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Taubes’s thought revolves around two poles, philosophy of history and political theology, with the aim of inverting the Schmittian position and thinking a new form of community by means of an innovative return to Paul of Tarsus and Walter Benjamin.

Since the publication of Die politische Theologie des Paulus at the beginning of the 1990s – the text of the seminar on the Letter to the Romans which Jacob Taubes held at Heidelberg in 1987 shortly before dying—a slow but progressive rediscovery began of this author, as ingenious as he is uncomfortable. Taubes, rabbi and philosopher, was born in Vienna in 1923. He studied in Zurich, escaping Nazi persecution. In 1949 he married Susan Anima Feldmann, with whom he had two children, Ethan and Tanaquil. After meeting Gershom Scholem in New York, he settled in Jerusalem from 1951 to 1953, then—after the abrupt break in relations with Scholem—he moved to the United States, first as a Rockefeller scholar at Harvard University, then as a lecturer at Princeton University, and finally as a professor of history of religions and philosophy of religion at Columbia University. From 1966 until his death in 1987 he taught at the Freie Universität in Berlin, where he married the philosopher Margherita von Brentano.

While in Berlin, Taubes participated in the mass protests of ’68. He also initiated a correspondence with the jurist and theorist of National Socialism Carl Schmitt. Their relationship caused a stir in post-war European culture; Taubes’s obstinate attempt to follow in Walter Benjamin’s footsteps and to read fascist literature ‘against the grain’, in a revolutionary sense, did not prove easy to accept.

For a long time Taubes’s reception was largely marked by a certain reluctance, particularly in Germany. After the Festschrift edited by his student Norbert Boltz (1983) and after the volume Abendländische Eschatologie: ad Jacob Taubes (2001), discussion of Taubes was limited to a few short essays and brief references to his work in broader contexts. It took some years before his disruptive thought began to circulate again and to have its effects (for example, in Sloderdijk, Agamben, and Esposito). Recently, his writings have been reprinted in Germany and translated into various languages, and several important collections of his letters and essays have appeared in print. 

The peculiarity of Taubes’s thought resides in its capacity to push the limits of Jewish-German post-war culture to bring out the extreme consequences of those tragic events that marked the history of the twentieth century. The relationship between religion and politics is the core around which his reflection is concentrated, moved by the urgency of dealing with Nazism, the Jewish Holocaust, and the subsequent crises of history and politics in Europe after the Second World War.

Taubes’s reflections are part of a debate on modernity he conducts with Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, and Odo Marquard – as well as with Schmitt himself. The issue at stake in this debate concerns the theological presuppositions of the philosophy of modern history and its conditions of possibility after Hegel pronounced its ‘end’. The dismissed future of theology, effected by the modern era, is revealed equally by Löwith, Blumenberg, and Marquard, even if each proposes different solutions. For each, the problem is related to the connection between apocalypse and history, meaning the teleologically-oriented direction of historical time and its secularisation. Schmitt, however, approaches the problem differently, and for this reason Taubes considers him as an interlocutor distinct from the others.

In a number of ways, Occidental Eschatology (1947) anticipates this debate, even though it remains outside of it, almost forgotten. Its approach is different. Taubes does not attempt to confirm modernity’s detachment from theology. His interest, instead, is to understand effectiveness—the effectiveness of theology and more generally the effectiveness of religion—across different political and social forms elaborated by Western modernity. In this sense, one can say that his approach is similar to that used in Schmitt’s definition of political theology. Hence Taubes’s interest in the “uncomfortable” jurist, with whom he is not afraid to come into contact and clash on these issues. Particularly important in this is Taubes’s interpretation of Paul of Tarsus’s Letter to the Romans.

Taubes highlights the element in Paul’s text that exceeds the legal structure. Through this, Taubes proposes a new definition of political theology, one which contrasts with the ‘sovereign’ unity between the theological and the political proposed by Schmitt. Taubes does not identify theology with politics in order to legitimate certain forms of politics. Rather, Taubes allows that the two diverge. Starting from this divergence, Taubes argues that theology promotes actions that are themselves political because they critique power.

