The transition of power in a major world government poses a good opportunity for Christians to pause and consider what we truly want for the governance of our cities and nations. What are we theologically entitled to hope for as a projection of a common good? What do Christian creeds, habits, and ideals tell us about the sort of political spaces we ought to desire?
The coincidence of this political period in the United States with the Incarnation cycle in the Western liturgical calendar—Christ the King, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany—only underscores the urgency of these questions.
Something radically new, revolutionary even, entered public space in the incarnation of the Logos. Is there the possibility of a political fidelity to this event? Revolution, in this sense, need not imply, one hopes, assault rifles and coups, and fidelity need not imply something so crass as a constant state of violent insurrection. Still, there is something of a repeated insurrection enacted liturgically when Christians celebrate the birth of the Logos at Bethlehem, and the angels sing that this “great joy” is for all people. Without trudging into the controversial (and far from well-mapped) space of theocratic theory, I will ask a minimalist sort of question: Can followers of Christ imagine a politics that is faithful to the revolution that Christmas Eve introduced into history?
I believe that we can in fact imagine a more authentic revolution than what commonly goes by that name. But before sketching the potential for Christian revolutionary politics, I want to reflect on the idea of revolution itself. What does it mean to revolt? What might be the structure of a truly revolutionary politics?
At the outset, I might suggest a few general characteristics: broadly dispersed power of self-determination, well-tended organisms for self-organization in limited localities, and above all, a refusal to submit to unmediated, extrinsic power. In this regard, Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound might serve as the icon of the contemporary revolutionary.
Writing in the early nineteenth century, Shelley used the classical motif of the war between the Titans and Olympians, especially as related in Aeschylus’s triad of Prometheus poems, as a way of troping the modern struggle of humankind for freedom. Whereas the lost tale of Aeschylus seems to have resolved this great struggle through the submission of Prometheus, the conquered Titan, and the mercy of Jove (Zeus,) the victor, Shelley held that “the moral interest of the fable would be annihilated if we could conceive of Prometheus as unsaying his high language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.”1 Thus, Shelley has Prometheus, the fashioner of humankind, while chained to a rock, tell the concerned Mercury:
Submission, thou dost know I cannot try:
For what submission but that fatal word
The death-seal of mankind’s captivity,
Like the Sicilian’s hair-suspended sword,
Which trembles o’er his crown, would he accept,
Or could I yield? Which yet I will not yield.2
To submit obediently to a transcendent authority would be the death of Prometheus’s beloved race—if Jove is God, humanity must deny its aspirations and remain loyal both to the strength of its God and to its own weakness. Seeing this, and insisting instead on the fall of Jove for the good of the human race, Prometheus becomes “the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.”3 His curse awakens the Demagorgon, spirit of the deep, who rides into the heavens to depose Jove just as the latter is asserting his omnipotence. “Alone / the soul of man, like unextinguished fire, / yet burns towards heaven,” Jove laments, “hurling up insurrection, which might make / our antique empire insecure.”4 In the end, human nature is freed from the powers of heaven, and thus, it becomes “its own divine control,”5 unbound in every way to grow in virtues, especially in love, which was for Shelley the deepest, truest human expression, and he believed that it was also the strongest claim for autonomy—only a person free to hate can truly love.
And yet how revolutionary is Prometheus for his beloved humans? His cry constantly echoes what he knows to be the cry of the nations, for “truth, liberty, and love,” virtues that must be freed from tyrants who rush in and sow “strife, deceit, and fear.”6 He knows this, of course, as the craftsman who lovingly formed the creatures and stole the light of craft and knowledge for them. Prometheus cancels extrinsic tyranny so that men can be loyal to their own intrinsic essence, which is truth, liberty, and love. This will be the key to reassuming “an empire o’er the disentangled doom.”7 Unrestrained, the insurrectionism will breed virtue, and the many will be one. The many will become one when they speak from their own singularity in a voice that is universal. Shelley is, of course, relying on the hope that when each individual rises up and creates from his or her own intrinsic depths, what he creates will be recognizable as love, and thus, a universally affirmed energei.
