In this book, Paul Kahn argues that political theology—as first defined by Schmitt—is not only a “polemical” discourse but also designates a legitimate field of study that can be approached “scientifically,” and that has its own “methodology,” namely, a sociology of concepts. Kahn himself understands political theology as a phenomenological description of “the political.” Additionally, Kahn suggests that liberal democracy may have, or may stand in need of, a political theology of its own. Although I am sympathetic to both proposals, in my opinion this book does justice to neither, and I fear the editor may have overstated the facts by claiming, in the interior jacket cover, that this study of Schmitt and political theology is a “strikingly original work.” To the contrary, I find it a rather conventional presentation of themes and problems that have been part of the conversation and debate on political theology for decades.
The guiding thread of the book is Kahn’s running commentary (“exegesis,” he calls it) of the four chapters of Schmitt’s Political Theology. At the same time, Kahn purports to be saying something “new” about political theology that is not found in Schmitt, hence the subtitle: “Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty.” If I understand him correctly, what is “new” is the claim that liberal democracy, because of its reliance on a concept of popular sovereignty, also needs to face up to its own political theology. I shall return to this claim below. First, I wish to say something about the book in terms of its exegesis of Schmitt. I don’t think Kahn is claiming to be saying anything “new” about Schmitt, either in general or on Political Theology in particular. Since there exist by now hundreds of books and articles on Schmitt and his political theology in German, French, Italian, Spanish (and, since the late 1980s, English), and since Kahn’s thin book lacks even a basic bibliographical treatment of this material and one that does not go beyond secondary literature in English, one would have to assume that this text is not really intended to contribute to the scholarly literature on Schmitt.
So, rather than belaboring the point that Kahn’s exegesis is not novel, I will say a couple of things about what would have been an advance in the discussion of the theme of “political theology” in Schmitt. The first step forward would have consisted in trying to make sense of Schmitt’s rejection of decisionism in the early 1930s and investigating from a fresh perspective his theory of “concrete normative orders,” which was intended to displace decisionism. In a footnote, Kahn does cite the work in which Schmitt is generally thought to go beyond decisionism, On the Three Types of Juristic Thought, but he ignores the doctrine of concrete orders and remains, throughout his discussion, caught within the distinction between “a normativist and a decisionist form of juristic thought.” Indeed, Kahn adopts Schmitt’s own earlier claim that liberal thought, at least with regard to philosophy of law, is entirely lacking a theory of decision and exception, and so is unable to provide an account of sovereignty. Framing Schmitt’s thought purely in terms of decisionism makes Kahn’s critique of liberal political theory at times hardly distinguishable from the fashionable use that was made of Schmitt about a decade ago to criticize Rawls’s purportedly insufficient conception of the political. I myself have shown, in an easily accessible journal article on the concept of the political in Schmitt and Rawls, published a few years ago, that this kind of opposition between them is misguided and leads only to misunderstanding both authors.
Another path Kahn could have taken, which would have made an original contribution to the debate on Schmitt’s political theology, would have been to read together Political Theology and Political Theology II. The reason why Schmitt’s second attempt at fashioning a political theology is fundamental is that it responds to the blistering critique of the first volume advanced by the theologian Erik Peterson. In Monotheism as a Political Problem, Peterson demonstrates that a Christian political theology is impossible because Christian theology is Trinitarian and gives no support whatsoever for an analogy to the “monotheistic” conception of sovereignty. Hence Schmitt’s entire “genealogical” and “analogical” (as Kahn calls them) construction of political theology – which essentially draws on the historical fact that medieval Canon Law was used to “translate” theological concepts into the construction of early modern jurisprudence and political thought, concretized in the idea of modern sovereignty as sole legitimate legislative power—was, according to Peterson, based on a poor understanding of Christian theology. Strangely, Political Theology II is never discussed by Kahn. This is somewhat bewildering because it is precisely in the latter book where Schmitt argues that political theology can be understood as a legitimation discourse for modern democracy. His defense against Peterson consists in showing that the latter misunderstood Political Theology by claiming that Schmitt’s sovereign was a secularization of the long tradition of sacral kingship—on which see the elegant volume by Francis Oakley. Political Theology II is a far better place to look for textual support to Kahn’s own project of understanding the politico-theological needs of modern liberal democracies.
This line of thought, namely, following the Peterson-Schmitt debate on political theology and democracy, has been pursued by Agamben in a fundamental book (Il Regno e la Gloria) on political theology and liberalism, which is available in various European languages, but not yet in English. (Kahn is apparently not aware of the book, and hence of the discussion of the last several years on this theme. Kahn does rely rather heavily on Agamben’s first approach to Schmitt in Homo sacer, which was indeed still a working out of Schmitt’s early decisionism.)