For Taubes, in the wake of Paul, the only political theology possible is messianism, which he understands as the definitive ‘liquidation’ of political theology itself: theology is ‘liquidated’ as it is messianically achieved. Taubes’s interpretation of messianism has generated more than a few detractors, even within Judaism, as evidenced by his confrontation with Scholem. According to Taubes, messianism is not a reaction to the ongoing crisis in Pauline communities, as Scholem believed (cf. Zum Verständnis der messianischen Idee im Judentum, 1959). Messianism, rather, arises on its own. For Taubes, since the coming of the Messiah and in a seemingly unchanged world, messianism is a form of life capable of coping with the critical situation in which we are found without a coercive power, in the Schmittian sense, and without even experiencing this state as a failing condition, in Scholem’s sense. (Scholem speaks of the ‘price’ which the Jewish people would have to pay for having given the world the messianic idea.) For Taubes, the crisis comes from Paul at the centre of a new form of life, as it constitutes the experience itself of messianic life. The experience of messianic life involves humans feeling connected to their activity, not because of ‘works’ performed in accordance with the law but because of ‘faith’. For Taubes’s Paul, the messianic event is not realised at the end of a linear and continuous process of history as a mere accumulation of ‘works’. The historical event of Christ produces a very peculiar relation with the present ‘hour’ capable of splitting the empty progress of time. 

Something similar is in play in the messianic conception of time taken up by Walter Benjamin in the Theses on the Philosophy of History. Taubes dedicated one of his last courses at the Freie Universität to Benjamin’s Theses. In these lectures, Taubes shows the affinity, as well as the radical difference, between the Benjaminian vision of history and Schmittian political theology. Taubes also outlines the unity of the Benjaminian trajectory, which goes from the youthful Theological-Political Fragment to the late Theses on the Philosophy of History. In this sense, Taubes pioneers a way of reading Benjamin opposed to the readings of Gershom Scholem and Theodor Adorno, who sought to mark the discontinuities in Benjamin’s trajectory, just as they for a long time ignored his intellectual ties with Schmitt.

Taubes took to its extreme the resumption of and the overturning of the Schmittian theological-political dispositif first put into effect by Benjamin. His correspondence with Schmitt is illuminating in this respect. In light of the extermination of the Jews at the hands of Nazism, Taubes moved away from the concept of the political proposed by Schmitt, interrogating anew the role of law and politics in the search for a new nomos and a new form of community. Taubes theorizes law in force without needing to legitimise itself through a coercive power, and thus law messianically fulfilled.

Annotated Bibliography

Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, translation and preface by D. Ratmoko, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press 2009.

Written at the age of twenty-three, it was the only book Taubes published in his lifetime: an entirely original reflection on the sense of history in the Western world after the Shoah catastrophe. The volume is divided into four books: 1) On the Nature of Eschatology; 2) The History of Apocalypticism; 3) The Theological Eschatology of Europe; 4) The Philosophical Eschatology of Europe.

Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, translated by D. Hollander, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press 2004.

This is the text of the lectures on Paul’s Letter to the Romans that Taubes gave a few weeks before his death. The text contains philosophical readings of important European thinkers including Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Karl Barth, Theodor W. Adorno, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. It also includes an important excursus on Jewish ritual of Yom Kippur and the spiritual crisis of Paul connected with the foundation of a new people of God.

Jacob Taubes, To Carl Schmitt: Letter and Reflections, translated by Keith Tribe with an Introduction by Mike Grimshaw, Columbia University Press 2013.

The volume is a slim collection of letters and lectures on Carl Schmitt by Jacob Taubes. The concept of political theology is at the core of this confrontation. Taubes acknowledges Schmitt’s reservations about the weakness of liberal democracy yet critiques Schmitt’s rigid, hierarchical social ordering.

Elettra Stimilli, Jacob Taubes: Sovereignty and Messianic Time, Bloomsbury Press, London (in press).

This is the first monograph on Jacob Taubes, from Occidental Eschatology to the 1987 Seminar on Paul. It compares Taubes to some of the greatest representatives of twentieth-century philosophy and theology, such as Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger, Martin Buber, Karl Barth, Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, and Carl Schmitt. At the heart of this intellectual biography are philosophy of history, theology’s relation to ontology, political theology, and messianism.

