The following review of my book Force of God appeared in Religious Theory, April 20, 2016.
Raschke, Carl. Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. ISBN-978-0231-17384-1. Hardback, e-book. 202 pages.
Carl Raschke’s Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy is a provocative book, and it is likely to make some readers uncomfortable. Raschke is himself aware of this fact. He warns his readers at the outset of the book’s final chapter that what he is “about to say will probably shock and enrage many conventional readers, conditioned as we are to viewing guns and weaponry, particularly when mobilized for ‘military’ purposes, as instrumentalities of political reaction or unrestrained violence.”
The reference to “conventional readers” indicates a broader audience in the author’s mind than one might associate with Columbia University Press. And while this is no discredit to the author, Raschke’s provocations do risk being misread or at least irking people into wondering just what a conventional reader is. Force of God is in any case worthy of wrestling with precisely because it pushes the edges of one’s thinking and shows that Raschke cannot be facilely pinned down.
In deciding how to approach Raschke’s work, one might look to one of the clear inspirations for the book, Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche, like Raschke, warns his readers that the third essay in the book begins with an aphorism that inspires its own exegesis. Nietzsche then tells us:
To be sure, one thing is necessary above all if one is to practice reading as an art in this way, something that has been unlearned most thoroughly nowadays – and therefore it will be some time before my writings are ‘readable’ – something for which one has almost to be a cow and in any case not a ‘modern man’: rumination.
One could perhaps write off both Raschke and Nietzsche for a kind of hubris, but there is more to both thinkers. To the extent that Raschke’s book presents itself as a readable interpretation of Nietzsche, it also implies the current question: How are we to ‘chew cud’ with Force of God? Raschke asks his readers to unthink their postmodernity, and rumination is certainly in order for interpreting Raschke’s provocations, especially those calling for a qualified form of insurrection.
Raschke also begins with an aphorism, one from Michel Foucault: Qui définit le moment où j’écris? (How to define the moment that I write?). His book responds to a current exigence, but again like Nietzsche, it may be a matter of time before what he is really saying is “readable” and certainly doable. What are we to make of the apocalyptic assertions that conclude the text? For example, Raschke claims, “the gun becomes the projective symbol of the empowered demos rather than of an antidemocratic lawlessness or of some sort of vicious reactionary, nativist, anticosmopolitan cabal.” He implies that not only is the gun the “projective symbol” of the demos but that the “empowered demos” is really a cosmopolitan one that transcends the nation-state.
A few pages earlier he makes an anthropological-historical claim as he sets up his political theology against a “bohemian bourgeoisie” that is terrified of revolution and religious enthusiasm: “the automatic assumption within most contemporary politico-theological discourse of a certain summum bonum that might be described as a ‘Christian liberal state pacifism’ needs to be assertively challenged – not because it is false as a normative teleology of human societies, or that it must be zealously sought, but because it fatefully misreads history and human nature.”
Like Raschke’s critiques of identity politics, he pushes for the need to examine the contemporary moment through a genealogical method he compiles from a lineage of continental philosophers – Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Derrida, and Deleuze – to describe a Judeo-Christian-Islamic world in crisis. The liberal democratic crises of the early 21st century echo and reverberate around the world, challenging notions of the West.
Toward A Theology of Insurrection/Resurrection
Raschke suggests the need to activate a 21st century political-theology of insurrection and resurrection, or a “surge.” To Raschke’s “conventional readers” this may sound a tune reminiscent of self-congratulatory, “right wing” evangelical Christianity or perhaps John Milbank’s radical orthodoxy; yet Raschke is quick to qualify his thinking against such camps, even claiming that when it comes to the saintly knowledge he is interested in, “Christian theology has no advantage.”
Even so, his book is a call to action, and he certainly calls for “the revolutionary saints, the Christian insurgents, the visible signs of the operative and indefensible force of God.” So, the big question arises: What, for Raschke, is the “indefensible force of God”? And that is what the rest of the book attempts to describe in erudite detail, and despite the unabashed reference to the religious, Raschke’s answer is not a typically theological one.
Clearly, the terrain in which Raschke situates his study is a tradition of Western philosophy. His avowed project is political theology and his method is a genealogical inquiry into the force of God. He spends a lot of time with Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and later interpreters of Nietzsche, Derrida and Deleuze. He also deals briefly with the prolific Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben. Raschke makes an interesting gloss with reference to Agamben’s work on Homo sacer, and I want to point to a passage in Agamben’s Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath (another part of Homo sacer II) that gives a contradistinction to what makes Raschke’s genealogical work unique with respect to political theology in Force of God.
Generally speaking, Agamben’s project has been an extending of and concretizing of Michel Foucault’s work, something he makes clear in the short essay published as What is an Apparatus? The concretizing comes in the form of an “archaeological” method in combination with a “genealogy” in order to understand the role of aesthetics in the apparatus or dispositif.
