The Prince of This World: Thinking the Devil in Light of Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

[This paper was presented on Sunday, November 18, 2012, at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, under the auspices of the Theology and Continental Philosophy and Theology and Religious Reflection groups.]

The reader of the first three volumes of Agamben’s Homo Sacer series—the eponymous first volume, State of Exception, and Remnants of Auschwitz—could be forgiven for being skeptical. Though Agamben’s meditations on the question of sovereignty had an immediate purchase during the dark days of the Bush Administration, it could sometimes seem that he was guilty of stretching the concepts of the sovereign exception and bare life to the breaking point, forcing them to take on an explanatory burden they could not really bear. One could concede that when pushed to a certain extreme, the Western theologico-political machine breaks down into the confrontation of sovereign power and bare life, and perhaps even that the Western machine operates within the tension between the two—yet there is so much going on in that “between” that it seems impossible that it can all be accounted for in Agamben’s terms.

From this perspective, The Kingdom and the Glory represents a crucial turning point in Agamben’s project, deepening his account of Western theologico-political structures by beginning to work out how the logic of sovereignty is deployed and transformed in order to penetrate the fine-grained textures of everyday life. In place of the easily delimitable “state of exception” where the sovereign suspends the law in order to save it, we are directed toward the workaday realities of flexible management.

Though it is perhaps surprising that he derives this logic from the Christian theological tradition, it appears in retrospect that many of his key points were more or less hiding in plain sight. Read the rest of this entry »

Peter Abelard: Not actually a radical?

You know the classic debate between Anselm and Abelard, which has become a proxy fight between conservatives and liberals? I don’t think said debate ever actually took place. That is to say, Abelard didn’t disagree with Anselm’s position, which quickly became something like theological “common sense,” in any real way. The locus classicus for the “moral influence” theory of the atonement, i.e., the passage from the Romans commentary translated in the Classics of Christian Literature volume A Scholastic Miscellaney, asks some tough questions of both the patristic and the Anselmic view of atonement — and indeed I think those questions are really interesting in their own terms — but Abelard winds up embracing essentially everything he questions, even though he’s not able to come up with a satisfying answer. (There’s even a place where he affirms that Christ frees us from the lordship of the devil!) The “moral influence” theory itself, which is really kind of a misleading name, seems to be kind of a supplement to help us understand God’s motivations in a way that goes beyond the rather cold and claustrophobic scheme Anselm sets up. Yet he really does wind up affirming everything elsewhere — the debt thing, the satisfaction offered by Christ, etc. And in fact, you kind of need that scheme to be in the background to make sense of why Christ’s death is supposed to be an illustration of love — after all, no one would think that a loved one just arbitrarily submitting to death would be the most loving possible thing to do; there would have to be a pretty compelling reason.

A similar pattern can be found in his long digression on original sin, after his commentary on the “first Adam/second Adam” scheme. Given his ethics, there is no possible way original sin can make sense for Abelard — particularly the damnation of infants. He asks some really challenging questions that seem really interesting to me in terms of showing his presuppositions, but then he winds up saying, “Oh well, God knows best! Who are we to judge?” Due to the tendency to read him as a proto-Enlightenment thinker, one is tempted to claim that this is kind of a backhanded sarcastic thing, but no: I’m pretty sure he actually does want to be in total conformity to what he takes to be orthodox, but is just being honest about where he can’t make it work in his own mind.

(Of course, the odds of one of the commenters here having read the entire Romans commentary, which as far as I can tell is not available in any modern language, are pretty slim — in fact, I’m only about two-thirds of the way through currently. I do seem to have gotten through the stuff most relevant to my project, but the only way to know for sure is to read the rest, sadly.)

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