I ended my previous post pointing to a critique of Spirit in its eurochristian derivation. This series of posts has been based on a broader critique of Catherine Keller’s Political Theology of the Earth wherein she relies on a concept of amorous agonism to develop a processually-based (or constructivist) theology on a tweaked version of Walter Benjamin’s “weak messianism.”
As part of my critique I drew on Aryeh Botwinick’s longer genealogy of weak messianism as situated at the outset of political liberalism. I also drew on Sarah Pessin’s nuanced reading of William Connolly’s agonism, which informs Keller. I piggybacked on Pessin’s notion of an “allergy to difference” within otherwise well-intentioned liberal thought, which she pulls from Emmanuel Levinas.
I disagreed with Botwinick and Keller regarding weak messianism as part of a rehabilitated liberalism (or underwriting liberalism itself) by pointing to the ways Botwinick drew on Levinas to situate weak messianism at the heart of liberalism, arguing that it is partly the impulse of a consuming notion of agape in a politicized form, that drives an allergy to difference.
The problem with this consuming interpretation of agape nourishes a colonizing hunger that makes others, and particularly for my interests, Native Americans, a part of a Christian Lovefeast whether they want to be there or not. In fact, such a Christian feast is still celebrated as “Thanksgiving” while some Natives in an active process of decolonizing refer to it as “international day of mourning” or “thankstaking.” This is of course an example particular to the United States as a political entity, yet it is an important one because it gets at a secularized theological impulse within a political context.
What would it take for Americans to renounce both the Doctrine of Discovery and the civic celebration of the forced assimilation of Native Americans to an inherently eurochristian political project? What would it take for that impulse to be combined with a recognition of Water Protectors and Native intellectuals with as much esteem as the Western tradition has given to Hegel and Plato? What would an overhaul of the ways we generally conceive of politics look like?
Because I don’t agree with the universalized notion of a ‘political theology of the earth’ even while I can agree from a strictly material standpoint that the earth is all we have (not just humans here), I simply cannot embark on uncritical support for what Keller is after. That said, I can point to three very particular steps that I could see people in the U.S. taking to get them toward a civic position that has less of an allergy to difference and more active accountability for what’s at stake in confronting the Christian Capitalist greed (yes, even in its so-called “secular” form) that has put the earth and all on it into this predicament: 1) Publicly and civically renounce all claims to the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, 2) Publicly and civically renounce Thanksgiving and all other civic holidays which celebrate the forced subjugation of non-christians, 3) Publicly and civically devote as much attention to the Indigenous-led protection of the environment as is devoted to Western sciences and the humanities in all schools at all levels.
I am aware of how ludicrous this may sound to some, but my thoughts ought to be contextualized within recent claims to moral bankruptcy among Protestant evangelicals in the U.S. by themselves. For example, see Miguel De La Torre’s “The death of Christianity in the U.S.” written in Global Baptist News, and former president of the American Academy of Religion’s 2018 address. “In the Ruins of White Evangelicalism.” More recently, James Carroll has just called for the abolishment of the entire Catholic priesthood in The Atlantic.
What I will say in defense of my claims is that they are actionable and do not require tacit submission to my implicit metaphysics of all life being a processual aspect of one god on its way to knowing itself. Nor do they conceive of civic space, as uncritical proponents of liberalism assume and neoliberalism actively imposes in its aggressive erasure of difference, as a horizontally expanding infinity within a statically monotheistic verticality. What is important, even if they are deemed idealistic, is to consider what it would take to get the larger body of people in the U.S. to agree to them.
The claims arise from some basic methodological points grounding my perspective. These are important for me because I am not an indigenous person, so I must always begin with the recognition of difference in the way Sarah Pessin articulates it with respect to her “Hate and Protect” project and the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. After that, the method rejects all eurochristiancolonial forms. It is anticolonial, not postcolonial, because Indigenous Peoples remain colonized. It is deeply historical but does not see time as linear or “progressive” and especially draws on pre-contact time. 527 years is not very long.
We know well that this impulse is at the heart of modern notions of “western civilization.” Keller’s book makes mention of Samuel Beckett’s phrase, “fail better,” which comes from Worstward Ho, his own ironic take on Charles Kingsley’s celebration of colonialism, Westward Ho! This deep concept relates to the place of tragedy that will be the subject of a future post, but here I will just briefly point to Hegel’s modernist interpretation of Antigone as indicative of the process of sublation. The lifting gesture of the Aufhebung carries with it the impulse to erasure.
I believe this gesture is still at work in Keller’s work, despite her acknowledgment of Christian colonial injustice. It is part of a liberal tradition indebted to the Spinoza renaissance in late 18th century Germany that situated god within the Self. At the time, Germany was heir to mystical pietism that mixed platonism with the pietism of Meister Eckhart and Jakob Böhme. This was pantheistic, “I am God.” God is in everything.
