The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Chapters 6-7)

After an unexpected hiatus the book event on Adam’s Politics of Redemption is back on. Below is the contribution from J. Kameron Carter who is the Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School.

In writing The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation, Adam Kotsko has written an important book, a book in which he labors to retrieve but more importantly deepen the social imagination already internal to Christianity’s account of salvation, most especially, its account of the atonement or the redeeming death of Christ. His quest is for a “social-relational” understanding of what has been opened up in the representational identity of Jesus and thus what has been accomplished in the work of Christ. This social-relational understanding of Christ and in light of Christ the created order is precisely what St. Paul was working to articulate in Romans 5 with his language of the first and the second Adams. Christian discourses of salvation and atonement as found in major thinkers of the Christian tradition from the patristic and medieval eras to the present have taken Romans 5 and its language of Adam as a kind of locus classicus for thinking about the saving work of Christ.

Kotsko’s book can be read an engagement with a host of thinkers, Christian and otherwise, as a way of engaging this key Pauline passage and its central idea about the first and second Adams. In Kotsko’s own words, the “core question [pursued in this book] is how the world must be put together if Christ’s work is to have the effect it does—that is, what kind of ontology must structure creation” (3).

Through a number of twists and turns and moving his argument along with a confident but not a pedantic gait, a path in which he draws an impressive number of thinkers (from Irenaeus to Hegel, Gregory of Nyssa to Ernesto Laclau, Anselm to Nietzsche, Aberlard to Judith Butler and Andrew Sung Park) into conversation, Kotsko develops a social ontology. The animating principle of this ontology, drawn from the French theorist Jean-Luc Nancy but inflected through his reading of the late-Bonhoeffer’s notion of religionlessness (see Letters and Papers from Prison), is the principle of “being-with”. This principle is similar to what the 20th century thinker of the analogy of being (analogia entis), Karl Barth’s friend but intellectual nemesis Erich Przywara spoke of “mit-sein” and “Mitmensch”. For Kotsko, being-with means that “a being does not have some kernel of essence to which relation is secondary, either logically or temporally. Rather, every being is a singularity made up of the distinctive ways that it relates to other singularities. These relationships are not juxtapositions, but are real and forceful . . .” (188–89).

A chief concern of Kotsko throughout the The Politics of Redemption is the issue of how within Christian theological traditions of the atonement and its presupposed logic of salvation one finds both social-relationality or an ontology of “being-with” as the ground of existence and also the conceptual threads of the underdoing of this ontology, namely, the threads of individualism or social and creaturely fragmentation.

Chapters 6 and 7, which deals with the distinctive contributions of Anselm of Canterbury’s and Peter Abelard’s contributions to Christian discourses of the atonement, prove to be vital chapters in the story Kotsko wants to tell about the thread of individualism that has come to be inserted inside of the social-relational ontology of atonement and Christology. There is much food for thought in both chapters, which on the whole do a wonderful job of summarizing Anselm’s and Abelard’s contributions to Christian atonement thinking. I will not attempt to summarize everything here. Rather, I’ll limit myself to a few points worth our consideration as a means of, hopefully, opening up a wider conversation about the chapters.

The first thing that I would note is Kotsko’s observation that Anselm and Abelard must be understood inside of the patristic tradition on the atonement, the tradition of thinking of salvation in terms of recapitulation as inherited from Irenaeus (and for that matter, Paul). This is important because it means that there is no radical break in outlook (as is too often thought to be the case) between the patristic and medieval orientation on thinking about salvation. Both eras, broadly speaking, assume the unity of the human species as what must be presupposed to make sense of the work of Jesus Christ. In other words, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo rests on a social-relational logic. His is a vision in which the classical Greek problem of how the one an the many relate is not resolved into the one, which is to say, into the individual. Rather, like Gregory of Nyssa and others, Anselm held onto an understanding of the human that turns on its social unity. The underlying logic of Anselm’s thinking goes like this: “because of the interconnectedness of human beings, one human being can act in such a way as to affect all others, or good or ill. This is the core insight that gives Anselm’s account of the incarnation [and the work of the atonement] its sense” (129).

