Divinations

Theopolitics in an Age of Terror

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Daniel M. Bell, Jr.
Theopolitcal Visions
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , October
     2017.
     210 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498295383.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Does the continental “turn to religion” give religious thought a new seat at the table of social and political theorizing? Are theologians now to accept an equal voice as critics of neoliberalism and capitalism alongside the likes of Slavoj Žižek and Michel Foucault? Daniel M. Bell Jr. answers these questions in the affirmative in his Divinations: Theopolitics in an Age of Terror. Bell’s book approaches the possibilities of faith being placed in mutual dialogue with postmodern philosophers regarding the crises of the modern state. He does this while both avoiding the reckless bravado of similar attempts to reassert theology’s place in the mainstream academy and without sacrificing lucidity and confidence. The result is a detailed and engaging, if occasionally overstated, attempt to offer theology as a resource for critiquing the terrors of neoliberalism and late capitalism. 

A cogent and ultimately readable text, Bell’s book charts a course for theologians entering into dialogue with postmodern philosophers—particularly those who have taken a somewhat generous look at religious themes and symbols. Alain Badiou, for example, is an engaged reader of Paul. Bell points to Jacques Derrida and Žižek’s respective thoughts on the theme of law in Judaism and Christianity. Bell, admirably, wants to take these thinkers at face value as interlocutors open to the religious, even though many so-called “false friends” do appear in the mix (ix). Bell is particularly persuasive when laying out the case that postmodern thought should lend itself to a more generous conversation between religious and “secular” thinkers: “postmodernity suggests that religionists no longer have to contain their particularity” (xi). He hopes that this convinces others that theology has a legitimate place in the contemporary academy’s political and philosophical conversations. 

Bell finds common cause with postmodern critics of neoliberalism. Yet this comradery is only useful to Bell up to a point, for his ultimate aim is to show how Christian theology (that is, Western Augustinian-Thomist Christianity) better answers these philosophers’ conundrums regarding issues such as law, capital, alterity, and violence in the modern state. In the first and perhaps most creative chapter Bell draws on Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, and Thomas Hobbes (13ff.) to argue that neoliberalism rests on a regime of manufactured terror. Augustine, Bell points out, similarly critiques the role of terror in the Roman empire and offers the compelling and relevant alternative of Christian self-sacrificial love which can undercut regimes of terror (21-22). It is unfortunate that Bell does not develop this thread much beyond the first chapter, noting as he does that this promising contention needs further development (e.g., can self-sacrifice even be a politics at all?). 

The majority of Bell’s chapters each take up a religion-inspired theme or insight in one or a few postmodern thinkers (predominantly Badiou, Deleuze, Žižek, and Giorgio Agamben): neoliberalism as a manufacturer of terror (chapter 1), capitalism’s constructions of difference and antagonism (chapter 2), the politics of theological debt and judgment (chapter 3), and the crisis of ethics and law (chapter 4). In each of these cases, Bell affirms much of these figures’ criticisms of neoliberal political order and applauds some of the insights they draw from Christian tradition. Yet each thinker is found to be lacking—usually on their own terms. Badiou is, for example, dogged by “a universalism that is indifferent to differences” (41).

In most cases in these central chapters, some theological error—that is, typically a deviation from neo-platonic Thomism—underlies these thinkers’ failed critiques of liberalism. (This particular) theology, thereby, is in a position to save the day. Bell’s tack is typically nuanced and generous but will still strike many as a too easy, and somewhat disingenuous, apologetic disguised as “engagement.” Augustine (and Augustine-Thomism), for Bell, seems to provide the only viable solutions. 

The constructive side of Bell’s project, intimated above, is revealed as the book unfolds and is the focus of the final chapter. Bell argues there for an Augustinian politic (one ontologically grounded, unsurprisingly, in a metaphysic of the analogia entis) that can offer a feasible response to neoliberalism. “What is needed,” Bell concludes, “is a democracy that includes the Trinity in its conversations” (163). While Bell develops his Augustinian politics with a much more generous attendance to issues and arguments raised by his philosophical interlocutors, it retreads much territory already trekked by Milbank, Ward, and others. 

Although Bell’s focus on the Western tradition is possibly justified by the fact that this is the focus of his primary conversation partners, there are several places where Bell would have benefited from engaging thinkers outside Euro-Catholic territory. Why it is that neither J. Kameron Carter or Willie Jennings appear in sections dealing with the significance of Jesus’s identity for questions of particularism (cf. 67) is somewhat boggling.

The book is perhaps best read as a primer for theologians looking for confidence to engage postmodern thought on religion and politics in a way that takes both theology and postmodernity seriously. In most cases, Bell is a clear and fair interpreter of his conversation partners, though at times assuming too much knowledge and leaving core concepts opaque for readers who might be less familiar with, for example, the subtleties of Agamben. Those better immersed in these figures may take issue with some of Bell’s interpretations. 

Many theologians will likely find this a unique and inspiring text, and it certainly deserves an important place among projects trying to make sense of theology’s contemporary role in Western society and academia. It will also be of particular interest to those, of all and no religious commitments, who believe that religious thought and practice can provide useful resources to combat neoliberalism. At the same time, Bell’s apologetic and sometimes dismissive tone, while not as reckless as that of other similar thinkers, might make the engagement he hopes for more difficult.

About the Reviewer(s): 

S. Kyle Johnson is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology at Boston College.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel M. Bell Jr. is Professor Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. He is author of Liberation Theology After the End of History (2001), Just War as Christian Discipleship (2009), and Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (2012).

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