Agamben on philosophy and theology

[Note: This text represents the introduction to a lecture I gave at the University of Copenhagen earlier this month. The remainder of the lecture investigates The Kingdom and the Glory at greater length. I felt that this section can stand alone and may be of broader interest.]

Giorgio Agamben is surely the most theologically erudite living philosopher. While theology has formed an increasingly important site of reflection for contemporary European philosophy—as seen in the so-called “religious turn” in phenomenology and the more recent studies of the apostle Paul from a materialist perspective—there is no other single figure who has displayed such an imposing command of the full range of the Christian intellectual heritage, from the New Testament to the great theological debates of the 20th century, from doctrinal treatises to liturgical texts, from the stakes of the doctrine of the Trinity down to the smallest details of a monk’s habit. As a scholar of theology, I often find irritating errors in the works of other philosophers, but never Agamben. There is always room to nitpick—to lament that a certain scholar has not been cited, a certain theme left unexplored—but the quality of his work on Christian theology is unquestionable.

It is not only the depth and breadth of his engagement with Christian themes that sets Agamben apart from his contemporaries. If we compare him with another theologically astute philosopher such as Jean-Luc Marion, we see a clear difference in purpose. Whereas Marion, always a conservative Catholic thinker, has increasingly advanced a confessional theological agenda in his work, Agamben’s purpose has been unrelentingly critical and genealogical. Although he does have normative commitments that lead him to privilege certain figures in the history of Christianity—notably Paul and the early Franciscans—and view later developments as a kind of betrayal, he never advances a doctrine that takes those privileged sources as an authoritative canon. Instead, their successes and failures serve as materials for thinking through our own contemporary dilemmas.

Another way of putting this is that he draws no firm distinction between theological and philosophical materials. He treats both as part of the overall tradition of Western thought that is his almost exclusive province, and he takes for granted the existence of debates and development that proceed indifferently across whatever boundary we may be tempted to draw between the two fields. This procedure has been evident from his very earliest works. Stanzas (1977) elaborates on late medieval theories of imagination in a way that shows the same easy communication among poetry, philosophy, theology, and even biology that medieval thought itself displayed. Infancy and History (1978) engages with Christian concepts of history as well as traditions surrounding the nativity crib, while Language and Death (1982) includes a lengthy investigation of the problems surrounding the name of God. Both Idea of Prose (1985) and The Coming Community (1990) feature meditations on theological themes such as limbo, halos, and the resurrected body. In his first book, The Man Without Content (1970), the theological element is more or less absent, but this is only one of many features that mark it as an outlier in his body of work—the relic of a time before Agamben had truly become Agamben.

Agamben therefore lies outside the so-called “religious turn” in two senses. First, he had no need to “turn” to religion, insofar as theology had been a constant point of reference from very early on in his career. Second, and more radically, the very idea of a “turn” toward religion is incoherent in his case, because that “turn” presupposes a clear distinction between theological and philosophical traditions. Not only does such a distinction play no positive role in his thought, but he is always concerned to break it down wherever he finds it. We can see this clearly in his most famous concept—the homo sacer or sacred man, who may be killed but not sacrificed, which Agamben claims is the real referent of the modern concept of “the sacredness of human life.” I could imagine a secular thinker lamenting that a religious metaphor has inappropriately found its way into the political sphere, but for Agamben, the overlap between the political and the religious is a clue that we are dealing with a more primordial phenomenon that precedes the familiar distinction between sacred and profane. In fact, his harshest critique is reserved for theorists of religion who attempt to develop a theory of the sacred based solely on religious experience—leading to an impoverished and, for Agamben, laughably inadequate theory of the “numinous,” which attempts to pass of “shivers and goose bumps” as scientific research (Homo Sacer, 78). By isolating religion into its own separate sphere, the theorists of the numinous do not even get religion right.

We can see the difference between a resolutely secular approach and Agamben’s practice of indifference in his engagement with Kantorowicz in both Homo Sacer and State of Exception. In both cases, he insists that Kantorowicz is wrong to trace the origin of the “king’s two bodies” motif back to Christian theology, but not because it would represent an inappropriate mystification of politics with theology. Rather, he argues that recognizing its roots in Roman imperial thought and practice offers a clearer picture of what is actually happening—again, not because it is a political as opposed to religious origin (what would that distinction mean in the case of a deified emperor?). He is, after all, quite happy to posit theological origins for ostensibly secular phenomena, most famously in the book that will occupy the majority of our attention today: The Kingdom and the Glory.

