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The Legacy of ‘Imitatio Christi’: A Conversation About Political Theology

This conversation between Adam Y. Stern and Adriana Alfaro Altamirano joins current debates about authoritarianism and biopolitics, “charismatic authority” and “survival,” through the theological-political lens of ‘imitatio Christi.’

In this conversation, Adriana Alfaro and Adam Y. Stern discuss their recently published books, The Belief in Intuition: Individuality and Authority in Henri Bergson and Max Scheler (UPenn, 2021) and Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy (UPenn, 2021). While ostensibly devoted to a divergent set of themes—intuition and survival, charismatic authority and biopolitics—both works find a common touchstone in an old theological trope: imitatio Christi.


AS: Let’s start off by talking a little bit about your reasons for writing a book on Max Scheler and Henri Bergson. It seems to me that your turn to these figures stems from a more general concern about the rise of authoritarian politics in our time. Can you explain how they have helped you diagnose or critique contemporary “personalist politics”?

AA: Both Scheler and Bergson, two important figures of the early 20th century European philosophical landscape, can help us today to think about “personalist politics” since they both present a model of authority in which exemplars have a special claim on persons because they alone provide insights that can properly guide action without therefore compromising the uniqueness and the agency of those who follow them. In both cases, the focus on exemplarity grows out of their criticisms of ethical rationalism, which, in their view, cannot preserve what is unique in the self, engage the person as such, or be an appropriate ground for freedom.

Now, I do acknowledge the dangers associated with personalist politics. Today we hear a lot about populism, how democracies die, and the lessons we should remember to avoid tyranny. And all that’s real. But my interest in exemplarity—and, more particularly, in how they both use the figure of imitatio Christias a pedagogical resource is that, in the midst of all the fears associated with charismatic and personal authority, we might very well lose sight of the fact that democracy also depends crucially on this type of figure. From Scheler and Bergson’s respective conceptions of exemplarity we learn that liberalism would only at its own peril deny the anthropological, moral, and political importance of those figures who, in Rousseau’s famous words, can “compel without violence, and persuade without convincing.”

AA: I know that you are also interested in the notion of imitatio Christi, but now as a figure for the theological-political genealogy of “survival.” Can you tell us about the contemporary relevance of the notion of “survival” and why it is important to explore its (Christian) genealogy?

AS: As you say, my book is an attempt to offer a genealogy of “survival.” The project began with a simple observation about the salience of the word within modern/secular/liberal political vocabulary. The strange thing, I think, is that despite the centrality of survival and survivors across a wide variety of domains, there has been little reflection—philosophical, anthropological, historical—on what these words mean and, more importantly, what they do. There are exceptions. But my sense is that “survival” is not quite a concept: not yet the object of what Reinhart Koselleck would call a Begriffsgeschichte, where one can track debates in the public sphere about the definition and utility of a particular term. Survival is rather a kind of impression or vague notion that one might evoke for a variety of conflicting reasons.

From that perspective, the goal in the book is to offer a preliminary framework for thinking about how survival circulates. I follow Foucault, in part, by using the term “genealogy” to ask a basic question about the “history of the present”: Who is speaking about survival? What institutions? What texts? What languages? What archives have been responsible for constituting “survival” and “survivor” as identifiable elements of our political horizon? After Foucault, though, I take Dipesh Chakrabarty’s interest in “provincializing” the purported universality of European tropes as another step in the analysis (and translation) of that most English of words: survival.

There are more and less obvious places to begin in the annals of European intellectual history: e.g., Darwinism, Victorian Anthropology, the Holocaust. But—and this is where our two books relate—I make an argument for a theological-political assessment of survival as a trace of Latin Christianity and, specifically, as a translation or secularization of the contradictions crossing Christ’s body.

AS: Let me pause here so we can dig a little deeper into this point of proximity between us. You too spend some time talking about political theology. Can you say more about this perspective on charismatic authority?

AA: In the book, I explore Bergson and Scheler’s engagement in theological debates about the anthropological, moral, and political meaning of Christianity. I argue that they both belong to what is known as “Christian Modernism,” but that, at the same time, they open up different possibilities within it, allowing us to appreciate different political trade-offs between equality and freedom.

Methodologically, my argument here is indebted to Eric Nelson’s recent book, The Theology of Liberalism, where he shows how many of our contemporary debates about justice sort of track ancient theological disputes. Similarly, I try to show how the contrast between Scheler and Bergson—specifically, again, on the issue of imitatio Christi, of what it means “to be like Christ”—might hold the promise of finding alternative arguments that we can then bring into our “secular,” normative debates. For instance, Bergson has a much more egalitarian conception of human nature and of the relation between the exemplary figure (Christ) and the imitator (his disciples), that is related to a certain conception of freedom. Scheler, for his part, has a much more hierarchical conception of human nature, and that, in turn, pertains to a certain conception of what it means to be free and to follow the exemplar, that is, about the appropriate relation between the exemplar and the followers. When we explore these alternatives, we realize that “charismatic authority” is not monolithic; that freedom can look different in different contexts; and, therefore, that certain versions of personal authority and of freedom can indeed be compatible with each other.

