Theologically Anti-Theological (a/theology 2)

Donoso Cortés was convinced that the moment of the last battle had arrived; in the face of radical evil the only solution is dictatorship, and the legitimist principle of succession becomes at such a moment empty dogmatism. Authority and anarchy could thus confront each other in absolute decisiveness and form a clear antithesis: De Maistre said that every government is necessarily absolute, and an anarchist says the same; but with the aid of his axiom of the good man and the corrupt government, the latter draws the opposite practical conclusion, namely, that all governments must be opposed for the reason that every government is a dictatorship. Every claim of a decision must be evil for the anarchist, because the right emerges by itself if the immanence of life is not disturbed by such claims. This radical antithesis forces him of course to decide against the decision; and this results in the odd paradox whereby Bakunin, the greatest anarchist of the nineteenth century, had to become in theory the theologian of the antitheological and in practice the dictator of an antidictatorship.1

bob points us to an entry by Levi Bryant concerning “atheology”2 at Bryant’s blog larval subjects. Of particular interest for us is Bryant’s use of Schmitt’s famous statement from the beginning of Chapter 3 of Political Theology, on the origins of “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state.” Though Bryant does not have much to say about Schmitt directly, or for that matter about political philosophy prior to the day before yesterday in France3, he does accurately convey Schmitt’s position in general terms, in the context of remarks on the “theistic structure” of popular atheism – a kind of persistence of the deity sub rosa, reminiscent of the God Whom or who or which Nietzsche feared would dwell immortally in grammar. Yet on any further investigation it becomes clear that Bryant inverts Schmitt, or draws a conclusion diametrically opposite from Schmitt’s.

For Bryant, to cope with and defeat the residual structure of belief, a kind of remnant facticity of falsehood, “a thoroughgoing atheism [would have] to do much more than show the non-existence of a divine, supernatural being.” Bryant seems to presume the showability of this showing, or in other words the tenability of the question of “divine existence” – to be answered in the negative, of course – on the basis of a simple opposition that I am denoting with the figures “a/theism” and “a/theology.”4 Bryant’s atheism rests on such a/theism, which he shares with the New Atheists as well as with their chosen adversaries. His confidence in this presumption or common mode of discussion may explain a critical misreading and oversimplification in his rendering of Schmitt, which proceeds as follows:

A thoroughgoing atheology would have to diagnose and overcome a particular theistic fractal pattern, a koch curve, that is pervasive throughout both religious and secular ontological, epistemological, political, and ethical thought. Here, then, we see the relevance of Schmitt, perhaps, who has attempted to show how many of the concepts surrounding the modern understanding of sovereignty are, in fact, secularized theological concepts. The structural isomorphism here is between the sovereign and God, where the sovereign, like God, “decides the exception”. Insofar as the decision of the sovereign– a decision that both decides what circumstances are exceptional and decides whether or not to count the exceptional as belonging – [emphasis added] is without ground or ultimate justification, it has the form of a secularized miracle.

These themes, favorites at this blog, also happen to have been under discussion from the perspective of a metaphysical (or ontological or phenomenological) inquiry within the Brooks-Schmitt discussion at Crooked Timber – though there was some disagreement as to their relevance to the main discussion.5 The fuller remarks of Schmitt’s on “secularized theological concepts” are quite on topic here if not necessarily over there:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.6

Schmitt’s notion as stated here does not specifically rely on the connection to sovereignty or the sovereign moment, but Bryant’s inclusion of the term in his summary is perfectly admissible: Getting to sovereignty, or observing or forcing the emergence of the sovereign or an effectively sovereign authority or force, or developing a sufficiently authoritative description of that emergence, was paramount for Schmitt not just as a matter of legal philosophy but as a pressing practical-political issue. In the more general sense or at very high levels of conceptual abstraction, as a question of the authoritative or integrative moment, as the coming into being of being, the critical moment/moment of crisis, or non-moment or moment of moments, or causeless first cause, or conception of concept, and so on, the topic has been exhaustively theorized (as well as ritualized).7

