The context of a university delimits how we perceive the meaning, significance, and value of matter. As an institutional force in society–one that, for example, imposes debt and shapes cognitive labor–the university is beholden to a particular form of value under capitalism. Investing in the neoliberal institution of the university typically coincides with investing in a specific representation of matter.
A key question for political theology, particularly one shaped by the university context, is how we–an institutional “we” in academia and a “we” understood as an intellectual vanguard, but also a societal “we,” “we” as a political formation, or even a revolutionary “we”–represent matter. Must and can matter be represented?
My hypothesis is that political theology can offer critical perspectives on common sense structures of meaning and value and open paths outside such structures. At its best, political theology can make ways of representing matter “vulnerable,” as Vincent Lloyd has put it. A preliminary question for political theology is how to understand the meaning and significance of matter. The response to this question shapes how a political theology does or doesn’t engage political economy and theological tradition.
I will consider two general ways of expressing matter through a political-theological lens: one theological and teleological and the other materialist. These are limited categorizations. The point is not the typology as such, but to show the limits, potentials, and consequences of how a political theology might apprehend and express the meaning of matter.
Theological and teleological perspectives
Recently, theological reflection has prioritized ecological paradigms to understand matter. This is especially seen in theologies of creation and theological anthropologies, which tend to understand God as dwelling in the material world (“creation”). This now mainstream move balances the classical tendency to understand God’s transcendence dualistically in relation to matter. Within the diversity of theological approaches, a common tendency has been to situate matter within a teleological perspective. The differences in approach and the shared commitment to teleology are both important in relation to the question of the meaning and significance of matter.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, German political theologians (here I use “political theology” in its confessional version) developed ecological theologies of creation by arguing for humans to involve ourselves in creation in particular ways. They took up this theological project in response to practical concerns and shaped by their common assumption that theological claims underlie political institutions and concepts.
Dorothee Soelle, reading the creation myths in light of Exodus, sees our involvement in creation in terms of a praxis of liberation. We are born into God’s ongoing creation, understood from the Exodus perspective as a historical project of liberation directed toward a “new earth.” We take on the status of co-creators by participating in God’s project of liberation: “Saying that God is already redemptively at work in present history is a statement of faith in the human project as willed by the source of life, even if the objective conditions seem hopeless” (91). God’s “will,” which Soelle takes to be made concrete in the “new earth,” structures the meaning and value of matter and our interaction with the material world. Similar approaches continue in more recent theologies of creation and theological anthropologies.
Jürgen Moltmann–like Soelle, a political theologian in the confessional sense–folds ecological concerns into an even stronger teleological view. For Moltmann, the material world (“creation”) is open, though “aligned towards its redemption from the very beginning; for the creation of the world points forward to the sabbath, ‘the feast of creation’” (5). This telos of rest, understood through the kingdom of God, distinguishes Moltmann’s perspective from a materialist understanding, as “it is the kingdom that determines creation, and creation is the real promise of the kingdom” (81). Completion comes from Jesus as messianic fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, or from outside the material world. As such, our relationship with matter–e.g., participation in the sabbath–is always determined by a hope outside of matter (292).
Others develop an ecological theology of creation with greater attention to the natural sciences. This project raises the question of how a commitment to an understanding of the existence of matter “in its own right,” independent of human thought, can coexist with a commitment to a specific telos. Elizabeth Johnson, for example, argues that “the nascent field of ecological theology asks that we give careful consideration to the natural world in its own right as an irreplaceable element in the theological project” (xv). Like other ecological theologians, Johnson avoids the dualism of previous theological accounts of creation reliant on Hellenism or Cartesian thought by arguing that divinity dwells in creation.
But a rigidity in a teleological perspective is apparent as it refuses to yield to the significance of matter existing in its own right. How can theologians take seriously what Georges De Schrijver refers to as the “intrinsic creativity” of matter “in which chance and random outcomes play an important role” alongside teleological commitments? Johnson’s commitment to creation ex nihilo, for example, prompts her to link creation to eschatology: “The Giver of life who created all beings out of nothing will still be there after final devastation, holding fast to the beloved creation” (221). De Schrijver describes God as “allowing” creation to share God’s creativity (231). The meaning and value of matter remain contingent on its orientation toward and relegation to God.
