Apocalyptic Between Philosophy and Theology (With Bonus Agamben Content) — Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event

One of the things that most interests me about Tommy Lynch’s remarkable book is his unique approach to political theology. As I often complain, practitioners in this field seldom clearly define their methodology, such that “political theology” can be taken to embrace both politically-engaged theology and the often, but not exclusively, genealogical studies of the interface between political and theological concepts in a particular historical era or tradition. With all due respect to politically-engaged theology—or, as we might more efficiently call it, theology—I view the more genealogical version as normative for the discipline and believe it is confusing and counterproductive to lump such studies together with more confessional or constructive theological work that wears its political commitments on its sleeve. I was relieved to find that Lynch shares my more “narrow” vision of what political theology is, at one point defining the field as follows:

political theology is a methodology focused on the relationship between political and theological concepts. It seeks to understand the political history and significance of theological ideas, the theological history and significance of political ideas and to use theological ideas to explore the nature of the political. (7)

In my work, I narrow the definition even further to specify that the root of the relationship between theological and political categories is their shared confrontation with the problem of legitimacy, but Lynch’s definition here would include my understanding of what I am trying to do in my political-theological investigations.

More puzzling to me is a second definition of political theology, which appears to have more direct bearing on Lynch’s understanding of his own project here: “Political theology, in the narrow sense, is a method of philosophical thinking that uses theological concepts to critique the world” (35). We can say that this is a further specification of his initial, broad definition, akin to my more narrow focus on legitimacy. But it is a specification that raises any number of important questions. What is philosophy as opposed to theology? Why should philosophy need to draw on theological concepts to carry out its work of critique? And why should we view such philosophical usage of theological concepts as constituting its own distinct field of inquiry? I want to tease out some of Lynch’s implicit answers to these questions by putting his work into dialogue with the contemporary philosopher who has arguably spent the most time and effort using theological concepts to critique the world: Giorgio Agamben.

The sheer amount of attention he devotes to theology is especially remarkable when we realize that he never seems to adopt a “theological” position of his own. In contrast to a thinker like Jean-Luc Marion, whose phenomenological investigation of theological categories ultimately crosses into the territory of confessional theology, Agamben remains resolutely philosophical and critical in outlook. Even if there are figures or movements in the Christian theological tradition he especially values—like Paul or the Franciscans—he never treats them as uniquely authoritative. Indeed, what he values most about them is precisely the ways they can be brought into productive dialogue with more overtly philosophical or political texts.

In short, I think we can say that Agamben treats theological materials in a philosophical way. To get at what I mean by that, I would propose the following rough-and-ready distinction between these two intertwined fields: where philosophy seeks truths that are perennial in the sense of being available in principle to any thinking subject, theology seeks to elaborate the implications of a particular historical revelation. Reading theological materials from a philosophical perspective would therefore mean reading them as though they were aiming at philosophy’s perennial truths, and that is precisely what Agamben does. Paul, in his view, is not an apocalyptic thinker in the sense of expecting some particular concrete sequence of events that brings the world to an end, but rather a messianic thinker whose letters tell us all kinds of interesting things about the structure of time and history. At times Agamben’s anti-apocalyptic reading can strain credulity, as when he claims that the vision of the katechon in 2 Thessalonians is ultimately about the dynamics of history rather than relaying a symbolic account of purported future events. As illuminating as Agamben’s reading of Paul might be, then, it does represent a form of interpretative violence, because Paul actually is an apocalyptic thinker, who believes in fact that the apocalyptic sequence has already been set in motion by the concrete historical death and resurrection of a concrete historical messiah named Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever messianic insights we can draw out of Paul’s texts for our own philosophical use, surely it makes a difference that he developed his ideas in an attempt to remain loyal to a particular messiah, who Paul believed had entrusted him with a particular mission.

Unlike Agamben, Lynch maintains the term “apocalyptic,” and indeed insists upon it in opposition to recent work in the field that “has focused on the eschatological or messianic, often defined against apocalypticism” (32). As far as I can tell, Lynch does not explicitly define either the eschatological or the messianic or specify their relation to apocalyptic, but the general drift of the distinction is clear enough. Eschatology or messianism, in his view, concede too much continuity with the world as it is, whereas apocalyptic is an absolute refusal of the world. Such a stance, he believes, is attainable apart from a theological perspective that specifies a particular agent (namely God—or more than that, the particular historical God identified as the Father of Jesus Christ) and promises a particular replacement (however vague). And though Hegel takes up most of the airtime in the book itself, the real source of this fundamental insight is Taubes, who famously declared that unlike Carl Schmitt, he lacks spiritual investment in the world and is happy to see it all come down.

I have questions about whether it is really accurate to see Taubes’s apocalypticism as philosophical rather than theological, but I will leave that aside for now. My bigger concern is what this philosophical apocalypticism really means—and what critical purchase it has. I will observe, first of all, that Lynch’s apocalypticism really is philosophical in my sense of getting at perennial concerns. Though he goes to great lengths in the first chapter to establish the unacceptability of the current world-situation—an assessment I share!—Lynch does not give us any reason to believe that any other possible world would be less founded on antagonisms (albeit presumably different ones). In fact, he refuses in principle to offer an account of how any future world would be different, much less better. His philosophical apocalypticism simply asserts that the world as it is is unacceptable and deserves to end—full stop. Or at least that seems to be his “official” position. But in practice, he does gesture toward the necessity of another world arising to replace what we now know. The apocalypse he demands “is the end of the world. Or rather it is the ending of a world, but a world which can only appear as the world” (125).

Yet insofar as the philosophical apocalypticist is aware of that illusion, has she not in principle overcome it, thus undermining her very apocalypticism? This is a very Hegelian point—to perceive a boundary is already to be across it. And it seems related to another very Hegelian point (or at least a point that can be drawn from the particular strain of Hegelian interpretation that Lynch is drawing from), which is that every society is founded on irreducible antagonisms. Hence every world is going to be “unacceptable” in the last analysis, if antagonism is what prompts the apocalyptic refusal. Ours may be particularly “unacceptable”—as illustrated, perhaps, by the fact that he can draw on not one but two philosophically apocalyptic accounts of what is unfixably wrong with it (Wilderson and Edelman, whose stances appear, at least initially, to be incompatible). But making that judgment seems to require comparing possible worlds, which Lynch’s philosophical apocalypticism purports to foreclose as irrelevant.

The question I would ask in conclusion, then, is whether apocalyptic is so irreducibly theological—so unextractable from the context of historical revelation and expectation—that any attempted philosophical appropriation of apocalyptic qua apocalyptic is bound to fail. That would mean that Agamben is right, from his perspective as a philosopher who wants to make use of Paul, to reject the (historically true) idea that Paul is an apocalyptic thinker. And it may also mean that, contrary to his intentions, Lynch is actually offering a variation on the theme of messianism or eschatology and not a genuinely apocalyptic position. That, at least, is the provocation with which I would like to repay Tommy’s very thought provoking book.

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