The Elusiveness of the Sacred

Essays

At this moment of extreme political intensity, Paul W. Kahn’s new book, Political Theology, appears as a timely meditation. By means of a sustained engagement with the controversial German legal theorist Carl Schmitt’s text of the same name, Kahn attempts to demonstrate that behind our seemingly liberal, constitutional order is a deep faith in the sacred character the state and of popular sovereignty. One is tempted to read Kahn’s juxtaposition of the discourses of (liberal) political theory and political theology as a commentary on struggle between the Obama Administration and the contemporary Republican (and Tea) Party—the one stressing reason, deliberation, pragmatism, compromise; the other embracing faith, will, power, sacrifice. Kahn, however, is more subtle than that. His slim volume is a provocative, sometimes frustrating, sometimes perplexing read, providing much food for thought, and also, I can imagine, for fights.

This is the second in an eight part series discussing Paul W. Kahn’s recent book Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. The series will post on Mondays and Thursdays for the next several weeks.

At this moment of political intensity, Paul W. Kahn’s new book, Political Theology, appears as a timely meditation.  By means of a sustained engagement with the controversial German legal theorist Carl Schmitt’s text of the same name, Kahn attempts to demonstrate that behind our seemingly liberal, constitutional order is a deep faith in the sacred character the state and of popular sovereignty.  One is tempted to read Kahn’s juxtaposition of the discourses of (liberal) political theory and political theology as a commentary on struggle between the Obama Administration and the contemporary Republican (and Tea) Party—the one stressing reason, deliberation, pragmatism, compromise; the other embracing faith, will, power, sacrifice.  Kahn, however, is more subtle than that.  His slim volume is a provocative, sometimes frustrating, sometimes perplexing read, providing much food for thought, and also, I can imagine, for fights.

Kahn begins with the proposition—influenced by his reading of Schmitt—that liberal political theory fails to capture what is most important about our political experience: the source from which it attains its meaning.  Contemporary liberal theory can provide an account of the legal order but it does not understand, indeed, it cannot understand what grounds that order.  For Kahn, this grounding is in faith, a commitment beyond reason and contract.  This political faith is articulated in and sustained by a discourse beyond deliberation and agreement and it can demand its citizens sacrifice for its ends, that is, to participate in acts of (sacred) violence.

The project of “political theology,” Kahn contends, is better suited to capturing the nature of the political.  Unlike liberal theory, political theology “understands politics as an organization of everyday life founded on the imagination of the sacred.”  Now, Kahn has a rather idiosyncratic understanding of what political theology is.  In Kahn’s usage, the term “political theology” does not denote a political teaching based on revelation, an attempt to order the political sphere along the lines of a religious vision, or a critique of power.  Theology, in Kahn’s definition, is a now to be considered phenomenological endeavor serving “to identify and describe the presence of the sacred, wherever it appears.”  (I suspect that many a contemporary theologian will take exception to this claim.)  Political theology, then, performs what Kahn calls “a phenomenology of the political”; it is “a project of descriptive political analysis,” an “effort to describe the social imaginary of the political” which discloses the “political formation of experience of the sacred.” What political theology illuminates, Kahn insists, is the “political experience grounded in faith and sacrifice,” an experience of the sacred independent of human reason and also of (so-called) organized religion.  In short, “the political formation of the experience of the sacred is the subject of political theology.”  In our case, Kahn believes that the discourse of political theology can illuminate “the set of beliefs that sustain and support American exceptionalism as a practice of ultimate meaning for generations of Americans”

In Kahn’s view, then, the modern nation-state is not a simply “secular arrangement.”  Liberalism has not succeeded in ousting the sacred and questions of ultimate meaning from the public sphere.  Rather, the modern state “creates and maintains its own sacred space and history.”  Politics emerges and remains as “a field of ultimate meaning” and a site of exceptional demand—citizens are asked to kill and die for their political community.  “The sacrificial moment,” Kahn writes, “appears as a kind of sacred violence: a force that realizes a transcendent meaning.”

