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Voluntary poverty and political theology

The most recent thing keeping me from this blog was a paper for the medieval studies conference at Kalamazoo last weekend. It was another small step in my still-undefined quest to work through various theories of property and its relations—this time, a paper on Bonaventure’s theology of evangelical poverty. I called it “Voluntary Poverty and Political Theology: The Case of Bonaventure.” If anyone’s interested in seeing a copy, email me.

The paper’s central argument is exegetical: that Bonaventure’s thought on poverty pulls in opposing directions, that it’s marked by equally profound but contradictory logics. On the one side, Bonaventure tries to resist the idea that the Franciscan commitment to absolute poverty has any of the political implications it’s sometimes accused of. It implies no superiority to the church qua institution, no condemnation of the new economy, no intrinsic problem with ownership. He develops a fairly sophisticated theological rationale to deal with those objections—what I call in the paper the logic of conciliation. On the other side, when Bonaventure sets in to advocate evangelical poverty, to say why it’s integral to perfection, he roots his defense in a theological anthropology and ontology that does tend towards the universalization of poverty, and hints at some structural moral defect in the very institution of private property—what I call the logic of perfection. This tension within Bonaventure’s thought reflects the tension seen to exist in the Franciscan Order as a whole, and specifies it intellectually.

One of the most enjoyable things about Bonaventure, for me, is his speculative tendency, his impulse to reduce everything to first philosophy. When questions with obvious political bearing—like the relation between states of life in the church, or the ethical status of ownership—get answered metaphysically, as these do, you get some fascinating examples of other forms political theology might take.

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  1. Elizabeth
    May 20, 2010 at 1:14 am

    Hey Brian!

    Could you say more about how Bonaventure ultimately negotiates these two modes of logic running throughout his corpus? It seems as though, on the one hand, to the extent that Bonaventure attempts to be conciliatory, the choice for poverty is one that may legitimately remain specific to groups such as the Franciscans. And yet, on the other hand, to the extent that he emphasizes the perfective attitude toward property and poverty, the choice for poverty is something that has normative status for all, practically, in this life. How would he ultimately come down? Where do you?

  2. Elizabeth
    May 20, 2010 at 1:14 am

    [i.e., without collapsing the tension.]

  3. May 20, 2010 at 10:40 am

    The thing is, I don’t think Bonaventure is aware of the tension. He takes the logic of conciliation to be the really determinative one in his thinking, not recognizing the implications of the other logic. So as to where Bonaventure comes down, it’s definitely on the conciliation side—and in a way, I think, that does collapse the tension. I doubt that both logics can be maintained at the same time.

    For me, the jury’s still out. I don’t know how far I’d want to take either of these logics over as they stand, but they’re both pretty suggestive, worth sitting with a while. The first one ends up leading towards an absolute affirmation of difference in the political sphere, a multiplicity-of-gifts type thing rooted in christology; the second provides the shadows, at least, of a pretty far-reaching theological critique of the institution of property, essentially ontologizing the dictate of poverty.

    (I think they’d be worth sitting with from a systematics perspective, too—especially the second logic. The way I explain it in the paper, Bonaventure basically wraps poverty into his fundamental anthropology–you have to renounce everything in order to be properly human.)

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