Scattered remarks on political theology

From one perspective, it is possible to isolate three types of “political theology.” The first is a liberal one, which seeks to reveal the unconscious theological inheritance in the hopes of purging it and reaching a true secularity. One might include Löwith and Derrida under this heading. The second is a reactionary one, which seeks to preserve whatever homologies are possible with the theological tradition in order to maintain some kind of horizon of meaning over against modernity, which is understood to be a nihilistic mechanism — obviously here one could place Carl Schmitt. Finally, there is the radical leftist approach, which mines the theological tradition for any possible site of radical transformation (and perhaps indulges in the pleasure of “provocatively” needling liberal fussiness about how we must handle the dangerous materials of religion). I would place Zizek in this category.

For all three perspectives, there is a “special relationship” between political theology and eschatology. The reactionary position is basically focused on the katechon, that enigmatic figure from 2 Thessalonians who holds the man of lawlessness at bay and heads off the apocalypse (here one could place Peterson alongside Schmitt). The leftist position is apocalyptic, openly courting the very dissolution that for the reactionary is the worst possible outcome. The liberal position is awkwardly situated in this respect, but I think that we can draw on Dan Barber’s On Diaspora and call liberal political theology basically supercessionistic — a kind of “messianism without messianism” where secularity is continually overcoming religion as such, albeit without any concrete hope of a final consummation.

When it comes to placing a figure like Taubes or Agamben, I think things become more difficult. Bruce Rosenstock has a great essay forthcoming in New German Critique on the Taubes-Schmitt relationship where he argues that while Taubes aligns more closely with the apocalyptic, he also sees the necessity of the reactionary impulse represented by Schmitt in order to keep the apocalyptic impulse from spiralling into sheer nihilism. His exegesis of the final pages of Occidental Eschatology is absolutely essential in this regard — he clarifies that for Taubes, finding humanity’s center in God requires a special kind of balance, because humanity’s orbit is always elliptical rather than spherical and so constantly threatens to go off course. I wonder if one could read Agamben similarly, particularly in light of his recently published lecture The Church and the Kingdom, which in many ways is so difficult to reconcile with his other writings insofar as it seems to call for a kind of “balance” between the messianic impulse and the structure of authority.

This talk of balance seems liberal from a certain perspective, but it is not a secular liberalism — indeed, the question of secularity is simply sidestepped altogether in the meeting of the two extremes. Or is it perhaps instead a question of creating a space for a tenuous secularity, keeping God at a respectable distance without becoming completely untethered from it? Is this elliptical balancing act perhaps the way we render the theological “inoperative” precisely by maintaining the constant reference to it — like the legendary rabbinical school that bases all of life on the divine law while pointedly telling God to shut up when he tries to intrude on the debate?

From this perspective, it appears that we could add a fourth position of Jewish political theology as a distinctive alternative to the liberal model. The question that then arises is whether this kind of political theology can really be practiced by a non-Jew, or whether it will always wind up spiralling into a one-sidedly katechontic or apocalyptic position.

Peterson and contemporary ecclesiology

In the epilogue to his exchange of letters with Adolf von Harnack published in Theological Tractates, Peterson writes that the conversation with Harnack foundered due to “the character of Protestantism itself, whose presuppositions make it possible for ecclesiastical life to exist without serious relation to dogma and theology, and which can, on the other hand, evolve a theology that ignores the concrete dogmatic problem of a ‘state church’” (23).

While he takes this observation in a direction many of us would find difficult to accept — namely, he believes that only a return to official state sponsorship would make Protestant churches into proper “Churches” again in the sense of being public entities (which the Catholic Church automatically is due to its direct claim of dogmatic authority in continuity with Christ and the apostles) — I do think it raises an interesting problem for Protestant theology that continues to this day. Namely, does Protestant ecclesiology really ever reflect on the actual-existing church? In the context of modern liberal Protestant theology, it seems that the existing state-church arrangements were always treated as a temporary condition, perhaps even a necessary evil — and the task of ecclesiology was to provide a vision for what the church should be.

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Peterson the Inquisitor

I’ve been reading Erik Peterson’s recently translated essays as part of the “political theology” background to my devil project, and wow, there is a lot of odd stuff in there. For instance, in the essay “What is Theology?” he argues that Christian dogma, insofar as it is a responsible extrapolation (through reasoned argument) of the deposit of Christian teaching entrusted to the Church, makes a “positive legal claim” on humanity. What does this mean?

Dogma is the objective and concrete expression of the way in which God in the Incarnation has physically moved in on humanity. It is so exactly right an expression for this state of affairs that every turn against the dogma, such as, for instance, that which a heretic undertakes, fittingly has its consequence as a punishment imposed on the body of the heretic. The teacher of error, who unlike the heretic does not violate the dogma, but simply teaches falsehood, cannot appropriately like a criminal be punished in his body; one can banish him as a disturber of the peace of the land, but that is something quite different from the punishment of a heretic.

If I’m reading this correctly, it seems as though Peterson is saying, almost as an aside, that of course the Church had the right to torture heretics under the Inquisition. There’s also interesting bits later on about how Protestant Churches could only claim to be “Churches” in the proper sense of the word insofar as they were able to draw on the coersive power of the state to enforce dogma (since presumably they would never have the intrinsic power to punish bodies, given that they cut themselves off from valid apostolic succession).

A big day for Erik Peterson fans!

Book cover
Despite his influence, Erik Peterson’s work has mostly not been translated into English — until now. The translator of his Theological Tractates, Michael Hollerich, has sent out an announcement:

Stanford University Press has now published my translation of Theologische Traktate, including the Monotheism monograph. You’ll make both me and the press (and Erik Peterson) happy if you decide to buy a copy, and also to spread the word to your friends. With my introduction to Peterson’s life and work. Includes translations of Peterson’s abundant quotations from Greek and Latin sources, which (he was a German professor, remember) he usually disdained to translate for his readers.

Erik Peterson

Does anyone know of any plans to translate Erik Peterson? Looking through the University of Chicago’s catalogue, I see only one translation, of Das Buch von den Englen. It seems that with all the interest in “political theology,” a translation of Der Monotheismus als politisches Problem — which is actually fairly widely cited — might be in order, either together with the other texts in the Teologische Traktate or as a separate book.

Perhaps once Il Regno e la Gloria is translated, Agamben’s agenda-setting powers will go to work.

(Incidentally, my advisor happened to have the Teologische Traktate in his office and let me borrow it — I’m making my way through Der Monotheismus, slowly.)


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