Kojin Karatani

A short overview of Kojin Karatani’s Marxist influenced focus on modes of exchange as revealing the Borromean ring of Capital-Nation-State, and the import of this ring for religion.

Silvia Federici

Federici provides a model for political theologians engaging with race, gender, and sexuality through the lens of capitalist oppression

Luce Irigaray

“Perhaps it is in precisely this ambivalent way that air (and Irigaray) reminds us of just how much we belong—to the air itself, to this emptiness that hovers and sings in lifedeath. We might forget air, we might forget that we breathe, or how to breathe. But air does not forget us. And air will never cease to carry us, to lift us up, to set us into flight, even when we no longer live in a body that tried (if unsuccessfully) to fly.”

Niklas Luhmann

David Kline introduces the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann for political theology and reflects on how it might think about its own limits of observation.

N. Katherine Hayles

A reflection on the political implications of N. Katherine Hayles’ critical aesthetic inquiry into the ecological relationships between the human and the technological, thought and cognition, and information and materiality.

Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers, continental philosopher of science, offers pragmatic resources for animating thinking with interest and passion, affirming heresy over conformity and undercutting the all-too-common binaries of religion/science and science/fiction.

François Laruelle

“[For] quantum gnostics, there has never been a creation of the world or in the world—it is the world that is ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’, and consequently also the God who claimed to have created it and yet hesitates to assume it.”

Enrique Dussel

Rafael Vizcaíno offers a biographical introduction to the philosophical work of Enrique Dussel, a major figure of the decolonial turn. Separate from his theology, Dussel’s philosophy of liberation offers crucial reflections for contemporary political theology.

Claude Lefort

It is as productive to think with as it is to think against Claude Lefort, a revolutionary-turned-philosopher who analyzed power and the political regimes to which it gives rise.

Fred Moten

Moten’s prophecy bespeaks aesthetic registers in ordinary (Black) life, but he denies that the aesthetic is redemptive.

Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood (1962-2018) was a pioneering anthropologist of Islam and secularism, a feminist theorist of gender and religion, and a critic of liberal certainties.

Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio, one of France’s foremost theorists of speed and technology, is a deep well for doing political theology in an apocalyptic time.

Stuart Hall

The late public intellectual Stuart Hall, with his concept of the conjuncture, assists political theology in analyzing our current moment and potential interventions.

Talal Asad

Rather than establishing structural analogies or historical filiations between “religion” and “politics” (terms he opens to question), Talal Asad urges attention to shifts in the grammar of concepts across different situations.

Quentin Meillassoux

Meillassoux’s thinking of post-Copernican cosmic immanence and cosmic delegitimation constitutes a challenge to political theology as still predominantly Ptolemaic in its assumptions and focus

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt argued that interreligious difference and Christian theology are steady influences on political movements, action, and thought.

Catherine Malabou

To read Catherine Malabou is to embark upon an adventure of thought. Her writing demands change from her readers if they are to follow her on that adventure. It is a process of change that is sometimes joyful, sometimes painful.

Jean-François Lyotard

Lyotard’s thought as it appears in Le Différend describes a linguistic state that evades speech, and the ways in which justice could be done to it, or not. Bearing witness to unpronounceable utterances brings about the idea of faith.

Aime Césaire

This essay will uplift Césaire’s anticolonial consciousness, in hopes that new directions in political theology might emerge/surface

Jacob Taubes

Taubes’s thought revolves around two poles, philosophy of history and political theology, with the aim of inverting the Schmittian position and thinking a new form of community by means of an innovative return to Paul of Tarsus and Walter Benjamin.

Gloria Anzaldúa

Anzaldúa develops a theory of this borderlands consciousness through the experiential and embodied knowledges of Chicanx (and women of color) feminisms; or what she calls a ‘mestiza consciousness’.

Martin Buber

Meeting Martin Buber, in other words, means meeting the voice behind the words, a man who did not always know how to “recover from institutions.”

Han Byung-Chul

Psychopolitics is Han’s main contribution to political theory. It reflects Han’s rethinking of Bentham’s panopticon and Foucault’s biopower as disciplinary society transitioned into a digital achievement society that defines our contemporary neoliberal globalized world.