And yet, as Kotsko shows, fissures emerge in the Anselmian project. There are moments in which the relational unity presupposed in Anselm’s thought that show signs of stress. Lurking at the edges of the Anselmian project is the specter of individualism. What is individualism, and where does it emerge as a problem in Anselm’s vision of the atonement? For Kotsko, one finds in Anselm’s thought in the way in which the figure of the devil or Satan functions in the Anselmian scheme.

I will not replicate all of the moves with which Kotsko tracks Anselm’s complex argument here. Rather, I offer the punchline: “At its core, . . . Anselm’s account of the atonement is still social-relational. However, the lack of any possibility of an ‘overflow’ of Christ’s salvific benefits to the rebellious angels and the displacement of the devil from any meaningful role in the drama of redemption both represent a narrowing of the scope of relationality and therefore a shift toward individualism.” Kotsko seizes here upon Anselm’s vision of the devil as a kind of synecdoche for that part of creation that falls outside of the possibility of relationship with God. The devil is the one who “preemptively [refuses] the gift of justice, as it were in the very moment of his creation” (137; emphasis added). As such the devil signifies that part of creation that is at war with the rest of creation. In the background of Anselm’s account of the atonement is a vision of creation at war with and within itself. At this moment the unity of creation (and of the humankind by extension) and the social relationality tied to it are at odds. There stands the specter of an ontology of fragmentation (i.e., the human race fragmented from the rest of creation as signified by the devil and the fallen angels) over against an ontology of unified relationality (i.e, the human of the human race that is maintained). The devil stands as rival to God, the one who must be paid off, as it were, to secure redemption.

This is a vital point that Kotsko wants us to grasp. The way the devil is figured in the Anselmian scheme signals a potential ontology of fragments or individualism at two levels. On the one hand, the devil suggests fragmentation or individualism as a structuring principal of creation. Creation is cut up, made up of isolated and individualized (self-constituting?) monads. Creation has been “devilishly” and “demonically” constituted through Satan’s disobedience. And on the other hand, the devil suggests fragmentation between creation and God as such. God is individualized and isolated as well, a Divine Unit or Monad over against creation. So individualized, the task confronting God is the restoration of honor due to offence God has incurred from the monad-like creature.

What this schema, which sets quite uneasily with the dominant strand of relationality and unity in Anselm’s thinking, yields in the end is this: the work of the Incarnate One is a work that functions in monad-like fashion. Salvation targets monads or individuals, though in theory the atonement reaches the humankind as a whole. Salvation does not “overflow” to the rest of creation.

At the end of the Anselm chapter, Kotsko quite interestingly puts Nietzsche next to Anselm to illuminate another (and related) aspect of the creeping individualism in Anselm’s argument, an individualism that will be fully realized with the Reformation and the Enlightenment. And that is the problem of Anselm being stuck within a logic and economy of debt in his thinking about the atonement.

Through a Nietzschean reading of Anselm, Kotsko points to a proto-capitalistic understanding of God or the roots of the divine origins of capitalism and its debt-bound or guilty subject. Nietzsche reflected substantially on the significance of the fact that God’s acts of mercy upon the sinfully guilty (as in Anselm’s scheme) plays out a logic of debt and therefore does not work within an economy of love, though the language of love has worked hand-in-glove with the discourse of the atonement (see Kotsko’s chapter on Abelard). Nietzsche uncovers how God’s act of redemptive mercy as it has come be talked about in atonement discourse is not motivated by love. It has been motivated by the desire to restore honor or self-glory. In short, narcissism claims Nietzsche is tied to the guilty conscience. God seeks to “save face” by fulfilling the original plan of heavenly city—this becomes the answer to why God became a human being. Thus, the death-work of the atonement, the love-work of redemption, and the freedom-work of the individual, of subjectivity, or the autological subject that yearns for a guiltless conscience and therefore to be loved by others (this would include God and lovers) are all tied together. But by what?


