Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Political theology on the radio

ABC Radio National has a terrific new programme on political theology, featuring William Cavanaugh, Simon Critchley, Gopal Balakrishnan, and our own Scott Stephens.

The programme focuses especially on the legacy of Carl Schmitt. It’s a very wide-ranging discussion that moves through Thomas Hobbes, liberal democracy, capitalism, multiculturalism, secularisation, and the modern university. It’s great stuff – on the Radio National website, the programme is available both in audio and as a transcript. Here are a couple of highlights:

William Cavanaugh: “All politics are theological I think in the sense that they marshal large transcendent visions of human origins and human destiny.”

Scott Stephens: “One of the effects of our current celebration of tolerance, of the value of multiculturalism, … is the image of all of these different cultures, all of these different religions … living side by side in a benign inclination towards one another…. But what we don’t recognise is that the only way for all of these cultures to exist side by side, the only way for people to be able to opt in and opt out, … is for all of these cultures to be completely flattened out, to be hollowed out of any zestiness, of any distinctive or specific qualities…. These cultures can only exist side by side when they have already been hollowed out and co-opted by liberal capitalism. In other words, these cultures can only exists side by side once they have been transformed into relatively meaningless commodities. So I think what we need to recover today – and what I think political theology gives us – is the opportunity to recover something like authentic, profound, meaningful disagreement.”

31 Comments:

roger flyer said...

"...These cultures can only exist side by side when they have already been hollowed out and co-opted by liberal capitalism. In other words, these cultures can only exists side by side once they have been transformed into relatively meaningless commodities. So I think what we need to recover today – and what I think political theology gives us – is the opportunity to recover something like authentic, profound, meaningful disagreement.”

You mean Coke or Pepsi.

Joanna said...

Yes, very cool to wake up to this on Sunday morning!It's also worth noting that the presenter, Clare Monagle, is a medieval historian - coming to modern political theology from that perspective. She herself is an example of the ways in which theology is re-entering the academic sphere - in historical studies, recognising the significance of theology in the past leads to attention to its ongoing significance.

Alex said...

"authentic, profound, meaningful disagreement"

You mean like liberalism?

Zwingli 2.0 said...

Good point, Alex!

Doesn't Christianity deserve some of the blame -- and not just the usual whipping-boy "liberal capitalism" -- for flattening and hollowing out of any "zestiness" and "distinctive or specific qualities" of religions, cultures, ethnicities, etc.

Isn't that arguably a "goal" of Christianity, according to Paul?

kim fabricius said...

Alex and Zwingli, Scott, I suspect, will argue that, on the contrary, liberalism is so obsessed with political order and stability, so fears the disruptiveness of conflict, that it actually homogenises "meaningful disagreement" (here is where Roger's "Coke or Pepsi" has its purchase)) or banishes it from the public sphere into the private, while it stifles outright dissent. I agree with Scott so far, but think that this positon is not without its own problems.

Terry Eagleton, for example, while lambasting "Societies in which any kind of abrasive criticism constitutes 'abuse'," questions why we should "imagine that there is something inherently positive about having a host of opinions on the same subject." In other words, if there is a danger of manufacturing consent, is there not also a danger in valorising disagreement? "This is not the best training ground," Eagleton acerbically remarks, "for taking on people whose beliefs can cave in skulls."

The reply, in turn, would go something like: "But it's precisely by acknowledging that conflict may go deep down, without going all the way down - i.e. without ruling out, in principle, the possibility of at least provisional resolutions - that outright violence may be avoided." And - just thinking out loud - so on.

Zwingli 2.0 said...

Kim, I thought Alex's point -- which I agree with -- is that Scott wants to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to liberalism.

Scott laments “our current celebration of tolerance, of the value of multiculturalism”, but the liberalism underlying that celebration is what allows for “authentic, profound, meaningful disagreement.”

