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The New Political Theology of Metz: Confronting Schmitt's Decisionist Political Theology of Exclusion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

Derek Simon
St. Paul University


The New Political Theology has always raised questions regarding the contrast implied by its qualification as “new.” The qualification “new” suggests a comparison resulting from an innovation, a departure. Precisely what comparison, is at stake? Various kinds of readings assume that the innovation of Metz's political theology is established in relation to Rahner's transcendental theology, in relation to left-Hegelian and neo-Marxist influences, or to the voices of Jewish testimony after Auschwitz. Taken alone, these lines of interpretation are valid yet insufficient, therefore potentially misleading in following the development of the New Political Theology. A different reading, therefore, proposes that Metz's New Political Theology is an effort to delegitimate and deliver an alternative to the antidemocratic and anti-Semitic political theology of Carl Schmitt. In diametric opposition to the violent identity politics of exclusion that defines Schmitt's decisionist political theology, the New Political Theology proposes an identity politics of difference, empowering responsibility for movements of justice and reconciliation in pluralistic societies through a deliberative social democracy oriented towards solidarity by the memory of the suffering of others.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2003

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1 The most important works setting forth the political theology of Schmitt, Carl are Politische Theologie I (Berlin: Duncker u. Humblot, 1922)Google Scholar / Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereinty, trans. Schwab, G. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985)Google Scholar; Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parliamentarismus (Berlin: Duncker u. Humblot, 1923) / The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Kennedy, E. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985)Google Scholar; Römischer Katholizismus und politische Form (Stuttgart: Klett Cotta, 1924) / Roman Catholicism and Political Form, trans. Ulmen, G.L. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Der Begriff des Politischen (Berlin: Duncker u. Humblot, 1927) / The Concept of the Political, trans. Schwab, G. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1976)Google Scholar; and Politische Theologie II: Die Legende von der Erledigung jeder Politischen Theologie (Berlin: Duncker u. Humblot, 1970).

2 Tück, Jan-Heiner, Christologie und Theodizee bei Johann Baptist Metz (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2001), 290.Google Scholar

3 Metz, Johann Baptist, “Das Problem einer,” «Politischen Theologie» Concilium (1968), 403Google Scholar; reprinted in Zum Begriff der neuen Politischen Theologie 1967–1997 (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald, 1997), 9–21, at 9.

4 This interpretive narrative is the most entrenched heuristic, defining many readings of Metz, some of them quite recent. See, for instance, Ashley, Matthew, Interruptions: Mysticism, Politics and Theology in the Work of Johann Baptist Metz (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), x and 176Google Scholar; Martinez, Gaspar, The Mystery of God (New York: Continuum, 2001), 38 and 41Google Scholar; and Peters, Tiemo Rainer, Johann Baptist Metz: Theologie des vermißten Gottes (Mainz: Matthias-Gruünewald, 1998), 35.Google Scholar

5 See Spülbeck, Volker, Neomarxismus und Theologie. Gesellschaftskritik in Kritischer Theologie und Politischer Theologie (Freiburg: Herder, 1977)Google Scholar; Ancic, Nedjeljka, Die «Politische Theologie» von Johann Baptist Metz als Antwort auf die Herausforderung des Marxismus (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1981)Google Scholar; Chopp, Rebecca, The Praxis of Suffering (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1986), 3940, 43Google Scholar; Ockenfels, Wolfgang, “Politische Eschatologie: Kritische Anmerkungen zu einer katholischen «Politischen Theologie»,” in Gottesreich und Revolution: Zur Vermengung von Christentum und Marxismus in politischen Theologien der Gegenwart, ed. Hofmann, Rupert (Münster: Regensburg, 1987), 4356Google Scholar; Tiemo Rainer Peters, 13, 44, 62–72; Ashley, 97; and Martinez, 55–57.

6 With the exception of Walter Benjamin, the discussion of this third reference point for the qualifier “new” is underrepresented in the reception of Metz's New Political Theology. It includes such voices as Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, Nellie Sachs, Primo Levi, Jean d'Amery, Paul Célan, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Holocaust survivor testimony.

7 It is quite revealing that none of the recent theological studies take Metz's constitutive debate with the political theology of Carl Schmitt more seriously than footnote acknowledgements. See for instance, Ashley, 223 and Martinez, 272. Without developing the point, Tück (89–91, 154) briefly acknowledges that Schmitt was a controversial but important interlocutor constitutive for the development of Metz's work.

8 While several studies differentiate between the political theologies of Schmitt and Metz, there has been very little effort to date to establish that Schmitt's political theology was and remains an intentional determining factor in the proposal of the New Political Theology. See Siebert, Rudi, “From Conservative to Critical Political Theology,” in The Influence of the Frankfurt School on Contemporary Theology. Dubrovnik Papers in Honour of Rudolf J. Siebert, ed. Reimer, A.J. (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 147 ffGoogle Scholar; Martinez, 272; Tuck, 90, 290.

9 Metz, Johann Baptist, Zum Begriff der neuen Politischen Theologie 1967–1997 (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald, 1997).Google Scholar

10 Ibid., 7. On this point see also the related comments by Wacker, Bernd in “Carl Schmitts Katholizismus und die katholische Theologie nach 1945,” in Die eigentliche katholische Verschärfung…: Konfession, Theologie und Politik im Werk Carl Schmitts, ed. Wacker, Bernd (München: Wilhelm Fink, 1994), 279–80Google Scholar; and Peters, 51.

11 Tiemo Rainer Peters has developed a similar thesis, but tested it on slightly different textual ground. While he regards Metz's early texts (1967–1969) as implicitly carrying forth “equally tacit as subtle debates with Carl Schmitt” (12), he claims that “The comparison with Schmitt is unavoidable, if we seek to more accurately recognize the contour of the New Political Theology” (45–46). Peters, however, neither indicates the textual basis nor differentiates the sites of analysis of such an implicit debate, nor draws into a detailed discussion Metz's more recent work.

12 Especially instructive in this regard are articles in The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, ed. Mouffe, C. (London: Verso, 1999)Google Scholar and Mouffe, Chantal, The Return of the Political (London: Verso, 1993), 19 and 117–34.Google Scholar Mouffe captures the spirit of these left-inspired readings and left-situated appropriations of Schmitt's insights into the crisis of liberal democracy when writing that “No doubt Schmitt is an adversary, but an adversary of remarkable intellectual quality…. Ignoring his views would deprive us of many insights that can be used to rethink liberal democracy…. To think both with and against Schmitt …” (The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, 1 and 6).

13 Mouffe, , Return of the Political, 123.Google Scholar

14 The general impression is that Schmitt gleaned the rubric of “political theology” from French and Spanish restorationist traditionalists such as J.M. de Maistre (1753–1821), L.-G.-A. Bonald (1754–1840) and Donoso Cortés (1809–1853). Feil, 24–25, by contrast, makes an interesting argument that Schmitt adopted the rubric “political theology” from the revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

15 Schmitt, , Politische Theologie, I, 13Google Scholar / Political Theology, 5.

16 Schmitt, , Der Begriff des Politischen, 26Google Scholar and 63 / The Concept of the Political, 26 and 53.

17 Schmitt, , Politische Theologie, II, 101.Google Scholar

18 Schmitt, , Politische Theologie, I, 50Google Scholar / Political Theology, 36.

19 Schmitt, “Vorbemerkung zur zweiten Ausgabe,” ibid. (1934), 2.

20 See Meier, Heinrich, Die Lehre Carl Schmitts, 109–10Google Scholar / The Lesson of Carl Schmitt, 66–67.

21 See Schmitt, , Der Begriff des Politischen, 27Google Scholar, 38 and 62 / The Concept of the Political, 27, 35 and 51–52‥

22 Meier, 111/67.

23 Ibid., 89–90/53–54.

24 Schmitt, , Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parliamentarismus. 7Google Scholar / The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 9. Schmitt considers democracy (as a system of governance representing the people) and dictatorship (representation of the people compressed into a single representative) to be compatible. On his view, parliamentarian governance (representation of the people distributed over an assembly of representatives) is only quantitatively, not qualitatively, different from dictatorship with respect to the principle of representation. Fascism, for Schmitt, guarantees democracy by securing the social cohesion of a unified people. Liberalism on the other hand undermines and contradicts democracy since its intrinsic pluralism threatens social cohesion and fragments the people into competitive social interests.

