Prefiguration of the World to Come: (P)refiguring Economy

Bread and red wine as symbols of communion

Ecclesial Practices and Prefigurative Politics

Prefiguration and Prefiguration

Although language about the church as ‘prefiguring’ the world to come is well-established in Christian theology and although the notion of ‘prefiguration’ itself has deep roots in ancient Jewish and Christian forms of exegesis, it is surprising that there is so little work being done on the possibility of connecting this theological line of thought with a line of thought in political philosophy that focuses on ‘prefigurative politics.’ This brief contribution sketches what both forms of prefigurative thinking amount to, notes what potential connecting the two may hold, and offers a brief example of such a connection by focusing on aspects of the sacramental life of the church and dimensions of economy.

First, prefiguration in Christian theology can mean at least two things. One common meaning is exegetical in nature: events, persons, remarks in the Scriptures of Israel (‘Old Testament,’ ‘First Testament,’ etc.) are seen to ‘prefigure’ developments in the life of Jesus and the Church, as witnessed to in the New Testament (and beyond that). The second common meaning is to view the church itself as prefiguring the world to come. Lumen gentium, an influential document produced at the Second Vatican council (in 1964), states, for example that both the sacraments of the church prefigure a new heaven and a new earth and that the members of the church do the same by living out their profession of faith (LG 35). Within the ecumenical movement, the 1982 Lima-report, which brought churches together on the topics of baptism, eucharist and ministry, noted that ‘the Church is called to proclaim and prefigure the Kingdom of God’ (M.4) and outlined how this takes place through the church’s proclamation and service, which will offer the world ‘a foretaste of the joy and glory of God’s Kingdom.’ (M.4)

Second, in political philosophy, prefigurative politics is seen as ‘an experimental political practice in which the ends of one’s actions are mirrored in the means applied in their realisation’ (Van de Sande 2017:25, cf. idem 2019). ‘Prefigurative politics’ is, as a model, relatively recent and used in the analysis of contemporary movements such ‘Occupy’. First developed in the 1970s (Boggs 1977), the concept facilitates overcoming a number of apparent dichotomies in thinking about politics, their pursuit and realization. These dichotomies that are reconceptualized include the following:

  • The dichotomy between means and end because the end is already present in the means.
  • The dichotomy between future and present because the future is there in the present.
  • The dichotomy between presence and absence because what is (yet) absent is also (already) there.
  • The dichotomy between ideal and reality, as the ideal is present in a reality that does not agree with the ideal
  • The dichotomy between centre and margin, as (marginal) prefigurative practices both establish themselves as centre and continue as marginal.

The potential of the concept of ‘prefigurative politics’ to dismantle dichotomies makes it an attractive tool for thinking about both political movements and religious institutions, such as churches. In fact, it may also help to rethink a number of other dichotomies, such as those between religion and politics and between liturgy and protest. In addition, in a ‘secular age,’ in which many religious institutions become more marginal, the fact that prefigurative practices must be marginal in order to function as such (because they represent and embody a world that is different from ‘normality’), can provide input for rethinking the role of, for instance, theology and churches in the public domain.

Prefiguring Economy?

A key question is, of course, how the intersection between the church’s self-understanding as a prefigurative community and prefigurative politics as a political philosophical concept might work. A variety of dimensions of churches’ worship, witness and service can be explored in this respect, here, a brief consideration is given of an aspect of the church’s liturgy, the reception of the body and blood of Christ in the ritual of communion, the apex of the celebration of the Eucharist. In some ways, this ritual can be read as prefiguring a world to come, also with regard to questions of consumption and, with that, of economy. In fact, in this ritual, the absent, ideal future presents itself, albeit in the margins of contemporary society, as present in the means, the liturgy itself, of living towards it. With regard to consumption this can be described, in all brevity and provisionality, as follows, noting that this meal ritual prefigures a certain construction of the self, one’s relationship to God, to other humans and to creation.

First, when the faithful receive communion, they receive, to begin with, rather than to buy or produce their food. This can already be read as embodying the manner of dealing with non-human creation in the world to come, i.e., as something to be received, rather than to be mastered or treated as a commodity. Second, it will be apparent that all receive the same, which positions all recipients on the same plane. Third, what communicants receive is what they need (and not more or less). Fourth, they receive together in a manner that unites into a communion (and does not turn them into competitors). While other dimensions are certainly present – the fact that the body and blood that communicants receive is that of a vindicated victim, who is simultaneously God’s Son is certainly worth exploring further, also from a prefigurative vantage point –, only these four can be seen as contributing to the prefiguration of a person’s perception of oneself (as recipient, not consumer, as being on the same plane and in communion with others rather than as a competitor), of one’s relationship with others, of one’s relationship with creation and, undergirding it all, one’s relationship with God, which is one of a gift freely given and received in communion with other human beings and creation, unhindered by all that may detrimentally impact such a relationship. As all of this deals with a person’s relationship to the management of goods and one’s self-perception in relation to them, the ritual of communion may well be seen as prefiguring a particular kind of economy and a certain kind of anthropology.

Peter-Ben Smit Profilbild
Peter-Ben Smit is professor of contextual biblical interpretation in the Dom Hélder Câmara chair at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and professor (by special appointment) of ancient catholic church structures at Utrecht University. An Old Catholic priest, he is interested in the relationship of the sources of the Christian tradition and both their ancient and contemporary context. Prefigurative politics is one of the newer lenses through with he explores these sources, such as biblical texts and liturgical traditions. A recent publication is: Old Catholic Theology: An Introduction (Leiden: Brill, 2019), of which a Czech translations has been published and a German translation is planned.

Literature

Boggs 1977, Carl Boggs, ‘Marxism, prefigurative communism and the problem of workers’ control,’ Radical America 11, 99-122.

Van de Sande 2017, Mathijs van de Sande, ‘The prefigurative power of the common(s),’ in: Guido Ruivenkamp and Andy Hilton (ed.), Perspectives on Commoning. Autonomist Principles and Practices, London, Zed Books, 25-63.

Van de Sande 2019, Mathijs van de Sande, ‘Prefiguration,’ in: Heike Paul (ed.), Critical Terms in Future Studies, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 227-233.

Swain, Dan, ‘Not Not but Not yet: Present and Future in Prefigurative Politics,’ Political Studies 67 (2019), 47–62.

Lumen gentium, dogmatic constitution on the Church (21 November 1964)

Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982)

Quelle Titelbild: James Coleman von unsplash.com


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