- Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, Roman Catholicism and Political Form, The Concept of the Political and Political Theology II
- Erik Peterson, Theological Tractates
- Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul
In addition to the above essential texts that stimulated the debate over ‘political theology’ in the early twentieth century, I could suggest six other equally essential texts below that represent the contemporary direction of post-Schmittian political theology; however, this list should not be taken as the definitive list. From a pedagogical perspective, I see my list on political theology functioning like Wittgenstein’s ladder metaphor in his Tractatus. Once graduate students read and grasp these important texts, they should “throw away the ladder”, so to speak, and deconstruct all they have learned about political theology to illuminate contemporary problems on their own. Once they reach the top, they can throw away the ladder.
It was Carl Schmitt who first provoked political theology debate during the tumultuous days of the Weimar Republic as part of the German political Catholicism discussion, not just amongst conservatives and liberals of Weimar Germany, but also, and more notably, amongst his Jewish contemporaries, including Jacob Taubes, Hermann Heller, Walter Benjamin, Leo Strauss and Ernst Kantorowicz. Schmitt’s Political Theology, Roman Catholicism and Political Form and The Concept of the Political are an introduction to the debate. Both Peterson and Taubes are as important as Schmitt because they were early critics of his work, forcing Schmitt to answer Peterson’s critique with Political Theology II. Every student interested in political theology should read these texts as a starting point.
Equally Essential Texts (in chronological order)
- Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, translation of Derrida’s 2001-2 seminars.
- Gil Anidjar, The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy, 2003.
- Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, first published in Italian in 2007.
- Philip Goodchild, Theology of Money, 2009.
- Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, 2011.
- Catherine Keller, Political Theology of the Earth, 2018.
I have chosen Derrida because he poses a conceptual challenge to a human-animal dichotomy in Western thought between the human as superior (rational and political) and the animal as inferior (irrational and non-political) as he believes that they existed above and outside the law respectively. Although I have problems with the way Derrida attributes negative qualities in the sovereign to an animalistic nature, it is a crucial contribution to political theology since the omnipotent sovereign is not only a human, but also recognized as an animal. Despite this, he seems to be maintaining the human-animal hierarchy, which is now questioned by ethical veganism. Anidjar shows us that the Jew, considered a theological enemy, was as essential as the Arab/Muslim, seen primarily as a political enemy, in creating modern European identity. Agamben opens our eyes to a new level of understanding: the real power with its glory does not belong to the sovereign, but to the ones administering the economy as the government and its administration distributes the power through economy. To him, present day notions and realities of politics in the West can only be understood through Christian theological concepts like the doctrine of divine providence, angelology and the concept of ministry. Goodchild illustrates how money has become the dominant religion practiced today, thus, money is theological since it has replaced God as the source of truth, value and power in the modern world. Kahn teaches us that theology permeates the US political and legal systems, believed to be secular and liberal. Keller brings us back to Earth by greening religion: when the planet fails due to climate change and environmental disasters there will be nobody to dispute over political theology, sovereignty, or friend and enemy distinction. She asks the most fundamental question: who is the owner of this planet Earth? As our planet is in a state of emergency, the world’s religious—potentially political—communities should join together to resist the environmental crisis. We have killed God the Sovereign Father; will Nature the Mother be next?
Originally, political theology was defined by Schmitt as a theory of the presence of God in politics as the modern liberal state replicated the older theological concepts. Later, the term was used as a theory of the sovereign state by the Nazis, supported by Schmitt, Emanuel Hirsch, Wilhelm Stapel and Alfred de Quervain. This resulted in a sacralization of power and a depoliticization of religion. Political theology was also interpreted by Protestant dialectical theologians, such as Friedrich Gogarten as a theory of secularization in the absence of God, a vacuum that was later filled by ethical or spiritual, but not religious types. However, since the 1960s the term political theology was associated with Johann Baptist Metz and liberation theologians who re-defined political theology as a theology of justice to recover the social dimensions of Christian doctrine, as opposed to the Schmittian concept centered on the sovereign state.
In my opinion, the question of how one would define political theology raises other questions: is there an unpolitical theology, existing on its own separate from the political realm? By the same token, is there a political system that has no religious underpinnings? Rather than concentrating on defining the term ‘political theology’ itself, I propose that we look at it not just within the passages in books but in the respective context in which it occurs, such as the German political Catholicism debate, its legitimizing use by Hitler and the Nazi party, post-Auschwitz Catholic denial and guilt, the subsequent Second Vatican Council, the Cold-War struggle between capitalism and communism, the heyday of ‘political Islam’ in the aftermath of the Iranian Islamic revolution, and the post-Fukuyama era that questions the corporate rule of the sacralized liberal democracy as the Messiah for the modern world.
Contemporary political theologians and philosophers recognize the importance of the global political economy, animal rights and the environment as multinational corporations, animal right activists (ethical vegans) and environmentalists force us to re-evaluate the nature of sovereignty and to develop new legal frameworks to meet current social and political realities. Therefore, I refrain from defining political theology because the term re-defines itself constantly in the real world in such a way that boundaries in social sciences are crossed and transcended.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a canon; however, it is only Wittgenstein’s ladder, a tool!