Agamben argues that the concept of oikonomia in its basic pre-dogmatic, pre-theological formulation as “praxis ordered for a purpose” gradually disappeared in early church teaching (The Kingdom and the Glory p. 30). He writes “It is the strategic operator that, before the elaboration of an appropriate philosophical vocabulary … allows a temporary reconciliation of the trinity within the divine unity”(p. 36). Temporary, because with what Agamben describes as “the Nicene-Constantinopolitan dogmatics” and I refer to as the fall of the church, “the oikonomia will gradually disappear from the Trinitarian vocabulary, and will be preserved only in that of the history of salvation” (p. 36). My argument in Church, Gospel and Empire is that this ‘fall’ was the occasion when subsumption came to a head, and theology itself emerged as the carrier of an imperially compromised polis. What I understand from Agamben here is that this same subsumption was experienced by the concept of the oikonomia and from then theology mystified both politics and economics.
It is interesting to note that whereas the loss of the simplicity of incarnation in the inversion of ‘true’ and ‘mysterious’ in relation to the body of Christ happened a millennia after the fall of the church, the inversion of ‘the economy of the mystery’ and ‘the mystery of the economy’ paved the way for it. This Agamben shows in his careful exegesis of the second century writings of Tertullian and Hippolytus of Rome. As he summarises, “There is no economy of the mystery, that is, an activity aimed at fulfilling and revealing the divine mystery; it is the very ‘pragmateia,’ the very divine praxis, that is mysterious” (p. 39). This resulted in the mystification of the trinity. Instead of trinity being a simple outcome of the mystery hidden in God being made known, it is mystified in such a way that sovereignty can remain within it (p. 42). This is something that I draw on Beatrice to argue, also in Church, Gospel ad Empire (p. 51).
From Nicaea on, the trinity consists in a theological formulation mystified by sovereignty and oikonomia was no longer seen to refer to the pragmatics of how the loving divine household is shared with the body of humanity. Agamben cites Clement to show how it came to refer instead to the mysterious machinations of divine providence in history (p. 44). Highlighting Clement’s conjunction of oikonomia and providence (pronoia) Agamben points out that Clement “initiates the process that will lead to the progressive constitution of the duality of theology and economy, the nature of God and his historical action” (p. 48). This he goes on to explore in chapter three “Being and Acting.” Suffice it to say here, that this rupture is the result of mystifying the pragmatics of God’s love with the baggage of subsumed sovereignty and justified all manner of unloving acts in his name. Agamben quotes Photius to show that by the sixth and seventh centuries oikonomia is already beginning to take on the meaning of Agamben’s famous ‘exception,’ (p. 49) the hidden conditions in which law and history can be suspended in order for the covert principle of sovereign power to be upheld.
The relevance of all this for today, in our postsecular world, is to call for an unsubsumed paradigm of oikos to be aligned with an unsubsumed paradigm of polis. Both economics and politics need to be recovered from the centuries of empire and set free from the delusion that overall wellbeing comes through sovereignty. Only a reconfigured, incarnational, economic and political theology can help us achieve this.