Carl Schmitt, Erik Peterson, Jacob Taubes, political theology

Donald Trump and the Beginnings for a Theological Response

Donald Trump’s vision for America is apparently a great future that demands the utmost loyalty. But do not worry, he says in his inaugural address; his singular vision of that future is assured. The sanctified union of the US––God’s people, Trump implies––is protected by the might of the US military and God. Now US Presidents have long conflated a vague, singular deity with the US. But as usual, Trump seems to have outdone his predecessors. The conflation of God with the US is a common deferral. It indirectly justifies those in power; they must look humble instead of arrogant. However, Trump is not worried about hubris; he embraces it rhetorically and ideologically. (1) His vision of utmost loyalty, sanctified unity, and ‘America first’ (2) protected, he emphasizes, by a military he commands and by God conflates a singular human figure and his authority with divinity and its power.

Clearly political theologians are in for a rough four years, not to mention the damage that such rhetoric will do in forming another generation with the lie of manifest destiny. What resources do we have to respond to this Trump’s conflation? I cannot recommend strongly enough Erik Peterson’s chapter “Monotheism as a Political Problem: A Contribution to the History of Political Theology in the Roman Empire” in his Theological Tractates.1 The chapter, from 1935, indirectly opposes Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist whose juridical work and political theology made way for Adolf Hitler’s authoritarian rise. The comparison I assume here is not Trump to Hitler, but Trump to Schmitt.2 And I believe that Peterson’s work will be essential to resisting the impulses of Schmitt in Trump. Since Peterson’s chapter is, well, a slog––a rewarding slog, but still a slog––here are relevant thematic points of the chapter.

Peterson argued that monotheism in general and Christian monotheism in particular were eventually made to directly justify the Roman emperor’s homogenizing hegemony, as typified in Constantine I’s claim and Eusebius’s support of it: “To the one king on earth corresponds the one God, the one King in Heaven and the one royal Nomos and Logos.”3 However, Peterson contended that there could be no correspondence between a Trinitarian theology and human monarchy, and so Peterson aimed to maintain the revolutionary character of Christianity that the empire had to subdue.4 Further against the correspondence, he added in all but name an eschatological reserve. That is, the eschatological unity and peace of Jesus relativizes any state’s claim to (over-)realize that eschatology.5

Peterson’s contention has been misread as a rejection of any political theology, as Schmitt did in his belated 1970 response, Political Theology II.6 But in point of fact, Peterson’s critical “arrow” rejects the Caesarian-Eusebian move in Schmitt’s Hobbesian-Nazi political theology.7 For Peterson’s development of his own political theology, one must look to his analytical work in 1932 and more constructive work from 1935-1937.

The two paragraphs above are taken from my essay on defining political theology. But since I have yet to submit the essay to a journal, I will leave much more for the (eventual) published version, like problems in Peterson’s work, the framework of his political theology, and how these issues are played out in later generations. I’ll also forgo delineating my constructive trinitarian account that goes against Schmitt and breaks from Peterson’s limits. For now, I simply want to call attention to an important resource for resisting some truly scary self-justifications of US empire and, quite possibly, authoritarianism.

  1. Erik Peterson, Theological Tractates, trans. Michael J. Hollerich (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), chp. 4.
  2. I doubt that Trump is aware of Schmitt, but the similarities can be striking. Also, some of the Trump’s white nationalist supporters straight up cite Schmitt. See Richard B. Spencer, “Political Theology.”
  3. Peterson, 94. Emphasis Peterson’s. See also ibid., 69, 88-92, 95-97, 102.
  4. Ibid., 86, 88, 102-105.
  5. Ibid., 89, 103-104.
  6. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology, trans. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward (Cambridge: Polity, 2011). See also not only Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, “Political Theology as Foundational Theology,” CTSA Proceedings 32 (1977): 166 and Jürgen Moltmann, “Political Theology,” Theology Today 28, no. 1 (1971): 13, but also Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward, introduction to Schmitt, Political Theology II, 9: “Peterson, political theology is theologically impossible for Christians” (emphasis theirs). While that quote may summarize Peterson’s single instance in “Monotheism as a Political Problem” where he explicitly engages Schmitt (Theological Tractates, 233-234 n. 168), Peterson is more careful in the body of the text (104-105).
  7. Jacob Taubes, To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 28. See also ibid., 27-31; Peterson, 104-105, 179. For others who think that Schmitt misread Peterson, see Gyögry Geréby, “Political Theology versus Theological Politics: Erik Peterson and Carl Schmitt,” New German Critique 35, no. 3 (2008): 26; Michael J. Hollerich, introduction to Peterson, Theological Tractates, xxv-xxvi.
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political theology

