Global Christianity, Global Critique:

Culture, nature, and mediation

posted by John Milbank

Matthew Engelke is right: religion is about mediation. Ironically so, because it is about the divine; but because the divine is never directly available, religion must instead be about how the divine is indirectly manifest. Thus, as Régis Debray has shown in his God: an Itinerary, monotheism, which is apparently the most other-worldly and non-mediated of creeds, has had to identify itself in concrete terms, which may bizarrely include preference for some landscapes over others, or for association with some animals over others.

Because religion is about mediation, it naturally refuses any duality of nature and culture. Reality, as the true nature of things, is sacred, but it must be mediated by particular human relations and practices. Culture, therefore, can be neither merely arbitrary nor totally opposed to nature, since it is what truly discloses the latter. Since all, or nearly all, human cultures have been religious, it is therefore unsurprising that, as Marshall Sahlins has pointed out in The Western Illusion of Human Nature, they do not recognize a nature/culture divide. Instead, they define themselves in groups of kinship with other natural beings and with the gods, animals being typically defined as types of human, not humans as types of animals.

Sahlins rightly sees the divide as pernicious and as of Greek origin, but he does not make it clear that it is a specifically secular divide. He slightly obfuscates this point by tracing it to the duality of Greek cosmogonic myths, with their stories of battles between chaotic titans and more rational deities. But this duality can be paralleled in many, if not most, cultures—the great exception being the Hebraic one. In the Greek case, as in others, it depicts merely a duality within nature, not between nature and culture. It only becomes the latter after the rationalization of myth, when the “Titans” have been allegorized into warring natural forces, and the gods, demythologized as projections of human law-making capacities. After that we get the legacy that Sahlins traces with such devastating accuracy: nature seen as determining human beings as egotistical; this egotism being something that must be either oligarchically controlled or else democratically and capitalistically manipulated, or, yet again, in the Rousseauian inversion, seen as the source of an asocial innocence. But in all these cases, culture, whether regarded as the remedy, conduit, or problem, is seen as something inherently non-natural, as pure artificial contrivance.

This peculiar Western legacy has a naturally universalizing thrust. All nature is one, because it is the site of laws of struggle, or, in the minority report, of isolated integrity. And all culture is also one, because every culture is equally arbitrary. Most typically, the universal culture is seen as the one that channels the universal laws of natural egotism: the culture of bureaucracy, utility, human rights, representative democracy, and the capitalist market.

In this light, one would have to regard the Western globalization of the planet as a secular phenomenon. It stands in contrast with most societies, which are religious, and which know of no division whatsoever between culture and nature. By this token, they tend to be local, because they invest with ultimate, sacred significance the surrounding features of their landscapes, both natural and cultural—and they link the two together. Tokens of these features are exchanged as gifts, and it is this exchange that constitutes society as such.

These societies were disrupted and violated by the arrival of the West. Its vehicles of violation were the capitalist market, which desacralizes both place and gift and turns them into commodities, and the sovereign national state, which is an inherently anarchic reality, no longer subordinate to the international authority of Pope and Holy Roman Emperor. The West’s creation of empire is at once a manifestation of its own anarchy and a slight restraint of the yet more extreme anarchy of the international market. In its relationships with other nation-states, it once more seeks to distill order out of disorder through agonistic balance and Grotian rules for international combat.

But is this really all that has been going on since the dawn of the modern imperial age? If a nature/culture divide is self-delusion, then how can a polity based upon this illusion really operate? Here one needs to discuss the possibility that Christianity is the joker in the Western pack. The white man brought not only guns and money but also bibles and crucifixes. The latter were shamefully used to justify the former, as we know all too well, but was there not also always a structurally inherent limit to the possibility of that process?

What I mean by this is that religion is not necessarily just “secondary” in the modern story of empire and globalization. The “British School” of International Relations, and most notably Hedley Bull in his The Anarchic Society, long ago argued against the “American Realists” that, in reality, the “anarchic” nation-states system worked at all only because of hidden cultural factors operating at a transpolitical and transeconomic level. And amongst these factors, religion necessarily looms large. One can add to this analysis that, as Benno Teshke has shown, even in the eighteenth century, dynastic unity continued to help hold Europe together, while, in the nineteenth, essentially religious alliances performed the same purpose. At least at the outset of the twentieth, the same was true of the European Common Market (now the European Union).

In fact, most experts on IR agree that the crucial influence of religion has never really gone away, especially in the international sphere, because of its unique ability to traverse borders.

