Between Religion and Politics: Towards a Model of Translation

PT Through History

How might the relations between (radical and especially communist) politics and religion be understood? Over against the dominant but troubled models of secularisation and the absolute, determining origin of theology, I would like to propose a modest model of translation. That model has four components, beginning with the step in which politics and religion are understood as languages or codes, where their key terms operate within semantic fields. As those terms come into contact with one another in the process of translation, their semantic fields overlap but are not coterminous. Something is always left over on both sides, not initially part of that overlap. Second, how we deal with what is left over is crucial: it may enrich the intersection, enabling senses that were not possible in the individual semantic fields; or some dimensions may be lost, slipping away from either politics or theology as translation takes place. Third, and against the tendency to confluence thus far, translation does not rest upon some middle, upon some benignly common semantic field, for one finds that each term being translated offers resistance, will not allow a complete translation to take place. Fourth, this resistance and semi-autonomy of the two terms means that translation is a dialectical process, a moving back and forth between the terms that is never ready to rest content with the results. All of this reminds us that codes in question are modest, limited affairs, with none being prior or superior to the other, no matter how much they may claim for themselves.

However, in this piece I do not wish to elaborate on that model (that task is undertaken in a forthcoming issue of the journal Stasis). Instead, I would like to outline what this proposal challenges, indeed what has spurred my thoughts in this direction. The first relates to Marxism, specifically to a common but problematic argument: the Marxist schema of history is a secularised version of Jewish and Christian eschatological history. Our current state of sin (alienation and exploitation) awaits a saviour (the working class) who will usher in the millennium, the new age (communism) when the evil ones (the bourgeoisie) will be vanquished.[1] One soon discovers in a close reading of Marx and Engels that this argument has no basis, apart from a thousand repetitions of a speculative thought bubble.[2] Equally spurious is the argument that Marxism draws from the formal innovation of the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, its linear history over against the cyclical patterns characteristic of ancient Southwest Asia at the time. The origin of this idea is rather unclear, for even a cursory glance at other political myths of the time, such as the famous Enuma Elish or the Epic of Gilgamesh, reveals linear narratives woven in with cyclical patterns, much like the Hebrew Bible.

This erroneous proposal is largely a historical one, in which prior forms of – Western and not-so Western – thought influenced those that followed. This framework, of course, assumes the patterns of cause and effect without which modern historiography could not function. In that light, the suggestion concerning Marxism is but one form of the secularisation narrative, which tells of a long and somewhat bumpy process in which the primary reference to a world beyond is replaced by reference to this age and this world.[3] A corollary concerns that bogeyman religion: it is either gradually replaced or watches on helplessly as its key terms are emptied of religious content and replaced with political ones. According to this narrative, religion becomes the historical precursor of modern political thought, necessary scaffolding perhaps that can eventually be dismantled to reveal the true form of political reflection. This narrative has been so troubled of late that it has lost credibility, partly due to the new visibility of religion in the geopolitical sphere, and partly due to the inherent problems with the narrative.[4] Yet, no viable model has yet appeared on the horizon to provide an alternative to the relations between religion and politics.

That final statement is not quite true, for one particular proposal has been taken up, apart from the weak term “post-secularism.”[5] It may be traced back to Carl Schmitt’s oft-cited assertion, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”[6] Initially, this might be read as yet another version of the secularisation narrative, but Schmitt completes his sentence by stating that he means not merely historical developments but also the “systematic structure” of political concepts. He moves here beyond historical concerns to ontological ones, with theology providing the absolute source and thereby the inescapable framework of political thought. The use of the term “political theology” is a clear illustration of his agenda, for it demotes politics to an adjectival status and reserves the nominative and central position for theology. As Blumenberg points out, what “political theology” really means is “theology as politics.”[7] Many are those who have followed Schmitt’s speculations, especially the systemic or ontological postulate, despite his recourse to the arch-conservative tradition of Counter-Reformation thought to bolster his argument. For instance, Giorgio Agamben has recently attempted to show that theology provides the untranscendable horizon (with all its traps) for political thought.[8] A little earlier, Jacob Taubes tried to locate the origins of Western thought, especially its linear and eschatological narrative, in the Hebrew Bible.[9] Continuing today, various “radical orthodox” theologians simply assert that all forms of thought and practice are actually theological, a breathtakingly conservative proposal that kowtows to Thomas Aquinas and suggests that all modern developments are the result of heresies that betray the aforesaid divine.[10] That this is a profoundly regressive, if not unhelpful, proposal should be obvious, for it seeks to lace everything into a rather ethnocentric and imperialist version of Christian theology.

