May 22, 2024

On Political Theology And Religious Poetics – A Tribute To Luis León (Roger K. Green)

If politics names the power relations regarding the polis, in their deliberative form, then ‘the political’ names the environment in which those power relations operate.  From the outset of Western civilization, Aristotle saw the polis or ‘State’ as this environment.  For him, it was organic and had life, as well as a genealogy, based on the necessities for reproduction.

In Aristotle’s schema, masculine intelligence was to “naturally” separate master from slave, yet the mutual dependency between man and woman for procreation meant that their relationship could not be the same as master and slave. This distinguished a sense of ethnocentric Greek superiority over other peoples: Greeks do not treat “their” women as slaves like others do.  But because of that, there was also the implication “that non-Greek and slave are by nature identical” (Politics 57).  This formed the “natural” order of the household.

As villages came to provide more than daily necessities, they mimicked the order of the household, producing kings, and this relationship was then superimposed onto gods, who men see as a reflection of themselves (59).  The formation of the state, having established self-sufficiency, turns toward the good life, but it maintains its organic genealogy, and it is by that telos that Aristotle determines its naturalness.  For as a social organism, the state aims toward its fullest end, just as a child becomes a man and aims for self-sufficiency, which is for Aristotle, perfection.

The development of the state as man’s “natural environment is what makes him a “political animal.”  Speech not only distinguishes men from animals but develops to determine what is harmful, just, and unjust as well as the perception to determine a difference between good and evil: “It is the sharing of a common view on these matters that makes a household and a state” (60).  Thus, lacking speech, Aristotle disallows “dumb animals” from being part of the state.  By the same reason, however, a god would not be part of the state because the god, outside of the state, is self-sufficient.  At least in Aristotle’s view, there is a natural separation between gods and the political.

That said, for the Greeks, man’s perfection and the reason for the state was to be sought in justice, and Zeus’s kingship over the other gods was due to his embodiment of justice.  As Hesiod’s Theogony describes, Zeus’s union with Themis – who was associated with the order of existence and xenia, the code of hospitality – birthed Diké, justice.  Despite the sexism in Aristotle, the ancient world’s gods express a need for procreative balance, as he says.

Thus, the study of the god, theology, is not entirely unrelated to the question of politics. It is enmeshed within a group’s anthropology: what constitutes “man”?  Political theology in this instance would name the homogalacticdiscourse by which a group collectively expresses justice and what or who is to be excluded from justice over generations and transferences of power – whether or not a god or gods are part of the polis and depending on the group’s anthropology.

For the Greeks, it is speech that separates man from animals in a natural being-toward-justice through the state/polis, but at the same time not all humans are Greeks and so they are excluded from their concerns with justice.  Presumably though, a group of humans conversant with animals and plants and without gods could have a different kind of political theology, one that would include plants and animals in discourse on justice.

As Zeus’s union with Themis and feminized figures of Fortuna and “blind justice” extend, the gendered balance that we often see in Indigenous cultures is there from the start, yet something masculinist “arises” with the organ of the State, which by logic should be an invisible container of beings in community containing both the masculine and the feminine.  Or, in contemporary terms, we could think of the State as logically operating in a hovering dialectic between queer and trans able to sustain and nourish all particularities within it.  But that is not what happened.

We know full-well that even two thousand years later, in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, that the femininity expressed by Antigone is reduced to the Potentates or “household” gods, that what Hegel calls the “ethical being,” still reminiscent of divine law, becomes reduced to the “private sphere” so indicative of the nineteenth century. And even in that privacy, a privacy that the Englishman John Locke had called the space of ‘belief’, untouchable by the modern State, now hardly organ but instead a machine, religiosity was feminized.

Even so, the hierarchical and masculinist elements in Greek political theology are expressed in the poetry they love to cite.  In Savage Anxieties, Robert A. Williams writes of the impulse to tell the stories of faraway lands where heroes defeat fantastic and savage creatures:

That only great mythic warrior-heroes like Odysseus, Theseus, or Herakles had the arête to take on such monstrous beings could not help but make this dark-sided version of the savage all the more threatening and anxiety-producing for the Greeks as they carried their Homer with them on their colonizing voyages to distant lands inhabited by strange and alien, primitive tribal peoples. (29)

These Greek elements persist throughout history and are exacerbated by Christian political theology.  They are still present today.