But the many can become one, as Aristotle knew, only when the “natural” eros that men and women feel for family, friends, and lovers is tempered and formed through the broader, more universal virtue of justice. If we were all intimates of one another, there would be no need for justice; the fact that we live near strangers means that there must be some sort of abstract measure in the good polis above individual attractions.8
The reader of Shelley’s lyrical drama is hereby presented with a problem. There is no way of ensuring, monitoring, or even measuring this correspondence between the individual freed from Jove’s tyranny and the universal space that all free humans now share—no way, that is, unless there is a Prometheus still hovering about, someone who can tell his beloved creatures the limits of their freedoms. Therefore, individuals can complete their revolution only by submission to a new authority who can direct them to the proper universality of revolt; and a revolution can be universal only when the universal principles it evokes are constituted and originated by individuals with absolutely no attention to universal authority.
I refer to Shelley’s poem here because I think the image still bears power. Whereas the Hegelian political animal develops by internalizing the extrinsic other and relying on the actual tyrant as a sort of false other who calls the subject to be, Shelley anticipates much that is radical about post-Hegelian theory. Indeed, Marcuse and the Foucault of Discipline and Punish fit a more or less Promethean paradigm, as they both imply a call for insurrection against an external authority and place hope in a universal that is unleashed in the uprising. Even the far more radical politics of French philosopher Alain Badiou arguably bears marks of Prometheus’s unbinding.
Badiou’s theory, if one can use that term, of revolution centers on procedures that enact radical novelty. According to Badiou, the state often functions as an “excresence,” his term for a machine of representation that has no relation to the “presented multiples” of the people. Military states and bureaucratic states are excresensic, as they provide representatives of governing powers without in fact presenting the powers actually doing the governing. The soldiers and bureaucrats function as anti-mediators who prohibit real, meaningful exchange between the rulers and the ruled. But Marx (like Hegel) makes this excresence necessary by insisting on this conflict as a necessary condition for the possibility of revolution. For Badiou, this assertion cheapens revolution because the excresence itself actually determines the terms and even the range of any ensuing revolt. True revolution must escape the dialectic altogether.9
Badiou’s fundamental philosophical thesis is that the One is not ontological but actual. Each one, which is to say each posited unity of multiplicities, is actually a “count-as-one” that is voluntarily determined out from a void which always exceeds it, and thus which it can never represent. Truth is not the representation of what is, but fidelity to what is actualized by a will. In terms of political theory, Badiou argues that a true revolution does not just seek to counter the old, the higher, the wealthy, the conserving, or the artifice in order to make room for the new, the lower, the worker, the progressive, or the authentic. Instead, revolution establishes the radically new by an act of abolition—or perhaps negligence in the form of the revolutionary who maintains that “the old state is dead to me”—that constantly affirms its own relation of excess to the ontological void: “It is this difference alone that subtracts politics from the one of the statist re-insurance.”10 No authentic politics is true to what is already there in the region because politics emerges from events that break with the past, with tradition, and with culture, in order to posit radical novelty. If the event is truly an event, which in part means that it is a radical break that articulates its own novelty and thus its lack of ontological foundation, a region can practice a fidelity to the new event. So the true political revolution, for Badiou, is the event and the subsequent fidelity to that event.
Interestingly, however, a sort of universality that is similar to that of Shelley emerges in Badiou’s politics. His L’Organisation Politique, an organization of “politics without a party” bases itself in part on the maxim that “everyone who is here is from here,” and it thus affirms its potential limitless application.11 Because a true event can count-as-one all its elements without assuming their ontological unity, no ethnic or religious particularity can trump the new politics. But this in itself is a particular politic, with a potential common ethic that remains, de jure, immeasurable. What persons, tribes, and cities lie within the purview of the event if it is not dialectically constructed from the boundaries and alliances that preceded it? Furthermore, if truth is a matter of fidelity to the event (the revolution, in this case), and yet this fidelity must be internal to the event so that one does not fall into the trap of excresensic power that hides its face while demanding universal fidelity, how universal can the event’s internality extend? Shelley’s aporia is not yet overturned. An event must be absolutely without precedent or warrant, and it must be universal in its reaches; but still, to become a politics, it must engage particularity. The divide between being and act means that an event will only attain to universality to the extent that it cloaks its particularity in universal ideology. So excresence is simply bureaucracy, and not that revolutionary at all in the end.
