Is there a conversation around political theology (as concept, field, method, or however you understand it) from the past twenty years that continues to fascinate you?
Much attention has been given Carl Schmitt’s pithy statement about political categories being secularised theological ones. This implies a structure of concealment, whether deliberate or not, that hides the theological behind the secular. But while a great deal of work on political theology aims at revealing the term’s second part from the concealment of its first, little of it actually focusses on the structure of hiddenness as such. For Leo Strauss, who was Schmitt’s contemporary and correspondent, it was this structure that was crucial. Yet in his hands it seemed to reverse the order of concealment, with the unnameable and so unknown or not yet revealed secular hidden beneath a theological exterior. But doesn’t the secrecy of the secular as human freedom turn it into the deepest and most unspeakable truth of theology? I find the interpenetration and indivisibility of these categories fascinating, especially in view of the extraordinary role that esotericism and its structure of concealment play in Islamic thought down to the present. How might we think about human freedom neither in terms of an escape from theology nor as being limited and defined by it, but as its innermost secret in forms like incarnation, messianism and antinomianism? In the final instance can human freedom only be thought of in theological terms by recognizing man’s divinity?
What conversations working with the concept of political theology do you find most fruitful today?
Interesting about modern Islam has been the amount of attention that God’s sovereignty receives. Itself an early 20th century theme taken from European thought, sovereignty is clearly understood as being a theological category, though without the mediation or even knowledge of Schmitt’s writings. It is thus invoked only to be expelled from human affairs by being given over to God, since any claim by king, president or parliament to sovereignty would be a sinful usurpation and set such a false sovereign up as an idol. The task of modern Islamic thought, then, has often been to keep sovereignty at bay, which it struggles to do as part of an anti-statist and even anarchist or socio-centric tradition of political thought emerging from anti-colonialism’s distrust of the modern state. Islamism provides us with an example of how difficult it in fact is to do without sovereignty in its theological form, however mythological and impracticable this may be. The desire to be free of it and turn society into a form of self-management in anarchist, Bolshevik or neoliberal ways must constantly and sometimes violently result in efforts to eliminate the threat of the sovereign’s return. It is the desire to resign sovereignty that justifies extreme forms of brutality like that practised by Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Where do you hope to see discussions of political theology in 20 years?
In many ways contemporary Hinduism provides a model for the future of theology if not politics. Everyday religious life in India does not depend in any significant way upon texts, specialists or institutions that pronounce dogma or doctrine. Instead it is the inheritance and transformation of individual and collective practices that, as it were, produce knowledge in a dispersed and non-historical way. Now it may be that speaking of theology in Hinduism is incorrect to begin with, but that is not my point. I am interested, rather, in how Hindu practices may indicate the future of highly-theologised monotheistic religions and the political imaginations they define, as their textual and institutional authorities splinter through new media and new religious movements. This is already happening in Islam in sometimes violent ways, and in Christianity through the abandonment of traditional churches in the West at least. How might we think about political theology in the absence of conventional scriptural, interpretive or institutional authorities together with their conceptual worlds? Hinduism shows us not only the limits of religion as a category, but may point to the future of theology as such.