NASSR Notes: Robert Yelle


NAASR Notes is a feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link

by Robert Yelle

My current book project, , develops a theory of certain exceptional states commonly identified as religious (think Victor Turner’s “liminality”) as expressions of sovereignty. Earlier chapters focus on exceptions to the political and legal orders, drawing on Carl Schmitt’s analogy between the sovereign decision and the miracle—as well as on the manner in which both of these analogous ideas came under assault as a result of the rise of a theory of polity and divinity that emphasized normativity and the rule-bounded nature of sovereignty. Later chapters, drawing on Georges Bataille, consider apparent exceptions to the mundane economic order—as in the case of destructive sacrifices or the biblical Jubilee, which returned farmers to their land, and released debtors from debt. I argue that such exceptional moments in some cases represent the idea of a plenary sovereignty associated with what is called by political theorists the constituting power: the power to make or unmake a legal order. In some cases, such as the Jubilee, such moments may even represent the idea of a return to a condition that is before and beyond the constraints of social order, and play a role in the imagination of the polity analogous to that played in modern social contract theory by the fiction of a state of nature.

The book engages with a number of theoretical trends in the contemporary study of religion, as well as with political and economic theories. I have been particularly influenced by Giorgio Agamben’s readings of Schmitt, as well as by rational choice theories of the economics of religion, which appear to me to overstate the convergence of homo economicus with homo religiosus. Although of course these are a single species, the behavior of this species seems to me more complex than some current theories, which make utilitarianism the basis of a universal norm, allow.

Although I have been researching these topics for about six years, most of the book was written during a fellowship in 2013-14 at the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at New York University Law School. Since moving last fall to a new position as Professor for the Theory and Method of Religious Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, where I chair an interfaculty program, I have had little time for writing. However, through conversations with colleagues, I have been able to think through some of these issues a bit further. Dr. Anne Koch, who teaches in our program, has compiled an open-access online bibliography on the economics of religion that is hosted on the LMU website, and recently published an introduction to the subject that should become one of the basic works in the field: Religionsökonomie: Eine Einführung (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2014). The economics of religion is an exciting field in part because it is so new, and there is so much that still needs to be done. A few years ago, I organized a NAASR panel on the topic that featured presentations by Greg Alles, Gustavo Benavides, and myself; my own presentation previewed ideas in Sovereignty and the Sacred.

One idea that recurs throughout the book is that of singularity—not in the sense in which this is used in contemporary accounts of artificial intelligence, but rather in the more basic sense of uniqueness. The sovereign, in many traditional Christian political theologies, enjoyed a power that was unique and, to some extent, unpredictable, at least in the sense that it could not be subjected to external constraints. This is the idea that binds two different illustrations of God’s absolute power (potentia dei absoluta) in the High Middle Ages: the miracle, which breaks natural law, and the divine command, which breaks the moral law, at least as far as humans understand it, by prescribing bloody sacrifices and other forms of violence, as well as apparently irrational rituals. The reasoning of those who favored divine command theory was as follows: no command is good in itself, but a command is good because God commands it, or else God would not be free and omnipotent. Sovereignty is equivalent to freedom, if not arbitrariness.

Carl Schmitt argued that this notion of absolute sovereignty, which had been extended from God to human rulers, was proscribed under Deism. Although my colleague Heinrich Meier has told me that Schmitt was referring to French Deism, his contention fits English Deism perfectly. In the 18th century, Deists such as Matthew Tindal and Thomas Morgan condemned the God of the Hebrew Bible as arbitrary and capricious, and insisted that human reason was sufficient for morality and salvation. Concurrently, they argued that miracles, if they ever existed, had long ago ceased.

The idea that miracles had ceased by the end of the Apostolic age was actually advanced early in the Christian era, but it acquired a special significance in English Protestantism, where by the beginning of the 17th century it was already a mainstream idea deployed against Catholics in particular. In the first chapters of my book, I show how the proscription of miracles articulated with transformations in ideas concerning divine and royal sovereignty, transformations that, in the Deist period, shaped some of the background of our modern ideas of polity. I also trace how such transformations informed later ideas of disenchantment, which, as I have argued in previous publications, can be traced directly to earlier theological narratives. In fact, Schmitt already pointed us in this direction when he labeled Max Weber’s theory of the routinization of charisma as a “Protestant political theology”: by presenting disenchantment as an historical event, Weber was actually taking sides in a theological debate. Weber’s account of modernity as the rise of “calculability” (Berechenbarkeit) echoed earlier Deist efforts to eliminate the arbitrariness associated with the idea of a sovereign deity.

It is striking to me how little is known still about the impact of such theological ideas on our ostensibly secular modern age. While scholars such as Talal Asad and Michael Saler have identified disenchantment correctly as a narrative, the origins and consequences of this narrative demand further attention. Asad traces disenchantment to Romanticism, but Romantic nostalgia—as expressed for example in the trope of the vanishing of the gods from the world, or the “death of Pan”—was actually only a later echo of earlier Christian triumphalism at the defeat of paganism and Judaism. For example, in the 1660s, the theologian John Spencer, who is more famous for his later work on ancient Israelite ritual, argued that Christ’s death on the Cross was the event that silenced the pagan oracles, caused miracles to cease, and ushered in a new era in which religion would be “sedate, cool and silent.” This was important, he argued, because if God were to continue to work through miracles, prophecies, and other events that defy reason and order, then human beings would live in fear for their lives, and for their salvation. Think of Spencer as “patient zero” in a modern trend toward disenchantment: even though he was not the first, he represented a nodal moment or local apex of the proscription of the miracle. Spencer also illustrates how disenchantment is not merely one narrative among others, but a variant of the central soteriological narrative of Christianity, a variant that had lingering implications for what Weber described as the modern insistence on “calculability.”

I enjoyed Ian Cuthbertson’s recent contribution to this series, where he discusses magic, disenchantment, and reenchantment. While agreeing with much of his approach, it should be clear from the above that I think a too-exclusive emphasis on recent centuries, much less on recent decades, can at best provide only an incomplete account of what the stakes of discourses of disenchantment have been for modernity, in terms of not only religion but also politics—these two categories being in fact inseparable. There is a lot of historical spadework, as well as of critical interpretation, that needs to be done before we can say that we have a full understanding of the genealogies of religion and the secular.

This entry was posted in NAASR Notes, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *