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Enrique Dussel: Lecture on Political Theology and Political Philosophy

Yesterday evening I had a chance to attend a lecture given by Enrique Dussel at U. of Chicago’s Divinity School.  What I’ve posted here is a summary, based on my notes, and a few brief reflections. 


Dussel was born in Argentina; he studied and earned numerous advanced degrees in Spain, France, and Germany; and he currently lives and works in Mexico.  Over the last several decades, Dussel has exposed the limitations of Eurocentric treatments of history, political theory, economic theory, theology, and philosophy by putting these academic discourses into critical dialogue with the cultural imaginaries and concrete struggles of Latin American peoples.  In his talk, Dussel followed the same general approach. 

His particular question was this: how to characterize the relationship between political theology and political philosophy, particularly in the Latin American context?  The talk had three parts: (1) Marx’s refusal of political philosophy; (2) political theology in the history of recent Latin American revolutions; and (3) a critical dialogue, from the perspective of Latin America, with recent European intellectuals who have given leftist political interpretations to aspects of Christian scripture, especially Paul.    

In the first part, Dussel argued that, although Marx constructed a comprehensive system of categories to critique the economic system of capitalism, he did not develop any positive political philosophy.  Instead, Marx bequeathed to subsequent generations a generally negative account of politics, one constituted primarily by the critique of institutions.  Thus Marx provided few conceptual resources for establishing suitable structures of government which would serve the poor after the anticipated revolution.  One of the reasons Marx may have failed to produce a positive political philosophy is that he refused, at least explicitly, any engagement with political theology.  Taking Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology and Hobbes’ Leviathan as examples, Dussel contended that  many of the central categories of positive polical philosophy, even in the modern age, are derived from political theology.  In short, Marx’s refusal of theology was, in the end, a disavowal of positive politics.

Dussel turned, in the second part, to a quick interpretation of recent revolutions in Latin American history: (1) Cuba in 1959, which retained Soviet, atheistic, atheological orthodoxy; (2) Chile in 1970, in which Christian groups informed by liberation theology were active in the political movement; (3) Nicaragua in 1979, which exhibited a higher degree of involvement of Christians in political leadership roles and a greater indebtedness to liberation theology; and then (4) Chiapas in 1994, (5) Venezuela in 1999, and (6) Bolivia in 2005, which, each in their own way, continued the trend of incorporating aspects of Christian political theology (the Latin American theology of liberation) into the concrete political struggles of the poor.  After these revolutions, the challenge has been to move beyond movements of critique and protest in order to build up positive political institutions.  Dussel’s argument was that the philosophies which one can elaborate on the basis of these developments cannot be formulated apart from the Christian theological sources which have deeply shaped them.

Drawing on this lightning-fast historical sketch, Dussel began in the third part of his talk to engage the recent works of leftist European intellectuals such as Badiou, Zizek, Taubes, and Agamben, who have retrieved insights for contemporary political philosophy from biblical sources, and especially from Paul.  Dussel seemed to endorse this general strategy, although he argued that it needed to be pursued with a greater awareness of the particularity of Latin American political contexts.  Dussel insisted upon a political philosophy that would be deeply shaped by the cultural imaginaries of communities on the ground who are actively seeking viable forms of political organization.  And yet, like his European interlocutors, Dussel maintained that Paul is useful precisely as a source of political concepts, which would be relevant not only for the institution of the church but also for the properly political institution of the state.  Both the church and the state are called to mediate the kingdom of God in history, albeit in different and limited ways which will never be perfect.  Nevertheless, the church and the state both suffer from corruption by the sin of the world, so there is a constant need for vigilance and critique from the perspective of those victimized by sin–above all, the poor and marginalized in society.  

Romans was a key text in Dussel’s argument.  In this letter, Paul constructs a polemic against the law (which includes the law of the Roman empire, the Torah, and the new Christian community) but nevertheless announces a new law constituted by faith.  Paul’s polemic against the law corresponds to the critical impulse that has dominated Marxist political thought.  The challenge that Dussel and others face is translating the theological concept of faith, which constitutes the new law for Paul, into a language suitable for positive political philosophy after protest and revolution.  Dussel interpreted faith as a message, embodied by a community, intended for the poor, and directed against the law that kills (i.e., against political oppression).  In other words, faith is the belief that the weak, acting together, can transform history.

On a final note, Dussel broadened his purview to include feminists, people of color, those enduring the effects of colonization, and workers from around the world, who cannot respect the law of the system (the old law) but must believe inand work together to bring about, as much as possible, the transformation demanded by the new law.

