The Imagination of Politics – William Cavanaugh’s Theo-Politics

I’m currently working through Catholic theologian William T. Cavanaugh‘s book ((here is a listing of his bibliographic works), “Theo-Political Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy  as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism,” for a lecture I’m doing later this quarter. I cannot recommend this book enough to those of you who are doing work in the area of theology and politics. First, he suggests that politics in America requires a disciplined imagination, one where citizens respect borders, and contracts that don’t actually exist. He then traces out the historical development (in true genealogical fashion) of the nation-state as a competing soteriology to Christianity. Third, he moves on to deconstruct the idea that civil space is a neutral, or religion free, space within society, instead he makes the compelling point that civil space, or the public square (a la Neuhaus), is itself a secular theological construct. Finally, in the last chapter Cavanaugh looks to globalization not as the end of the nation-state (where the local gives way to a perceived diversity) but rather, he argues that globalization is an extension of the nation-state project which seeks to dominate the universal. Here globalization can be read as a secularized “catholicity.”At the end of every chapter Cavanaugh returns to the church and mines liturgical and sacramental resources for responding to this counter-theology.

Here’s the opening quote that captures the thrust of this book well:

“Politics is a practice of the imagination. Sometimes politics is the ‘art of the possible,’ but it is always an art, and engages the imagination just as art does. We are often fooled by the seeming solidity of the materials of politics, its armies and offices, into forgetting that these materials are marshalled by acts of the imagination. How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about? He must be convinced of the reality of borders, and imagine himself deeply, mystically, united to a wider national community that stops abruptly at those borders. The nation-state is, as Benedict Anderson has shown, one important and historically contingent type of ‘imagined community’ around which our conceptions of politics tend to gather” (1).

I found the book very engaging, historically deep, theologically astute, and a much needed tool for reading the “signs of the times.” It’s especially helping in our current political atmosphere.

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19 responses to “The Imagination of Politics – William Cavanaugh’s Theo-Politics”

  1. Yeah, it’s a great book – more than some of the other RO crowd because it is actually understandable – I guess on a quaker blog this may be a little out of place but my understanding of the eucharist and it politics has been profoundly impacted by the book.

  2. Richard – Thanks for the comment — I agree far more understandable and your comment is definitely not out of place. My understanding of the eucharist has too been greatly impacted by this book, I resonate with much of what is in here. What I found lacking, from a Quaker perspective, was any real notion of the work of the Spirit and how even more than the practice of the Eucharist the Spirit unites all believers. I don’t think there’s anything Cavanaugh really needs to change in his argument, except to have a stronger notion of pneumatology and how that might even more so radicalize his claims.

  3. Hi Wess, I’d love to hear you expand that last comment a bit. ‘Cause I just love Torture and Eucharist, but my house church background is just similar enough to your Friends background that sometimes I just sit back and say “What??” Sometimes the R.O. crowd seems to find their mojo in the fact that their practices are ancient and widespread. ‘Ancient’ and ‘widespread’ are cool and all, but sometimes I wonder if, in another cultural milieu, they’d be extolling the virtues of ancient, widespread ritual practices to Odin!

    That sounds more polemical than I mean it to be. I guess what I’m asking is, in this ‘convergence,’ what is retrieved and celebrated from the Quaker tradition? Was there a timeless wisdom to Fox, Fell, et al.’s refraining from sacramental practice, or was it more timely, era-appropriate? I could see it either way, really. On the one hand, the Quaker practice of seeing sacrementality ‘in Spirit’ could be construed as a gnostic, anti-matter tendency. On the other hand, the widespread disunity and exclusion around (say) eucharistic practices is at least as widespread today as it was centuries ago.

    Would love your thoughts…

  4. Hey Andrew,

    Not trying to be harsh…I’m just trying to a.) Fully get my head (or heart?) around RO, and b.) See what it is in RO that appeals to Wess, as a Quaker.

    How familiar are you with the Friends tradition? Founder George Fox (and his successors) has some rather strong arguments against sacramentality of any kind, deeply rooted in the biblical narrative, mystical experience, and the current events of Fox’s day. I feel ambivalent about those arguments, but they could (nonetheless) be applied quite strongly toward RO. In my Postmodernism & Theology class this summer, I read some RO material, and found it fascinating. But I also wondered if, at the end of the day, the power of ancient tradition for RO folks was simply that it was ancient and traditional, and thus located its gravity in its being counter to the contemporary culture that it’s opposing. While I’m no inherent friend of the zeitgeist, I don’t have immediate affinity for the old, either. Early Friends emphasis on the newness of the New Covenant, and its ‘down and in’ nature (over and against an external, ritual-observing trend in most institutionalized Christianity) is what drew me to Quakerism nearly a decade ago – to say nothing of my house church tendencies. : )

    My ambivalence lies in how the spiritual/mystical can sometimes become gnostic and matter-hating, and in the fact that we’re always creating ritual and tradition as sure as we create culture – whether we ‘want’ to or not. And that it might be better to acknowledge it than deny it.

