T&ST: Chapter 1 – Political Theology and the New Science of Politics

In order for a secular social theory to emerge, secular space and secular time had to be created. Early modern social thought (Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and Machiavelli) created a secular space and time identified with the sphere of the artificial (that is, of human creation) and with the exercise of arbitrary will. These linkages, in particular that between human construction and pure will, were not the necessary trajectory of a secularizing Judeo-Christianity, as the received sociological tradition has it, but rather particular mutations of the Christian tradition in the direction of heterodoxy (Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke) and neo-paganism (Machiavelli).

To make sense of this argument, it helps first to dig in a little bit to the tradition of “received sociology” which Milbank is criticizing. He’s taking aim at a strong version of the secularization thesis, particularly one which (1) understands secularization as a process of uncovering an autonomous human sphere which was always actually there (or at least there as a potentiality to be actualized) but mystified by theology or other forms of ideology and (2) describes Christianity as a necessarily an agent of secularization. Judaism and Christianity, in many versions of this account, decisively transcendentalized the divine (against animistic or shamanistic associations of the divine with nature, say — think of the prohibition of images of God in the 10 Commandments, here) and problematized an easy association between divine and human authority (against, say, the Romans or Egyptians, for whom their political leaders were at least potentially gods, God becomes human in the person of a peasant, Jesus of Nazareth), disenchanting the natural and political worlds and rendering them open to self-conscious human intervention. For a strong version of this argument, see Gaudet’s The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion.

This is the tradition that Milbank thinks is “preposterous” (10). It’s not, to be clear, that theological developments had nothing to do with secularization — one of the most important goals of this book is  to argue that secularity is necessarily bound up in theology. Rather, the problem of this tradition of analysis is that it confuses necessity and contingency and reads modern developments in Christianity into its origins, and thus argues that, because something called “the secular” was established and that its establishment was related to particular late medieval/early modern developments in Christian theology, there was always a latent secularity in human existence and Christian theology was always and necessarily a disenchanting, uncovering force. Far from a latent secularity to be uncovered, Milbank argues that the secular had to be positively constructed, its meaning decisively shifted from its old medieval usage as the interval of time between the fall of man and the Second Coming to an autonomous sphere (both a space and a time) of human activity governed by pure human will.

The particular linkage that Milbank is most interested in unpacking is the link between the factum (the made) or artificial (i.e., the sphere of human activity in the world) and the secular (the sphere of exclusively human activity in the world, from which theology – and even God! – are removed). It is this link which creates the space of the secular. While this linkage may seem obvious to us, Milbank suggests that it is not in fact necessary. He points to the Mannerists as a (frankly quite confusing) counter-example. The way that this linkage happened, says Milbank, is that Adam’s dominium (lordship) over creation was defined in terms of “power, property, active right, and absolute sovereignty” and that Adam’s personhood came to be defined in terms of this dominium (13). This is a redefinition, Milbank wants to make clear — one which erases much of the classical and medieval usage of the term in favor of a return and indeed amplification of a “more brutal and origainal dominium, the unrestricted lordship over what lies within one’s power…in Roman private law.” (13). In this redefinition, says Milbank, we can see the affinity between modern absolutism and modern liberalism: the same conception of dominium as absolute power over self connects Hobbes’ notions that the sovereign cannot bind himself and that subjects are free only regarding that about which the law does not speak (see 14).

How did this new understanding of dominium emerge? Theology! Dominium-as-sheer-power could be identified with the essence of humanity because dominium-as-sheer-power was seen as defining the essence of divinity by the nominalist-voluntarist tradition in Christian theology! In Milbank’s telling, a rich tradition of theologizing about the will of God in Trinitarian language is replaced by an effective unitarianism which understands God’s will as unitary and at some level arbitrary. This sentence seems key, although I’m not necessarily well-versed enough in the theology of the period to parse it well: “No longer is the world participatorily enfolded within the divine expressive Logos, but instead a bare divine unity starkly confronts the other distinct unities which he has ordained” (15).

Why did this theological transformation cause this new understanding of human dominium and the new ‘science of politics’ that emerged from it? For two reasons, Milbank says (see 16). (1) It made men with unimpeded property rights and especially men exercising the rights of sovereignty the closest humans to the imago Dei. (2) By dismissing a theology of human participation in the life of the Trinity in favor of understanding human-divine relationships along the pattern of a contractual covenantal bond, it promoted a similar contractual understanding of human-human relationships. Theology, for Milbank, was not just an ideological justification of processes ‘really’ happening but rather played a necessary role in constructing the new realities which defined the sphere of free human action which came to be known as the secular.

This wasn’t just a change at the level of theory, says Milbank, church practices also changed (and indeed, the church was quicker to embrace the “assumed traits of modern secularity — legal formalization, rational instrumentalization, sovereign rule, economic contractualism” than the regnum (18)).

So let’s recap: to create a secular space, the sphere of human activity (the made, the historical, the artificial) had to be identified with the expression of pure human will. This required a new anthropology, which necessitated a redefinition of humanity’s dominium over the self and over the world which recouped and radicalized an old Roman legal definition which had been tamed by much of classical and medieval thought. Dominium came to be understood as a realm of sheer power which described the essence of a person. What it is to be human is to exercise unimpeded power. The reason new anthropology could come into begin had to do with voluntarist/nominalist shifts in the doctrine of God which identified God’s essence with the same sort of unitive, arbitrary willing. So much for the creation of secular space. Let’s turn to the creation of secular time.

