Posted by: rogermitchell | August 15, 2017

Back to Agamben

There are still three remaining chapters of Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory that I haven’t blogged on yet.  A variety of events and presentations intervened including: My paper for the Theology Society,                                                                             A blog on the lead up to the UK general election for Nomad,, ongoing developments of the Richardson Institute Critical Thinking Group and its various initiatives towards a culture of positive peace for Morecambe Bay, exciting happenings at Ashburnham Place, engagement with the Business Connect Jersey Host event, the general election and holidays!

Despite the passage of three months I will attempt to complete my commentary on the three remaining chapters over the next week or so, beginning today. (Realistically this should now read “over the next few weeks,” given that preparing my new book outline for the publisher has already intervened since I first wrote this!).

Chapter Five brought us to an interim assessment of the paradigm of government through which the Western powers currently operate.  It is a political world in which the multitude are only apparently free and within which deep structural change is impossible. This is because the bipolar structure of sovereignty and executive which legitimates our contemporary Western states is disconnected from the immanent realm of praxis. Or to put it another way, our paradigm of government is the opposite of incarnational. The rich and the powerful establishment have a separate and permanent existence over against the multitude and its seemingly “democratic” freedoms. In the real world, individuals,  parties and corporations that progress into the existing established order simply enter the arena of a barren transcendence of government and are rendered inoperative. Nothing changes deeply or permanently. It follows that the only way to ontological, deep structural change is via an alternative, grounded, incarnational transcendence outside the established order and ultimately disregarding it. It is what the Johannine writer advocated and is often paraphrased as “being in the world but not of the world” (cf. John 17:14-15).

Chapter Six boasts the intriguing title “Angelology and Bureaucracy.” To understand what Agamben is doing at this point it is necessary to get hold of, or recollect, his application of katargēsis in Paul. You may remember from his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans The Time That Remains, or from my own writing on the subject, that Agamben uncovers Paul’s original use of this term not as a destruction but as a progression that pulls through or fulfills the thing subject to it. In this chapter it becomes clear that Agamben doesn’t only see this as applying to the Law, but the whole hierarchy of authority. So while law and authority have been permitted, even ordained by God, in a progressive way alongside the genealogy of human activity and our journey through history, the coming of the Messiah brings it to an end or fullness.  Agamben also describes this action of katargēsis as “rendering inoperative.” So the angelic authorities, “principalities and powers” who are at times indistinguishable in the gospels and Paul’s epistles from the human authorities and sometimes even the demons, are also brought to an end or katargēsis in Jesus. This being the case, Paul’s theology points the way to render the government of the West effectively inoperative and of living the radical life of the incarnate Messianic new humanity instead. So in the same way that Jesus and therefore the Messianic ecclesia bring through what is good in law into a whole new expression in the new commandment to love, so they also draw through what is good in the authorities and powers into an egalitarian oikonomia of love.

The chapter begins with what is, for me, a highly surprising exegesis of Erik Petersen’s short treatise on angels Das Buch von den Engeln. Stellen und Bedeutung der heiligen Engel im Kultus, 1935. This seems to be at odds with M J Hollerich’s helpful explanation (see post 6 in this series) that the reason Petersen is so ill at ease with the phrase “political theology” is because he aligns the idea entirely with Roman imperialism. But here Agamben’s exegesis of what seems to be Petersen’s original work and intent suggests that the reason Petersen is uneasy with the term “political theology” is because he regards the Church’s task wholly as a spiritual engagement with the heavenly order of things which the angels represent. Whether or not this is Petersen’s position or whether he set it up in order to reject it, is not clear to me yet, although if Hollerich is correct as I suggest in the earlier post, then it will be the latter. But in either case, for Agamben, it is enough to affirm that angelology generally has two functions: to assist in the divine worship and to administer the divine government of the world and these two aspects correlate with the contemporary bipolar operations of the governmental machine.

Agamben refers to, among others, Dante’s The Banquet (Book II, Chapter 4, p. 49) for evidence of this dual role for the angels. In this light they and the principalities and powers through or by which they are expressed are not eternal determinate forms of the heavenly sphere, but rather concepts and perceptions akin to the Hebrew prophetic configuration of the apocalyptic, where the transcendent vision of the future relates to the critique of the immanent political world. This latter is the world that Messiah is bringing to an end in the new humanity of the kingdom of God. This is borne out, as Agamben emphasises, by Paul’s famous statement  “then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when he has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1Co 15:24). As with Walter Wink’s exposition of Paul’s understanding of the powers, I am minded from experience to grant them more substantial existence than Wink’s or Agamben’s perspective requires. Nevertheless, the encouragement to draw on the transcendent unity of being and doing that they represent as a resource to a new humanity that disregards the contemporary and increasingly inoperative Western machine of government is exciting.


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