    Nonetheless, my question remains – for friends and followers of God in the way of Jesus, what is our relationship to history, culture, and the culture(s) of faith we create?

    Sorry if my comment about how RO would be into Odin if they were born into ancient Norse culture was offensive! I appreciate Cavanaugh, et al…even if I have a funny way of showing it. : )

  5. “…what in particular helped you reframe Christianity if you don’t mind me asking?”

    Wes, I guess the impact that this book had on me can be summarized by a quote from the book itself:

    “…in the making of the Body of Christ, Christians participate in a practice which envisions a proper ‘anarchy,’ not in the sense that it proposes chaos, but in that it challenges the false order of the state. The Eucharist is the heart of true religio, a practice of binding us to the Body of Christ which is our salvation.”

    If I remember correctly, I read this book when I was serving as a youth minister in an Episcopal Church – a body for whom the celebration of the Eucharist formed the center of their life together. I suppose you could call it an “animating practice” for them. Thus, when I understood Cavanaugh to be saying that the Eucharist allows the “transgression of national boundaries” thus uniting us with brothers and sisters throughout time and space – well, lets just say that my understanding of a “personal relationship” with Jesus (about which those in my baptist background never cease of harping) was rocked to its core.

    In addition, I had never – prior to reading Cavanaugh (both Torture and Eucharist and Theopolitical Imagination) – been able to wrap my head around why the church would need to enact or live into a counter-politics. This book served, I suppose, a similar purpose as Rodney Clapp’s book, A Peculiar People, in awakening my imagination to the fact that the principalities and powers might just include the state and my cultural surroundings instead of invisible devils and demons (Does that even make sense?).

    Grace & peace,

  6. Mike,

    I think we’ve had a conversation about this before and I’m glad you’ve been reading some of this stuff! I’m not so sure I’d throw Cavanaugh in with the Radical Orthodoxy crowd – he and his teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, have had some strong critiques to offer the rank and file of RO (Milbank and Pickstock to be specific). But who knows?

    You wrote, “But I also wondered if, at the end of the day, the power of ancient tradition for RO folks was simply that it was ancient and traditional, and thus located its gravity in its being counter to the contemporary culture that it’s opposing.”

    I think a great deal of the force of ancient practices comes from 1) a desire be in continuity with the practices that the church catholic has maintained throughout history and throughout the globe that have – many times before – been effective means of living counter-culturally (to varying degrees of effectiveness, of course) and 2) an understanding that the practices are not simply “ancient and traditional” but are (at their core) practices of the Church catholic – which happens, fortunately, to itself be both ancient and traditional – traditional in that it is built on a wealth of tradition developed by people and communities bent on living the Gospel of Christ in their own time).

    Having grown up a mixture of Baptist and Methodist, I’ve got a strange perspective, I suppose, among my (current) baptist community in that I have no problem investing a sacramentality (i.e. reading into) in practices which most baptists would consider simply an ordinance. For me – and possibly for many groups recognizing sacraments as opposed to ordinances – the idea that the Eucharist and Baptism actually changes who I am and makes it more possible to live a Christian life is simply a more exciting and worthwhile story than it being a simple remembrance. Of course, along with such a belief comes my insistence that Tradition and Scripture are not as easily separated from one another as most protestants (even the sacramentally minded ones) might imagine.

    Grace & peace,


    (P.S. we need to see one another very soon)

  7. We should INDEED see each other very soon!

    And, thank you for your helpful clarification. If I were you, and I had to choose between this practice I engage in being a sacrament or an ordinance, I’d choose ‘sacrament’ every time. Sacraments are sexy (I mean that respectfully, sex being created by God and all); ordinances are boring!

