The mystery of the economy

I’ve been working my way through the new translation of Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory and finding it just as remarkable and thought-provoking as the first time around — only this time, I’ve had a few years to digest the ideas.

One thing that puzzled me when I first read it was his insistence on the importance of the shift between Paul’s notion of “the economy of the mystery” to the later patristic “mystery of the economy.” This time, it seems much clearer. Paul’s statement implies that he has been entrusted with the management or administration of God’s plan, without any specifically “theological” meaning to the word “economy” — he manages his responsibilities pretty much like anybody manages anything. (In general, I like this move of resisting the tendency to read Paul as coining theological “insta-jargon,” such that every conceptual term he uses has some special theological meaning beyond its common usage: hence “justice” actually refers to the much more theological concept of “righteousness,” etc.)

With the shift to the “mystery of the economy,” however, it is God’s very act of managing or governing the world that is mysterious. Teaching Anselm’s Proslogion gave me a particularly vivid illustration of the consequences of this shift. When Anselm discusses God’s mercy and justice — a discussion that takes up significantly more space than the famous proof of the existence of God — he comes to the conclusion that we can conceptually grasp why it’s compatible with God’s justice and goodness for him to save some of the wicked and condemn others. What we can’t grasp is why he chooses this particular person to save and this other particular person to damn.

In other words, God “in himself” is (seemingly paradoxically) more comprehensible than his interactions with the world are. Anselm might also represent a particularly extreme case, insofar as he’s so confident that even the doctrine of the Trinity and the basic shape of redemption is derivable from pure reason — though I would extrapolate that God’s decision to become incarnate at this time in this particular human being remains mysterious. God may be “too much” for human reason to grasp in his divine plenitude, but it’s only his governance of the world — i.e., the side of God that we presumably actually experience — that is, strictly speaking, beyond the powers of human understanding.

2 thoughts on “The mystery of the economy

  1. Not being a theologian, I’ve found the book rather rough-going and difficult to grasp. (Not on account of the prose or translation, both are lucid: I’m impressed that all of the translations in the “Homo Sacer” series capture the same voice.) For whatever reason, I’m far more comfortable with the wacky Roman law of Homo Sacer and State of Exception than I am with the wacky oikonomia of early Christianity; that is to say, I am completely baffled by “economy of mystery” versus “mystery of economy.”

  2. I had a very difficult time with it, even though I was finishing up a PhD in theology that had specifically included a lot of work with patristic thought and questions surrounding the trinity. So I can’t imagine what kind of reception this book is possibly going to get outside of the circle that consists of, frankly, me.

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