Two questions were raised after the lecture.  The first pressed Dussel on human frailty: How can one account for Paul’s understanding that the good that we want to do we cannot do?  How can one account for the fact that the Canaanites were not liberated?  Should not Dussel’s political theology and political philosophy be chastened by a greater awareness that no political regime can avoid succumbing to sin or to its effects?  The second question asked Dussel to consider whether his call for a positive politics brought him nearer to the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, insofar as Dussel gives the state a crucial role to play in mediating the kingdom in history.  Dussel’s response to both concerns was complex, but the general point seemed to be that there is a constant need to critique the state from the perspective of the poor–that is, the people whom it is meant to serve.  An insufficient awareness of sin and an overzealous theological legitimation of the state (the problems corresponding to each question) occur when states become self-enclosed and are not kept in check by the needs and demands of suffering humanity. 


The most striking thing about Dussel’s lecture seems to be his translation of Pauline faith into a kind of collective political will of the poor and victimized.  I find this move both promising and troubling. 

On the one hand, this move is promising insofar as there is perhaps some reason to believe that the state, even the modern state which is separated from the church, can participate in mediating the kingdom.  Dussel is seeking a positive political philosophy, something required by modern states that do not want to subordinate themselves explicitly to the church and its theological commitments.  Nevertheless, he believes that Christian scriptures have something crucial to contribute to this philosophy.  In other words, although Dussel is concerned with developing a philosophy, he does not arbitrarily exclude biblical sources from this endeavor, as would a rigid secularist.  Instead of excluding these sources, he translates them into a particular modern, Latin American political context.  This sort of translation (in which analogues of scriptural teaching enter the government’s self-understanding) is perhaps the most that one can hope for from a philosophy of the state that is not subsumed by the church and its theology.

On the other hand, Dussel’s translation is also a distortion–by which I  mean that it is obviously not a straightfoward reading of Paul, nor is it a reading conformed to the doctrinal developments regarding the new law of faith and grace elaborated by various Christian traditions after Paul.  This is not an oversight on Dussel’s part: in this lecture, he was not offering a political theology but a political philosophy constructed in relation to political theology (or at least to its sources).  But even though Dussel’s move makes sense at a certain level, it still proves troubling because it changes Paul’s meaning, and changes it in certain vital respects, by putting the emphasis on our collective political action in history as opposed to God’s action for us in Christ which will be manifest definitively at the end of time, even if it is already present in history.  Paul’s new law is theocentric and eschatological; Dussel’s philosophical translation is anthropocentric and temporal (as in Kant, the eschaton becomes a postulate). 

In a world of diversity, in which political organizations and governments are not only for Christians (even in Latin America) but for all people, of whatever creed, the risks of this sort of translation seem necessary, in order that Christian scriptures can contribute to a broader public discourse.  And yet, the awareness that something major is being distorted is also necessary, at least for the church, and this is something which Dussel’s account could have brought out more clearly.

  1. Todd Walatka
    January 12, 2011 at 7:16 am


    Sounds like a great talk. I honestly have not read that much of Dussel except for a bit of his History of the Church in Latin America. I guess I have the same worry as you with Paul. It seems to be very similar to what J.L. Segundo does in his third volume of Jesus of Nazareth Yesterday and Today (which is on Romans 1-8).

    Building on your last point, did Dussel indicate why he thought it would be helpful/necessary to appeal to Paul? Segundo at one point simply states that Jesus Christ is the most influential person/symbol in his context and thus a key practical way forward towards liberation is to present a Jesus which liberates. Now from my perspective their seems to be much more to the liberationist christology than to the political Paul you describe. The former is clearly more than an ad hoc political argument; is the latter?

  2. Andrew
    January 12, 2011 at 1:38 pm


    I think your comparison with Segundo makes a lot of sense. I’m wondering, though, if the difference might be this: Dussel seemed to leave room for a distinction between political philosophy and political theology, or between the liberating work of the state and the liberating work of the church–and his political translation of Paul was meant specifically for a philosophy of the state. So, at least in this lecture, Dussel didn’t really develop an ecclesially-focused political theology, which might have involved a fuller liberation Christology, which, moreover, might have required less distortion of scriptural sources. I haven’t read much Segundo, but from what you’ve told me about his works in our conversations, he seems more likely to blur the distinction that Dussel at least implicitly keeps in place. In other words, Segundo’s liberation Christologgy might be more robust in certain respects than Dussel’s political philosophy of Paul and yet still suffer from an analogous problem. In Segundo’s case, this problem may be endemic to his Christology as a whole, whereas in Dussel’s case, it may be limited to his explciitly philosophical use of scripture (though I’m not sure). Does that make sense based on your reading of Segundo?