In this respect, not just Christianity, but all world religions are “jokers,” because they seek universal relevance, or even universal sway, without investing in a strong duality of nature and culture, which no religion can really sustain. Rather, they seek to insinuate one universal culture that will organize the earth as one specific sacral domain. However, it is arguable that Christianity is uniquely able to combine this with a greater global fluidity: its specific markers are both more mobile and more translatable. It orders no specific laws or sets of unalterable customs. The gifts it proposes to exchange may possess almost any content, for what renders them sacred is their binding gift-character as such. Yet, what is sought through this exchange is not an abstract organization of supposedly “natural” forces, but rather a network of specific bindings of humans to place and of human-place to human-place.

Sahlins himself recognizes that, in the main, the Western religious legacy rejects the nature/culture duality inasmuch as he mentions both that for Plato, psyche determines human existence more than phusis, and that for Augustine, humanity is defined by kinship. This case is augmented if one realizes, unlike Sahlins, that the doctrine of original sin does not augment the idea that there is something evil “by nature.” For clearly it is the most radical possible denial of this very common human view.

The “missionary project” is therefore also in tension, as well as collusion, with the imperio-capitalist project. It seeks to weave one culture out of many, in order to manifest true human nature. In this respect, one can note that Sahlins is vague about how to overcome the nature/culture divide, both metaphysically and politically—if, that is, one seeks to escape the merely local level and its inevitable substitution of an us/them dichotomy for a human/animal one.

Metaphysically, to say that our nature is to be variously cultural still leaves culture arbitrary and in implicit contrast with nature—albeit an impossible nature. Only if there are cultural idioms that are “supposed to be” in some ways hierarchically preferable to others, belonging to our very teleology, can they be said truly to belong to our nature. This requires an invocation of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, which uniquely disacknowledges any ontological region of chaos, and which sees nature ‘as “contrived” and human culture as part of a divine, and so natural, “contrivance.” It is for these reasons that it is only the Hebrew/Greek-derived monotheisms that offer any prospect of overcoming the nature/culture divide on a global scale.

Politically, Sahlins is acute in assaulting ancient Greek isonomia as either monarchic/aristocratic imposition upon chaos or else democratic recruitment of natural agonism. But might not this suggest that “mixed government” is the natural mode of natural-cultural unity, since it involves both the aristocratic “proposal” of a culture and the popular adaptive assent to this proposal, which sediments it as natural? If indeed Mauss was right to say that gift-exchange composes the social fact before either law or contract, then one can see how such “mixed government” is always more basic than the former. For if all social formation begins with a gratuitous gesture—a “proposal”—then this is neither consented to nor merely imposed. It is rather “received” and “reciprocated,” or not. One can think of this reception and reciprocity as “democratic”—yet there would be nothing for democracy to agree to were there not the prior moment of “aristocratic” and time-derived “traditional” offering, which necessarily escapes all liberal theorizing, even though this moment is supremely “liberal” in the etymological sense.

It is arguable that workable and just politics and economics should try to ensure that the state and the market remain predominantly “social” in just this mixed sense. Indeed, this may be what the new, anti-neoliberal politics of “the primacy of the social,” as in the case of Saul Alinsky’s “citizens organizing” (now very important in London, for example), are all about. For, to the horror of both left and right, they usually involve entirely “self-appointed” political forces, answerable to no one, who nonetheless achieve a local political footing through popular acclaim and pragmatic success.

The example of mixed government that Sahlins gives is viewed negatively. But that is because it is John Adams’s view of the U.S. constitution, and Adams saw the latter (accurately) as an attempt at balancing class forces. One should view this, however, as a perversion of both the British and the Harringtonian Republican constitutional legacies (which were far better adhered to by Thomas Jefferson). For this more genuine organicism, the “oligarchic” component has to do with sustaining a tradition of wise senatorial “proposers” not concerned with the manipulation of votes, while the “monarchic” element has to do with final non-negotiability of equity and the need for justice in response to arising emergencies. It is arguable that it is the British (but also the Scandinavian, the Swiss, and the Italian civic) adherence to such classical mixture that has provided us today with a long-term legacy of stable constitutionalism, of which one has to regard the United States as an excessively revolutionary—indeed, “Marxist” and bastardized—version, which has led to a peculiarly economistic and tyrannical mode of imperialism. By contrast, it might be remarked that the “archaism” of modern political Britain and the relative “modernity” of medieval political Britain are not in opposition, but are rather signs of the stability of mixture and its guarantee, at least until recently, of a relatively greater measure of liberty and justice. (This may be true even if the “relatively greater” is a pitifully small amount. One should note here also that the same set of observations apply to modern France, though to a lesser degree.)

