Friday 30 November 2007

Hent de Vries and Lawrence Sullivan: Political Theologies

Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan (eds.), Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 796 pp. (review copy courtesy of Fordham)

This vast and energetic collection brings together over 30 essays on the relation between religion and public life in an age of globalisation. The essays are written by some of the world’s foremost political and philosophical theorists – Jürgen Habermas, Jean-Luc Nancy, Ernesto Laclau, Claude Lefort, Judith Butler and Chantal Mouffe, to name a few – and together they constitute a landmark engagement with the problem of “political theology.”

The current interest in political theology is perhaps best understood against the backdrop of Carl Schmitt’s famous remark that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts.” Schmitt’s point was historical and descriptive rather than normative: theology reappears in the sphere of secularised politics (in concepts such as sovereignty, intervention, state of exception, decision), but theology reappears here precisely as that which has become obsolete by passing over into the political.

While some writers in this collection follow such a descriptive understanding of an implicit political theology (a notable example is Bruce Lincoln’s entertaining analysis of “Bush’s God Talk”), others seek to develop a normative understanding of the precise relation between religion and the political. In the fascinating exchange between Habermas and Benedict XVI, for instance (recently re-published as a separate volume), we witness a debate over the question whether the modern democratic state is dependent on “autochthonous conceptual or religious traditions” or “collectively binding ethical traditions.” And, if so, is the state able to “renew the normative preconditions of its existence out of its own resources” (p. 251)?

While, in spite of their differences, both Benedict and Habermas are concerned to articulate the pluralistic unity of reason, Chantal Mouffe inserts the religion–politics relation into her “agonistic” model of radical democracy. Mouffe raises the pointed question whether Habermas’ (and, we might add, Benedict’s) vision of “a final resolution of conflicts” through free dialogue is not in fact a vision of the end of democracy, since the expectation here is for “a reconciled society, where pluralism would have been superseded” (p. 320). Through a creative modification of Schmitt’s friend/enemy conception of politics, Mouffe argues that the task of democratic politics is to establish “the us/them distinction” in such a way that the opponent is seen not as “an enemy to be destroyed” but as “an adversary whose existence is legitimate” (p. 323). In a word, the fundamental political relation is not antagonistic but agonistic – it is not warfare, but struggle.

On this basis, Mouffe argues (contra John Rawls) that “comprehensive doctrines” – with all the particularistic passion and commitment that these entail – should not be excluded from the public sphere. While Rawlsian and Habermasian models of deliberative democracy seek to relegate divisive religious issues to the private sphere so that a rational consensus can be established in the public sphere, Mouffe rightly sees that the fundamental church/state separation (which simply designates the state’s monopoly on coercive violence) is not equivalent to the religion/politics distinction, much less to the private/public distinction. Indeed, Mouffe’s model of agonistic democracy suggests that there is an important place for “religious forms of intervention within the context of agonistic debate” (p. 326).

I’ve focused here on Mouffe’s richly suggestive proposal because I find it more convincing and more interesting than some of the rationalist or rights-based conceptions of democracy which are developed elsewhere in the volume. But that is no criticism of this book: on the contrary, the great strength of this collection is its remarkable range of diverse and divergent proposals – a diversity which nevertheless coheres around an intensive concentration on the question of the contemporary reappearance of religion in the political sphere.

The fundamental question which is pursued throughout the whole collection is – as Hent de Vries notes at the close of his lengthy introduction – the ways in which “the legacies of ‘religion’ disarticulate and reconstellate themselves as the elementary forms of life in the twenty-first century” (p. 88). This is indeed a compelling question. And this splendid volume will be essential reading for anyone who wants to explore the whole terrain of contemporary “political theologies” through which this question is addressed.

Note: If you’re interested in Chantal Mouffe, you might also like to check out Richard’s helpful reviews of some of Mouffe’s major works.

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