Political theology, theological politics, and theo-political logic

I have been reading Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty in preparation for the next meeting of the Interccect reading group and wanted to jot down a few thoughts.

Why are modern political concepts supposed to be secularized theological concepts? That is to say, why is the theological supposed to be more originary? Doesn’t it seem obvious that the notion of divine sovereignty only arose after the notion of the ruler’s sovereignty — and perhaps, in some settings, as a challenge to that sovereignty?

The Jewish notion of a single God sovereign over the whole world, who manipulates empires and chooses as his own people precisely that nation that is in no position to rule anyone, certainly seems like a protest against worldly sovereignty, or an attempt to “detach” its theological appendage and turn it against that sovereignty. The same would then be true of the early Christian movement — and not only the early movement, as the Eastern Church’s attempt to maintain the power of icons against an “iconoclastic” emperor who actually wanted to keep the power of icons to himself demonstrates. (See Mondzain’s much-discussed-here book for information on that.)

Modern sovereignty’s “theological roots” would then be a particularly forceful, and manifestly successful, attempt to reclaim the conceptual apparatus that theology had artificially autonomized.

In Derrida’s Gift of Death, he outlines the common Christian strategy that I would call “displacement” — in his case, the displacement of the logic of debt into heaven so as to clear a space for a different type of practice on earth. One could also say that Christianity displaces sovereignty into the heavenly realm, which is why, as Agamben argues in The Kingdom and the Glory, the doctrine of providence could serve as a kind of laboratory for developing what would turn out to be the conceptual apparatus of governance.

Both cases show the limitation of this strategy: no matter how successful it is in opening up a provisional space to do otherwise, it still valorizes what it’s displacing. A simpler example: claiming that human property claims are invalid because God actually owns everything only displaces the concept of property, it doesn’t discredit or reject it. Ownership isn’t problematic in itself — it’s just that we’re falsely claiming what God rightfully owns.

It’s God as the “constitutive exception,” founding our (purportedly) moral behavior through exercising all the rights we supposedly should not. One of the major goals of my theological work is to figure out a way to get rid of this logic of displacement and the constitutive exception.

11 thoughts on “Political theology, theological politics, and theo-political logic

  1. This is sort of obvious but isn’t the emphasis in the Schmitt-quote on “modern”? That political concepts in their modern version are secularized theological concepts – not that these concepts would have developed historically from theology.

  2. Right, and I’m not saying that’s wrong — but doesn’t it make sense to take that additional step and ask where the theological concepts themselves came from? The problem I have with focusing on the origin of the modern is that it seems to repeat the tired notion that “religion” is somehow the original primitive state.

  3. I was just hung-up on the opening line about how obvious it is that “that the notion of divine sovereignty only arose after the notion of the ruler’s sovereignty.” I am thinking of extent ANE texts and codes and how those would be read in a systematic way to develop what you are thinking. Which made me think of Mary Douglas’ work on Levitical law in which she did just that from a particular sociological method. The implication being that her method of orienting the question, namely that there was a prior social/political space to the religious, made the ‘religious’ text more clear.
    This hang-up probably missed the later point you made.

  4. I’m just saying that you need to have a king first before you decide that God is analogous to a king. It wouldn’t take much research or reinterpretation to establish such a bold thesis.

  5. Many–albeit not all–theories of monarchy trace it to the pagan barbarian tribes of France, Germany, England, etc. (Many will know this debate through Foucault’s 1976 lectures.) What was called king was a temporary leader, “first among equals,” in times of war. In essence, it seems, anyone could call themselves king and all that was required to substantiate that claim was a bunch of warriors willing to go on a raid with you. Obviously, if you sucked as a war leader, you wouldn’t stay in power long and, once the pillaging and raping was done, no one had any reason to heed your authority. As such, it seems to be the case that those who called themselves kings originally had little power internal to the community in times of relative peace. In many ways, it was an institution analogous to the chieftainship described by Clastres in South America. So, you could have kings without God (although, certainly, there were gods); but you likely didn’t have Kings as sovereigns until you had God. Rather than an issue of priority, it is more of an issue of affinity: why did the God-concept and the king-concept go along so well with one another come the collapse of the Roman Empire?

  6. By everyone you mean Craig? My point was precisely to get away from a Eurocentric perspective by seeing if there was conversation to be had regarding earliest Ancient Near Eastern political/religious documents. You want to get ‘behind’ the religious construction but you still have starting point with ‘king’ which proceeds to ‘God as king’ as though ‘king’ was formed in a vacuum or something. I suspect you do not assume some historical vacuum so that is why I was probing a little about comparative literature. Why does asking about reading the literature prior to and surrounding Hebrew constructions of monarchy complicate things unnecessarily?

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