Hegel emerges in this context where the primordial spirit of God is a dark and inchoate idea of will moving toward self-realization. God develops and changes over time. God moves from a state of lack of self-aware to complete self. Creation serves the progressive self-recognition of God through recognizing himself against the opposition of his creation. The Christian God needs the creation to understand itself in relation to creation.
For Germans of the time, the trinity was regarded as stages of God’s development in this way. Schelling had said in the earliest phase, God is the unground or chaos or dark energy before any grounding or distinction. In this narrative, God longed to give birth to himself, causing essence and ground to become differentiated from each other. Ground becomes nature actualized, and essence becomes spirit actualized.
The anthropology accompanying this is that humans are an actualization of both nature and Spirit, and a theodicy is produced in which evil is in humans because they are part nature. In this conception, evil occurs when the ground or nature escapes the control of spirit and acts upon it. This only happens in humans, though, and love is the proper reintegration of essence and ground. This is the love that I have characterized as the consuming agape informing Keller’s Political Theology of the Earth.
Hegel had trouble with Schelling, finding him too mystical and romantic. But the key point for me here is that God and everything else is always evolving and developing. In Hegel’s view, with an evolutionary account of nature we could give an account of God and religion and ethics. Liberalism of today remains very Hegelian in this regard.
But we could also think of this from another angle, less rehearsed by our academic philosophical traditions. At least part of the impulse to erasure, in my view, has to do with the introduction of a particular concept of infinity within modernity. Certainly as a mathematical concept, infinity is much older than modernity, but its “irrational” qualities made it the subject of secrecy among followers of Pythagorus in the ancient world.
Although it would be fascinating to trace this work to the ways the mysteries in Greco-Roman culture informed a less Jewish and more cosmopolitan Paul, more to my current point is that archaeologist Edwin Barnhart has noted that by the time Diego de Landa, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of the Yucatán called for the mass burning of all Mayan books in 1562 (only four are known to exist today) that at least part of the rationale was that Mayan math and “sacred geometry” employed a concept of “zero” which implied a nullity that could exist “outside” of the internally infinite Christian God in his Thomist-dominant conception.
In “Infinity in Mathematics and Theology,” Christian Tapp has written of Aquinas’s “updating” of Aristotelian notions of infinity and a prime mover.
Aquinas recalls from his earlier arguments that ‘‘the most formal of all things is esse itself.’’ But God is his own subsistent esse (ipsum esse subsistens). Hence, Aquinas finally arrives at the conclusion that God is infinite. To put it in a nutshell: For Aquinas, God’s essential infinity means being pure form without any limitation imposed by matter. (Tapp 94)
Tapp complains about the “loose ways” in which contemporary systematic theologians use the term “infinity” as if it is a transparent and stable signifier. For my purposes here, we can compare a Thomist, divinely-oriented material world with the great role of allegory in the medieval classics such as Dante’s Inferno. Something strange happens after eurochristians realize that Columbus had not found a passage to India but an entire “new world,” requiring overhauls in theological perspectives.
Anthony Pagden has written extensively covering the debates over the Natives humanity, and Robert Williams in The American Indian in Western Legal Thought and Savage Anxieties, among others, has traced impulses within Christian persecution of the Jews in the medieval period to the formation of the legal constructs that lay out what was at stake in such debates — namely, the usurpation of land and the “god-given” right to exterminate anyone else on it.
As Vine Deloria and, more recently, Robert J. Miller have detailed, the incorporation of the Doctrine of Discovery into U.S. law, not just in the famous Johnson v. M’Intosh decision but in the legal work of Thomas Jefferson and the wartime prospecting of George Washington, founds both the ideology of “Manifest Destiny” (well before John O’Sullivan minted the term in 1845) and U.S. property law. It was this same impulse, beginning with Washington but becoming an explicitly eurochristian themed holiday during the Civil War under Abraham Lincoln that made Thanksgiving a federal holiday in 1863.
Note the processual nature of the national conception here. Thanksgiving is the way people in the United States ritualize and civically maintain those metaphysics, even if we know science and theology have taken several turns since the Hegelian-oriented 19th century. Most people, my own family included, conceive of themselves as thoroughly secularized in the ways they celebrate Thanksgiving (or Easter, where we dye eggs and eat ham). But that amnesia is embodied by the importance of the ritual itself, which is partly how deep framing and intergenerational eurochristian thought is perpetuated.
