Posts Tagged ‘political theology’

Ecclesial sources of secularization: reflections on the cathedral in San Salvador

July 17, 2011 1 comment

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age offers a remarkable account of the development of modern secularity.  He understands this condition as involving, not merely the decline of religious belief, but also and more definitively a situation of mutual fragility occurring between various opposing perspectives on the world, society, the self, etc.  The rise of exclusive humanism as a positive and widely available option is the major source of this mutual fragility.  It keeps a theonomous view of things from being mostly taken for granted, as it once was in pre-modern Christendom.

I’ve  been reflecting on Taylor’s analysis recently in light of a visit which I made to El Salvador earlier this summer.  This context has led me to hypothesize that disunity in the church’s attitude toward political matters is, in various ways, a powerful force of secularization.  What I want to highlight, then, is a kind of fragility within the church itself–a fragility which may be, in some respects, generative of the growth of exclusive humanism and, therefore, of the mutual fragility which Taylor sees as constitutive of secularity.

The Catholic Church in El Salvador, as elsewhere, remains tragically divided.  The divisions are displayed starkly in the cathedral in San Salvador.  In the crypt below, a Mass takes place in memory of Monsignor Oscar Romero; images of the murdered and the disappeared are brought up during the offeratory; pamphlets and flyers are distributed by lay members of the community detailing pressing issues requiring immediate political action–issues in which what is at stake is precisely the protection of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

Up above, in the main sanctuary, another Mass takes place.  There will likely be no mention of Romero, no mention of political exigencies; these topics would be taboo.  The liturgical form is impeccable.  The message is usually traditional, somewhat predictable, therefore ostensibly safe, but not for these reasons untrue or unimportant.  Of course, as has often been noted, the sort of “apolitical” stance exhibited in the top part of the cathedral is, intentionally or unintentionally, always already implicated in politics.  In El Salvador, in the U.S. as well, perhaps in principle, silence implies a certain measure of consent.  Consent to what?  In El Salvador, to a society where many go without clean water, sufficient food, plumbing and sanitation, trustworthy police, basic healthcare, basic education, the prospect for a better life.  I do not mean to say that the people in attendance necessarily consent, but that the liturgy appears to, insofar as it consistently keeps silent on such matters, when they are all around and affecting everyone.

Hence, the topology of the cathedral manifests a split-level practice in the church itself.  There is a more explicitly political and a more covertly political form of worship and Christian identity formation dividing the space and the people of God into the regions of top and bottom.  The one body of Christ, received in both settings, has in each one a significantly different feel.

What does this situation have to do with the question of secularity?  On the one hand, secularization can be associated with politicization–and not without reason.  The line between a genuinely theological political theology and a post-theological political philosophy has tended to become blurred within modernity, with the result that the work of salvation has been transferred more and more to human hands.  The desire for a more “apolitical” liturgy can, accordingly, be understood at least in part as a desire to subordinate the modern political/secular sphere of worldly striving to a higher calling.  On the other hand, however, the “apolitical” approach also has the potential to promote secularization, and in several respects: (1) insofar as it is inevitably political in any case, (2) insofar as its pretense to transcend politics makes it appear, to many whose lives are in the balance, hypocritical and irrelevant, and (3) insofar as it factors into the paralyzing disunity in the church which compromises the meaningfulness and fruitfulness of its sacramental practice.  In all of these ways, the church risks its identity and its credibility.

Just as, in Europe, the fragmentation and discord in the church of the 16th and 17th centuries laid the groundwork for the rise of exclusive humanism as an increasingly prevalent option in the 18th and 19th centuries; so too, I fear that these sorts of grave tensions in the El Salvadoran church and the church throughout the world, if left unchallenged, will only hasten the globalization of secularity.  This ecclesial fragility is not the only factor, but it is an important one among others.

To address it, it seems that we need to recognize, minimally, (1) that the gospel, though more than political, has political implications; (2) that politics, though necessary, is not the only necessary thing; and (3) that any divisive rhetoric we use has a price, possibly a very high price, and should therefore be used only with great caution.  I would also suggest that we need to look once again to the example of Oscar Romero, who responded in faith to the needs of his society and saw no conflict between the two (orthodoxy and action).  His response to suffering, which led him in a more political, but not reductively political, direction must be seen as an increase in Christian theological rigor.

