"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Problem of Sovereignty

It has been suggested by such scholars as the Jesuit Herman Pottmeyer, the Russian Orthodox Nicholas Lossky, the Greek political scientist Paschalis Kitromilides and others that both Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology, from the nineteenth century onward, is deformed, not to say corrupted, by theories of national sovereignty as they emerge in the aftermath of the French Revolution. This has an impact on discussions at Vatican I about the jurisdiction and infallibility of the "Sovereign Pontiff." It would also seem to have had an impact on several Orthodox Churches that achieve autocephaly in the nineteenth century when their nation-states become independent. 

Much of the discussion of sovereignty comes from such fascinating figures as Joseph de Maistre, who is often portrayed as an antediluvian revanchist desperate to roll back 1789 and reassert the unity of "throne and altar," a portrait that, so far as I can see to date, is neither completely fair nor entirely accurate from what I can tell from reading numerous studies of him, including especially a wonderful work by the Canadian scholar Richard Lebrun, Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988).

Maistre, in his famous work Du Papeargued strongly in favor of a very centralized sovereign papacy--this much is fairly well known. What is not so well known, it seems to me, are what seem to be his reasons, two ad intra and one ad extra. The internal: he wanted a strong pope to unify the Church which he had seen as divided and weakened in two contexts: first in France, where Gallican-Ultramontane conflicts, as well as the Revolution, had done enormous damage; and second his witness of the weakness and divisions in the Russian Orthodox Church during his fourteen-year stint in Russia as ambassador of the king of Sardinia. 

The external: Maistre, like many Catholics of his generation, seems to have been not merely haunted but deeply traumatized, almost shattered, by the Revolution. The savagery of Robespierre, the bloodletting
of the Revolution, and the capacity to enact violence in the name of virtue forever turned off those who may have been sympathetic to some of the revolutionary causes. Maistre  drew from the Revolution, and a study of wider Western history, the clear realization of the flaws in all monarchs, the problems in all political systems and their endless capacity for tyranny and evil. So he seems to have thought that a strong Sovereign Pontiff would be the one and only force capable of serving as a check on man's capacity for trying to lord it over his fellow man. A strong pope, in other words, would be the last refuge, the last court of appeal, for nations being savaged by their own leaders. 

More recently, others have picked up on the theological connotations of modern notions of sovereignty, and taken them in interesting and often controversial directions. None did this more clearly or more controversially than Carl Schmitt in his short book Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, which opens with the famous ringing declaration that "sovereign is he who decides on the exception."

Now a new book comes along to continue the discussion in a new and very interesting direction: Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Columbia University Press, 2011), 224pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In this strikingly original work, Paul W. Kahn rethinks the meaning of political theology. In a text innovative in both form and substance, he describes an American political theology as a secular inquiry into ultimate meanings sustaining our faith in the popular sovereign. Kahn works out his view through an engagement with Carl Schmitt's 1922 classic, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. He forces an engagement with Schmitt's four chapters, offering a new version of each that is responsive to the American political imaginary. The result is a contemporary political theology. As in Schmitt's work, sovereignty remains central, yet Kahn shows how popular sovereignty creates an ethos of sacrifice in the modern state. Turning to law, Kahn demonstrates how the line between exception and judicial decision is not as sharp as Schmitt led us to believe. He reminds readers that American political life begins with the revolutionary willingness to sacrifice and that both sacrifice and law continue to ground the American political imagination. Kahn offers a political theology that has at its center the practice of freedom realized in political decisions, legal judgments, and finally in philosophical inquiry itself.
The book is not very big or very long, and I read it in an afternoon. It is an interesting attempt to analyze American polity in particular, and Western ideas of popular sovereignty in general, through a kind of neo-Schmittian lens. It is, it must be said, very thin on any theology qua theology. The author clearly knows his limits and does not want to deal with God except for a few perfunctory and passing references he does not develop. God seems largely irrelevant, though to his credit Kahn is not so simplistic or dismissive as other authors who attribute all theological references to fundamentalist troglodytes or otherwise regard them as the equivalent of phrenology. 

This book seems very much to be a "continuing the conversation" work, without expectation of solving the many problems it picks up or to which it alludes. Kahn is at pains to distance himself from Schmitt, whose ties to the Nazis of course make him rather problematic. But Kahn says that Schmitt still raises such compelling issues that one must think through him, leaving aside his odious ties to National Socialism. And the most compelling issue still needing careful thinking is "the serious claim of political theology...that the state is not the secular arrangement that it purports to be" (18). For Schmitt and others (including, as I have noted previously, William Cavanaugh) "political theology" is not some attempt to set up a state church or create some kind of theocracy. No, it is an attempt to show how the politics of the liberalism of modernity, the politics that gives us the modern nation-state, is not at all "secular" and free of religious or, better, "theological" claims, albeit in highly disguised fashion. As he puts it, "freeing the state from the church did not banish the sacred from the political. It might have, but it did not." Anyone who has attended to the history of arguably the three greatest revolutions of modernity--the French, the American, and the Russian--will immediately see the truth of this. All three purported to establish secular states but ended up smuggling in theological claims through the backdoor or else created ersatz forms of religiosity (e.g., Lenin's shrine tomb or the American flag and pledge of allegiance). As Kahn goes on, 
the French revolutionaries attacked the church, but they found it necessary to invent their own rituals of the sacred....The French tried to establish a ritual practice that sacralized reason, but they did so in the name of the sovereign people. The American Revolution practiced the same double forms of the sacred, worshiping "self-evident truths" set forth in the name of "We the People" (21).
Having distanced himself from Schmitt, Kahn wants to use him to think through the question at the heart of his book: "what do we learn if we engage Schmitt's argument from a perspective that substitutes popular sovereignty for his idea of the sovereign?" (9) From here he looks at notions of "American exceptionalism," the role of the US Supreme Court, the pardon power entrusted to the president under the US Constitution (and to various governors, inter alia), and similar issues. 

There were four hugely influential people whom I expected to see cited in this book but none merited even so much as a passing reference: the first, of course, was Maistre; but missing also, though having a very great deal to say on the issues Kahn treats, were Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor (especially his A Secular Age), and René Girard, who would have helped Kahn flesh out such underdeveloped lines as "We must take up the perspective of political theology, for political violence has been and remains a form of sacrifice" (7). Later on he says "We will never find an adequate explanation of the politics of sacrifice in liberal theory or positive political science" (17). Girard would certainly agree, and has spent his life howing just where we can find explanations of the source and origin of the sacrificial victim in Western culture.  

Still, for all that, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty is an edifying and enjoyable little book that raises some enormously important questions which we very much need to consider more than we have. Political scientists, philosophers, jurists, and theologians would all profit from Kahn's engaging text. 

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