What could Obama’s take on Iranian democracy, early-modern theodicy, and twentieth-century leftist thought have in common? Despite these wide variations in subject-matter, it seems to me that recent posts by Justin Reynolds, Alex Hernandez, and James Robertson nevertheless gesture towards a similar problematic. All three point to the profound tension which marks the relationship between human action in historical time, and the transcendent telos of the Christian salvation narrative. They point, in other words, to the thorny question of how much agency humans possess in the achievement of their own salvation.
In the case of the socialist models discussed by James, this tension strikes me as somewhat analogous to the conflict between historical determinism—the inevitability of the Revolution, according to the scientific laws of history uncovered by Marx—and the role of human agency in actually bringing the Revolution to pass. This seems very similar indeed to the problematic relationship between divine providence and human agency that emerges from Christian theodicy, as I suggested in a recent comment on Alex’s post. At first glance, it is hard to see the appeal of models such as these, which pre-determine the direction and outcome of history in such a way as to allow little room for the possibility of meaningful or effective human action. And yet, these appeals to the law-like structure of history—whether divine or Marxist—might also be interpreted ideologically, as a way to justify a particular course of action or to claim universal scope for a particular political program or religious narrative.
This tension seems even more problematic when it is extended to the question of salvation, and to the eschatological role of human action in the here-and-now. It is this tension which seems to underwrite the conflict Justin pointed out over the Christian notion of “bearing witness.” On one hand, Christians are taught to engage the world through a spirit of love, charity, and justice. On the other, they are taught that this world will ultimately pass away and are warned against reducing the Gospel to any particular political program for earthly well-being. On one hand, humans are treated as fallen beings stained with original sin, and on the other, they are held to be made in the image of God and to possess a transcendent destiny.
This strikes me as one of the most productive tensions within Christian theology, and one that particularly marks the Catholic tradition because, in contrast to the Protestant stress on “faith alone,” Catholic dogma endows human “works” with a role in salvation. As such, Catholics tend to err closer to Pelagianism—the heresy of denying original sin and affirming the agency of human free will. This question gained new weight for twentieth-century Catholic theologians obliged to renegotiate the temporal role of the Church in an increasingly secular political order. After finally relinquishing the dream of restoring a medieval-style theocracy, many Catholic integrists felt that protecting the Church’s spiritual authority required a total withdrawal from engagement with secular modern politica. Others were appalled by the way this apolitical stance could justify widespread clerical silence in the face of atrocities such as the Holocaust. Still others felt that such institutionalized forms of violence required not only clerical condemnation, but active political resistance, arguing that working towards human liberation from suffering was an indispensable precondition for the liberation from sin which would come with the advent of the Kingdom of God. The ambiguous wording of the pastoral constitution for the Second Vatican Council in many ways encouraged this theological diversity. While clearly warning that “earthly progress must be distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom,” it also affirmed that “the earthly and the heavenly city penetrate each other,” and that “the earthly service of men” will “make ready the material of the celestial realm” (Gaudium et Spes, articles 39-40).
Far from being regrettable, this kind of inconsistent language seems to testify to the at once conflicting and inseparable relationship between historical present and eschatological future. It therefore raises a number of interesting questions for scholars. What kinds of political-theological models does such ambiguity produce under particular historical circumstances? What does it tell us about the dynamic relationship between heresy and orthodoxy within a religious tradition? What historical agency should we attribute to these theological forces, relative to their political, economic, or cultural counterparts? Does this distinction even make sense, or is it itself the product of a secular worldview? Most importantly, how do particular historical forms of secularization redefine the very nature of the political and the theological, as well as the relationship between them? If the theological tension I have outlined is in fact insuperable, then it certainly seems necessary to go beyond thinking the relationship between the theological and the political in singular, structural or analogical terms.