How might democratic politics be “a work of love”—and a crucial, if not necessary, practice of faith for Christians? At a moment when many despair of the viability, even the possibility, of democracy, theologian Luke Bretherton not only rises to its defense but raises its stakes. This much is clear from the title of his latest book, Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy. The work is both a drawing together of many strands from Bretherton’s prior work, and his clearest articulation yet of the character and content of Christian “political theology.” As he seeks to demonstrate, the latter cannot remain indifferent to democratic politics. For theological no less than historical and political reasons, the two are closely bound together.
In this programmatic sense, Christ and the Common Life is evidently a work of democratic theology. But it is also a book that aims to invite, perform, and embody the kind of democracy it advocates. As Bretherton understands it, “democratic politics”—as distinct from the governmental structures and electoral procedures with which it is often conflated—is a set of constitutive practices for weaving together a “common life,” and discerning “goods in common,” across many vectors of difference. Broad-based community organizing in the Alinsky tradition, the subject of Bretherton’s previous book Resurrecting Democracy, is an exemplary praxis of democratic politics in this sense. Democratic politics in general, like organizing in particular, aims to distribute political agency as widely as possible, and works to enable the formation of shared (though always fallible) judgments, the performance of shared action, and the conversion of possible enemies into friends (445). And this is just what Bretherton himself attempts to do via the avowedly “stitched together” character of his book (7). After an opening chapter that surveys the field and maps the features of “political theology,” he proceeds not by directly laying out his own account political vision, but by engaging and interrelating five distinct traditions of Christian political theology (some explicit, some “implicit”): humanitarianism, Black Power, Pentecostalism, Catholic social teaching, and Anglican political theology. (The third and fifth of these are traditions with which Bretherton himself confessionally identifies.) Having drawn these traditions into conversation, he then proceeds to analyze the characteristic challenges that confront any attempt to form a “common life,” and to provide the core conceptual frameworks requisite for undertaking that project. The book’s ensuing topical chapters focus on class division and worship; religious plurality and secularism; hospitality and moral disagreement; theological anthropology; economy; sovereignty and “statecraft”; peoplehood and “populism”; and, finally, “democratic politics” itself. All the while, Bretherton draws on a wide variety of disciplines, genres, and theoretical resources. Though the book’s persistent pluriformity can make it challenging, in any given moment, to grasp how the whole fits together, it is also what enables it to be at once “a collection of essays, a companion, and an introduction” to political theology (12). It is all those things, because it is itself a work of democratic politics, as Bretherton understands it.
But Christ and the Common Life is also, just as much, a work of ecclesial politics. For Bretherton’s provocative thesis that talk of God and talk of politics are “coemergent and mutually constitutive” has significant implications for the church, the body of all those who confess Christ’s lordship. The church itself, on his account, is constituted by human politics, even as the latter is always also inflected by the unexpected and uncontrollable activity of the Spirit—or its demonic parodies. (The Spirit’s activity within and without the church is a recurring theme, since Christ and the Common Life is also, to date, Bretherton’s most pneumatological work.) (Democratic) politics is no less necessary to weave together the “people of God” across its own diverse lines of tradition and social division than it is to weave together the “secular” body politic. Furthermore, the political and theological relations between “church” and “world” turn out to be far less obvious, and far more porous and dynamic, than many Christians and non-Christians might assume. Bretherton’s book is thus a summons for Christians to engage in democratic politics with others who include themselves. And, as companion and introduction, it aspires to provide the conceptual tools and the model to do so.
In the essays which follow, five contributors of diverse backgrounds, traditions, disciplines, and perspectives offer their own responses to Bretherton’s summons. Sarah Azaransky opens our symposium with an appreciative reading that highlights the close parallels between Sheldon Wolin’s approach to political theory and Bretherton’s account of political theology, whose character she describes (adopting one of Bretherton’s terms) as “consociational.” Sympathetic to Bretherton’s argument, and specifically its commitment to expanding and enabling political agency, she invites him into further dialogue about two issues central to her own current work, namely, the place of “motherwork” and of children in democratic politics. In his reply, Bretherton takes up her invitation wholeheartedly.
