Political Theology

Force in Religious Thought – Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue, Part 1 (Roger Green)

The following is the first of a three-part series.

The term “political theology” is currently used in a variety of ways in current debate over the place of liberalism amid world crises in politics and globalization. The most common version of the term rests on Carl Schmitt’s argument that all significant political concepts are secularized versions of theological concepts.

Inherent in Schmitt’s view is a critique of liberalism’s narrative of secularization and its lack of a strong sovereign capable of making a decision. In the twenty-first century, when religious “fundamentalisms” are catalyzed by global capitalism and combined with “protective politics” of multiculturalism or identitarianism, the old reigns of European colonialism have been let go, like Phaethon in the chariot of Apollo, scorching the world with no Zeus to hurl a saving thunderbolt.

In other words, the discourse of rights has left its liberal home,[1] and so there is a question of what language(s) are capable of adjudication on a global stage. A question has arisen with a powerful exigence: Is there something like a theological imaginary necessary for civilization itself? Must it indeed be theological as opposed to metaphysical?

Christians may see the current political theological situation as a particularly kairotic moment.[2] For them, this amounts to an updating of Schmitt’s critique of liberalism, the critique that the narrative of secularization has failed. Liberalism in such a context names the failed attempt at secularization built on a discourse of natural rights, which also enabled a secular account of how governments were founded and politics emerged from a “state of nature.”

Such religious thinking fuels Christian ethicists like Stanley Hauerwas, for example, who critiques any alignment of Christianity with the project of liberalism.[3] Such perspectives readily agree with the popular writer, Mark Lilla when he writes:

the liberal deity turned out to be a still-born God, unable to inspire genuine conviction among those seeking ultimate truth. For what did the new Protestantism offer the soul of one seeking union with his creator? It prescribed a catechism for moral commonplaces and historical optimism about bourgeois life, spiced with deep pessimism about the possibility of altering that life.[4]

At the same time, such perspectives would reject Lilla’s conclusion, which as a weirdly Schmittian ring infused with Americanism:

Those of us who have accepted the heritage of the Great Separation [of secularism] must do so soberly. Time and again we must remind ourselves that we are the exceptions. We have little reason to expect other civilizations to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique political-theological crisis within Christendom.[5]

Christian thinkers like Hauerwas try to solve this problem by rejecting the Reformation’s historical break-up of Christendom while reaping the benefits of Enlightenment thinking they supposedly cast off. In Schmitt’s account, the exceptional was derived from the theologically-rooted miracle. In contrast, both Lilla and Hauerwas, in their opposing views of liberalism, maintain their respective positions’ exceptionality – Lilla’s being secular and Hauerwas’s being theological. Talk of the exception has made Schmitt’s account the more discursively common in debates about political theology, but even during his own time, between the First and Second World Wars, there were rival accounts to Schmitt’s.

In fact, Schmitt was just one of many continental thinkers who looked to the early modern era and the foundations of liberal political thought in order to make sense of the liberal democrat crisis in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. Unsurprisingly for example, Leo Strauss, a secular Jew, classics scholar, and fellow critic of liberalism disagreeed with Schmitt’s nostaligically Catholic (and modern) account of the problem.

Carl Schmitt
Carl Schmitt

For Strauss, “political theology” names the problem of philosophy versus religion that can follow themes such as “Athenian rationality versus Jerusalem’s revealed religion” or, similarly, an “intellectual elite versus a majority who need religion in order to establish social control.” Jurgen Habermas’s more recent account of how democratic liberalism has failed to address the affective and cognitive needs that religion addresses attempts to conciliate such binaries.

Habermas calls for rational intellectuals to “translate” [6] these needs into the normative liberal structures so that, to use one of Habermas’s book titles, this “awareness of what is missing” may be addressed. ‘Political theology’ in this perspective names the problem of the “post-secular,” an analytic term that emphasizes the current exigence within existing liberal society to address the situation of crisis.

Religious believers can often in this context see themselves as being “invited back in” to political discussion in the wake of the failure of secularization, which only reinforces a secular Enlightenment frame. Committed secularists, on the other hand, see the inclusive approaches to religion in public discourse as an atavistic transgression of the public sphere – a concept that is itself archaic in the era of globalization, hyper-rhetoric, and “context collapse.”

At stake for deeper thinkers of political theology is not just whether or not religion has a place in politics. For them, ‘political theology’ names the crisis of liberalism in the early 21st century, and it necessitates the parsing out competing versions of liberalism. This essay puts into discussion the work of two competing deep thinkers of liberalism and political theology – Victoria Kahn and Carl Raschke –in an effort to better understand what political theological discussions are about in 2016.