Political theology thus discloses what liberal theory, as a rational discourse, cannot grasp: “that experience of the unity of being and meaning that marks the presence of the sacred,” that is, the experience of political authenticity.  Indeed, by refusing to face the potential of political violence—the fact that citizens are called upon to kill and die for the state, and that they may willingly take up this call—liberal theory avoids the fundamental nature of political experience.  Liberalism can account for the sphere of legality, of norms.  But, having “subordinated meaning to order, it cannot understand the realm of sovereignty, of the exception, of authenticity, and it cannot explain why citizens will commit themselves to the state and sacrifice for their nation.  As Kahn writes in his concluding paragraph, “At stake in our political life has been not our capacity to be reasonable, but our capacity to realize in and through our lives an ultimate meaning.  Where we find that meaning, we will find freedom.”

In his analysis of the American situation, Kahn places particular emphasis on the “revolutionary foundation of the modern state,” that is, the transfer of sovereignty from a sacral monarch to “we the people.”  This transfer occurred through the experience of revolution, which Kahn regards as “a secularized form of revelation.”  While the transcendent experience of revolution has been normalized in the constitutional order, it remains ever present: “Our political culture is one in which both law and sacrifice figure and in which the believer finds the truth of the self in and through participation in the popular sovereign.”

While I am sympathetic to Kahn’s argument that much contemporary liberal theory fails to capture all that is at stake in the sphere of the political (especially issues regarding power and passions), I have a number of concerns about his project of political theology and its ability to provide an explanation of the “political” in general and of the American experience in particular.  Wielded by Kahn, political theology is a blunt instrument, which I think flattens out the American “social imaginary.”  In part, I suspect that this is due to Kahn’s commitment to Schmitt’s categories (e.g. sovereignty, decisionism).  In particular, I am struck by the narrowness of Kahn’s vision of the American political and religious landscape, and I sometimes find his phenomenological analysis unmoored from the actual practices of American politics and religion, historical and contemporary.  While Kahn states that “We want to expose the remnants of belief that are attached to our political concepts and maintained in our political practices,” I feel this book itself does not go far enough to pursue this agenda.

Let me suggest a few places where I would like to see Kahn push his ideas further.  First, I’d like to see a deeper consideration of the relationship of religion and politics in the United States.  Kahn blithely suggests that the state has replaced organized religion as the primary site of the sacred in the modern world, yet the utter fecundity of religious life in this country would appear to contest this notion.  How can political theology make sense of the astounding array of religious institutions and movements that exist and have emerged in the United States and whose language has shaped our political culture?  And how can it explain why many citizens see their attachment to the nation and state as bound up in some way with their religious commitments?  Kahn sometimes seems to be suggesting that the modern nation-state has displaced the church as the locus of the sacred; I would suggest that the relationship between the two is somewhat more complicated.  Political theology may well discern a variety of “theological-political” experience.

Second, how does political theology regard the phenomenon of “civil religion”?  On a few occasions, Kahn makes mention of the concept, but he provides no description or analysis of the concept and how it may be used by political theology.  The obvious place to begin is Robert Bellah’s classic essay “Civil Religion in America,” which Kahn cites in his notes but does not directly engage.  Bellah famously suggested that “there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.”  By means of its narratives, rituals, and symbols, this civil religion helped to mobilize the citizenry to support government policies.  According to Bellah, “the civil religion at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people.”  In this conception, civic rituals and political appeals to the sacred do not merely exist to provide legitimation for the state but also make the theological claim that the state is not absolute unto itself, but subject to divine authority.  A deeper engagement with the concept of civil religion as developed by Bellah and others would, I think, help clarify how political theology works and how the state “creates and maintains” itself as a sacred sphere.

