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.


Theologies of Retrieval

Dr John Reader and I attended a very interesting launch event for this new book in Oxford last week. The idea of “retrieval” is of course an important one for [REL], whose hiatus is “reprise”. It’s no surprise to find two essays on Charles Péguy contained within it, including one by the wonderful John Milbank.


Religion as a Regime of Truth (part 2 of 2)

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

So religion as a mode of existence is a mediated phenomenon.

But there is also a second aspect to consider. This is Latour’s claim that mediation ‘ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in’. In other words, for Latour, the idea of religion as a materially and historically embedded phenomenon, with its own specific felicity conditions, in no way implies the compromise of its status as objective and real. Hence, his repeated insistence that religion as a mode of existence constitutes a ‘regime of truth’. This countermands the charge of relativism that has been occasionally leveled against him. Martin Holbraad, for example, interprets Latour as seeking to ‘lift the lid on the false dominion of religion as representational discourse’:

Latour’s game is to show that, if you look closely and carefully enough, all that seems like rupture is in fact continuous, so that even terms that seem like digital negations of each other (either man or God, word or world) are really ontological transformations of one another, related on a monistic plane by what French philosophers sometimes call ‘difference’. (Holbraad, 2004, ‘Response to Bruno Latour’s Thou Shall not Freeze-Frame’, p.4).

Holbraad’s critique is mistaken. Latour does not collapse religion into relativism. His claim is quite the opposite. For him, it is precisely because it is grounded in the immanent procedures of ontological pluralism that religion is able to claim for itself the status of rationality. Latour makes this clear in his spiritual autobiography Rejoicing—a book of which he claims without irony that ‘c’est pour moi le livre le plus scientifique que j’ai écrit’ (my trans. ‘for me, it is the most scientific book that I have written’, in Latour, 2008, ‘Pour une Ethnographie des Modernes’, p.7)—where he asserts that ‘the things I’m talking about are not irrational but require all our reason, the sole and only reason we have to survive with’. (Latour, 2012, Rejoicing, p.68). Comparable statements are found elsewhere. Of course, Latour is not absent-mindedly re-inscribing into religious discourse the version of apodictic certainty that is sacred to Modernity. That would be to replicate an epistemology that Latour has already deconstructed as artificial and hegemonic. Rather, what is in view here is a definition of religion as that which is characterised by a universal value, a value that is nevertheless secured by the movements of actors within the space and time of this world. ‘Value’ is a technical term within the Inquiry. It refers to that which is generic, regulative and stable about a mode of existence, that is, everything that qualifies it as a ‘regime of truth’. Latour’s objective is to identify the value that is specific to religion as a mode of existence. It is on this basis that he will ultimately argue for the re-instatement of religion as a public institution, as something ‘capable of producing unity and agreement’ in the world (Rejoicing, p.61).

I began with an apparently incidental statement uttered by Latour in our personal interview. ‘What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?’ I propose that the originality and provocation of Latour’s work is found right there. Latour describes religion as arising via a local and contingent agency configuration, such that it is dependent on specific felicity conditions. And yet what arises nevertheless constitutes general and universal truth. The combination of these two requires no clever dialectic. Latour’s claim is simply that the value of religion arises through the mechanism of the actors who produce it in the space and time of this world. To put it in his own words, ‘religion is a full-blown mediation, a form of life, with its own form of judgment, its own canon, its own empirical world, its own taste and skills; and yet also where truth and falsity, faithfulness and infidelity are carefully detected, measured, proved, demonstrated, elicited’ (Latour, 1996, ‘How to be Iconophilic about Art, Science and Religion’, p.429).

Religion as Mediated (Part 1 of 2)

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

The first aspect to consider is Latour’s claim that religion is mediated. To be more precise, religion is a materially and historically embedded phenomenon. What does this mean?

Latour is not making a soft claim here about the praxiological forms in which religion is manifest in the world, of the sort that might be amenable to analysis by sociology or anthropology of religion, or of the sort that might be categorisable within a ‘world religions’ paradigm. Rather, what is in view here is the highly idiosyncratic claim that there is no essence of religion that is prior to or detachable from its mediation by material and historical actors in the space and time of this world. As he puts it: ‘religion—again in the tradition which is mine—does not speak of things, but from things’ (Latour, 2005, ‘Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame’, p.28). Hence, for Latour, religion is not a ‘substance’, that is, it does not consist of a content that can be brought to bear upon the world, ‘as if there existed some universal domain, topic, or problem called religion that could allow one to compare divinities, rituals, and beliefs from Papua New Guinea to Mecca, from Easter Island to Vatican City’ (ibid, p.28). To think in these terms would be to posit religion as a Durkheimian ‘social fact’ that exists independently of the ‘social’ performances of actors in the world. It would contravene his definition of rationality as given by ontological pluralism. And it would render religion vulnerable to annexation by Modernity.

