It’s rare that I’ll pick up a book I do not know from an author I’ve never heard of from the Philosophy section of a Barnes & Noble, but that is precisely what I did with Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s The Church and the Kingdom. I did so because I have been thinking a great deal lately about precisely those realities (i.e., the church and the kingdom) and because I thought a different take on the question might be, at most, illuminating and/or, at least, interesting. I’ve been thinking about these things lately because working through the Sermon on the Mount on Sunday mornings has (thankfully) forced me to do so. It is not a new concern or a new question. Indeed, for two millennia Christians have been discussing these questions: What is the church? What is the Kingdom of God? How is the church to operate in the world?
What struck me about Agamben’s little book is that it is, ostensibly, from an outsider, yet it is from somebody who has obviously thought deeply about the question at hand. Agamben is apparently one of a number of modern philosophers who are interacting with theology today. It is an intriguing turn of events, and one about which I know very little as I do not read much in continental philosophy. But it is, as I say, intriguing nonetheless. I have long thought that we can learn a great deal by listening to how those outside of the church speak about the church, though there are obvious limitations to such observations as well. That is precisely what Agamben is doing here. (I should say that I do not know whether or not Agamben is a believer.)
This book consists simply of a sermon that Agamben delivered in Paris at Notre Dame Cathedral in March of 2009 in front of the Bishop of Paris and other church officials. It has been translated into English by Leland De La Durantaye of Harvard University who also provides a helpful reflection on the sermon in an Afterword entitled, “On Method, the Messiah, Anarchy and Theocracy.” Furthermore, the book is a beautiful little work consisting of compelling photographs by Alice Attie.
Agamben’s primary thesis is that the New Testament envisions the Church as abiding within “messianic time.” Messianic time is not chronological time (i.e., historical time) and neither is it the time that begins at the consummation of all things. Rather, it is the time between those two times. It is a time within chronological time that began with the resurrection of all things. It is Kingdom time, the Kingdom that Christ Jesus came to usher in.
Agamben is arguing that Paul did not see the Church as simply waiting within chronological time for the coming of the Kingdom at the end of all things, but rather that the Kingdom has come now and is coming yet (shades of George Eldon Ladd here). That means that our very lives and vocations are revolutionized by the breaking in of Messianic time into chronos (Agamben does not use the chronos/kairos distinction, but it seems to be connected to what he is saying).
Let me suggest that Agamben has actually been a pretty faithful biblical interpreter in arguing this point, as I understand him. The New Testament does indeed view the Kingdom as “already/not yet” and, I believe, does indeed view the current time of the pilgrim church as a kind of time within the times. What is unclear about Agamben’s proposal is whether or not he has an overrealized eschatology, that is whether or not he is weighing the “already” so much more than the “not yet” that it lets the latter die the death of a thousand qualifications. This is not necessarily the case, especially as Agamben does acknowledge the “not yet” aspect of the Kingdom. On the other hand, in pointing to the linguistic commonalities between paroikousa (i.e., sojourners) and parousia (seeing the root of each as a call for immediacy and “nowness”), I do wonder if there is room in Agamben’s eschatology for the future, though imminent, return of Christ. Regardless, the upshot of Agamben’s concerns is clear enough: by losing a sense of Messianic time, the Church has become simply one of many institutions within chronological time. The Church, then, has lost a sense of ultimate things and has become simply one more purveyor of temporal power.
Now, I rather suspect Agamben has a particular goal while speaking in a Roman Catholic Church to Catholic authorities, but as an American Protestant I see application as well. Agamben is correct to suggest that the Church should not forsake its place in the Kingdom of God in order for inordinate fixations on the power structures of the kingdom of the world. He is correct that if the Church diminishes itself to a merely human organization within mere chronological time, it is setting itself up to suffer the inevitable fate of all merely human organizations. For me, Agamben’s cautions are worth heeding for those Christians who would like to see the Church become simply another political party.
Agamben’s primary concern may be political. I do not know. What I do know is that this Italian philosopher, believer or not, has (largely) correctly diagnosed a major malady in much ecclesial life today: namely the abandonment of our Kingdom identity rooted in the time-altering act of the resurrection of Jesus Christ for the a paltry place at the table of modernity and its numerous special interest groups.
We are to be salt and light, showing the verities and values of a greater Kingdom. That includes responsible citizenship and political involvement to be sure, but it is much, much more.