The most reliable way to resist secularization worldwide is to unite the church in a simultaneously divine and human love for the poorest of the poor.

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. 


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.

J. Kameron Carter at Notre Dame—on Barth and DuBois

October 7, 2010 5 comments

I just came out of a really excellent lecture given by J. Kameron Carter here on campus, whose visit was orchestrated by Andrew along with one other colleague, Steven Battin. The title of the paper he presented was “An Unlikely Convergence: W.E.B. DuBois, Karl Barth, and the Problem of the Imperial God-Man.” Even with quite a few sections edited out for time, the lecture ran a full 90 minutes and spanned a massive range of material, so there’s no way to say everything again. Still, I thought a few of you would find a brief summary interesting.

The point of the paper, as the title indicates, is to identify a substantial if oblique alliance between W.E.B. DuBois and Karl Barth with respect to a certain diagnosis of the post-WWI political situation. Both of those thinkers were concerned to perform a theological diagnosis of the modern west—that is to say, a diagnosis of the problem of the modern west as a theological problem. More specifically, Carter wanted to say that they both diagnosed the problem of the modern west to be located at the level of a kind of “theopolitical anthropology,”* with the west bearing at its heart an image of an imperial man (for DuBois, an imperial white man) that gets identified with the God-man.

The opening section of the paper lays out a kind of theoretical framework, dependent especially (as he was in Race) on Etienne Balibar, that could explain the idea and function of a theopolitical anthropology in the formation of the nation-state. This was a thick and fascinating section—too thick, really, for me to have captured all the nuance that makes it work for him, especially not knowing Balibar. The basic idea was that at the heart of the national personality, the national Geist, that produces a people and binds it together as a singular nation, is an idea of the ideal citizen, a concrete universal citizen, a persona ficta that must be imitated and even integrated into oneself in order to count as a real member of the polity. The bulk of the process of nation formation, according to Carter, happens at the level of the political unconscious, in the realm of what he was calling imagination or fantasy. So nation-formation is not something that only happens through institutions and laws; it happens within the individual subject. So too this persona ficta has to be taken within oneself, not only imitated (though certainly that) but also embodied in the process of nationalization. Balibar apparently identifies this whole process as analogous to the process of conversion to Christianity and integration into the church, and Carter plays on that analogy quite a bit: the persona ficta becomes the imago Dei of the nation, who is to be imitated as Christ and even “eaten” as in the Eucharist. In fact, he says, religious and national formation aren’t merely analogous; they are “a singular Janus-faced social process.” Thus the possibility of a theopolitical anthropology that mediates national unity.

The second section, which Carter worked through very quickly, tries to show these processes at work in post-WWI Germany, above all, to give context for Barth and a picture of the 20th-c. west. He summarized the changing contours of the German nation in that period, whose persona ficta is a virile, racially white, bourgeois missionary-warrior—in short, a Germanized Christopher Columbus (who becomes the subject of a great deal of cultural activity in 19th-c. Germany, apparently) or, more proximately, von Humboldt. (There were some really interesting hints here about the way gender played into Germany’s self-understanding, with the loss of its colonies experienced as “feminizing,” but Carter didn’t have a chance to spend much time on that.)

That stage set, he tries to show it as a necessary backdrop to Barth’s early work, focusing on the Römerbrief. He argues that Barth’s concern from the beginning was with the way that German piety had taken its nation-form within itself and vice versa, so that his main task was to demystify the “de-formed Christian world” shrouded in German self-perception. This is the lens through which one has to read Barth’s critique of the “anthropologization” of theology—which, he thinks, is secretly enthroning western, imperial man in place of the God-man—and of abrogating the infinite qualitative difference between time and eternity—which he thinks is a way of making Europe the byway and the end goal of history, making Europe its own salvation and its own eschaton. In Carter’s terms, Barth is diagnosing the ways that the process of nation-formation has been co-implicated in religious formation, with the consequence of perverting Christianity and absolutizing the German imperial form.

DuBois accomplishes much the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic, except that he’s able to see farther than Barth to the global and racial dimensions of the modern, western, imperial man. DuBois too thought that a failure of Christianity lay at the heart of the western project: Carter quoted him talking about “the religion of whiteness on the shores of our time,” and saying that “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, amen.” The analysis focused mostly on DuBois’s book Darkwater, the structural center of which is a short story entitled “Jesus Christ in Texas.” Carter’s argument was that DuBois’s Christ, like Barth’s, constituted an interruption that directly challenged the nation’s persona ficta. So in DuBois’s case, that meant (among other things) that Christ is depicted as racially ambiguous (though dressed in Jewish cloth) and non-conquering.