    • Todd Walatka
      January 12, 2011 at 4:40 pm

      I may go and read more of Dussel in order to flesh out some of these differences. At least in his 5-volume Christology (or “anti-Christology” as he puts it) Segundo starts with a politically oriented philosophical anthropology as a foundation for the other volumes. This is probably what gives rise to the similarities we are seeing.

      Given what you describe about Dussel (he has written a ton so we might be a bit unfair here; I don’t know), I think you intuition at the end is right: Segundo’s engagement with Christian sources is more robust in part because the Gospels are simply more amenable but in the end (and this is clear in my mind when you turn to Segundo’s treatment of Romans 1-8) they suffer from the same basic problem.

  3. Todd Walatka
    January 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    It would also be interesting to compare the Marxist theorists that Segundo draws upon (from the 1970’s and 1980’s) and the more recent wave that Dussel engages.

  4. Katie
    January 13, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    thanks for this very informative summary, Andrew!

  5. Carlos Guzman
    March 17, 2011 at 9:36 pm


    I just happen to find your comments and observations about Dussel’s lecture on Political Philosophy and Political Theology. It certainly appears to be an interesting talk delivered by Dussel. Allow me to include an observation of Dussel’s ‘transgression’ of the apostolic memory and original intentions. I am sure there are other people who share Andrew’s concerns, as the lecture was delivered not to a political forum, but to an audience that may represent theological traditions whose propositional legacies and doctrinal exactitudes inform and sometimes impose a normative framework to qualify or disapprove new theoretical proposals. I believe though, that sometimes the vigilance of theological borders may deviate our attention from the authors’ implicit concerns and commitment with the disadvantages and brutally disposed.

    Perhaps the challenges we have before us is not to find a clarifying, well-substantiated, biblical-based analysis or statements from Dussel or Segundo that passes our screening test of approval, but rather, to allow ourselves to become vulnerably immersed and remain attentive to the cry of the poor and appreciate the incredible shit they’ve been subjected to. It was actually Segundo who stressed the importance of reading biblical texts as a means of ‘learning how to learn’

    • Todd Walatka
      March 18, 2011 at 9:13 am


      Thank you for reading our blog, but to be honest, I find this sort of comment to be rather off-base and frustrating. You seem to first assume that our first priority here is enforcing a normative framework in order to reject new theoretical proposals. Andrew certainly expressed a worry about the reading of Paul by Dussel in terms of the traditional reception of Paul but the way you frame the issue is neither consistent with the actual post as a whole nor this blog in general. I can’t speak to all of his concerns – maybe he will formulate a response on this issue – but let me simply describe the concerns I mentioned in reference to Segundo. Segundo begins his 5-volume Christology with a philosophical anthropology which claims to describe what is true for all people at all times. It is furthermore meant to be persuasive on philosophical grounds. This philosophy then works as the foundation for the volumes to follow. As I mentioned, it works better with the Synoptics than it does with Paul. His reading of Paul seems incredibly forced and far from the “plain sense” of the text. What I see in Andrew’s concern about maintaining some form of continuity with the Christian theological tradition is precisely the need to “learn how to learn,” to not simply reject standard, straightforward readings because they do not fit one’s socio-political aims. I do not find similar problems in many other liberation theologians.

      [I removed the paragraph I had here earlier. It was too defensive and Andrew addressed the issues in a more constructive way]

      I have a few questions for you in response to your concerns in the final paragraph:
      1) On what grounds can one raise a concern/critique vis-a-vis a liberation theologian? Must it be from within the methods and discourses of liberation theology?
      2) Someone like Segundo begins with a philosophical anthropology. If I judge this anthropology to be unpersuasive philosophically and insufficient theologically, am I being inattentive to the cry of the poor?
      3) Segundo offers strong critiques of both Gutierrez and Sobrino. I assume you would allow this because he “appreciates the incredible shit the’ve been subjected to.” Can I take sides on their debates? Will you allow me to find the critiques of early Latin American liberation theology by someone like Marcella Althaus-Reid persuasive? If so, do I have to always make sure any critique I make is shielded by someone with enough credibility?

