Going against the grain

“Political theology” is a controversial term, these days. In The Stillborn God, Columbia professor Mark Lilla argues that political theology is lethal for democracy, because democracy requires a public square scoured of religious reference points. Needless to say, I take exception to Professor Lilla’s argument, although those who think they have a direct, specific, divine mandate to order public life often make mischief, and sometimes more-than-mischief. To equate political theology with fanaticism, however, is to equate religious conviction with mindlessness. “Political theology,” properly understood, honors the virtue of prudence, as it applies insights drawn from the Christian understanding of the human person and human community to the messy business of politics.

I came to political theology accidentally. During graduate studies in theology, I focused on systematic theology, and especially Christology. Then, in my first job, I was asked to teach the social ethics course at St. Thomas Seminary School of Theology near Seattle. That surprise assignment launched an intellectual journey of more than three decades, as I’ve tried to apply the social doctrine of the Catholic Church to the most contested issues of American and international public life.

Some of the principal intellectual markers along that journey have now been collected by the Crossroad Publishing Company into a new book, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, which gathers together between two covers twelve essays on various question of political theology that I’ve written over the past decade and a half. Why are these essays “against the grain”? They’re against several grains, actually.

They challenge the notion, often found in our universities today, that political science is a sub-discipline of statistics. On the contrary: political theology is a discipline that continues the great intellectual adventure of political philosophy, which began with the Greeks almost three millennia ago. Political theology, in other words, helps rescue thinking-about-politics from the hegemony of the bean-counters and number-crunchers.

The essays in Against the Grain confront another notion rampant in the contemporary American academy: the idea of “proceduralist” or “functional” democracy. According to these learned folk, democracy is simply a matter of getting the procedures of self-governance – the democratic machinery – right. The machinery doesn’t require mechanics with certain skills; the machine can run by itself. The late Pope John Paul II disagreed, and so do I. It takes a certain kind of people, possessed of certain virtues, to make the machinery of democracy work so that the net result is human flourishing, not degradation. In Against the Grain, I explore what that foundation of virtues looks like, and how it makes democracy possible.

The book contains several essays on issues of war and peace, examined through the prism of classic Catholic just war reasoning. They challenge the pacifist of principle (whom I can respect). They also challenge what I have come to term “functional pacifism,” the distortion of just war thinking that has dominated American Catholic intellectual life and the American bishops’ commentary on these issues for the past twenty-five years. In these essays, I examine once again the question of whether the just war way of thinking begins with a “presumption against war,” or whether it begins with a presumption-for-justice: for the defense of the peace of order. My answer, not surprisingly, cuts against the grain of a lot of contemporary common wisdom; but that common wisdom, I suggest, is based on a mistaken reading of Catholic intellectual history and a mistaken understanding of moral theology. My good friends at Commonweal will doubtless find in this another occasion to deplore my wrongheadedness. I hope others, including those with political and military responsibilities, will find these essays useful in thinking through some of the most urgent questions of the day.

Against the Grain demonstrates, I hope, that it is possible to do political theology in a way that engages believers and non-believers alike. For at a moment in history when what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once called the “dictatorship of relativism” is a real and present danger, thinking about politics through the prism of religiously informed moral reason is an urgent matter of public mental health.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.