Gustavo Maya offers the next response, which focuses on the related themes of social practice, social relations, and practical reason. Using these concepts as his frame, Maya first draws out the theoretical and methodological moves that set Bretherton’s work apart from other approaches to political theology in valuable and constructive ways. Alongside the book’s emphasis on practical reason and social power, he finds particularly useful Bretherton’s treatment of the church/world relationship, which he contrasts with unduly ecclesiocentric construals thereof. At the same time, Maya also calls on Bretherton to address several substantive critical concerns. One regards the coherence of Bretherton’s account of the church/world distinction with his apparent “Augustinianism.” Others include his failure to treat the War on Terror, and the reality of American empire; the lack of definition in his account of “domination”; the apparent ambiguity inherent in his concept of “common life”; and the irresolvable uncertainty in which Bretherton appears to leave moral reasoning. Bretherton’s replies to Maya’s critiques, in turn, offer clarifications not only of his arguments in Christ and the Common Life, but of his larger political and theological project.
Lisa Sowle Cahill’s response, which follows Maya’s, draws in a different set of themes, this time of a more overtly theological kind. Like Maya, Cahill finds many elements of Bretherton’s political theology congenial, yet is left with significant unresolved concerns. While especially appreciative of Bretherton’s pneumatology, Cahill is less satisfied with his account of Catholic social teaching—her own tradition—and not wholly clear on the place Bretherton leaves for the state in political life. More fundamentally, however, Cahill is not convinced that Bretherton’s theology succeeds in coherently holding together the theological and historical reasons for hope in transformational social change, and the countervailing reasons for pessimism about it, that any viable political theology—and political praxis—must balance. At the same time, Cahill admits, the vexing challenge Bretherton faces in weaving these dimensions together convincingly is not unique to his project, but endemic to political theology itself. Bretherton’s reply to Cahill represents both a further attempt to face this challenge and a proposed revision to Cahill’s way of framing it. It also provides him an opportunity to draw out the specific Left political traditions with which his theological vision is in dialogue.
With Megan Black’s response, the terrain of conversation shifts still closer to the ground of political praxis. Black, herself an interfaith community organizer, finds in Christ and the Common Life a welcome stimulus to theopolitical imagination. Concerning the project of “democracy” in particular, she laments, participants in community organizing often evince either a skepticism or a distinct lack of imagination—a point Black illustrates all too well with an anecdote from her own experience. In Bretherton’s work, she discerns useful conceptual resources for addressing this problem, though she also identifies further challenges from the field which, in her judgment, he leaves unaddressed. Black’s essay creates a natural opening for discussing the place of “popular education” within community organizing, an opportunity Bretherton takes up in his response.
Finally, in his concluding essay, Nimi Wariboko expands the conversation—geographically, theologically, and politically. Wariboko engages Bretherton’s book from the vantage point of Nigerian Pentecostalism, his own theopolitical context, which contrasts, as he emphasizes, with Bretherton’s intentionally “Western” or “North Atlantic” center of gravity. Even while lauding Bretherton’s inclusive, dialogical, and pluralistic approach to political theology—a great improvement on many Euro-American works in the field—Wariboko contends that it betrays the limitations of its originating context by over-privileging order and failing to reckon adequately with chaos. Bretherton’s account of democracy, on Wariboko’s take, frames the task of politics as creating political order across difference. For Nigerian Pentecostals, on the other hand, as for many others in Africa, radical disorder—chaosmos, not cosmos—is the order of the day, and the reality with which both politics and theology must cope. How does this change in context transform the content of political theology? Among other things, Wariboko suggests, it necessarily expands the constitutive task of politics beyond the weaving together of commonality into the territory of emancipatory struggle. In his concluding reply, Bretherton responds to Wariboko’s challenge by reflecting on the relations between their contexts, between order and chaos, and between politics and violence.