Marcia PALLY. Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016. Pp. viii + 424. $50.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-7104-6. Reviewed by Benjamin J. BROWN, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560.
In Commonwealth and Covenant Marcia Pally has produced a monumental theology of relationality that should inform the thought and work of every single theologian and many others as well. Her argument is that everything is marked by relationality, encompassing the twofold notions of individual and community. All of reality is permeated with distinction and relation, uniqueness and melded-ness, the one and the many, because all that is not God comes from and reflects the God who is distinction-amid-relation. All of Christian theology, and all of human life for that matter, is illuminated by an understanding of relationality, and Pally’s work equips us to see more deeply and hold together disparate elements in economics, politics, ethics and ecclesial life.
The first part of the book offers an extended mostly philosophical analysis of separability and situatedness, terms that Pally uses because they are less common and thus less loaded. In the duality of self and other, separability refers to the self, the individual, personal identity and similar concepts, while situatedness refers to the nexus of self-other, community, togetherness, relationship and the like. Pally examines dozens of different aspects of each and builds a case for their mutual interdependency. She also discusses the problems that occur when one is overemphasized or isolated from the other. There can be no self without the other, for personal identity is constituted by relationship, and similarly, there can be no community without strong self-identity. She shows how this dynamic plays out socially, politically, epistemologically, and even biologically, slowly developing a well-rounded ontology of distinction-amid-relation. Pally is really good at teasing out the implications and showing how everything is marked by this duality and thus how important it is to understand and embody the right balance.
The second part of the book focuses on how distinction and relation play out theologically. She examines Trinity, creation, covenant, the Paschal mystery, Eucharist, ethics and other doctrines. Pally offers a beautiful and integrated vision of the whole that is very rich theologically. Her understanding of relation grounds her examination of all the pieces of a richly textured and unified theology; everything proceeds from the God who is distinction-amid-relation and leads back to being enfolded again into that foundational reality. Many elements are “twined” together: love of God and love of neighbor, self and other, creation and covenant, operative and co-operative grace (divine and human freedom), Trinity and crucifixion, spiritual and material salvation, belief and behavior, etc. Taking the Trinity and distinction-amid-relation seriously leads to a very strong “both-and” theology that thinks carefully about how to hold distinct elements together without blurring the distinction nor undercutting the unity. In some ways, this has always been the great theological task.
Her conclusion summarizes the results, looks at how successful American covenant communities have had to find balances of individual freedom (separability) and embodied common practices (situatedness), and suggests further ways in which this ontology could inform economics. The practical economic applications in the last section are particularly insightful.
Pally’s method embodies the book’s content: by bringing together many different perspectives across the Judeo-Christian spectrum, including the ideas of theologians and philosophers who take contradictory positions, she “highlights distinction-amid-relation in the voices gathered” (335). Her aim is to show how they all support the fundamental ontology of separability-and-situatedness, even if they disagree on other matters, thus representing a discovery of unity amidst difference. In that regard, her method is well-chosen. At the same time, it is one of the book’s drawbacks, for at times the diverse views become cacophonous and confusing. On occasion, for several pages the text will jump from one thinker to another. This approach is acceptable in the first part of the book, which develops a foundation, but in the second part it would have been better to see her own voice emerge more strongly to craft a unified vision. Too many disparate voices are left standing alongside each other, and thus all the pieces are present, but not sufficiently put together so that the total picture appears clearly.
Similarly, in the first part especially, Pally works so hard to ground her ontology broadly that she turns modern individualists from Hobbes to Rawls into communally-minded thinkers as well, without acknowledging some of the conflicts within their own thought. Certainly Hobbes, for example, has an idea of community that he supports, but when he can only establish that on the basis of a prior and prioritized set of individualistic choices, the communal aspect is deeply undercut.
Finally, while Pally has no intention of offering a complete systematic theology, there is one noticeable gap; she never discusses hell, the fly in the ointment of Trinitarian covenantal commitment and eternal, irrevocable love. Related to this, justice seems to be too much reinterpreted as simply interpersonal reciprocity and gift (she does a good job with Anselm, for example, but leaves out part of his picture in the end). At times she seems to lean towards a kind of panentheism (though that is by no means clear), which actually undermines her thesis, for it blurs the distinction of Creator and created and does not allow each to be fully itself.
Despite these flaws, Commonwealth and Covenant is a magisterial work and an incredible accomplishment that generally presents a profound, integrated, and beautiful view into all that is, from God down to the smallest particle. Pally really needs to write this vision into an undergraduate-level systematic theology text as well as a theology for a popular audience. The contemporary world is very much in need of what she has to offer.