Carl Raschke’s recent book Force of God (2015) accepts the notion Carl Schmitt presented in Political Theology (1922) concerning the theological base of political concepts in order to call for a post-secular notion of the theological as an insurrection / resurrection. In doing so, Raschke builds on the recent work of Alain Badiou critiquing the notion of subjectivity and articulating a “metapolitics” of political actions in theories of revolutions while emphasizing a Jeffersonian connection.

Implicitly, Raschke’s argument defends a sophisticated reading of Jefferson’s democratic politics where the popular sovereignty of the people rule by the force of God. This complicates a reductive reading of Raschke as merely adhering to Badiou’s communism. In a recent blog entry for Political Theology Today, Raschke writes:

It has become a hackneyed adage that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.  But that democracy must be a new kind of deep democracy that is not so much about everybody having their say, but of reaffirming the theological wellsprings of democratic sovereignty itself.[7]

While Raschke accepts certain aspects of Schmitt’s version of political theology, ultimately for him, Schmitt got it wrong.

For Schmitt only the quasi-mystified political executor with his authority to declare the “state of exception” was worthy of that office.  For Jefferson it was exemplified in the virtuous and enlightened self-assurance of the vox populi, which he viewed as equivalent to the vox Dei.[8]

But Raschke’s worry for the current place of democracy initiates a call for a radical resistance that includes public confrontation of unpopular or “politically incorrect” ideas.  In order to directly address where the will to power channels what he calls the “force of God,” we find that an engagement with Nietzsche is necessary.

Victoria Kahn, on the other hand, in The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts (2014), argues for a continued dedication to the secular through the notion of poiesis. Kahn explores a democratic tradition extending back to Machiavelli’s proto-liberalism and Spinoza’s treatment of revealed religion in his Theological-Political Treatise (1670). Kahn defends the tradition of secular thought, arguing that Carl Schmitt himself turned to the idea of poiesis in his exploration of the early modern but that his nostalgia for religious transcendence prevented him from coming to the conclusions to which Jewish thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Leo Strauss, and Spinoza did.

Building on Hans Blumenberg’s Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966), Kahn writes: “we could say that transcendence has been reoccupied by finitude, and that this reoccupation generates an account of value as neither transcendent nor merely relative.”[9] Important for Kahn in this reoccupation of transcendence is not a dismissal of religion, but recognition of human limitation.

Placing values on things might be described as the activity of fiction-making, but we should not construe such values as “mere fictions,” since this would involve passing judgment on them from the position of absolute transcendence, which is not a position we can occupy.[10]

Liberal society, birthed in the early modern period, constructed a kind of poiesis that “knew itself” to be fiction in the same that literature “knows itself” as such. A problem of interpretation arises with populations of people unable to recognize this, by which she turns to Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy and his readings of Lucretius’s in De rerum natura, where religion is employed rhetorically as a founding myth for the Roman political system. Religion here is useful rhetorically in controlling people, but what makes it useful is its true power – or at least the power it affords when its force is channeled successfully.

Both Raschke and Kahn rely on concepts of force in order to understand and deliberate about what is to be done in 21st century crises in liberalism. By liberalism, let me be emphatically clear that I do not mean here what is commonly called ‘neo-liberalism’ – and even less so “democratic party member” (the U.S. left-right spectrum has little meaning here). By ‘liberalism’ I mean an economic and political space based on a tradition of valuing rights held by individual subjects often argued for on the premise of those rights occurring naturally. For me, an important contestation of the notion of ‘nature’ underlies all inquiries into political theology.

To be sure, what is meant by the invocation of nature or physis is ancient, pre-Christian, and need not necessarily be material. ‘Nature,’ or ‘the concept of nature,’ may indeed be the very stage for politics itself. By this I mean nature as such’ – and humans as a thematic entities capable of existing as thought and commingling with nature ‘as such,’ as concept, and perhaps as the boundaries of what phenomenologists called ‘horizon’ or what poststructuralists call “cora / khora.” I believe reading Kahn and Raschke along side one another inspires the necessity for deeper inquiry into the concept of force, as in a ‘force of nature.’ I will attempt to articulate this necessity in what follows by keeping Kahn and Raschke in dialogue with one another as well as introducing some other important figures to the discussion.

