Beyond Monotheism — 13. A Turn to Ethics: Beyond Nationalism

Schneider begins this chapter, which signals the book’s final part, with an introductory “snapshot memoir” (185).  This recounts her trip, just after graduating from college, to the German village from which her grandfather emigrated to the USA.  Here she finds, inscribed on an obelisk, the conjunction: “One people, one nation, one God” (185).  It is against this background that she commences discussion of the link between monotheism and nationalism.  The connection that the natives of her ancenstral village saw between monotheism and nationalism is all too common.

We can understand why a theology critical of monotheism will be interested in applying the same criticsm to the logic of nationalism.  Thus Schneider remarks that “it is not difficult to see in nationalist feeling everywhere distinct elements of religious feeling, and in definitions of ‘the nation’ ambiguities similar to those inherent in doctrinal explanations” (186).  Nonetheless, while theologians often observe the duplication of monotheistic sentiment in political ideologies, contemporary social scientists are less likely to return the favor.  This is primarily due to the latter group’s alleigance to objectivity, which makes theological categories (such as “soul” or “spirit”) rather unattractive.  What is necessary is a “more flexible posture” (188) whereby the problematics of religion and nation are understood to be imbricated in one another. 

Schneider makes clear that the relationship she has in mind is one in which monotheism enables the imagination of national identity. 

‘Monotheism’ is an umbrella term for the unitary logic that frames the cultural imagination of global leaders in the first decades of the twenty-first century.  Supplying legitimation and weight to the moral economy of nationalism, it is a symbolic force of Ptolemaic proportion that could be said to be (but only with some irony) the founding ‘deep symbol’ of our time. (190)

Accordingly, breaking the spell of nationalism must involve breaking the spell of monotheism.  But this is not easy, for these have become second nature to us, they have “worked for a very long time” (190).  Perhaps we now see the dawn of an era in which they will no longer work, given movements of human population, globalization, and hybridity.  Schneider, on one hand, wagers on the possibility that the emergence of these factors will make monotheistic nationalism obsolete.  “As nations begin already to dissolve in the contemporary world of porous exchange there is an opening not only for a theology of multiplicity but for a politics of multiplicity as well” (194).  On the other hand, she notes that this development is by no means automatic, that a labor of imagination is exigent.  Only a combination, it seems, of historical shift and imaginative intervention can set forth a theopolitics of multiplicity. 

It is important that a theopolitics of multiplicity propagate a peace that is positive rather than negative.  Examples of the latter, in which peace amounts to the absence of war, can be found in both Roman and American imperial orders.  Theopolitical multiplicity should not be founded on the desire for security, which sacrifices the wilder edges, the anomalous, to order (note that this connects to the ethic of love advanced in the next chapter).  Rather, it should aim to engender spaces where people can tell different stories and can imagine new ways of relating to one another.

Schneider’s insistence on these positive, differential encounters concludes her chapter, but I think it serves nicely as a way of looping back to her brief critique of Neo-Orthodoxy, which I will now mention.  She has in mind here one who would protest that monotheism, properly understood, ultimately stands against nationalism.  Rightly, in my mind, she invokes the most popular example of this critical monotheism—Barth against the Nazis.  Whatever the ameliorative attributes made available by Barth may be, they are blunted by their residence in a framework whose spirit is one of intolerance and exclusion.  It is the logic of George W. Bush, who claims that you are with us or you are against us, pick a side.  Schneider cites Barth, who says, “beside faith in Him there are religions only as religions of superstition, error and finally irreligion” (193).  Barth has shown his cards, he “slips into fundamentalism and a desire for the utter elimination of difference.  This is the logic of the One at work, manifest even in the critique that radical monotheism is supposed to achieve” (193).

The point, I take it, is that radical monotheism must either refuse any iconic manifestation as falling short of the One, in which case it literally becomes meaningless, or allow one (which is to say: “One”) specific emergence of itself, in which case it becomes exclusivist and rejects multiplicity.  As Schneider says: “For specificity to meet the demand of oneness, there can be only one specific revelation.  The logic of the One insists that truth is one, and so the one revelation also sets the truth of divinity against all falsehoods” (193).  Neo-Orthodoxy thus imagines multiplicity, and the encounters that feed off of and engender it, as a realm of falsehood.

Reflections/Questions:  I find the critique of Barth & Co. to be quite well-stated, and believe it is worth foregrounding.  There is, in Barthian thought, a certain valorization of particularity (or specificity), and there is also a certain valorization of, let’s say, “exteriority”—i.e., God cannot be identified with x or y or whatever.  But how does the relation between these valorizations function?  Schneider shows that this relation does not substantively evade precisely what is problematic about a logic of the One.  If she is right, and I believe she is, then a number of apparent theological innovations can be seen as inadequate.

