In chapter three of The Kingdom and the Glory “Being and Acting,” Agamben sets about demonstrating where the inversion of Paul’s “economy of the mystery” into “the mystery of the economy” takes us. It results in a separation between being and doing, principle and behaviour. As Agamben puts it, “distinguishing the substance or the divine nature from its economy amounts to instituting within God a separation between being and acting, substance and praxis” (p. 53). He rightly, in my view, points to the theological shibboleth of creation ex nihilo as a result of this separation (p.56). He also suggests that the Arian dispute is best understood as a manifestation of it, and not really about chronological precedence or a problem of rank between the Father and the Son but “rather a matter of deciding whether the Son – which is to say, the word and praxis of God – is founded in the Father or whether he is, like him, without principle, anarchos, that is, ungrounded” (p. 57).
Agamben goes on to show that “the fracture between being and praxis is marked in the language of the Fathers by the terminological opposition between theology and oikonomia” (p. 60). He cites first Eusebius of Caesarea and then the Cappadocians, particularly Gregory of Nazianzus, as examples of two modes of oikonomia in relation to Christ. As I have pointed out in Church Gospel and Empire, for Eusebius this meant downplaying the gospel testimony to the point that he barely mentions it in preference to a Christology rooted in imperial sovereignty. For Gregory, theology refers to the application of “lofty names to the divinity, and to that nature in Him which is superior to passions and incorporeal” whereas economy means “all humble names to the composite condition of Him who for your sakes emptied Himself and was Incarnate” (p. 61).
Agamben concludes that this Patristic distinction continues to impact contemporary theology in terms of the opposition between an immanent and an economic trinity. On the one hand is the mysterious trinitarian Godhead, on the other is the loving relational trinity that extends egalitarian love and justice into the world through creation and redemption. A tension that Agamben tellingly suggests reduces God’s providential government of the world to a kind of bipolar machine (p. 62). Understanding this, I suggest, is highly relevant right now and lies behind the current so-called “post-truth” era where governmental will and authority are separated from personal and corporate ethics. If knowledge is necessarily relational, then character and action are integral. If, however, the being of a person is separable from their actions, then truth is uncertain.
My thesis indicates that the empire assumption subsumed our theological understanding of divine being. Agamben traces the way in which oikonomia came to incorporate the same subsumption via the inversion of “the economics of the mystery” into “the mystery of economics.” So instead of the oikonomia revealing the nature of the God who acted well, a separation is introduced whereby a God beyond morality does good rather than is good. I emphasise again that one of the reasons that people find it hard to grasp the importance of this is that they have long assumed a mysterious sovereign God who does whatever he wants and whose ethics are secondary to his power. God, apparently by definition, does what he wants rather than necessarily acts out of love. It seems to me that resolving this disjunction is one of the most urgent tasks of contemporary theology. This is why I find Thomas Jay Oord’s work so attractive. His insistence on connecting God’s being and acting in terms of essential kenosis goes a long way towards accomplishing this.