  6. Andrew
    March 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm


    Thank you for your feedback. I would just like to say two things. First, rereading my post, it perhaps does not make clear my own commitment to the poor and my appreciation of the extraordinary suffering which they are forced to endured every day. This is something that I will keep in mind in the future: just because I presuppose it does not mean that my readers will. I am actually quite sympathetic to the work of Dussel as a whole, largely because I share his concern for the poor and all those forgotten by Eurocentric accounts of modernity.

    Second, I would like to say that my critiques of Dussel have to do with maintaining a sense of the holistic liberation which is promised in scripture, and which Gutierrez, among others, talks about–i.e., a liberation not only from suffering, but also from sin and death; a communion with God, which incorporates our bodily and spiritual wellbeing. The danger in Dussel’s translation of Pauline faith in the context of a political philosophy is that it does not draw attention to those aspects of salvation which depend strictly on the action of God for us. The point of affirming the original biblical and the traditional Christian understanding of faith is not to impose a rigid framework, for its own sake, but rather to preserve the grounds for hope, even should our political strivings fail. It seems that we–all of us, and perhaps especially the poor–need a basis for hope which is not totally contingent upon our own collective power (which will always be limited in its success), such that, should our political efforts fail, we will be able to continue to return to God in prayer, and continue to struggle to hasten the coming of God’s kingdom (not merely our own political structures).

    Having said these things, I just want to reiterate that I think Dussel’s political philosophical translation of Pauline faith has a place; it just needs to be understood for what it is–and that was the last point in my post.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting.

    • Todd Walatka
      March 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      A much more charitable response than mine this morning! I should probably have my cup of coffee before responding to comments.

  7. Carlos Guzman
    March 18, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Reading Todd’s reply, I can appreciate his frustration with my somehow ‘displaced’ comments, a sudden remark on concerns which are clearly pre-thematic, places your reflection in a very unfair and uncomfortable site, as Todd correctly pointed out, it was not the issue being questioned nor reflect any oversight on your side. So, please Andrew, buy Todd a coffee on my behalf (as I am far away –Sydney) and excuse my impertinence. I suppose those assertions reveals my own intellectual intranquilities, which I hope, will find your kind and friendly interlocution. Your comments and inquire clearly show your humble openness to new theoretical paradigms…my comment about the presence of a normative framework were here more generic in nature as the lecture was delivered to an audience which I believe represents a theological locus.
    Andrew, your clear and humble response ‘casts out demonds’, many thanks.
    In regards to Todd’s final questions -intended as answers to my concerns: I fully agree that a critical instance in both, discourse and method is a must. Given the weight ideological factors as well as the traditional density of the organized religion have on the way of doing theology, particularly in Latin America, Segundo made a significant contribution to the latter, applying a hermeneutic support. By no means your assessment on Segundo’s proposed anthropology as inadequate whether philosophically or theological would imply inattentiveness towards the disadvantages. You know now I didn’t mean that. You can certainly take sides, but if you kindly keep in mind my observation, you can read his anthropological proposal, for example, as a way of incorporating a more neutral view of the role of ideology -believe me in Latin American this term has a very heavy and negative political sense at that time, and it was used to discredit those who wanting to transgress the “third way” borders and take a political stance-. Segundo dealt with the debate of ideology in its ‘operative’ tones, to allow people to act, resist, undo and disorder systems and orders that keep them in an inhuman deprivation

  8. Carlos Guzman
    March 19, 2011 at 2:19 am

    Since the emergence of TL, there have been changes in the social and economic conditions in Latin America countries; the understanding of the diverse forces and factors in place has also changed and evolved. Adjustments in previous theoretical paradigms have been necessary. In most cases further economic deteriorations have been experienced while in other cases upwards signals of statistics subterfuge still disguised distribution asymmetries. I believe Dussel has been tirelessly exploring ways of building a rationality that would articulate a pertinent political critique to existing ruling and economic systems as well as help the Christian community –among other interpretative communities, to retrieve the critical and positive role that theology can have in our social and political conversation. No explanatory synthesis will do justice to the plurality of discourses that inform his rich theoretical proposals, but they will definitely help us to create new meaning horizons and imagine life in new configurations

  9. Leroy Latty
    April 4, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    “Paul’s new law is theocentric and eschatological; Dussel’s philosophical translation is anthropocentric and temporal”- Dussel writes in the History of the Church in Latin America, ” He who sees Jesus in the poor and serves him is the only one who can be saved.” (p. 305) To me this statement goes with your former phrase. Not that I want to defend Dussel, but I find it interesting that these individuals are not just talking out of their head but they embody the gospel and it is evident in their thoughts and praxis.

  1. January 24, 2011 at 9:17 am

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