Apocalyptic Political Theology

Hegel, Taubes and Malabou

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Thomas Lynch
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     2019.
     216 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350064744.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Thomas Lynch’s Apocalyptic Political Theology brings together three—perhaps unlikely—voices: German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, Jewish philosopher Jacob Taubes, and French philosopher Catherine Malabou. Beginning with a helpful account and defense of political theology itself, and discussing the timeliness of inquiry into apocalyptic thought, Lynch questions the character of the world that apocalyptic thinking supposes to be near its end. Beginning with the idea that “defining this world and desiring its end are intimately related tasks” (2), Lynch challenges Carl Schmitt’s legal and geophysical categories by suggesting that rather than land, sea, air, and space, the world is composed of the categories of nature, capital, gender, and race—albeit in a determining but not deterministic way.

Lynch begins with a brief look at the genealogical and analogical relations between theological and political concepts that define recent political theology, and summarizes Vincent Lloyd’s distinctions between “broad” political theologies that work at the intersection of politics and religion; “narrow” political theologies that concern themselves with the reception of Schmitt’s work; and “sectarian” political theologies that advance normative theological agendas in political dress—and it is this last category that is most often mistaken for the whole of political theology by figures such as Mark Lilla and John Gray. While not doing away with all of its supposed danger, Lynch helpfully challenges caricatured misrepresentations of all political theology as crypto-theological advocacy for ideological ends. 

Following his reframing of “the world” in terms of nature, capital, gender, and race, Lynch first considers the world in materialist terms, then argues that “the world is not something chosen but something individuals are positioned in” (27). Further, he claims that “the world itself is violent” (28), a result of the concealed, slow, habituated, and coercive forces that permit and advance climate change, capitalism, sexism, and racism (29). According to Lynch, this ontology of violence is evident in the production of hierarchy, and the imposition of the objective “hegemony of the world” upon its subjects (30-31). However, Lynch suggests that the solution to this violent world is to meet it with apocalyptic refusal, for “if one is willing to abandon the world, new, if indefinable, possibilities become possible” (31). This is the task of Lynch’s apocalyptic political theology. When confronted with options for “living in a violent and inescapable world”—either accepting its coordinates and working within them, or hoping for its redemption and pursuing utopian or messianic projects (32)—Lynch suggests that the return of the excluded parties of his fourfold can apocalyptically reveal, illuminate, and threaten the very order that is defined by its inability to see them. For Lynch, the antagonistic relations that define nature (nature vs. human), capital (worker vs. owner), gender (woman vs. man), and race (white vs. black) each contain an oppressed figure who is both hidden and subjected to the hidden violences just mentioned—making these figures bearers of apocalyptic revelation (34-35). 

Chapter 2 sees Lynch positively resource Hegel’s often ignored political theology, thinking alongside Hegel’s distinction between philosophy and theology, while avoiding the straightforward use of his problematic works. Lynch is most interested in using Hegel to illuminate a lineage of apocalyptic and political thinkers that Taubes also traces in his Occidental Eschatology (1947)—a line that includes Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Joachim of Fiore, Thomas Müntzer, and Karl Marx.

Chapter 3 focuses directly on the work of Taubes, praising the potential of his work for experimentation and creative critique through a narrower political theology that is apocalyptic, “immanent and desecularizing” (65). Defining Taubes’s political theology as “the immanentization of apocalyptic ideas accomplished by the treatment of religious ideas as representations,” Lynch analyzes Taubes and Hegel’s assessments of modernity, and argues for the retention of Taubes’s apocalyptic ideas along with his messianism and eschatology (73, 78). Debating with Agata Bielik-Robson on the interpretation of Taubes’s claim that he has “no spiritual investment in the world as it is,” Lynch again asks questions about what characterizes the world as it is, and what it means to negate the world apocalyptically (79).

Following Taubes’s political theology of apocalyptic negation, chapter 4 then turns to Malabou’s plasticity and transcendental materialist reading of Hegel. Although Malabou’s work is not very theological, Lynch turns to her to clarify matters of immanence, novelty, and trauma, and to offer an alternative to messianism. In doing so Lynch attempts to move past the notion that the world that ends for apocalyptic thinking is the world, rather than aworld—despite the fact that the present world continues to assert itself as the (only) world (125). 

Overall, Lynch argues that “there is an inescapable world constituted by slow and invisible (to many) violence” composed of antagonisms between nature, capital, gender, and race (141). Against simple optimism about improving these relations, and against straightforward pessimism about their persistent violences, Lynch argues for “an apocalypse that is immanent, material, and desired for its own sake” (141). Affirming a “directionless refusal” that, nonetheless, holds hope in the end, Lynch argues for an apocalyptic political theology that does not foreclose the end by hoping for it in a predetermined form, but instead tries to keep the end of the world open.

This exciting new book in the field of political theology provides a helpful reading of the often-denigrated figure of Hegel, the often-glossed figure of Taubes, and the work of Malabou—who has not—to my knowledge—been read as an aid to political theology. The only criticism that I have of the work is that there are several issues it opens but does not follow through in detail. For example, Lynch’s identification of violence with the world certainly serves his goal to clarify what world it is that ends, but his reliance on Slavoj Žižek’s distinction between subjective and objective violence does not fully clarify what “violence” means in the work. If a key question is “what is this world that ends?”, then shouldn’t parallel questions be “What boundaries are violated in this world that is violent? How have the boundaries that define violence been set? Who has set them?” A question I have for Lynch’s work is “what is the price of accepting an ontology of violence?” An apocalyptic critique of the world that evaluates the world as violent makes sense from one angle, but what of the fact that the different normative orders that conflict in the world have different measures for what is and isn’t violent? 

Pointing out these open ends does not necessarily constitute a criticism, as much as a series of questions, for a book that asks questions rather than answering them in a way that forecloses further questioning is not very edifying or interesting, and Apocalyptic Political Theology is both edifying and interesting in its exploration and argument. Lynch’s apocalyptic political theology is at pains to keep the question of the end open, and to avoid the temptation to resolve the end by positing either pessimistic dystopian or optimistic utopian certainties. In this way, Lynch contributes to the ongoing conversation on the ends of political theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Maxwell Kennel is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at McMaster University.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Lynch is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at the University of Chichester.

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