As Williams writes, “The contemporary global movement for indigenous peoples’ human rights is a direct response to the anxieties and distress caused by these types of dehumanizing legal principles adhered to by “civilized” states around the world today” (228).  This is a critique of the political theology of what has become known as “western civilization.”  Political theologies are not discreet entities, and clearly modern philosophers like Hegel were all about “synthesizing” what they read as Greek within the “Spirit” of world history.

What was at stake for Aristotle, however, is the notion of ‘self-sufficiency’ determining the “good life” and a “naturally” hierarchal order by which one attains it.  It is not so much “man’s” “separation” from nature for Aristotle but “his” fulfillment of natural capacity that politics provides.  In modern political theory, of course, the emphasis on the state as an automaton or apparatus became inflected by a European Christian rereading of the Greeks that emphasized a removal from “the state of nature.”

In that modern context, self-sufficiency is attainable by the rational citizen, who as Rousseau described, was no longer the animal, “man.” Again, in contemporary terms, the citizen would be logically queer except for the masculinist and vertically “cultivated” sense endowing his “Spirit” with the capacity of becoming Hegel’s Notion of pure being, and unfortunately it is in this abstraction that we see modernist notions of ‘religion’ too, which claim in a masculinist and public rationality even that which it feminized as private.

Here ‘religion’ names the performative recognition of a political theology expressed in the binding aspects of tradition, cosmology, and communicative ability to discern justice.  How “separated” or “elevated” that sense of justice is will vary according to both a group’s anthropology and its sense of who and what is considered part of the polis, as well as its sexism.

For example, if one communicates with ghosts or spirits, those entities are part of the polis because they belong to the environment and thus the political theology of that group.  Power relations within the polis do not only discuss “who rules over whom” but also the question of the vitality of life and its persistence, the “force” and expression of nature.  Biopolitics and necropolitics are expressions of political theology.

Aristotle’s term, ‘homogalactic’, refers to being nourished by “the same milk,” but we may also see a connection to “earth” or “milk of the earth” in reference to Gaia, the mother of the Titans, wife to Ouranos, “sky” and heavens. Discussions of the “Anthropocene” are attempts to develop new political theologies based on the idea that “man’s” impact on the world has become a threat to the existence of all life on earth.  They are also attempts at a corrective to masculinist logics that have distorted gender balances, whether heterosexual or balanced in more nuanced ways across a gendered spectrum.

When European Christians referred to people they colonized as “not having religion,” what they were implicitly saying is “these people do not have our political theology and thus do not need to be accounted for in terms of justice.”  They were outside the polis.  Such groups could be accounted for as “natural” or “primitive” within a cosmology that recognized “man’s dominion over nature,” just as Aristotle recognized the intelligent man’s “natural” dominion over the slave, who did physical labor.

Anthony Pagden’s The Fall of Natural Man  gives a detailed account of Thomist readings of Aristotle and a shift toward faculty psychology.  He also covers the famous 15thcentury debates about Amerindians’ humanity and the Valladolid controversy between Juan Gilnés de Sepúlveda and Bartholomé de Las Casas.  More recently, scholars such as David Chidester and Tomoko Masuzawa have focused on the modern invention of religion.

Chidester writes: “in the history of religions, the great divide between natural, savage, or primitive religions and civil religions was the basic principle of classification” (305).  Masuzawa argues, ‘religion’ was “endowed with all the weight and moral cathexis that was once proper to liberal Protestant theology.  This load of ideational energy has now been dislodged from that original site and transferred to ‘religion itself,’ now that the very theology has run up against the wall of its own undeniable history” (320).

In Genealogies of Religion, Talal Asad took anthropologist Clifford Geertz to task for defining ‘religion’ as a discreet symbolic system.  As Chidester notes in Empire of Religion, “Asad’s critique, therefore, was not merely about the validity of Geertz’s definition; it was also about the politics of defining religion as an autonomous cultural system” (308).  Chidester argues that “Imperial comparative religion merged knowledge and power, not in any simple social physics of cause and effect, as if the study of religion could cause imperial expansion, but in the ways in which knowledge about religion and religions circulated through the networks of empire” (312).

Jeremy Schott and Daniel Boyarin have taken the analysis of ‘religion’ in the context of Empire to their analyses of early Christianity’s attempts to separate itself from Judaism.  In Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity, Schott argues “for a consideration of pagan polemics and Christian apologetics not simply as sites of “religious conflict” or the production of “self-definition” but also as both constituted by and constitutive of Roman imperialism” (166).

