Politicizing Religion: Cavanaugh, Lévinas and Lonergan in Dialogue

With Matthew Eaton and Nick Olkovich I published an article in Didaskalia. Download preprint version.

We also presented a version of this paper at the 2015 annual meeting of the Canadian Theological Society.


Noted political theologian William Cavanaugh’s work challenges the modern compartmentalization of religion and politics and advocates a greater role for the church in post-secular public life. Critics of his genealogical and ecclesiological agenda argue that Cavanaugh’s work harbours an illiberal understanding of politics and a triumphalist view of the church. In this essay we collectively explore this tension by contrasting these two aspects of Cavanaugh’s writings – the critical and the constructive – with the work of two different scholars: Lithuanian-French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, and Canadian Catholic philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan. Michael Buttrey summarizes Cavanaugh’s critique of the modern concept of religion as a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon in The Myth of Religious Violence, connecting Cavanaugh’s critique to his efforts in Migrations of the Holy to free the church from captivity to the secular imagination of modernity. Drawing upon Lévinas’ ethics and political philosophy, Matthew Eaton suggests that violence in the political order exists regardless of who holds power, as politics and ethics are fundamentally irreconcilable notions. While justice may be achieved in a limited sense, Lévinas questions whether it is possible to discuss politics under the heading of ethics. While appreciative of certain aspects of Cavanaugh’s critique of modernity, Nicholas Olkovich argues that Cavanaugh’s genealogical propensities lead, in the limit case, to anthropological and soteriological positions that are in tension with Catholic teaching on natural law and the universality of God’s grace. Olkovich appeals to the transcultural dimensions of human knowing, choosing and religious experiencing that lie at the center of Lonergan’s transposition of Aquinas’ notions of nature and grace to offer an alternative reading of the relationship between the church and liberal democracy. Our extended discussion will close with a response by Buttrey to Eaton and Olkovich’s critiques.