The other day, I suggested that Schmitt’s argument in Political Theology has a narrower application than one might suspect — it is primarily about the “special relationship” that developed between politics and theology in the early modern period (and not even explicitly Christian theology, but the philosophical theology that played such a decisive role in early modern thought). What was unique in this moment was that theology/metaphysics and politics reached the same totalizing ambition at the same time. I also suggested that in this reading of Schmitt, the historical genealogy that has preoccupied many in the field of political theology is a subordinate concern.
Where does this leave the task of political-theological genealogy of the kind seen in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory? I have an article coming out in Political Theology putting forth Agamben’s method as a model for the discipline, and I stand by it. What I think this reading of Schmitt can help with is the question of why such a method “works.”
In a passage I can’t find at the moment, Agamben is suprisingly humble about his findings in K&G, saying that he has at least demonstrated that it’s helpful to compare theology and philosophy. Given Agamben’s tendency to seemingly hyperbolic claims about the inner necessity governing the whole Western tradition, etc., I think this hedging is revealing — there is an open question here. It seems undeniable after reading K&G that the Christian tradition’s unfolding of the logic of economy and providence developed in a direction that anticipated modern theories of economy and governance, but it’s not clear why this should be the case. I think the hint is found in Agamben’s tracing of political-economic logic to the problem of governing an empire: that historical moment is one where, just as in early modernity, philosophy and politics reach a similar level of totality. Those moments show the “interface” between the two fields, the fundamental homology between the problems they seek to unravel — because at those moments, both fields converge on the same problems and the same solutions.
There is no need for reductionism here, as though politics is secretly a “religious” pursuit or theology is nothing but political propaganda. Both have their own relative autonomy and their own inner conceptual necessity. This latter point explains why one discipline could serve as a kind of laboratory developing concepts that will come to be used in the other, as in Agamben’s genealogy. Given the fundamental homology, the conceptual problems are bound to be parallel — and there are only so many solutions one can develop in facing certain intellectual puzzles.
I’m not putting forward a theory of intellectual archetypes, but just speaking on the practical level. We could well imagine that the scholastic philosophers pretty well exhausted the field in thinking through possible notions of providence, for example — Lord knows they had nothing but time on their hands. Similarly, Boyarin claims in Borderlands that there are probably only a limited number of ways to construe the relationship between God and the Logos/Memra, which were played out in Christian orthodoxy, early rabbinic Judaism, and the various “heresies” of the same period. Taubes makes a similar point in Occidental Eschatology and elsewhere about apocalypticism.
Hence it seems there’s a fundamental legitimacy, even in an era like ours where the two seem to be relatively “decoupled,” in using theology as a way to think through politics, as well as in using political parallels to assess theology. One need not claim that theological ideas directly “cause” oppression, for instance, nor indeed “cause” liberation — the point instead is to jump to the parallel discipline for the sake of de-familiarizing, shedding new light on over-familiar problems. Particularly in the case of thinking through possibilities for revolutionary new political paradigms, transfering the discussion to the theological realm can be a way of taking one’s distance from a contemporary reality that seems to promise nothing but further despair. With God, all things are possible — so why not hang out in theology for a while?