The Church and the Kingdom

Giorgio Agamben is one of my favorite continental philosophers. He has written on a wide range of subjects, from poetry to politics to theology, and I have used his well-known (in academic circles, anyway) book Homo Sacer extensively in my own work. In preparing to revise an article of mine, I came across a translation of a speech he gave in Paris in 2009, before the Bishop of the Catholic Church and other parishioners there. I wanted to share it because if there is any enchantment left for me in Christianity, it comes from readings like this. Agamben and some others (Zizek, for example, and sometimes the theologian Peter Rollins) provide a reading of Christianity that renders it a thing of such beauty that it can almost compel me despite myself. Agamben’s “The Church and the Kingdom” is an example of this, a brief text that is pregnant with meaning.

He begins by referring to the Church as “sojourners,” temporary residents in a foreign land. The idea of sojourning is well understood, but enacted in two possible ways. The first and most common is based on an understanding of Christ’s return as delayed; He didn’t come back when we thought, so we wait patiently for his return, knowing that this is not our true home. This is the way Christianity is often explored historically, and the way I often think of the process by which the apostles started church communities.

The second way is much harder to describe. It is “messianic time,” and it entails not the end of time, but the “time of the end.” Agamben explains, “The time of the messiah cannot designate a chronological period or duration but, instead, must represent nothing less than a qualitative change in how time is experienced.” He continues, “What is messianic is not the end of time but the relation of every moment, every kairos, to the end of time and to eternity.”

Agamben is arguing that the church has largely taken up this first conception of time, one in which it sets up shop and secures a dominant place in the world while waiting for Christ to return. He is speaking, obviously to the situation of the church in Europe, which  is different than the American situation. Agamben alleges the church has abandoned eschatology (a conception of the end times, for Agamben in the sense of living out messianic time) for worldly affairs. One could argue that segments of the American church have done the opposite, abandoning the present and pinning their hopes on the end times. Either way is a misunderstanding of the messianic time Agamben is promoting. He argues, “The ultimate reality deactivates, suspends and transforms, the penultimate ones-and yet, it is precisely, and above all, in these penultimate realities that an ultimate reality bears witness and is put to the test.”

So the only way that the Church can and should live is in history, in time, and the only way it can live in history is in tension between State and Church, between what he calls law and Messiah. I would juxtapose it in a more familiar form, between law and Spirit, enforcement of the rule and suspension of the rule. Neither can be neglected for community, which is what the Church is, to thrive. Because the Church has neglected this, Agamben continues, secular communities have taken up facsimiles of messianic time, called states of exception. He has written multiple books on this idea, so it’s hard to explain in a few sentences, but the state of exception involves a rhetorical affirmation of the norm with a practice of its transgression. The best example might be the permanent state of war the US had been in since 9/11 with the judicial exceptions that allows in contrast with the implied norm of world peace.

Agamben is suggesting that these are examples, albeit degraded ones, of the messianic time the church is to practice, in which societal norms of class, race, and economy are suspended, but in a positive rather than negative form. He ends with the somewhat apocalyptic warning that if the church does not recover its position as an enactment of community in messianic time, it may be wiped off the earth entirely, a problem that seems more feasible in Europe than the US.

I do have difficulties with Agamben’s argument. He is a theorist, and deals with history only on an abstract level. A critic of an article I wrote about early Christianity using Agamben implied that Agamben shouldn’t speak to Christianity at all because he is ill informed about its origins. While I don’t think this is the case, Agamben’s reading raises many questions. A primary one, one also raised by his book on Paul’s letter to the Romans, The Time That Remains, is how Paul can have this theological understanding of Christianity in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death. How (outside a theological explanation) did Paul go from the physicality of death to the inauguration of a messianic time? I realize this calls into question some of the recent posts I made on interpretation; namely, that the author does not have control over the interpretation. This means of course that Agamben can read the text however he likes, no matter what Paul thought. But because he juxtaposes two understandings of the time of the church, and implies that Paul intended messianic time, it is hard for me not to believe this is the more idealistic reading. Agamben also criticizes readings by Dostoevsky and others who critiqued the church for hindering the Messiah’s return, but it not clear how these indictments are substantially different from the one he is making against the church. He suggests that the answer is not radicalism, which would have the Church abandon the world, but a full commitment to history. This, in my view, leaves significant room for criticism.

Despite my critiques, though, the text is beautiful largely because it does not delve into the thorny practical minutia of how to live out the tension between law and Spirit. What it does give, in my mind, is a critique of trying to resolve the tension of living in the world. Successful resolution of this tension is abandoning community, which resides in the matrix of law and Spirit, between rules and any hope for something better. This is a difficult balance, and one that history has shown Christianity not managed well. I am not convinced that a Christian conception of this balance should be the prime model from which to forge community, but I understand the social familiarity it has that makes a strong contender for the role.

This short piece is an excellent introduction to Agamben’s corpus, as it contains summaries of many of the themes he treats elsewhere at greater length. I’d highly recommend you read it (with a little help from Google Translate, unless you read Italian). Or get the book, which has some compelling artwork to go with it. Then, let me know your thoughts. What is your reading of this piece? I’ll get back on topic tomorrow.

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