A Feature Review of
Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2016.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by James Honig
Timing is everything. For the church of Christ trying to be faithful to their call to be salt and light in the middle of a particularly rancorous and strange presidential campaign, comes a new volume from William Cavanaugh, a theologian whose new work I always eagerly look forward to and who has been consistently helpful in my own understanding of how the church engages with the world. The title for his new volume comes from an image Pope Francis has used for the church, that the church needs to go near to the wounds of the world and engage the wounded with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this volume, Cavanaugh further explicates how he thinks that might happen.
The book is a collection of essays, nearly all of them previously published in a variety of academic journals. While Cavanaugh (or an astute editor) attempts to fashion the various essays into a reasonable narrative arc, they remain, in my judgment, a collection of relatively independent though related essays.
The work is divided into three parts, the first dealing with a critique of economic practice and theory. While culture tries to suggest that the economy is value neutral, Cavanaugh argues that that it is simply not. When I turn on the evening news to see the numbers of commercials directed at the investing American, listen to folks in the pews describing what they are afraid of, when I face my own insecurities about financial security, it’s clear that the idolatry of the economy very easily takes the place of the divine in our lives. In a particularly engaging chapter, he turns to an historical study of Westphalia, Iowa in the 1950s and how the local Catholic parish was instrumental in establishing an economy that was local and served the common good. While Cavanaugh has no pretensions that we can return to 1950s small town Iowa, he does suggest some thought-provoking implications for the role of the church in establishing and supporting economic practice. Also in this section is an essay that alone is worth the price of admission, “Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want (and It’s a Good Thing, Too).” Arguing that freedom involves the necessity of living within our limits and imperfections, “vocational discernment is not just a matter of choosing well enough, but of accepting the life you have. . .It may not be true that you can be anything you want to be, but you may find instead that you have become the person that God has called you to be, even if you would not have chosen your life out of all the possibilities.”
In the second section, Cavanaugh turns to comment on and critique of political theology, particularly when political theology is pulled apart from theology and the tradition of the church. Here he is most technical and most specialized as he engages in dialogue with several academic writers in the area of political theology, both those who espouse particular faith traditions and those who eschew such traditions. Here he is also most convincing in arguing one of the threads that runs throughout the work, that the separation between sacred and secular is artificial and can’t be maintained. The church as the body of Christ is simply unable to make such distinctions. More importantly, revisiting such a distinction is crucial to the church’s existence and mission in the world. In “Politics of Multiplicity: Augustine and Radical Democracy,” Cavanaugh facilitates a conversation between Augustine and political theologian Sheldon Wolin. While the two eventually diverge in their understanding for the goal of political society they both urge us to pay careful attention to the local, the level at which the church most effectively pays attention to and enacts the common good. The body of Christ incarnated in the world in the towns and neighborhoods where people live and work is the essential means through which God continues the work of redemption; that work of redemption will by definition divide the political order, even though there can be no division in the church between secular and sacred.
In the last section, Cavanaugh extends the argument he made in an earlier book, The Myth of Religious Violence. While contemporary culture particularly excoriates religious violence, Cavanaugh reminds us that violence in the modern world is based on idolatries of a wide variety, and there is nothing particularly special about religious violence. As he writes in the introduction to the essay, “Religious Violence as Modern Myth,” “people kill for all sorts of things that they treat as gods, including supposedly secular things like ‘freedom.’” Here he returns to that same theme that has permeated the entire work, that the diffraction of the religious and the secular is a false divide. Attaching the label “religious” to certain kinds of violence has drawn our attention away from other kinds of violence, namely secular, while the reality is the “people kill for all sorts of reasons.” Such a false distinction leads to the false conclusion that killing in the name of one’s religion is abhorrent, while killing in the name of the nation state is somehow proper.
It’s hard for me to imagine that Field Hospital is intended for anything but a narrow, specialized reader. A look at the list of the journals and publications in which these essays were originally published supports that notion. May of the essays assume competent understanding of a variety of political theology scholars whose works I am familiar with. For the scholar participating in this ongoing conversation, this volume of collected essays will be important. Having said that, I would suggest that clergy who keep a keen eye to how the church might be in the world, engage the world, and work on behalf of the poor, who seek to infiltrate the systems of the world for the sake of the reconciling work of God in Christ, careful reading of Cavanaugh’s essays will help further that engagement. I could imagine selected essays being read by clergy groups of like-minded, socially involved pastors who might be able to take the implications of Cavanaugh’s careful, nuanced, and incisive writing and apply them to their own work in the world.
“In the United States the church’s political imagination is often limited to throwing its dwindling weight behind Democratic or Republican initiative, in pursuit of a liberal or conservative legislative agenda. Absent is any deeper critique of social, political, and economic institutions, and the attempt to enact new and more humane types of social, political and economic practices.” This is precisely what Cavanaugh does, and it in doing so, provides both thought-provoking possibilities and guidance for what such enactments might look like.