When matter gets represented within a teleological narrative, Christian theological ways of thinking resemble how “theological” is often used as a term of abuse by those in other disciplines – that is, as indicating a way of thinking that allows no form of critique outside the terms offered in the first place. One result of seeing matter from a teleological perspective is that political economy is rendered peripheral. Teleology stands in for political-economic analysis or, as Barbara Jeane Fields and Karen Fields have shown, ontology stands in for materialism. Matter, including people, gets represented within archetypes, identities, analogies, or contradictions. In this process, a teleological commitment obfuscates matter.
A materialist perspective
Whereas teleological perspectives often conflate ecology with ethics, Darwin and Marx focused on understanding the evolving relations within matter. But Marx’s materialism isn’t, of course, only concerned with explaining these relations; he accepts the priority of matter but focuses on how humans have transformed our relationship to the material world. Seeing matter to have ontological priority while attuning social critique to history can avoid the tendencies of essentialism and abstraction into which teleological perspectives often fall.
A recent essay by Tobi Haslett on the 2020 George Floyd Rebellion captures the potential of a materialist approach that a political theology might take up. To “recall what really happened” in the George Floyd rebellion, Haslett appeals to “magic actions.” Magic actions respond to the new visibility of the long history of police brutality and murder, the proliferation of police and mass incarceration, neoliberal policies and massive inequality, the pandemic, and the reality that “the black elite has rarely been so resented by the ‘community’ it claims to champion.”
The destruction of the Minneapolis Third Precinct in May 2020, clashes in the street, and “simultaneous but uncoordinated” revolt express magic actions. Magic actions, in short, experiment in expressing matter and relations within the material world beyond forms of representation, identity, or formal divisions. Magic actions pull back a representation of matter in terms of market freedoms. Resentment allows for connections beyond dominant representations of matter. People come together to force politics beyond electoral confines into action.
Reclaiming the power that had been expropriated by a capitalist and racist state explains why so many people rejected the “daffy piety” of all the brands, institutions, and centers that made public statements in response to the rebellion. Reclaiming power that has been mediated–and thus dulled–by liberalism explains why, in Spring 2020, “quite a few young black people placed within this rickety middle class chose to cross the mystic threshold between ‘respectability and dignity’” when “they went out to meet the riots.”
Expressing the meaning of the rebellion in terms of “magic actions” establishes a position within the struggle to seize power. It names a power that overwhelms the silly—or maybe too serious?—discourses that take on a market-centered view of equality. “Magic actions” allows Haslett to distinguish between two versions of feminism that occurred simultaneously: those who “hymned Ginsburg’s devotion to gender equality before the law” and people in Louisville who “inflicted their own feminism on the city” in response to the police murder of Breonna Taylor when “they burst back into the street to avenge their fallen sister.” The riots hold open the infinity that sparked the rebellion against the limited categories within the law the Democratic Party sets forward. In “recalling what really happened” in terms of “magic actions,” Haslett shows how the expression of matter and its meaning and significance is a terrain of struggle.
Through resentment and solidarity, people seize a form of power not sanctioned by the state. What is this form of power? “Behind the sparkling police initiatives,” Haslett writes, “lies the knowledge that a world without police and prisons can only follow from ruthless criticism and transformation of every piece of the social whole. This is a revolutionary project.” Magic actions are, in short, activities that respond to a depth of matter not only unacknowledged but concealed by state apparatuses. Taking Haslett’s claim of magic actions seriously, rather than as just a rhetorical ploy, suggests an understanding of matter as active and resilient to significations. Gilles Deleuze’s materialism, I argue, can help to express this further.
