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Photo reproduced with permission from Luke Bretherton
The Brink

Political Theology and the Democratic Paradox

This post focuses on a no less important but less visible cluster of questions about the relationship between ethics and politics, what helps or hinders the formation of persons capable of undertaking liberative projects with and for others, and how the quality and character of relations between persons (for example, virtues such as hope, courage, or hospitality) directly shape the conditions for the possibility of democracy.

This post features the introduction to most recent special issue of Political Theology (vol. 22.7) on Democracy, Virtue, and Political Theology. The special issue features articles from Jonathan Tran, Vincent W. Lloyd, Jennifer A. Herdt, and Keri L. Day with a response from Luke Bretherton. Lap Yan Kung, Valentina Napolitano, and Joseph Winters provide responses to the first set of essays.

There are a number of well-established questions that modern, western political theology addresses. These are focused on the problematic ways in which modern political thought and arrangements simultaneously conceal and trade off religious and theological frameworks (the combined problem of secularism and sovereignty) and, conversely, the ways in which religious and theological beliefs and practices are deployed as modes of political and economic “governmentality,” whether for emancipatory or oppressive ends. This special issue focuses on a no less important but less visible cluster of questions about the relationship between ethics and politics, what helps or hinders the formation of persons capable of undertaking liberative projects with and for others, and how the quality and character of relations between persons (for example, virtues such as hope, courage, or hospitality) directly shape the conditions for the possibility of democracy.

Circulating through the questions just outlined are two further, interrelated questions. The first is whether, on the one hand, ethics is merely a modality of politics, in which case ethics is reduced to a form of ideology, or, on the other, politics is a modality of the moral life, in which case, how can political and structural change be shaped by moral and theological considerations, in theory and practice, when they are so often determined by anything but moral and theological commitments. The second question is if freedom and justice are not realizable through either a legal or bureaucratic procedure, market mechanism, historical dialectic, revolutionary vanguard, or implementing an ideological program of social engineering but necessitate changes in the quality and character of relations between people, how then are faithful, hopeful, and loving relations fostered and sustained amid and through political struggles?

The concrete context for realizing answers to all these questions is the very practical question of how political theology addresses the democratic paradox. The paradox is as follows. Democracy presumes the existence of and depends on people and institutions committed to respecting the dignity of each individual, dialogue and suasion as against killing and coercion as means of resolving conflicts, and that people should have a say in decisions that affect them and some agency in determining the conditions of their life. Yet democracy is forged out of immoral people, hierarchal and often authoritarian institutions, and is plagued by the despotism of either the one, the few, or the many. Neither centralized state mechanisms, nor a revolutionary vanguard, nor a technocratic elite, nor an ideological program of social engineering can generate the personal dispositions needed for a freer, more egalitarian, just, and democratic society to emerge. Merely changing the immanent structures of power is never enough. Egypt either abolished or abandoned is not Israel empowered. Alongside legal and institutional changes and changes in the means of production, new ways of acting that are not determined by structures and habits of domination necessitate changed hearts and minds. People who are atomized and alienated need reconstituting through changes in the quality and character of the relationships between them (i.e., formation in virtue) so that they may be capable of acting together in pursuit of life-giving, goods in common through democratic means. But if human and other-than-human life—and their entangled ways of surviving and thriving—are to be prioritized over top down procedures or ideological programs, then some combination of an agonistic, non-state centric democratic politics and forms of life that cultivate just and loving people are vital for ensuring humans and the ecologies in which they are enmeshed are neither reduced to administrative and abstract units of the state, nor commodified as a resource for extraction and exploitation. Moreover, how might the relationship between the church and an agonistic, non-state centric democratic politics as a means of pursuing the survival and flourishing of creation be conceptualized in the light of this paradox?

Sutured into the democratic paradox is the question of how to secure human flourishing. In the modern period, most attempts to secure human flourishing are locked in the modern dominatory nexus, oscillating between state-centric and market-centric approaches to addressing shared problems. Both state- and market-centric solutions to issues such as high quality, affordable housing or the need for potable water see the primary problem as one of scarcity, and either the state or the market is then positioned as the most efficient, effective, and just means of allocating scarce resources. But what this does is ignore another aspect of the problem: the distribution of power. States concentrate power in the hands of bureaucrats (the problem of social democracy), while markets concentrate power in the hand of plutocrats, while both concentrate resources in the hands of technocrats, deskilling and stripping ordinary citizens of the agency through which they can solve their own problems. And both subsume ecologies of human and nonhuman life and the commons to state and capitalist imperatives. The place of social cooperation and communal life in politics as well as the question of the limits of state and market are crucial concerns that political theology must address if it is to articulate a vision of creaturely flourishing beyond the nexus of dominatory forces.

