Posted by: rogermitchell | April 8, 2017

political theology or economic theology (6)

In my second post on this topic I pose the question “Does an unsubsumed oikos paradigm lend itself more to an egalitarian, incarnational approach to social relations than the polis paradigm, or is there an unsubsumed application of the polis paradigm that might be complementary to it?” My reading of Agamben up to this point leads me to conclude that an unsubsumed polis or city paradigm would simply apply a similarly unsubsumed oikos or household paradigm at a city, regional or national level.  This would look like the loving transcendent trinitarian oikos set out in the immanence of incarnation worked out in our homes and cities. Chapter Four of The Kingdom and the Glory, “The Kingdom and the Government,” helps explain why this has proved to be so problematic. The problem is rooted in the bifurcation that has occurred between “the kingdom” and “the government” at least in part as a result of the mystification of the oikonomia.

Agamben begins by introducing the figure of the wounded or mutilated king (roi mehaignié) from the legend of the Grail. He suggests that the figure “contains a kind of anticipation of the modern sovereign who ‘reigns but does not govern’” (p. 69). He then moves to examine the origins and implications of this formula in the early twentieth century discussion between Erik Petersen and Carl Schmitt. While Schmitt had located this separation of kingdom and government in the seventeenth century, Petersen found it in the dawn of Christian theology. Agamben suggests that despite their disagreements, an essential solidarity exists between them. “Both authors are, as a matter of fact, earnest enemies of the formula. Peterson, because it defines the Hellenistic-Judaic theological model that lies at the basis of the political theology he intends to criticise; Schmitt, because it provides a symbol and a key word to the liberal democracy against which he wages his battle” (p. 73). By the way, Hollerich brings clarification to Petersen’s apparent rejection of the polis paradigm when he points out that the kind of political theology which Petersen is against identifies political with monarchical, and is impossible within the context of an egalitarian trinity as revealed in the oikonomia mustērion “now made known” in incarnation. (

Agamben traces the genealogy of the separation of kingdom and government through a wide range of sources.  He starts with Numenius who had such an impact on Eusebius of Caesarea, before locating the philosophical paradigm of the separation in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Quoting Aquinas’s commentary that “the separate good of the universe, which is the first mover, is a greater good than the good of order that is found in the universe,” he identifies the way that Aristotle defines transcendence in terms of separation and autonomy and immanence in terms of order, of the relation of everything with other things (p. 80). He then tracks back to Augustine to affirm that there is no simple separation but “immanent and transcendent order refer back to each other in a paradoxical coincidence which can nevertheless be understood only as a perpetual oikonomia, as a continuous activity of government in the world, one that implies a fracture between being and praxis and, at the same time, tries to heal it” (p.89).

What is important to notice here is that this fracture and paradox is necessary only if the oikonomia is inverted as mysterious but not if it embodies a relational culture revealed in the incarnation. So when Agamben returns to Aquinas and the way he develops a theory of providence in his commentary on the pseudepigraphic Liber Aristotelis de expositione bonitatis purae it is very important to keep this in mind. Agamben highlights the way that Aquinas’s theory of providence articulates the relationship between transcendence and immanence, general and particular, on which the machine of the divine government of the world is founded (p. 97). He then gives the historical example of Pope Innocent IV’s decretal Grandi which recognised King Sancho of Portugal’s brother the right to govern while his incapacitated brother held the kingship. “In other words the radical case of the rex inutilis lays bare the twofold structure that defines the governmental machine of the West. Sovereign power is structurally articulated according to two different levels, aspects or polarities. It is at the same time, dignitas and administratio, Kingdom and Government” (p. 99).

It is hard to overestimate the deeply subliminal impact of the separation of kingdom and government on all our thinking. It impacts our expectations of divine help in our personal wellbeing and security, and legitimates the democratic deficit between the promise and reality of good government. The distinction is so normative that it legitimates both totalitarianism and liberal democracy. What is important to remember here is that the theories of providence that set out to resolve such disjunctions and that underlie our contemporary democracies are in turn attempts to work out the separation between kingdom and government that is the consequence of the mystification of the oikonomia. This is the subject of the following chapter, “The Providential Machine” which we will consider in the next post.


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