The problem here, according to Milbank, is that the ecclesial time of the churches, as emblematized in particular by the traditional four-fold sense of scripture which brings together past, present, and future under the reflection  of leaders authorized by the church and invests that reflection with a quasi-divine authority which binds the obedience of good Christians, competes with the power of the new ‘secular’ state. I’m going to be honest: this part makes a lot less sense to me than the first part of the chapter. But here’s the argument, as best as I can sketch it:

To tame the political threat which the church posed, first one had to remove formal political power, and above all the power to coerce, from the church. The church becomes purely persuasive yet depends on state violence for the maintenance of its power (think the Reformation churches, especially the Lutheran church, here). Next, one had to “exclude all ‘private’ inspiration from politics, by declaring the temporal ‘interval’ to be for the present ‘the all'” (19). What exactly does this mean? I’m not sure — but perhaps it refers to the elimination of any political arguments that cannot accord with universal reason, particularly those arguments made using the old biblical hermeneutic. Next, you need to “capture” the text of the Bible from orthodox Christianity, because the “authoritative text of the Scriptures” is “required” by the “new space of sovereign power” because it was “the source of a positive divine reconfirmation of the covenantal principle, and for the truth that God stood behind the positive authority of nature” (19). To make this capture, the old use of the Bible, which “accorded interpretative authority to a tradition of reading, to readers whose power proceeded not from arms, property or contract, but rather from their socially made available time for reading” had to be eliminated (19). Now why was this old hermeneutic such a problem?

There is a lot here that is very hard to follow, and requires a mastery of Spinoza’s Tractatus that I do not have, but I think the real take-away is as follows:

The problem with the old Catholic biblical hermeneutic is that it refused to confine revelation to either wholly private and essentially incommunicable actions or public miracles that were long past. Rather, for the old four-fold, heavily allegorical Biblical hermeneutic, divine communication was mediated through the acts of a tradition of human interpreters whose power came from the church, not from the sovereign. Although the allegorical interpretations of scripture were in some sense of human creation, and contestable as such, interpreters were nonetheless guided by the Spirit in their interpretive work (or so the theory went, I think — I am not an expert on medieval biblical hermeneutics!). If, then, “God is still speaking” (to crib the UCC motto of the moment), there can be statements that are neither justifiable in terms of a universal rationality or a plain reading of the scripture nor dismissable by the sovereign as mere private opinion and thus unacceptable as a grounds for action.

Instead of this tradition, then, the new sovereign power laid claim to be the only power with the right to interpret Scripture in all ways that were publically or communally significant — and this is why Spinoza’s Tractatus or Hobbes’ Leviathan include lengthy discourses on proper interpretation of the Bible! This was necessary because the Bible was still necessary to ground the claims of the sovereign, especially the “convenantal principle,” as we have seen. In order to claim this power, a new, positivistic concept of revelation had to be promulgated. No longer was it possible or “any charisma to attach to transmission“, as in the old reading model (21). Now, revelation was either private and thus incommunicable or public but confined to an age of miracles that was now long past.

The final section of this chapter (one which also refers to ecclesial time) takes us out of the voluntarist political theology of Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and their ilk and to the “historicist perspective” of Machiavelli (23). What makes Machiavelli a break from the tradition which preceded him was not, Milbank wants to say, Machiavelli’s awareness of the need to adapt politics to historical particulars — this notion would not have been surprising or threatening to many of his forbears – but rather his retrieval of a specifically pagan “political and philosophical time” which competes with and indeed rejects Christianity (23). If in Hobbes we see a sort of perversion of Christian theology, in Machiavelli we find at least a partial rejection of it and an attempt to construct politics and morality upon a different source entirely, namely, that of antique, pagan virtu. With it comes a circular view of time dominated by conflict, the ebb and flow of fortune, and the actions of valiant, heroic men to capitalize upon it.

Milbank concludes by noting the import of both the voluntarist/contractualist/natural rights/liberal social theory and the thought of Machiavelli for future developments in social theory: these are two of the most vital sources, he says, from which it sprung. Yet from both a specifically Christian perspective and a sort of Foucauldian critical one, these traditions, far from being universal or necessary or rational, are dependent upon either a specific Christian heterodoxy or an attempt to return to paganism. Moreover, he suggests — although this was not, I think, adequately demonstrated in the text itself, that “the ‘science of conflict’ is not merely one branch of social science but rather that the ‘scientific’ approach seeks ‘to know’ power and conflict as ontologically fundamental” (25). Willed power as ontologically fundamental, sure — but conflict? Not necessarily. At any rate, the point, as far as Milbank is concerned, is that if Christianity seeks to make room for or accomodate secular reason, such a move involves a rapproachment with either a perversion of proper theology or a straight-up rejection of it — either “deviancy or falsehood,” as he puts it (25).


T&ST: Chapter 1 – Political Theology and the New Science of Politics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s