Therefore, I would argue that still at work, albeit faintly, in the Western global hegemony are the counter-currents both of Christian religion and of a classical “mixed” politics of virtue, and that only these counter-currents can avoid falling prey to xenophobic localism, on the one hand, or to capitalist imperialism, on the other.

But how, in this context, is one to assess the current renewed global spread of the Christian religion? What is one to make, in particular, of the new dominance of Pentecostalism? Here, I fear, my views are less sanguine than those of most of the contributors to Global Christianity, Global Critique. It is true, as remarked in this volume, that Pentecostalism can be regarded as the most successful worldwide movement for the improvement of working people. And here the left has much to learn from its almost total neglect of the way in which cultural liberalism (drugs, sexual permissiveness, etc.) has combined with economic liberalism to drag so many poor people into conditions of abjection. Liberation theology tried to address economic liberalism and got nowhere, because ordinary people could do little about this. Charismatic religion tried to address cultural liberalism and got somewhere, because ordinary people could do something about that. A life of increased self-discipline indeed spells liberation for many, even though this should not imply a forgetting of the structural factors leading to inequity.

However, Pentecostalism has by and large endorsed the capitalist market and the gospel of success, even if it has also developed many compensating voluntary welfare ventures, which should by no means be despised. Yet Charismatic Christians simply are not Badiouian Maoists in exotic tropical disguise. Matthew Engelke is far more on the right track when he notes that they have tended to combine religious ecstasy with a very worldly and “situational” (in Badiouian terms) preoccupation with numbers and statistics.

But the really important question is, how do they relate to the question of mediation? Protestantism has tended to track the modern secular refusal of mediation, which divides culture from nature, by a non-mediated religion. Here we are compensated for a sacramentally drained world by a direct contact with the divine.

Is Pentecostalism in continuity with this? In some ways, yes, as some contributors point out: it can be seen as a lust for an ecstatic, unmediated contact with God. But in other ways, no. Catherine Pickstock mentions that its allowance of post-apostolic miracles removes a pillar of the magisterial reformation. And by refusing Protestant sobriety, it also embraces new modes of supposedly spontaneous, flamboyant ritual, which soon become routine. One is tempted, of course, to say that it is the one possible Latin mode of Protestantism. What I think can be argued is that by increasing the emotive and collectively effervescent dimension, the public ethical conscience of Protestantism that got rid of slavery and sometimes supported modes of socialism is downplayed. Pentecostalism, after all, commenced as an evolution from ethical “holiness” to emotional ecstasy, in terms of the manifestation of the signs of the spirit. Through this move, the world of the market is left still more drained of any spiritual resonance other than as proof of spiritual favor. On the other hand, religion becomes more of a compensating refuge from the bleak meaninglessness of this world, with its “labyrinth of solitude.”

This is not to say that charismatic religion is not redeemable. But Jamie Smith is right: it needs to be Catholicized. One could even say that it has recaptured one half of genuine liturgy—namely, spontaneity—because, as Catherine Pickstock has shown, the idea of a strictly “fixed” liturgy is not medieval. But we need the other half, too—the aesthetic half, which is the dimension of non-identical repetition. Only a complete liturgy can then start to pervade and to challenge all the structures of modern life, and to mediate through all of global culture the natural and the divine.

In my own experience, it is already the case that when southern Protestant Christians begin to receive a theological education, they start with astonishing speed to join in global conversations of Western origin. The coming together of southern numbers and Western intensity of intellectual religious revival may well serve to promote much further in future the counter-currents that lie nonetheless at the heart of contemporary globalization.

If anything will undo the neoliberal “reign of non-mediation,” it is the Christian project of universal gift-exchange, the subordination of the economic and the political to the social, and the renewal of a polity of mixed-government on a world-scale.

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One Response to “Culture, nature, and mediation”

  1. avatar Evan says:

    I have some problems.

    I’m a good protestant and so think that an unmediated relation to the divine is available. As the author points out this is also offered in Pentecostal religion. So is this not a religion? This just seems confused.

    Why lack of mediation doesn’t lead to a duality of nature and culture is quite beyond me. Some faiths talk of the delusion of appearance (presumably this includes the natural), new age ideas can be extraordinarily hostile to our sensory representations. Why shouldn’t a lack of mediation lead to a closer unity? I simply don’t see how this follows.

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