In addressing the questions just outlined, the articles in this Special Issue make a move beyond critique to put forward constructive proposals at the intersection of both ethics and politics and ‘apophatic’ and ‘cataphatic’ approaches to political theology. To echo Jonathan Tran’s article in this issue, in doing so, the articles gathered here stand in contrast to much political theology that is focused on critique, shying away from normative let alone constructive theological concerns. Yet politics involves some kind of commitment to moving from the world as it is to a world imagined and performed differently as more just, equitable, loving, etc. As Tran notes, critical theorists such as Eve Sedgwick, Rita Felski, and Bruno Latour all argue that critique is not enough to make this journey. To use Latour’s terms, critique runs out of steam unless it moves beyond iconoclasm. Moreover, truth telling is not reducible to critique understood as exposing falsehoods. It must also entail bearing witness. This witness challenges others to come together with them to create something new or tend something of worth or gestures to something beyond or more than what currently exists. For Latour the ideal critic is a kind of witness who shows “arenas in which to gather” and offers constructive ways to care for and tend fragile matters of concern.[1] In my book, Christ and the Common Life,I argue that the fragile matter which democratic politics is concerned with is the formation of a common life amid asymmetries of power and conflicting visions of the good.[2] At its most basic the alternative to democratic politics is either killing or coercion. If people—and the realm of ordinary affections and loves that make up their ways of surviving and thriving—are to be put before a top-down procedure or ideological program, then, as I contend, an agonistic democratic politics combined with some form of eudemonistic virtue ethics is vital for keeping state and market structures accountable and at least moderating and at best transforming oppressive systems and cultures. Yet many question whether a common life is possible between divided groups amid histories of brutality and vast asymmetries of power and whether democracy is capable of addressing systemic problems such as climate change or white supremacy. In the light of such questions and critiques, can we imagine and narrate meaningful forms of common life? And are democracy and current conceptions of moral and political agency fit for the kinds of changes that are needed to move beyond the world as it is? Political theology must have something constructive to say to these questions. It must directly address the nature and form of a common life and democratic politics if it is to move beyond iconoclasm and become a means of gathering together rather than merely replicating and re-inscribing processes that break things apart or break them down. Simply at the level of self-interest, political theology as a field needs to be attentive to the conditions of its own production; that is to say, it must cultivate the forms of life that make doing political theology a plausible enterprise and so must ask “to what does it bear witness” and not simply “against what does it bear witness.”

Each of the papers in this issue exemplifies in different ways what it means to do work on the cusp between critique and repair. Each calls us to attend to a fragile matter of shared concern that contributes to and nourishes a common life. Each treads an uneasy line between a prophetic “no” and an eschatological “yes,” between an apophatic negation and a cataphatic construction. As already noted, Jonathan Tran reflects on the tasks of political theology and the limits of critique by outlining a non-Manichean approach to political theology in dialogue with Christ and the Common Life. Beginning with what drives contemporary forms of populism, Vincent Lloyd examines the nature of anger and how particular kinds of anger are, like sovereignty, inherently theological and at the same time, a claim to authority. He points to how anger can mark the authority to denote an existing normative order as a system of domination and in doing so declare a state of emergency “from below.” For Lloyd, anger that is righteous points to a world beyond this one, a world illegible in the current order of things and for which anger is a fitting mode of articulation. Central to his paper is a consideration of the relationship between ethics and politics and between sovereignty and subalternity. Jennifer Herdt assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the Bildung tradition as a form of dialogical humanism that gives rise to particular forms of democratic politics. Central to her paper is a consideration of questions about how to conceptualize the relationship between democracy and virtue, humanistic commitments and identity formation, and the intersections of ecclesial and political life. Keri Day interrogates the Azusa street revival as a form of non-statist democratic politics that formed its participants in a counter-cultural, anti-racist subjectivity through a revolutionary intimacy and economy of touch that contests the demarcation of such a movement as somehow pre-political. In doing so, Day examines not only the democratic paradox but also the relationship between sovereignty and subalternity and the intersections of political and ecclesial life. My contribution analyzes three concerns that arise at the intersection of ethics and politics through situating the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, particularly his conception of the relationship between Christianity and Marxism, in the context of debates in the British New Left and drawing parallels and connections between these debates and the work of C. L. R. James and Black Marxism. The first concern is the modern suspension of ethics in the name of politics. The second is the relationship between structural and personal transformation. The third is how forms of social life exceed, but are always under pressure from, existing forms of political economy and how this concern shapes articulations of political agency outside of statist and property-based understandings of citizenship.

[1] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 225–48, at 246.

[2] The immediate catalyst for this Special Issue was a colloquium responding to Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019) and the conception that book develops of the relationship between political theology and democratic politics. The original papers were given at this colloquium, which was held at Duke University, 1-2 November 2019, and funded by the Issachar Foundation. But the themes and issues raised in that book are extended and critiqued in the essays in this Special Issue, with each contributor bringing their own distinctive concerns and theological vision to bear upon the broad set of questions outlined in this introduction.

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