Deleuze critiques the anti-materialist philosophical tendency to identify matter by comparing it to what is already known. This philosophical conservatism leads to political conservatism, as political struggles for recognition stifle actual creativity: “how derisory are the voluntary struggles for recognition. Struggles occur only on the basis of a common sense and established values, for the attainment of current values (honours, wealth and power)” (136). Critique, as a general practice, isn’t enough: “Critique has everything—a tribunal of justices of the peace, a registration room, a register—except the power of a new politics which would overturn the image of thought” (137). “Magic actions,” which oppose the forms of recognition and representation that manifest in progressive neoliberalism, can express the connection between actual things and the primordial creativity beyond representation. They express the ground in which matter is moored. This ground is not the possible, but creativity as such. In this sense, Deleuze is anti-teleological. Representation and identity, whether tied to liberalism or teleological ways of thinking, obfuscate the intensity that Haslett expresses in “magic actions.”
The liberal response to the George Floyd rebellion obscures a real problem by creating a pseudo-problem, solvable on neoliberal terms. Similarly, a teleological understanding of matter obscures the movement of real problems by containing such movement within a narrative given by right (i.e., revelation). Creation within a teleological aim—whether this is the liberal telos of inclusive neoliberalism or the theological telos of salvation—risks fostering the illusion that there is no chaos. It overdetermines matter.
The event of the rebellion overcomes tendencies to represent the world in fixed categories (law and order, inclusion, etc.) and connects the actual world to an intense reality of becoming. Haslett expresses this two-fold task of leaving behind and connecting. “Magic actions” expresses a defection from the illusions of fixed representations: Ruth Bader Ginsberg; the rhetoric from Black liberal mayors of big cities against the rebellion; or Charles Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, et al. wearing Kente cloth into the Capitol to represent solidarity. Defection opens the possibility of connecting to the intensity that underlies representation and identification. New forms of creativity, rooted in the passion of the rebellion and its riots, actualize this connection. New creations destroy fixed representations of existence and struggle. A materialist critique, including perhaps political theology, expresses the question such an event poses without confining it to the realm of representation.
Haslett’s “magic actions” is an example of Deleuze’s two-fold way of responding to a real problem (which Deleuze calls “vice-diction”) that at the same time pushes Deleuze’s materialism much further, into the political sphere. It is equally a manner of living in relation to reality and a theoretical approach. Haslett specifies tensions within a problem by searching for fragments and linking. Deleuze calls this demand to connect “love.” At the same time, Haslett undoes clear ideas and illusions of fixity. Deleuze calls this demand to forget “anger” (190). Haslett links material fragments in ways liberals’ attachment to a concept doesn’t allow. In forgetting identities, he offers the possibility to connect with the complexity of a situation or problem — that is, with matter.
Why is matter significant for political theology?
A real problem regarding how to express the meaning and significance of matter confronts political theology. This problem, exacerbated in the university context that relies on a particular representation of matter within a capitalist framework, leads to more specific questions. How do the moments when we exist in the cracks within capitalism express the intensities and relations of movements? Moreover, how can we understand and express these intensities without them being taken over by representations in identities that predominate in neoliberalism or teleological definitions of history, whether in its progressive or reactionary varieties?
I have not, and cannot, answer these questions. I recognize that answers have been given, yet I’m convinced that an answer requires reformulating the question in a way that reduces the resiliency of matter to a form of representation. Good questions and real problems, rather, force us back into matter (see What Is Philosophy?, 82). Political theology is an important approach to the problem insofar as it can apprehend and express why the problem has been hidden or mistakenly solved.
Charles H. Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Aurora, CO: The Davies Group, 1995)
Long re-evaluates fundamental issues in the study of religion in the United States and the North Atlantic world, particularly in light of conquest and colonialism. He critiques dominant ways of representing, or “signifying,” matter in civil religion and theologies.
Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)
Written from a decidedly Catholic and theological perspective, this book offers a rich and theoretically nuanced theory of matter that brings together a theological perspective with Darwin’s materialist perspective.
Sylvester A. Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015)
Using the interpretive frame of empire and seeing African American religions as enmeshed within the matrix of colonialism, Johnson questions the meaning of freedom and democracy. In the process, he charts shifts in the meaning and significance of matter within the North Atlantic world.
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