This spun out, at the very end, into the beginnings of a constructive Christology that built on this idea of interrupting the nation’s mediating personality, but too much time had left us at this point and we got only the most general of gestures. It was interesting to hear, in the (very brief) Q&A that followed, just how Barthian he takes himself to be. On the constructive side, he seemed ready to follow Barth a great deal of the way—wanting to add, of course, quite a bit onto the end about the things DuBois saw that Barth never did.

So there’s a summary—long, I know, but so was the talk. Carter certainly proved himself as one to keep an eye on.

* I can’t remember if Carter actually used that phrase, theopolitical anthropology, but it’s the kind of thing he would say, I think. It’s possible that he just talked about a theological anthropology that grounds the political order.

New JAAR on theology, secularity, and politics

July 22, 2010 3 comments

It’s relatively rare that a whole issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion is directly relevant to theologians, so for those of you who don’t receive it, I thought it worth mentioning that the most recent one (78.2, June 2010) is. The whole issue is devoted to theology, secularity, and political participation.

Table of contents:

  • “Post-secular Society: Christianity and the Dialectics of the Secular”—by Ingolf U. Dalferth
  • “After the Secular: Toward a Pragmatic Public Theology”—by Michael S. Hogue
  • “Turning to Narrative: Toward a Feminist Theological Interpretation of Political Participation and Personhood”—by Rosemary P. Carbine
  • “Pragmatism and Democracy: Assessing Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition“—panel discussion with Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Stanley Hauerwas and Jeffrey Stout, edited by Jason Springs
  • “Radical Islam and Human Rights Values: A ‘Religious-Minded’ Critique of Secular Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood”—by Jenna Reinbold
  • “The Return of Comparative Theology”—by Reid B. Locklin and Hugh Nicholson

There’s one other essay, “The Romans and Ritual Murder” by Celia E. Schultz, which the editor says was meant to belong to the last issue.

Yoder’s pragmatic politics

June 13, 2010 8 comments

I just reread one of my favorite Yoder essays, “Peace Without Eschatology?”, which is one of his earliest.* He wrote it in 1954, twenty seven years old, still in the beginning stages of his Th.D. at Basel and working for Mennonite Central Committee as director of a couple homes for children and as a peace advocate. It’s amazing to see how much of his later thinking is already present, or at least provoked, by such an early piece.

What really struck me this time was the way he talks about the state as needing to subject itself to a “higher moral instance,” the need to recognize certain limits on its authority deriving from the fact that it is subject to the reign of Christ. That weirdly resembles the view of someone like O’Donovan, who thinks that the “conversion” of the state to Christ partly includes its deliberate self-limiting.

But Yoder doesn’t think that this deliberate self-limiting is part of “the ideal state” for the simple reason that he doesn’t believe that there’s any such thing as the ideal state. He rejects O’Donovan’s search for “true political concepts” for the simple reason that he doesn’t believe that there are such things as true political concepts. Politics is about maintaining a “tolerable balance of egoisms,” which is a completely contingent, permanently fallible, context-dependent enterprise.

When Yoder says that the state has certain limits, he’s saying that from a Christian point of view, the state cannot be invested with ultimate significance. From the perspective of things that do have ultimate significance—i.e., from an eschatological perspective—Christians should believe that the state has the very limited function of making sure sinfulness doesn’t get out of hand within its own domain. And Christians should be willing to tell the state when it’s doing something more or less than that in specific cases, “denouncing particular evils and inventing particular remedies.” Since sinfulness does tend to get out of hand when a state overestimates its importance, it’s perfectly legitimate for a Christian to tell the state it should limit itself. So even the claim that the state has limits is not derived from any idea of what the state really ought to be according to theology, but from a pragmatic concern to keep the world from devolving into chaos and violence.

I’m more and more taken by this approach, which simply abandons the Platonic search for an ideal politics (which I think is present in most communitarians) and proceeds instead by analyzing specific political realities and making suggestions as they appear.

* For the curious, it was published for the first time in 1961 in pamphlet form, and then again in 1994 in The Royal Priesthood. That’s the best place to find it now.