Essays

Essays

In my prior posting, I was concerned with elaborating the disciplinary position from which I take up the project of political theology. It is a part of the secular study of our political practices and beliefs. Accepting these limits, I placed myself within the same modernist tradition as liberal political theory.

There is a deeper point to be made about the symmetry between theory and practice in the modern age. Liberal political theory is committed to the idea that an adequate account must be one that is fully transparent to reason. Theory is to be built through discrete, rational steps from common premises that purport to be universal. Accordingly, it is hostile to any privileged claims made on the basis of a particular faith, including claims for the existence of God or a natural order. In a parallel fashion, the modern, political order is to be autochthonous. It is to rest on nothing outside of itself. This is not a claim about history, which knows no beginnings; rather, it describes a secular understanding of the origin and ground of the state. This is an important idea, for example, in the decolonization movement: a post-colonial state can create itself through an original founding act. It need not express a pre-existing national or ethnic identity.

Essays

The wilderness was not a place that good Romans went. In the view of Roman imperial cosmology, the wilderness was a place full of savage people to be subdued and conquered. The Augustus of Prima Porta statue, imaged here, shows precisely this view. The heavens come into alignment and the Gods look down in delight as the Parthian king surrenders to Rome. On either side, mourning barbarian women are curled in positions of submission. This is how Rome viewed the wilderness — the worlds of barbarian people and wild animals outside the boundaries of Roman control, and only fit into the Roman imagination once they had been subdued. This was the drama enacted regularly in the arena, where wild animals and foreign persons were slaughtered before adoring crowds.

The Politics of Scripture

It is certainly interesting to see a reflection of myself in the response of another discipline, even if I sometimes have trouble recognizing that image. Most useful will be for me to address the meaning of the gap between the two different political theological enterprises represented in this discussion. I will begin by making clear what the idea of a political theology contributes to my project. Following that, I will defend some of the contested theoretical premises of my work. Finally, I will take up the hardest question that emerges from this discussion: is it really the case that my political theological project is non-normative? If there is an implicit normative claim in my work, then the reviewers are right to ask not just whether I have got my description of American politics right, but whether the ethical direction of my work can be supported.

The telling feature of this interpretation (of Matthew 13: 24-30) is not that it is a passing allusion, but that it becomes a key mode for organising Lenin’s struggles with various opponents in the socialist movement. His interpretation is both close in spirit to the biblical parable and yet has its own twists. The similarities first: the crucial issue is discernment, separating the tares from the wheat, the former appearing in a negative register as one’s opponents and the latter belonging to one’s own side. Further, the tares must be pulled up or cut down, so that it becomes clear who is part of the wheat. And the task falls to the ‘reapers’, who come to scythe away the weeds for the sake of the wheat.

Essays

It’s easy to read this week’s gospel as a warning of doom and gloom. It begins, after all, with this strict admonition, “Be Alert!” (v 23), and ends with the equally forceful command, “Keep awake!” (v 37). It’s as though Jesus has just shouted, “Watch out!” and thrown a ball of flaming fire into the crowd. But, of course, there is no fiery ball and so the question naturally is, “Watch out for what?” Within the pericope itself, the obvious answer becomes the awesome image that Jesus paints in verse 26: “The Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” And why should we be concerned? (Apart, of course, from the darkened moon and falling stars…) Because Jesus says the Son of Man is like a master returning and from there we write our own scripts of what wrath this master might bring. “Keep awake!” the Bible tells us, and we add, “Because if we sleep, we might be hit by that fiery ball!” And, indeed, for Matthew and Luke, who record this prediction as “a thief coming in the middle of the night,” rather than a master returning to his home, such fears may be warranted. But, for Mark, different dynamics are at play…

Essays, The Politics of Scripture

This book is a timely intervention within current debates about the role of religion, politics, philosophy and the public square. I was reading it as the Western World was once again reflecting (and in a not very coherent or analytical way) on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. As Kahn persuasively reminds us, international terrorism inextricably linked to religious imaginaries has forced liberal democracies and liberal intellectual disciplines to wake up to the real nature of politics: the themes of sovereign decision; the power of the exception rather than the bureaucratic norm; the lure of sacrifice and martyrdom; the will to act and choose authenticity rather than the use of reason or appeal to the norm. These are the seductive and destructive options that the international and religiously inspired terrorist offers us.

Essays

This was the defense of a banker – as seen in a BBC interview Monday 7th November. Later that day, the long-awaited St Paul’s Institute report on its survey of London-based bankers was published. In advance of this a decision was made to interview a young woman from within the profession to get her response to the suggestion that there was a lack of morality in the City of London. I was so staggered by some of her responses to this challenge that I felt bound to try to draw out the logical consequences of what she had said. What follows is exactly that.

Essays

Political Theology and the lectionary for Sunday, November 20, 2011.

To be sure, some smart evangelicals like Chuck Colson have abjured Rand in toto for her atheism, but her basic premise that government is the root of all evil and that unfettered capitalism is the answer for everything is as true as Trinitarianism in most evangelical’s minds and hearts, a position all but unheard of in Christianity prior to the 20th century.

To think this way as a Christian, one has to do strange things with the Scripture, such as with this week’s lectionary gospel passage for Christ the King from Matthew 25:31-46. The obfuscation of what’s going on in the text is accomplished by diminishing one aspect of the text, while overemphasizing another.

Essays, The Politics of Scripture

A sensible theologian gets used to the marginalization of theology in the mainstream academy. To find a book about the importance of political theology by a legal scholar at Yale is, however, cause for excitement. Paul Kahn’s exploration of, and extrapolation from, key themes in Carl Schmitt’s classic work goes beyond the usual association of political theology with fundamentalism and shows how even a liberal political order has a theology of its own. There has been no “resurgence” of religion; Kahn sees rightly that Mark Lilla’s “Great Separation” never happened, and that even liberal nation-states like the U.S. have taken on the aura of the sacred. Kahn’s insightful comments about nuclear warfare make this point acutely: “How is it that a political order that understands itself as characterized by the rule of law can hold forth the possibility of such destruction?” (11-12). It can only be because the nation has taken on an infinite value, and the popular sovereign, or nation as god, must retain its exceptional powers to act. In times of war, the President embodies the people like Christ embodies the whole (86). Liberal theories like that of Rawls have never properly come to grips with the violence of the nation-state and the persistence of sacrifice in modern politics.

All of this and more is expanded upon in quite brilliant fashion, and I remain grateful to Kahn for opening up new lines of inquiry that may have been heretofore closed to legal and political theorists. In the end, however, there is less convergence than first appears between political theology as Kahn understands it and what goes under the same name in the present journal.

Essays

Through ecstatic history, God acts upon himself, but not against himself, to reveal himself to those who are oppressed and violated by unjust power structures. In saying that God acts upon himself, what I mean is that God, already at work in history, dispenses divine revelation such that Spirit meets Spirit. God’s Spirit meets itself in radical instances that revise and recreate the event that constitutes human history.

The Politics of Scripture

Kahn’s book is intriguing and in many places insightful, conversant in theoretical literature ranging from that of Giorgio Agamben to that of Brian Leiter. I have two worries, one about Kahn’s similarity to Schmitt and another about Kahn’s difference from Schmitt. I worry that the richness of Schmitt’s treatment of theology is diminished in Kahn’s treatment, with theology being reduced to religion – religion that sounds quite liberal and quite Protestant. And I worry that Kahn, like Schmitt, may not provide sufficient space for difference (racial, gender, class, and even religious) in his constructive account. I will approach these worries indirectly, after first rehearsing some of Kahn’s discussion of sovereignty.

Essays