Let me conclude these remarks with a more general point: political theology is a discourse that does not originate with Schmitt, but in the nineteenth-century internal critique of Hegelianism, and characterizes the entire stretch that Löwith designated as “from Hegel to Nietzsche.” Political theology existed well before Kelsen’s “Gott und Staat” and Weber’s writings on the sociology of religion (the usual reference points used to situate Schmitt’s Political Theology, which are also the reference points for Kahn’s exegesis). What is interesting about this genealogy (one not given by Kahn, who uses as foil the unreliable historical reconstruction found in Lilla’s Stillborn God) is that Schmitt’s decision to narrow “political theology” down to a doctrine of sovereignty silenced both Christian and Jewish variants of political theologies without sovereignty. This operation is the “polemical” and “rhetorical” performance of Schmitt’s Political Theology. But the operation was rather quickly uncovered: as previously mentioned, Peterson’s critique opened the gates for a Christian yet anti-sovereign political theology (which then took a variety of forms in Maritain, Voegelin, Metz, and today in Milbank and in Charles Taylor, to cite some examples). Jewish political theology was revived by Hermann Cohen at the end of the nineteenth century, and then taken up—prior to Schmitt—by Rosenzweig, Benjamin, as well as pursued by Leo Strauss (it reappears today, deprived of its messianic pathos, in works by Novak and Walzer, among others). Kahn says at one point that he is doing “an exegesis of his [Schmitt’s] text, not an intellectual history”; but had he contextualized better Political Theology, his exegesis would perhaps have been more illuminating.
I now turn to what is “new” about Kahn’s use of Schmitt’s political theology, namely, his argument that modern liberal democracy, because it relies entirely on popular sovereignty, ought to recognize the political theology that underlies it. This argument relies on the false premise that there is only political theology where there is sovereignty. But I do not wish to press this point. Instead, I want to draw attention to the last chapter of the book where, in my opinion, Kahn clarifies his thesis: there he claims that the American and French Revolutions “transferred” sovereignty from the king to the body of the people, and that on this “finite body” occurs “the revelation of the sacred.” From this claim, Kahn quickly draws out his idea of a democratic political theology: “To be as a part of the revolution is to experience the mystical corpus of the sovereign. No such experience is possible without a leap of faith.” “That sovereignty could be directly instantiated in any and every citizen … was surely among the deepest changes marking the emergence of a modern social imaginary … the relationship of the individual to the sacred is now direct (without any intermediary function), mystical (outside of ordinary space and time), and of ultimate significance (a value beyond life itself). None of this is a matter of reason; all of it is a matter of will, imagination, and faith.” All of the novelty in Kahn’s understanding of political theology is expressed in the above citations. I conclude with a few critical considerations.
Kahn appears to conflate what in the history of religions is called the phenomenon of hierophany—namely, the appearance of the divine in a particular shape or form and in a moment in time and space—with “theology,” which is a rational account of divine beings that “always are.” Rather than a political theology, Kahn offers a political hierophany. I think one could even say that theology—at least from Plato through Aquinas to Barth—if anything, is precisely an attempt to deny validity to hierophanic manifestations, which belong with the mythical and irrational aspects of religious belief and cult, and which have traditionally been related to magic and worship of power. Schmitt, in any case, and as a good student of Canon Law, seems to have understood political theology in opposition to the kind of political hierophany that Kahn advocates.
An additional problem is that Kahn conflates the language of revelation with the language of the sacred. He writes as if there is some continuity between a politics of the sacred and a political theology. In Homo sacer, Agamben made the bold but interesting claim that the sacred does not belong at all in the sphere of religion nor of theology, but rather ought to be circumscribed to the sphere of law. This claim may seem at first to strengthen Kahn’s hand, but in reality it may undermine his position: if law were to depend on the sacred, and the sacred has nothing to do with theology, then the kind of conflation between sacral politics and political theology that Kahn is offering may signal a confusion. Strictly speaking, what Kahn is calling a political theology would correspond, at best, to what the Romans called “civil theology”—not to be confused with the modern idea of civil religion—and, at worst, to what Voegelin and others have called “political religion,” that is, the exaltation of a concept of earthly sovereignty that is entirely “closed off” to the “one true God.” It is hard to say, judging from this book, in which Kahn operates with an idea of “political theology” that does not carefully distinguish between the concepts of civil theology, civil religion, political theology, and political religion.
In the end, I believe the crux of the question is as follows: modern revolutions and their concepts of popular sovereignty, in my opinion, are all premised on the idea that a people exists only in and through what Rawls called “devices of representation.” It follows that no political theology that was not also a theory of representation could even qualify as a democratic political theology. Schmitt offered some such theory of democratic representation that was also a political theology. Liberalism certainly offers a theory of democratic representation, and it remains an open question, in my opinion, which of its variants entail also a political theology and which do not: Hobbes’s and Locke’s arguably do; Spinoza’s and Kant’s—I would argue—do not. Only Kahn—at least judging from this book—considers representation irrelevant to the “phenomenology” of modern revolutionary events and the construction of popular sovereignty. Remarkably, for a book on Schmitt—one of the great thinkers of the problem of political representation in the twentieth century—the term is entirely absent in this book. The concern that Kahn raises regarding the possibility that liberal democracy may have an internal relation to a variant of political theology is a pressing and important one: it is to be hoped that in his future books he will actually address it.