From medieval to modern in political theology

One of the preoccupations of political theology is the relationship between medieval Christianity and secular modernity.

The first question to ask is whether they are continuous with each other. For some theorists, there is no continuity — the entry into modernity is a qualitative break. Modernity is just its own thing and shouldn’t be judged in terms of the Christian heritage that preceded it. As far as I understand, Blumenberg is probably the most prominent advocate of this view.

If we decide that medieval Christianity and secular modernity are continuous in a serious way, the question then becomes whether modernity is a good thing. If we answer yes, then we have two options for how to view Christianity. The first is to say that Christianity was bad and we’re glad modernity has overcome it. To the extent that modernity retains Christian elements, they need to be purged to the extent possible. This tendency is arguably the hegemonic one in the field today. The second is to say that since modernity is good, the Christianity that in some sense led to it must have been good as well. Here we might think of Hegel or the “heroic era” of Liberal Protestantism (Harnack, Ritschl, etc.).

If we answer that no, modernity is not a good thing, then we similarly have two choices. The first is to claim that Christianity was good and it was a bad idea to deviate from it. We could associate this view with Radical Orthodoxy and arguably with Schmitt. The second is to claim that Christianity was also bad, and hence it was only natural that it would lead to something as bad as modernity. This is the position of Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, as well as Nietzsche, Foucault, and probably Heidegger and Agamben, too.

Any guesses as to which tendency best describes my work?

9 thoughts on “From medieval to modern in political theology

  1. Another option is that the presumption of the existence of secular modernity is incorrect. Or that the “content” of dominant medieval political theology is not best characterized as “Christian.”

  2. Karl, Admittedly, there is no need to accept the terms of this debate. But they are pretty dominant assumptions, and if we grant them, this seems to be the typology that emerges.

  3. Charles Taylor would be in a category that says Christianity & modernity are continuous, with some breaks due mostly to the rise of science and political economy, and both Christianity & modernity have good and bad elements. Gil Anidjar would say modernity is Christianity and this is very bad, but his explanation of the badness is pretty idiosyncratic.

  4. “mikewc, At least in the devil project, I’m pulled pretty hard in the continuous-bad-bad direction.”

    Darn it, you didn’t give me enough time!!

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