Saturday Afternoon Book Review: W. Vander Lugt

Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism: Beyond Tolerance and Difference (Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine)by Kristen Deede Johnson. Cambridge University Press, 2007; pb 2010. 276 pp. £21.99/$36.99. ISBN: 9780521154680.

~Reviewed by Wesley Vander Lugt, PhD Candidate at the University of St Andrews and editor of Transpositions, a blog exploring the interaction between theology, imagination, and the arts.

Into the dizzying array of political theories and visions, Kristen Deede Johnson brings clarity of description and seeks to propose “an ethos of rich, hospitable and loving interaction” mediating the bifurcation between liberal tolerance and agonistic difference. Does she succeed? Before offering my own perspective, allow me to take you on a fast tour through the book.

To begin, in chapter two Johnson presents a broad summary of liberalism viewed through the work of John Rawls. The early Rawls formulated liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine resting on the principles of equal liberty and opportunity for every individual. Not surprisingly, this work prompted a flood of response from “communitarians” such as Alistair McIntyre who objected to privileging individual rights over the communal good. Partly in response to these critiques, Rawls later articulated a more thoroughly political liberalism, avoiding claims to any ontological foundation, a political theory that could seek consensus among communities shaped by comprehensive worldviews. According to Rawls, this consensus is made possible through the use of public reason and the duty of civility.

The major problem with Rawls’ theory, Johnson points out, is that this rational consensus assumes some “slippage” in the comprehensive worldviews of particular communities. It also assumes a distinction between public and private, and actually excludes those groups that refuse to acknowledge this separation, such as “Catholics, Protestants, hedonists, perfectionists, communists, socialists, feminists, and communitarians” (56-57). Real conversation about the good is impossible, because these groups are refused a place at the political table unless they are willing to seek consensus on a neutral playing field.

Given the problems with political liberalism, the backlash from post-Nietzschean political theory is to be expected. Johnson highlights scholars such as Chantall Mouffe who point out that differences are inevitable, that rational political consensus is not a possibility. William Connolly shares this perspective, but has provided more constructive solutions in light of inevitable political differences. He posits respecting differences through “critical responsiveness” and “agonistic respect,” which produces in a pluralism from the roots (rhizomatic), rather than a pluralism of different branches from a common stem (arboreal). Connolly is honest about his ontological presuppositions, namely, the abundance of being and the lack of fundamentals, except of course difference itself. But Johnson doubts whether Connolly provides an enduring solution, since his proposal does not reconcile unity and difference, abandoning the creative re-imagination of harmony in light of the need to get along in the public square. Is this all our political imagination can muster?

Not if we go back to Augustine, which is exactly what Johnson does in chapter 4. Augustine begins with a biblical vision of the world’s relational order, with disharmony and disorder resulting from the Fall. Disorder, therefore, does not reflect the way things are meant to be or should be, and reconciliation through Jesus provides a way to experience harmony and participation in the heavenly city. In the earthly city, power and pride reign over justice and humility. In fact, real justice is only possible through participation in the heavenly city, which has already been inaugurated through the work of Jesus but will not be complete until Jesus returns. Until then, we should neither expect to experience utopia in the earthly city nor should we abandon the earthly city.

Based on this Augustinian political imagination, how should Christians who are participants in the heavenly city participate in the earthly city? Johnson disagrees with how John Milbank answers that question: the heavenly city (the church) should increase its influence and slowly take over the role of the political sphere. Johnson agrees with Milbank that the church and state should not be separate, but she thinks that Milbank is not Augustinian enough in recognizing Jesus’ lordship over everything, and thus the importance for the church to simply be the church (agreeing with Hauerwas). She prefers the perspective of Karl Barth, who held a Christological connection between the political and the ecclesial, with Christ as Lord over both and the church at the center of the divine drama. Indeed, Johnson maintains that the political and ecclesial are both public sphere, and thus the church and the political realm are overlapping publics. Christians should be involved in the political realm because the limited goods of the earthly city are still worthy of pursuit, but we should recognize that our primary citizenship is the heavenly city. Christians should not expect to transform the political sphere, because this is impossible outside of reconciliation with Jesus.

The most important way for Christians to be involved, therefore, is through “rich, deep conversation,” and through a “hospitable ethos of interaction,” which includes embodied practices as much as honest conversations. Christians should not feel like they have to leave their deepest commitments at home and at church, but should interact freely and courageously in the public sphere. This needs to be done with humility, of course, because we interact as disciples “on the way,” not as those who have arrived at our final destination. The best political system is that which “accommodates conversation of communal religious practice,” and not political liberalism, which requires interaction on the basis of “public rationality” rather than on the basis of our deepest beliefs.

Overall, Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism is a stunning summary of current political thought, accessible to readers at all levels. Johnson provides insightful critiques of major political thinkers and theories, leaving no doubt that Christian theology has a unique and important voice within this unsatisfying intellectual and political climate. Johnson crafts an alterative political vision that is both bold and humble, striving for the unified diversity that lies at the heart of the Christian political imagination.