My aim here is not to engage in a full critique of Badiou’s political theory. Let me say, for the sake of clarity and disclosure, that I generally agree with his overturning of the postmodern monarchy of difference in favor of the universal. And I generally agree with his notion that an unprecedented truth event can launch a politics of fidelity which is universally applicable—Saint Paul’s kerygma of the resurrection is at least this, although it is also more than this.12
Here, however, I wish to point out a sort of wrinkle in the fabric, which I take to be related to the wrinkle in the script of Shelley’s poem. The revolutionary nature of Badiou and Shelley’s related political visions, both of which favor a radical beginning, is compromised, because what is created will always return to a less-than-one that counts itself as one and thereby hides its own inability to mediate the truly universal. So parliamentary procedure is replaced by the fictively universal count-as-one that returns, finally, to majority or aristocratic or oligarchic rule (what else?); the Demagorgon deposes Jove only to replace him with Prometheus; the voters chase out the Republicans and vote in Democrats, and the revolution has begun . . . and ended.
I suggest that it is precisely this aporia of unmediated universality that the faith of classical Christianity avoids. The link, however, between the critical comments above and the constructive comments below can be found in the fertile conclusion to Shelley’s poem, a final stanza that may just save the poem. The Demagorgon offers a litany of blessings to the gathered spirits and elements, a sort of calling for each to carry on in such a way that love might fold “over the world its healing wings” (4.561). Among the spells that will “reassume / an empire o’er the disentangled gloom” is the particular vocation given to humanity:
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates [. . .]13
What would it mean for hope to create “from its own wreck” what it contemplates? Taking our cues from Socrates’s remarks in the Republic, we have generally tended to hold the creative impulses as secondary to the noetic impulses. We know a thing “because it is there,” and then we, or an artist or craftsperson, can attempt to make it.14 We must contemplate not our own wreckage, but the extrinsically true and beautiful, and craft our selves, or our state, in its image. Badiou rightly challenges this order of extrinsic representation because fixing our eyes on what is already there is precisely what defeats or prevents the state-crafting event from becoming and maintaining the revolution. But this break between contemplation and creation also keeps Badiou’s politics from successfully navigating a mediating relation between the many and the one, in that he ultimately says that hope must create without contemplating. Could contemplation of our own wreckage, then, be the hidden key to political revolution?
Surprisingly relevant, perhaps, is Clement of Alexandria’s quip that “contemplation is, I think, the goal alike of the statesman and of the person who lives in accordance with the Law,” or as an older translation put it pithily, “The goal of all politics, I believe, as of all law-governed life, is contemplation.”15 I turn now to explore this notion in Clement, because in this short essay I am more interested in the question of Christian revolution than in questions about how this vision alters Shelley’s great poem or even about how the “subjective production” of Badiou may in fact give some place to radical mediation in spite of his own prejudices against it.
