Radical Theology and Agamben

Having now read all of Adam’s write-ups on Il Regno e la Gloria like the rest of you, I cannot escape a certain dreadful anticipation of intellectual Christians grossly misreading Agamben’s foray into theology as a kind of validation.  As I understand it, the theological upshot of Agamben’s project is that Christian theology (and thus western politics as a whole) is based on a betrayal of its messianic roots.  Fine, says the intellectual Christian, all one needs to do is “return” to these roots, or some semblance thereof, and the betrayal is thereby betrayed. Aufhebung!!

We’ve seen this a little when Zizek used the subtitle that sent many a Christian heart aflutter, “Why the Christian legacy is worth fighting for.”  Of course, Zizek’s point was that this fight is directed against Christians themselves, and that the “legacy” in question, in fact, results in something quite at odds with the Christianity they would seek to defend.  Much the same seems at work in Agamben’s turn to the religious.  This is a banal point, and yet you’ll still find generally intelligent Christians theorizing an excited harmony between their spiritual activity, much of it good and noble I’m sure, with Agamben’s anarchic vision of messianism.  I have no reason to suspect the reaction to Il Regno will be much different.  (Though to be fair, I really must confess a complete ignorance as to the reception of his book on Romans.)

This wouldn’t be so bad, I suppose, if many of these same Christian theorists had not long ago dismissed somebody like, say, friend of AUFS, Thomas Altizer.  Over thirty years ago, he preached a similar vision of a Christian theology that had been betrayed (for him, it was betrayed away from its apocalyptic roots — but, really, his “here comes everybody” apocalypticism would seem to function along the same lines as Agamben’s messianism).  And yet, no room was made for such a theology by most Christians.  He was quickly ruled unfashionable and irrelevant, too academic and removed from church.

Why is it different when philosophers speak of a radical vision of Christian theology?  Is it because one can more easily “read against the grain” of one who thinks as an outsider?  What makes it easier to reconfigure a philosopher’s ultimatetly hostile vision of theology (hostile to the defender of orthodoxy, that is), than those that come from within the Christian tradition itself?

39 thoughts on “Radical Theology and Agamben

  1. Along these same lines, Michael Naas has a great essay, which I think should be coming out in a book soon, arguing that Derrida’s “religious turn” is motivated by a desire to be even more thoroughly secular — that is, you need to examine the theological roots of sovereignty in order to be able to move beyond them, for example. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, of Zizek and Agamben.

  2. Also coming this fall (September) is Martin Hägglund’s Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Naas in his blurb calls it “a masterful performance and one cannot help but be convinced in the end…”


    A talk based on the book is available here as is a PDF of Hägglund’s excellent article “The Necessity of Discrimination: Disjoining Derrida and Levinas.”


  3. The most likely Radical Orthodox approach: “Agamben shows that modernity is just a bastardized version of Christian theology, as we’ve said all along. Since the only option he offers us is his nihilistic version of messianism, clearly the answer is to go back to the previous, more stable model of Christian theology proper.”

    Does everyone notice what is being passed over in silence there? Yes, that’s right — Agamben claims that the theological model tends inherently toward modernity.

  4. Points taken, and perhaps the same folks will dismiss Agamben who dismissed Altizer (for equally good or bad reasons), yet there’s a huge difference between someone like Agamben and someone like Altizer, IMO. For one, Agamben does not primarily go around making melodramatic statements about “God” tout court (the exception perhaps being some passages within his misc. essays on language, and “The Irreparable” section of _The Coming Community_, although arguably that’s his acknowledged foray into “first philosophy,” *not* written primarily as a marketed “new theological movement” posture).

    I think the use of “radical” in relation to any theology is always too ambiguous without being qualified (for example, Agamben and Zizek hardly have much in common, apart from Zizek’s five-year-plan cheerleading choices that happened to land on Agamben for a time). Same goes for claims of being “in” or “outside” the church (since even “orthodoxy” can allow for an “invisible church,” etc.).

