Theology and International Relations Beyond Liberalism: The Question of Europe

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John Milbank
Adrian Pabst


Opening paragraph:

The religious dimension of the question of Europe has been severely neglected. I’d like to put forward a few controversial theses about theology and international relations which slightly sum up the positions that we are putting forward in our book.The core of these positions would be that I can’t see any reason why Christianity would be very sympathetic to the idea of the nation state. That is perhaps the core of my positions. It seems that the nation state has come into being because of the failure of Christianity; because of the failure of Christianity as applied locally to the field of international relations which entailed something like Christendom. It is clearly true that in the past, right across the world throughout global history, there was no such thing as the nation state. Borders were extremely permeable and the relationship between private domains on the one hand and public realms on the other was extremely fluid. Even by the time of the 18th century a lot of struggles remained dynastic rather than being genuine struggles between nations. In many ways, the world was construed in terms of empires and regions much more so than in terms of what we would now think of as the state—the state being a very modern world. Government was much more dispersed, there was no clear distinction between local economic roles and central political roles and it was only in the early modern period that people started to talked about the state as denoting a very strong central authority. It seems to me that Christianity was inherently in favour of the notion of free association and of very dispersed modes of sovereignty. The very tension between the regnum on the one hand and the sacerdotium on the other tended to favour a certain kind of plurality of jurisdiction and Christianity repeatedly gave encouragement to the emergence of new formations with their own rules like guild bodies or monastic bodies as well as later the orders of friars. People lived within extremely complex webs of overlapping jurisdictions which were perpetually qualifying each other. Though there was obviously a lot of endemic conflict, nonetheless the situation in which there was both a sense of a complicated overarching unity within Europe and endlessly fragmented local divisions. This became more conflicted towards the end of the Middle Ages and that tended to see people flee toward much more formalistic solutions and tend towards something much more like a monopoly of violence and to see state authority as a solution to anarchy. That was formidably compounded by the Reformation and the subsequent division of Christendom. This became the final post-Westphalian solution: to make confession and statehood coterminous with one another as a new principle of order. Of course that left a problem of international anarchy. The ius gentium, the law of the nations is removed from the governance of natural law and becomes a formalistic law of first occupancy. And then everything goes into reverse. The natural law becomes based on the ius getiumlaw of first occupancy and is construed in terms of rights and property; so one moves roughly from Grotius to Hobbes, I think, in that order. There develops a sense that international relations always has priority over political theory, which is something that I think is sometimes overlooked. Gradually, with the rationalisation of religion during the period of the Enlightenment, religion as an emotive attitude is replaced in the Romantic period by nationalism. Thus the co-belonging of confession and state is compounded by ethnicity as a third component. 

Article Details

Virtue Politics
Author Biography

Adrian Pabst, University of Kent Fellow of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy

Reader in Politics - Director of Undergraduate Recruitment and Admissions