Jean-Luc Marion

[Marion’s] central concepts and phenomenological method offer an ambiguous resource for political theology: on the one hand, he articulates a rigorous method of doing phenomenology which is trained to remain open to phenomena historically ignored and marginalized, and on the other hand, his own conclusions can veer towards a Christian triumphalism which is in danger of betraying the primary aim of his philosophical project.

Kuan-Hsing Chen

Chen suggests that Western political theologians should incorporate more resources from local knowledge—such as popular culture, literature, films, and music—in order to notice resistance in daily life.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler’s work has altered the trajectories of multiple disciplines in the last thirty years; what can they teach scholars of political theology?

Anibal Quijano

Quijano reimagines the long-lasting and contemporary status of colonialism seen through the lenses of race, modernity/rationality, and economic exploitation, encouraging us to produce theological and political critiques from the ever-enduring nature of coloniality.

Michel Henry

What [Henry’s] oeuvre offers political theology is a reimagining of what constitutes life together—an attention to Life and thereby, spirituality.

Cedric Robinson

Vega focuses on three Robinsonian concepts that are useful for political theology: racial capitalism, Black radical tradition, and African metaphysics.

Marcella Althaus-Reid

Althaus-Reid’s work asks whether Political Theology is capable of accounting for the power of sex, a power that comes to the fore if the theologian focuses on queer bodies.

Julia Kristeva

Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach and practice shed light on the unconscious, affective, and bodily formation(s) of religious and political discourses and systems.

Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe’s work excavates the legacies of colonial reason and violence shaping the powers of death in the world today.

Frank Wilderson III

Wilderson doesn’t use the term “zombies” in his work. But his afropessimist stance includes a set of concepts—social death, gratuitous violence, sentient (but not living) existence—that could be easily applied to any episode of The Walking Dead.

Adriana Cavarero

Cavarero’s feminist theory of nonviolence takes the biblical commandment of “Thou Shall Not Kill” as its starting point. This commandment is ethical (it is about one’s relationships with others) and religious (it is about one’s relationship with God), but it is also political (without it, political communities cannot exist).

Jean-Luc Nancy

The subtlety and poetry of Nancy’s language can mask the rigor and the urgency of his thinking. I hope to share that rigor and urgency here, particularly as it relates to global capitalism, Christianity, and ontology.

Roberto Esposito

In Esposito’s most explicit political theology work, he is concerned with re-working, or rather destabilizing, the essence of political theology.

Ernst Bloch

In many ways, Bloch’s work inverts the classic dictum of political theology advanced by Carl Schmitt, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” For Bloch, theological concepts are intimations of the freedom of the secular and revolutionary socialist society.

The Invisible Committee

The Invisible Committee may be productively, albeit counterintuitively, understood as Gnostic, a perspective that will put into question some of the assumptions behind the way the political and the theological are demarcated from and related to each other in contemporary debates.

Gil Anidjar

While Carl Schmitt claims that the enemy constitutes “the political,” his various writings largely ignore the historical and discursive evolution of the enemy. Anidjar’s major contribution to modern political theology lies in responding to this lacuna.

Sara Ahmed

Scholars and activists cannot rely on fact-checking or dry reason in this political climate. We have to feel our way toward change.

Hortense Spillers

What would it mean for scholarship in political theology to claim monstrosity? Perhaps it would mean focusing on underappreciated aspects of the Christian tradition, and other religious traditions, particularly those developed by women’s intellectual labor.

Lauren Berlant

Berlant is our preeminent contemporary theorist of how intimate practices bleed into and with national formations, and condition specific and powerful fantasies for what a good life or functional society would involve. To read their work is to become attuned to a set of dynamics that can be excavated in any given scene: the attachments being made and unmade, the forms of belonging that flash up and dissolve, the feeling-worlds that mediate everyday life, what remains unfinished.

Critical Theory for Political Theology: From Theorists to Keywords

We launched this series to make available theoretical resources that keep pace with the concerns raised by those working with political theology today, whose interests are increasingly tied not only to questions of genealogy, speculation, and political modernity, but also to questions of race, colonialism, gender, sexuality, disability, ecology, labor, finance capitalism, and economies of affect. 

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