This brings me to a deeper question regarding Kahn’s procedure.  Kahn believes that political theology as a “phenomenology of the political” reveals the state’s relationship “the sacred.”  The sacred is a notoriously vague and elusive term, and Kahn tends to be somewhat slippery here (an ambiguousness which extends, I think, to his usage of “the secular”).  I find that throughout the book the notion of “the sacred” is more asserted than analyzed.  Consider a few of the ways in which Kahn uses the term “the sacred” in his introductory chapter:

  • The modern nation-state “has occupied the place of the sacred for its citizens” (2)
  • “[O]urpolitical practices remain embedded in forms of belief and practice that touch upon the sacred” (3)
  • “[T]he state creates and maintains its own sacred space and history.” (19)
  • “The framers separated church and state but spoke the language of the sacred when pledging their lives to each other in their revolutionary mission.” (21)
  • “The competition with organized religion was a competition over the locus of the sacred; that with commerce over the existence of the sacred.” (21)
  • “Revolutions begin with an experience of the sacred in and through the political, for no revolution begins until there is a willingness to sacrifice for some meaning greater than the finite self.” (22)
  • “Political theology understands politics as an organization of everyday life founded on an imagination of the sacred.” (23)
  • “Organized religion is just one form in which the experience of the sacred is named and embodied.” (23)
  • Modern political revolutions “used the language of the sacred against the established Church.” (23)
  • “In a crisis, it remains true today that the secular state does not hesitate to speak of sacrifice, patriotism, nationalism, and homeland in the language of the sacred.” (23)
  • “Political theology recognizes a multiplicity of forms of the sacred.” (24)
  • “The inquiry is not to take us back to premodern forms of religious influence on political order, but to the discovery of the persistence of forms of the sacred in a world that no longer relies on God.” (26)
  • “The politics of the modern nation-state indeed rejected the church but simultaneously offered a new site of sacred experience.” (26)
  • “Looking into the soul of the modern welfare state we can still see the mysterium tremendum of the sacred, with its tremendous power for both destruction and construction.” (27)

Notice how Kahn’s use of the term appears to fluctuate: sometimes he writes of political actors speaking the language of the sacred; at others of the state as occupying the place of the sacred.  Political practices touch upon the sacred.  The political allows for the experience of the sacred, or is based upon the imagination of the sacred.  Revolution is a transfer of sacred authority from monarch to a popular sovereign.

Unlike liberal theory, political theology sees political experience as fundamentally bound up on the sacred.  But does this mean that authentic political life somehow involves a bursting through of the transcendent?  Or is the appeal to the sacred an expression of an innate human need?  Are political actors exploiting the language of the sacred (that is, the language of the religion that their audiences know and practice) to gain support for and legitimize their projects, or are they expressing the real depth of political experience?  At times, it appears that Kahn is arguing for the reality of the sacred, which is revealed at moments of heightened political stress and danger.  This is complicated, however, when Kahn discusses the ways in which politicians speak in the “language of the sacred,” which suggests a functional use of religious rhetoric for mundane ends.

Part of the confusion emerges because Kahn wants to free the notion of the sacred from its being bound up in any institutionalized religion.  (Although it is not mentioned directly in the text, Kahn’s notion of the sacred as the mysterium tremendum seems to allude to Rudolph Otto’s classic work, The Idea of the Holy.)  But the language of the sacred that Kahn appeals to (such as the example of sacrifice) is, of course, created, shaped, and sustained by particular religious traditions.

Finally, I’d like to suggest that the tradition of liberal political thought contains within it a deeper engagement with the theological than Kahn seems to acknowledge.  Indeed, one might say that the primary genre of early modern liberalism was the theological-political treatise.  The thinkers that stand at the foundation of the modern liberal tradition—Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Mendelssohn—were fundamentally struggling with the problem of religion and its challenge to the stability of the political order.  What might a reengagement with these thinkers tell us about the persistence of the theological in our political experience?

 

Jerome Copulsky is assistant professor of philosophy and religion and Director of Judaic studies at Goucher College.

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