The debate in the United States over the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities earlier this month brought to the fore the issue of state sovereignty. Since Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, Catholic social teaching has taught that an international political authority is necessary to solve today’s global problems, but also that such an authority must be limited, respecting the legitimate authority of states. This post outlines this teaching, pointing out the inherent tensions present in it.
Increasingly in liturgical circles it is becoming politically incorrect to talk about the “kingship” of Christ. Such a term now brings with it all the baggage of patriarchal interpretations of the biblical text. It calls to mind the exploitation brought about by colonial powers, abuses of power at the hands of politicians, and perhaps every abuse of power—abuses which represent heinous tragedy and sin. However, while we lament such abuse it is important to remember that power, in political terms, is itself neutral. It is a gift given by God in creation, which when wielded in the hands of human beings can be used for either selfish or selfless purposes (usually with correspondingly negative or positive results). Unfortunately, too often we as human beings struggle to monopolize power for our own sakes and consequently abuses occur…
For years now, one of Giorgio Agamben’s major concerns has been the fracture that lies at the heart of modern humanity (i.e. humanity’s sense of sovereignty). This is something he has described in a variety of contexts as that which divides the experience of something from one’s knowledge of it (cf. his Infancy and History). Due to such a fracture, we are no longer able to experience life as we ought to. The task of poetry (as it deals with our experiences) is subsequently forever divided from that of philosophy (that which deals with our knowledge). Such divisions, I would add, have since become the preeminent focus of Agamben’s work, taking him on a quest against all forms of representation that would sever the ‘thing itself’ from its image. These thoughts, moreover, have taken him toward an inspection of similar divisions said to lie at the base of our perceptions of the divine (i.e. God’s sovereignty). […]
As the humanities have rediscovered religion, new sorts of questions are being asked about religion and politics. Religion is no longer imagined as a check box, as the social sciences would like to see it: something you have or don’t, something that comes in one of several flavors of belief. Now that religion is not only about belief but about practices and ideas, with histories, intertwined with other practices and ideas, the intersection of religion and politics is no longer a point, but a varied terrain with multiple dimensions. […]
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.
It is certainly interesting to see a reflection of myself in the response of another discipline, even if I sometimes have trouble recognizing that image. Most useful will be for me to address the meaning of the gap between the two different political theological enterprises represented in this discussion. I will begin by making clear what the idea of a political theology contributes to my project. Following that, I will defend some of the contested theoretical premises of my work. Finally, I will take up the hardest question that emerges from this discussion: is it really the case that my political theological project is non-normative? If there is an implicit normative claim in my work, then the reviewers are right to ask not just whether I have got my description of American politics right, but whether the ethical direction of my work can be supported.