Revolutionary politics according to Clement of Alexandria
First, for Clement, it is contemplation of the Logos that issues forth in true Law, and thus he carefully recasts Moses as the Old Testament Christ—Jewish Nomos as prefiguring Christian Logos. “In a word Moses was law incarnate in that he was governed by the goodness of the Word.”16 The cohesion between Moses and Christ, Nomos and Logos, is especially apparent in Clement’s use of shepherd imagery when he suggests that Moses the lawgiver is a type of Christ the shepherd:
So, just as we say skill in shepherding is care for the sheep, for “the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep,” so we shall say that skill in legislation is the provision of virtue in human beings, awakening as far as possible what is good in human beings in the process of directing and caring for the human flock. And if the flock of the Lord’s parable is simply a human herd, the same person will be a good shepherd and a good legislator for the single herd, the sheep who knows his voice; he will be the single one caring for them, seeking the one who is lost, and finding him thanks to the Law and the Word, if in fact “the law is spiritual” and leads to blessedness.17
Moses is the Law; he is the shepherd who cares for the sheep of Israel by leading them to Christ, the ultimate true shepherd who lays down his life. The New Covenant can revolutionize the Old precisely by its fidelity to the old, albeit a fidelity that supersedes the old politics’ cast of itself. This is why, I should add, Badiou prefers Saint Paul to Christ; he sees in Christ a figure bold enough to abolish the Law, whereas Paul is only willing to fulfill it. Badiou reminds us that Paul did not go to Jerusalem to marshal authority, and this, he suggests, is evidence that Paul is neither a Jew in the old sense nor a Jew in the new sense, but an apostle of the resurrection.18 However, it may be worthwhile to remind Badiou that it was Paul who initiated the kind of allegorical interpretation of the Law, in Galatians 4 and Romans 4, which Clement is here carrying out. Moses and Abraham are the “authors,” or at least the prefigurations, of the historical revolution in which Jesus and Paul preach the radically new. If Paul founds a community based on fidelity to the gospel of resurrection, it is because he is contemplating the Law that came before and its internal impetus for overcoming itself by fulfilling itself in Christ. This is the source of the language that is incorporated into the Nicene Creed a century later regarding the Holy Spirit, where the structure demonstrates that the one who brings catholic unity and resurrection through baptism and atonement is the same one who “spake by the prophets.”
Let’s call this Christianity’s first thesis for a revolutionary politics: Radical novelty issues from fidelity not to a subjectively or locally determined event, but to a tradition.
Second, the doctrine of the Logos affirms that that which is made is a repetition, though a non-identical one, of that which is contemplated. In fact, this is true for God as well as for us created creators: the Logos is the mind of God and the simple coherence of all divine ideas as they are contemplated by God the Father. Likewise, Clement’s image for spiritual perfection is the architect contemplating an idea prior to crafting a structure.19 Intra-Trinitarian contemplation for creation becomes intra-creational contemplation in light of the doctrines of creation and the Logos becoming flesh. However, the doctrine of Incarnation seems to break the apparent rule that universals remain abstracted from particulars. Here Christ performs the illegal mediation in his own flesh, allowing a particular articulation (kerygma) to bear the scope of universal being. This is foreshadowed, in Clement, through the dispersion of the books of Moses among the Greek philosophers. The translation of Law into the many languages is praeparatio evangelium for the fulfillment of Law in Universal Logos.
Although there is an important series of alterations between Clement’s Logos Christology and the creedal language of the fourth century, the basic principle that universal being assumes particularity for the sake of saving the universal still lives on in the creed’s strophe on salvation: “And in one Lord Jesus Christ [. . .] by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven [. . .].” The transcendent ideas can, upon their creation, never be reduced to the historical actualities that issue from them, but when rightly seen, the historical actualities can take us back up the ladder to the Logos from which they came. Contemplating the life of Christ will invite us to embody this life with a politics that is truly universal because the Logos, who is ontologically identical to the Father, is itself universal.
This, then, is Christianity’s second thesis for a revolutionary politics: True revolution is possible only where the universal coincides with the particular.