Political Theologies Seminar

I’ve been rather silent here because I’ve been quite busy. This is partly because I don’t yet know how to talk about my dissertation publicly online — I’ve heard far too many horror stories about people getting ripped off; partly because I’ve been prepping for the class I’m teaching this fall; and partly because of a new project launching at Marquette:

We’ve got a Political Theologies Seminar that we’re starting up. Part of the seminar is to put up a helpful website with announcements on work we’ll be doing, bibliographies, etc. It is still a work in progress — some bibliographies are nearly nonexistent, but others are beginning to fill out — nevertheless, go check it out here: http://politicaltheologiesseminaratmarquette.wordpress.com/.

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books, political theology

A Not-So-Theological Book List for Political Theology

Daniel asked about a book list of ethics and politics works of the not-so-theological variety for those in political theology. I take this to be a book list both about people who at least are not theologians and/or works that may not even consider the place of theology. It covers political theory, continental philosophy, and a few other subjects, but it certainly is not exhaustive — in fact it may really be a poor introduction to people and writings I think are important to know and work with or against. If you’ve got any books to add, please do.

Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince

Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, and Man and Citizen: De Homine and De Cive

GWF Hegel (specifically these editions): Phenomenology of Spirit, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion One-Volume Edition, The Lectures of 1827, and Lectures on the Philosophy of World History

John Locke: Two Treatises of Government and Political Essays

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: ‘The Social Contract’ and Other Later Political Writings

Karl Marx: just start with The Marx-Engels Reader (Second Edition) — it has Marx’s important essays on Hegel and Feuerbach, among other writings. Of course there is Capital starting with Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics)

Friedrich Nietzsche: Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Will to Power (Volumes I and II), and Beyond Good and Evil

John Rawls: A Theory of Justice: Original Edition, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, and A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: With “On My Religion”

Carl Schmitt: The Concept of the Political, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of any Political Theology, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol, Roman Catholicism and Political Form, Legality and Legitimacy, and of course Constitutional Theory

An edited volume by Chantal Mouffe on Carl Schmitt: The Challenge of Carl Schmitt

Walter Benjamin, aka anti-Schmitt: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, an excellent commentary by Michael Löwy Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”, and of course, if you have the time and the interest, The Arcades Project

Michel Foucault: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, and The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language are all well known, and certainly worth reading, but I find more interesting and helpful his lectures at the College de France: Security, Territory, Population, The Birth of Biopolitics, The Government of Self and Others

Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, On Revolution, The Human Condition (2nd Edition), On Violence, and The Origins of Totalitarianism

Giorgio Agamben: Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, State of Exception, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, and his commentary on Romans, The Time That Remains

Alain Badiou: Being and Event, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, and Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil

Slavoj Žižek: The Parallax View, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? with Milbank and Davis, and The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity

The publication of Harink’s Paul and Philosophers conference that I was at some years back: Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision: Critical Engagements with Agamben, Badiou, Zizek and Others

Jean Baudrillard: Simulacra and Simulation

Jacob Taubes: From Cult to Culture: Fragments Toward a Critique of Historical Reason, The Political Theology of Paul, and Occidental Eschatology

Sheldon Wolin: Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought

Gillian Rose: The Broken Middle: Out of Our Ancient Society and Hegel Contra Sociology

Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics with Ernesto Laclau, The Democratic Paradox, On the Political, and The Return of the Political

David Harvey: A Brief History of Neoliberalism, The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, and A Companion to Marx’s Capital

Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri:
Empire

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books, political theology

A Short Book List on Political Theology

I just gave a paper at Calvin’s Religion and Politics Symposium. There I was asked about books on political theology by a political science phd student. I thought this list might do well on the internet too, so here is a short list that I believe would introduce well, but certainly not exhaust, political theology for someone in political science.

