May 22, 2024

Carl Schmitt And The True German Origins Of Political Theology (Jonathan Cole)

“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” Thus opens the book that is said to have given birth to political theology—Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology, published in German in 1922.

This deceptively simple proposition opens a highly stimulating and insightful examination of the relationship between sovereignty, law and the state. But what does Political Theology have to do with “political theology” as we understand that term today? I will argue that it has very little to do with political theology. In fact, I will argue that Schmitt had little to do with the emergence of political theology as a “discipline,” “subject,” or “discourse” (call it what you will) in English-language scholarship.

The discussion proceeds in two parts: an analysis of the political theology content of the book so-called, followed by an examination of the circumstances in which political theology emerges as an explicit concept in English-language scholarship.

Schmitt’s Use of the Concept “Political Theology” 

The first observation to make about Political Theology is that, title notwithstanding, it is not about “political theology” as we understand that term today. Political Theology directly addresses the issue of political theology in only one of the four essays that comprise the book. Moreover, that chapter—aptly titled “Political Theology”—contains just three explicit references to “political theology,” indeed, the only references in the whole book (I discuss an exception below).

The titles of the remaining three essays paint a more accurate picture of the book’s central concern: “Definition of Sovereignty,” “The Problem of Sovereignty as the Problem of the Legal Form and of the Decision,” and “On the Counterrevolutionary Philosophy of the State (de Maistre, Bonald, Donoso Cortés).

It is telling that in their foreword and introduction to the book respectively, neither Tracy Strong nor George Schwab saw any particular need to discuss the concept of political theology. Strong explains (accurately) that Political Theology is about the nature and prerogative of sovereign political authority in the West (including the role of Western Christianity in its development) (vii).

Schwab describes the import of Political Theology as its contribution to “a deeper understanding of the political and constitutional history of the Weimar period,” the insight it provides into “Schmitt’s understanding of state, sovereignty, and politics” and its ongoing relevance “to our understanding of the functioning of the sovereign state” (xli).

Again, what does Political Theology have to do with “political theology”? The fundamental argument advanced in the chapter called “Political Theology” is that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (36). This is the idea most oft cited in support of the claim that Schmitt was the progenitor of political theology (I do not dispute the contention that he was the first to use the term in print). Schmitt argued that the “omnipotent God” had been replaced by the “omnipotent lawgiver” in the theory of state, and that “the exception in jurisprudence [was] analogous to the miracle in theology” (35). As he explained,

Whoever takes the trouble of examining the public law literature of positive jurisprudence for its basic concepts and arguments will see that the state intervenes everywhere. At times it does so as a deus ex machina, to decide according to positive statute a controversy that the independent act of juristic perception failed to bring to a generally plausible solution; at other times it does so as the graceful and merciful lord who proves by pardons and amnesties his supremacy over his own laws (38).

Schmitt’s proposition about the secularization of theological concepts is fundamentally a historical argument.  The nineteenth century saw God “radically pushed aside” such that legal authority and legitimacy became “identified with the lawfulness of nature, which applies without exception” (48). This contrasted with a mode of conservative counterrevolutionary political thought which supported “the personal sovereignty of the monarch” by using “analogies from a theistic theology” (37).

In conservative (mainly Catholic) theory of the state the monarch was identified with God and occupied a position in the state “exactly analogous to that attributed to God in the Cartesian system of the world” (46). Schmitt’s key insight (he actually credits it to Kelsen and Leibnitz before him) is that there is a “systematic analogy between theological and juristic concepts” in spite of “the elimination of all theistic and transcendental conceptions and the formation of a new concept of legitimacy” (51).

But again, what does this have to do with political theology? At just three explicit references and a book title, it is actually difficult to say. In all three instances where the term “political theology” is used by Schmitt, it appears to denote a conservative theory of state propounded by writers supportive of the Restoration in the 19th century—the Cartesian defense of monarchy mentioned above.