    I don’t care about “radical orthodoxy” as a movement, yet I still don’t think there need be a contradiction between being “radical” with or against being “orthodox.” The issue should be how any given thinker’s faith or non-faith relates to institutional power, regardless of labels attributed to the thought. There can still be better or worse, valid or invalid, insightful vs. stupid, criticism of something in dire need of criticism. The “exoteric”/”esoteric” distinction is not always a matter of opposition but one of levels of analysis, or insight. Often posturing passes for insight, on all sides.

  5. As a theologian who found Agamben’s commentary on Romans incredibly illuminating, let me ask some questions.

    First, are you suggesting, Brad, that an intelligent and thoughtful Christian theologian cannot appropriate the thoughts of an atheistic philosopher like Agamben? It seems to me that Christianity, properly understood, embraces the work of atheism, in that atheism provides a necessary critical voice against certain ideas of God which need to be destroyed. For this reason, Feuerbach and Nietzsche have been widely embraced by Christians for many years, and for very good reasons. Karl Barth’s rejection of religion is rooted in his reading of people like Feuerbach. Are you suggesting that Christian theology of any kind is absolutely barred by a thinker like Agamben? That there are no resources within the Christian faith for embracing the radical positions of Zizek and Agamben, not to mention those who came before them?

    Second, if you aren’t absolutely barring a positive Christian engagement with Agamben, then what kind of engagement would you deem acceptable? Is it one that would first accept the views of someone like Altizer? Or is it something else?

  6. Not to speak for Brad, but D. W. Congdon, you are moving the goalposts significantly. Brad is saying that, based on previous experience with Christian responses to secular philosophers who use theology, Christians are likely to interpret Agamben’s use of theology as a kind of affirmation, which would be diametrically opposed to what he was trying to do. The legitimacy of Christians using atheistic philosophers in general was never in question.

  7. To make it more clear, the phenomenon Brad is talking about is like if someone were to read Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity as a direct vindication of Christian theology over against atheism.

  8. My only concrete thought in response to the post is that I don’t think Agamben’s and Altizer’s work are of the same caliber, regardless of their personal stances on theism or atheism. I don’t think Agamben’s take on messianism is at all as reductive as Altizer’s theological stance, whatever “intellectual Christians” may think of either of them.

  9. “Does everyone notice what is being passed over in silence there? Yes, that’s right — Agamben claims that the theological model tends inherently toward modernity.”

    Precisely. Milbank’s nostalgia for Christendom as an alternative to modernity is naive insofar as it doesn’t recognize that Christendom inevitably birthed the modern.

    The question for a stable model with totalizing answers is a quixotic quest if I’ve ever seen one.

  10. Brad, I think you raise some very important issues, and I’ve been struggling with all of this messianic stuff recently and wondering if there’s not a problem with Agamben (and Derrida, Nancy, even Badiou, etc.) on messianism.

    Where I think Altizer was right, and what has become accepted more and more in continental philosophical terms especially since Gauchet, is the continuity of modern European Western thought with pre-modern, medieval and early Christian thought (not that it’s limited to thought, but here focusing on that). So Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity is fundamentally based upon an identification of the essence of Christianity with the West. And the history of the West, which is the history of Christianity, has to be deconstructed in order to uncover its radical, or redemptive core. This is a corrective of Radical Orthodoxy, which posits a radical break between medieval and modern, and RO follows the more stereotypical enlightenment view of a break between pre-modern religious and modern secular, but this is called into question by the idea of the post-secular, at least in terms of my understanding of it.

    But what if this messianicity is a desperate attempt to “save” the West, to preserve its core identity over against Muslim and other threatening discourses? I understand the need to think through the constitution of the West in order to think otherwise, but do we ultimately end up reinforcing this Western/Christian identity in other ways? Maybe the continental philosophers are really no different from the Christian theologians, except for being more subtle about it?

    ps. I want to thank Adam for his extraordinary effort to read and summarize Agamben’s book.

  11. D.W., Adam responded to your series of questions eloquently and sufficiently in my absence. My intent is not to set up limits around what a theologian might read and react to.

