07 June 2003

there is another king: iv

(this is only a draft still, but comments are welcome)

Before turning to that account, however, we can note that there were several important shifts that John Duns Scotus (and later, Ockham and nominalism) introduced into wider questions as they had been explicated within pre-modern thought. The major Scotistic shift was the positing of a univocal notion of “Being” and with that, underming the analogical use of language.

Unlike his medieval predecessors, Scotus maintained that it is possible to consider “Being” in abstraction from the question of created or uncreated being. In doing this Scotus established the separation of philosophy (ontology and epistemology) from theology and, indeed, founded the possibility of constructing a philosophical ontology that is unconstrained by and transcendentally prior to theology itself, philosophy thereby being permitted to set the conditions for theology. Ockham, in turn, represents a further radicalization of the steps that Scotus had already taken, positing an entirely equivocal notion of “Being” in dialectical tension with its univocity.

Other separations and dichotomies (nature/grace, nature/supernature, faith/reason) flow from these basic shifts in the following ways. First, God and creation can be set within one undifferentiated chain of Being. This, however, introduces serious difficulties into language and its ability to refer since “Being” can now refer univocally to two different realities—created and uncreated—and thus language, and our ideas and concepts expressed in language, become a mask over reality rather than a medium by which reality is able to reveal itself to us in the context of the event of knowing.

This in turn begins to shift epistemology into a direction in which the subject and object of knowledge become increasingly related extrinsically and externally, rather than maintaining the kind of interior intentional connection that was found in earlier thought. Thus it is the case that either the world exterior to the mind remains philosophically unknowable or it becomes approachable only through experimental manipulations devised by reason, perhaps guaranteed by divine fiat (as was true both for Ockham and, later, Descartes). Thus late medieval thought unwittingly founded what would develop into the claims of Enlightenment reason.

With regard to nature and supernature (and its concomitant, nature and grace), there is a twofold separation and fission between God and the creation (even if Scotus’ original intent was to safeguard the gratuity of grace). First, since God and creation are both situated within a single extension, it is possible to explain and think about the world in relation to Being without reference to God and thus the world becomes the self-enclosed system of “nature,” a material reality that remains complete in itself and at our disposal. It is this “nature” that opens up the space for the secular and politics as one expression of the exercise of power over that realm.

Second, this entails that the operation of grace must be seen as an extrinsic operation that is super-added from outside of the creation and thus is, experientially, unknowable except by faith (even if otherwise guaranteed by revealed facts such as “propositional revelation” or by grace-given experiences such as “being born again” or externally imposed present authority such as “papal infallibility” or automated sacramental mechanisms). Religion, thus, begins to be pushed to the margins of what is distinctively human, a development that will have significant implications for the Renaissance isolation of the “secular” as a particular space of human existence, under the sole scrutiny of human reason. Such a space exists in distinction from the privatized and interiorized realm of a grace accessible only by faith, a site that was constructed by late medieval theology and philosophy.

By the time the “modern” fully emerged, it arrived with a well-formed secular sphere to which politics is proper, leaving us with the various negotiations between that sphere and “religion” to which I already referred above. Regularly enough, political theology has been complicit—often unwittingly—with these modernist assumptions, even within those traditions that most wish to be consciously “biblicist” in their approach.

In the Reformed tradition, for instance, certain theonomic, pluralist, and klinean approaches are arguably all infected to varying degrees (and often in opposite ways) by the erection of secular social space. In the case of some theonomic thought, the rhetoric and strategy remains very much one of power, taking over present political structures (even if emphasizing bottom-up efforts, limited government, and rule of law) without substantially questioning the nature and constitution of modern social space and its underpinnings (e.g., an abstract opposition between the individual and society, the market as a neutral mechanism of exchange). In the case of some pluralisms (however “principled”) and klineanism, there are varying degrees of retreat from theological engagement with the political, staking out a sealed sphere of kingdom work (often centered on personal, individual salvation) and only entering the secular sphere on the basis of a naturalistic “common grace” that remains neutral to Jesus.

Obviously these claims cannot be taken to characterize all versions of the positions in question or to constitute a substantive critique of them. Nonetheless, these kinds of critiques will be borne out, I think, by the more positive account I will provide below. With this genealogical sketch of the modern and its effects in mind, however, we can now turn to the biblical text, hopefully with ears better attuned to hear the politics of the Gospel.