Monday, June 09, 2008

Book Review: Theology and the Political - The New Debate

I was very excited about this volume, since it seems to take the Radical Orthodoxy in the direction I find most interesting, and because it has such a impressive list of writers from outside of Theology, many of which I regard highly (Zizek, Toni Negri, Simon Critchley to a degree). And there is much of interest here (and a lot of filler, that has to be said), but still one comes away from it with some sense of disappontment. None of the writers from outside theology engage with the RO perspective, nor, with the exception of Zizek, with theology properly. Thus the title is kind of misleading.

In this volume the bad i mostly boring so I won't waste time on that. The writers that stand out for me in this volume is Zizek, Daniel M. Bell, Catherine Picstock (much better here than in "Radical Orthodoxy"), Graham Ward and John Millbank. In other words, the core of the RO-Movement all give good contributions here.

Zizek reads Chesterton like no other, and comes out with very interesting things about paganism and Christianity. Only Christianity gives us possibility to enjoy this world, because unlike for pagans, Christians do not belive that "tomorrow we will die". Funny as hell also, although I still do not understand why he insists on describing Christianity as perverse.

Bell reads Deleuze, and more interestingly, Anselm. To read Anselm away from the ususal economic framwork is fruitful, and of the many criticisms of Capitalism that are found in this book, Bell's is the one I feel most likely to return to.

Ward does Marx. His argument, that is repeated in many of the other essays, is that capitalism and marxism share too much in terms of basic premises, and that Christianity offers a radically different view of man and the world, one that is based on gift instead of contract, on love instead of fear and so on.

Millbank discusses the Christian claim to universality based on Badiou and Zizek. I think a lot of this is solid stuff. I have been hesitant to think much about the idea of universal truth and Milbank does have some interesting points. But there is an obvious problem, that is not so much visible here as in this interview.

(The ‘other religions’ thing doesn’t matter. The world as a whole is rapidly Christianizing and even in Islamic countries Muslims are finding their own intriguing Islamic way to Christ in ever increasing numbers; this is readily verifiable).
What on earth can he possibly mean? Is this Milbank's suggestion for how Christianity is to deal with "other religions". It seems absurdly naive, to the point of delusional. If this is what his notion Christian universalism is like, I think we'd better pass on it.

Can anybody possibly shed som light on what he could be referring to?


Anonymous said...

is he referring to these types of stories: ?

Richard said...

I have the book on my 'to read' shelf, if i read you right I should only bother with the ostensibly Christian authors + Zizek?

dan said...

I'd be curious to hear more about the contributions by Eagleton and Negri. How 'bout we make a deal? You write a few lines about those essays, and I'll comment on why Zizek finds Christianity to be "perverse".

Patrik said...

Sure thing, Dan.

Eagleton discusses tragedy, that according to Aristotle is about pity and fear for/of the other. However, a proper tragedy like Oedipus, turns this on its head and shows us that what we pity and fear is ourselves. The West do not "get" tragedy: "It cannot recognize its own visage in the raging fury at its gates". Eagleton discusses how the central concepts of tragedy (scapegoats, sacrifice, hubris etc.) are at the heart of political discourse. Its a fine text, not very theological, but has some interesting insights.

Negri seeks to answer this question: "Can one provide an ontology of the political subject outside of all teleology within the postmodern conditions of absolute immanence". In other words, how can the "multitude" function as a political subject without becoming a collective like the "people" or the "masses". Much like in his and Hardt's book "Multitude" the solution is to start from poverty, because the poor stays withing the "bios" since they hav no alternative. Its a fairly short piece that does not contribute very much new insights as far as I can see. (There is an online lecture (youtube) by Micahel Hardt on love that addresses the same question that is quite interesting BTW)

Patrik said...

Oh and Richard, yeah, if you're not interested in any other specific topic. There are other good essays there too, but they are good more in a pedagogical way than because of an original substance. And you do get tired of the constant referrals to Deleuze...

But the Zizek piece is great.

dan said...

Thanks Patrick!

I've seen the Michael Hardt lecture to which you referred, and I'm reading Multitude at the moment.

As much as I enjoy Hardt and Negri (and that is quite a lot!), I really am suspicious of this ontological turn. It strikes me as a flight from the dominant biblical way of thinking -- i.e. eschatological thinking, which, by nature, is teleological. That said, I have found what H&N have had to say about ontology more interesting than pretty much any other I have read who has written on this subject.

I'll get back to you on Zizek tomorrow (I'm at work and don't have my sources close by).

Oh, and a thought on the constant references to Deleuze. I've always been puzzled as to why James K. A. Smith neglected Deleuze in his, otherwise rather good, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Granted Lyotard had that one famous catchphrase (postmodernism understood as incredulity toward metanarratives), but Deleuze and his influence surely rank far above Lyotard (if not above both of the others as well!).

Patrik said...

Speaking of H&N and Zizek, Do you know where Zizek criticises H&N? I have understood that his criticism is rather strong?

My favourite part of Hart&Negri is the "middle" part of Empire where they discuss the passage from premodern into modern and into postmodern bodies. Probably the best thing written on postmodernity I have seen so far. (at least it is the most relative to my interests).

dan said...


I hate to do this, but my life (both at work and at home) has taken an unexpected turn into chaos, and I don't think I'm going to have the time to spell out Zizek's position in the necessary detail. However, this article -- -- does a pretty good job of explaining Zizek's stance on the "perverse" nature of Christianity (esp. the final section). If you have any questions after reading that, let me know, and I'll really try to follow up on this.

dan said...

Crap. The link got cut off.

There it is in full.

If that doesn't work, the part that got cut off in my last comment runs like this:


John P. said...


Just noticed that you are back to blogging again. Welcome back! Good to "See" your return.