Force and Action

Human beings acting politically attempt to be the channels of such force by shaping what Alain Badiou regards as thought in actu (philosophy) and a politics in actu, which is a politics that knows its own limits: “In politics, let us strive to be militants of restricted action. In philosophy, let us strive to be those who externalize the figure of this action through a categorical framework wherein the word ‘justice’ remains essential.”[11] Important for Badiou here is the incompatibility of justice and the State: “The State, in its being, is indifferent to justice. Conversely, every politics which is a thought in actu entails, in proportion to its force and tenacity, serious trouble for the State.”[12] Because of this, “‘justice’ cannot be, for philosophy, a State programme. ‘Justice’ is the qualification of an egalitarian moment of politics in actu.”[13]

Revolution-FistSuch action is not the product of a transcendent decision, and so it must involve a subjectivity more porous and “natural” than a Kantian automaton – one whose capability does not rest on the decision and whose subjectivity is not alienated from a “state of nature” through a subject-object existential grammar. It must be a subjectivity that escapes Giorgio Agamben’s diagnosis that our condition is becoming more like Homo sacer, more ‘bare life’ and less bios or qualified life without pinging between ‘citizen’ and ‘cosmopolitan.’

Such subjectivity must indeed be “free” and in that sense, it remains ‘liberal.’ If this seems too much valence for an already saturated term, I know of no better one at the moment that keeps in tact a maxim of equality and a merging with justice as Badiou defines it. Badiou’s critique of subjectivity leads him to a theological-political analysis of St. Paul in order to side-step the tricky problem of a purely “modern” or Cartesian subject relegated to the cogito. Liberal secularists often have difficulty dealing with the theological implications in Badiou and reduce him to being merely nostalgic for archaic notions of pre-twentieth century communism.

Attempts at renaming the term ‘subjectivity’ would play a different kind of game than I am interested in here. Like Badiou, I am interested in maintaining a notion of the subject, as are Raschke and Kahn.

Politics channels force with a sense of human limitation in mind, with – as Kahn might say – a discourse that knows itself as such; and this is very different than a free-for-all that excludes justice or that even puts justice into a transcendent and “providential” hand. While I will not put these words into Kahn’s and Raschke’s thinking, taken together (and with Badiou) I believe they imply that a truer liberalism needs to be liberated from market capitalism, that very capitalism which seems essential for most versions of “neo-liberalism.”

Again, I could rename the concept, but such a move would obfuscate the historical exigence. The essential element to account for is not linguistic terminology but ‘force,’ which I believe is pre-Christian, and a limit concept with relation to political instantiation. This limit concept needs to also expand beyond a purely visual metaphor – the see-able and understandable in theorein or Platonic khora. One might say ‘force’ sets in motion the happening of the khora. Moving beyond the visual accounts for the historically privileged place sight has had in the west, a sight that is called into question by the self-indictment of Oedipus removing his own eyes, an ultimate penance for transgressing human limitation.

My classical and pre-Christian references here invoke the power of myth. I have said both Raschke and Kahn rely on a notion of force that is ancient, and Kahn has explicitly written on poiesis as being at the heart of the Early Modern liberal project of establishing a literature that knows itself “as such.” This awareness, for Kahn is our debt to the Renaissance emergence of liberalism. To be fair to Kahn, myth and literature may not be the same thing, but in the 21st century, any relation between myth and politics through the notion of poiesis echoes the thought of Martin Heidegger, and this necessitates some explication and accounting of the poetics of myth because myth allows for an account of force.

Martin Heidegger’s critique of liberalism, unlike Schmitt’s, is entrenched in his study of the Greeks and related to the notion of virtue (the same notion that has come back around in the 21st century in the form of Richard Taylor’s Virtue Ethics). In Heidegger’s lectures on Aristotle from the early 1920s, well before the concept of Dasein appears in Being and Time, Heidegger suggests the importance of the being of human beings within the polis.

This standing-out of the human being, this “comporting oneself” in the world, this “comportment,” is τò ηθος. Therefore, politics, as knowing-the-way-around the being of human beings in its genuineness is ethics – η περι ηθη πολιτικη. Ethics as part of politics is a misunderstanding. Aristotle says explicitly: ή μεν οὗν μεθοδος τούτων ἐφἱεται, πολιτική τις οὗσα, “this investigation [in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics] is an investigation that moves in the direction of [cultivating knowing-the-way-around the being of human beings in its genuineness].” Insofar as the consideration is πολιτική, a basic determination found in all considerations of the ἀγαθὁν [good] lies hidden therein.[14]

I bring Heidegger into discussion here as a historical point because he, like the thinkers Victoria Kahn examines in The Future of Illusion, is one of many twentieth-century thinkers who turn to the early modern in order to make sense of their current political space. Importantly, however, Heidegger lands in an altogether different theological-political space than his peers, especially Carl Schmitt.

