What does it mean to refer to Latour’s “Political Theology”

Latour has begun to refer to “political theology” in some of his recent writing. He begins his first Gifford lecture, for example, by declaring that “the ideas I will pursue in this lecture series could certainly receive the label of political theology”. But then, in almost the same breath, he goes on to qualify this statement by suggesting that the political theology he has in mind will be “a strange and an unusual one, to be sure”. A similar qualification is offered in other texts. Thus, it seems that there is an idiosyncratic and perhaps even an eccentric dimension to his use of the term. Latour invests the idea of “political theology” with critical significance, but then does not define his understanding of the term relative to a previous writer or critical heritage.

What, then, does it mean to refer to Latour’s “political theology”? In order to shed some light on this question, I wish to bring his work into dialogue with that of German political theorist Carl Schmitt. Readers of Facing Gaia and other recent texts will know that Schmitt is the “shadow line” (to use Conrad’s term) of Latour’s thought. And indeed, at first glance, this seems as good a place as any at which to begin. Schmitt claimed to have introduced the term into contemporary critical discourse, and his name has remained prominently associated with it since that time.[1]

First and foremost, when Schmitt uses the term political theology he is referring to his attempt to describe how theological concepts have been transferred into the social, political and juridical realm. This is what he calls his “sociology of concepts.[2] Schmitt deployed this as a means of critiquing the political situation of his day. Thus, in various texts he attempts to show how contemporary institutions (in particular the nation-state) have been put under stress by non-political forces whose power is legitimised by religion. Schmitt’s understanding of “political theology” as a tool for the critique of modern institutions has been noted and described by many critics.

But an alternative approach to Schmitt’s understanding of “political theology” can also be taken. For although Schmitt does refer to “political theology” as a tool for the critique of modern institutions, he also envisages it as resource that can direct how the political order might be arranged in a different way in the future. This, then, is a positive and constructive understanding of the project of “political theology”. It is based in turn on a reimagining of the phenomenon of religion. Here, religion is conceived not as a negative and neutralizing force, but rather as something that is able to contribute towards the realization of an alternative human society. It should immediately be noted that Schmitt does not have in mind a moralistic or dogmatic definition of religion. To conceive of religion in either of those ways would be to constitute it as a “general norm” that would be supervenient over the political processes of the plural world that Schmitt has previously defined and that he seeks to advocate. Rather, what Schmitt has in mind is the recovery or re-conceptualization of a different mode of religion entirely, one that would be generative of what he calls “political unity and its presence or representation in the world”.[3] That is to say, Schmitt envisages a mode of religion that would legitimise “political”, rather than non-political, forces in the world.

Schmitt’s idea can be illustrated with reference to a short essay he wrote in 1950 entitled ‘Three Possibilities for a Christian Conception of History’. This essay was written in response to a book by the German philosopher Karl Löwith, published the previous year, that had significant influence on debates around modernity and secularization in post-war Germany.[4] Schmitt makes it very clear that he agrees with the main proposals of Löwith’s book. He agrees with Löwith’s definition of modernity as “a mode of secularized Judaism and Christianity” on account of its deployment of eschatological motifs borrowed from religion. He agrees with Löwith’s claim that, in spite of its “positivist belief in progress”, modernity therefore functions with a “philosophy of history” that has already determined the end towards which human society is moving and that this generates a form of “eschatological paralysis” that disables the activity of “politics” in the present moment. But Schmitt then asks a question: “can eschatological faith and historical consciousness coexist?” And, contra Löwith, he answers this question in the affirmative. “There is the possibility of a bridge”, he writes. This is the crucial moment. For Schmitt, what is required for the contemporary political order is not the elimination of religion from the public space. Rather, what is required is the reimagining (or recovery) of “a properly Christian conception of history”. To explain this, Schmitt introduces two figures from Christian theology that he claims are emblematic of what he has in mind: first, Mary, and second, the katechon. These deserve a blog post of their own. But the crucial point to grasp is that, for Schmitt, the “political unity” of human society cannot be conceived apart from religion or, to put it more precisely, apart from the assimilation and creative integration of certain themes from Christian theology.

Although questions about Schmitt’s personal religious background, the status of his religious beliefs during the different phases of his working life, and how the theme of religion functions within his intellectual project as a whole have been frequently addressed, fewer critics have explored his understanding of religion as a constructive force in relation to the political order. And yet, I believe that this represents the very schema that Latour wishes to develop in his own work. Latour has clearly signposted this understanding. In his Gifford Lectures, delivered in 2013, he introduced the terms “Religion One” and “Religion Two”. As he goes on to explain, the first of these, “Religion One”, describes a mode of religion that negates and neutralises the political order of human society. But the second term is quite different. “Religion Two” describes a mode of religion that he claims can support and even guarantee the political order of human society. Just as was the case with Schmitt, then, Latour aims to reimagine (or recover) religion as that which is compatible with the “political”. It is this mode of religion, which Latour goes on to call “religion as a mode of existence” (REL), and its operation within the contemporary public space, that I believe constitutes the “political theology” of Bruno Latour.


[1] Schmitt (2008, 1970), Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of any Political Theology, p.35. See also the claim Schmitt made in a letter to a student that “the coining of the term political theology in fact comes from me”, cited in Meier (2011, 1998), The Lesson of Carl Schmitt: Four Chapters on the Distinction between Political Theology and Political Philosophy, p.202, fn.48.

[2] Schmitt (2005a, 1922), Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, p.22.

[3] Schmitt (2008, 1970), Political Theology II, p.72.

[4] Löwith (2011, 1949), Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History. Löwith had actually written a pseudonymous scathing critique of Schmitt’s work in the 1930s, for which see Löwith (1930), ‘Der okkasionelle Dezisionismus von Carl Schmitt’. Schmitt makes no reference to that earlier critique in his 1950 essay.


Kierkegaard, Schmitt and Political Theology

Here’s a little article of mine, recently published, on the conception of the human self ‘coram deo’ with reference to the work of Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard’s understanding of the concept of theological “exception”, that moment when the transcendent breaks-in to the habituated patterns of existence of the immanent, presents a fascinating counter-point to Latour’s understanding of religion as a mundane or “mondain” phenomenon. It is no co-incidence that Kierkegaard’s thought was such an influence on Carl Schmitt and his celebration of a mode of existence that can break through the crust of the torpid, mechanised and regulated veneer of globalised modernity (for which, see Hans Sluga’s excellent recent book).

In a strange way, Kierkegaard – that great Lutheran theologian – lies at the heart of the political theologies of both Carl Schmitt and Bruno Latour.

Drop me an Email if you’d like a copy of the article.