It was the German juridical theorist and philosopher Carl Schmitt who gave us the term “political theology.” But Schmitt’s legacy has been, to say the least, both fraught and often under- represented in so much of the discussions about the meaning of the expression “political theology” itself.
Ever since the term was first used by Plato and Aristotle in ancient Athens, the word “theology” has been applied to what are manifestly “political” issues. Likewise, political questions have become fatefully entangled with what we would call “theological” issues.
We are reminded of Immanuel Kant’s famous identification of the “starry heavens above” with the “moral law within me.” As Princeton social ethicist Max Stackhouse has put it forcefully, “no known civilization has ever endured that was not rooted in some such beliefs about ultimate reality and what it requires of us.”(28) The West’s encounter in recent decades with a resurgent Islam has made it evident that it is virtually impossible to treat political thought as a stand-alone set of secular norms and precepts divorce from “ultimate reality.”
At the same time, the hidden agenda of Schmitt’s project, inaugurated during the uncertainties of the Weimar years in Germany, was to revalidate somehow the pre-modern assumption that political absolutism had its own kind of legitimacy, if it had the warrant of religious transcendence. Ironically, it was the post-war mood of “crisis theology” and its preoccupation with God as “wholly other” that inspired Schmitt in Political Theology to come to the conclusion that…
…all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent god became the omni- potent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts.(36)
Although Schmitt’s quote is often taken as a kind of Ur-text for political theology for all the time, he was merely re-interpreting Jean Bodin’s formulation of the problem of sovereignty in the 1500s. Bodin contended that political and religious unity within a state must be pre- served together, and that the only visible token of this unity could be executive power. In other words, political cohesion is of necessity grounded in some kind of consensus concerning a singular, “ultimate reality.”
Yet, as Giorgio Agamben has shown, there have always been two “paradigms” operating across the spectrum of political theology – the one founded in the singularity of sovereign will and decision and the other in what he terms a divine “economy.” The two paradigms can be traced all the way back to the Trinitarian specifications of the Church Fathers. Agamben wants to “supplement” Schmitt’s formulation with the stipulation that from the beginning theology has conceived divine life and human history as an oikonomia, that theology is itself “economic” and did not simply become so at a later date with secularization.
Agamben’s argument is exceedingly complex. But its gist can be summarized as follows. Going all the way back to Aristotle, we cannot avoid his dictum in Book I of the Politics that the life of the polis is invariably founded on the “law” (nomos) of the “household” (oikos), from which we derive the principle of oikonomia, or “economy.” For Agamben, any political theology therefore must be twinned with a discernible political economy.
Whereas Aristotle’s Politics is primarily concerned with the “natural” power relationships that constitute the household, Agamben focuses on the magnification and diffusion of the domestic order of oikonomia throughout the much larger sphere of the “political” within both the modern state and the ancient empires. If, as Aristotle asserts, “justice” (dike) is “the bond of men in states,” “social justice,” for Agamben, must appear to be the relational analogue of all who are connected with each other globally.
We can locate the origin of this double paradigm of sovereignty and economy in Jesus’ proclamation of the “kingdom of God.” On the one hand, “kingdom” (basileia) signifies unconditioned divine sovereignty, but as the Great Commandment implies, and Jesus’ own radically relational interpretation of what it means to be a participant in the “kingdom,” it also connotes limitless mutual obligations that we have to each other, a form of a familialism reaching infinitely beyond the limits of blood, kinship, and any particular, concrete “household.” It was under the influence of Christianity and the writings of Saint Paul that the classical notion of dike morphed into the broader, “cosmopolitan” ideal of what nowadays we term social justice.
Politics within the modern context of “representative democracy” follows more naturally the trajectory of economy than sovereignty. The democratic imaginary of the “people,” as invested with sovereignty, was always viewed as a kind of conceptual sleight of hand by Schmitt. Agamben is correct that the divine “force” of any would-be “political theology” does not necessarily have to be infused exclusively with the overtones of monarchial supremacy. Its axis can just as easily be horizontal as vertical.
What political theology, nevertheless, is genuinely obliged to do is to combat the tendency of theologians to consecrate their own habitus of clothing quotidian moral or political judgments with transcendental regalia. If political theology is to “grow up and become a real discipline,” as Jonathan Cole has somewhat facetiously put it, it must learn to think critically about its own protocols, procedures, and presuppositions whenever it is compelled inevitably to make such judgments. Otherwise, political theology turns out to be nothing more than journalism with a self-righteous gaze.
Nor must political theology become too enamored with a kind of pop prophetism, citing Scripture or tradition to commend, or condemn, the follies and foibles of political figures. When all is said and done, political theology must cast itself as first and foremost a sort of ultimate court of appeal to which we turn whenever the genuine “undecidables” of political reflection stymie us. Political theology belongs to the realm of what Claude Lefort dubs la politique (the framework for political thinking) in contrast with that of le politique (“politics as usual”). Yet that does not by any means make political theology an abstruse avocation of academics.
What Lefort terms the “theopolitical,” the category from which any authentic political theology proceeds, cannot be dismissed simply as a meta-concept. It is the vital breath of politics as practiced in a day-to-day context. But the notion of the theopolitical at the same time must sustain its own type of hermeneutical gravitas concerning how one properly speaks and acts at a moment of political crisis.
The case of Jesus’ before Pilate is instructive in the quotation below.
Where do you come from” [Pilate} asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. (John 19:9-11, NIV)
Jesus’ curious response would appear to be an evasion. But the Gospel writer wants to under- score that a straightforward answer is not at all called for in this situation. Pilate’s “power” rests ultimately on that of “authority” (exousia). But his power is not comparable to God’s kingdom. Jesus is proclaiming his own “theopolitical” warrant for this asymmetry – specifically, his deconstruction of Caesarism with the aim of disclosing a frame of transcendent “authority” that invests sovereignty not in any form of recognizable political power, but in the Crucified Godhead.
This “state of exception” is communicated through Jesus’ own initial, coy silence. Pilate, of course, is incapable of grasping what is at stake.
We must ask ourselves, would we today as “theologians” with obvious political pretensions act any differently from Pilate? Probably not!
Political theology perhaps can answer the often fatuous question of “what would Jesus (or any religious figure for that matter) do?”, when it comes to resolving the riddle of the “ultimate reality” often concealed behind political reality. Its answer would have to be simple: speak only when spoken to, and after that, keep them guessing.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.