You can’t embrace a critical attitude (“authentic, profound, meaningful disagreement”) and expect the “zestiness” of anything to remain in tact. The critical attitude *is* liberalism.

If Scott truly wanted to retain “zestiness” he’d need to renounce the critical attitude which alone gives rise to “authentic, profound, meaningful disagreement”.

In this regard, Scott should read Schmitt’s Political Romanticism.

Scott Stephens said...

Thanks for the debate this fairly simple point has generated. My idea was - shamelessly borrowing from the critiques of Zizek, T.S. Eliot and G.K. Chesterton - is that liberalism has occasioned the commodification of cultures as such, that they can exist side by side, but only as sanitized versions of their former selves. I'm even reminded of Hirsi Ali's devastating analysis of bastardized multiculturalism as little more than a decorative ornament on bankrupt Western liberalism. What this all means is that the very capacity for disagreement is negated because the seriousness and sense of pride that might occasion such disagreement already must be renounced into to enter this multicultural space. This, I think, was the genius of Benedict XVI in his Regensburg address: to disagree with Islam theologically, to treat the divide not as cultural but as a disagreement about the character of God as such. Obviously, Benedict had been reading Jean Baudrillard ...

myleswerntz said...

thanks for posting on this.

Zwingli 2.0 said...

Thanks, Scott. You point is much clearer!

“… the very capacity for disagreement is negated because the seriousness and sense of pride that might occasion such disagreement already must be renounced into to enter this multicultural space.”

Carl Schmitt would argue – and I’m not sure what my own opinions are yet – that the spiritual paralysis you mention is simply an extreme development of the same liberalism underlying Benedict's ability to disagree with Islam, as it were, without calling for a Tenth Crusade.

Judging from the seemingly endless apologies from Catholic theologians, Vatican spokesmen, and Benedict himself, the Holy Father’s disagreement with Islam appears largely academic and theoretical. As such it actually draws attention to the Pope’s lack of “seriousness and sense of pride”, at least compared to the “zestiness” of the Islamic reaction.

If the Holy Father truly possessed “seriousness and sense of pride”, he would respond to the Islamic world more like Urban II than Hamlet.

Again, I’m channeling Carl Schmitt here, but I think it’s an interesting challenge to anybody looking for a “third way” between liberalism and its current alternatives.

milton said...

Mr. Stephens and others consistently use the word "only" in such a way as to render their statements (literally) false, which leads me to think that they must be playing a language-game other than that of claiming that such-and-such is the case, and of thereby undertaking responsibility for the correctness of such claims (as claimed). (Otherwise, I would have no choice but to assume either that they don't know what the word means, or else that they are, well, stupid.) One possibility, of course, is that they are just bullshitting--that is, making assertion-like statements while not concerning themselves with whether those statements get their subject-matter right--but I suspect they are better seen as exemplifying the so-called "rhetoric of excess," wherein one intentionally overstates one's claims to such an extent that their assertible content is not (and could not so much as be) true, yet are supposed to achieve some effect that straightforward assertion might not. Naturally, there's nothing wrong in principle with such excess, but I worry that the practitioners of this language-game sometimes fail to realize just which game they are playing and what this implies for how their claims are to be treated. So, for instance, the person who objects to (or otherwise takes seriously the content of) "excessive" claims as claimed has made a kind of category mistake; if one wants to argue with such a claim, one had better first try to divine its assertible content and then argue with that. Then again, I do not mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with setting one's "excessive" claims in the form of would-be truth-claims, for on my understanding, such form is necessary to the claims' achieving their desired effect. The point, then, is not to reject the propriety of hyperbole, nor even to suggest that hyperbolic statements be announced as such, but to offer a reminder to the effect that we had better not confuse the literal content of a hyperbolic statement with its assertible, and so possibly true, content.

