Theology and Politics: Two Sides to the Same Coin

My primary aim in teaching religion is to show the connections between religion and culture that usually go unnoticed, especially in a country founded on the ostensible separation of church and state. In the West, the bulk of this religious influence has been from Christianity. Thus, I’m interested to show Christians how much their practice is influenced by culture (usually in ways contrary to their belief), but also to show people of other traditions or no tradition how much their culture is influenced by Christianity. There are not many authors who discuss this connection on a broad scale, but Giorgio Agamben is one of them.

I mentioned Agamben a few weeks back, having just read his short speech, The Church and the Kingdom. That by far was the most accessible of his works I’ve read. The latest work I tackled, The Kingdom and the Glory: Toward a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, is much less accessible, which is unfortunate because it aims to show just how influential Christian theology has been on Western politics. In fact, Agamben’s argument is that the core of the operation of Western government is based upon a theological relationship that was first established in early Christianity.

This kind of research is not commonly performed because it crosses the traditional fields of politics and religion, making specialists uncomfortable. It is important, however, because it shows that religion and politics, as Agamben argues, are two faces of the same power both vying to be the representative of universality, the representative of God.

His genealogy—what scholars call the tracing the conceptual history of a concept or idea—is animated by the juxtaposition of different pairs of terms: theology/economy, being/praxis (practice), providence/fate, transcendence/immanence, etc. As they relate to this topic, these pairings stem from a Christian attempt to articulate the relationship and distinction between god and Jesus over and against both Greco-Roman and Gnostic understandings of the divine. Early Christian apologists fought to preserve simultaneously the relationship and the distinction between the two aspects of the divine, and in the constant reiteration of this relationship, they created what we might call a gray area in between the way God is in himself, and the way he acts in the world. The being of God is preserved outside of or despite of his action. Don’t worry; I’m getting to why this is significant for secular government.

Agamben only mentions this briefly, but in the “triumph” of Christianity in the fourth century, it became a licit religion, and eventually the official religion of the Roman Empire. Consequently the emperor and his government became the representation of God’s action on Earth. However, as religious and governmental powers both grew and were often separate, they fought between each other over who was the true representative of God. Late Antique and medieval European history is animated by these conflicts between popes and kings.

The problem is that God cannot be seen to be acting in the world. From a theological perspective, this is to preserve his goodness and separation from the minutia of the daily administration of the world. Indeed, according to early apologists, a good ruler was one who appointed people under him to govern rather than attempt to administer everything himself. Yet, he did not leave the world to run on its own, as earlier Stoics or later deists would believe. Nonetheless, there is no way to evidence God’s existence in the world except through reference to things in the world.

In the Enlightenment, as previously explicit forms of religious government became secularized, they preserved the same way of justifying power, essentially a gesturing toward the way things ought to be with no objective evidence beyond our acceptance of its truth. This acceptance is what Agamben is calling glory, the acclamation of something for its own sake. We think that what we glorify (or honor, in a more secular term) preexists as something, but it is actually our glorification that creates it. It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz, in which what is behind the curtain is not what it seems. In this case, though, there is not even a man there, as some conspiracy theorists might want us to believe; there is simply nothing, because there can be nothing. For Christians, God cannot reveal himself in any externally verifiable and agreeable way. For advocates of democratic society, based for example on the universalization of freedoms or the Constitution, the result is a modicum of freedom for some based upon the “collateral damage” done to the rest.

Theology and politics are at odds, not because they are polar opposites, then, but because they are two faces of the same power, a power that has no demonstrable ultimate foundation and bases its power only on the consent of those who accept it. Agamben suggests no way forward other than a reference to recapturing a more original concept of messianic time, a time that lives “as if not,” suspending or rendering inoperative the paradigms by which we govern and are governed. How this will actually take place is difficult to see.

Agamben devotes little discussion to free will, as he sees it as a byproduct of the space created between God’s transcendence and immanence. God is all powerful but does not enforce his power in every earthly action; thus we have the freedom to align ourselves however we wish. Free will, too, in other words, is a theological construct. Even if that is the case, though, my understanding of self is the starting point for my alliance with or dissonance from the adulation of the status quo, the glorification of culture that is required to perpetuate institutional power. Consequently, the fact of my resistance is the creation of an alternative, and this individual perspective may be a viable starting point for a different future.

I’m convinced by the connection Agamben makes between theology and politics, then, but I’m as perplexed as he seems to be over the way forward. Any thoughts?

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