This perhaps is the place to offer a few comments of criticism, albeit under the proviso that I am in broad sympathy with Kotsko’s overall project. What I think Kotsko gives virtually no attention to is the question of the body, for it is the body that is the point of intersection between death-work, love-work, and the freedom-work of the autological subject or the individual.

I contend that it is precisely this—the body and corporeality as a problem—that Anselm found it difficult to cope with, and that it is this that is arguably the source of the individualism lurking at the edges of his thinking about the atonement and the ordo salutis.

But it is not just the body in general of which I speak. The body is general is a metaphysical abstraction. Rather, it is specific kinds of bodies that Anselm can’t cope with and this is what hampers his account of the atonement. Kotsko is on the verge of identifying this as a problem for Anselm, thought finally he does not. And this is because while the project of moving towards a social-relational ontology is certainly good and important, it is not enough. Another level of theorization is required. What is needed is an ontology of the body out of which to think social-relationality. What Kotsko has given is an ontology of social-relationality that must then be expanded to reach the body. I contend that we must come at it the other way around. We must begin with what it means to live the body, to be bodies. Arguably, this is what Anselm’s thought and increasing Christian thinking after him looses sight of. It is unable to think the thought that God in Christ reaches us in the body and that this is the reality of God. But again, not the body in general. The atonement presupposes an ontology of the body anchored in Jesus’ own specific body, a Jewish body, which was despised both by his own people (“he came to his own and his did not receive him . . .”) and by the Gentiles. Thus, his Jewish body, which is the relational space around which in terms of which all bodies in their linkages to creation as a whole are organized, is the materialized as the slave’s body (“he took the form of the slave . . .”).

Allow me to back up a little and build a case for this claim by returning for a moment to Kotsko’s insightful analysis of Anselm on the devil.

Kotsko is surely onto something very important when he links Anselm’s inability to think of an “‘overflow’ of Christ’s benefits to the rebellious angels and the displacement of the devil from any meaningful role in the drama of redemption” to what’s problematic in Anselm’s thinking about creation. Anselm’s claim is that God’s goal in creating humanity “was to fill out the heavenly city—in part to make up for the number of angel who had fallen” (143).

In light of this, it seems to me that for Anselm, the devil signifies that which lies outside of the fold of the faith and therefore that which lies outside of the possibility of salvation. But what is the fold of the faith if not Christendom and what lies outside of it? It’s at this point that I would have liked Kotsko to have been a rigorous historical materialist and press the question of what social and material reality in Anselm’s day coordinates with the thought of what falls outside of Christendom and the need to fill out the true numbers of Christendom as the City of God. The answer to that is fairly direct: certain bodies do. But which bodies: the twofold body of the infidel—the Jewish body/the Muslim body. Of course, pursuing this matter would take us into the question of how Anselm’s form of theological thinking may have been shaped, perhaps unbeknownst to him, by the Crusades, which were raging during his day.

My calling attention to this limitation about the body in Anselm’s thought (and in Kotsko’s analysis of Anselm) should not be understood as me being stuck within an individualism of my own, an individualism marked by an inability to think beyond the individual body and rise to the level of the social body or the body politic and thus to the level of political theology. By the issue of the body I don’t mean just the individual body, though I certainly do include this most definitely. I’m talking as well of the political body or the body politic. An ontology of the body is an ontology at the intersection of the one and the many. Christ exists, as Bonhoeffer deeply understood and theorized in such texts as Creation and Fall, Christ the Center, Discipleship, Life Together, and Ethics, in the middle. Indeed, he is the intersection of individuality and sociality. In this he is not, to borrow a language from Kotsko, a “claustrophobic” being.