(Considerably more blameworthy than the confused practitioner is the one who is well aware that he or she is playing the game of "excess," yet acts as if it's the game of "advancing a defensible, ostensibly true claim"--acts this way, that is, until brought to account for his or her claims, at which point he or she conveniently accuses his or her critics of failing to recognize which game he or she had been playing all along. Then again, maybe that, too, is part of the game of "excess," and I just think it's a lousy game...)

Zwingli 2.0 said...

Milton, are you suggesting that it's intellectually unhelpful -- and self-evidently false -- to assert that liberal capitalism, for example, absolutely collapses all difference into homogeneity?

Doug Harink said...

I'll insert some Milbank into this discussion:

"What, in practice, does tensile coexistence [Panikkar's phrase] mean? What else but infinite resignation to war (as opposed to a temporary embracing of necessary conflict and debate), or in other words to the regulated conflict of market and bureaucratic procedures?... [W]hile religions may be incommensurable, this does not mean that they can be envisaged as lying peacefully side by side, without mutual interference. For although they do not provide varying accounts of any 'thing,' or aspect of Being, they are different accounts of Being itself or of 'what there is.'... With an extreme degree of paradox, one must claim that it is only through insisting on the finality of the Christian reading of 'what there is' that one can both fulfil respect for the other and complete and secure this otherness as pure neighborly difference....As regards the general furtherance of the critical understanding of discourses (the minimum that religions can truly share in common) it will be better to replace 'dialogue' with 'mutual suspicion.' As regards Christian theology and practice, we should simply pursue further the ecclesial project of securing harmony through difference and a continuous historical conversation not bound by the Socratic constraints of dialogue around a neutral common topic. In the course of such a conversation, we should indeed expect to constantly receive Christ again, from the unique spiritual responses of other cultures. But I do not pretend that this proposal means anything other than continuing the work of conversion" ("The End of Dialogue," in D'Costa, ed., Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered, 189-90)

Zwingli 2.0 said...

Doug, what do you take that to mean? Very dense stuff!

This strikes me:

"With an extreme degree of paradox, one must claim that it is only through insisting on the finality of the Christian reading of 'what there is' that one can both fulfill respect for the other and complete and secure this otherness as pure neighborly difference."

Isn't Milbank’s insistence on the finality of Christianity akin to Scott's "multicultural space"? Isn’t Milbank’s “pure neighborly difference” akin to what Scott calls the “commodification of cultures”?

In both cases, the Christian and liberal multiculturalist can’t avoid taking Shintoism, for example, with a grain of salt. At best, something like Shintoism or any other religion or culture can strike the Christian and liberal multiculturalist as “interesting”, nothing more.

The only difference, it seems to me, is that Christians name their god, while liberal multiculturalists worship at an altar to an unknown god.

Doug Harink said...

Zwingli 2.0 wrote:

"Isn't Milbank’s insistence on the finality of Christianity akin to Scott's 'multicultural space'? Isn’t Milbank’s 'pure neighborly difference' akin to what Scott calls the 'commodification of cultures'?

I would disagree on both counts, though I will take Milbank in a somewhat Yoderian direction. First, I would speak of the finality of Christ in the sense that Jesus' life, crucifixion and resurrection are determinative of the Christian account of "what there is" and therefore what Christian political existence looks like. If that is the case then it is non-normative that Christians would be in the position to create a "multicultural space," though they may or may not dwell in one -- if they are "exiles of the diaspora" (1 Pet 1:2), they are not in charge of defining their worldly socio-political space. That will be done by others. They are at the mercy of their host culture(s), and that is the point (as I take it) of Milbank's suggestion to replace dialogue with "mutual suspicion." For, while the Christian community is called to live at peace with everyone, as the form of its participation in the crucified and risen Christ, it cannot expect that others, living by other accounts of "what there is," will be willing peaceably to tolerate Christians. Perhaps they are motivated by such an account to slaughter Christians. "Pure neighborly difference" as I understand it means, for Christian exiles of the diaspora, that even these others who might seek to slaughter Christians are ones for whom Christ was crucified, and as such are reconciled to God. As a Christian I cannot control what they do, although it would be wise for me to take account of and understand, as much as possible, what motivates them to want to slaughter me. While I cannot control them, I am called to love them with the love of Christ. What is given to the Christian community to do, as one form of living the cruciform life, is to call these others to live in the reconciliation of all things which God brings about through Christ -- in other words, as Milbank says, to continue the work of conversion.

