This is the fifth essay in an eight part series discussing Paul W. Kahn’s recent book, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. The series posts on Mondays and Thursdays.
A sensible theologian gets used to the marginalization of theology in the mainstream academy. To find a book about the importance of political theology by a legal scholar at Yale is, however, cause for excitement. Paul Kahn’s exploration of, and extrapolation from, key themes in Carl Schmitt’s classic work goes beyond the usual association of political theology with fundamentalism and shows how even a liberal political order has a theology of its own. There has been no “resurgence” of religion; Kahn sees rightly that Mark Lilla’s “Great Separation” never happened, and that even liberal nation-states like the U.S. have taken on the aura of the sacred. Kahn’s insightful comments about nuclear warfare make this point acutely: “How is it that a political order that understands itself as characterized by the rule of law can hold forth the possibility of such destruction?” (11-12). It can only be because the nation has taken on an infinite value, and the popular sovereign, or nation as god, must retain its exceptional powers to act. In times of war, the President embodies the people like Christ embodies the whole (86). Liberal theories like that of Rawls have never properly come to grips with the violence of the nation-state and the persistence of sacrifice in modern politics.
All of this and more is expanded upon in quite brilliant fashion, and I remain grateful to Kahn for opening up new lines of inquiry that may have been heretofore closed to legal and political theorists. In the end, however, there is less convergence than first appears between political theology as Kahn understands it and what goes under the same name in the present journal. If Kahn had read political theology as done by political theologians, he might have discovered that his basic approach is not as startlingly novel as he seems to think it is. Twentieth-century political theology produced a long tradition of critique of the implicit theologies underlying the modern state; one thinks of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Stringfellow, Dorothy Day, Jacques Ellul, Walter Wink, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, Graham Ward, and many others. But there is no indication either in the main text or in the notes that Kahn has read any work by anyone who would consider him- or herself a theologian, nor that Kahn thinks that doing so would be anything other than a waste of time. Kahn’s comments about the impossibility of faith in God in the present age seem to indicate that political theology as this journal understands it is to be taken seriously only as the serious symptoms of a delusion.
According to Kahn, monotheists make lousy political theology because they cannot understand the multiplicity of forms of the sacred; they think there is only one God, so they think the recognition of others is idolatry (24). But here Kahn has confused the sacred with the worship of the sacred; the critique of idolatry—one of the most important biblical themes, enshrined in the opening of Decalogue—depends on the recognition that people are spontaneously worshipping creatures whose devotion will light on a wide array of objects, from golden calves to Mammon. No one is better suited to spy worship in pledging allegiance to the flag than those who have been trained to have no other gods but God before them.
But idolatry critique depends on the idea that there is one true God beyond the myriad false ones, and it is this idea that Kahn seems to think impossible. Kahn has a thoroughly pragmatist view of truth. We decide among “models of order” not by their approximation to, or distance from, some “independent facts of the matter”; they become true as we use them to convince ourselves and others (111). Metaphysics, then, is just a rhetorical device (116). “In a godless world, that is, a world with no normative significance whatsoever, there is nothing that nature has to teach us in thinking about how to order the political, except that it is entirely up to us” (116-17). The one thing forbidden, the one thing not entirely up to us to choose, is theology, that is, the kind that entertains the possibility of God. To consider the political implications of Christian doctrines like that of original sin “is simply not a useful way of approaching political theology today” (123). Christian political theology differs like night from day from what Kahn considers political theology. “The latter is an entirely secular field of inquiry, while the former expresses a sectarian endeavor that is no longer possible in the West” (124). Despite appearances, Kahn does not consider these statements to be mere assertions. He believes he is expressing a self-evident truth about our world. “The real work of political theology, then, is done in giving a theoretical expression to those understandings that already inform a community’s self-understanding. Even if we once could, we can no longer derive those concepts from the general tenor of thought of the epoch because there is no such thing” (120). All is multiplicity, so the only truth about our epoch is that there is no truth. All is possible, except for theology.
So although Kahn’s work appears at first to be a welcome exercise in questioning the constructed boundaries between sacred and secular, religion and politics, and so on, he ends up reinforcing those boundaries. In his insistence on the secular nature of proper political theology, Kahn does not seem to regard the religious/secular distinction as a contingent one, recently constructed within—and dependent upon—modern Western forms of power. He seems innocent of the histories of this distinction done by Talal Asad and many others. Likewise, Kahn seems to regard the religion/politics and faith/reason distinctions as embedded in the nature of things, somehow immune from the kind of contingency that his pragmatist view of truth demands. For example, “We are well past the era in which theology could draw upon reason to support the sacred. Indeed, that separation of reason from revelation may be a more important ‘great separation’ than that of which Lilla writes. We will not be convinced by any logical arguments for the existence of God, whether the god of politics or that of religion” (25). Despite his attempts to undertake a thoroughly postmodern transgression of the Enlightenment notion of objective truth, Kahn cannot escape a thoroughly modern anxiety that requires policing the boundaries between faith and reason, religious and secular, theology and philosophy.