Schott says, “early Christian apologetic discourses represented a mode of comparative practice analogous to, and in some ways a basis for, certain early modern and modern discourses of “comparative religion” and the “history of religion(s).”  Citing Lactantius, Schott writes, “religio marks sets of theological propositions and is theoretically identifiable transhistorically among all peoples” and therefore “we should locate the ethnological and historical rhetorics of Christian apologetics in the political context of (Roman) imperialism” (167).

Daniel Boyarin argues in Borderlines that “a significant amount of heresiology, if not its proximate cause, was to define Christian identity – not only to produce the Christian as neither Jew nor Greek but also to construct the whatness of what Christianity would be, not finally a third race or genosbut something entirely new, a religion” (4).  He goes on:

While Christianity finally configures Judaism as a different religion Judaism itself, I suggest, at the end of the day refuses that call, so that seen from that perspective the difference between Christianity and Judaism is not so much a difference between two religions as a difference between a religion and an entity that refuses to be one. (7-8)

Boyarin usefully points to the aspect of performative recognition in religion:

In the end, it is not the case that Christianity and Judaism are two separate or different religions, but that they are two different kinds of things altogether.  From the point of view of the Church’s category foundation, Judaism and Christianity (and Hinduism later on) are examples of the categories of religions, one a bad example and the other a very good one, indeed the only prototype.  But from the point of view of the Rabbis’ categorization, Christianity is a religion and Judaism is not. (13)

Early Christianity set itself up as categorical prototype by which other “religions” could be named and compared, much like the ethnocentricism that underwrote Aristotle’s sense of Greek superiority.  This was exacerbated by Enlightenment conceptions of “Natural” religion in thinkers such as David Hume and Charles de Brosses.

Would the rabbis that Boyarin speaks of above describe themselves as having a political theology while resisting being located as a ‘religion’?  Certainly, Jewish literature displays an active interest in the transfer of power over generations.  Certainly, the name ‘Israel’ emerges out of a power struggle between Jacob and his God.

We should perhaps also remember that Israelites negotiated with their god over the question of having kings or not, and that the sovereignty of men over men in the Torah’s lineage of kings is marked by initial distrust in their god’s ability to provide for them (Kings I, 8:18-19).  Nor ought one confuse the “creator” god of Augustinian Christianity, “fallibility,” and the discourse on sin and evil, with Jewish conceptions.  Nevertheless, the lineage of kings of the Torah prove every bit as fallible as Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae, who is torn apart by worshipers of Dionysus for not recognizing him as a god and son of Zeus.  Human limitation is the common theme, as is the recognition of power as such.  Justice is seen in human failure.

Poetics and drama represent aesthetics as the limitations “of the senses” in the failure of humans to achieve justice.  At the same time, they produce recognition and misrecognition – what Aristotle called anagnorisis and hubris.  This is why, for the Greeks, drama was part of religion.  Performance is ritualized, and surely the danger of representation at all, as is thematized in the Pentateuch and the unnamed man Jacob wrestled with, is a reminder of the violent seriousness at stake in representation itself.

Luis D. León’s borderlands conception of “religious poetics,” described in his masterful La Llorona’s Childrenaddresses the aestheticized encounter in which the making of religion occurs through a relationship of struggle with the state/polis.  It built into a queered conception of political theology that León would later articulate as The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez, of which I have written in more depth on Political Theology Today.  Here I want to give focus to religious poetics with respect to my above discussion of political theology and religion.

Ritual, repetition, and performativity are shaped by power relations through the discourse on justice.  Hybrid religiosities that are formed in the violence of the borderlands develop new formations of justice and new ways of communication in the midst of the very injustices of colonization, in the very limits of the colonizing organism, which eats and consumes to achieve its body politic.

As these hybrid religiosities form, they also inherently preserve the memory of the political theologies that preceded colonization, just as aspects of Greek and Hebrew thought persist within the domination of Christianity.  In that sense, León – who passed unexpectedly last fall – deemed his project one of recovery.

To exemplify this, León drew on Aztecan notions of flor y canto (flower and song) and the figure of La Llorona, who is able to poetically hold Tonantzin, La Malinche (Doña Marina), La Virgen de Guadalupe, Mary “mother of God,” and the Holy Spirit in simultaneity.  Much like a folklorist, León employed religious poetics as an analytical method by which one may preserve and recover in the face of globalization, colonization, and violent destruction.

