To Live “As Though… Not”: Taubes and Imagining Life in a Truly Apocalyptic Mode — Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event

This is a guest post by Ole Jakob Løland of the Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo

Thomas Lynch’s Apocalyptic Political Theology is an ambitious and admirable effort of thinking apocalyptically through three different philosophers in light of the existing contemporary world in which we find ourselves. It contains some really capturing, nearly poetic, passages that might give rise to new forms of theologies:

Plastic apocalypticism is not a discourse of articulated hopes, though. Rather, it is the hope in the possibility of being able to one day hope. It is the conviction that the end is enough to hope in without having to also articulate the beginning that will follow. (130)

In one sense the book can be thought of as an exegesis of Taubes’ exegesis of the ὡς μὴ passage of 1 Cor 7:29 as “nihilistic” (The Political Theology of Paul). This enigmatic and unheard-of labelling of the meaning of Paul’s admonition to the Christ-believing Corinthians to live “as though… not” can be said to be creatively elaborated by Lynch’s intriguing ways of imagining life in a truly apocalyptic mode. In a world that has entered the Anthropocene and where racism, gender oppression and capitalist exploitation prevail this author has in his own non-Pauline form rightly realized that “the appointed time has grown short“ or with Agamben is a time that has “contracted itself” (The Time That Remains). And he is recognizing that “the present form of this world is passing away” in a mode free of any cheap triumphalism. He is investing his intellectual energy in an “active pessimism” (4) in the name of the poor that refuse the triumphalist hopes of this world. Although constantly and explicitly dismissing the category of “transcendence”, the author seems to share what the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has called “la esperanza transcendente de los pobres” (Liberación con Espíritu). He appears to subscribe to Taubes’ Schmittianism “from below” (86).

As the author demonstrates an enduring and patient loyalty to some of Taubes’ fundamental intuitions throughout this work, Lynch’s work does in a way inherit some of Taubes’ own ambivalence towards apocalyptic or revolutionary activism. The reader is constantly left to wonder at what point or in what moment does the work call for an active “anarchic unleashing” (130) that unavoidably leads to subjective violent reactions towards the slow or objective forms of violence (28).

Lynch’s affirmation that the attention to Taubes is “usually limited to passing footnotes” (3) is apt to the reception of Jacob Taubes’ idiosyncratic works as a whole within today’s academia. Taubes’ situational and interventionistic form of writing makes his somewhat cryptic intellectual world difficult to grasp. Lynch’s book is therefore a timely contribution to the ongoing debate about the history and actuality of Jacob Taubes’ thought.

In my book Pauline Ugliness: Jacob Taubes and the Turn to Paul, published with Fordham University Press (2020) I argue for a distinction between an early and later Jacob Taubes. The early Taubes of his doctoral dissertation, edited and nearly cut in half in the form of Occidental Eschatology, is optimistic about the emancipatory potentials of political revolutions. The later Taubes is gradually becoming more disillusioned with the ideas of apocalyptic transformations. In this intellectual history the first experience that really shakes the young scholar is the gradual recognition of the horrors of the Shoah, which leads to the desperate question in the letter that is quoted in Apocalyptic Political Theology: “What was so ‘seductive’ about National Socialism?” Here Lynch conflates the early and the later Taubes when it is written that this “dismay [what was so seductive…] is an important motivation in Taubes’s desire to reignite an alternative, apocalyptic.” (67) And so here I am, in an unlikely community of Taubes researchers (who would believe that we were two?) and expressing disagreement about a scholarly matter in this exclusive club of Taubes scholars. What Lynch here expresses as a reason (the history of Nazism) for an apocalyptic passion should be understood differently. It is more the other way around. Occidental Eschatology is to a large extent the fruit of intellectual debates, Jewish and Christian, taking place in the interwar period. Holocaust makes Taubes less hopeful for liberating results from the unleashing of utopian energies in the form of revolutions. The next great disappointment, although it is incomparable to the somehow unthinkable evil of the Shoah, is probably Taubes’ experience with the student uprising in West Germany when Taubes held the position in the Free University in Berlin. Although Taubes himself never provides a full account of these events, the Heidelberg lectures testify to this disillusioned apocalyptic (“let it go down. I have no investment in the world as it is”) that declares himself more interested in understanding history (“I don’t think theologically. I work with theological materials, but I think in terms of intellectual history, of actual history.”) than changing its course.