    BT, I can respect your distaste for Altizer. But in the end, I’m not sure it much matter. The point remains the same if one provides any name, be it made up or real, of a theologian who represents a fundamental challenge to the core of theology, perhaps one who suits your fancy regarding melodrama or caliber. They are out there, and they all are not all named Thomas Altizer.

    Clayton, that’s an interesting thought. But I wonder to what extent one is always defending the core, radicalized or not, of one’s identity. The value of the messianic, as I understand it, is that the core defended would never be fully victorious. And that, over the course of the defenses, the core of identity would expand out further and further.

  12. Re: the mentions in this thread of Agamben as an “atheist”: In what book or essay or talk does he self-characterize himself as an “atheist”? His own personal belief on the “God question,” in either direction (apart from often deferring to Heidegger), is not at all obvious or clear, from his published work at least. In fact, his particular use of Wittgenstein / Spinoza / Heidegger / Judaism, etc. could even be seen as leaving a door open to a certain type of “unspoken” mysticism, purposely unarticulated as such. J.-L. (Nancy hints at something similar with his “absentheism” coinage, refusing the atheism/theism terms. — I’m presuming, of course, that being “unorthodox” does not necessary = being “atheist.”)

    Altizer, on the other hand, consciously uses or appropriates atheism language quite explicitly, which is why it doesn’t make much sense to me to suggest they’re engaging in “similar vision[s] of Christian theology” (phrase used in original post). I think the answer to the original question (re: why are philosophers’ criticisms easier to “reconfigure” than those coming “within” theology?) is just dependent on the interests of those who would be concerned over it in the first place (their investments, allegiances, etc.).

    I don’t think there’s any great mystery to this issue, in other words: T. A. used the word “atheism” a lot, and I’m not even certain Agamben is “hostile” to theology — he simply claims to be reading the texts. So the question of the *value* of grouping apples & oranges like G. A. & T. A. is not just incidental, is what I was trying to suggest. If others can fill-in for Altizer, fine, but then that just begs the question of why x is chosen as an example over y, etc. I think the answer is simply that people like to defend what they’re invested in, and are more willing to “borrow” from those seen as less direct threats.

  13. Have you read my notes over Agamben’s use of theology? He’s not hostile to Paul — the rest of what he analyzes is part of the political machine of the West that needs to be stopped.

    I’ve got to say, I’m going to be pissed if you haven’t even read the notes, because one of the greatest sins on this blog is spouting off without reading — particularly without reading something directly available on this blog!

  14. Adam — I’ve read your notes, not the book of course (not knowing Italian, so of course am grateful for your notes). I understand and agree with Agamben’s criticism of the political use theology is put to, but I don’t see him, at least up to R&G, as “hostile” to theology in the broadest sense of the term. (That’s why the differences between Schmitt and Peterson are significant — even if A. claims to get to an “essence” or kernel beyond both; that’s why he’ll use Rabbinic allegories and medieval debates on the image to redefine “spectacle,” etc., etc.) Even theology can be put his other, “playful” sense of use.

  15. Even still, there’s something about the way you’re approaching this question that seems wrongheaded — perhaps defensive in a way. I mean: Okay, no, Agamben’s clearly not saying that theological texts are inherently evil. But that really doesn’t get at the affect of what he’s doing with theology in this book. Yes, he studies theology, but he also studies the Holocaust — not saying theology is tantamount to the Holocaust, but a close study of something doesn’t necessarily betoken admiration.

  16. …Even still, there’s something about the way you’re approaching this question that seems wrongheaded — perhaps defensive in a way…

    The deep dislike I have to the presumptions behind Altizer’s work is probably seeping through.

