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Enrique Dussel: Lecture on Political Theology and Political Philosophy

January 11, 2011 13 comments

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. 

SUMMARY 

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. 

REFLECTIONS      

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.