xbn .
Politics of Scripture

How Political Is Theology? (Catherine Keller)

The following is the second of a five-part symposium on the question “how theological is political theology”, which took place at the 2016 American Academy of Religion meeting in San Antonio.  The first article by Martin Kavka can be found here.

As an actual theologian, I would of course like to repossess the term “political theology” for my own field, especially now that it has interdisciplinary panache. But a certain reclamation already happened in the 1970s, with Metz, Moltmann, and Sölle, who were, in a post-holocaust Germany, redeeming political theology from the fascist taint left by Carl Schmitt. However, amidst the intense identitarianisms of that epoch, their broader theopolitics did not take. And I admit that I only got interested in political theology in this millennium, and only because, as not coming from within theology, it refreshes the field. So its not-theology energizes theology, just as the not-God of negative theologians kept God possible for them.

So the question, how theological is political theology, triggers a more primary question: how political is theology? The answer came to me rather abstractly (and tuning into this assignment just days before the election did require considerable abstraction): If political theology, as a discourse outside of theology, tracks a secularization that is a productive suspension of theology as such, it is possible only because theology has productively suspended its own politics. The secularization of the theological means its suspension. It operates also as its sublation, at once negating and fulfilling some theological concept. It fulfills it in terms then made recognizable retroactively by political theology.

But of course this secularized theology was in its pre-secular Abrahamic form always already political. Political, that is, across an immense spectrum with two poles that we might here call the sovereign and the messianic: the sovereign as the code of a self-establishment that could sanctify empire; the messianic as the code of the resistance to empire. As meshiach originally signifies a royal anointing, such a binary is troubled from the start, in ways that keep the messianic in touch with, if only occasionally anointing, the sovereign. Nonetheless two radically divergent tendencies along these lines can be tracked through history.

The messianic tendency in its political effects, and their ever more intensively secular sublations, is magisterially tracked by Ernst Bloch, who was in fact Moltmann’s inspiration: from the prophets through what Bloch calls the “Christian social utopias,” which go quiet for several hundred years of Christian empire, irrupting later through Joachim of Fiore’s visions and into the Free Spirit movement; and its apocalyptic hope for the New Jerusalem drives, he argues—from the vantage point of the Marxist triumph—all western revolutions.

The other tendency finds classic form in the fourth-century theology of Bishop Eusebius, who speaks for himself—and for Constantine:

By the express appointment of the same God, two roots of blessing, the Roman empire and the doctrine of Christian piety, sprang up together for the benefit of men…..Invested as [the emperor] is with a semblance (eikon) of heavenly sovereignty (baileia), he… frames his earthly government according to the pattern of that divine original, feeling strength in its conformity to the monarchy of God.

So the messianic and the sovereign can be dubbed, on the one hand, the utopian and, on the other,  the Eusebian. In the early 20th-century Schmitt nails – and hails – the originary omnipotence operative in political sovereignty, particularly in its exercise of the emergency power of the exception. As Agamben clarifies for us the matter of the “state of exception,” the danger is that, as with the United States vis-a-vis international law since 9/11, the exception becomes the rule. Then there also threatens the fusion of religion and politics, of cultural norms and legal force, or of auctoritas and potestas.  If, Agamben says, they fuse in one person—one Fürher, who embodies the force of racial unity and sovereign exceptionalism—the state may turn into a killing machine. We are all struggling now to face the possibility of precisely that emergency.

Agamben’s philosophical version of political theology leads him directly from the sovereign to the messianic: indeed to Jesus Messiah by way of the “now-time” that he surfaces in Paul—and traces then to other Jews like Marx, Taubes and Benjamin. Agamben’s Time that Remains is my favorite of the 21st-century nontheological genre that I’ve been calling Paulitical theology. It is Agamben’s writing on that topic that in fact got me interested in Paul, and in a way that no Christian exegesis could.

My current project – a political theology of the earth – solicits the messianic against the sovereign in order to call the so-called people to their power; it privileges a prophetic eco-sociality  over a Eusebian hierarachy, imperial or economic; it supports local movements of planetary resistance to the new merger of capitalism with white male authoritarianism.

It does not read the earth as sovereign subject but rather as live nexus of entanglements in which the political must at long last  begin making itself at home, in the oikos that is now under apocalyptic siege. The time is short. But here we stand –I am thinking here of Standing Rock today just as much as the Luther quintecentennial—in the materiality of our relations, and demanding for all earth-dwellers the oikonomics of economic justice and the oikumene of a religio-cultural pluralism. Calculable impossibility is no excuse;  rather it may mark the apokalypsis, the dis/closure, of the possible. It is the incalculable opening, Benjamin’s “narrow door.” To an unbounded breadth.

So now the breadth of political theology may be its appeal to a public between the secular and the postsecular, within and beyond the discourse of theology proper.  As political rather than as politics and as theological rather than as theology, it can help mobilize the formation of an immense planetary density of alliance.

Catherine Keller is Professor of Constructive Theology at Drew University’s Graduate Division of Religion. Her most recent books are On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process (Fortress, 2008)God and Power: Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys (Fortress, 2005), and The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (Routledge, 2003).  As director of the annual Drew Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium since its inception in 2000,  she  works with  colleagues and students to foster  a hospitable local setting for planetary conversations.  Its  postcolonial and pluralist  ecumenism involves  confessional as well as  secular faiths. 

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!