Liturgical Power

Between Economic and Political Theology

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Nicholas Heron
Commonalities [FUP]
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , November
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Nicholas Heron’s genealogical study of Christian liturgy aims at understanding the role of Christian theology in the historical process that led to the triumph of economic and technical thinking in modernity. Following the research path outlined by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the author addresses Christian liturgy as “the device that enables the ‘economization’ of power implicit in the elaboration of an economic theology” (8).

The starting point of the inquiry is Agamben’s conceptualization of the Trinitarian relationship as the theological paradigm of vicarious power, that is, of a power that has no original substance or source and which is performative not by nature but only through its exercise. By analyzing the late Hellenistic debate concerning the nature of the gods and rereading the debate between Carl Schmitt and Erik Peterson about the possibility of political theology, Heron reaffirms Agamben’s argument that, within Christianity, political theology could only assume the form of an economic theology. The formulation of the doctrine of the Trinitarian oikonomia is addressed as the root paradigm of administrative and bureaucratic practices of governance. Modeled on the paradigm of divine action, power has no substance or source and is effective only by being perpetually operative. 

In the second and third chapters this technology of power is addressed and conceptualized as “liturgical power.” Genealogically analyzing the hermeneutic ruptures of the term leitourgia, Heron shows how liturgy came to assume the function of a “service performed by priests alone … that articulates a technique of government” (50). Referring to Michel Foucault’s inquiry on “the institutionalization of the pastorate,” Heron argues that the latter coincides with the sacramentalization of the specific technology of liturgical power. Moreover, he argues, the institutionalization of the pastorate coincides with the emergence of two “classes”: “on the one hand, an entire class of shepherds, endowed with a whole swath of specific privileges … owing to the particular function that they perform within the economy of salvation (the clergy); on the other, a subordinate ‘class’ of persons who are expressly excluded from exercising this function—being, instead, its very object—to whom, on this account, these manifold privileges clearly do not extend (the laity)” (63).

The fourth and fifth chapters focus on the figure of the minister as the “instrumental cause” of sacramental efficacy. What is at stake here is specifically the ethical indeterminacy of the shepherds, that is, of the ministers performing the liturgy. As Agamben already observed: “by the means of the paradigm of vicariousness and instrumental cause, the principle … is introduced into ethics according to which the moral or physical characteristics of the agent are indifferent to the validity and effectiveness of his or her action” (Giorgio Agamben, Opus Dei: An Archeology of Duty, Stanford University Press, 2013). Heron deepens Agamben’s analysis, highlighting that the doctrine of the instrumental cause is “nothing less than a complete redefinition of the concept of dynamis” and a “neutralization of the very distinction between cause and effect, between active power and passive power” (108). 

In Aristotle’s thought, what gives reality to the dynamis, the potentiality to act, is its capacity to not pass into actuality (its adynamia). To possess a dynamis means therefore being able to not enact it. The possibility of not acting is not only fundamental for the ontological consistency of distinction between energeia and dynamis—without adynamia, each potential act would necessarily autopoietically be realized by itself—but it is also fundamental from an ethical-political point of view. In fact, if any possessed energeia, for example the ability to use weapons, would necessarily pass to actuality, then the very idea of responsibility would become meaningless. This is exactly, Heron argues, what happens with the concept of instrumental cause, which is “the very incarnation of a power that can never be ‘possessed’ but only ‘enacted’” (109). With the doctrine of instrumental cause, a “paradoxical ethical regime” emerges and consolidates, according to which the minister is “absolutely indifferent to the ethical consistency of his action” and “the efficacy of the action itself must be considered absolutely independently of the moral qualities of the subject who would be its executor” (116-17).

After this meticulous genealogy of liturgical power, in the book’s conclusion Heron declares his main thesis: the process of de-politicization, economization, and bureaucratization of public life cannot be arrested, as Carl Schmitt hoped and believed, by a reaffirmation of Christian theology; on the contrary, the latter “appears as its very paradigm” (135). 

Heron’s publication is an important contribution to the study of the genealogy of power, which highlights the process by which the ethical tradition of ancient philosophy has been transformed and absorbed by the liturgical tradition of Christian theology. Its value lies especially in having deepened Agamben’s investigation of the paradigms of vicariousness and instrumental cause. Perhaps the only shortcoming of the study is that one rarely gets an insight into the concrete ways in which these paradigms operate withinmodern and contemporary political practices and rhetoric. Such an analysis of the role of the paradigm of a vicarious and instrumental exercise of power in contemporary bureaucratic and economic governance practices would have allowed the reader to better comprehend the author’s main thesis. For example, it would have been interesting to analyze to what extent this paradigm was and is operative in the neo-liberal rhetoric that tried to justify the actions of banks and financial institutions before, during, and after the economic crisis of 2007/2008. These justifications recall the arrogant attitude that the landowners, in the grand John Steinbeck novel, have in front of the sharecroppers: “If a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time” (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Penguin Books, 2000, 36-37).

Is there not, at the base of the fatalistic attitude and the rhetoric of no-responsibility, here masterfully exemplified, with which the tremendous consequences of banking and financial systems have been and still are justified, the very paradigm of the minister practice of the instrumental cause? Are not the bankers, landowners, and more generally all those who use the instrument of capital in the contemporary world, the secular equivalent of those ministers, which within Christian theology of liturgy were considered mere instrumental causes, and not responsible agents? These, it seems to me, are important questions. But perhaps one of the many merits of Heron’s study, although he did not try to make his reflections fruitful for an analysis of contemporary governance practices and political rhetoric, lies precisely in its having created space for such questions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Baldassare Scolari is Lecturer in Media Ethics at the University of Applied Sciences in Chur, Switzerland and Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicholas Heron is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. He is the translator of Giorgio Agamben's Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm.


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