Learning to Live with Liberalism — Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event

This is a guest post from Ulrich Schmiedel, Lecturer in Theology, Politics, and Ethics, University of Edinburgh

Thomas Lynch’s Apocalyptic Political Theology is an astute and acerbic critique of liberalism. No surprises here. Since Carl Schmitt combined the political with the theological, the Schmittian separation of political theology from liberalism (and liberalism from political theology) has determined much of the development of the field. ‘From Schmitt onwards’, Lynch points out, ‘political theology has accused the liberal narrative of denying the violence that marks’ it (11). Of course, this accusation is mutual – liberal theologians find political theologians violent and political theologians find liberal theologians violent – so there is lots of loathing to go around. What I find intriguing about Lynch’s political theology is that – if read, admittedly somewhat annoyingly, against the grain – Lynch both confirms and corrodes the Schmittian separation.

Lynch neither defines nor describes ‘liberalism’. Given that ‘liberalism’ is such a washed-out category by now, covering all sorts of lukewarm thinkers who appear to accommodate the status quo by opting for compromise over conflict, any attempt at defining and describing liberalism would be doomed from the get-go. The account of liberalism that runs through Lynch’s apocalyptic political theology shows that ‘liberalism’ is a label that is, somewhat strangely, slippery and sticky at the same time. (A bit like the unicorn poo my four-year old niece likes to play with.) For Lynch, both the defenders and the despisers of religion in politics can be liberals. He brings his ‘methodological political theology’ to bear on the worlds in which we live in order to show how these worlds manifest, manage or mask violence. Thus, Lynch’s methodological political theology tackles the ‘pervasive forms of injustice that persist in an era defined by at least nominal commitments to liberal ideas’ (13).

Lynch is aiming at the whole – literally, the whole – world. His ‘ontology of the world’ (13) is among the most discomforting and the most devastating reads that political theology has on offer. To be sure, Lynch’s ontology is so catastrophic because it is so convincing. Drawing on Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth, he defines the world as a world that is structured by antagonisms between the oppressors and the oppressed. If you’re a white heterosexual man with money, you count. If you’re not a white heterosexual man with money, you don’t count. Lynch clarifies convincingly that there is no escape from such counting. In the Anthropocene – with Jason Moore, Lynch refers to the ‘Capitalocene’ – the antagonism between oppressor and oppressed shapes the world in which we live. It’s clear, then, why political theology has to ask and to answer for more than a clarification of whether religion should or shouldn’t meddle in politics. For Lynch, the world in which we live is rooted in violence. How do you answer for that? (Methodologically, it would be interesting to come up with a comparative view of worlds here. If you take Schmitt’s toolkit to theorize the world, it’s no surprise that you arrive at an ontology in which the world is antagonistic. I would like to take a step back here to ask, why Schmitt? Or why decide between a Schmittian and a non-Schmittian toolbox at all? Why not mix and match the tools? But such suggestions for compromise rather than conflict might make me sound a bit like a liberal…)

In any case, if you agree with Lynch, you have two options: either you invest in making the world a better place or you don’t invest in making the world a better place. His apocalyptic political theology tells us – don’t! Even if you were to invest, you wouldn’t make a better place of this world. This is the point and the program of Lynch’s critique of liberalism: Disinvest from the world! Crucially, Lynch insists that liberalism isn’t always problematic and that anti-liberalism isn’t always promising. He isn’t interested in ‘a rejection of the accomplishments of liberalism’ as such (87). One example he explores is the equality of rights that liberalism promises, even if such equality is still more a matter of principle than practice. What’s not to like about equality? Lynch isn’t against equality, but he insists that even if we were to agree on the principle of equality, we couldn’t escape the antagonisms between the oppressor and the oppressed when we put it into practice. The world kicks in again. Calling for the principle to be put into practice through the reform of the institutions and the instruments of liberal democracy comes at the cost of all those who suffer from the system held in place by liberal democracy. If the call comes at such a catastrophic cost, is it the call of the oppressed or the call of the oppressors? After reading Lynch, you can’t be sure anymore. It might be either this or that – or indeed neither – but, in any case, according to Lynch, ‘liberalism involves, in the end, a denial of the cost others suffer by our being liberal’ (87). Either you build a society based on equality, in which case individual freedoms will have to be curtailed or you build a society based on individual freedom, in which case equality will have to be curtailed. Liberalism cannot resolve the tension between equality and liberty. ‘Managing that tension is liberalism. To refuse either side completely is to abandon liberalism’ (90).

The abandonment of liberalism, then, comes to the fore with the apocalypse. Apocalypticism plunges us back into the Schmittian separation – the ‘essential divide’ in political theology (81) – proposed at the outset. On the one side, there are the liberal theologians, the anti-apocalypticists. For them ‘the condition of the possibility for freedom is the acceptance of the world’ (81). On the other side, there are the political theologians, the apocalypticists. For them ‘the condition of the possibility for freedom is the disinvestment from the world’ (81). Note that Lynch is not opposing liberal acceptance with anti-liberal non-acceptance. Both the anti-apocalypticists and the apocalypticists (I apologize for the tongue-twisters!) have to accept the world as it is. But Lynch’s liberal wants to invest in order to make the world a better place, while Lynch’s anti-liberal wants to disinvest in order to make – well, in order to make what? According to Lynch, the apocalyptic political theologian abandons all hope in making the world a better place, because the ‘possibilities of a better world always remain possibilities of a world that is itself unjust’ (81). There is no escape. Lynch is at his best where his reflections are as relentless as here.