Zwingli 2.0 said...

Doug, I don't think we're disagreeing with each other as much as we’re speaking in different dialects. I don't use Yoderian or Milbankian jargon, if only because I haven't read enough of them!

"for Christian exiles of the diaspora ... even these others who might seek to slaughter Christians are ones for whom Christ was crucified, and as such are reconciled to God."

What I'm trying to suggest is that your interpreting of "these others" in such a way that they become for you "ones for whom Christ was crucified, and as such are reconciled to God" is a form of the very “hollowing” and “flattening” that Scott attributed to liberalism in the original excerpt from the radio program. (I don’t think this is such a bad thing!)

To put it another way, if you accept the finality of God’s revelation in Christ, then, at some level, you can’t seriously respect the self-interpretation of others, if that self-interpretation doesn’t hinge on Christ.

With Christ, according to Paul as I read him, the cult(-ic)ural divisions of humanity, which once seemed so natural, are definitively overcome.

In continental jargon, it’s impossible for Christians to respect in any serious way the otherness of the other -- for we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Chris Donato said...

Maybe respect isn't the proper word choice above? Maybe "entertain" would be more appropriate?

Zwingli 2.0 said...

Thanks, Chris, that's helpful.

It's important to point out that I'm not in any way saying that Christians should be jerks to non-Christians.

Doug Harink said...

Zwingli 2.0 wrote:

"To put it another way, if you accept the finality of God’s revelation in Christ, then, at some level, you can’t seriously respect the self-interpretation of others, if that self-interpretation doesn’t hinge on Christ.

"With Christ, according to Paul as I read him, the cult(-ic)ural divisions of humanity, which once seemed so natural, are definitively overcome.

"In continental jargon, it’s impossible for Christians to respect in any serious way the otherness of the other -- for we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)."

Insofar as the other does not know him/herself in Christ, the division remains. While my being in Christ enables me to see the (sometimes enemy) other as also in Christ, it is not given to me to control that other's self-interpretation, and I must perhaps suffer because of it rather than taking control. How is that not "serious respect"?

Further, while being reconciled in Christ eliminates division and enmity and creates unity (which is the point of Gal 3:28), it does not eradicate personal or cultural differences, nor render them mere commodities in a multicultural space (witness Paul's efforts to ensure the ongoing difference of Jew and Gentile -- he nowhere expects Jews to become Gentiles, just as much as vice versa). Being in Christ is, rather, the acknowledgment, at least by myself and other Christians, that we live in the same world -- i.e., by the same account of "what there is."

Doug Harink said...

To make my point just a bit more clear: Being in Christ is not primarily a claim about either myself or the other person (e.g., "now we're the same"); it is a claim about the world we live in: "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation." That new creation is defined by the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, not by me or the other guy, which is what I take Paul to be saying when he writes, "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything -- rather, a new creation."

Zwingli 2.0 said...

'Insofar as the other does not know him/herself in Christ, the division remains. While my being in Christ enables me to see the (sometimes enemy) other as also in Christ, it is not given to me to control that other's self-interpretation, and I must perhaps suffer because of it rather than taking control. How is that not "serious respect"?'

I don’t think it really matters whether somebody is aware that God in Christ has objectively laid the foundation for humanity’s unification. As a Christian, you can’t ultimately entertain somebody’s self-interpretation if it doesn’t hinge on Christ.

For example, if I say I’m Thai, and as a result I adhere to a certain form of Buddhism, you’d reckon (maybe silently) that my self-interpretation is incomplete or provisional.

