Scattered remarks on political theology

From one perspective, it is possible to isolate three types of “political theology.” The first is a liberal one, which seeks to reveal the unconscious theological inheritance in the hopes of purging it and reaching a true secularity. One might include Löwith and Derrida under this heading. The second is a reactionary one, which seeks to preserve whatever homologies are possible with the theological tradition in order to maintain some kind of horizon of meaning over against modernity, which is understood to be a nihilistic mechanism — obviously here one could place Carl Schmitt. Finally, there is the radical leftist approach, which mines the theological tradition for any possible site of radical transformation (and perhaps indulges in the pleasure of “provocatively” needling liberal fussiness about how we must handle the dangerous materials of religion). I would place Zizek in this category.

For all three perspectives, there is a “special relationship” between political theology and eschatology. The reactionary position is basically focused on the katechon, that enigmatic figure from 2 Thessalonians who holds the man of lawlessness at bay and heads off the apocalypse (here one could place Peterson alongside Schmitt). The leftist position is apocalyptic, openly courting the very dissolution that for the reactionary is the worst possible outcome. The liberal position is awkwardly situated in this respect, but I think that we can draw on Dan Barber’s On Diaspora and call liberal political theology basically supercessionistic — a kind of “messianism without messianism” where secularity is continually overcoming religion as such, albeit without any concrete hope of a final consummation.

When it comes to placing a figure like Taubes or Agamben, I think things become more difficult. Bruce Rosenstock has a great essay forthcoming in New German Critique on the Taubes-Schmitt relationship where he argues that while Taubes aligns more closely with the apocalyptic, he also sees the necessity of the reactionary impulse represented by Schmitt in order to keep the apocalyptic impulse from spiralling into sheer nihilism. His exegesis of the final pages of Occidental Eschatology is absolutely essential in this regard — he clarifies that for Taubes, finding humanity’s center in God requires a special kind of balance, because humanity’s orbit is always elliptical rather than spherical and so constantly threatens to go off course. I wonder if one could read Agamben similarly, particularly in light of his recently published lecture The Church and the Kingdom, which in many ways is so difficult to reconcile with his other writings insofar as it seems to call for a kind of “balance” between the messianic impulse and the structure of authority.

This talk of balance seems liberal from a certain perspective, but it is not a secular liberalism — indeed, the question of secularity is simply sidestepped altogether in the meeting of the two extremes. Or is it perhaps instead a question of creating a space for a tenuous secularity, keeping God at a respectable distance without becoming completely untethered from it? Is this elliptical balancing act perhaps the way we render the theological “inoperative” precisely by maintaining the constant reference to it — like the legendary rabbinical school that bases all of life on the divine law while pointedly telling God to shut up when he tries to intrude on the debate?

From this perspective, it appears that we could add a fourth position of Jewish political theology as a distinctive alternative to the liberal model. The question that then arises is whether this kind of political theology can really be practiced by a non-Jew, or whether it will always wind up spiralling into a one-sidedly katechontic or apocalyptic position.

19 thoughts on “Scattered remarks on political theology

  1. The way you lay out this sort of typology seems surprisingly close to third way political rhetoric to me – in the radical leftist type, the faults of liberal and reactionary politics are conveniently opposed, and in the Jewish type the talk is all of balance between messianism and authority or of a “tenuous secularity”.

    This is meant to be an honest concern and not just an attempted “gotcha” response, and I think it’s a fair point given your past comments about claims to a “third way” in politics. Am I missing something here, or do you think this is a potential problem for the third and fourth types of political theology that you’re sketching out?

  2. Evan, You seem to have mixed up the leftist and liberal paradigms in your response. It did occur to me that this series of reflections seems to violate my normal rule that any third way that isn’t just liberalism is fascism — though I’d hope no one is comfortable calling rabbinic Judaism fascism. Perhaps this is a case where the theological element adds something new that doesn’t simply echo the political schema (and my rule about the third way does refer essentially to the “secular” political space of modernity — counting reactionary Christian political movements as essentially “secular” for purposes of analysis).

  3. DIFFERENT RESPONSE: The secularism that wants to purge all religious elements is the fascist option in this analogy. The problem with non-liberal “Third Way” options is that they refuse the fundamental terms of the modern political space, for which the ultimate problem and horizon is capitalism — leftists want to abolish and supercede it, liberals want to manage it, and reactionaries want to “go back” to some previous set of values (which is itself a delusional attempt to get past the terms of the situation). Similarly, secularism wants to “go back” behind the religious to a supposedly more natural or neutral space in order to hold the destructive apocalyptic forces of religion at bay — meaning they’re essentially doing the same thing as the right-wing katechontic position. So within the theological space, Judaism would be the “liberal” option of managing without abolishing the theological.