So what may be done? I would like to suggest a rather simple alternative model or analogy: translation.[11] In one respect, my task may be seen as an effort to provide rigour to Blumenberg’s looser suggestion that the relations between politics and religion operate in terms of analogy and metaphor.[12] For Blumenberg, such a metaphorical process is of a voluntarist nature: the political theorist has a stock of images to hand – above all of the absolute sovereignty of the God-person – which he or she selects as appropriate, thereby revealing more about the nature of a situation and its theorist than the relation of ideas themselves. The value of Blumenberg’s approach is that it reduces the absolute claims of both politics and religion, but its limits appear in its voluntarist assumptions and in the lack of explication of how the process of metaphor and analogy really works. In response, I propose a distinct model that draws upon some key items from the theory and practice of translation, a model that reminds both religion and politics – in all their forms – that they are limited forms of speech and that any claims to absolute status are dangerously hubristic.


[1] The proposal has served various purposes. For instance, in the hands of Nikolai Berdyaev, early a Marxist but later a theologically inspired anti-communist, or indeed in the hands of the equally apostate Leszek Kolakowski, it becomes ammunition in an anti-communist polemic. Nikolai Berdyaev, The Origin of Russian Communism, trans. R. M. French (London: G. Bles, 1937); Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, trans. P.S. Falla, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981). For historians such as Karl Löwith, it becomes a way of negating the challenge of Marxism by including it within a wider sweep of historiographical analysis. Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949). And for a philosopher like Alasdair MacIntyre, the assumption becomes an effort to find common ground between his two passions, Christianity and Marxism, for both offer a historical narrative that runs from weakness to strength, with human beings ultimately recovering the moral purity once lost so that we may live once again in a state of grace that transcends historical time. Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity  (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 111. These assumptions continue also in more recent work. See, for instance, Matthew Sharpe, “On Eschatology and the ‘Return to Religion’,” Arena 39-40 (2012-13).

[2] Roland Boer, Criticism of Earth: On Marx, Engels and Theology (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

[3] Drawing upon the basic sense of saeculum and its adjective, saecularis, I understand secularism – a word coined by George Holyoake in the mid-nineteenth century – as a system of thought, indeed a way of living that draws its terms purely from this age and from this world. This positive sense also has an implied negative: secularism does not draw its reference point from beyond this world, whether a god above, or a time in the future, or a sacred text such as the Bible that tells myths about both. George Holyoake, The Principles of Secularism  (London: Austin & Co., 1860); English Secularism: A Confession of Belief  (Chicago: Open Court, 1896).

[4] Michael Hoezl and Graeme Ward, eds., The New Visibility of Religion (London: Continuum, 2008); Jeffrey Stout, “2007 Presidential Address: The Folly of Secularism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76, no. 3 (2008); Charles Taylor, A Secular Age?  (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap, 2007); Hent De Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan, eds., Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press 2006).

[5] I should add that proclaiming a recycled version of nineteenth-century atheism and secularism – by the “new old atheists” – is a rather reactionary and futile exercise. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion  (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything  (New York: Twelve Books, 2007); Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon  (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2007).

[6] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005 [1922]), 36.

[7] Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: MIT, 1966), 97-98.

[8] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Homo Sacer II, 2), trans. Lorenzo Chiesa and Matteo Mandarini (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011 [2007]). Agamben undermines his own project by beginning with the ancient Greeks, well before Christian theology (and thereby reinforcing the myth of Western Classicism).

[9] Jacob Taubes, Occidental Easchatology, trans. David Ratmoko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009 [1947]).

[10] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason  (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990); Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?  (Cambridge: MIT, 2009); Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Žižek, eds., Theology and the Political: The New Debate (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

[11] The initial idea I draw from Fredric Jameson’s notion of trans-coding. However, I seek to provide a systematic framework that goes beyond Jameson’s largely instinctual suggestion and practice. Fredric Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory, Essays 1971-1986. Volume 2: Syntax of History  (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), viii-ix.

[12] Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 89-102.

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