Also, I think it might be intriguing to think further about the role of imagination.  A work of imagination is clearly called for, but is there some way of providing an immanent evaluation of imagination?

8 thoughts on “Beyond Monotheism — 13. A Turn to Ethics: Beyond Nationalism

  1. Adam, are you familiar at all with Bruce McCormack’s reading of Barth (i.e. that the doc. of election in II/2 is retro-actively formative for his doc. of God, eschewing any essentialist readings)? I can’t help but link Schneider’s analysis solely to that of the early Barth of Romans, and not the mature work of CD II and following. I do think her critique is on point for the early Barth, however.

  2. Troy, can’t be of help wrt McCormack — could you possibly say more about how election saves Barth from essentialism in God? The quote, after all, is from the “later period” you mention (CD II/1), but maybe that’s the retroactive part?

    Particularly, it’s not clear to me how Barth (whether his God is essentialist or not) can avoid affirming an identification of God with one specific revelation.

  3. I don’t think the later Barth of the Church Dogmatics escapes her critique. Keller has a really good critical chapter on Barth in Face of the Deep, too.

    Right, Dan, in my political theology I try to argue that it’s not sufficient to champion the sovereignty of God over against the sovereignty of man, but we have to re-think what we mean by sovereignty, and this is what I see Keller doing in God and Power and Caputo in Weakness of God. Derrida talks about the merry-go-round of sovereignty that coalesces into the One in Rogues, and Nancy has a good chapter on “The Deconstruction of Monotheism” in Dis-Enclosure. Both of these would be good to relate to Schneider’s discussion here of monotheism and nationalism. We could think about the rotary motion (a term Zizek uses in regard to the psychoanalytic drives) that consolidates the One and the turning that distributes the One, as well as the counter-motion, if there is one, that destabilizes, deconstructs, (multiplies??) and renders the One inoperable.

  4. I should mention something that I didn’t in the post … As this chapter is about “nationality”, and as Schneider opens with that intriguing piece about her own ethnicity, I wonder whether the question of race, ethnicity, etc, deserves a more prominent place in criticism of monotheism.

    After all, if one of the basic problems of the One is its erasure of differences, then surely it would of interest, as a mode of resistance, to think about ways that “particularized” Christianities might make use of that particularity in order to delink from the Christian One. Perhaps this is not promising with certain ethnicities, I don’t know, but there are undoubtedly many Carribean Christianities that could be exemplary here. Or, think of the way that Southern Italian and Sicilian immigrants to the US were required to “become” Catholic, which is essentially to give up their difference (no more pagan festivals, no more idolatrous and extra-priestly household gods/saints, etc).

    Also, this would allow us to get at the difference of Jewish monotheism from Christian monotheism. The way, for instance, that the former is not separated from a defense of embodied difference.

  5. It would seem as though the recourse to ethnicity would be a major problem for Pauline theology, as it seems to militate specifically against this (“neither Jew nor Greek”). I’m not weighing in on whether or not this is a good or bad thing, but if one were to marshal the resources of the New Testament at one point and then at another suggest ethnicity as a way of preserving particularity, that there is, at the least, a significant amount of hermeneutical work to be done, as the erasure of ethnic particularity seems to be a pretty significant emphasis for Paul.

  6. Yes, this is the fundamental problem with Xnty in my mind. I do agree with your reading of Paul, along the lines of the reading offered by Boyarin.

  7. Galatians 3:28a constitutes the quashing of a binary but not, I think, the erasure of particularity or difference, racial, ethnic, or otherwise. That would only follow if being one en Christo (3:28b) entails the monochromatic, and there are good exegetical grounds, trawling the entire Pauline corpus, and rehearsed by several scholars in response to Boyarin’s reading of Galatians 3:28, for insisting that it doesn’t.

    But that’s by the by. More interesting in a post-structuralist discussion of the matter, do you know Michel de Certeau’s take on “the logic of ‘neither the one nor the other'”? (Certeau, of course, was quite obsessed with the issue of otherness.)

    “This dialogue,” Certeau writes, “is a movement. It creates, proportioned to a given term and to its juxtaposed contrary, a third hypothesis [not “the logic of ‘the one or the other'”, nor “the logic of ‘the one and the other'”] but without determining it. It opens a future but without fixing that future. It ‘permits’ a spiritual action, but without identifying it with an objective statement, institution, or law. It makes necessary a risk, a conversion, a doing which cannot be a priori specified or said within a text. It makes room for a decision which will be the unforeseeable decision of the Christian reader of these Scriptures.”

    Whatever, many thanks – and congratulations – for this great “event”. Encore for sure.

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