Third, and perhaps most importantly for a theological politics, Clement highlights the notion of Christ’s absence: As the cosmos is now void of the object of contemplation itself, following the ascension, Christians are left with no role but that of the Logos, of “little logoi” themselves.20 The saints become an invented body of Christ that is, all at once, a contemplation of the one universal and heavenly Logos, and a creation of an object of contemplation both for believers themselves and for an unbelieving world. This is perhaps what is conveyed in John’s gospel, which tells us that Christ absented himself so that the Spirit could lead us into all truth. So, the church becomes what it contemplates in a double sense: It becomes like Christ, and it also becomes the absent Christ, so that the world may look to its political unity and see the universal Logos. In scholastic terms, because essence is always non-reductively mediated through the mysterious gift of existence, the Logos is contemplated not by sitting and thinking on essences, but by an existential invention (an invention that is both liturgical and sociopolitical) of forms that are understood to be repetitions of the unrepeatable, inconceivable, and un-invent-able. This is the reason that, for Clement, the true king (Christ) is a law unto himself, while any other king only has authority as he participates in this true king.21 Once again, Logos collides with Nomos, and Christ becomes the true law that must be particularized, established, and decreed anew by each king. Precisely where Badiou fails to show how the particular event can be universal in scope, Christianity offers a theology of poesis, a theology in which the unity of the universal Logos is repeated by the political crafting of the human community who thereby make the object of contemplation out of their own traditioned wreckage. These ideas migrate into the creed in the non-identical repetition of unity language: Jesus is One Lord from the One God, and still God from God; the church is one even as it makes a catholicity of the multiple.
This is Christianity’s third thesis for a revolutionary politics: An authentic politics that provides space for a universal common good is at one and the same time ontological and a product of human invention.
Fourth, Clement prepares the ground for rich and important meditations through the Christian tradition on the excess of the object of contemplation to what is crafted by human hands. If it is, in fact, the infinite mind of the One God that takes shape under the pens and, yes, even on occasion, the swords of political Christianity, the divine mind will always exceed these constructs and relativize their finality. Clement provides for this in his distinction between apatheia and metriopatheia: If the goal of all politics is the contemplation of God, then politics has its perfection in apathei, the destruction of passions that obstruct this contemplation. However, as an intermediary state, Clement accepts that there must exist a sphere of metriopatheia, or a relativization of these passions.22 This is not simply because of his distinction between the perfect and hoi polloi, but primarily because, while contemplation needs social harmony, faith in God cannot be coerced. Thus, there must exist a relative sphere of metriopatheia in which coercion is necessary so that contemplation can proceed toward apathetic perfection.
This relative sphere is the political, the second tablet of the Law, which exists in order to allow for the free and undetermined contemplation of the Logos that is the first tablet. In such a politics, it is precisely the absence of religious contemplation in ritual and prayer that would evacuate all virtue from the necessary coercive activities of the state and turn it into what Clement calls the worst kind of kingship, “the sovereignty which acts according to the promptings of the passions.”23 Even while ecclesia casts Christianity as the sole and unique mediation of true Logos for the world, the politics crafted within and around it is never ultimate because, ironically, like Badiou’s principle that the political ever sees itself as issuing from the void, here the politics of truth recognizes itself as issuing from the One Logos. This means that the church stands at a non-dialectical mediating point between the many and the one: non-dialectical because, like Christ himself, it is essentially both the true one and the true many, and not a shuttle between the one and the many. This principle of excess is insisted upon in the creedal language about Christ, which tells us, prior to the narrative of the descent for salvation, that he is “begotten before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.”
Finally, then, the fourth thesis for a revolutionary politics: No system or house or party or constitution is ever adequate to the end of politics.
This must be the case, because the end of politics is the contemplation of Logos. It is this same idea, incidentally, that develops into the rich tradition of apophasis in the East and West, a tradition that is embodied most importantly in Anselm’s Proslogium, which could read as a brief manifesto on radical political and epistemological mysticism. It was also insisted upon by Pope Benedict in his now infamous Regensburg Address. The universal Logos offers itself to us precisely in its excess, and so it invites us to contemplate with our minds and bodies and politics the very object which ever escapes us into divine simplicity.
Take these four theses as a suggestive introduction to Christianity’s idea of a revolutionary politics. How can radical novelty maintain itself as both revolutionary and ontologically peaceful? How can insurrection against extrinsic or excresensic control avoid becoming extrinsic and excresensic itself? The Alexandrian—and, in fact, the entire “Pro-Nicene”—tradition answers this question with its ontological offering of a repetition of Logos down through the Incarnation to the church and through the church to the entire created order. The universal is thereby non-reductively mediated through and as the particular, but not just any particular, of course, but this particular particular: the incarnate Logos. So politics can be for contemplation, and the city generated by authentic politics can be a space for the relativizing of Godless passions in service of their final abolition.
