Post-secularity Revisited

A few years ago, I wasn't sure how "post-secular" visions were in any way really different from the repristination-of-the-pre-secular readings of movements like Milbank's "radical orthodoxy." But, having been pushed back into reading Carl Schmitt this morning, I have an idea of how I may actually be post-secular.

First, we have to remember that if we're talking about secularity in any ideological fashion, we aren't talking about something that actually exists. The contemporary saeculum is nothing like the theory of "secularism." But it's important to understand that, from a certain mindset, "secular" means "anti-religion." Practice and reality are irrelevant at this point, because the opposite of "secular" is an image of Christendom. Or, when we think of our "enemy," the Caliphate. Which, really, is only a spur used by Christendom against opening the saeculum.

And we've been stuck in this early-modern form of warfare for far too long—so long, in fact, that fighting these battles ignores the fact that the world is different. It forces a double-mindedness that sees the world as it is, in its irreducible plurality of positions and values, and recoils into seeing the world as a series of binary oppositions and privations. And the positions in this pseudo-rational world only get more strongly opposed to one another. More isolated and radicalized, and less truly radical.

When Schmitt says "sovereignty," he means Wilhelm. He means exactly the political conception of the sovereign that we imported as an analogy for God and made theological, as it changed through time with the idea of the autocrat. This concept had been theological, but it was never so as a matter of origin—autocratic sovereignty was never not a political image that we laid over top of God's reality. But it forces Schmitt to believe in Hobbes against Hobbes. He cannot believe in the liberal basis for autocracy, and so he derives one more suitable to his observations of the chaos of parliamentary reality. But sovereignty is still never not autocracy. And Hobbes couldn't think of popular sovereignty in any way that would permit Schmitt the option of agreeing with him.

This is what's important about Hobbes, and what leaves him relevant in ways Schmitt is not. Ultimately, social contract theory describes autocracy as a temporary historical form of sovereignty. It is likewise a merely temporary historical form of theological understanding. The death of authoritarianism in politics is the death of authoritarianism in theology—except that political theology keeps attempting to sustain an authoritarian, binary worldview against plurality.

What does it matter if our religion is one among others? It may be a while since Christianity felt that reality, but it has always been reality. And we are one Christian people among others, whichever we happen to be, and one religious culture among others. The secular swing of the pendulum merely returns us to this reality. It is anti-domination. If that idea has historically also become forms of domination of its own, as in France in the Revolution, we need not choose between them. Nor do we need to color the world in dominations to see it as it is—only to continue to see it as it is not.

If the pendulum is swinging back, the Earth has moved under it. No pendulum revisits the same points in its motion. The Church replaced the Empire, and the Empire replaced the Church again, but they were none of them the same entities, the same ideologies. Religion has always lived in plurality, as cultures always have, and the question is not how to be religious or secular, but how to be what you are in a saeculum full of others who are not. How to do what you do—and must do—without the aid of the state, or any other larger secular apparatus which must respect that you are an other in a plural context. And, especially, how to be a citizen of such an apparatus, knowing that the world will not return to your control.

That's my post-secularity: a healthy saeculum, and theology for it, and politics for it—and a refusal of theology and politics against it.

If we will imagine the state of exception in such a case, it cannot be with reference to the rule of law from a very different case. Under Wilhelm, and in the end also in Weimar, the sovereign surely was the one with the power to suspend the government. But that is because the government was, in the end, the product of autocratic sovereignty. Parliaments were a joke in fact, until one could refuse autocracy and make it stick. And even though the younger President Bush has recently demonstrated that autocratic sovereignty can still work in a popular system, it works in much the same way as parliamentary democracy did under autocracy: haltingly, by the consent of the system.

What we do not yet have is a stable and safe saeculum, even though the people manifestly have the power to suspend governments and overthrow individuals. We do not think in plurality. We do not think apart from systems of domination. And we must. The right to make a state of exception from domination exists, just as the right to make an exception for it. It is a possibility in the system. It has existed for some time, as the long history of democratic theory demonstrates. It is even a more plausible possibility today. We use it, in small and large ways, more often than we use its authoritarian opposite. And yet we lean on a political theology and a theological politics of that opposite when we feel threatened in our status and way of life. We feel like we are dying, when we are only becoming less dominant. After all, White unemployment is a crime; Black unemployment is the natural state of affairs.

Let us be other, and among others, and let us design our systems for the reality that we belong in plurality, rather than against it. Theology, after all, is only dead if it refuses to move to safety.


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