How to link the parts to the whole or to make sense of the local without losing sight of the universal?  Such questions drive Chad Pecknold’s Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History, and might even define Christianity’s historical relationship with politics.  However, Pecknold’s argument has far more to it than simply presenting a story of relationships between vying poles of Church and politics, King or Pope, Luther or Machiavelli, Calvin or Hobbes and so on.  The real issue, as Pecknold convincingly argues, is one of migrations, of shifting allegiances between true, substantive bonds of community to modern manipulations of mass consent brokered by nation states.

“Where the old medieval societal structure had emerged organically within the church-society, now that human beings had been detached from those structures, new frameworks were needed to unite people into meaningful communities once more.  The idea of the nation-state was not an adequate framework in itself; it had to appeal to ideals, principles, and natural truths” (122).  According to Pecknold, these ideals were inherently theological and can be traced to a specific theological notion: the corpus mysticum.

Pecknold points out that Sheldon Wolin made this argument in the 2nd edition of his Politics and Vision.  Corpus mysticum, rather than simply being an insular theological debate first raised by Henri de Lubac, should now be regarded as the founding logic of liberalism and the nation state (128).  Once the individual conscience is sundered from the community, society and the whole, how could the newly formed states corral these discrete, atomized individuals?  Quoting Wolin, Pecknold writes that “the only way to ‘exteriorize’ the conscience now, and thus make it genuinely collective, was to look for political arrangements that could protect what ‘a growingly secular society most treasured; namely, wealth and status, or more briefly, ‘interest’” (129).  And this is what is so dangerous about the mysticism of liberalism for both Wolin, de Lubac and Pecknold: it is a power that has “stripped human beings of their political nature,” and reduced them to to questions of economics and property (139, 129).

In order to return to a true sense of politics and democracy then, which is a politics that can make sense of the human as such, politics must recover the vision of the radically local, according to Wolin (134).  About this plea for localism, Pecknold writes that “what begins to emerge from such a vision is, at least in theory, like the kind of local attachments we once had in medieval Christendom.”  Yet Pecknold probes further, asking how are we to make sense of the local or what to make of “the organic or supernatural unity that gathers people together as a whole” (135)? This isn’t a speculative question, as Pecknold makes clear: where does such thinking “leave American democratic visions of e pluribus unum, or other ways of imagining human solidarity such as those which transcend local or even national boundaries?” (136).  Will the radically local save us?

For Pecknold, real politics – real substantive bonds of community – happens when the local remains within the framework of the whole; more specifically, when the local is framed by the telos of the common destiny of humankind.  This vision is offered by de Lubac.  As Pecknold writes:

“de Lubac imagined a ‘mystical body politics’ that was more inclusive, more humanizing, and ultimately more social than the isolating politics of the modern, liberal state.  While Wolin cannot imagine, as de Lubac could, a ‘common destiny’ for the world in the true body of Christ, he did learn from de Lubac a crucial political insight.  He learned that the nationalist mystique, and its totalitarian tendencies, is but a distorted reflection of the corpus mysticum” (139).

For Christianity, “Mystical body politics” is not simply an ideal, but a concrete material practice.  And this is why, Pecknold writes, that “from de Lubac’s point of view, only a concrete, visible church can save us – one that finds a true, universal communion precisely in the local celebration of the Eucharist.  The church catholic is local and democratic in worship, but it is precisely in worship that it is also beyond the local and democratic – it is universal and even hierarchical” (138).

This is an incredibly bold and refreshing claim to make about politics and the Eucharist, and one that is becoming more and more difficult to counter as the liberal bulwarks of market and state continue to crumble at an alarming rate.  Pecknold calls us to rethink politics as politics; to think in terms of substantive bonds of community that can make sense of what is most local yet paradoxically most universal.  For Christians, this is nothing less than the concrete material, yet still ultimately mystical, practice of the Eucharist.

So how to recover and so enact this sense of “mystical body politics?”  Pecknold addresses this in his concluding chapter.  More to come.

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