    Nonetheless, house church and Friends traditions offer some strong critiques to, ohh, say eucharist in particular:

    a.) House church folks maintain that eucharist/communion/the Lord’s Supper was originally celebrated as a full meal – an agape feast where the living Christ is re-membered in the Church’s midst as the Body of Christ. This full meal erases class, gender, and race distinctions and practically builds up the local fellowship in bonds of love – as every good schmoozer knows, there’s no better way to solidify bonds than by eating together! From a HC perspective, you can have the benefits of eucharist that you cited above and then some by celebrating eucharist in the context of a full meal…a counter-cultural community that actually eats together and gets to really know one another as a way of subverting empire. Of course, if HC scholars are right (and for a good scholarly source see The Fall of Patriarchy: Its Broken Legacy Judged by Jesus and the Apostolic House Church Communities by Del Birkey; 2005), this becomes a problematic for the idea of catholicity – which, incidentally, some take to be an oppressive/totalizing metanarrative. If this is indeed the practice of the first century or two of Christian faith, and the proto-catholic innovation of a meal-less eucharist is a later innovation – one which at least by the 16th century became even further disputed and fragmented, then wither catholicity? It’s a big problem, I’ll admit.

    b.) Here’s where at least one interpretation of the Friends tradition could, potentially, be helpful (though I’ll defer to Wess’s upcoming response!) I see George Fox’s take on sacraments to be an eschatological one; that is, the age of types and shadows (rituals and external observance) was a temporary one – like the Law a ‘tutor’ to lead to Christ, who provides inner illumination. During the New Testament transitory period between Old Covenant and New (Paul mentions living between the ages in century one, as does the author of Hebrews), baptismal and eucharistic practices held sway and made sense in their cultural context. But in 17th-century England, the churches of every stripe were experiencing division, over ‘sacraments’ and a host of other matters. Perhaps, Fox posited, this was because the very notion of ‘church’ and ‘sacrament’ was borne out of a covenantal confusion; that is, attempting to perpetuate a covenantal transition time long after the Old Covenant faded away, with all the chaos this entails.

    John’s Gospel seems formative to Fox in my reading of him. He sees Jesus explaining the root meaning of eucharist as the spirit’s feeding on Jesus as spirit and life (John 6), and the ultimate initiation for Jesus’ friends being the stripping away of symbols and parables, speaking plainly (somewhere toward the end of John, forgive my laziness). Thus Friends partake of the innermost meaning of baptism in Spirit; of eucharist in Spirit, every moment of every day (what Catholic writer Caussade would later call ‘the sacrament of the present moment.’) It seems to me that this perspective could be easily combined with the house church idea of eucharist as full meal – for even in a fulfilled eschaton and New Covenant world, what could possibly be wrong or ‘type and shadow’ about eating a fellowship meal and celebrating the real presence of the living Christ in our midst?

    I want to throw a c.) in here, lest you think I fully agree with the a.) and b.) presented above. My perspective on eucharist has been transformed through the years by reading three books: Cavanaugh’s, one from the UK called Mass Culture (I’m afraid if I include too many links in this comment it might shift to the Moderation bin!), and Sara Miles’ Take This Bread. All three show the obvious power and beauty that regular eucharist celebration (with Anglo/Catholic meaning implied) can have in certain settings; all three challenge my house church and fulfilled eschatoloigal assumptions; all three have made me, in general, far less dogmatic about everything. : ) So in practice (and I realize this is sooo protestant of me, opining about my ‘ideal church’), I’d like to be part of a gathering that at least leaves open the possibility that we’re living in the fulfillment of all Jesus’ prophecy concerning his return; that we might just be in the new covenant ‘heavens and earth’ prophecied, and we’re in a place to co-create the future with God. Nonetheless, this isn’t a place of triumphal humanism; we recognize that being the leaves of the Tree of Life healing the nations implies a process, and one that is obviously still ongoing, given the suffering still present in the wake of Jesus’ fulfillment of the eschaton. This means we’re in a place of radical dependence – we need all the help we can get, from God and each other. So the regular practice of communal meal-sharing in the way of Jesus – not just with the fellowship of faith, but with the well-to-do and marginalized – is needed to support our endeavors to live into God’s dream of New Jerusalem on earth. Recognizing God’s ‘real presence’ in everyday life – God’s all-in-all-ness – will take meal-sharing – and, when full meals aren’t possible, more ‘traditional’ eucharist-sharing is a fully-appropriate (and beautiful) stand-in.

    At least, these are my in-process, unfinished thoughts. Feel free to weigh in! And see for more thoughts on fulfilled covenant eschatology.

  8. Okay, now that I can safely link: Here’s a review of Mass Culture, an amazing collection of essays on eucharist celebration. I’d highly recommend getting the 1999 edition, as the 2008 edition has a hideous cover.

    Also my friend Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread can be seen at I linked extensively re: Miles here.

  9. Hey guys, great conversation thanks for chiming in. Let me try to briefly answer Mike’s question (brief isn’t my strong suite).