Kotsko certainly opens avenues wherein this way of naming what’s problem in Anselm’s thought might have been pursued. At one point there is the quite helpful observation that Anselm’s thought ends up being quite “claustrophobic” (144). I think this is correct. But what is claustrophobia here, but the narrowing or confining of space. Again, my question is what material reality coordinates with. Kotsko is right to highlight the issues of debt and guilt as connected with this. Debt and guilt point to the guilty or debt-ridden self, and therefore the self that must be redeemed or saved by have its debt paid for. Kotsko turns usefully to Nietzsche to capture how this argument became so formative for Western culture. But Kotsko also provides a vital Nietzsche quote to drill even further into the problem of claustrophobia or the transformation of social space by pointing to the connections between the guilty conscience or the autological subject and the malformed body politic or what Elizabeth Povinelli calls the genealogical society, the society that is constituted through casting out certain bodies. Here’s the Nietzsche as given by Kotsko:

The guilty feeling of indebtedness to the divinity continued to grow for several millennia—always in the same measure as the concept of God and the feeling for divinity increased on earth and was carried to the heights . . . the advance toward universal empires is always the advance toward universal divinities. (Nietzsche, “‘Guilt’, ‘Bad Conscience’, and the Like,” quoted in Kotsko, 146)

This quotation is insightful, for in it Nietzsche connects imperialism (the genealogical society as the imperial society) to the feeling of guilt as that which falls outside of the imperium or the City of God.

It is interesting here that in Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon quotes Aimé Césaire’s epic poem Notes of a Return to My Native Land to say that Martinique and other colonial sites of non-whiteness are spaces that have fall outside of the imperium and thus are colonial sites populated with specific kinds of bodies (i.e., black bodies) that must bear the “geometric weight of [an] eternally renewed cross.” The language of the cross, which is to say of atonement, is not to be minimized and reduced to surrealist symbolics, for language of the cross here describes the cast-out black body and is meant also to capture how the West has been constituted as a problematic ordo salutis. With Nietzschean echoes, Fanon captures the distinctive corporeality, therefore, of the problem of individualism.

What is Fanon’s constructive response to this problem? He calls for a deeper analysis of the lived experience of the black to the end that a new social-relationality can emerge, a social-relationality that can be resurrected out of the “real hell” (again, more atonement language from Fanon) of those deemed the abject, those made to be the slave. Fanon certainly got some of this from his teacher, Césaire, who called for a return to the slave ship and the baptismal space of the black Atlantic reconceived as the place and space from which a true social-relationality can be reconstituted and from which the abject can “stand”.

What I’m trying to press here is the issue of the body, for none of what Fanon and Césaire are calling for can emerge if abstracted from the those specific bodies that are sites or “scenes of subjection” (see the work of Sadiya Hartman) and thus of abjection (see the work of Rey Chow). It happens in relationship to the lived experience of the black, which is to say, the lived experience of abjection, the very subjection and abjection quintessentially taken on as God is for us in Jesus of Nazareth, the one who took the form of the slave. This is what Anselm’s thought starts to banish from view. And it is this level of theorization that, I submit, is missing in The Politics of Redemption: a theorization of the body within the horizon of Jesus’ atoning body.

I do have other concerns, one of which is Kotsko’s reading of Bonhoeffer on religionlessness, which, having just finished a semester-long course in which I taught Bonhoeffer, I read quite differently. I will hold those concerns for now, for hopefully I have given us enough to have a conversation about.

Thank you, Adam, for writing a fine and stimulating work. There is no doubt I will draw on it as I continue to do my own research and writing, and when I teach my Christology and Atonement course in the upcoming academic year.

6 thoughts on “The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Chapters 6-7)

  1. Thanks for this very detailed and insightful response. My lack of engagement with the question of the body is a real gap in my account, and as I reflect, I think it is produced by two constraints: first, my rejection of the notion of redemptive suffering in solidarity with feminist and other theologians, and second, my intra-textual, “close reading” approach to the traditional figures (with only occasional and very general references to the broader historical context).