AA: Now, let me go back to your take on the figure of Christ: you just said that part of your argument is to explore the figure of the survivor as a translation or secularization of imitatio Christi. And indeed, in the book you argue that the God on the Cross is a symbol for various tensions that traverse humanity. Can you say more about this?

AS: Let me say first that the notion of imitatio Christi has emerged as a crucial reference point in a number of recent works, including your own. I’m thinking here of Talal Asad’s work on the liberal approach to “sacrifice” in On Suicide Bombing and Robert Meister’s assessments of human rights discourse in After Evil. I mention these thinkers, on the one hand, because I’m trying to set survival within broader debates about secular bodies, secular subjectivities, and secular affects. But whereas both Meister and Asad ultimately make sure to differentiate between “secularism” and “Christianity” (or, as it is almost always translated, “religion”), my aim is to underscore survival’s Latin Christian signature. While it is true that I used the concept of “secularization” above to describe my approach to survival, I’m actually more interested in promoting a phrase coined by Derrida to emphasize Latin Christian hegemony: globalatinization.

In the book, I attend to the notion of imitatio Christi most directly in Chapter 3, which is devoted to an extended reading of Franz Rosenzweig’s 1921 book, The Star of Redemption. I borrow the phrase from Rosenzweig himself, who uses it to frame his own theological-political genealogy of “life,” as it moves from Greece to Goethe. What I try to show is that, for Rosenzweig, life—which is to say, human life, the life of the modern subject—has been a millennium-long effort to approximate the exemplary life of Christ. It’s something that Rosenzweig presents as a matter of survival, quite literally, in the German text, as Über-Leben: living on, living over, living beyond. The image of the human being that emerges here, and as you mentioned earlier, lies in the paradox of resurrection: the sovereignty of the dead God on the Cross, the divine victim, or what Rosenzweig calls, with a nod to Eucharistic practice, the God-corpse. My claim here, following Rosenzweig, is that our globalatin modernity continues to divide the human being between these two poles of survival: God and corpse, sovereign and victim.

AS: This brings me to another question about your interest in Scheler and Bergson. In the final paragraph of your book, you write: “Many of our contemporary, allegedly secular, politicophilosophical debates find their sources [in Christian thought]. Therefore, not to be conscious of what Judeo-Christian thought has bequeathed to us and of the different theoretical possibilities comprised in that tradition will most certainly obscure our understanding of our own position.” I want to ask if you can expand a bit further on the normative goal of your book? Is it a project of retrieval? Is it a political theology? Is it a critique of secularism?

AA: I don’t think I aim at a critique of secularism if by that you understand the intention of “bringing religion back in” or an effort to show how we do not, in fact, live in a disenchanted world. I guess mine is a “project of retrieval” only insofar as it tries to engage in new and creative ways with Christianity’s legacy regarding paradigmatic theological debates such charismatic authority and freedom, of which I spoke before, or the proper relation between temptation and morality, as the following example can illustrate.

In the opening line of his last book, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Bergson says that “the remembrance of the forbidden fruit is the earliest thing in the memory of each of us, as it is in that of mankind.” Here, Bergson suggests that prohibition, and the ensuing experience of temptation, are at the core of human nature and our character as agents—hence the centrality of the story of the Garden of Eden in our conception of what it means to be human. However, in contrast with the Biblical account, for Bergson the emphasis should not be placed in the source of the prohibition (the deity and its power), but in the way it is experienced by the agent: the relation to the law that prohibition triggers and the experience of freedom that it makes possible.

Thus, from a Bergsonian standpoint, an adequate theory of moral action should be properly informed by a careful “phenomenology of temptation”—that is, an account of the oscillations that precede or, better still, constitute action as we relate to the objects of our temptation. Different accounts of the experience of vacillation and reluctance correspond to different accounts of moral action; therefore, I argue, the meaning of blame and righteousness, guilt and innocence, partly hinges on an accurate phenomenology of qualm, misgiving, and indecision.

AA: Now, finally, Adam, let me ask you about the political dimension of the crucifixion, which, as you explain in the book, has to do with the complex relation between survival and community. Can you say more about how survival in the Christian tradition speaks to the formation of political communities and to the question of sovereignty?

AS: The genealogy of survival is about globalatinization and, in that sense, about the formation and self-fashioning of the Latin Christian West. For someone like Rosenzweig, the division of Christ’s body between God and corpse quickly becomes a discursive map for a set of historical determinations about the life and death, futurity and obsolescence, of other communities: Jews and Muslims. Elsewhere, survival bears upon the civilizational discourse of nineteenth-century European imperialism and anti-Blackness.

But since we’ve been talking about authoritarianism, let me touch on one another aspect of this question, which will bring us back to political theology. I argue throughout the book that the link between survival and Christ’s body emerges most prominently in debates about the Eucharist. A whole tradition of scholarship has shown the importance of sacramental theology for the development of theories about sovereignty, the  king’s two (or three!) bodies, and the constitution of the body politic in medieval and early modern Europe. It’s also all about survival. One passage that brings this out comes from the eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone. On the link between king and community, he summarizes: “The king never dies. Henry, Edward, or George may die; but the king survives them all.” In other words, if we are going to think about the relation between survival and sovereignty or the survival of political communities, we may also want to consider how the historical discourse on Christ’s body has framed these questions in the Christian West.

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