I still have several questions after reading this book, however, some of which may point to weaknesses in Johnson’s method and argument. For one, even though Johnson interacts with a wide range of political theory, she did not widen her interaction to include other Christian political theorists, such as Abraham Kuyper and more recently James Skillen in the Dutch Reformed tradition. Second, at one point Johnson conflates the kingdom of God with the church, which seems problematic given her emphasis on Christ’s lordship over the whole universe. If anything, being more careful in distinguishing the kingdom and the church would have enabled Johnson to think more practically about specific Christian involvement in the political sphere. Third, based on the enduring connotation of ‘conversation’ with verbal acts, it would have been better for Johnson to advocate a “theology of public interaction” rather than “a theology of public conversation,” since she wants to emphasize concrete practices and embodied interaction. Fourth, at several points Johnson mentions that this public interaction requires humility and openness, even to the point of being willing to convert to another position. But do Christians (or anyone else for that matter) need to remain open to conversion in order to engage in authentic conversation? Finally, I found myself continually longing for practical examples of Johnson’s rich proposal, which was imaginatively compelling but less convincing because of its lack of illustrations and case studies. It may be that Johnson plans to supplement this volume with more a more practical volume in the future, and if this is case, I look forward to this additional work with great expectation.

In sum, this book stands alone as an impressive achievement in thinking Christianly about political theory, a notoriously confusing and contested area of study. As all works of high caliber, this book is hard to summarize and deserves careful digestion and consideration. If you pick up your own copy, which I highly recommend, I am convinced that you will glean much wisdom and that your engagement with this text will challenge your imagination and motivate you to adopt and promote a “hospitable ethos of interaction” in a world of difference.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://arbevere.blogspot.com Allan R. Bevere

    Wesley,

    Thanks for this very helpful review.

    I would be interested in your response to two thoughts of mine:

    First, you write “The major problem with Rawls’ theory, Johnson points out, is that this rational consensus assumes some “slippage” in the comprehensive worldviews of particular communities. It also assumes a distinction between public and private, and actually excludes those groups that refuse to acknowledge this separation, such as “Catholics, Protestants, hedonists, perfectionists, communists, socialists, feminists, and communitarians” (56-57). Real conversation about the good is impossible, because these groups are refused a place at the political table unless they are willing to seek consensus on a neutral playing field.”

    I think Johnson is spot on in reference to Rawls on this, but I would take it even further. It’s not a only a matter of these groups having to seek consensus, so much as having to give up their particular convictions that undermine the so-called “neutral playing field.”

    You also write, “… at one point Johnson conflates the kingdom of God with the church, which seems problematic given her emphasis on Christ’s lordship over the whole universe. If anything, being more careful in distinguishing the kingdom and the church would have enabled Johnson to think more practically about specific Christian involvement in the political sphere.”

    I actually think Johnson has this right. I believe the problem for Christians continues to be that we think there is a central “political sphere” outside of the church that Christians must directly encounter if they are to be politically relevant. I know I continue to beat this drum, but it is my contention that the church is where the political action is, and it has been the separation of the kingdom from the church that has been a large part of the problem.

    I will say I really like the idea of a “hospitable ethos of interaction with the world.”

    Thanks again for the good review.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Yes, great review, and I was wondering if Allan read this, and I see his interesting, good (as always) comment. This goes to show to me the difference between what I would take to be a more Anabaptist understanding of the church versus a more Reformed or traditional understanding with reference to the kingdom. I do lean toward the Anabaptist position here. And yet I want to acknowledge that in some general sense God’s kingdom remains active over all. So I think we who hold to more of an Anabaptist stance may need to clarify that (and with my lack of reading, that may have already been eminently qualified). It would seem that in the eschatological sense toward shalom only in and through the church is that kingdom of God in Jesus going on in the world, not to be found active in any earthly political sphere. But that in some general sense that activity of the kingdom can impact worldly entities at points in time for good, and indeed should be at least a light from God in Jesus for those entities to see and be judged by.

    At any rate, I really like the way Johnson describes Augustine’s perspective, but it does seem to me a stretch to attribute the same kingdom working of God in the state or earthly political spheres as that work is active in and through the church, in Jesus. Seems like God is showing the principalities and powers through the church his wisdom at work. And not directly through them (the powers).

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Wesley, I do see that you make the point that though Christ is said to be head of both, the church is at the center of this drama of God’s kingdom working (Barth). Interesting. If the powers are open to being taught wisdom from God through the church all well and good. But it seems that the heart of God’s kingdom working is always going to be in Jesus and the only place that is found today is in the community of God in Jesus, the church.

    I need to at least look at this book. I wish I had hours everyday to read, and if so, I’d at least give this one a start (and the way you describe it here, most likely a finish).

  • dopderbeck

    Great review! Another book to buy!

  • http://itiablog.wordpress.com Wes Vander Lugt

    Thanks for the comments. I think what deserves more explanation in this book is the consequences of Christ’s Lordship over all creation on the church’s responsibility in other spheres such as the political. Allan, I think you are completely right that as Christians our political action must begin in the church, but in no way is the church, as God’s people in the world, cloistered off from the politics of other communities. The question, of course, is what we hope our interaction with these other communities will accomplish, which is where eschatology comes to the fore. Johnson is right to emphasize the already/not yet character of the heavenly city, and some have observed that Anabaptists favor the “not yet” while a Reformed perspective leans toward seeing “already” realization. These should remain in dynamic interplay, the proof of which is evident in our goals and our everyday choices and lifestyles. We have much to learn from both perspectives!

  • Paul Norman

    Good review!

    But the author’s initial reading of Augustine seems off.

    In my understanding of it, The City of God and the City of Man are not the two kingdoms, as it seems the author read it to be. The City of God is redeemed sinners (Christ’s work, not the church) and the City of Man is unredeemed sinners.

    The question was then posed, “Based on this Augustinian political imagination, how should Christians who are participants in the heavenly city participate in the earthly city?”

    This is muddying up two-kingdom and “in but not of the world” dualities.


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