Commonwealth and Covenant

Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality

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Marcia Pally
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , March
     427 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Marcia Pally begins Commonwealth and Covenant with a diagnosis: the West is currently suffering from an excess of “separability or distinction, the ability to leave one’s place and develop oneself differently from past and neighbors” (3). The remedy, she suggests, is an ontology based on what she terms separability-amid-situatedness or distinction-amid-relation.

Part 1 of the book argues for “an ontology of relationality” (7) derived from the notion of separation-amid-situatedness. Per this ontology, individual persons are the distinct individuals that they are through their relations to others and relating to others presupposes distinction or separability. The upshot of this is that individuality and relation are not binary but mutually constituted and must, therefore, be thought together. The ontology is developed in order to suggest a concomitant ethics, which Pally describes as a “process of reciprocal consideration-worthiness, taking the concerns of the (distinct) other to be as worthy of consideration as one’s own” (10). This is followed by readings of a variety of thinkers typically considered to be champions of either separability (notably, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Mill, Rawls) or situatedness (Burke, Hume, Novalis, Schelling, Sandel, MacIntyre). This is a fascinating section, particularly as it functions as a performance of the ontology for which the author is arguing. Pally suggests that closer readings of the supposed advocates of separability or situatedness, and greater attentiveness to the context in which they wrote (their own situatedness), shows them to be much more concerned with a “meld” (114) of distinction and relation than is usually recognized. Pally acknowledges that there are differences among the thinkers she is engaging but proposes that, in accordance with her ontology, focusing solely on distinction to the neglect of relation can lead to misreadings. This meld, she claims, is the real intellectual heritage of the West and that “those who ignore it are not following the tradition but dismembering it” (119). For the most part she eschews popular labels (“liberal,” “conservative,” “communitarian,”etc.) and only explicitly mentions neoliberalism a couple of times, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is the culprit to be held responsible for such “dismembering.”

Part 2 examines the way relationality has been understood in Judeo-Christian traditions in an effort to articulate a theological grounding of her ontology of separability-amid-situatedness. Pally suggests that these traditions offer ways to preserve the ontology on offer and to think about what that ontology looks like when played out in community. Pally engages numerous tenants of Judaism and Christianity (as well as Jewish and Christian thinkers) in an attempt to show how these various and distinct ideas and traditions share a family resemblance, namely, a theology of relationality (an ontology of separability-amid-situatedness “in religious voice”; 123). Among the religious notions and practices which Pally reads through the lens of relationality are: the analogia entis, tselem/imago dei, the Trinity, and the Eucharist. Perhaps the primary religious idea for her argument, however, is covenant. As Pally explains, covenant assumes distinct parties bound together by their own volition. Unlike contract, covenant is a commitment where the other party is not a means to an end: covenant is a “relationship of reciprocal concern…a form of relationship in which each party is distinct and through which each person becomes more of the distinct person she is” (155). As with part 1, the methodology Pally employs is of a piece with her overall argument. She constantly interweaves distinct themes (themes often taken to support either separability or situatedness) to show not only the way they relate to each other but also how they presuppose the kind of “meld” she finds shared among the secular thinkers in part 1. What emerges is a theological ethics in which we are all distinct yet bound to each other because we are all bound yet distinct to the source of our being (God). The proper form of this interpersonal bond involves trust, hospitality, and responsibility for others.

The interplay of method and argument that runs throughout Commonwealth and Covenant is perhaps the most unique and fascinating aspect of the book. Pally engages an astonishing variety of sources and the way she draws together thinkers generally taken to be on opposing sides of major theological or philosophical discussions to support her argument is consistently disarming (in the best way). I suspect this is also where some readers might have questions. Pally makes every effort to acknowledge that there are real differences between the thinkers, ideas, and practices she draws upon to support her ontology of relationality, but still claims that these apparently disparate voices basically agree about separability and situatedness. This argument is not incidental to Pally’s objective. As her ontology suggests that a plurality of perspectives helps us to better understand our world and ourselves and if this plurality demonstrates an underlying commonality or relatedness despite distinction, then—Pally contends—that commonality is likely a basic fact of our existence. To sum, there seems to be a fair amount riding on the persuasiveness of her readings (though I think the thrust of her argument is correct, I will leave it to others better suited to appraise her various readings).

Commonwealth and Covenant sets out to offer a corrective to the “undue separability” (5) of the contemporary Western world that does not overcorrect with an oppressive situatedness-absent-separability. This is an ambitious task but Pally offers a compelling case for an ontology of relationality and for relational theology as an example of a framework that can ground such an ontology and put it into practice. While some readers might have questions about her diagnosis, I do not think the success or failure of the central argument of the book requires complete agreement on this score. Even though it is offered as a “corrective,” Pally’s proposal does not require one to buy in wholeheartedly to a sort of declension narrative in order to be appreciated. Pally is not suggesting that all “our workplaces and communities are separability or situatedness run amok” (7) but that societies and policies based on the mutual constitution of separability and situatedness are better than those in which we get “one untempered by the other” (7). Moreover, even if readers are unconvinced by some parts of Pally’s argument, her efforts should serve as a reminder to us that any politics that prescinds from an attempt to recognize both freedom and constraint as part of the human condition does so to its own detriment.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tyler Womack is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marcia Pally teaches at New York University in Multilingual Multicultural Studies and at Fordham University and is a guest professor in the theology department at Humboldt University in Berlin.



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