Crucially, Lynch isn’t so much concerned with the violence that any revolution arguably entails. There isn’t much point in measuring the violence perpetrated in different politico-economical systems, if the world is violent. The world itself is what needs to be undone, even if ‘this undoing is violent’ (135). Lynch, then, is cautious and critical of revolutions, but not because the world that is brought about by a revolution is started and sustained through violence. Rather, Lynch’s critique is that it’s still the world. In his apocalyptic political theology, ‘nothing is imposed because there is not yet the position from which to think new beginnings. For now, the end is enough’ (130).

Lynch’s apocalypticism pushes you to the edge of the world. As Lynch argues, apocalypticism is a little bit like the ‘theological suspension of the ethical’ that Søren Kierkegaard’s Abraham encounters when he is commanded to sacrifice his son (138). In confrontation with the theological – meant literally in Kierkegaard and not so literally in Lynch’s riff on Kierkegaard – ethics and politics meet their maker, for ‘even if it were possible to envision the kind of act that could result in a new world, such an act would lie beyond any ethical or political justification’ (137). For Lynch, the apocalyptic trauma entails the apocalyptic task: to acknowledge ‘that this world is not worth perpetuating’, while finding agency in this acknowledgement and abandonment of the world (137). But how?

Against the alternative of the faithful and the faithless knights of Kierkegaard, Lynch comes up with a fascinating

‘third possibility: the knight of apocalyptic pessimism. Both of Kierkegaard’s knights are assured of their desire. It is only the means of realizing that desire that remains elusive. The knight of apocalyptic pessimism has no such assurance. She does not seek to overcome the obstacle to the object of her desire but rejects the world that is itself the obstacle of desiring rightly. She does not trust that with God, all things are possible – there is no God that acts in such ways… The knight of apocalyptic pessimism hopes the peculiar hope for the possibility of the impossible that cannot be expressed in the grammar of the world’ (139).

(Theologically, I’m not quite sure why Lynch insists that there is neither a ‘God’ nor a ‘God that acts in such ways’ in the apocalypse. How does he know? Surely, if we cannot express the possibility of the impossible in the grammar of the world, we cannot claim to know whether such a God might or might not appear in the possibility of the impossible. Paul Tillich’s ‘God above God’, a God that renders the alternative between theism and atheism ridiculous, might make an appearance in the apocalypse. But again, I might be accused of liberalism. Or – God forbid! – liberal theology.)

With or without God, Lynch’s knight of apocalyptic pessimism has to live in the world. Entangled in a world that engenders violence, what would disinvestment from the world look like? If Lynch’s knight lives in a liberal democracy – I assume she does because she is able to vote – ‘she votes, but realizes that the institutions maintained by voting are also the instruments of oppression (better a little less oppression while awaiting the end)’ (140). So, the knight has to make decisions that speak for reform rather than revolution, decisions that call for compromise, decisions, in short, that sustain liberal democracy. She even accepts the ‘better’ that Lynch wanted to ban from the vocabulary of the suspension of ethics and politics at the end of the world. The knight’s decisions are made with the criteria of the world as it is, then, even though the knight assumes that the world as it is ought to end. But if liberalism is characterized by an acceptance of the world as it is, by improving on the status quo through compromise rather than conflict, isn’t Lynch’s knight of apocalyptic pessimism a liberal? I wonder what would happen to the strict and stable Schmittian separation of political theology from liberalism (and liberalism from political theology) that has determined so much of the development of the field of political theology, if Lynch’s liberal knight was allowed to re-draw the boundaries.

2 thoughts on “Learning to Live with Liberalism — Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event

  1. I think this way of framing the issue–“I would like to take a step back here to ask, why Schmitt?”–is a really interesting one, because I’ve seen this question pop up, word for word, at more than one conference, and it’s almost always lobbed in this way by a self-described liberal. What I always want to ask is what I’ll ask here: is it so hard to believe that sometimes, theorists pull certain ideas from theorists because they think those particular ideas happen to be true? There’s a strange sort of voluntarism involved in the objection here, one that I honestly find difficult to parse or understand.

  2. Thanks for your comment! I agree – I’d hope that, as you write, “theorists pull certain ideas from theorists because they think those particular ideas happen to be true”. I would be interested in the reasons for why a theorist finds particular ideas true or not true. With regard to the ontology of the world that Tommy Lynch is developing in his book, this might allow us to come up with a comparative account of a variety of ontologies of the world, a variety of views of the world. With a little bit of luck, this could help political theologians to convince liberals (or liberals to convince political theologians).

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