    First, the reason why I am interested in the RO is really because of my studies. I am particularly interested in the way they interact with culture, philosophy and (church) tradition. I find this group to be among the most astute theologians to be engaging some of the most cutting edge ideas in our culture.

    Second, in terms of sacraments – “what on earth does a Quaker have doing reading a book of this nature on the sacraments?” would probably constitute and entire book. 😉 But before I say anything else, Cavanaugh’s work continues to challenge and force me to rethink my own categories. The fact of the matter is that I think the kinds of theological resources necessary to explain a political history in this way, or the church’s response to politics is very think within Quakerism. This of course may be a highly contestable opinion, but part of my work is to find out how others are dealing with these contemporary questions and see if there is a way to dig up, or if needed import, those resources where necessary.

    One of those lacking resources, quite frankly – IMO – is thinking on the sacraments. I (just about) fully accept Fox’s critique of sacraments during his time and find it helpful to read Fox’s response as similar to any other renewal movements within church history. These renewal groups always challenge the preexisting practices and rituals and try to reinterpret those practices in a way that have meaning within their setting. I think this is at least in part what Fox was up to.

    But having read Cavanaugh’s critique, I think Fox and early Friends were (quite reasonably) operating out of a faulty understanding of “religio” – where “religio” is an individual matter of belief that is disembodied from the physical in order to be protected from the state. I agree with Cavanaugh’s point that we need to recapture religion as a practice that is embodied within the physical community.

    So in a real way I identify with both your positions. And for me, what I think needs to happen is a) a deconstruction of the Friends earlier position on the Sacraments; b) a re-incorporation of practices that engage the physical body (and the community) as the church living within the eschatology reality of here/not yet; and c) a better more theological and philosophically robust account of the Inward Light of Christ that encapsulates not only a strong christology, but also a better more practice-oriented ecclesiology.

    So I may, in my own way, be approaching Quakerism in a similar way that Fox approached Christianity – Questioning its very presuppositions behind our practices and wondering if they have meaning today and if so, what is that meaning.

    —- This doesn’t really fit in the flow of the above response but by in large I subscribe to Yoder’s perspective in Body Politics – that there are these central practices that every church needs to do in order to be the church – breaking bread together is one of those things. Now I may be far looser in how I understand “breaking bread” than my high-church friends, but I do think it is a necessary part. Yes, fellowshiping with living Christ as an individual is essential to our faith (as happens in silent worship), but I think this alone is not enough to constitute the body of Christ and I think without certain other practices that the church can grow idolatrous – well in fact I think the church can grow idolatrous regardless, but I think my point still stands. I recognize this puts me in an extreme minority as a Quaker but I’m okay with that, I really am convinced think this is an area that needs to be developed more for our tradition.

  10. Thanks for these thoughts, Wess! I’ll be chewing on ’em. But when you said “The fact of the matter is that I think the kinds of theological resources necessary to explain a political history in this way, or the church’s response to politics is very think within Quakerism.” You meant “very thin within Quakerism,” right?

  11. @Andrew – I’ve not heard much about Cavanaugh’s differences from the rest of the RO clan. Can you give some points on what this looks like? (I’m also unfamiliar with Hauerwas’ critique of them).


  12. @Wes – I think I might need to eat my words on this. I’ve searched and searched for the source of my assumption that Cavanaugh was “highly critical” of the “rank and file” of radical orthodoxy. Alas, I cannot find a single example! In addition, to my surprise, when I pulled the book, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, off my shelf I found an entire chapter written by (who else?) William Cavanaugh. So, my apologies for the confusion.

    BUT – there is a well-documented history of theological disagreement and criticism between Hauerwas and Milbank – primarily regarding Milbank’s understanding of the “inherent violence” of a pacifism. Hauerwas, of course argues that Milbank hasn’t understood fully his “Christological pacifism” and Milbank continues to disagree. The debate – and often bitter, sarcastic disagreement – on the issue of violence and passivity is born fairly well in Milbank’s chapter on violence in Being Reconcilied and the “conversation” between Hauerwas and Milbank in the book, Must Christianity be Violent. Have you read these? If not, that’d be a good place to start – but I’m sure that you’re more familiar with these sources, etc. than I am.


  13. @Andrew: Thanks for the article titles, I’ll look into these. I know about Hauerwas and him disagreeing, though I don’t know the specifics so I’ll check these out. It would be interesting to investigate Cavanaugh further, he definitely has some Hauerwas in him. He rejects violence as an option for the church, and argues again and again for “the church to be the church.” Something he undoubtedly got from Hauerwas.