  17. p.s. I’m not claiming Agamben *admires* theology *per se*, but _The Coming Community_ (1990), for example (one of his “positive” books), already gets its main concept (whatever, quodlibet) from theology (not just Paul). The tone of R&G could be different because of the political implications he’s trying to distill, but so far at least I just don’t see Agamben as hostile to theology tout court. (Redefining Debord’s “spectacle” via the Rabbinic allegory is actually a sort of loving, or at least sweet, gesture…)

  18. That’s true, but was just trying to make the point re: theology generally. _The Coming Community_ uses St. Thomas, Duns Scotus, Eckhart, etc. among all the others. (Not to mention that for Agamben “Christianity” is basically diluted messianic Judaism by definition…)

    When it comes to Christian theology I still think Agamben and Altizer are more dissimilar than similar. That’s all I’ve been trying to stress. But I don’t have much more to say about it.

  19. By ‘hostile to theology’, I’m referring to the reigning orthodoxy. I, for example, despise most theology, but still consider myself a theologian. On the philosophical side, I’d say that Agamben is ‘hostile’ to the theology in the sense that he obviously is not happy with the modern structures of sovereignty it inherently informs. (Note: it is not simply a matter that politics has put theology to vile use — his point is that theology leads DIRECTLY to its vile political use.) Whether he is an atheist or not, I don’t know and don’t care.

    Now, for all that hostility, Agamben and, let’s say, David Jasper (for the sake of argument, I’ll rule out Altizer as comparable at all), seem to believe that an outright opposition is foolhardy. So, they locate within theology the sense that it has been betrayed by its own constitutive failure (Jasper: ‘the Christian art of missing the joke’). Both the philosopher and theologian believe that the spirit of Christianity before betrayal is, on some level, still alive — but, if invoked, results in something fundamentally alien to orthodoxy (and thus, too; modern structures of power).

    What I find interesting is that more often than not the theologians engaged in this kind of thinking are not taken as serious, legitimate theological voices. And yet, based on experience, the philosopher’s observations are somehow woven back into and as a validation of the faith. The easy, most immediately sensible answer is the one BT cites: it’s less threatening to those interested in defending orthodoxy (albeit for many, a version of orthodoxy that is not in bed with the violence of modern sovereignty). If that is the case, though, Clayton’s reflections become very interesting indeed — for now the philosophers, via my own Benjaminian view of interpretation, whereby interpretations expand beyond their sources and thus obstruct their creator’s claims of innocence, are indeed found to be playing the orthodox theologians’ game after all. If that is the case, the ignored/downplayed theological voices, even that one BT despises most, may in fact STILL be the most trustworthy.

  20. Their is a quote from agamben on this that might be of some interest:

    Question: To conclude, let’s reconsider the moniker of Gentili ‘Silete theologi munere alieno’ (theologians should mind their own business). At this point, should theology speak and in what regard?

    Agamben: I would suggest to anyone who really wants to understand what is happening today not to neglect theology.

    One of the things that surprised me the most when I began to work on the problem of oikonomia is that I thought I could find volumes and volumes on the concept of economy in the theological libraries. But I found next to nothing. You need to read closely within the monographs on single authors to find the point analysed. It’s unbelievable but there is no global work on this concept.

    In State of Exception, when I paraphrased the monkier of Alberico Gentili, I was provoking jurists to confront this juridical condition from their own viewpoint. Today I am inviting theologians to do the same, to confront as theologians the problem of oikonomia, the removal of which has had sinister consequences both in theology and politics.

    [lifted from

  21. BT, obviously it would be idiotic to claim that Agamben doesn’t think people should study theology and even to claim that he doesn’t occasionally find theology fascinating or theological concepts useful. None of that cuts against the notion that his book is an attempt to undo the “theological machine” that, for him, also necessarily issued in modernity.

    To use a less charged example: obviously Agamben is really fascinated by Schmitt and thinks he’s a very important thinker. That doesn’t change the fact that, at the end of the day, he’s completely opposed to Schmitt.

  22. Adam — Well, I’m probably using “theology” in a broader sense, in the sense that I consider Paul to be doing/writing theology also. I don’t think all theology inevitably reduces to the “theological machine,” even if that is Agamben’s explicit position now. (If so, this is sad, this is similar to his way-too-simple Heideggerian reading of history mapped to the essences of Roman legal categories in _HS_ vol. 1, and leaving “politics” at that, etc.) I would just argue that theology in the broadest sense is never *completely* reducable to its political implications/use, even if Agamben thinks otherwise.