Agamben’s practice of indifference toward the distinction between the political and the religious or the philosophical and the theological is rooted in his deepest methodological influences, all of whom systematically break down the religious-secular binary. This is clearest in Walter Benjamin, who is Agamben’s intellectual ideal—perhaps even his idol. Benjamin draws on religious and theological materials as a model for political critique and resistance, most famously in the “Critique of Violence” and “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Aby Warburg, of course, charts a promiscuous course through all manner of mythological and iconographic traditions—much as Walter Benjamin moves seamlessly from pop culture ephemera to philosophy to mysticism. Martin Heidegger, too, drew indifferently on theological materials, developing some of the core concepts of Being and Time through an analysis of the Pauline epistles and devoting considerable attention to theological sources in the “history of Being.” For him, Christian theologians are in error not because they are somehow polluting philosophy with religious impurities, but because of the conceptual error of identifying Being with one particular entity (God). Hannah Arendt takes a similar approach, as her critique of Christianity in The Human Condition is based on her concern with the distinction between the political and the economic, not the philosophical and the theological.

I have so far emphasized the indifference between the philosophical and the theological in Agamben and his methodological models, largely because I view it as a refreshing alternative to a doctrinaire secularism that either aims to expel religious impurities or—what amounts to the same thing—treats theology with a patronizing “respect” that neutralizes it as a genuine dialogue partner. Yet there is a difference between philosophy and theology, and it would be misleading to pretend that that difference does not make a difference. This is not the place to fully elaborate the relation between the two disciplines, which would require demolishing a truly imposing number of clichés—such as the supposed binary of faith and reason, which in its least thoughtful form envisions religious believers as blindly accepting unprovable assertions and robotically executing divine commands.

Yet there is a grain of truth in that distinction, if we take “reason” as a stand-in for the quest for an impersonal and perennial knowledge and “faith” as a form of personal loyalty to certain historical events and institutions. Even if, in Agamben’s reading, Plato and Paul have similar critiques of the law, it surely makes a difference that Paul is making his arguments in the context of a personal calling by a particular historical individual whom Paul recognizes as the messiah of a particular nation as predicted in its particular scriptures, whereas Plato is gesturing toward a form of knowledge that is, in principle, available to anyone in any historical setting.

When we speak of a practice of indifference between these two modes of thought, it also makes a difference which side of the divide the indifference is practiced from. A theologian like John Milbank, for instance, could be said to treat theological and philosophical materials with indifference—but in his case it means that philosophers are read as though they are attempting to be Christian theologians, with the (somewhat predictable) result that secular thinkers turn out to be vile heretics. Agamben and his models could be said to move in the opposite direction, treating theologians as though they are all philosophers—an approach that leads to fewer spurious condemnations, but does produce its own kind of distortion.

Here I would point to Agamben’s reading of Paul. In The Time That Remains, he declares, “The most insidious misunderstanding of [Paul’s] messianic pronouncement does not consist in mistaking it for prophecy, which is turned toward the future, but for apocalypse, which contemplates the end of time” (62), and he criticizes Blumenburg and Löwith for “mistak[ing] messianism for eschatology” (63). This is, from a historical perspective, bizarre—Paul is obviously an apocalyptic thinker. Even stranger is his insistence, in The Mystery of Evil, that the narrative of the conflict between the katechon or restrainer and the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians is not in any sense apocalyptic—again, of course it is! In both cases, his exclusion of the apocalyptic element from the messianic leads him to read the Pauline epistles as revealing something like the underlying structure of historical time, a structure that is equally legible in the texts of linguists like Benveniste and Guillauame. In other words, to gain this knowledge, we do not need to know about a particular historical Word made flesh, but only to think about our own practice of speech, which is available to anyone at any time. This is not exactly a secularization of the Pauline text, but it certainly seems to miss its historical specificity—not only the particular events that Paul (and whoever wrote 2 Thessalonians) anticipated in the future, but also the particular messianic event to which he pledged his loyalty and gave his life.

Yet there is a further twist here. Using my broad sense of theology as a mode of thought determined by loyalty to particular historical events and institutions, virtually all of Western thought is “theological” in the sense that it responds to the historically particular event of anthropogenesis experienced in the West and contributes to building the particular institutional forms associated with what Agamben calls “Western machine.” If he reads Paul in a way that extracts the text from its historical specificity, it is in the service of finding a way out of the self-enclosed tradition that has put itself forward as a spurious universality. Authentic philosophy, like authentic messianism, is a critical discourse that contemplates the demolition or immobilization of the “Western machine” in which we are all trapped. Everything else—including, but not limited to, what we would recognize as theology in the conventional sense—is ultimately apologetics for the inhuman way in which Western man became human.