In one instance, Schmitt contrasts the “political theology” of the Restoration with “the radicals who opposed all existing order” and thus “directed…their ideological efforts against the belief in God altogether” (50). Another draws a parallel with contemporary (1920s) democratic thinking—the “pragmatic belief” in America “that the voice of the people is the voice of God,” and Tocqueville’s observation that “in democratic thought the people hover above the entire political life of the state, just as God does above the world” (49).

The three explicit references to “political theology” suggest that Schmitt applied the term in a rather specific and limited manner, namely, to a nineteenth century German current of political thought about the state that had been superseded by Schmitt’s day. But that would seemingly make the book’s title something of an eccentric choice. A clue to the puzzle of the title can be found in Schmitt’s preface to the second edition in 1934, where he uses the term “political theology” in a rather different sense, as a heuristic for analyzing political theories and ideologies.

There is a somewhat cryptic reference to “the thought processes of political theology,” for instance, and a suggestion that the “idea” of political theology might be applicable to the notion of “representation” in the 15th and 16th centuries, 17th century monarchy, the notion of “neutral” power in the nineteenth century and even the modern “administrative state” (1). It is possible that Schmitt regarded the entire book as “political theology” in a methodological or theoretical sense. Even so, Schmitt’s use of the term “political theology” is opaque at best.

The True German Origins of Political Theology

The origins of political theology are indeed German. It is just that Schmitt is not the German in question. The first explicit and substantive discussion of “political theology” in English comes by way of German Catholic theologian Johannes B. Metz., who in 1968— a full 46 years after Schmitt’s Political Theology—published an essay in the Harvard Theological Review called “Religion and Society in the Light of Political Theology” (he also discussed “political theology” in his book Theology of the World, published in English translation in 1969).

Unlike Schmitt’s treatment of “political theology” as a heuristic for interpreting certain historical political theories, or as a means of designating a particular current of political thought in nineteenth century Germany, Metz approached political theology as a “task” to be performed by theologians (507). Metz envisaged “political theology” as both a “critical correction” to the “extreme privatizing tendency” of Christianity and “a positive attempt to formulate the eschatological message under the condition of our present society” (507).

The critical task entailed Christian theology “uncover[ing] the socio-political implications of its ideas and notions,” a need arising from the breakdown of the erstwhile unity between religion and society (508). Metz’s overarching concern was to combat the privatization, and concomitant depoliticization, of Christianity. In Theology of the World he would argue that “the deprivatizing of theology is the primary critical task of political theology” (110).

The positive task of political theology, according to Metz, entailed what he described as a post-critical “second reflection” on the relationship between religion and society” (511). Underpinning Metz’s conception of political theology’s constructive task was the conviction that salvation is public: “Christian salvation is intrinsically concerned with the world, not in a natural-cosmological sense, but in a socio-political sense…as a critically liberating force of this social world and its historical process.” (513)

Metz’s introduction of the term “political theology” to English-language theology was shortly thereafter followed by another German, Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann. In 1971, he penned an essay called “Political Theology” published in Theology Today. Like Metz, Moltmann was preoccupied by the Enlightenment’s relativization and privatization of Christian tradition and faith. He too approached political theology as a task—“engag[ing] in a social, political, and psychological criticism of the Enlightenment in order to achieve a new state of consciousness” (7).

The new state of consciousness he had in mind was a theological consciousness: “political theology is therefore not simply political ethics but reaches further by asking about the political consciousness of theology itself” (8). Moltmann set a Christological foundation for political theology, on the basis that “the cross of Christ is…the one truly political point in the story of Jesus” (15).

Another German soon followed—Dorothee Sölle, whose 1971 book Political Theology was translated into English in 1974 (the German title was Political Theology: A Conversation with Rudolf Bultmann). Though approaching political theology from a somewhat different perspective from Metz and Moltmann, she too nevertheless understood political theology to be a “program” that sought to “bring faith and action together more satisfactorily” (2). English-speaking theologians quickly embraced the concept of “political theology” and the term has been part of the theological lexicon ever since.