    Brad, Anthony — A lot of this thread seems to depend on how the issues of orthodoxy/”radicalness” and Statism/marginality map or don’t map to each other. For example, someone like Daniel Berrigan fulfills Brad’s criteria, in my opinion, of being “orthodox” but still anti-Statist (and also marginal). But even though I’m mostly in Berrigan’s camp, I wouldn’t use his “marginality” as the *basis* for his trustworthiness. Someone like Altizer is certainly marginal, but there may be good reasons for that completely apart from whatever conservative theologians think of him, or do or don’t appropriate from him vs. from a more “outsider” philosopher.

    I was just trying to suggest that the terms of the original question seem to pre-value marginality over orthodoxy, when the actual political stakes (if this really is the concern??) perhaps are more usefully discerned along other criteria, regardless of the philosophy/theology distinction.

  23. Yet again you’re moving the goalposts! It’s fine if you disagree with Agamben — that’s expected. What he was saying is that intellectual Christians will take Agamben’s use of theology in the book in question to be an affirmation simply because he’s using theology at all. All press is good press, presumably! And at first in this thread, you were doing exactly that.

  24. I don’t want to keep rehasing this forever of course, but from my perspective I haven’t been moving the goal posts so much as just trying to articulate that I *do* think Agamben affirms at least a certain *potential* of theology, distinct from the “theological machine,” even though I also personally disagree with him on the details of how his philosophy/metaphysics play-out. My suspicion of the starting presuppositions of this post probably stems from the fact that I actually don’t see anything wrong with theologians reading Agamben as affirming theology — why not? Let Agamben do that, even if it’s not his own stance or intention, and then let the worthwhile debates play-out on their own terms. (I guess I just don’t see as big of a mystery in the process of recuperation, apparently?) In short: I seem to disagree with the starting premises of this post.

  25. I’ve tried consistently to argue that Agamben’s hostility is toward that very real, concrete theology which has ‘won’, the one of orthodoxy (broadly defined) — not the abstract version of theologizing BT has in mind. There is a place for this abstract version. Indeed, I normallly frequent that space. Moreover, I would affirm it possible to render Agamben in a abstract-theological register — that is, speaking ‘theologically’ as well as ‘speaking to’ theology. This is all well and possible, and very much like something I’d find myself arguing from time to time. If this is the case, however, the abstract-theological content of Agamben, would be identified as such only by virtue of its catastrophic implications to the cause of the non-abstract, existing, dominant mode of Christian theology.

  26. What do you take to be the starting premises of this post?

    1. Re: 1st ¶ — It’s bad if Agamben is seen to be validating theology (implies that his messianism from Paul is purer than the same basic issues as discussed within Christian theology).
    2. Re: the Zizek paragraph — that Christianity is a monolithic entity that *needs* philosophical outsiders like Zizek or Agamben to restore its messianism, or point out where it has gone astray. (Implies that outsider criticism by those “outsiders” within anti-Christendom strains of Christianity isn’t adequate, even if often making the same points.)
    3. That Agamben and Altizer share a “similar vision of Christian theology,” and that if theologians had only accepting Altizer’s specific interpretation of the death of God themes 30 years ago then Christianity would be in a better state of affairs today.
    4. Re: last ¶ — that being “orthodox” and an “outsider” is inherently contradictory. Also, the implication that there is a mysterious reason that philosophers are more easily appropriated by theologians than fellow theologians, or that marginality per se is inherently valuable to the truth of criticism.

  27. That is a pretty forced reading all around. Here’s how I see it (by paragraph):

    1. Christian intellectuals are likely to read Agamben’s use of theology as an affirmation of Christianity, even though he is critiquing Christianity and its consequences.
    2. They did something similar with Zizek’s work on theology — they loved that he was talking about Christianity, not noticing that he was mobilizing theological texts against Christianity as it actually exists.
    3. This is weird, given that they weren’t able to pull off the same willful blindness when it came to Altizer.
    4. Why is it that Christians are flattered when non-Christian thinkers talk about theology, often ignoring their critical intent, while they are more than capable of understanding the intent when self-proclaimed Christian theologians are critical? The distinction between “outsider” and “orthodox” is not at all in play in this paragraph.