Kahn admits that his project is “part of the modernist project” insofar as it wants to ensure that “no religious authority has a privileged place in setting the political agenda” (19). He indicates that despite his disagreements with liberal theory—especially in its inability to see that the state has created its own sacred space—this disagreement “does not necessarily produce any tension between political theology and the political practices of liberalism” (24). Kahn is still very much invested in liberal politics, and his dismissal of political theologians of Christian or other belief in God appears meant to ensure that his retrieval of political theology does not give aid and comfort to Christians who would restore the church to its privileged position in society or Muslims who would impose sharia. What is not clear is whether or not Kahn could countenance (or is even aware of) the kind of political theology that both takes seriously the political consequences of the rule of the one true God over creation and rejects the use of state power to coerce either believers or nonbelievers. To stick with the Christian example, the dominant mode of political theology in the West since World War I has been critical. Christian political theology since Barth has generally taken for granted and even celebrated the fact that the church no longer occupies a position of privilege and coercive power in most places. Liberation theology and the other influential movements it has inspired have not ceased to call upon the church to abandon its last vestiges of privilege and take its position firmly among the marginalized. It is not, for all that, any less a political theology.
In the introduction to the book, Kahn writes, “Freeing the state from the church did not banish the sacred from the political” (21). He then adds, “It might have, but it did not.” Does Kahn believe that a politics free of the sacred is possible, and if so, does he believe that it is desirable? At times, he holds up Western Europe as a “largely secular society” that contrasts with America, where “we are not yet released from the burdens of faith” (17). Elsewhere, however, Kahn rejects the optimistic Enlightenment tale about the progressive realization and eventual triumph of reason (56-7). Ultimately, Kahn rejects both faith in God and reason, in favor of freedom. “The deepest complaint against liberal theory is not that it pushes God out of politics but that it fails to recognize the character of freedom upon which modern politics has rested. At stake in our political life has been not our capacity to be reasonable, but our capacity to realize in and through our own lives an ultimate meaning. Where we find that meaning, we will find freedom” (158). The sacred, then, persists as something essential to politics, even if we have been unburdened of faith in God. It is an entirely immanent sacred, however, of our own making, created ex nihilo out of our freedom.
To his credit, Kahn recognizes that this is still theology, even in the absence of theos. What he does not seem to recognize is that belief in “freedom” is no less founded in faith than belief in God. Kahn acknowledges that secularization has never won (26) and that the sacred persists, but he never really gives an account of why the sacred continues to occupy what is in reality a God-shaped hole left by the migration of the holy from the church to the state. What persists is not just human freedom, but worship and sacrifice. In politics, that worship may indeed be largely directed to idols of our own making, but the need to worship remains unexplained if all that remains is human freedom. It may be that the most economical explanation for the need to worship something that transcends ourselves is the existence of something that transcends ourselves. In the face of all this evidence that political worship is near ubiquitous, the more scholarly conclusion, it seems to me, is that faith is somehow part of who we are, as misdirected as faith often is. At the very least, I see no reason at all meekly to accept Kahn’s dismissal of transcendence and his declarations that what we political theologians do is simply no longer possible.
Kahn’s book is extremely valuable, full of perceptive insights about Schmitt’s work, about the way that American politics operates, and about how liberal theory misunderstands those operations. Kahn’s book is most interesting and even exciting for the way in which he argues that our world has not been disenchanted at all; the boundaries between sacred and secular are more ideological than real. Precisely because Kahn’s book is so interesting in this regard, it is profoundly disappointing to have him slam that door shut as soon as it is opened, especially because Kahn does not so much argue for the move as Whiggishly assume that all people of good sense will accept it. Kahn seems prevented from leaving the door open by a kind of dogmatism, an orthodoxy that accepts on faith that there is not, cannot be, must not be, transcendence.
William T. Cavanaugh is Senior Research Professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University. His degrees are from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke. He is the author of five books, most recently The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford U.P., 2009) and Migrations of the Holy (Eerdmans, 2011). His books have been translated into French, Spanish, and Polish.