That doesn’t mean you have any control over my self-identity, but it does mean that you're incapable of taking my being Thai and Buddhist with the same sense of decisiveness that I do.

'Further, while being reconciled in Christ eliminates division and enmity and creates unity (which is the point of Gal 3:28), it does not eradicate personal or cultural differences, nor render them mere commodities in a multicultural space (witness Paul's efforts to ensure the ongoing difference of Jew and Gentile -- he nowhere expects Jews to become Gentiles, just as much as vice versa). Being in Christ is, rather, the acknowledgment, at least by myself and other Christians, that we live in the same world -- i.e., by the same account of "what there is."'

While Paul obviously devotes lots of space to convincing his Gentile readers that they don't need to adopt Jewish customs, he's still adamant that Jews can continue following the Law as long as they're clear that it's unnecessary.

That's a perfect example of the overcoming of “difference” that God's reconciliation initiates.

From our perspective as 21st century Christians, with “international food courts” at every shopping center, it's hard for us to understand the radical novelty of Paul's indifference to culture and ethnicity.

In effect, I think, Paul wants Jews to think of their Law in a way akin to American undergraduates who might own a statue of the Buddha. The undergraduates are incapable of “seeing” the statue the same way a devout peasant in Thailand may see it. That’s what I mean by saying Christianity, by its own logic, leads to a commoditization of cultural realities.

The gospel effectually sucks the transcendence out of culture, ethnicity, language, nationality, etc.

Zwingli 2.0 said...

Doug, regarding the objectivity of reconciliation I think we totally agree.

Doug Harink said...

Zwingli, you wrote:

"Jews can continue following the Law as long as they're clear that it's unnecessary."

Unnecessary for what? Certainly not for being a Jew. And how do the Gentiles rejoice with Jews if there are no longer Jews?

You wrote further:

"From our perspective as 21st century Christians, with “international food courts” at every shopping center, it's hard for us to understand the radical novelty of Paul's indifference to culture and ethnicity."

Paul would not have the troubles he had (see Galatians) if he were indifferent to culture and ethnicity. There is no "same" to which Paul expected Jews and Gentiles to conform. Rather, reconciliation, which always assumes the one and the other (consider reconciliation with God -- Paul was not indifferent to the difference between God and humans).

You wrote further:

"In effect, I think, Paul wants Jews to think of their Law in a way akin to American undergraduates who might own a statue of the Buddha."

Precisely not. Read Rom 9:1-5.

Further:

"The gospel effectually sucks the transcendence out of culture, ethnicity, language, nationality, etc."

It depends on what you mean by "transcendence." If you mean something like final transcendence, yes. But perhaps we can think of a kind of middle transcendence (the intermediate powers which constitute our lives in the world) which is judged, redeemed, and transfigured by the gospel. Then, no, the gospel does not suck that out.

Chris Donato said...

I'm curious, Doug (if you'll forgive my old-fashioned sensibilities here), Paul clearly links being "in Christ" with baptism (not everywhere, but definitively in Rom 6). How, therefore, can "the other" be "in Christ"? Does Barth's 'universalism' underly this statement of yours? I see the need to say something universalistic in this context (the current discussion), but do you have to use the hallowed phrase "in Christ"?

roger flyer said...

Good stuff!

But...I thought conversation about the other was taboo.

Alex said...

"all means is that the very capacity for disagreement is negated because the seriousness and sense of pride that might occasion such disagreement already must be renounced into to enter this multicultural space"

Scott,

Cheers for your response.

