Thursday July 30, 2015

The Myth of the Secular, Part 5

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)

Listen to Full Episode 54:00

"All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts." So wrote German legal theorist Carl Schmitt in a book called Political Theology.  In his book Political Theology: Four New Chapters, American legal theorist Paul Kahn argues that the foundations of the American state remain theological. He explores this theme with David Cayley.

** This episode originally aired on October 26, 2012


When the President of the United States is away from the White House he's accompanied by a military aide carrying a black briefcase, nicknamed "the football."  It contains codes that enable the launch of nuclear weapons. Should the President consider that the national interest of the United States required it, he could, on the spot, give orders that would destroy or poison much of the world.  At that moment no assembly would vote, no court would review the case, no precedent would apply - the fate of the world would hang on his or her sovereign decision.

In his book Political Theology, American writer Paul Kahn cites this example to show how much politics, in his native United States, rests on theological bedrock - on faith, not reason. What else but a religious commitment, he asks, could make the destruction of the world even thinkable.  What else could justify the sacrifice of soldiers in war?  

Paul Kahn is a professor of law at Yale University, and the author of a series of books that reflect on the ways in which a sense of the sacred structures American political life.


Listen to other episodes in the series:

The Myth of the Secular, Part 1
Western social theory once insisted that modernization meant secularization and secularization meant the withering away of religion. But religion hasn't withered away, and this has forced a rethinking of the whole idea of the secular. David Cayley talks to Craig Calhoun, Director of the London School of Economics, and Rajeev Barghava of India's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

The Myth of the Secular, Part 2
The secular is often defined as the absence of religion, but secular society is in many ways a product of religion. In conversation with David Cayley British sociologist David Martin explores the many ways in which modern secular society continues to draw on the repertoire of themes and images found in the Bible.

The Myth of the Secular, Part 3
Early in the post-colonial era, politics in most Muslim countries were framed in secular and nationalist terms. During the last thirty years, the Islamic revival has dramatically changed this picture. Anthropologist Saba Mahmood talks with David Cayley about her book, The Politics of Piety.

The Myth of the Secular, Part 4
The Fundamentals was a series of books, published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles between 1910 and 1915, which tried to set the basics of Christianity in stone. Fundamentalism now refers to any back-to-basics movement. Malise Ruthven's Fundamentalism asks what all these movements have in common, in this feature interview with David Cayley.

The Myth of the Secular, Part 5
"All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts." So wrote German legal theorist Carl Schmitt in a book called Political Theology.  In his book Political Theology: Four New Chapters, American legal theorist Paul Kahn argues that the foundations of the American state remain theological. He explores this theme with David Cayley.

The Myth of the Secular, Part 6
In 1990 British theologian John Milbank published a five-hundred-page manifesto called Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. The book argued that theology should stop deferring to social theories that are just second-hand theology and declare itself, once again, the queen of the sciences. The book led, in time, to a movement called "Radical Orthodoxy."  David Cayley profiles John Milbank.

The Myth of the Secular, Part 7 
David Cayley concludes his series with three thinkers who believe that division of the world into the secular and the religious both oversimplifies and impoverishes political and religious life. Political philosopher William Connolly argues for a richer and more inclusive public sphere; historian of religion Mark Taylor calls for a new philosophy of religion; and Fred Dallmayr presents the case for a deeper and more thorough-going pluralism.