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The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy Paperback – October 30, 2012
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“The Mystical as Political is an important contribution to conversations on Orthodoxy, theology, and politics, written in response to the underdeveloped voice of Orthodoxy in law and politics. . . . This timely, constructive book will generate much reflection, discussion, and debate in Orthodox circles. For those interested in the intrinsic connections between mystical theology and politics, this book is essential reading.” —Anglican Theological Review
“Papanikolaou’s book has brought to the Anglophone Orthodox world a promising sketch for future debate. Papanikolaou’s strength lies in bringing the burning questions of today and attempting to address them from within the Orthodox tradition.” —Academia.edu
“The Mystical as Political may be the theological equivalent of a venus flytrap. It has the potential to draw multiple interests and points of view into a conversation about the kinds of politics theosis demands. So rather than an indestructible apologia for liberal democracy, Papanikolaou has given us something more engaging, and thus, according to his own stated intentions, more successful.” —Modern Theology
“Papanikolaou has written an excellent and timely book. . . . [His] narrative is fascinating and his argumentation sharp and carefully balanced. Well versed in both Eastern and Western theology, he is therefore able to bring together insights from both traditions into fruitful dialogue.” —Theology
“This recent work by Aristotle Papanikolaou . . . is a profound achievement in political theology. Papanikolaou’s work fills a great void in Orthodox Christian studies as well as political theology. . . . What I find particularly helpful in this work is his positive appreciation of liberal democracy and human rights from an Orthodox Christian perspective, which many Orthodox prelates and theologians simply find incompatible with their faith tradition.” —Journal of Church and State
“Aristotle Papanikolaou’s The Mystical as Political is a welcome contribution to discussions concerning Christian political theology in particular and the role of religion in the contemporary context more generally. His ‘non-radical Orthodoxy’ supports critical engagement with modern liberal democracies on the basis of the church’s mission to persuade human beings to enter freely into communion with God.” —Journal of Religion
“Drawing on a wide range of historical source and contemporary political theology, [Papanikolaou] offers a fresh and constructive overview of the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and the political realm. Papanikolaou’s book makes a welcome contribution to the debate on the significance of symphonia in contemporary politics.” —Religion, State and Society
“. . . Aristotle Papanikolaou engages Orthodox tradition, a persistent Eastern suspicion of Western values, and contemporary Western theological assertions that liberal democracy is anathema to a eucharistic understanding of church. . . This book is a model for how a scholar can be critical, careful, and even generous in his disagreements.” —Horizons
Theosis, or the principle of divine-human communion, sparks the theological imagination of Orthodox Christians and has been historically important to questions of political theology. In The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy, Aristotle Papanikolaou argues that a political theology grounded in the principle of divine-human communion must be one that unequivocally endorses a political community that is democratic in a way that structures itself around the modern liberal principles of freedom of religion, the protection of human rights, and church-state separation.
The first comprehensive treatment from an Orthodox theological perspective of the issue of the compatibility between Orthodoxy and liberal democracy, Papanikolaou’s is an affirmation that Orthodox support for liberal forms of democracy is justified within the framework of Orthodox understandings of God and the human person. His overtly theological approach shows that the basic principles of liberal democracy are not tied exclusively to the language and categories of Enlightenment philosophy and, so, are not inherently secular.
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In his The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy, Aristotle Papanikolaou argues for a more positive attitude on the part of Christian theology in relation to liberalism and the liberal project. Papanikolaou wants to counter the critiques of liberalism put forward by those in the theological camps of Postliberalism (namely Stanley Hauerwas) and Radical Orthodoxy
(namely John Milbank), while also critiquing those Eastern Orthodox theologians that have been critical of Western liberalism. Instead, Papanikolaou mines his own Eastern Orthodox tradition to put forward an understanding of the political through a theology of divine-human communion.
The driving force behind The Mystical as Political is the doctrine of theosis. As Papanikolaou makes clear, this is a doctrine that is central to the Eastern Orthodox understanding of Christianity. However, he reorients the idea from becoming divine to the communion that takes place between the divine and human. With this in mind, he understands politics as the place that ensures
the possibility of making a choice for divine-human communion to take place, as well as the choice to reject it. Interestingly, the political has to keep open the possibility of the non-church in order for the church to rightly complete its task of witnessing to the Kingdom of God. The community that is distinct from the church, though, is still created by God and so contains a good internal within itself. It is with this goodness that the church and Christian theology seeks to build connections, living out the aspects of the
good internal to the “secular” community. By working together on those things that both communities hold as good—like freedom of speech and religion, certain human rights, a commitment to democracy, etc.—the church and secular community can accomplish the work of both communities. This position that works from the divine-human communion means that Christian theology must engage in a nonviolent approach to all things, including the secular society. This nonviolence includes the threat and use of physical
violence, along with violent rhetoric and intellectual violence (146).
In making the argument that he does, Papanikolaou offers a distinctive critique of two major streams of Christian theology in the contemporary world: Postliberalism and Radical Orthodoxy. These two theological approaches have dominated much in the realm of political theology and Papanikolaou offers his position as a corrective. In regards to both, he posits the idea of the necessity for a secular world to exist so that divine-human communion can take place. Challenging the ontology of participation that Radical Orthodoxy utilizes, Papanikolaou talks of an ontological realism that acknowledges God as Creator of all things, but that also takes into account that there is that which is separate from God and the church. Against the work of the Postliberal school, Papanikolaou argues that theology cannot conflate the work of the church with the work of the secular world. While the two intertwine at times, they do have separate agendas and, in order for divine-human communion to take place, must stay separate. With these critiques, Papanikolaou can put forward a vision for the political as the place that gives the ability for divine-human communion to take place. From the divine-human communion that takes place in the church, the body of Christ can then begin to enter the political fray in a way that brings the secular into contact with the Kingdom of God. Through this interaction, the church can accomplish its mission of bringing the Kingdom of God to the whole world.
Four aspects of The Mystical as Political strike me as noteworthy. First, the text is a major contribution to the ongoing discussion between Christian theology and the political arena; however, Papanikolaou makes a significant contribution by giving an Eastern Orthodox voice to the conversation. Second, Papanikolaou gives a theological critique and embrace of the liberal project, offering criticism where necessary while acknowledging the positives. Third, he develops a distinctively Eastern Orthodox perspective
on divine-human communion (theosis) that brings the doctrine to a place of relevancy in the contemporary world. Fourth, for Methodist and Wesleyan theologians, Papanikolaou’s approach to divine-human communion presents a great deal of insight for our own understandings of sanctification and Christian perfection, most notably how it functions in a political context. In all, while an academic theologian writes The Mystical as Political, the text is lucid, clear, and will be a great help to many people who are struggling with the place of the Christian church in our contemporary world. Anyone that is familiar with church history, discussions of Christian theology, and semi-aware of the political climate of the West will find many valuable contributions.