I'm by no means a liberal, but I don't think you have evaded my critique as others have pointed out. In our culture we surely have this kind of debate, particularly on the subject of religion. In the US context we have people claiming that an early foetus is 'just a bunch of cells' and others ready to camp outside abortion clinics day and night calling those who participate in murderers. In the UK situation we have people talking about theology and people saying that it is akin to believing in sky fairies and saying that theology departments should not be in University campuses. We exist in a society where one person can say that anyone who does not submit to Allah is destined for immorality and eternal punishment and another can say that Islam is a backward medieval nonsense. Look at the pages of the Guardian's Comment Is Free for examples of all of these, where discussions of these issues go on for sometimes thousands of comments. How could dialogue be any more robust? 'the seriousness and sense of pride' seems very much in evidence here or even if you go down to a pub and start talking to people. Like Macintyre (who all these critiques flow from) with one hand you criticise liberalism as flattening and with the other call for a kind of liberalism of a higher order with on going debate between traditions - a sort of liberalism if it worked, if difference was really real. As someone says above, you want to have your cake and eat it. Eagleton laments the lack of robust debate on stuff, while not seeing he is very much an element of an already existing robust debate where one side claims there is nothing without their claims (ie religion) and the consequences of abandoning them are horrible, and the other claims these claims are ridiculous and the consequences of taking them up are dangerous. In being on this radio show you are performatively contradicting your on thesis!

Another point. I know it is standard in certain circles to claim the Pope's address at Regensburg was some work of ungrounded genius, but people who say this should recognise, first the huge backing down done afterwards (they hosted a conference on Christian-Muslim relations in the Vatican as a kind of 'sorry') and second the fact that the Pope in no way intended his statement to be something deeply clever that was a game changer in the terms of the debate (as some have claimed) or that it would have the impact it did: it was given at a rather minor events, had the Pope wanted to make some structural point like you are claiming he has plenty of better outlets than waiting for some press source to pick up on his words on the outside chance he might cause a splash etc. Those who claim this as such seem to act as if offending another's religious sensibilities was somehow hard - ever tried discussing the Trinity with a Muslim or a Jew? I suspect this is largely a kind of contrarianism.

Alex said...

....to support the Pope here or say he was being clever.

Chris Donato said...

"Underly." It's kind of like "overly," only less so.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that before anyone starts constructing more dark babel towers of political "theology" they really ought to take into account the role of the church in the Western imperial project altogether.

And also ask the very real question as to whether in 2009 Christianity has anything whatsoever with The Divine.

Or in fact if it ever did, especially in the past 500 years since the time of the Renaissance and the consequent rise of the objectification culture (of death). In which we now all totally trapped--and which is now being dramatized via a universal scape-goat politics all over the planet

To me this very stark image sums up what Western culture is really all about. The process pointed to continues as strongly, and possibly unstoppable, as ever.

www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel13.html

Plus this site

www.jesusneverexisted.com/cruelty.html

I would thus suggest that herr Schmitt and all of his dark disciples, was/were/are very much part of dreadful "tradition" pointed to, and described in the above the two references.

Zwingli 2.0 said...

I can't speak for you, anonymous, but I would suggest that in current theologico-political fights, Schmitt would probably have much more admiration for the Islamic response than the Catholic Church's. As Schmitt would say, Islam seems utterly more "decisive".

Zwingli 2.0 said...

Doug,

Before Paul announced the gospel to the Gentiles a hard diversity existed in which each nation was governed by the word of a different god. (A contemporary comp lit professors dream!)

But God’s revelation in Christ was final and definitive (“once for all”) and as such it relativized all previous revelations and pseudo-revelations – including God’s revelation to Moses.

To be sure, the Jewish people continue, but I think it's romantic to think that their collective identity derives primarily from their adherence to the law.

Chris Donato said...

Zwingli 2.0:

I think at the time of Paul's writing Galatians, for example, that's exactly what was assumed—Torah was the warp and woof of Jewish identity, and the apostle makes the argument that, be that as it may, it is not the warp and woof of covenantal identity in Christ. Put differently (and more traditionally Protestant), one is not justified through Torah (and is thus "unnecessary" in that sense, as you write above).

Post a Comment

New book

Archive

Contact

Although I'm not always able to reply to all emails, please feel free to contact me.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.

TOPO