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Book Reviews

If Politics Absorbs Theology

Critica della teologia politica. Da Agostino a Peterson: la fine dell’era costantiniana

In an epoch when faiths are re-appearing on the public scene, it may fall to Christianity to offer the key to a correct structuring of the relationship of politics and religion. The outcome of intricate historical and philosophical events, this key is condensed in a preposition. In its specific approach, indeed, the position of Christian faith in relation to politics ‘is a theology of politics not a political theology. This means that it does not reach the political directly but, rather, through ethical-juridical mediation. It does not achieve its identity with the political. Its eschatological reservation – the gap between grace and nature – impedes it from doing this. Political theology, in contrary fashion, is ‘dialectical’. For it the theological moment is achieved through the political and the political through the theological (p. 13).

 

 

This is what Massimo Borghesi, professor of moral philosophy at the University of Perugia, writes in his Critica della teologia politica, (‘A Critique of Political Theology’), which, in great depth and with an erudition that is never an end in itself, goes over the great stages of Christian political thought from Constantine until the post-Communist era. In this stimulating itinerary, Borghesi highlights the advantage of the Church in going beyond the model of the Sacrum Imperium through the retrieval of Augustine and the appreciation of modern freedoms, which culminated in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae. The great protagonists of this season were the Germans Peterson and Ratzinger and the Frenchman Maritain, acute critics of the ‘analogical transposition of theological concepts onto political ones’ (p. 119) which was theorised in the 1930s by certain German authors, in particular Dempf, and above all by Carl Schmitt. After Schmitt, political theology did not end but, rather, changed its features, abandoning nostalgia for the medieval imperial model and becoming, with Metz, a ‘theologisation of the Enlightenment model’ and then a ‘critical theology of society’. Both in its ‘right-wing’ and in its ‘left-wing’ variants, the outcome of the theologisation of the political did not change. Indeed, the reaffirmation of the religious through the political, which is at work today at a global level, does not only run the risk of generating massive doses of intolerance but ‘becomes a further stage in the process of secularisation. By way of a singular ‘heterogenesis of ends’ along the lines of Vico, the ‘saturated’ hyper-religious world can only generate its own self-dissolution. And this both because of the dynamic that is immanent in political theology, in which the adjective absorbs the noun, and because of the ‘secular’ counter-blow that the saturation of the religious produces’ (p. 281).

 

 

In this light the valuable account provided by Borghesi is not only an effective antidote to deformed readings both of Christianity and of politics but can also ask deep questions of an Islamic world still searching, after the Arab revolutions, for an institutional configuration in which religion and politics can talk to each other without imposing themselves on each other, clashing with each other or eliminating each other. That political theology in Islam as well is destined to fail is confirmed at a theoretical level by what Olivier Roy was already writing twenty years ago and at a practical level by the Islamic Republic of Iran and by the Egypt of Morsi. However, this is not sufficient to solve the theological point on which the difference between political theology and the theology of politics rests, that is to say the Augustinian idea of grace, which marks the distinction between the two cities, and that of sin, which ‘imposes a distinction between theology, ethics, law, and politics…which theological-political fundamentalism does not acknowledge and which constitutes the essence of modern liberal democracy’ (p. 301). Beyond the attempts to demonstrate that Islam is already secular, and all the tactical accommodations, from the formulation of the ‘civic state with a religious reference point’ to the distinction between the principles and the norms of the sharia, it is also with this fact that the efforts at reform should deal. Reformists often affirm that Islam is still waiting for its Luther. In reality, it is Augustine that it most needs.

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