In his 2008 book entitled The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, Columbia professor Mark Lilla elucidated the newness of modern political thought, which is predicated upon the rejection of the political theology of the medieval era. In Lila’s narrative,
The first modern philosophers hoped to change the practices of Christian politics… By attacking Christian political theology and denying its legitimacy, the new philosophy simultaneously challenged the basic principles on which authority had been justified in most societies in history… The ambition of the new philosophy was to develop habits of thinking and talking about politics exclusively in human terms, without appeal to divine revelation or cosmological speculation. (emphasis added)
With the remnants of political theology disposed, the thinking went, oppression would be overcome. In the new democratic order, rationality would prevail and human flourishing would finally be unleashed.
In many respects, Lila’s diagnosis is precise and deeply illuminating. There is, however, still something of a lacuna present in his narrative description. It is not simply the case that political theology has disappeared. Rather, the more subtle claim is that a different, but altogether real, form of political theology has emerged in our day.
At first glance, this position seems untenable. Lila’s central argument that political theology has slowly disappeared in the Western tradition appears difficult to refute. Rather than refute Lila’s position, I want to briefly elucidate a deeper nuance, which might even be the other side to Lila’s coin. As Lila rightly argues, political theology does need to be recovered. The contention here is that political theology is still very much alive, albeit in a distorted and rather crippling manner.
My focus here is on the form of political theology that is inextricably linked with progressive thinking upon social and political affairs. Specifically, I am interested in the progressive position regarding climate change as a case in point.
That climate change is a form of political theology can be seen in primarily, although not exclusively, two ways. The first is that the topic of climate change is positioned within a narrative structure that places strict emphasis upon its uniquely salvific framework. And secondly, logically stemming from the first, is that the solution to the climate crisis is one that must join together a new religion and political power.
It is not only normative, but required as a kind of first principle, that talk regarding climate change is laced with a reliance upon disfigured biblical imagery. The primary theological lens used here is that of “justice”. What is clear to those who warn of climate change is that we owe a debt to the planet, and in offering this debt, we will receive “what is due to us”,
What is so striking about this claim is not so much what it puts forward, but more what it almost universally avoids. In this theological vision there will not be, as the late Fr. James Schall, S.J., observed, a place for mercy, as only justice will remain. Justice will be that one thing needed. This disturbing reference to such isolated justice was notably present in Greta Thurnberg’s recent speech to the United Nations. Thurnberg let it be known to all the world that if something was not done in response to the catastrophe of global climate change that “they would never be forgiven.”
To highlight this absence of forgiveness also calls to mind an additional feature of the general narrative surrounding climate change. Evangelizing entails public expressions of anger and madness, which may be accurately understood as types of “sacramental signs.” Such signs are not reducible to a person’s temperament. Rather, they are a visible indication of one’s justification and righteousness. The dissatisfaction and vitriol expressed towards failed political and technical solutions to climate change is bolstered by the incomplete character of such attempts.
The political theology at play here is one that seeks to command and direct almost all facets of one’s existence through juridical regulation. This regulation looks to transform almost every detail and practical component of a citizen’s life. Again, Thurnberg’s speech reflects this posture. To reduce carbon emissions by fifty percent, she insists, would do almost nothing. What is needed is something even more comprehensive and total. Whatever this comprehensive solution entails, it is certain that this new “species of religion” will unite with politics.
But why is such a discussion of political theology important for our public discourse? It is certainly the case that those on the political left struggle to fathom how climate change could be called into question. “Facts are facts,” goes a common retort. Under this umbrella, climate change is not just something that is up for debate, but an indisputable doctrine to be accepted without question. To call global climate change into question is evidence either of intellectual ignorance or, even worse, some form of bigotry that necessitates anger and disgust as the only just response. Progressives and all those who support the climate change thesis (or just insert any major first principle of progressive politics today) almost universally overlook the manner in which the issue is so often framed–namely, in specifically theological terms.
Speaking precisely to this theological character of contemporary politics, and climate change in particular, Pascal Bruckner makes the following observation in The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings:
Now no leniency is possible; our crime has been calculated in terms of devastated forests, burned-over lands, and extinct species, and it has entered the pitiless domain of statistics. The wrong no longer proceeds from nature, from political or religious fanaticism; it is born of the Promethean individual who has ravaged the planet. The recent history of Western culture is nothing less than the simultaneous piling up of forms of guilt and liberation; we emancipate on one hand, in order to lock up, on the other; we destroy taboos only in order to forge new ones… Our pathos is that of the end of time.
As such, we might not be far off the mark in saying that political theology is not dead, but still very much alive.
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