Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Church-State Tension

In an earlier post (of 6/16/06), I promised the reader more analysis of the tension between—not so much ‘separation’ of—Church and State.

In that post, I used the following metaphor to describe the tensional symbiosis between religion and politics in the modern West:

...this symbiosis is not simplistically a relationship between two unrelated spheres; it is rather the expression of their intimate kinship: Church and State are siblings, where the ‘younger brother’, as it were—viz., secularism—has turned the tables and changed the family dynamic such that he is now the head of the family.

Metaphors are intrinsically imperfect, and at some point in their use, a dissonance often appears between their nature and the reality to which they have been applied as an explanatory model. My ‘sibling’ metaphor was helpful for conveying the intimacy of relation between two things. However, there comes a point in this analysis where the paradox of the tension becomes more acute: with the Church-State dynamic in the modern West, we are not so much talking about two entities, as we are considering one entity that evinces the paradox of an internal relation. The hackneyed phrase “two sides of the same coin” is about the best locution we can employ; the only other idea that conveys the same thing is ‘schizophrenia’, and that has infelicitous connotations—though it is significant that the ‘Godfather’ of modern Muslim jihadism, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), denigrated the modern Western concept of separation of Church and State (which Qutb knew had roots in earlier Western tradition) as precisely ‘schizophrenic’: being a good Muslim who likes his truth fanatically purged of all paradox and doubt, Qutb likely was incapable of fathoming the paradoxical tension inherent to this ‘separation’.

So, the tension between Church and State (or, as I pointed out in the previous post, more accurately between religion and politics) in the modern West is a tensional dynamic that is a quality of a single entity: and that single entity is the West in its sociopolitico-spiritual dimension. Insofar as this sociopolitico-spiritual dimension affects all other levels of existence—from the technological, to the scientific, to the infrastructural, to the cultural, to the psychological—, we can say this tensional dynamic is an expression of the West itself.

Does this adjustment of our metaphor significantly alter the extension of that metaphor in our previous post? Let us see. In the quote above, we noted that the ‘younger brother’ (secularism—i.e., the State) has turned the tables and changed the family dynamic such that he is now the head of the family.

So far, we have not necessarily split the entity into two: we could merely be describing how the one entity underwent a change of orientation such that its ‘magnetic pole’ became switched.

Let us continue:

As ‘head of the family’, Secularism has, in the modern West, not demonstrated a tyrannical nature. Secularism in the modern West has, by and large, provided a ‘home’ for his sibling, Religion, where that sibling’s needs and freedoms are respected.

The language is beginning to veer towards a tonality of ‘schizophrenic’ or even a split into two, but even here we could be talking about a single entity that, after it has undergone remedial change, nevertheless continues to respect and find room for some of its former ways.

We continue further:

The major limitation imposed by the younger brother upon his elder—ever since their ‘father’—viz., the medieval Church—left the home (or was deposed, or died) has been the marginalization of his politico-legal power.

Here the metaphor begins to edge toward becoming cumbersome and even misleading. The tendency to personify the centrifugal forces in the paradox may invite reification of those forces. My penultimate thoughts in my former post attempted to redress this tendency:

When I write in #5 above that “politico-legal powers had to be taken away from Religion”, this should not be understood in the simple-minded terms that thinks there already existed an entity able to “take away” those powers at the time they were taken away; and that this “taking away” was a quick and simple act rather than a protracted process; and, finally, that there was some kind of a “place”, or domain, to where these powers could be readily relocated.

What I was trying to get at here, of course, was that we are not talking about multiple entities and contexts, but about a single entity undergoing multiple phases in a complex pattern of simultaneity and extrapolation. Why not, then, just consistently use language of one entity that is undergoing changes? This would simplify matters, and avoid paradox. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. The underlying, original template for the separation of Church and State is the eschatology that is central to the synthesis of Christendom: more specifically, the eschatological tension between ‘this life’ and the ‘next life’ (which can be formulated a variety of ways—including a tension between the imperfect Cosmos in History and the pleromatically transfigured Cosmos at the end of History) is at the heart of the tension between Church and State. Just as the tension between Church and State is not a static fact that has been known all along in one form, but is a dynamic process that has undergone various complex phases of development, so too eschatology is not a static fact: it too is a dynamic process that has undergone various complex phases of development.

In one sense, of course, the two entities denoted by ‘this life’ and the ‘next life’ (and all its equivalent formulations) are one entity: but in an important sense, or on another important level, they are indeed two entities. The law of transfiguration, and the reality of imperfection, demand that nothing short of paradoxical language can do the eschatological process justice. And since the tension between Church and State is, in effect, a socio-political eikon of that eschatological process, and since ‘the Church’ or ‘religion’ are not to be collapsed into secularism but are to be respected in their integrity as luminous for the eschatological directionality of transcendence—just as the saeculum is to be respected in its integrity as representing the context by which the process toward the eschaton (as well as its mysterious frustration) happens at all—, so the tension between religion and secularism must be rendered with paradoxical language to adequately express the inherent perplexity of the process.

There is a further twist or wrinkle to this paradox as it unfolds in history: religion increasingly becomes immanentized, and secularism increasingly becomes transcendentalized (or endowed with the role formerly the province of religion in orientation to transcendence). This process of convergence is both good and bad: it involves a dilution or ‘cheapening’ of each (or, at times, a dangerous intensification of one or the other); yet it also involves a mysterious, interesting and indefinitely progressive paradigm shift in the one entity of which they—‘religion’ and ‘secularism’—are vectors.

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