    I am planning a follow-up book that will draw out and expand upon the recurring theme of the devil from Politics of Redemption — which I and many readers have agreed is probably the most interesting aspect of my argument — and I will certainly keep this critique in mind as I do so. In particular, I offered a course on the devil in which we read Trachtenberg’s The Devil and the Jews, which makes the same connection you’re making in a very forceful way. The fact that Anselm conceives of the devil as rejecting God essentially for no reason (i.e., there’s no narrative background, so that it can only be motiveless perversity) reflects the medieval understanding of Jews (as well as Muslims) as supposedly “knowing” that Christianity is true but willfully rejecting it out of stubbornness or perversity — and the consequences of this play out in very bodily, biological ways in medieval folklore (for instance, Jews supposedly have faulty blood and need pure Christian blood for their health, hence the imagined need for kidnapping of Christian babies). And you’d also have to look at the “body” of the devil as well, the way he’s portrayed as a kind of monstrous animal, as having black skin, etc.

    Where I would push back, however, is that it seems to me that Anselm actually pays ample attention to the body and that my analysis reflects that — above all in his theory of the sexual transmission of original sin and his reliance on the biological relatedness of the human race as the “point of contact” allowing Christ’s super-meritorious act of submitting to death to be transferred to human beings. In an essay bringing together Anselm and Butler [pdf], I have even suggested that Anselm’s insistence on the bodiliness of human existence may represent a positive or redemptive moment in his thought — as I also say that Anselm’s emphasis on biological relatedness represents a new development beyond the patristic authors’ account of human unity. Yet you’re right that the “fallout” of this theme and the historical context for how this plays out are lacking in my argument, as is any explicit consideration of how the body theme relates to the devil. Hopefully this is something I can remedy in future work.

  2. Thanks very much, Adam, for your reply to my reflections on your work. Sorry for the delayed response, but I’m in the throws of closing out the semester.

    I guess what I’d say I light of your comments is that I don’t want to assert that Anselm pays no attention to the body. You’re right that he is not utterly silent here. But the question for me regarding Anselm is , Which body is he concerned with? Whose bodies are in view? Or further still, the body understood in what way?

    What Anselm looses track of, I contend, is the abjected body, or as I put in my reflections, the body God assumes to Godself in entering into the space of becoming, which is to say, the space of creation. In becoming the God-Man, God takes to Godself the body of the slave as the abjected man Jesus of Nazareth. Never is God to be known apart from this man, and thus apart from the particular mode of being human that he is. Paul in the Christ-hymn calls this the form of the slave; in Romans, he calls it the form of sinful flesh; Bonhoeffer calls it the incognito, the hidden and thus the weakness, of sinful flesh.

    To begin with an ontology as the guiding question, then, even if it’s a social ontology, is not the same as beginning with the idea of the body. And beginning with the idea of the body is not to be elided with beginning with the body as such or as a material reality. And finally, beginning with the body as a material reality is not to confused or elided with beginning with the abjected body or the body given meaning by the God who took the form/the body of the slave or flesh that has been rendered abject.

    To come back to Bonhoeffer for a moment, we must remember that Bonhoeffer began his intellectual work with two dissertations that announced his commitment to project in ontology, a social ontology project. He never abandoned the social question, but after his journey through the Black Atlantic he began again at the beginning, so to speak, sublimating his social ontology project to a christological-body project (in response to the Aryan body project in Nazism) and inside of this to soteriological understanding of the body. He refused the what-question as the starting for thought (i.e., ontology: the question of being/what) and moved to the who or person-question. This led him to reckon deeply with Christ in the form of sinful/abjected flesh, and how this historical form of the God-become-a-slave ramifies in the world to open up a different social form, that is to say, to reorder space itself or creation around the abjected body of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the hope of Israel. In this way ontology has been unasked, though the matter of the form of flourishing social existence has not been.

