The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation is a very provocative book, and its brevity and clarity do not prevent it from also being an ambitious, complex and important undertaking. The book is very well-structured, and builds to a concise but compelling final chapter where Kotsko constructs his own atonement theory. I like the way he combines theological and philosophical, and contemporary and traditional figures, even if the emphasis is more on the theological and the traditional here. In fact, this is a most impressive example of what Ricoeur calls the “hermeneutics of retrieval.” That is not something that I personally do with my own theological work, which is more critical and contemporary, but I admire Kotsko’s achievement here and he is one of the best people currently engaged in it.
The writing is very lucid and clear, and the book is very well-structured. After an opening chapter that makes the case for a social-relational ontology, Kotsko raises the issue of atonement in Chapter 2. After a chapter on “Reclaiming the Tradition,” Kotsko has chapters where he reads, engages and critically interprets Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm and Abelard and their respective understandings of atonement. Chapter 8 is a penultimate setting of the stage, that argues with Karl Barth and Dorothy Soelle for a “religionless” as opposed to a “demythologizing” (Bultmann) orientation to the Christian tradition. Everything culminates in Chapter 9, which is admittedly a sketch rather than a fully fleshed out theory of a “Politics of Redemption.” I am not a scholar of patristic or medieval theology, so I cannot evaluate his readings of Irenaeus, Gregory, Anselm and Abelard, although they seem competent.
Most of the rest of my review will focus on the final chapter, but two quick points. First, whether or not you use Bonhoeffer and/or Jean-Luc Nancy, as Kotsko does, to argue for a social-relational ontology, it seems clear that ontology has returned, so to speak, and that any serious ontological perspective would need to be social and relational in important ways. So I find Kotsko’s claim that “the theological task calls for some degree of ontological reflection” convincing (2). Furthermore, he asserts that “all the major thinkers in this tradition have been drawn, even if despite themselves, to speak according to a certain social or relational logic in their attempt to make sense of God’s saving work in Christ” (1). At least, it is necessary to read them according to a social and/or relational logic in order to make sense of their work for us today. Second, and this is a petty minor point, but since the book overall is so well-structured, I can’t help thinking that it would have been better to start Chapter 3 by laying out Gustav Aulén’s threefold typology from Christus Victor first and then critiquing Boersma and discussing Weaver.
A genuine development of Kotsko’s theology occurs during his readings and results in the shift in terminology from atonement to redemption in the final chapter. The problem with atonement as such is its substitutionary character, and any effort to make Jesus stand in for us and represent us, despite his attraction to Soelle’s conception of Christ as a representative (181), seems to delimit human freedom and to make the divine plan automatic, which Kotsko wants to avoid. Redemption is a better word, because it is more participatory and more relational. We can be redeemed, but we can also work with and for our redemption, and Jesus is the model for our redemption insofar as he shows us a way to live without fear/han and without the sin of lustful domination of others. To say that Jesus atones for us seems to mean to replace us, to render human activity redundant, and this is not what Kotsko wants.
In the final chapter, Kotsko defines God as the purpose of the world, such that “the world might be an ever-proliferating network of relationships characterized by enjoyment” (193). God is not everything; the world resists and “pushes back” against God, because it pursues relationships predicated on possession rather than enjoyment.
One thing I really appreciate in this book and this chapter is the role of the devil, and how Kotsko redefines the devil in social and political terms using a “religionless” methodology. So our bondage to the devil means that we live in a social world characterized by possession in our relationships, which is a renunciation of our most important freedom, the freedom to be in relationships without possession or domination of others, including both humans and non-human beings. Our world of scarcity and insecurity is thus marred by ‘sin,’ and this situation creates and perpetuates a state of fear and han—the hopelessness of victimization and oppression that despairs of any possible solution.
God desires our free enjoyment over against our dominance by possessive relations, so therefore Christ models this active possibility. Christ “transcends the dialectic of han and sin….[with an] authority [that] is based in his radical openness to others” (199). According to Kotsko, Christ restores connections that have been cut off, and he does not try to control the outcome of his interventions (200). Kostko stresses the responsibility we as humans have to take up and repeat Christ’s self-effacing actions as opposed to our tendencies for self- and other-controlling ones. The book ends by raising the difficult problem of universalism, which Kotsko does not resolve but indicates two possibilities, first and most briefly a Kantian regulative ideal, and second, a little more fleshed out, Benjamin’s idea of a weak messianic power. I am not sure that universalism is the best name for this problem, which seems to me to be the central problem of redemption itself, although I admire Kotsko’s honesty in facing up to its difficulty. In my new book on Radical Political Theology, I try to come at the problem in terms of freedom thought as potentiality in the work of Agamben and Negri, or virtuality in Deleuze. I suggest that one of the achievements of twentieth century Continental thought, associated both with Heidegger and Benjamin, is a kind of reversal of the Aristotelian potential-actual opposition. The primacy of a kind of messianic potentiality distinguishes the so-called return of religion, although this messianicity itself is then criticized by Malabou and others.
As I said, I admire what Kotsko has done in this short book, and most of all in his last chapter. At the same time, I would question two presumptions here. First, I wonder what it means to claim that the fulfilling of divine purpose depends on humanity, especially considering the broader ecological framework of Kotsko’s thought. In a Heideggerian context, Dasein can ask the question of being, as opposed to animals which cannot, and rocks which simply lack any sort of world. In an evolutionary context, however, it seems a little arrogant and naïve to claim that the proliferation of relationships depends solely on us, even if we arrogate to ourselves the ability to name, value and ultimately to impact the nature and status of many of these relationships in the world.
Furthermore, my second question is a skepticism about how far one could push a distinction between relationships of possession vs. free enjoyment. Again, from a naturalistic perspective, enjoyment seems to be at least implicitly possessive, and we do live in a world marked by scarcity of available natural resources. I know that Regina Schwartz in a different context contrasts attitudes based on metaphors of scarcity vs. metaphors of abundance, but I also worry that part of the Christian and the capitalist worldview is the fantasy of infinite natural resources, the possibility for life to exist in a utopian and Edenic state of proliferation without downside or negativity. I know Kotsko is not naïve here, but this is a potential concern about his choice of metaphor. Furthermore, we could pressure his use of the term enjoyment with the psychoanalytic Lacanian and Zizekian resonances of the French jouissance, which suggests that enjoyment is not an unproblematic or unambiguous term.
My own ontology is more and more Deleuzian, and based more and more on my own understanding, limited as it probably is, of energy and thermodynamics. So I would see Christ more as a singular entity who expressed a powerful vision of life and then died, but that death is itself the resurrection into a repetition of difference that is both absolutely unique and completely inter-related to all other forms of life. There is a Christ-event, but also a Confucius-event, a Spinoza-event, etc. I worry that some of this recent emphasis on Christianity is a desperate attempt to save the West during a time of acute crisis. All these Christians who are so concerned with saving the name of Christ and Christianity are fighting a losing battle. All these Christians and others who are fighting for a more humane world are genuine objects of admiration. What I love about Kotsko’s work is that he is willing to risk the Christian theological tradition in order to see if there is anything it has left to teach us. And it does, or least his book does.