Migrations of the Mystical PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 02 June 2011 20:11

C.C. Pecknold, Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010.

In about 165 pages, C. C. Pecknold gives an overview of Western political philosophy beginning with Aristotle’s Athens and ending with Pope Benedict XVI. In between, he explains the fissures that Roman expansion opened up in ancient political, describes the massive contribution of Christianity to Western politics, and examines the drift of politics away from Christian theology after the Reformation. It is an impressive achievement, a very short introduction with enough trees to fill in the forest.

85% of Pecknold’s book is very good. The weakest part is his discussion of Luther. Lutherans will not be the only ones surprised to learn that their eponymous hero of reform advocated an “internalized, spiritualized, and ‘democratized’” Christianity that “interiorized ecclesiology” and renounced “the mediating structure of the sacramental economy of the church.” The political upshot of this is that he “drove a wedge between the church and state,” stripped away the theological controls and rationales on politics, and thus became an unintended and unwitting ally of Machiavelli’s secularization of politics.

None of this much resembles Luther, and if Pecknold has occasion to revise the book, he should take note of, at least, Jaroslav Pelikan’s Spirit versus Structure: Luther and the Institutions of the Church (1968; Pelikan claims that Luther considered both church and sacraments to be “mediating structures of grace”). It is true that the church came out on this side of the Reformation an emaciated shadow of its former self, but it is not fair to lay the blame on Luther. The main benefit of Pecknold’s take on Luther is that it makes Calvin look very, very good by comparison.

The other weakness of the book is the final chapter, where Pecknold’s interesting discussion of Benedict XVI’s public theology skirts too close to Catholic apologetics for a survey book such as this.

About that other 85% . . . His summaries of most thinkers (Augustine, Machiavelli, Calvin and Hobbes, Rousseau with a glance at Rawls) are deft. He shows a knack for the telling anecdote (Protagoras’ discussion of the myth of Zeus’ founding of democracy, the rape of Lucretia and its use by Augustine, Ferdinand and Isabella’s state-building in Spain). One example must stand for all: His analysis of the famous woodcut from the cover of Leviathan is as good a one-page summary of Hobbes as one could hope to find. He notes that the people that make up the body of Leviathan all have their backs to the viewer like a crowd entering a church, facing Leviathan, their “mortal god.”

Following Sheldon Wolin’s Politics and Vision, Pecknold argues that the Eucharist embodies Christianity’s specific contribution to Western political life. The early church was not apolitical, but by its views of time, community, and mystical participation embedded in the Eucharistic, it revitalized political philosophy, moribund in the Roman imperial period. Breaking with cyclical views of time, Christianity introduced hope and conceived the church as a pilgrim polis. The Christian view of time relativized the empire, and made all existing political structures look feeble and utterly temporary (which, of course, they are).

True human life and virtue, the church claimed, comes through participation in the risen Christ, who has overcome death and who communicates His power and life to the community that gathers around the corpus mysticum, the Eucharistic body that makes the church. There are no limits to this participation; theoretically, the church is coextensive with humanity. Since Jesus was exalted as Lord, Christians insisted that the Roman slogan “Caesar is Lord” was simply untrue, and thus their participation in the body of Christ broke the comprehensive allegiance all Caesars demand of their subjects. Christians were therefore free in a way that no other people had been free before. Simply by attending to the unique society that the church was, without pursuing an obviously “political” agenda, Christians “challenged and transformed the older way of thinking about political community.”

One of the key threads of Pecknold’s story is the “migration” of the Christian notion of the mystical body. Henri de Lubac first demonstrated that between patristic period and the high middle ages, the term had moved from the Eucharist to the church itself. Early Christians believed that through Christ’s gift of his Eucharistic corpus mysticum, the church was formed into the true body of Christ. After Berengar’s Eucharistic heresy, no one dared call the Eucharist merely “mystical”; the Eucharist became the corpus verum, while the church itself came to be seen as the “mystical” body. The shift seems trivial, but de Lubac rightly discerned tectonic plates moving under the surface.

For one thing, “mystical” and “real” were increasingly opposed to each other. Something was either mystical or real, either sign or thing, never both together. We are still living with the consequences of this shift. More seriously, the shift indicates that the view that the church was constituted by Christ through His offered body was gradually overwhelmed by the view that the church itself made the Eucharist. Christ’s power was made secondary, the church’s elevated to primacy. Allegiance to Jesus was subordinated to allegiance to the mystical body of the church. Participation in the Risen Christ was put a notch down, participation in the institutions of the church a notch up.

Wolin used de Lubac’s work in his study of Western political thought, and noticed that the migration of the mystical continued after the fourteenth century. From the Eucharist to the church itself, “mysticism” eventually attached itself to the rising nation states that began to dominate Western politics after the Reformation. Pecknold thus claims that Machiavelli and Hobbes both borrowed distorted late medieval concepts to formulate the notion that the nation itself was a “mystical body” that bound people together in loyalty to flag, land, and national ideals. Asked to identify themselves, medievals would have said “I am a Christian.” We moderns say “I am American, I am Irish, I am Brazilian.” Even Christians often see themselves as first and foremost members of that mystical body.

Pecknold does not believe that the church should offer political blueprints, but he does sketch the outlines of the church’s relation to political powers. Above all, he stresses that the church should be true to herself. In the beginning, the church transformed Western political imagination by the way they spoke about and lived out their own communal life. If that imagination is again to be transformed, this will be the church’s primary contribution.

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