Agamben’s metaphors distinctly advance upon a biologically themed mode of inquiry, allowing him to examine an archaeological record of human-made things as opposed to the Bergsonian-influenced Deleuze and his more plant-based terminology. More anthropocentric, Agamben’s The Sacrament of Language challenges the Aristotelian notion of man as a speaking animal by showing the ways that the oath undoes itself. How do politics work without speech?
Agamben says, “philosophy, which does not seek to fix veridiction into a codified system of truth but, in every event of language, puts into words and exposes the veridiction that founds it, must necessarily put itself forward as vera religio [true religion / binding, and maybe re-speaking].” Regarding speech, which importantly in the Aristotelian tradition resonates with the emergence of the political, Agamben continues:
It is in the same sense that the essential proximity between the oath and sacratio (or devotio) must be understood. The interpretation of sacertas as an originary performance of power through the production of a killable and unsacrificable bare life must be completed in the sense that, even before being a sacrament of power, the oath is a consecration of the living human being through the word to the word. The oath can function as a sacrament of power insofar as it is first of all the sacrament of language. This original sacratio that takes place in the oath takes the technical form of the curse, the politike ara that accompanies the proclamation of the law. Law is, in this sense, constitutively linked to the curse, and only a politics that has broken this original connection with the curse will be able one day to make possible another use of speech and of the law. (66)
Agamben is describing the possibility of fidelity law with respect to taking an oath. Resonating in the formulation of law here is the oft-cited descriptions of the theological backdrop to the state of exception in Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology, the claim that “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized religious concepts.” Both Agamben and Raschke are willing to engage with the enchanted foundations of law discussed by Schmitt. For Schmitt, this was part of an ultimate critique of liberalism during the crisis in the Weimar Republic, but Agamben and Raschke both use Schmitt’s claim to navigate a way into the more current disasters, exceptions, and crises.
Unlike some of his Christian peers who might be nostalgic for a pre-secular answer to post-secular problems, Raschke instead advances on the Christian idea of insurrection/resurrection informed by militancy. And unlike Agamben’s speech-driven and Aristotelian conception of the political, Raschke’s genealogy builds on Jaqcues Derrida’s The Gift of Death: “Christianity is the ultimate secret of European responsibility, and it is here that Derrida seems to give some clue of what he ultimately means by the messianic and the democracy to come.”
Connecting Derrida to Kierkegaard he says, “The political ultimately comes down to the ‘structure of invisible interiority’ and the passion for the infinite.” This structure resembles the responsibility for the Other as described in Emmanuel Levinas, which is quite a different basis for subjectivity than Agamben, who relies more heavily on Martin Heidegger. All of this is to say that Raschke’s conception of Christianity in its genealogical sense is descriptive for a current political situation more than it is a statement of faith, and it includes Jewish thought in ways that challenge a Greek-centered notion of political being.
Combining Genealogy With Badiou’s Theory of the Event
Raschke ultimately combines his genealogical method with the work of Alain Badiou, especially with respect to his emphasis on militancy and the idea of the singularity of the event. This alignment is especially important with regard to Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals because of Nietzsche’s characterization of ascetic sickness in relationship to the beginnings of Christianity. Nietzsche describes the internalizing, reflective gaze of Christianity that self-consciously infects the will-to-power and yet simultaneously treats a quarantined populous with infected ascetic plague-doctors. The mistake of aligning the will-to-power with the “subject” is the hubris of modernity, which must be overcome by some other means.
Raschke and Badiou, however, seek to recover a political subject capable of maintaining fidelity to an event. Through his discussion of Agamben, Raschke notes that “Agamben views the theological itself as the secret of the genealogical.” Then, distinguishing his project while building from Agamben, simultaneously distancing himself from limited interpretations of Nietzsche’s account of Christianity as ressentiment, Raschke says: “The theological is a cipher not for the hidden economy of ressentiment, or structural resentment, which for Nietzsche distinguishes the conjugate histories of Christianity and democracy, but for a different kind of ‘force’ of that works itself out in secular ‘economics.’ We may characterize this force as the eventful productivity of the Singular.”
Theologically, Raschke importantly ascribes the Christian moment, not to Jesus Christ (and therefore not to Badiou’s St. Paul), but to the “force of God,” in which the resurrection / insurrection does not appear as either chronos or kairos, nor does it appear to be a mystical union or proclamation. Linking this force to a perhaps Derridean “democracy to come” in “acknowledgment of this divine sovereignty and economy,” Raschke then makes one of his strongest assertions about current liberal crises:
One of the reason[s] the very idea of a political theology, especially a “global” political theology, makes us uncomfortable is that we are virtually hypnotized these days, particularly in America, to think – politically – solely in terms of an economy of entitlement and resentment, which we mistakenly associated with some vague idea of “justice.” Agamben has forced us decisively into rethinking our “economic” and “ecumenical” models of the new global political as ultimately the “God” question. We are now all now political theologians, mainly because all theology is political and all politics is theological.
