Tag Archives: William T. Cavanaugh

Upcoming Conference: Nurturing the Prophetic Imagination

On March 24-26, Point Loma Nazarene University will be hosting a four-day, interdisciplinary conference entitled: Nurturing the Prophetic Imagination. This promises to be an exciting and stimulating event, drawing a diverse and distinguished ensemble of plenary speakers (not to mention something like 70 additional session papers). Particularly noteworthy is the panel session wherein Nate Kerr, Rosco Williamson, and William T. Cavanaugh will discuss Cavanaugh’s new book, The Myth of Religious Violence

Plenary Speakers

  • Bill McKibben Christian environmental activist, scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and author of Deep Economy; The End of Nature; Hope: Human & Wild , and The Age of Missing Information.
  • Kathleen Norris — A Poet and Essayist, Norris is author of Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life; Dakota: A Spiritual Geography; Cloister Walk; Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith and The Virgin of Bennington.
  • Michael Eric Dyson — A Sociologist and Theologian  from Georgetown University, Dyson’s newest book April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How it Changed America, joins his others: Can You Hear Me Now?; Come Hell or Highwater: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster; Holler if You Hear Me.  
  • Emmanuel Katongole — Theologian and priest, associate professor of theology and world Christianity and co-director of the Center of Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, Katongole is author of A Future for Africa: Critical Essays in Christian Social Imagination; Beyond Universal Reason; and African Theology Today.

Special Guests

  • Joining us will be Dr. William T. Cavanaugh, a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN) who will be hosting a special conference session to review his most recent book, The Myth of Religious Violence. He is also the author of Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (1998); Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (2008).
  • Dr. Ron Benefiel is the president for Nazarene Theological Seminary (Kansas City, MO). Trained as a sociologist, he is also an ordained minister who has pastored churches in a variety of urban settings. He is author of A Theology of Place: Ministry in Transitional Communities (1996).

A revised and comprehensive conference schedule can be accessed here.


The Myth of Religous Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

The Myth of Religous Violence - Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

After a long period of research, public debate, and several highly insightful article publications, William Cavanaugh is finally putting to print his work on the mythos of religious violence and the agressive rise of the nation-state. For over 15 years, Cavanaugh has written on and off on this topic. Perhaps most well known remain: ‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the StateKilling for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good, and Sins of Omission: What ‘Religion and Violence’ Arguments Ignore. According to Amazon, Cavanaugh’s new book is currently scheduled to be released this September.

It appears that Cavanaugh will be presenting a more nuanced engagement with the various themes raised by these (and other) earlier interventions. Put briefly, in his essay for the Radical Orthodoxy reader, Cavanaugh argues that “The soteriology of the modern state is incomprehensible [. . .] apart from the notion that the Church is perhaps the primary thing from which the modern state is meant to save us.” The so-called ‘Wars of Religion’ of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe acted as a key epoch in the larger mythos that gave rise to the creation of the state itself.

According to this standard narrative account:

“When the religious consensus of civil society was shattered by the Reformation, the passions excited by religion as such were loosed, and Catholics and the newly minted Protestants began killing each other in the name of doctrinal loyalties. [. . .] The modern secular state and the privatizations of religion were necessary, therefore, to keep the peace among warring religious factions” (“The City”, p. 188).

In response, Cavanaugh suggests

“The ‘Wars of Religion’ were not the events which necessitated the birth of the modern State; they were in fact themselves the birth-pangs of the State. These wars were not simply a matter of conflict between ‘Protestantism’ and ‘Catholicism,’ but were fought largely for the aggrandizement of the emerging State over the decaying remnants of the medieval ecclesial order” (“A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House”, p. 398).  

Therefore, in justifying the existence of the state based on this mythology, the social contract theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) fully endorsed and perpetuated the notion that it is necessary to (1) restore humanity to individuality, and (2) protect the individual from the violence of intolerant religion, personified concretely in the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, the state is supposed to save us from a violence that resulted from the process of its own formation.