It is important to note that in calling the Doctrine of Discovery and Thanksgiving into question as a more material-based ethics than Keller’s ‘political theology of the earth’ I am not making what some would write off as a “politically correct” claim. Instead, I am pointing to a eurochristian political-theological allergy to difference at the heart of U.S. civic and political culture. While I do think that such impulses owe at least part of their political theo-ontology to a broader Western European notion of liberalism, I am here pointing to explicit cases where political theological systems of the eurochristian variety directly inform both the legal and civic ritual processes of people on day-to-day, year-to-year bases.
If well-intentioned eurochristians really want to critique their complicity in historical and ongoing genocide — the kind we see historically directed at the erasure of fellow Indigenous humans as well as the non-humans that Natives have traditionally seen as relations — then they need to divest not merely in “white patriarchy” or racialized conceptions based on nineteenth-century pseudo-science but also in the exceptionalism of saintly christian election that informs the universalizing, evangelizing, and colonizing imagination of the political and economic basis for the existence of the U.S. as a political and theological entity.
And the same is true for other movements of social justice where the deep framing has to be called into question, as the brilliant articulations of Delores Williams’s “Womanist Theology” has done. But we should note that the struggle for Native Americans has not been to be included within U.S. civic policy but to maintain an international and cultural difference from it.
And the people who need to understand this especially are those whose own euro-forming articulates “religion” as a matter of belief, for it is this Lockean notion of the privacy of belief that underwrites liberal claims to religious freedom. If ‘religion’ is ‘belief,’ then it is already Protestant, and by creating the fiction that ‘religion is belief’ an anchor within Protestantism stabilizes a Christian ship oriented toward a Christian future. Such is the so-called Benedict Option as well, which James Carroll correctly describes in its far-right congruent ideology.
Religious conservatives may delight in my saying this, but despite loads of religious studies scholarship on the religion ‘market’ in consumer society, the binding aspect of religion is not merely an option, nor is an option what I think Luther meant by sola fide. I am well aware that Charles Taylor has written eloquently of the “buffered self” who exists in a society where God is “one choice” among many. I think Taylor does a good job in his articulation of a buffered versus porous self of what I expressed above in terms of infinity, and certainly works on religion and consumer culture are quite useful in showing the persistence of eurochristian forces in the mundane, as Nancy Ammerman and Kathryn Lofton have shown.
However, as I expressed with respect to Steven Newcomb and Tink Tinker in an earlier post, the deep framing is what matters, and this is why, despite Carl Schmitt’s own politics, the conception of political theology as a concept is useful. What we see in Catherine Keller’s attempt to create a universalized ‘political theology of the earth’ and media outlets such as Political Theology Network is generally an attempt to minimize Christianity’s ideological role in the economic and environmental destruction and reduction of the world into a frame of horizontal “infinite space,” that part of “the cross” Keller assigns to weak messianism and not antagonistic sovereignty. I say this with respect to Steven Moore’s words from a recent Political Theology Network post regarding legal decisions and indigenous land:
If to have religious freedom you must first have religion, and if religion is as problematic a moniker for Native claims, it is also true that Native nations and their advocates are less interested in whether religious freedom is conceptually bankrupt or not. From a pragmatic perspective, religious freedom is not perforce destined to fail, notwithstanding a pattern of failures thus far in court. And too much focus on court cases can skew our sense of how claims made in the register of religion can be useful in courts of public opinion, in consultation regimes, and in the climate shaping administrative decision-making.
The reason why the register of religion remains a force is due to the political-theological entrenchment of the protection within eurochristian concepts. And so, while Moore may very well be correct in the pragmatic aspirations of indigenous groups despite eurochristian frames, that does not give eurochristians the right to tacitly accept the fictional claims we have made simply because some indigenous groups might “eke out” an existence within frames of ‘religion’ even when it does not apply to them. There is a decolonizing process that eurochristians must go through that is different from Native efforts to maintain some sort of cultural practices.
Drawing on Vine Deloria’s Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties and David Wilkins, Glenn T. Morris (Shawnee) has articulated the linguistic manipulation long used by U.S. courts, noting that “the plenary power doctrine is an inexcusable maneuver by the Court to replace the independent political status of indigenous nations and the international treaty relationship between indigenous peoples and the United States” (116).
At the end of Morris’s essay, he points to Taiaiake Alfred’s (Kahnawake) suggestions for a new 21st century politics based on indigenous concepts, not to be confused with romanticizations of a mythical indigenous “past” (133).
Alfred recalls Deloria’s point that in traditional indigenous societies, law and politics and spirituality and culture were not separate, specialized spheres of knowledge, understanding, and praxis but were intimately interconnected and described as a way of life, or “our way of doing things.” Alfred applies those lessons in outlining four essential objectives in commencing the process of decolonizing the indigenous national experience in the twenty-first century: structural reform, reintegration of native languages, economic self sufficiency, and nation-to-nation relations within the state. He then couples this design with four essential principles of action to guide and inspire liberators action: (1) undermine the intellectual premises of colonialism, (2) act on the moral imperative for change, (3) do not cooperate with colonialism, and (4) resist further injustice. (Morris 134)
Note that one need not be Native to take these suggestions to heart. But if you couple them with mine above, you might easily see that the folks who need to be convinced are eurochristians who find themselves in various forms of bankruptcy and crisis. I think here would be a better place to start that conceiving a universalizing conception based on weak messianism.