Instead of religion as a ‘substance’, Latour proposes a definition of religion as ‘subsistence’. He advances this word as a means of describing how religion is instituted and sustained by the movements of actors within the space and time of this world, in such a way that it makes no movement of deferral to transcendence: ‘there is nothing beneath, nothing behind or above; no transcendence’, as he puts it (Latour, 2013, Inquiry, p.102). What Latour’s work facilitates, then, is a flattening of the epistemological categories of Modernity that have previously circumscribed an understanding of what religion is and must be, and the opening-out of an entirely new, wholly immanent scenography by which religion can be analysed as a mediated phenomenon.

This definition of religion shifts attention away from the ontological status of the actors themselves. What is of interest to Latour is not whether a particular actor is ‘religious’ or not. ‘Sacred’ or ‘profane’, ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’, ‘material’ or ‘immaterial’, even ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’—ontological categories such as these are all prescribed before the actors who are tagged in this way are allowed to perform. These ontological categories can now be redeemed. Latour is agnostic as to the type of actors that might mediate religion. Sometimes, he refers to them generically as ‘the beings of religion’. At other times, he refers to them as ‘angels’—although it must be borne in mind that his use of this word draws upon a particular heritage it has accrued within recent Continental philosophy, especially in the work of Michel Serres, who adopted it is a trope to describe the priority of circulating reference and mobility (‘angels’) over the postulate of a singular, transcendent being (‘God’). The only question to be asked is whether that actor does indeed mediate the value that is proper to religion when it enters into trials with other actors. ‘Even God has no special privilege’, writes Latour, ‘and is not located in addition to or beyond other beings’ (Latour, Inquiry, p.315). When an actor does function as a mediator in this way, the ‘felicity condition’ of religion is activated.

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in?

In the midst of a discussion on religion during the personal interview I held with Latour in London in October 2014, he offered the following comment:

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

This comment foregrounds two important aspects of Latour’s understanding of religion. First, religion is a mediated phenomenon. That is, religion is a function of the ‘trajectory’ or ‘movement’ of actors in the space and time of this world. This is what I describe as ‘ontological pluralism’. Second, it is precisely through this mediation that the ‘rationality’ and even the ‘objectivity’ of religion arises.

Thus, Latour claims to describe a form of religion whose reality is grounded in the immanent movements of actors, not in the category of transcendence.This is the basis of his definition of ‘religion as a mode of existence’.

‘What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality you believe in?’—this becomes the key question to ask of religion.

Badiou, Latour and Saint Paul

At the very outset of his Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Badiou lays out the possibility of a philosophical reading of Paul:

Basically, I have never really connected Paul with religion. It is not according to this register, or to bear witness to any sort of faith, or even anti-faith, that I have, for a long time, been interested in him.(p.1)

Badiou confirms that he has appropriated Pascal, Kierkegaard, Claudel, etc on the same footing. His project is after all one of a very pure atheistic thought. He goes further, however, by characterizing Paul’s specific religious commitments and methods as irrelevant, as so much noise, along with everything else that renders him a particular historical individual:

Anyway, the crucible in which what will become a work of art and thought burns is brimful with nameless impurities; it comprises obsessions, beliefs, infantile puzzles, various perversions, undivulgeable memories, haphazard reading, and quite a few idiocies and chimeras. Analyzing this alchemy is of little use. (p.2)

This, I think, is where Badiou parts company with a thinker like Latour. For the latter, nothing is given in excess of the logistical flows of meaning that are enacted from within the common worldThis is not reductive materialism. It simply denotes an axiomatic philosophical commitment to be open to encounter with a dramatically expanded range of actors. There is no reason why the actor named ‘Paul the religious thinker’ should not be encountered in these terms, unless his being had been prematurely foreclosed by Badiou himself, by means of an external diktat every bit as ferocious as the onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics identified by Heidegger.

Latour’s philosophy offers great promise for a re-consideration and re-instatement of theological topoi that have been ‘corseted by too narrow a set of legitimate agencies’ under the aegis of previous epistemological regimes (Latour, 2013, ‘‘Waking up from ‘Conjecture’ as well as from ‘Dream’: A Presentation of AIME’, p.3). ‘All [actors] ask to exist’, Latour writes, ‘and none is caught in the choice—viewed (by the Moderns) as a matter of good sense—between construction and reality’ (Latour, 2010, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, p.56).