Important Introductions:
Editors William Cavanaugh and Peter Scott’s The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology

Michael Kirwan’s Political Theology: An Introduction

Gary Dorrien’s Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition and Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice

And here are more books for further reading if you’re interested:

Systematicians, Ethicists, and Political Theologians:
John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus

Stanley Hauerwas and Rom Cole’s Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations between a Radical Democrat and a Christian and Stanley Hauerwas’s Naming the Silences

William Cavanaugh’s Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, and Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ

Delores S. Williams’s Sisters in the Wilderness

Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology

Traci C. West’s Disruptive Christian Ethics

Jon Sobrino’s No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays

Graham Ward’s The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens and Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice

James Cone’s God of the Oppressed

Lee Griffith’s The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God

Editors Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Zizek’s Theology and the Political: The New Debate

Oscar Romero’s Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements

Joerg Rieger, Jun Mo Sung, and Nestor Miguez’s Beyond the Spirit of Empire

Charles Curran’s Catholic Social Teaching, 1891-Present: A Historical, Theological, and Ethical Analysis

Biblical Studies:
Richard Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically

J. G. McConville’s God and Earthly Power: An Old Testament Political Theology

Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good

Theology, Philosophy, and the History of Thought:
Editors Cole and Smith’s The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory

Louis Dupré’s Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture

Michael Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity

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political theology

Politics = Eschatology

As far as the biblical imagination is concerned, eschatology and politics are the same thing, whether we are looking at God’s promise of fulfilment [sic] to Israel in the Old Testament, or the advent of the ‘Kingdom’ in the New. For the early Church, notably with Augustine, ‘biblical and classical Christian eschatology can be taken directly as political theory’.

Michael Kirwan, Political Theology: An Introduction, 171.

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books, political theology

A Must-Read Introduction to Political Theology

In the past few years, I have made a point to keep track of introductory books primarily because, from time to time, people ask about books to read. And with future prospects for teaching, I pay even more attention to introductory books — particularly on topics that seem to rather misunderstood, like political theology.

Now, I’ve noticed a few different trends in how to introduce a subject. One way is to do something like a reader. The famous Blackwell Companion to Political Theology edited by Peter Scott and William Cavanaugh follows this route and function at times like a reference volume. There are obvious perks to this method: each chapter is written by a specialist and highly informative concerning its focus — be it person, topic, or movement. However, at times, such an introduction sometimes seems to miss conveying that a conversation is at hand and how different schools of thought interact, build off each other, etc. Also, introductions like Blackwell’s are very long, and for some, can be difficult to read through period, much less feel like one has a grip on the scholarly conversation. Simply put, the point of an introduction is to get the big picture and encyclopedic introductions do not always meet this need.

Now, there is another way: something like an informed conversation-lecture. This kind of introduction is incredibly difficult to do well: one must balance space, intellectual depth, readability — all the while conveying accurately the complex and multiple conversations, concerns, and stories. Until recently, I had felt that the contemporary discussion in political theology lacked such a volume. That is until I ran into Michael Kirwan’s Political Theology: An Introduction released last year.

Kirwan has written an excellent book. I have considered going back through his book to outline it here and list those who are given a voice, so as to show you how much ground he really covers, but this has proved more difficult that it appears. Crucial to writing such an excellent book is interweaving a multiplicity of voices, and this he does so from page one. To do him justice in summary, I simply do not have the time — he has covered much ground — and nor do I think I could faithfully convey the tone of the book. The way he engages material reminded me of the better conversations I have with professors in their offices: I had the feeling that I was in Kirwan’s office listening to him explain the field. His engagement with material was as if he pulling books from his shelves, showed me his worn copy, and talked about what was inside, all the while gesturing to books he already mentioned now piled on his desk, or ones we would get to still on the shelves.

Any teacher looking to touch on political theology should include this book in their class. Anyone looking for a reading list -– who they should read next or at least be aware of — should read this book. And just as important, those looking for why to read someone included in the book should read this book as well. As Kirwan makes connections between thinkers, he invariably provides answers to “Why” questions: primarily “Why should I care about so-and-so when I am concerned with this other conversation?” So not only does this book simply broaden one’s horizons, but challenges the reader to stretch themselves in the future — to read someone who initially seemed beyond their interests. This everyone needs, no matter how old they are.

I do not believe that the Blackwell Companion removes the need for Kirwan’s book, and vice versa. These two books together would set the interested reader on a strong path. But people already know about Blackwell’s Companion. So the conclusion here? Go read Kirwan’s book. You will not be disappointed.

If I were Kirwan’s Jesuit superior, I would lock him in an office all day long and order him to write many more introductions like this. This, among many other reasons, is probably why I am not his Jesuit superior. The University of London is lucky to have him.

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