Would such a politics be revolutionary? For us, it certainly would. If the great hope of the Enlightened Age was ultimately seen in democracy as the political vehicle for the full participation of humans capable of self-governance, the great despair of our own age is in its decay. As the Ottoman Empire was the “sick man of Europe” at the beginning of the twentieth century, modern democracy as such may be the globalized “sick man” for the twenty-first century. Democracy is failing now not because anomalous members within it find ways of defeating representation and participation. It is failing, I believe, because it runs on a logic of far too much representation and participation.
Contemporary democracies (not only in the United States and in England, but also in Mexico, Argentina, and increasingly, the nations of Eastern Europe) are utterly saturated with conversation and exchange, with an ideal of unlimited inclusivity and an absolute inability to practice discretion and discernment.24 There is nothing to create, because where there is nothing to contemplate, nothing is creative. In short, we have an excess of dialectics, a lack of transcendent mediation, and no revolution, because even “change” is subject to parliamentary procedure.
Of course, this triumph of democracy makes our times different from Shelley’s, when the democrats were the revolutionaries. We are no longer in a situation in which Jove awaits our new Demagorgon; there is no one to ride against the extrinsic powers above in order to initiate the new insurrection. Instead, we find ourselves in a greater tragedy: Jove is already deposed, and Prometheus has fooled us into thinking that we are truly free. As long as the hand that binds us is our own and the voice that commands us represents our will in some vague sense, we can assume that we have invented true revolution, and nothing will ever lead us to suspect the real truth: that a politics which censors the contemplation of the divine is neither universal nor particular, but a hyper-representational solipsism. Christianity’s proclamation, in these last days, has thus uncovered the true dunamis of political revolution in this creedal tradition that announces the descent of the logos for contemplation and the terrifyingly good news that this Logos is universal in its very particularity, coming on that day “to judge the quick and the dead.”
1. Percy Bysshe Shelley,
preface to Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts
, Old Cambridge Edition, ed. Jack Lynch, accessed at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/prometheus.html
. All references to Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound
are taken from this source.
2. Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, 1.395-1.400.
3. Shelley, preface to Prometheus Unbound.
4. Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, 3.1.5-3.1.9.
5. Ibid., 4.401.
6. Ibid., 1.655.
7. Ibid., 4.568-9.
8. See Robert Spaemann’s remarkable insights into eudaimonia in Happiness and Benevolence, trans. Jeremiah Alberg (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 2005), especially 108ff.
9. Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York, NY: Continuum, 2005), Part II. See also the very fine introduction to Badiou by Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
10. Badiou, Being and Event, 110.
11. Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), Chapter 2.
12. See Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).
13. Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, 4.569-4.574.
14. I do not take this to be the only or most interesting reading of the making/knowing distinction in Plato, simply a common one. Shameless plug alert: I spend more time considering this reading in my forthcoming Diagonal Advance: A New Account of Christian Perfection, SCM Press.
15. Clement, Clement of Alexandria: Stromateis Books One to Three, trans. John Ferguson (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991), Stromateis I. 25. The older translation is from the 1906 Hinrichs edition; it is taken from Oliver O’Donovan and Joan O’Donovan, From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, 100-1625 (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999), 35.
16. Clement, Clement of Alexandria, Strom I. 26.
17. Ibid., Strom I. 26.
18. See Badiou, Saint Paul, especially chapter 5.
19. See Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004), 125-40.
20. Especially in Paedagogus I, referenced in Russell, The Doctrine of Deification, 127-28.
21. Clement, Clement of Alexandria, Strom I. 24.
22. See Eric Frances Osborn, Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 238-39.
23. Clement, Clement of Alexandria, Strom I. 24.
24. Spaemann’s insights are worth considering here as well. See Happiness and Benevolence, chapter 12.