My main critique of Keller’s attempt to outline a ‘political theology of the earth’ is that her universalized plan built from her constructive theology provides no sustained or credible relationally to indigenous people, though they are mentioned briefly in passing on the way to a grand vision. Nor does an amorous agonism avoid an allergy to difference, particularly in the ways that eurochristianity continues to theologically inflect liberalism without secularists knowing it. In fact, the claim to secularism itself tacitly celebrates the universality of christendom underwriting civic space.
What the discourse of political theology in the past twenty years has pointed to, besides fraught concepts of sovereignty as antagonistic power-grabbing, is the deeply entrenched eurochristian underwriting from Jean Bodin to Donald Trump. Difference cannot be relegated to liberal claims to “infinite” civic space that merely accepts one more identity category distinction just as anyone unhappy with their Protestant church can further splinter their own or an anti-clerical movement of the type James Carroll has called for celebrates DIY religion.
As Morris’s essay points out, Native Americans in the 1960s and 1970s became well aware of the problems with the usage of the term ‘sovereignty’ and its eurochristian embeddedness (131). Why is it so difficult for eurochristian discourse to forge credible relationships with indigenous scholarship instead of attempting to patent their own take? Why is it so willing to include but never let another, more experienced perspective lead the way?
The decolonizing work of eurochristians is certainly different from the decolonizing work of indigenous peoples, and I am well aware that many Methodists and Quakers have actively sought more credible relationships with Native peoples, but that work has in no way been refracted back onto the still euro-christian-framed dominant political culture in the United States. Instead of grandly synthesizing a ‘political theology’ of the earth, eurochristians would do better to inform each other of their own colonization and need for decolonizing strategies of their own.
Sayak Valencia’s recent book, Gore Capitalism has argued that communities traditionally oppressed by global capitalism’s foisting of extreme poverty and debt are a harbinger for what is coming to an unsustainable mainstream of capitalism in the U.S. In economically booming Denver, where I live, people just refused to pass a right to rest policy amid an explosion of homelessness and publicly visible mental health issues. Last weekend, I drove a carload of baby provisions to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Despite liquor stores having been shut down in White Clay, Nebraska, which sits at the southern border of the reservation, there remains a stark contrast when one crosses into the reservation. After dropping off the donations, I drove over to pay my respects at the site of the mass grave site of Wounded Knee. As my photograph above shows, the sign of the cross still dominates even as it attempts to repent the atrocities carried out in its name. It does this even amid many Native Americans who also self-identify as Christians because the broader U.S. culture still adheres to the code of domination that prevents them from relating to Native peoples without consuming them into itself.
I am not, therefore, asking Christians who conceive of ‘religion’ as a matter of faith or choice to “give up” their “belief.” I am asking for ways to see how deep framing affects us amid the appropriation of rhetorics of inclusion by evangelicals in the U.S. who believe they are discriminated against and under attack, as recent articles in The Atlantic and Christianity Today describe. That very persecution logic performs a very old genocidal impulse by making those who have traditionally had the most civic shaping power to reframe any social critique as a zero-sum fight for the “right to believe.”
The drama created in the social-space then masks and reorients the civic space toward an already Protestant Christian notion of religion as faith and belief. As long as we fight about that, as long as its a question of fractured identity claims that do not give attention to deep framing, we all remain colonized, though admittedly not in the same ways.
When I returned to Denver last weekend after my trip to Pine Ridge, I attended a celebration for a a friend of mine at Four Winds American Indian Council, which sits on land that the Lutheran church has credibly given back to the Native community. The celebration was a renewal of friendship with one of the Lutheran community members who made the abdication of land by the colonizers possible. That gesture could be indicative of the more tangible approaches to spirituality I hinted toward at the end of my previous post and the beginning of this one. It requires a real recognition of difference and a resistance to the allergy to difference that inhabits much of well-intentioned liberal culture.
At the renewal of friendship celebration, Robert Cross (Lakota) asked some elders present to just talk — about anything — in the presence of those being honored because any aspect of their perspective would bring their experiences into the moment of honoring the people before them. For him, it seems that tangible memory is the most important thing. Non-Natives who regularly celebrate the “secularized” political rituals while forgetting their imbrication within eurochristian histories of domination mask just how deeply rooted civic life in the U.S. remains in impulses to domination that are far from the still small voice of any weak messianism.
Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics. He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.