Bryant’s description of this moment as “without ground or justification” is itself without ground or justification, however, based on an embedded and pre-determinative assumption that suits his aim or opinion, not Schmitt’s. In contrast to Bryant, Schmitt sought to demonstrate the effective ineradicability of theism or of the theological: in short the ineradicability of God, but for the sake of preserving the political in its distinctness, not of putting an end to it. For Schmitt, the sovereign decision or moment occurs, or is seen to occur, as though without ground, as though from nothing. He also describes this moment as “the power of real life break[-ing] through” 8: The arrival of and from the opposite of nothing, or the real itself. To say that the moment occurs as though from nothing or from nowhere or without rational ground or justification, or unpredictably, that no one knows its hour or that it comes like a thief in the night, is precisely not to exclude any ground or justification, or any authentic ground or justification, just as it in no way precludes post hoc sociological or historical explanation, and just as a working premise of natural science remains that the present unpredictability or inexplicability of an effect cannot signify its having occurred without cause. This sovereign as though refers us to a ground or justification that may or perhaps at the limits must remain unknown or unspecified prior to its emergence, and that, according to Schmitt, must be located concretely, in existing human beings and unique circumstances, and verified in experience, not simply in ideas or language, and that is not to be fully anticipated in legal codes (in principle never capable of being fully anticipated in law).

Returning to our close consideration of terms, we can even suggest that the unique content unveiled in the moment of decision, the raising of the heart’s curtain, may or must be thought “non-existent” (thought not yet to have “stood forth”) until its self-announcement and proof, but it would not less authentically constitute a ground or justification for that reason: To the contrary, the mark of its authenticity, of its actual ability to constitute a ground of grounds or to produce justification of justifications is its very “from beyond-ness.” It arrives as though from beyond all justification, in order to reveal “justification” itself, we might say “earthly justification,” to be a mere juridical activity, conceptually as well as practically subordinate to a theological or essential or even natural justice that simply is, the mute origin of a totality of potentially meaningful speech and action. Conventional “justification” in this sense would merely represent the “case” that we happen to be capable of making for our “judgment,” but the case we make as lawyers for the prosecution or defense will be the best case we happen to be able to make, not necessarily or necessarily not the finally best or perfect or ideal case.

The theological origin of secular concepts was obvious to Schmitt, if as a recognition studiously ignored or resisted by an occluded many in his own time as in ours: It is arguably the central and characteristic, necessary and highly functional, immeasurably productive occlusion of modernity, the Great Separation of church and state that depends, absolutely yet in some sense secretly to itself, on a religion of the state, or “civic religion,” or “political theology,” for its being. Though Schmitt’s statement describes broad historical developments wonderfully compactly – and sharply – it does not count as a unique insight, and, more to the point, was offered in its moment for the sake of preserving this theo-political state as constituted, more or less as Schmitt found it and as it found him, not of overturning and replacing it. The common contrary belief regarding Schmitt or his theories, that they promoted dictatorship and authoritarianism as ends in themselves, fascism in its purest form, would be based on his interest in counterrevolutionary philosophy and his eventual collaboration with the Nazi Party: perhaps a different kind of proof in experience rather than ideas, but not an analytical conclusion based on the whole of his writing9: The form of dictatorship that Schmitt elsewhere outlined during the 1920s was to be “commissarial” – it would act upon a “commission” from the constitutional order. Its reason and justification, its legitimacy – whose importance Schmitt the lawyer does not question – as in the ancient Roman constitution as well as in the constitutions of numerous European states, would have derived from the paramount aim of safely dissolving itself and restoring republican normalcy.

The jurist Schmitt systematically assembles the available evidence for his own seemingly novel, in fact utterly ancient insights, with a focus especially on recent legal and historical precedent. A conservative statist and practicing Catholic, he was not merely comfortable with but committed to the final resort to faith, but this statement as to the ineluctability of faith or act of faith, or leap of faith, appears to contradict the liberal promise on behalf of the state: of unalloyed reason. The impossibility of such a reign of reason pre-figures Bryant’s more obviously self-contradictory reign of reignlessness, and as such helps to re-locate anarchism, even “anomalous communism-anarchism,” within modern liberalism, as libertarianism minus property, haunted by The Individual. So, in the closing lines of Political Theology, Schmitt can address “pure decisionism,” decision entirely for decision’s sake, “dictatorship, not legitimacy,” as a reverse image of anarchism, and as the shared destination of both extremes – thus, finally, “the odd paradox whereby Bakunin, the greatest anarchist of the nineteenth century, had to become in theory the theologian of the anti-theological and in practice the dictator of an anti-dictatorship.”

