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Whither Global Civil Society? A Review of A World for All?

William F. Storrar, Peter J. Casarella, and Paul Louis Metzger, editors. A World for All? Global Civil Society in Political Theory and Trinitarian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011. 346 pages.


A Scottish, Reformed pastor, a Latino Catholic, and an American evangelical walk into a bar. The punch line? They walk out with an ecumenical, multidisciplinary collection of essays exploring the relationship of global civil society and Christian theology. (Or, at least, they eventually did.)

William F. Storrar, Peter J. Casarella, and Paul Louis Metzger form this unlikely trio, and A World For All? Global Civil Society in Political Theory and Trinitarian Theology is the result of their collaboration, which began when the three were in residency together as visiting scholars at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton in 2004. Before appearing in this volume, their discussions appear to have evolved over time—from “jottings on a napkin at a lunch” (26) to a conference at the University of Edinburgh titled A World for All? The Ethics of Global Civil Society. All the while, Storrar, Casarella, and Metzger have remained focused on a few central questions: What does the phrase “global civil society” actually mean? What does it look like in practice? How does it relate to central Christian theology? And more specifically, how may ecumenically minded theological thinking contribute to a more inclusive civil society? These are decidedly ambitious conversations, and A World For All? takes the challenge of addressing them very seriously. Indeed, a forward by the director of Greenpeace International sets a rather self-serious tone for the volume, proclaiming that in the years since the conference in Edinburgh, questions about how to create a world for all have only become “all the more urgent” and “all the more important” (x).

The first section of A World for All? aims to develop workable terms for staging conversations that address these urgent questions. Two essays stand out as particularly useful for framing some of the complexities and ambiguities that attend questions about global civil society. The collection’s opening essay, by political theorist John Keane, admits that the phrase “global civil society” is itself confusingly “protean and promiscuous”; it is often used interchangeably and without notice as an interpretive tool for analyzing empirical trends, as a pragmatic and strategic tool for setting political agendas, and/or as a normative ideal (18). Into this confusion, Keane offers his own ideal-type definition of global civil society: a nongovernmental system of socioeconomic institutions “that straddle the whole earth,” an unfinished project of interconnected webs and networks, whose actors and institutions “tend to pluralize power and to problematize violence; consequently, their peaceful or ‘civil’ effects are felt everywhere” (19–20). So defined, such a society clearly has what Keane calls “normative advantages”—it “enables individuals” and “resounds of liberty” (32). Keane concludes with a warning against fatalism, whether it arises from ignorance or a feeling of being overwhelmed by the immensity of the problems of global governance. “Brand new democratic thinking,” he writes confidently, “is required” (37).

Lest this theoretical introduction set too sanguine a note, however, a more sober essay by London School of Economics and Political Science professor Kimberly Hutchings balances Keane’s optimism. Tasked with asking whether global civil society can civilize the international, Hutchings suggests that such a question itself is a “massive oversimplification,” relying upon unrealistic binary distinctions between global and international, nonstate and state, and civil and uncivil (83). In particular, the distinction between civil and uncivil (and the presumption that incivility is limited to state activity) may prevent critical reflection upon the presence of violence in global society. We would be better served, she urges, to ask instead about the practical conditions of possibility for a civil, noncoercive, and nonviolent global politic, and to recognize the unavoidable contingency of any civility within a global order (76).

In the volume’s second section, theologians of varying stripes join the conversation, engaging global issues theologically and in a Trinitarian register. Noting the controversy over the social and political implications of Trinitarian theology, the editors boldly state that they believe “this volume represents a hitherto unexplored via media between the proponents of the social analogy and their recent critics” (95). Although they seek to “guard against translating confession of the Trinity into a social program by rooting it in the church’s life and witness in society,” they affirm that “there is ultimately nothing private about the triune God who creates and enters history in his Son through the Spirit to birth the church and redeem humanity” (106–7).

Regardless of whether these essays do in fact chart an innovative and hitherto unexplored theological path (I should probably leave that to wiser readers to discern), the first essays in this section do clarify central areas of concern for a Trinitarian perspective upon the question of civil society. In particular, Casarella adopts language and analysis from Michael Sandel in addressing some of the problems that a Trinitarian social ethic unavoidably faces in the liberalism of a procedural republic. Kristen Deede Johnson’s contribution, however, stands out here as one of the real gems of this collection, injecting a note of reflexive caution into the conversation. Drawing upon Adam Seligman’s historical analysis of civil society, she critiques Keane’s account of global civil society, in part because “the very concepts of public and private that we inherited from the language surrounding civil society are problematic” (147). She accordingly tries to articulate what sort of alternative concept of the public would allow the church to live as the “social, embodied reality” it is supposed to be, and she finds that it would necessarily involve multiple and overlapping publics rather than a single, liberal, and political public (153).1