25 Schmitt, , Römischer katholizismus und politischer Form, 25Google Scholar ff. / Roman Catholicism and Political Form, 8 ff‥

26 Brumlik, Micha, “Carl Schmitts theologisch-politischer Antijudaismus,” in Die eigentlich katholische Verschärfung, 256.Google Scholar

27 Mehring, Reinhard, “Geist gegen Gesetz. Carl Schmitts Destruktion des positiven Rechtsdenkens,” in Die eigentlich katholische Verschärfung, 229–46.Google Scholar

28 Schmitt, Carl, “Eröffnung der wissenschaftlichen Vorträge durch den Reichsgruppenwalter Prof. Dr. Carl Schmitt,” Die deutsche Rechtswissenschaft im Kampf gegen den jüdischen Geist (Berlin: Deutscher Rechtsverlag, 1936), 14.Google Scholar

29 Metz, Johann Baptist, “Religion und Politik in einer Zeit des Umbruchs,Die neue Politische Theologie 1967–1997, pp. 88 and 90.Google Scholar

30 Ibid., 88–89 and 93.

31 Metz, Johann Baptist III, “Politische Theologie,” in Evangelische Kirchenlexikon,(Göttingen: Vandenhoek u. Ruprecht, 1992): 1261–65Google Scholar / Die neue Politische Theologie 1967–1997, pp. 163–66.

32 Ibid., 1261 / 163.

34 Metz, , “Religion und Politik an der Grenze der Moderne: Versuch einer Neubestimmung,Die neue Politische Theologie 1967–1997, pp. 174–92.Google Scholar

35 Ibid., 175.

36 Ibid., 176.

37 Ibid., 177.

38 Ibid., 181–82.

39 Ibid., 182–83.

40 Ibid., 183. Habermas has responded to this debate initiated by Metz, in “Israel or Athens, or to Whom does Anamnetic Reason Belong? On Unity in Multicultural Diversity,” in Liberation Theologies, Postmodernity and the Americas, ed. Batstone, D. et al. (New York: Routledge, 1997), 243–52.Google Scholar Though “anamnestic” is the Merriam-Webster standard spelling, “anamnetic” is used here to reflect the common English/German spelling in Metz and his conversation partners.

41 Ibid., 187. This forms part of Metz's argument that Habermas' procedural rationality is not sufficient to redress the legitimation crisis of social democracy. For Metz, Habermas' decontextualizing procedural rationality is paralyzed by a Kantian formalism which cannot overcome the false dichotomy between reason and memory (ibid., 183), is in fact a contextual expression of the European culture of intellectual abstraction (ibid., 187), and remains unpersuasive in its post-traditionalist dismissal of religious traditions as having lost their capacity to contribute towards a just society or the defense of the universal claims of human rights.

42 Ibid., 186–87.

43 Schmitt, , Der Begriff des Politischen, 32Google Scholar / The Concept of the Political, 54.

44 Metz, , “Religion und Politik an der Grenze der Moderne,” 187–88.Google Scholar

45 Ibid., 189–90.

46 Metz, , “Bemerkungen zum der Repräsentation,” in Bilderverbot, ed. Rainer, M.J. and Janßen, H.-G. (Münster: LIT, 1997), 303–07Google Scholar; reprinted as “Zum der Repräsentation,” in Zum Begriff der neuen Politischen Theologie 1967–1997, 192–96.

47 Ibid., 303–04 / 193.

49 Ibid., 304–05 / 193–94.

50 See Heller, Agnes, “Politik nach dem Tod Gottes,” in Bilderverbo, 6787.Google Scholar

51 The distinction between life politics and emancipatory politics has been advanced by Giddens, Anthony, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 155–57.Google Scholar

52 See; for instance, Ashley, 195.

53 Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Verso, 2001), xviii and passim.Google Scholar

54 I should like to acknowledge gratefully the generous assistance of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of the Federal Government of Canada, whose postdoctoral research fellowship directly supported the research and writing of this text. While the views expressed in this article are entirely my own, I would also like to thank Gregory Baum and the anonymous reviewers of Horizons for their constructive criticisms and observations, which encouraged me to rework this text.

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