English-speaking theologians of the 1970s, however, were patently aware that the term “political theology” was of very recent provenance in their context. Alistair Kee, for example, in his preface to the 1974 volume A Reader in Political Theology explained to readers that the “phrase” political theology had “only appeared in the last few years” (ix).

The fact that the term “political theology” only began to gain currency amongst English-speaking theologians in the mid- 1970s might help explain the oddity that one of that decade’s most influential contributions to the discussion makes no mention at all of “political theology”—John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, published in 1971. The Politics of Jesus is a timely reminder that politics was already in the process of making a big comeback in American theology at the time German theology bequeathed it the term “political theology”.

Yoder too was motivated by frustration at the depoliticized private faith that then passed for Christianity. Yoder and his ilk were addressing something then known as “social ethics,” a term which appears to have been supplanted by political theology from the 1970s.

The only other occurrence of the term “political theology” appearing in English-language scholarship in the period between Schmitt’s Political theology and Sölle’s, that I have been able to identify, is a 1935 essay by Julian Obermann called “Political Theology in Early Islam: Hasan al-Basri’s Treatise on Qadar” in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, and a 1957 book by Ernst Harwig Kantorowicz called The Kings’ Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Both instances use “political theology” in a historico-descriptive sense.

It is noteworthy that Obermann was born in Warsaw and educated in Germany and Kantorowicz was born and educated in Germany. Shelley’s introduction to Soelle’s Political Theology makes reference to a 1971 essay by American theologian Frederick Herzog, called “Political Theology in the American Context,” which was published in Theological Markings (now defunct). I have been unable to get access to a copy of this essay, but I do note that Herzog was raised in the German Reformed Church and studied in Germany and Switzerland, which might explain his familiarity with the term.

W(h)ither Schmitt?

It is clear that German theologians introduced the concept of “political theology” to English-speaking theologians in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, precisely what influence Schmitt did or did not have on those German theologians is far from clear. A direct influence appears unlikely. Firstly, Metz, Moltmann and Soelle simply make no reference to Schmitt. John Shelley, in the introduction to his translation of Soelle’s Political Theology, mentions en passant in a footnote that one Schmitt and Erik Peterson engaged in a debate about political theology in the 1930s, but then clarifies that Metz “revived the term” and imbued it “with new meaning” (in reference to his 1968 essay discussed above) (xii).

Secondly, Metz, Moltmann and Soelle all use “political theology” in a rather distinct sense from Schmitt. For these German theologians (and their English-language colleagues), political theology constituted a task or activity that sought to use critically and constructively engage the secularization of Western society and its concomitant depoliticization of Christianity.

It is conceivable that our German theologians were indirectly influenced by Schmitt. It is possible that one or more of them were familiar with his Political Theology, or that they first came into contact with the term “political theology” by virtue of a German tradition indebted to Schmitt. But this is idle speculation. The fact remains that Schmitt appears to have played no meaningful role in the birth of political theology in English-language scholarship. His Political Theology, after all, was not translated into English until 1985, well after Metz and Co. had introduced the term to English-speaking theologians and imbued it with a different meaning from Schmitt’s.

In a final twist of irony, Schmitt actually revisited the issue of political theology precisely at the moment it was emerging as a phenomenon among German-speaking and English-speaking theologians. In 1970, he published his final book in German: Politische Theologie II. The irony is that it was not translated into English until 2008 and has all but been ignored by the field with which his name has become synonymous. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward assure us in their introduction to the English translation of Political Theology mark II that this one is “much more explicitly theological” than the first one, which they concede contained “a very limited amount of theology.”

One cannot help but wonder whether this was Schmitt’s attempt to join a then emergent theopolitical conversation in Germany, which had perhaps ignored his first ostensible contribution to the topic. Whatever the case, it is time we reassessed Schmitt’s purported role in the development of political theology, particularly in its English-speaking context.

Jonathan Cole is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia. He has a PhD in Political Theology and is a contributing editor to The New Polis.


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