To the extent that the concept is curious about new formations of justice, ‘religious poetics’ is importantly at odds with specific Indigenous groups seeking to preserve what they already know they remember from before colonization, global capitalism, and monoculture.  This tension, which could show up in pedagogical difficulties with his friend, Tink Tinker, is at the heart of the borderlands violence and generative potentiality that made up so much Luis León’s work and self.  Students of both Tinker and León like myself must always be attentive to this tension so as to not confuse border thinking with the very colonial violence that produces the violence of the borderlands.

In addition to this tension, León was also highly  selective and regionally specific to border places and temporalities.  For example, León’s work is not concerned with ways La Llorona may be expressive of Medea, from Greek literature and mythology.  His work is not concerned so much with mythological “archetypes” in the ways that comparative mythology and religion is.  In this way, he resists the kind of static and transcendent category of religion that thinkers like Masuzawa critique while also taking to heart the power-relations that Chidester, Schott, and Boyarin emphasize with the emergence of ‘religion.’

León  also importantly resists making distinctions between the imaginative and the real: “The borderlands is not only a physical place but also a poetic device for describing perennially emergent and multiplex individual, social, and cultural forms” (57). We should also read queerness here.  In La Llorona’s Children, León writes:

“Religious poetics” is used in the Greek, Aristotelian sense of poetry as performance, from the Greek poesis, doing or acting.  This is true particularly for religious terms, or for the religious context.  Perhaps the best known of the early recorded uses of the terms appears in the canonized Christian scriptures, James I:25: “He will be blessed in his doing.” Similarly, the Greek poesis signifies one who does something, or the maker of a poem. (17)

The Aristotelian connotation is perhaps more exemplified in the King James translation: “But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man will be blessed in his deed.”  We see in the emphasis on works here a flirtation with Protestant euro-forming, to use Barbara Mann’s term from her Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisasa book León admired greatly.  The passage emphasizes performance of deeds over aesthetics, but it remains Aristotelian in its aiming toward perfection. León goes on to tweak his own method:

But my deployment of this term comes mostly from the Aztecs, for only the poetry of flor y canto, flower and song, was truth, whether provisional or eternal, to be found for the Mesoamericans.  In keeping with this discourse, central to the following study is the return of poesis as a viable method not only to study and understand the way people attempt to make sense of themselves, others, and religion, but also to do, make, and achieve religion itself.  Rather than constructing a genealogy of borderlands poetics as a “return” after an absence, […] I construct it as an instance of Nietzschean eternal return.

In relying on Nietzsche, León is attempting to emphasize something more permanent, not just in a specific cultural practice that may underwrite or remain after a colonizing presence, such as the Aztec goddess Tonantzin “beneath” or “behind” La Virgen de Guadalupe, but the return of forces that humans must contend with to make religion.  León’s poetic “return” takes seriously the aesthetics of religion after eurochristian narratives saw Art as indicative of secularization, itself a eurochristian temporal concept.

I, however, want to take León a step further by emphasizing forms of justice beneath the conceptions of ‘political theology.’  This gives what I think is a more precise idea of religion– though I do not think this is at odds with León’s project.  Indeed, it shows how indebted theorists of religion ought to be to León’s work.  León, for example, draws on Durkheim to define religion outside of “faith” settings:

In short, what I mean by “religion” is often (re)produced, but not limited to, institutional settings, rigorously defined and explicitly stated “religious movements,” or even ancient traditions that have been thought of as “great” or not so great.  I also mean the emotional, psychological, physical, spiritual, imaginative, real, dogmatic, ambiguous, semiotic, mystical, mundane, order, and disordered stuff that emerges when humans try to make sense – make history – out of the fantastic forces of their world, of their unchosen conditions.

This is no Hegelian history.  León is clearly pushing toward a more spectrum-based and less either / or approach in his theory of religion.  Pushing toward more flexibility between myth and history, imaginative and real, León maneuvers toward preserved memory at work in borderlands religion.  He is pushing toward queerness in the contradiction of an entity pushing toward its own unrecognizable being, a being that is not formed through the negation of a binary or a celebration of its synthesis.

