibility of the Church: A Christological Exploration,” responds to criticisms made to Cavanaugh that his political theology imagines an ideal church, one that is simply not realistic about the pervasiveness of sin, even among Christians. He argues instead that the visibility of the church includes its visibility of sin, and repenting of it. He argues that the people of God do need to be visible and exemplary—this from a retelling of the scriptural narrative of election—because salvation is a communal gathering.

There are two extremes to this: either ecclesiologcal Monophysitism or ecclesiological Nestorianism. Ecclesiological Monophysitism so emphasizes the divinity of the church and the identification of Christ with his church that the message is absorbed into the medium. Ecclesiological Nestorianism tries to separate the two so that the church has no responsibility to identify itself with Christ. It is “off the hook,” so to speak, for trying to picture an ideal society to the world.

His answer to these two errors is to emphasize that Christ “became sin.” He did not remain “pure” to outsiders; he took on human sin and identified himself with it. The holiness of the church is its recognition of sin, its taking responsibility for sin (both its own and those outside the community), and its repentance for it. The church shows the process of salvation, not just the end-product of salvation, purity. The Christian reason for not doing violence is not that we are too pure, but that we are too sinful to try to lead and rule.

The last essay, “A Politics of Vulnerability,” is a review of the conversation between Stanley Hauerwas, Jeffrey Stout, and Romand Coles on the nature of democracy and Christianity. Stout has written that Hauerwas’ critique of modern liberalism is only true of the most aggressive secularist visions of liberalism. His criticisms are not true of democracy as an American tradition that incorporates religious voices and inculcates the virtue of humility in open dialogue. Cavanaugh argues, though, that Stout’s account fails to see democracy’s connections to the Enlightenment, laissez faire capitalism, and the rise of the nation-state. Though Stout does temper Hauerwas’ extreme comments, his is a sugar-coated narrative. Stout also misses the Christian critique not only of a “neutral” state but of an “idolatrous” state, one that claims allegiances above Christ and his church.

However, Cavanaugh does believe that Stout has some legitimate critiques of Hauerwas. Although Hauerwas is not truly sectarian, he does buy into the modern “part or whole” vision of society as a “simple space,” which oscillates between private individual and public state. The idea of the state and “society” are oversimplified, Cavanaugh maintains. What Hauerwas needs to do is articulate a “complex space” of local allegiances. His interactions with Romand Coles and Radical Democracy are a step toward that. The church can then participate in other networks of connectivity that leave behind the idea of a unitary society and the accompanying decision of withdrawal or takeover.

Where Hauerwas must part company with Coles is on the issue of God’s rule. In emphasizing God’s rule over the world, Hauerwas can have a comic (instead of tragic) view of history. In other words, because God directs history, we don’t have to. Christ rules so we don’t have to. This leads to the politics of vulnerability that Romand Coles and others are really after, but it requires submitting to the God who rules and giving up power in his name.

Final Thoughts

I don’t buy into all of Cavanaugh’s arguments, not by any means. For starters, I’m not a pacifist. But even with that difference, many of Cavanaugh’s points can be accepted without taking his entire agenda on board. His critique of American nationalism, for example, is especially helpful. His historical narrative about modern society and the rise of the nation-state is very thought-provoking, even if I’m not sure about every detail. I also appreciated his analysis throughout of how a national imagination and a bureaucratic state has effectively dissolved ties to local community and neighborhood.

One of my chief concerns with the book, though, was its ambiguity throughout several of the essays in the language and concepts Cavanaugh uses. For just one example, I noticed at times he argues that the church is not a polis (pp. 66, 89, 139), while other times he uses the language of the church as polis sympathetically (pp. 43, 56, 138). Because the chapters are separate there is not the level of coherence and clarification about the intertwining arguments as I would normally have expected.

There are plenty other points where I disagreed with Cavanaugh, but overall his ideas sparked discussion, even when I blatantly disagreed.

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4 Responses to Review: Migrations of the Holy by William Cavanaugh

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