Like the liberalists of Schmitt’s time only more so, Bryant the would-be atheologian or true atheist, the liberal unbound, would erase the resort to faith as falsehood or illusion, but he leaves this difference between himself and Schmitt, a difference on the absolute that may amount to an absolute difference, un-noted. He apparently hopes to erase or eradicate the theistic “fractal,” first from thought, then from practical politics, leaving a “flat ontology” for a leveled society behind. The atheological re-joins the theological just as the anarchist re-joins the reactionary insisting on the final non-distinction of religion and politics, as insustainable a position as of their absolute severability. From the theistic perspective, or theism-inclusive anismist perspective, the divine object of theism could not be or could not merely be an ideational structure or any other metaphorical construction, so would not be subject to intellectual eradication or any declaration of obsolescence. As we have noted elsewhere, the dangers of proceeding under any other concept may well have been exemplified in Schmitt’s later career, or, more precisely, in the career of his Nazi comrades and a nation of abettors including him – as the parallel and supplementary analysis by Schmitt’s contemporary, the dissenter rather than collaborator Eric Voegelin, also insists.


  1. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, tr. by Tracy B. Strong, p. 66 []
  2. helpful definition here []
  3. No one who enters onto this territory can be expected to have absorbed the entirety of the relevant literature, since the entirety of the relevant literature would be the entirety of literature. All the same, in setting out with what seems to be a bias in favor of “anomalous communism-anarchism,” an intention to confirm its desirability or validity, or advance its prospects, while focusing on broadly speaking post-modern critical-philosophical terms of reference, Bryant simply bypasses a very large body of political philosophy, if not quite the entire corpus, concerning the construction or emergence of sovereignty – in other words has largely bypassed all significant concepts of modern as well as pre-modern theories of the state from Aristotle to today. That along the way, at least on the evidence of this blog post outlining his project, Bryant demonstrates little interest in traditional theology or religious scripture goes almost without saying. The result is an interesting and intellectually adventurous, if somewhat oblique, re-invention of the early modern wheel, which was itself the refurbishment of a much older device. Bryant treats the idea of “placing sovereignty not in the hands of a monarch or dictator, but in the hands of the multitude” as on one level the definition of “anarchism or communism,” yet also as somehow a pressingly new project, but the notion as stated evokes democratism as already somewhat comprehensively theorized very long ago, and then as re-examined and somewhat re-conceived as the main question of modern political philosophy: The emergence of the modern and this re-conception of a democratic or popular sovereign or form of sovereignty being effectively two names for the same thing, with communism and anarchism comprising variants at the extremes, yet well within the traditionally mapped terrain. []
  4. The problem has been discussed at this blog many times, most recently here and here []
  5. See initial comment extended at this blog,  as well as subsequent discussion involving commenters john c. halasz, geo, William Timberman, and myself. []
  6. Alle prägnanten Begriffe der modernen Staatslehre sind säkularisierte theologische Begriffe. Nicht nur ihrer historischen Entwicklung nach, weil sie aus der Theologie auf die Staatslehre übertragen wurden, indem zum Beispiel der allmächtige Gott zum omnipotenten Gesetzgeber wurde, sondern auch in ihrer systematischen Struktur, deren Erkenntnis notwendig ist für eine soziologische Betrachtung dieser Begriffe. Der Ausnahmezustand hat für die Jurisprudenz eine analoge Bedeutung wie das Wunder für die Theologie. []
  7. …not simply throughout recorded history, but as history. []
  8. “The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.” Political Theology, p. 15. []
  9. Strauss’s 1932 analysis of The Concept of the Political does suggest, however, that Schmitt’s disgrace, his crypto-fascist tendency, may have been revealed and anticipated in unresolved contradictions discernible within the presentation of his theory. []

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