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Political Theology Is “Theological” To The Extent It Enchants Its Audience (Martin Kavka)

Jewish Wedding

The following is the first of a five-part symposium on the question “how theological is political theology”, which took place at the 2016 American Academy of Religion meeting in San Antonio.

Three years ago, I edited a volume with Randi Rashkover entitled Judaism, Liberalism, and Political Theology.  I was quite surprised at the number of contributors who doubled down on a strand of the Jewish philosophical-theological tradition in modernity that sought to emphasize the rationality, and the liberalism, of Judaism.  The hero of the volume turned out to be the neo-Kantian Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842–1918), whose account of liberal Judaism served as a bulwark against threats posed by Jan Assmann, Erik Peterson, Julius Wellhausen, Leo Strauss, and others.

Now, those contributors may be right to lionize Hermann Cohen, and liberalism.  But they labored mightily to lionize him.  Such liberal labor says something about the necessity of political theology in its Schmittian sense, and also about what it means to do political theology as theology.  Let me take these two points in turn.

First, to say that political theology is necessary is to say that liberalism is riven by contradiction.  It promises a universally egalitarian order for a citizenry that is not equal, since individual citizens and various groups of citizens have diverse interests that compete with one another.  As Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe wrote in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, a “total equivalence” between citizens and groups “never exists; every equivalence is penetrated by a constitutive precariousness, derived from the unevenness of the social.”

This was something that Carl Schmitt saw in 1922 in Political Theology, in his critique of the liberal legal theorist Hans Kelsen, a figure who saw himself as following the path of my colleagues’ beloved Hermann Cohen.  In his immanent critique of Kelsen in the second chapter of Political Theology, Schmitt showed that Kelsen could not both aim to develop a scientific and impersonal jurisprudence and do so on the basis of a culture’s positive laws that might be in effect at a particular historical moment.  Getting rid of positive law—of law that was valid because it was posited as valid—was impossible.  And so, under each proclamation of liberalism’s universality and rightness was arbitrariness.

As Schmitt wrote in his 1928 volume Constitutional Theory about Kelsen, “the normative element breaks down.  In its place appears the tautology of a raw factualness: something is valid when it is valid and because it is valid.”  In the wake of that immanent critique, everything that liberalism casts as its other (including theology and non-scientific metaphysics) comes roaring back.  Political theology—as a discipline that seeks not just to show the analogues between secularized political concepts in a state and allegedly premodern theological ones, but also seeks to desecularize political concepts and to root the rightness of the state’s laws in the authority of a person and her or his decisions—can come roaring back (whether in politically right or politically left versions), because it never really stopped roaring.

Liberalism is not a machine that hums along most smoothly when a culture becomes allegedly rational and scientific; its outputs rest on the arbitrary decisions of an individual or a powerful group.  This was Schmitt’s point.

For this reason, there are no limits to how theological a political theology can be.  However, it remains the case that the work of the political theologian, like all disciplines, has an audience, and it seeks assent from that audience. But what are the possible grounds of anyone’s assent?  Universalist discourse has already been cut off at the pass, so that can’t be an option.  And given the unevenness of the social, it seems that no theological model can gin up assent without some kind of authority structure that commands assent. A political theology must articulate itself, but it cannot argue for itself.  If this is true, it is a problem.

One possible way around this problem might be to do political theology that, like liberalism, naturalizes, but unlike liberalism, refuses to scientize.  One example of this path that remains understudied, in my view, appears on Jacob Taubes’s 1955 essay “On the Symbolic Order of Modern Democracy,” published in the journal Confluence, edited by Henry Kissinger while he was a graduate student at Harvard.  (The talk is mentioned briefly in Taubes’s lectures on the political theology of Paul, but does not appear in the collection of Taubes’s essays published under the title From Cult to Culture.)

Placing this essay in its original context of contested interpretations of American democracy in the 1950s would go beyond the limits of a blog post.  But in brief, in opposition to the idea that US democracy was rooted in Puritan-inspired federalism (as Perry Miller had argued), Taubes used the Quaker historian Rufus Jones to argue that the real motivating concept of American democracy was the Anabaptist pattern of social organization.

Indeed, for Taubes (following Jones), democracy is essentially a mystical political movement: “Only in terms of a mystical experience does a saying like vox populi vox Dei make sense without falling into banality,” said Taubes in this article.  And quoting Jones, Taubes claimed that democracy “is at heart a mystical order.  There is something more in each individual than there would be if he were operating in isolation.  He becomes in a real sense over-individual, and transcends himself through the life of others.”

On this account, democracy is something other than the scientistic liberalism of Kelsen, and even though the democratic community aims at unanimity, it does not assume that the mystical community is one at this moment in time.  The mystical experience is something that is indeed posited by the members of that community, in the belief that unanimity is really possible over the long haul.

The upshot of this move is to depart from a polity that is grounded in a person who speaks in the name of a God who manifests himself in the laws of the state, or from a secularized account of a robustly sovereign head of state.  For Jones and Taubes, sovereignty is distributed across the community as a whole.  Note, then, that Taubes agrees with Schmitt about the fact that we cannot get outside of the realm of political theology; the difference between them is that Taubes decided to construct a political theory that secularized mysticism and pantheism.

That being said, it is by no means obvious to me that Taubes has solved anything in political theology.  Does mysticism extirpate my individuality (either for Jones, or for Taubes)?  If we understand the identity between the voice of the people and the voice of God as a mystical concept, does that voice utter any set of policies, or does it just rest in some kind of silent contemplative contentment?  It is all too easy to read Taubes’s pretty mystic democracy as empty rhetoric that covers up a totalizing or authoritarian move: “Find your freedom!  Join the mystical order!  Or else!”

Now, Taubes could have responded to this charge well.  It seems to me that the person who is an “over-individual”, engaging in a kind of Nietzschean self-overcoming, does this continually as a member of the mystical body of the polity.  In order to transcend oneself through the life of others, the Taubesian/Jonesian democrat must always live with others, who by their very nature contest any and all pretense of the vox populi to be equivalent to the general will.

But to take up this issue more fully is to enter the territory of argument; given the unevenness of the social, it remains an open question as to whether entering this territory has any efficacy. Perhaps, then, no matter how theological political theology is, it should stop trying to offer better arguments and start trying to enchant its audience, aiming to melt the most hardened cynical hearts.

Martin Kavka is Professor of Religion at Florida State University and a recent Ruth Meltzer Fellow at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is the author of Jewish Messianism and the History of Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2004) and Perils of Covenant (forthcoming).  He is co-author with Randi Rashkover of Judaism, Liberalism, and Political Theology (Indiana University Press, 2013).

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