While León characterizes Mircea Eliade’s reading of Hegel as “perhaps romanticizing” the eternal return, he writes, “Nietzsche theorized the relentless and ironic return of all things in endless cycles of change and stability – including religion, debunking the Christian myth of forward progress and advance” (260).  León is trying to better capture a sense of movement outside of a linear trajectory toward a parousia.

In doing so, León resists the temporalizing of genocide in a eurochristian context that “justifies” the earasure of other peoples in a rationalized and spiritualizing process of transcendence. This is the power of his queerness and simultaneously a refraction on a view of transgender that is not merely the “changing” one binary category to another on a horizontal scheme, nor is it in any way a vertical transcendence of hierarchically “rationalist” metaphysics.

It is fitting that, after invoking Nietzsche to critique Christianity, León turns to Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase, “the condition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to an understanding of history that is in keeping with this insight.”  Thus, following Benjamin, León has taken an aesthetic approach to the notion of religious poetics to address natural forces at work determining peoples’ “unchosen conditions.”

Here I am reading León’s work as participating in the generative discourse of justice that allows us to see competing political theologies at work.  My friend Luis would have likely been dismissive of such an endeavor.  What real justice can a queer, Chican@/Latin@ really expect, other than an untimely end to suffering in this world? In this sense I see León performing and living and dying something like the ethics para joder as described by Miguel De La Torre, another friend and colleague of León’s from whom I have also learned so much.  As De La Torre writes in Embracing Hopelessness, “an ethics para joder is an ethics that f*cks with the prevailing power structures.  An ethics para joder fosters an effective response to the consequences of Eurocentric globalization, the oppressive normatively of social structures, and the pain of the domestication of communities of color” (150).

Luis León’s ‘religious poetics’ gives us access to those “outside” the consumption of the digestive tract of the colon, to those not considered “man” enough to be in the polis of Christian political theology.  Studying León’s work offers a theory of religion that exceeds the static and transcendent notion of ‘religion’ as characterized by largely Protestant Christian conceptions of “faith.”

Again, I think León pushes us toward ‘religion’ as naming the performative recognition of a political theology, expressed in the binding aspects of tradition, cosmology, and communicative ability to discern justice.  In this sense, we can exceed the rather limited notion of political theology so focused on the notion of sovereignty in the eurochristian tradition of German intellectuals such as Carl Schmitt.  In emphasizing the fact that communicative ability may change with varying notions of the political, we can open discursive space for ontological ways of being that have been considered “less than human” in the Western tradition, especially in the limited notions of Habermasian communicative action or tepid calls to faith for the faithless secularized citizen / automaton.

In tying ‘political theology’ to justice following a reflection on León’s ‘religious poetics’, we see the discursive possibilities for notions of justice that are not based on Aristotelian and later Hegelian notions of telos inscribed into a vertical hierarchy of “man over nature,” nor on static and transcendent concepts.  Religious poetics sees the emergence of religion itself as buffered when they “rub up against” forces of power.  In those moments, we discern different possibilities for justice by seeing the limits of various beings’ endeavors in the attempt to live and be nourished.

The question of language is fundamental here, especially because of Aristotle’s influence on anthropologies of speech as a defining characteristic of “man.”  In modernity, the aesthetic of the state apparatus as providing the container by which a “man” might move above a state of nature and become “reborn” as a rational citizen capable of moral sensibility and the even moving “beyond” the need for morality itself is articulated well in Friedrich Schiller’s “Letters on Aesthetics,” as I described last month.  The death space of borderlands thinking gives us an altogether different conception, the queerness that the State should have been but wasn’t because of a failure of western, masculinist versions of justice.

Broadening from “speech” to “communicative ability” in my definition of ‘religion’, I believe León’s implicit critique of androcentrism dominant in political theologies of western civilization points us somewhere else. Such a critique, following twentieth-century shifts in aesthetics and notions of embodiment will necessitate more developed discussions of both language and queerness.  And both in life and death León will not be there with us to work this out.  He is likely somewhere else that we do not know, hopefully having way more fun.  And if that seems too trite for the realities that non-heterosexual people face, let me invoke here the genderbended image of Sant@ Muerte.  I will miss you, Luis — but I will not forget you.


Roger K. Green is a senior lecturer in English at The Metropolitan State University of Denver.  He is the author of  the forthcoming A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics  and numerous short articles in Political Theology Today. He is general editor of The New Polis and currently pursuing a second PhD. in the Joint Doctoral Program in Theology and Religious Studies at The University of Denver.





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