    In approaching matters in this way (see _Christ the Center_; _Creation and Fall_; _Discipleship_), Bonhoeffer begins from the Counterlogos, who refuses any ontological assimilation by the Logos, as itself the question of social form.

    In pointing to the issue of the body, and more specifically to the abjected body of God, which is the body of the slave in Jesus Christ, the one who re-writes the death-contract, , as it were, I was actually pointing to these issues. Indeed, I was pressing for us linger a longer over the issue beginning with the ontological question in the first place, and instead asking what it might mean to begin with corporeality or more specifically the abjected corporeality of God. I was asking what might your project look like if it started with the fractured body of God/Jesus of Nazareth.

    Thought or a response?

  3. It seems to me that it would be difficult for me to “start with” the abjected body of Christ and still be accountable to feminist critique.

    In addition, one could say that Anselm is very much focused on that abjected body — the only thing that’s important to him is the death of Christ, to the virtual exclusion of his resurrection, and the results he comes up with as a result of that focus are not ones that I think either of us would embrace.

    The focus on the abjected body of Christ only makes sense and comes up with possibly productive results within a particular context, and I’m trying to reconstruct that context, primarily by reference to the relatively neglected patristic understanding of Christ’s death, which I view as particularly evocative in terms of thinking through the political context that produces Christ’s body as abjected.

    I tend to be skeptical of theological critiques that put huge emphasis on the order in which one puts things, but I don’t think I’m starting with ontology in the sense you are worried about — I’m trying to do an ontology starting from Christ’s work. That is, I’m sincerely trying to develop that ontology from within the narrative of salvation. I do refer to Nancy as providing some nice conceptual tools to help clarify that, but my references in those introductory chapters are overwhelmingly theological rather than philosophical, and my references to philosophy in the “figure” chapters are pretty eclectic and occasional.

    Only after drawing out the ontological implications of the tradition’s most powerful meditations on the meaning of Christ’s work do I then proceed to thematize that ontology in a retelling of that narrative (in the final chapter). If we simply think of ontology as an account of the way things are, I don’t see how that’s particularly problematic or how it could represent a betrayal of theology, etc. I understand how certain past ontologies — usually referred to as “Greek” in theological circles — are problematic, but I reject those specific ontologies and try to do something else.

  4. Adam, I like very much what I’m reading here. And thank you, Dr. Carter, for the provocative way that you’ve engaged Adam’s text (excuse me for the formality, but I don’t think we’ve met and I feel a little weird addressing you by your first name without first knowing how you’d take that). If I might make just a very brief comment, a kind of first reaction, to this interchange concerning a book I have not yet read (sorry): I do think that a kind of intimate entailment of human lives is suggested strongly by the early accounts of the work of God in the action and passion of Jesus. Whether that calls for an ontology is still, I think, uncertain. “Being” seems an odd category for understanding crucifixion/resurrection. And I think also that there may well be a way to take feminist critiques of traditional atonement theory seriously and lean hard on the abjection of the body of Jesus. I think it is precisely the question of “relationality” that calls for a theology of abjection–i.e., abjection is precisely the way solidarity with the abject occurs. It’s not because suffering is good or is a way to healing (or something) that the suffering of Jesus is significant. It is significant, because it is only by suffering that a path is cut to sufferers. And I suspect that it is especially because there is hope even where there is not healing (thus the wounds of crucifixion remain on the resurrected body of Jesus) that the phrase “work of God” is not to be set aside.

    (Well, I’ve got to quit. Things are getting busy in our house and it’s about suppertime. I’m afraid that I’ve said both too much and too little. But I hope I’ve at least said something, Adam. It’s actually nice talking with you again. I’ve missed you.)

  5. Craig, Your emphasis on the wounds remaining on the resurrected body of Jesus is one of the things that has most stuck with me about your teaching — in fact, I am planning on writing an article on the resurrection sometime relatively soon in which that will play a key role. And I agree with the general way in which you make Christ’s abjection compatible with feminist critique.

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