One question (there are many!) that may arise from reading Apocalyptic Political Theology is: What is Taubes doing for Lynch? One of the things this Jewish enfant terrible of continental philosophy is actually doing is to give shape to Lynch’s declared resistance to the enemy named “liberalism” and the corresponding Taubesian antinomianism or negation of law. Lynch claims that “anti-liberalism does not necessarily imply a rejection of the accomplishments of liberalism” (87). But then Lynch goes on to quote Taubes’ categorical view that being a liberal will necessarily be “at the cost of others” (87). Can or should “liberalism” (what was that exactly again?) be dismissed in such a blunt manner?

In the preface to my book The Reception of Paul the Apostle in the Works of Slavoj Žižek. (Palgrave Macmillan 2018) I highlight Žižek’s praise of “countries like Norway should be held up as models: although all the main agents respect a basic social agreement and ambitious social projects are enacted in a spirit of solidarity, productivity and dynamism remain at extraordinarily high levels.” (Living in the End Times). But as a Scandinavian my claim is that anti-liberals like Žižek and Taubes are dismissive of liberalism on superficial and false grounds. If Norway is some sort of really existing socialism for Žižek, then he should be the first to admit that this model hinges on a compromise with the laws of the market economy. I cannot help but being a Norwegian who sees socialist ideals incarnated in compromises with market allocation of resources.

Jayne Svenungsson’s criticism of the antinomian logics of these philosophers’ political theologies is brought into Apocalyptic Political Theology. Svenungsson indicates that terms such as “states of exception” or “violence” are often preferred in these philosophers’ works instead of words like “corruption” or “deficit of democracy” as characterizing the general state of the world.[1] The Swedish scholars’ critique of these antinomian philosophers’ dismissal of progressive accomplishments occurring within the frame of liberal is effectively neutralized in Lynch’s work. But her criticism stands also after Taubes’ reason for refusing to be a liberal at the cost of others, as long as the Scandinavian experience teach us that is possible to be a liberal for the benefit of others. The authentic liberal legacy is in fact much too precious to be left to the fundamentalist freaks (Hi again, Žižek). Let me explain, with the help of a quotation from Apocalyptic Political Theology:

Within liberalism, for example, there is no resolution between individual freedom and equality. Managing that tension is liberalism. To refuse either side completely is to abandon liberalism. Engaging in this refusal… generates the position of the Rabble. (90)

This is right to the point. Within liberalism there is no final solution to the ever present tension between individual freedom and economic equality. Or said otherwise, within Nordic social democracy there is a constant tension and lived out compromises between individual freedom and economic equality. Nonetheless, the lesson to be learnt by countries as the United States is that it is possible to increase individual freedom and attain economic equality through liberal reforms of the state and redistribution of wealth at the same time without eradicating the inherent tension between them.

The basic lesson from contextual theologies, such as Latin American liberation theology, is that theological discernment and speech depends on context. Although the reader is given some glimpse of contexts, for instance as the book begins with Donald Trump and ends with Jimmy Carter, there is no reflection in Apocalyptic Political Theology about what kind of social and political context this apocalyptic political theology is intended for. It is not without reason that the biblical ideology and genre of apocalypticism is deeply countercultural, at the brink of demonizing earthly entities and realities. Accordingly, its destructive and creative potentials should be unleashed in societies and situations that are in real need of countercultural impulses and initiatives, even mass movements.

Moments of harsh repression, where basic liberal or human rights are violated, call for another use of apocalyptic reasoning than moments of hard work and welfare benefits within Scandinavian societies which flourish in terms of human development. Monseñor Oscar Romero would not have been a martyr in Scandinavia. He would have been something else, perhaps something quite ordinary.

[1] «Genom att begagna sig av termer som «våld» och «undantagstillstånd” – snarare än exempelvis ”korruption” och ”demokratiunderskott” – för att beskriva rådande samhällsutvecklingar riskerar man inte bare att skapa en problematisk inflation i begreppen; man riskerar också att överskyla de progressiva rättsutvecklingar som de facto äger rum i de demokratiska samhällena.” Svenungsson, Jayne. Den gudomliga historien, p. 225.