Field Hospital: The Church's Engagement with a Wounded World
William T. Cavanaugh
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016
276 pp., 27.99
Stephen N. Williams
Healing Wounds After Battle
Concluding his exposition of Psalm 126, Augustine rejoices that the Samaritan who passed by, Christ our Lord, did not turn aside from us, but healed us, set us on his beast, that is, his flesh, and took us to the inn—his church. Encountering a book titled Field Hospital, we might suppose that, where G. K. Chesterton could write his delightfully knockabout The Flying Inn, William Cavanaugh will provide a contrastingly sober account of the church as a mobile inn in accordance with the subtitle: "The Church's Engagement with a Wounded World." Such a supposition comes short: this is largely, though not entirely, a book about ideas which equip us intellectually rather than about ministerial actions. Further, any supplementary expectation that this book will offer a sustained account is also unmet: what we have is a series of essays loosely connected thematically but self-standing, usually comprising focused discussion on and exchange with other (often current) literature. This is just to say that Cavanaugh's volume must be judged by what it sets out to do and not what we might think it will set out to do. Seen in that light, it is both helpful and rewarding on a range of concrete questions of which the following review will give little enough concrete indication.
When Latin was taught in schools, children respectfully parroted Caesar's spare averment that all Gaul is divided into three parts; so is Field Hospital. "Markets and Bodies" deals with economic questions—corporate personhood; co-operative practices; the place and direction of theology in economic analysis. A second part discusses a "dispersed political theology," insisting that theology should not be elbowed out of politics as a matter of principle and that it can contribute in practice by its peculiar advocacy (whose champions include Augustine) of the notion that political authority should be dispersed. This includes advancing a principle of subsidiarity. The massive question of the fundamental Constantinian legacy is also discussed. In 2009, Cavanaugh published The Myth of Religious Violence; here, in the final part of this present volume, he offers "further explorations in religion and violence," comprehending the topics of political theology, secularization, idolatry, and freedom and including a response to critics of his own previous work.
The whole is as we should expect: a clear-headed, fair-minded, persuasively argued presentation of an ecclesiological approach to social questions, informed by a socio-theological commitment that is neither hesitant in manner nor extreme in matter. Too often we read in order to critique; Cavanaugh stimulates in us a disposition to read in order to learn, even if our critical faculty is ticking over faithfully and even if the individual-essay format means that, if we are interested in application, we sometimes end up with generality or with ad hominem accounts which leave us wanting to press on to more detail.
Only with the final essay—which treats Dorothy Day's views on violence and guilt in relation to the mystical body of Christ—is it likely that the title of the volume will hover unbidden before the reader's mind. Day's pacifism was infused with a moral conviction that we must shoulder guilt rather than laying it on "the other," and was grounded in the ecclesiological conviction that collective humanity is potentially or actually joined in the mystical body of Christ. Cavanaugh's account of the various trajectories and threads which are woven about this conviction suggests to this reader's mind still another skein, one identified by Karl Barth when discussing the theological impossibility of conceiving man and woman apart: "Might not the very dubious masculine enterprise of war become intrinsically impossible if the remembrance of the confrontation with woman were suddenly to be given the normative significance which is undoubtedly its due?"
Rich as this essay is in its own right and inviting as it is to take up in it the discussion of Weber and Troeltsch which courses through the volume, I simply note that the theological ecclesiology expressed here consistently sustains a perspective adopted ever since the first chapter of the volume with its special reference to Henri de Lubac. It highlights the idea of the church as a unified and serving body, advancing it in a theological form conspicuously shaped by post-Vatican II and third millennial Catholic and papal theology, although, of course, rooted in the historical tradition. ("Field hospital" is Pope Francis' phrase.) It is a strength of this volume that its author impels us to give hopeful consideration to both the warm ecclesiology and social ethics furthered in it, but those of us who largely share the social attitudes and commitments of the author are also bound to ask whether this ecclesiology is required in order to undergird them. With his reference to "each person as Christ" in the concluding chapter on Dorothy Day, the author returns us to the statement in the first chapter that the body of Christ "is aware of the other in its midst, the stranger and poor one who is the personification of Christ." He refers, of course, to Matthew 25:31-46. Our use of Matthew 25—the parable of the sheep and the goats—usually illustrates our scriptural selectivity. How often have we encountered an insistence on the eternal finality of heaven and hell combined with little interest in the hungry, naked, stranger, sick, and imprisoned or on the care of the hungry, naked, stranger, sick, and imprisoned with little interest in the separation of destinies? Exegetical comment on the teaching of Matthew 25 on eschatological destiny is out of place in this review, although I miss the sharp cutting edge of its teaching, for example, in Chapter 4 of this book. Exegetical comment on "the least of these, my brothers" (25: 40, though see 45) is more appropriate, for the reference is surely to Christ's presence in his adelphoi, brothers and sisters who are explicit followers and not, pace Cavanaugh and many others, to every human being. To say as much is not in the least to detract from responsibility and care for the needy. It is to make a particular, exegetical point.
Why make it? Back to Augustine. Crudely synthesizing some of his hermeneutical observations in Book 12 of the Confessions, we might say that the stream of biblical truth flows through a maze of (biblical) textual channels, and if it transpires that we are guilty of exegetical error in the interpretation of particular texts, damage is potentially offset where the meaning which we have erroneously assigned to that text is nevertheless present in that wider flow which comprises the stream of biblical truth. To wrongly identify the specific textual channel of that truth is not to wrongly identify the truth. Augustine's is a worthy and important observation; yet, it must be handled with care, for if you get the parts wrong too often, you cannot be confident that you have got the whole right.
The ecclesiological whole in this volume naturally invites critical response from more than one perspective, but I mention just one. In his discussion of Peter Leithart's defense of Constantine, Cavanaugh is noticeably restrained in his demurral. One reason for this is that his explicit (by no means narrow) Catholicism prevents him, I think, from appreciating the full force of Paul's implicit warning in Romans 11: 22 that the history of the church might tragically ape or replicate the history of Israel: institutional continuity does not expunge the possibility that the Spirit is particularly with the remnant. I hasten to add that this is a warning equally neglected by many in the Protestant communions. What this means is that we must be theologically more open to thinking in terms of some form of "fall of the church" with (or at some point later than) Constantine than Cavanaugh—circumspect as he is—allows. In terms of the chapter in which he deals with this (Chapter 8), it means demarcating more theological space for the kind of thing John Howard Yoder was onto. However, it is the ecclesiological principle, not any confessional or denominational application, that concerns me here. In sum: what Dorothy Day, for example, saw and did must not be lost, but neither must vision or deed be tightly bound to the particular ecclesiology which undergirded them, even if that ecclesiology, from one perspective, appears actually constitutive of the vision and action.
Only those of us who take seriously the church as a Field Hospital and its engagement with a wounded world are warranted in indicating this line of critical enquiry. The title of the book, let alone so much of its content—of which I have said so little—lays its imperious claim on us.
Stephen N. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is the author most recently of The Election of Grace: A Riddle Without a Resolution? (Eerdmans).
1. Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4 (T & T Clark, 1961), p. 168.
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