Political Theology: A Response (Part Two: The Autochthonous State)

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.

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.

The autochthony of the political finds expression in liberal theory in the idea of the social contract that ends the state of nature and initiates political life.  Autochthony has been no less central to my work.  I have, however, put sovereignty and sacrifice at the center of that account.  The state, on my view, begins with an imagined act of creative destruction.   My theological critics, I suspect, do not accept this premise of autochthony, and this disagreement leads them to question my use of the language of sacrifice, faith and the sacred.  Discovering that I assert “only” an analogy between the traditional religious use and the political use of these categories, the reader might be inclined to see my political theology as a kind of bait and switch enterprise.  I don’t think it is that simple.

I make no claims about the truth of these beliefs apart from the practices that they inform within our own culture.  Some of my interlocutors see this as an expression of the linguistic turn.  I think of it as a cultural or anthropological turn.  I treat our beliefs and practices the same way we might treat the beliefs and practices of a past culture.  We have to recognize the way in which faith in their gods and experiences of what they held to be sacred informed their practices and beliefs.  Whether these beliefs and practices are true in any sense beyond that is simply not important to my inquiry.  This does not make me a “pragmatist.”  It simply defines my field of inquiry: the social imaginary that sustains our political life. It is enough of reality for these purposes that these are our beliefs.  In these beliefs, generations of Americans have found meanings for which they lived and died.

Is it right then to think that all of these religious terms are being used merely in an analogical sense?  One can claim that only if one begins from a position of religious faith, believing that these concepts have a proper or true object in religion.   Again, that is not a proposition that can enter into my work.   In Political Theology, I explore the way in which analogy is central to all uses of the imagination.  Analogy is not simply a rhetorical device, but constitutive of experience.  In political life, we understand something when we have been persuaded to see it one way rather than another.  We listen to contesting positions and must make a decision.  That decision is reached when we see our way forward.  Then, we have brought order to a domain of actual and possible experience.  The only way to do this is to deploy the forms of understanding that we actually maintain, which is to think analogically.  This is not the only way we think; deduction has its place, as does definition.  But in political practice and law, analogy is the dominant form of reasoning.  This is why these are the domains in which rhetoric has traditionally been the characteristic form of discourse.

True, a genealogical account will note the religious origin of many of our political conceptions – a point for which Schmitt is famous.  But genealogy has no privileged claim to truth and no authority to limit the use of concepts.  We cannot really say which way the analogies run, once new forms of experience enter our ordinary self-understandings.  The church, for example, preceded the state as a form of social organization based on belief.  But, it may well be that now the analogy runs in the other direction, with ideas of the church informed by our beliefs and practices with respect to the state.  We can say the same thing about the relationship – analogical – between the political and the psychological. Plato analogizes the individual soul to the city; Freud turns it around and analogizes the city to the soul.  There is no truth of the matter – the essential structure of soul or city – apart from the fecundity of the imagination in its multiple, analogical deployments.

All that I have said so far is a way of elaborating the nature of my claim that my work is not normative.   I have already explained that my theoretical work can take no position on what the law should be.  More deeply, I cannot tell anyone whether they should love their state anymore than I can tell them whether they should love their family.  If the state were to become simply a Weberian bureaucracy, it would no longer appear to us as a possible object for love and identity formation.  My work can take no position on whether that would be good or bad.  To me, it is the same question as whether some forms of religious beliefs and practices have been better or worse over the course of human history.   These beliefs inform a life; they make us who we are.   To say that we would have been better off without some particular cultural formation is only to say that we would have been better off were we not who we are.  That is not a sensible proposition.  This does not mean that we are bound to our beliefs as to the body itself.  We are, after all, free to take any of our beliefs as an object for critical examination.  Critique, however, will not find some Cartesian foundation from which we can build a true self.