Raschke’s statement is timely in the foregrounding of assumptions some people may have concerning the shadow text of American democratic liberalism. It is here that his critique of ‘Christian liberal state pacifism’ resounds.
Raschke’s book is in many ways a masterful study of the implications of Western philosophy and religion and their continued presence in political life. Whether or not one agrees with him, his work intensifies the discourse in the field of political theology in important ways. Unlike Nietzsche, and even more unlike postmodern claims to reinvent or invoke pre-modern versions of Christianity and esoteric extensions of Rene Guenon-influenced traditionalism that may inform variants of radical Islamism, Raschke importantly does not come across as anti-modern in Force of God. He is too historically-minded to do so, and because of that he cannot be easily dismissed by liberals committed to some rehabilitated sense of the secular.
Rather, as Raschke claims in his introduction, “[p]olitical theology is only conceivable and plausible at a time where we have witnessed, and are continuing to witness, the end of theology.” Later he un-nostalgically refers to both “the Church” and Christendom in the past tense.
Raschke’s reading of philosophical history is superb. As far as my own interests go, I would be especially interested in Raschke’s reading of Spinoza, an especially persecuted intellectual, and his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. I think Spinoza is essential for the liberal discussion of both speech and interpretation in a way that qualifies both Hobbes and Locke, to whom Raschke directs his discussion of liberalism.
Reading Raschke With Kahn
Perhaps less disciplinarily specific, I would be curious to know more of Raschke’s thoughts on Machiavelli with respect to the role of virtu in relation to the concept of force. Machiavelli shows up in both Schmitt and Hannah Arendt, both of whom Raschke employs in setting up his own political theology, and Arendt is especially invoked toward the end of his book.
In respect to these thinkers, I am planning a future comparison between Raschke and Victoria Kahn’s Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts. Kahn offers nuanced readings of Carl Schmitt’s readings of Hobbes in particular that fall outside the scope of Raschke’s project but importantly speak to both Raschke and Agamben’s readings of Schmitt’s early work. Kahn argues a more fabricated version of liberalism with important discussions of literature, arguing: “the history of political theology is inseparable from reflection on the human capacity for creating artistic fictions, including the fiction of a theologically grounded political order.” A more detailed comparison between the two books than I am able to present here might offer a more nuanced approach to what is at the heart of political theological discussions in 2016.
I point this matter out to highlight a discursive ambiguity in texts dealing with the theme of “political theology.” Kahn and Raschke are rigorous thinkers who intensify ongoing discussions in the field. Broadly speaking, two large modes of thought characterize the field of political theology: the first being an interest that developed in Carl Schmitt’s thought and influence on European thinkers, especially Walter Benjamin that emerged in the late 1980s in the journal, Telos. The second involves two tomes: Hent de Vries’s Political Theologies and Religion Beyond a Concept deal with the broader questions surrounding religion and the public sphere, while The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology and Elizabeth Phillips’s Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed operate more in the Christian tradition of political theology going back especially to St. Augustine, whose City of God frame’s Raschke’s closing remarks in Force of God.
While I have only scratched the surface of Raschke’s book here, Force of God importantly straddles the divide between the faith-based approaches and more secularly anchored thinkers like Jürgen Habermas, offering timely and radical suggestions that encourage rigorous discussion of liberal democratic crises. He does indeed risk, in the cartoonish atmosphere of United States, a political discussion adhering too strictly to a largely European “canon.”
Yet in doing so Raschke’s deep reading of the philosophical and religious traditions of the West offers the public a powerful “force” in Western theology, politics, philosophy, and history – a force that continues to be one to reckon with. It is undoubtedly an important addition to the scholarship on political theology and a book worthy of ruminating.
Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado. His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics. He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles. In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn. He is also a performing musician and a composer.
 Carl Raschke, Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 154.
 Michel Foucault, “Un cours inedit,” Magazine littéraire, (May 1984), 34.
 Ibid., 154.
 Ibid., 170.
 Ibid., 169.
 Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010), 66.
 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, Trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 36.
 Carl Raschke, Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 39.
 Ibid., 83.
 See Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
 Carl Raschke, Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), xii.
 Ibid., 169.
 Victoria Kahn, Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 21.
 See Timothy Luke and Ben Agger, A Journal of No Illusions: Telos, Paul Piccone, and The Americanization of Critical Theory, (New York: Telos Press, 2011).