    As the mysterious voice says: Take and read!

  28. 1. If one thinks along with Agamben that “Christianity” is already just a derived form of messianic Judaism, then Agamben *is* affirming Christianity, in the specific sense of returning to its own origin.
    2. I see both “actually existing” Christianity and “critical” Christianity as still being capable of getting labeled as forms of “Christianity”; this may just be a definitional issue.
    3. The claims re: Altizer implied that his rejection by theologians was more a function of him being a theologian than a function of his own stance re: the death of God. I just suspect his rejection wasn’t so much over his profession, but due to his theological incoherencies. (By the same token, not every atheist philosopher out there is of Nietzsche’s caliber; although of course it would be convenient to imagine that one’s profession of “philosopher” was the issue, not the ideas!)
    4. I was reading ¶ 4’s “defender of orthodoxy” as being equally against the “outsider” philosopher and the “outsider” theologian, yet didn’t see why an “outsider” theologian (outsider to mainstream, Statist theology) would have to be non-orthodox.

  29. “Why is it that Christians are flattered when non-Christian thinkers talk about theology, often ignoring their critical intent, while they are more than capable of understanding the intent when self-proclaimed Christian theologians are critical?”

    It’s nice to see that Christian theology is still treated with seriousness by some non-Christians (given the prominence of the Dawkins/Dennett sort of non-Christian who do not regard it as a topic able to be treated with seriousness). This helps to give some reassurance that Christian theology is not becoming entirely absent from the general discourse.

    Christian theologians who treat Christian theology with seriousness serve no such function. For if Christian theologians were the only ones who treated Christian theology with seriousness, it might well be the case that Christian theology was entirely absent from the general discourse; the theologians might just talk amongst themselves, in their own little enclave, while the rest of the world passed them by.

    To put it another way: If Zizek, a non-theologian philosopher, gets theology wrong, then a correction of his theology can be put forth as part of the conversation of philosophy. If Altizer, a non-philosopher theologian, gets theology wrong, then a correction of his theology can only be put forth as part of the conversation of theology. Christian theologians are often worried that the conversation of theology might be dropped entirely; the conversation of philosophy does not seem so at risk of extinction in this way.

    I take this to be parallel to the way that I am glad that Robert Brandom and Rorty did some work to redeem Hegel’s good name, even though I think they both get him pretty widely wrong. It is nice that Hegel is talked about in “mainstream” analytic philosophy (even if he is talked about poorly), because this helps make it possible to talk about Hegel and be taken seriously (which wasn’t really possible a half-century ago, and still isn’t in some quarters). Whereas if a random Hegel scholar gets Hegel wildly wrong, this is simply annoying; nothing in The Owl of Minerva is going to be read by mainstream analytic philosophers, so the bad reading of Hegel doesn’t do anything to promote the reading of Hegel to mainstream analytic philosophers.

  30. I agree with your comment, but how are you defining “orthodoxy,” in relation to faith/belief/practice/politics?

    In the briefest of terms, as I assume this conversation is reaching its completion, by ‘orthodoxy’ I mean those structures and forms of theology whose fullest implications do not issue in their dissolution. More specifically, those forms of theology that survive in our churches and ecclesial orders, whose content is built around stability of hierarchy, as well as a divine economy that reserves glory for the Absolute sovereign.

  31. OK, that probably explains our different emphases. I like to think there could be an “orthodox” theology (even if perhaps always consigned to exist to some degree virtually, but still adhering to some basic tenants: divinity of Jesus, etc.) that would not just be destined to create or sanction hierarchical institutional forms. For me the truth of a divine/spiritual economy doesn’t preclude the option or validity of an “earthly” non-economy.

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