  4. I wonder if the eschatological positions you mention might be helped by considering Jewish theological political groups during the Second Temple period. Essenes as apocalyptics looking to live a separated heavenly order as they wait for the current order dissolves (ie leftist), Zealots focused on fighting the possibility of further Roman trespasses that actively oppose the future promised to them by God (ie reactionary), Sadducces as the warmed over secularists of the bunch (ie liberals) where Rome becomes the one who fulfills the Messianic promises, and the Pharisees representing the the dialectical tension between the already (liberal/reactionary approaches) and the not yet (leftist approach) that was worked out in their discussions about the practice of the law and the possibility of bodily resurrection.

  5. I like the typology, Adam, and I think the difficulty of situation liberal political theology is that there’s an avoidance of political theology as such in liberalism, so the supercessionism tries to undo the need for political theology. So the stronger forms of pt then become the reactionary and the apocalyptic, which both feed off of each other in a way. Schmitt for example needs and appreciates Marx because Marxism can function as an enemy in terms of the friend-enemy distinction.

    Finally, Agamben is more complicated, and you know him better than I do, but I’m not sure you can simply associate him with jewish political theology, despite his affinity for Benjamin. There’s a way in which I think he’s trying to sidestep the whole opposition, which is really interesting move, to liberate not creation but decreation or nothingness. But I don’t think that Agamben can be conflated with any sort of “third way” in neoliberal political terms.

  6. I think I would have placed Agamben in the left-wing category if not for what he says in The Church and the Kingdom — which may turn out to be a totally opportunistic and situational intervention, depending on how the “final volume” of Homo Sacer (reportedly in progress even as we speak!) turns out.

  7. Adam, I think your typology gets at a serious political issue, which is to say the failure on the left (both liberal and radical) to recognize how reactionary their ‘secular’ apocalyptics are. It’s beyond the problem of a more or less fashionable, more or less playful despair brought on by ‘secular’ nihilism. Now you get liberals like Nancy and Brown hand-wringing about the new religious ‘hyperfascism’ or ‘nightmare’ along the lines of ‘nihilism? we should be so lucky!’

  8. Although I’ve found your remarks very interesting, I couldn’t identify in Agamben’s very brief «totally opportunistic and situational intervention» any «call for a kind of “balance” between the messianic impulse and the structure of authority» that apparently inspired you to write them… Unless you’re counting the reference to the Church as an institution in itself as an acknowledgement of a structure of authority…

  9. I don’t agree with your placement of Derrida. I think that his work is calling the categories of religion and the secular into question (see “Faith and Knowledge). I am not sure why you would say that he ultimately wants to exorcise the religious for the sake of the secular (see Specters of Marx). These categories (religious/secular) are themselves vestiges of a certain liberal European tradition, and I think that his work from the mid 80s on is about first challenging this binary, and then thinking in a more complex field of possibilities.

  10. I would argue that Derrida’s New Enlightenment is incommensurable with a liberal position that would want to expunge the religious/theological for the sake of the secular. He is changing the categories, the methods, and the concerns of philosophy. It is a bit like the hackneyed example of Ptolmey’s wandering stars and Galileo’s planet (where the earth also becomes a planet). So I think that you can find him employing elements from this tradition, but they have been translated and transformed. Plus, they are deployed along side other alien elements. Most of all, however, the method and end of the philosophical concoction has been radically changed.
    So I think that someone could write a book arguing that Derrida fits into this tradition, but they would probably have to follow reading protocols that neglect most of the text as artifice for the sake of underlying essence (neglecting figure, conceptual slippage, performance, context, etc.). That would strike me as a decidedly uncharitable and un-Derridian reading of Derrida.

  11. There is a new translation ( by Keith Tribe) of the Schmitt-Taubes letters coming out from Columbia University Press later this year that I wrote the introduction for. In this I argue that central to the return to political theology, in the face of pure apocalypse from economic and technological reason, is a position that takes being human very seriousy, grounded in the impure realm of time and history.Taubes and Schmitt connect via an anti-liberalism searching for expression in the face of failed apocalypse, an anti-liberalism that gains new urgency in a world where new forms of anti-human (that is anti-historical) apocalypse seem to be resurgent.

  12. Thanks for your post, Adam. I would agree that Agamben’s ‘The Church and the Kingdom’ does offer some interesting new twists in terms of trying to strike a particular balance (‘dialectical tension’, p. 35) between ‘law’ and ‘the messiah’. This would seem to ‘clarify’ his previous (appearing as) ‘antinomian’ statements. I would tend to read his form of political theology as issuing forth from those attempts to deal with antinomianism as a force moving within the law itself, and so in some sense respecting Taubes’ insights on these dynamics (though perhaps in the end siding more with Paul and ‘Christian claims’ than Taubes might have). Just a thought …

  13. Isn’t Agamben’s thought Nietzschean, and “post-apocalyptic”? God is already dead and we end up back in the chaotic void which was at the centre of the “machine” from the beginning, with unidentifiable singularities and Dadaist language.

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