Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Featured: Migrations of the Holy – William Cavanaugh [Vol. 4, #9]

“Practices that Resist the Colonization
of the Christian Imagination

A review of

Migrations of the Holy:
God, State and the Political Meaning of the Church.

By William Cavanaugh.

Review by Micah Weedman.

[ Read an Excerpt of this book here… ]

Migrations of the Holy - William CavanaughMigrations of the Holy:
God, State and the Political Meaning of the Church.

William Cavanaugh.
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2011.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

When I was in seminary, I made it a point to carry with me my copy of William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist whenever  I could.  I can’t say for sure, of course, what my classmates made of this, if anything.  But I liked to think it gave me a certain seriousness.  The cover of the book alone—that stark, black border with the even starker picture in the middle and the simple but distressing title—seem to signal that the study of theology, or church, or even ministry wasn’t safe anymore.  Cavanaugh’s work, of course, merits serious devotion, though toting his books around isn’t necessary.  That it merits such devotion on the part of so many readers has to do with, I suspect, the reality that the truth of what he says renders so many of our inherited convictions about church, state and politics not just wrong, or upended, but unsafe.

In Cavanaugh’s newest book, Migrations of the Holy: God, State and the Political Meaning of the Church,  the author continues his previous work of exploring—and in most cases, exploding—the myths that we tend to associate with the role of the state, the mission of the church, and how these things relate to our understanding of God.  While it lacks the raw depth of Torture and Eucharist, the powerful coherence of Theopolitical Imagination or the accessibility of Being Consumed, the book presents a collection of previously-published essays that, when grouped together, take Cavanaugh’s work further than it’s gone before.

In this review, I will offer a basic synopsis of Cavanaugh’s thesis, though without reviewing each essay.  I’ll note how this book continues Cavanaugh’s earlier efforts to define the space of the church, and point towards ways in which these essays (or some of them) move in directions that Cavanaugh’s work has yet to go.  As a conclusion, I’ll offer some brief thoughts on the significance of this work, at this time.

By Cavanaugh’s own account, this book “[points] to practices that resist the colonization of the Christian imagination by a nation-state that wants to subordinate all other attachments to itself.”  This has been the heart of Cavanaugh’s work from the beginning, and nearly all of his work follows a predictable but important pattern of dealing, both historically and theologically, with the rise and function of our convictions about the nation-state, followed by deep theological scholarship and constructive work about the “complex space” the church necessarily must inhabit.

This book follows a similar pattern—the first chapters detail the “pathologies” of the nation-state, with some focused attention on the United States, while the last half of the essays deal with constructive notions of church.  As is to be expected, Cavanaugh shows that he is an able reader of a variety of texts, moving in and out works of secular theorists, contemporary political theology, and key figures from the patristic age.

In Cavanaugh’s world, the rise of the state (and our most commonly held convictions about it) are always bound up in paradox.  On the one hand, we expect certain things of the state—protection of our individual rights, for example, as well as encouraging the common good—while on the other hand, we recognize, or sometimes don’t, that in order for the state itself to survive, we must give up some of these very things.  Cavanaugh is clear: this is not a mere instance of compromise for the greater good, but rather indicative of a false understanding of what the state is capable of doing.  In “Killing for the Telephone Company,” Cavanaugh argues that, in order to define and protect the individual, the state ultimately absorbs all other social arrangements—civil society, the nation-state as such, and even the process of globalization.  All of these ultimately fall into service to the state, and (following Macintyre) the state is unable to reciprocate to protect the common good.

Following this deconstruction of the state, Cavanaugh challenges contemporary and even commonplace metaphors for existence in the state—using Augustine to critique both secular notions of the state as well as contemporary political theologies, which are “often distorted by treating certain contingent realities as givens.  Sin and violence are treated as the way things are, at least for now; the not yet is detemporalized into a constant feature of life on earth.” (From One City to Two, 65).  Without doing a disservice to the depth and nuance of Cavanaugh’s work, perhaps this gets at his primary thesis. The state becomes our savior, in large part because it has taught us and formed us to think we need it to save us.  For Cavanaugh, this has dramatic theological implications, because of course this a mythology about ultimate reality—the state of humanity, the future of the world, the vocation of our work.

Lest readers think this sounds too far-fetched, Cavanaugh offers both detailed history of American exceptionalism as well as a powerful theological reading of the “liturgy of the state,” which is not secular.

If the first part of Cavanaugh’s thesis is that the state is not simply there, to be taken as a given, but rather existing in a complex and theological space that challenges the core of Christian conviction, then  the conclusion to this thesis is that the church is equipped to withstand the challenges of the church, but only with a re-ordering of metaphors, practices and theologies.   For example, Cavanaugh compares metaphors of movement and stability in both our current state—migrant and consumer—and within the space of the church—pilgrim and monk.   Cavanaugh explores how confession and repentance—core Christian practices—regarding the sins of the Inquisition allow for Christians to challenge the state’s standard justifications of the use of torture.

Several essays get at something that feels like new ground in Cavanaugh’s work—unity in the church.  There’s no way a review of this length and breadth could do justice to the complexity of what Cavanaugh is beginning to develop, but some mention is necessary.  According to Cavanaugh, the state imagines it’s own unity—in fact, it absorbs and makes impossible localized unities in an effort to create it’s national unity (as well as enacting it’s own liturgy).  Therefore, the church needs to be able to understand its own unity—which is transnational as well as across time—in order to resist the myths of national unity.  This necessitates not just the usual re-hashing of ‘church as polis,’ but also complicated thought about the presence of sin in the church, the role of the church in or as God’s mission, and ultimately, the relationship between ecclesiology—Cavanaugh style—and Christology.

It is this turn towards unity and Christology that represents the new directions this book takes longtime readers of Cavanaugh.  It’s not, of course, that traces and discussions of these topics can’t be found in his earlier work (his work on excommunication, for example, is essentially about unity).  But here we have a full move towards something—a constructive and historical Christology born from sustained and complex reflection on the intersections of church and world.

Given recent critiques of the work of Stanley Hauerwas (and Cavanaugh quite clearly operates in a Hauerwasian mode)  it’s this turn to unity and Christology that will and should get the most attention.  Cavanaugh’s essays about sinfulness and vulnerability (the latter of which is Cavanaugh directly reading Hauerwas) offer a vision of the church that accounts for both the presence of sin while still taking seriously the biblical notion that this church—sin and all—can and must be understood as the body of Christ, broken for the world.

I’ll end with one quick, practical note.  I’ve purchased three books previously written or edited by Cavanaugh, and I’ve paid out the nose for each one (I’m actually ashamed to admit I paid the full, three digit price for the Blackwell’s Companion to Political Theology, though it’s turned out to be worth it).  So, I was pleased to find that the price point of this book is less than $20.  Astute readers (and poor graduate students) will not need to be told that nearly every essay in the book has been previously published, and is available with a quick Google search.  And yet, the collection is hardly random.  The material, the timing of the issues the essays tackle, and of course the moves Cavanaugh make from one essay to the next make this more than a simple anthology.  Cavanaugh succeeds at describing the migrations of the holy—from the things of the church to the things of the state—and how we might begin imagining their pilgrimage back home.


Micah Weedman is Director of Outreach at Belmont University in Nashville.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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