Here, by way of Aristotle we see an underlying pre-Christian ethics that will later be assumed in the notion of Dasein or ‘being there,’ a notion that importantly informs Giorgio Agamben’s construction of Homo sacer from ancient Roman law, which he employs in order to describe the reduction of qualified human life (bios) to bare life (zoe) in the globalized biopolitical world. Such notions also inform turns toward virtue ethics, but virtue ethicists too often ignore the way continental thinkers in the early twentieth century looked to the pre-modern to address crises in liberalism.

Martin Heidegger, circa 1920
Martin Heidegger, circa 1920

While Heidegger, like Schmitt, later joined the National Socialist party, to miss the ways Heidegger interpreted the early modern by simply foregrounding his later political associations with National Socialism is off base. Such moves are often made in liberal classrooms, and they are ahistorically similar to accepting a figure like Friedrich Nietzsche as merely a “Nazi” or “proto-Nazi” philosopher – a tendency that most often happens along side triumphalist versions of a narrowly self-congratulatory (and often affectively American) conception of liberalism. Such presentations are overly reductive and create misunderstandings, and pointing this out is also not to defend any philosopher’s political decisions.[15]

If twenty-first concerns about the crisis of liberal democracy in the form of political theology often land in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, in thinkers who themselves are drawing on continental traditions from which “liberalism” emerged, we must take seriously those thinkers’ critiques of liberalism rather than rejecting them because of their later political affiliations.

In doing so, the task is to formulate what about their accounts of liberalism was wrong in order to take a critical stance in relation to the concept in 2016 – whether or not we land on the side of liberalism. The long quotation of Heidegger above points to the ethical and the good as only making sense within the space of the polis. As Heidegger says, “we will find the ανθρωπινον αγαθον in a characteristic knowing-the-way-around of living itself. Aristotle designates this τεχνη as πολιτικη, being-there as being-with-one-another.”[16]

In this classically Greek conception of ethics as already included within the notion of politics lies a critique of the narrow forms of citizenship characteristic of liberalism within Enlightenment nation states that favor a gross form of individualism that exceeds what Foucault, following Heidegger re-announced as the classical notion of the “care for the self.” This classical self was not a Kantian subject but a self-with-others channeling force into virtue.

Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado.  His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles.  In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn.  He is also a performing musician and a composer.


[1] While I do not agree with all of their conclusions in their reliance on a certain version of rationality I critique below, Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt’s Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism (Telos Press, 2012) articulates how on the global stage the tension between race and culturalism conflict, especially with respect UNESCO and Claude Levi Strauss’s change in perspective over a period of decades.

[2] Endeavors such as Elizabeth Phillips in her Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, which try to frame the entire discussion of political theology within a narrow Christian frame make the situation even more perplexing.

[3] See Stanley Hauerwas, “Sectarian Temptation,” The Hauerwas Reader, Ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, (Durham: Duke UP, 2001), 102: “Indeed part of my concern has been with liberalism’s presumption, linked to the peculiarity of its origin in America, that people can create their own society and government de novo.”

[4] Mark Lilla, Stillborn God, (New York: Vintage, 2008), 301.

[5] Ibid., 308.

[6] Jurgen Habermas, Dialectics of Secularization, (San Francisco: Ignatious Press, 2007), 52.

[7] Carl Raschke, “The Decline of Democracy and the Coming of the Strongman,” Political Theology Today. 13 Oct. 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Victoria Kahn, The Future of Illusion, Chicago: Chicago UP, 2014, p. 180.

[10] Ibid. p. 181.

[11] Alain Badiou, Metapolitics, New York: Verso, 2005, p. 104.

[12] Ibid., p. 100.

[13] Ibid., p. 99.

[14] Martin Heidegger, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, Trans. Robert D. Metcalf and Mark Tanzer, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009, p. 48.

[15] Robert Bernasconi is a case in point here. In “The Malice of Rage: Heidegger’s Account of the Essence of Evil,” a paper given at CU Denver (May 1, 2015), Bernasconi implicitly welcomed Heidegger’s philosophy to think through current ethical crises yet was forward about a “kernel” of fascism and evil he reads in Nietzsche. I exclude Bernasconi from my account of overly reductive readings here but would also like to hear more from him how Heidegger’s can be excused while Nietzsche’s, for him, apparently cannot.

[16] Ibid., p. 49.

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