Cavanaugh contends that the privatization of Christian practice was already well underway in the invention of the modern category of “religion” itself. In the Christian tradition of the Medieval Ages, religio was viewed not as a system of beliefs, but as virtue, one which  directs a person to God through the ethical and liturgical formation of members into the Church. However, in modernity religio was bifurcated from its ecclesial context and was slowly redefined: first as an internal universal impulse common to all, second as a propositional system of beliefs, third as demonstrable moral truths absent any particular theological, social, or ecclesial formation, and fourth, having been reduced from any material context other than the private conscience of the individual, religion was converted into a tool of state power. As Cavanaugh concludes,

“The concept of religion being born here is one of domesticated belief systems which are, insofar as it is possible, to be manipulated by the sovereign for the benefit of the State. Religion is no longer a matter of certain bodily practices within the Body of Christ, but is limited to the realm of the ‘soul,’ and the body is handed over to the State.”

In this way, “the creation of religion, and thus the privatization of the church, is correlative to the rise of the State” (“A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House”, p. 405).

Within many academic theological circles, this hypothesis has become somewhat of given presupposition. Of course, Cavanaugh’s project has not been without critics as well. However, to be fair while his articles have been powerful and compelling, they lack the space to fully ground the argument in the degree of historical specificity necessary to persuade those more expert in the field. Since he is going after a bedrock dogma surrounding the presumed origins of our contemporary western social imaginary, such a project demands a bit more attention to details.

In this light, Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence will very likely prove to be an extremely important book. Oxford University Press‘ descriptive blurb provides a clean summary of what we have to look forward to.

“The idea that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underlies many of our institutions and policies, from limits on the public role of religion to efforts to promote liberal democracy in the Middle East. William T. Cavanaugh challenges this conventional wisdom by examining how the twin categories of religion and the secular are constructed. A growing body of scholarly work explores how the category ‘religion’ has been constructed in the modern West and in colonial contexts according to specific configurations of political power. Cavanaugh draws on this scholarship to examine how timeless and transcultural categories of ‘religion and ‘the secular’ are used in arguments that religion causes violence. He argues three points: (1) There is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of political configurations of power; (2) Such a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion as non-rational and prone to violence is one of the foundational legitimating myths of Western society; (3) This myth can be and is used to legitimate neo-colonial violence against non-Western others, particularly the Muslim world.”

Additional Cavanaugh resources on free market economics and global capital, broken bread and distributed wine

For more William Cavanaugh insights on economics, consumption, hunger, and the Eucharist have a look at the following excellent articles:

(1) “Consumption, the Market, and the Eucharist”, The Other Journal

(2) “The Unfreedom of the Free Market”, The Economy Project

(3) “The World in a Wafer: A Geography of the Eucharist as Resistance to Globalization”, Modern Theology

(4) “Coercion in Augustine and Disney”New Blackfriars

Market and Eucharist


William T. Cavanaugh - Being Consumed

William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), £6.99, pp103, ISBN: 978-0-8028-4561-0.

Cavanaugh argues that a eucharistic account of everyday economic life provides Christians resources to resist capitalistic pathologies of desire. Challenging presupposed conditions of neo-liberal economics, Cavanaugh provides a nuanced, yet accessible theological analysis of consumer culture. Rather than blindly condoning or condemning free markets as such, Christians bear witness to a different kind of economics through the creation of imaginative alternatives truly free and just; that is, concrete practices, spaces, and transactions that participate in the life of God.

In four short chapters, Cavanaugh first exposes the illusory claims of the free market, arguing that genuine freedom must be ordered towards good ends. Absent transcendent telos, only the arbitrary power of one will against another remains. Second, he describes consumerism as a spiritual disposition that perpetuates a vacuous desire for desire itself. Its logic is not fundamentally a greedy grasping for possessions, but a hollowing detachment from production, producers, and the products we consume. Third, despite globalization’s claim to accommodate the local through diversity, difference often gets absorbed into the universal gaze of multinational corporations. Finally, Cavanaugh contends that scarcity, the axiom of contemporary economics, is not based on empirics, but the assumption that human desire is inexhaustible. This failure to rightly order desire resigns us to the reality that there will never be enough to feed the world’s hungry.

Cavanaugh engages these challenges through a robust theological account of the Eucharist as the normative embodiment of the church’s life and practice. Throughout, Cavanaugh points to tangible exemplifications of this eucharistic economics. Christians are consumers, but of a radically different sort. In consuming the Eucharist, Christians are consumed by it, re-made, re-membered into Christ’s body and given again for the life of the world.