This disciplinary perspective can be a very hard taskmaster, for considerations of justice don’t simply disappear.  The theorist does not get simply to take a holiday from the demands of morality and political justice.  Unjust practices should be condemned and politics should be directed toward just ends.  I don’t, however, think that I have a privileged claim in this respect by virtue of the theoretical work that I do.  Fortunately, we don’t need sophisticated theory to recognize most political injustices.  Our political problems today are less a matter of identifying evil, and more a matter of convincing others to act together to alleviate these evils.  Political practice requires situated judgments about what it is possible to do and how to get there.  Theory does not train us in practical judgment.  If my work helps to clarify the imaginative terrain within which such persuasive efforts must move, that may count as a sort of political contribution.  I have, however, no reason to think that those who take away such “useful” insights from my work will necessarily advance a political agenda with which I agree.  To think that practice follows from theory is exactly the sort of error that I explore in Political Theology, which insists on the role of free decision.

While not excusing myself from the political demands of justice, those demands should not overwhelm the integrity of theory.  I don’t view the set of questions I ask about American political life, for example, as different in kind from those that I would ask about political life in classicalGreece.  I would want to know how political life was imagined, how it informed practices that included killing and being killed, how it intersected with beliefs and practices of family life and private faith, how these beliefs were passed on through generations, how practices of violence were linked to beliefs in law, how beginnings were memorialized, how reform was made compatible with tradition, and how a space for radical change (defeat or revolution) was imagined.  None of these questions is any less pressing simply because I also believe that classical political and legal practices were unjust.  I don’t need to make excuses for that injustice, even as I inquire into the way in which the political imaginary sustained a set of beliefs and practices that informed a meaningful life.

I cannot, however, end my defense of theory here.  This form of inquiry does push toward a kind of normative view.  I am, after all, arguing that justice is not the only relevant, normative dimension of a political community’s life, any more than it is the only dimension of an individual’s life.  Sovereignty is about identity and meaning, while law is about well-being and justice.  Neither can be reduced to or derived from the other.  Our political life, I have argued, is a constant management and negotiation of these different normative orders.  There is, then, in my work a recognition, if not exactly a defense, of the value of sovereignty – an idea rejected by many theorists today as anachronistic at best.

To understand the relationship of law and sovereignty, I have often turned to a familial analogy (again the role of analogy).   I love my children before I know whether they are or will be just.  I want them to be just because I love them; I don’t love them because they are just.  The relationship, however, is not unidirectional. There can come a point where my child is so unjust that I would have to say “enough” and end the relationship.  The same sort of normative claims are found in politics:  we want our state to be just because we care about it; we don’t care about it because it is just.  Again, there can be limits in both directions.  Care for the state is usually called “patriotism,” and that too is a kind of love.  Because these norms are not the same, our lives can be full of meaning even as we face tragedy.

I cannot tell anyone whether they should value love over justice, or sovereignty over law.  That is not the role of theory.  I can, however, insist that the world of meaning that theory reveals deserves our respect. Respect, in this sense, is precisely not grounded in justice.  The measure of justice is universal, while respect is an attitude toward the particular and contingent. I respect you not because you are a reasoning being like me, but because in your particularity you create and maintain a world.

At this point, my claim that my work is not normative reaches its limits.  Reading my work, I hope the reader comes away convinced that justice is not the only or even the highest value at stake in politics or law.  A just polity, like a just family, is not necessarily one to which I am or can remain committed, for justice without love will not ground a meaningful life.  The point is not that politics must play this role in our life, but that it has.  Because political life has filled a space of meaning for generations of Americans, it deserves our respect.  This hardly means that we cannot measure it against justice or strive to make it more just.  It does, however, require that we recognize that justice is not without costs and that in our political practices incommensurable values are at stake.  How we resolve these conflicts is not a matter of theory, but of practice. To return to the language of Political Theology, we must decide through a free act.

Here, I suspect I have reached the point of deepest sympathy and disagreement with my interlocutors.  They too think that the rational elaboration of justice does not exhaust the meanings at stake in our political life.  They too explore the dimension of a faith that can sustain the possibility of sacrifice.   At this point, however, they turn to religion, while I claim that a political theology need make no such turn, for our political practices draw upon and maintain an entire world of meaning.  This, I hope, at least clarifies our deepest disagreement, which is not about the limits of reason or the secular character of modernity.  It is rather about the possible sites of the sacred within modern experience.   That disagreement is precisely one in which both sides deserve respect.

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