After a short grouping of essays that look back in ecclesial memory for historical perspectives on the current issues faced by the church, the final essays use the particularities of current case studies to illustrate the dynamics that were introduced in the more theoretical essays. As is true of any collection, a tension exists here between maintaining a coherent whole while opening up the dialogue to unique contributions, and at this point the dialogue becomes a bit eclectic—the section includes an exploration of the importance of worship for renewing public life in apartheid-torn South Africa and a reflection on how Leonardo Boff’s emphasis on perichoresis promotes a healthy pluralism in Brazilian society, alongside a few other interesting essays. Instead of inflicting whiplash on the reader, however, the section actually does a nice job of demonstrating that a unity-in-diversity catholicity may indeed lie at the heart of renewing the social order. (It is worth noting that one of the most compelling essays in this section is offered by a Pentecostal drawing upon the resources of Bulgarian Eastern Orthodoxy!) In keeping with this emphasis upon ecumenism, Metzger concludes the volume with a reflection on the importance of compassionate dialogue in creating welcoming public spaces. Sounding for a moment a little like Romand Coles and Jeffrey Stout, he finds within Trinitarian theology a model for authentic dialogue that ought to lead to “mutual persuasion”: we must persuade one another, he writes, “to go more deeply into our respective traditions in view of what we learn from one another in search of sources that will advance further a compassionate form of shared existence” (295).2

Just as Hutchings problematized Keane’s optimism, an epilogue by J. Kameron Carter does much to counterbalance the optimistic, we-can-do-it-after-all note struck by many of the case studies by questioning “whether it is even possible for theology to engage the notion of global civil society in such a way as not to reenact western hegemony” (320). Indeed, just as Johnson effectively problematized unreflective usage of the term civil society, so Carter adds another bit of much-needed reflexivity to the constant invocation of the discourse of the global. Developing what he calls an archaeology of “the global,” Carter observes that global “names a spatially uneven reality constituted between ‘the West and the rest’” and objects that this account of global, which is at work in any talk of global civil society, “has its origins in a problematic Christian social imagination.” That is, the problem with global society “is the problem of modern theology itself . . . its (often repressed) linkage to colonial and postcolonial history, and thus to the missionary project of civilization” (300). Furthermore, Carter suggests that Trinitarian theology has had “no small part” in producing the power dynamics and discourses of western civilization and that “the contemporary vogue in trinitarianism, whether by social analogy trinitarians and now more so by trinitarian classicists, might be symptomatic of a late-modern melancholy, a nostalgic wistfulness, for a ‘unity’ that once was” (302). Carter’s contribution to this collection undoubtedly makes it a finer work, even if it sows doubt about some of the editors’ own (and rather more neatly hopeful) contributions.3

Having Carter do most of the heavy lifting in his own critical review of A World for All? conveniently makes the work of a reviewer easier. I’ll add only one further note: I wish that the collection had directed more attention toward political economy and toward the economic issues faced by those who hope to achieve a global civil society. Although Keane’s account of global civil society includes economic institutions, other authors appear to assume that among its many benefits, a global civil society negotiated through political terms will automatically protect against market infringements upon society. The essays seem to wave away economic problems before they are introduced, and together have the cumulative effect of positioning global civil society as a purely political problem. This is an unfortunate oversimplification. Just as it is true that civil society exists in tension with the state and must find a way to be not-state, it is perhaps even more true that civil society must simultaneously exist in tension with market forces and must deliberately find a way to cultivate and preserve decidedly not-market publics. This is no mean task; if global society is to be truly inclusive and civil, it must contend with the exclusionary market logics of a global capitalism that rather uncivilly threatens to eclipse states and ordinary politics with its power to shape society. Of course, the reader is amply forewarned that such may not be a central theme of this work—“political theory” is in the title, not “political economy” or “economic theory.” Given that work toward a global civil society must be both political and economic, though, it is a shame that even Max Stackhouse, who has written much on political economy, confines his contribution to non-economic fare.

Such reservations aside, this volume solidly introduces and theologically reflects upon many of the interconnected issues that arise when asking about our prospects for global civil society. The inclusion of essays by Hutchings, Johnson, and Carter particularly leaven the collection, ensuring that the conversation never goes too far without pausing to reflect upon its own linguistic, cultural, and theological assumptions. Storrar, Casarella, and Metzger have crafted a dialogue that will be of use to students of political and public theology, as well as to those of us who look for grounds on which to hope, in the words of Daniela Augustine, “for a future of cosmopolitan hospitality—the future of humanity in the likeness of God” (220).

1. See Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); and Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

2. I am thinking of Stout’s emphasis upon giving and asking for ethical reasons in Democracy & Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) and Coles’s interest in the possibilities of listening and receptive witnessing in Beyond Gated Politics: Reflections for the Possibility of Democracy (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

3. As an aside, I find it interesting that the editors felt the need to clarify in their introduction that Carter’s essay is included “at the editors’ invitation”—isn’t that obvious?

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Christina McRorie :
Christina McRorie is a doctoral student in theology and ethics at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on Christian theological ethics and political economy.