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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Brittleness of “Integral” Political Theologies

Published Monday, December 6, 2021 By John Ehrett

Traditionalist Catholic historians routinely tend to argue that Martin Luther’s Reformation ushered in an age of terrifying political absolutism. On this account, the principle of cuius regio, eius religio—“whose realm, their religion”—which emerged out of the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, effectively handed political leaders authority over their subjects’ consciences. In so doing, the principle disrupted the delicate, dyarchic relationship between the supranational authority of the papacy and the localized authority of temporal sovereigns—paving the way for totalitarianisms to come. (Historian William Shirer deployed a version of this argument in his famous The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich).

This particular historical story, of course, entirely misconceives the political-theological doctrine of the “two kingdoms”—which restricted in principle the possibility of spiritual coercion by any temporal authority. So too, the papacy did not historically tend to relate to European powers as “soul to body,” in the words of one prominent Catholic commentator, but rather as one “body” among others—jockeying for power and amassing its own lands and soldiers. But the popular Reformation-to-totalitarianism narrative still proceeds apace anyway.

But interestingly enough, there exist those who would criticize the two-kingdoms doctrine from quite another direction—alleging that Christian political thought has not gone far enough in the direction of absolutism. Controversial, fascist-aligned Italian writer Julius Evola, writing in 1934, outlined a conception of political theology that quite outdoes those contemporary Catholic “integralists” who call for greater metaphysical harmony between the spiritual and temporal realms. For Evola, it was essential to stress “the inseparability of royal office from priestly or pontifical office,” and that “transcendent and nonhuman quality” by which a monarch is differentiated from his subjects. Such a king, on Evola’s account, performs the function of “connecting the natural and the supernatural dimensions” and “ma[kes] propitious the general conditions for prosperity, health, and ‘good fortune.’”

In so arguing, Evola hints at an answer to a persistently problematic undercurrent in integralist thought: where there’s a papal source of authority present on earth, a Vicar of Christ who has historically demonstrated the ability to exercise direct jurisdiction over territories and armies, aren’t other temporal authorities—say, presidents or kings—essentially superfluous? Indeed, in rejecting the modern conception of “sovereignty,” writers broadly sympathetic to the integralist critique of Protestant thought—such as Andrew Willard Jones—are inevitably left with rather thin accounts of how the authority of temporal leaders over particular territories might be legitimized.

As I’ve written previously, a study of medieval Europe requires some explanation of, for example, “what it means to be ‘French’ where that term is not fully coextensive with what it means to be ‘Catholic’”—and this, in turn, requires some conception of how that “French” territory is governed, and by whom. The question of temporal sovereignty inevitably rears its head. It seems to me, then, that Evola scores an (argumentative) point against the integralist account: wouldn’t a maximally integral integralism deny a real distinction between spiritual and temporal authorities altogether?

To be sure, in his recent volume The Two Cities: A History of Christian Politics, Jones hastens to disavow on principle the political notion of “god-kings.” But it is far from obvious why, given Jones’s own metaphysical premises, Evola is wrong. Indeed, as Evola cunningly points out, the papal title pontifex maximus was originally a Roman imperial epithet. If modern disintegration and de-spiritualization is the essential problem to be solved, would not the best realm be one in which the titles of pope and emperor coincide in a single figure?

This is the basic framework that Evola deploys to reject traditional Christian talk of the two kingdoms—or, prior to that, the “two swords.” For Evola, to posit two kingdoms rather than one is already to introduce a fissure into the concept of legitimate authority—and when a shared civic sense of authority crumbles, big-T “Traditional” civilization dies and modernity emerges. One cannot, for Evola, admit “an essential difference in the types of relationship with the divine that are proper to regality and priesthood respectively” without triggering this decline.

But significantly, lurking in the background of this framework is the assumption that the sacred monarch’s authority will persist eternally—that “history,” as conventionally conceived, does not really exist (a point Evola himself even admits). And where faith is concerned, this assumption is a profoundly dangerous one. In Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear details the metaphysical crisis experienced by the Crow Indian people following their conquest and displacement by American settlers. That crisis followed from the fact that the Crow had developed intricate, multilayered practices governing key life events. For one, the Crow demarcated the boundaries of their territory by planting coup-sticks in the ground—symbolic markers beyond which no enemy could pass, and which the Crow people would die to defend. Similarly, young Crow boys came of age—and became men—by “counting coups,” or nonlethally striking enemies in battle.

The nineteenth-century dismantling of traditional Crow lands, and the concurrent decline in intertribal warfare, destroyed the entire symbolic scaffold upon which Crow culture was based. The existing Crow traditions provided no model for how to live as a Crow when the traditional ways of life were no longer accessible—a lacuna that forced latter-day Crow survivors to develop novel spiritual responses to the crisis.

The sort of cultural devastation experienced by the Crow people must surely be felt—to an even greater degree—in the wake of the collapse of a civilization modeled on Evola’s paradigm, or even one close to it. The implosion of a regime governed by a god-king, or some ruler approximating that ideal, is necessarily the implosion of a holistic way of being: it becomes immediately evident to a populace that the god-king possesses no charism of immortality, no special spirit of victory, but dies like any other man when his kingdom is overrun by outsiders. (Against those who might suggest that the real failure here is the simple fact that prior traditional regimes were not truly globalin scale, it bears mention that destructive violence can manifest within a regime just as easily as outside it. The case of the French Revolution is instructive; to the horror of social critics like Joseph de Maistre, belief in the divine right of kings was no check on the mob that stormed the Bastille and sent countless nobles to the guillotine.) Hence, a political crisis—such as a conquest or revolution—must also prove to be a crisis of faith. Much as Evola may have wished it otherwise, one cannot turn back the clock to the era of uncritical belief in something like the divine right to rule.

As a principle of political theology, the two-kingdoms doctrine offers a vision of Christian engagement with the world that isn’t “brittle” in this same way. Loyalty to Christ cannot, on the Reformational account, be collapsed into loyalty to a single political regime. And this presence in-and-beyond-time, ultimately, is the church’s great strength, such that the gates of hell—or the armies of men—cannot hope to prevail against it. The cycles of history suggest that, this side of the eschaton, a maximally “integral” political theology is impossible. And the defender of the Reformation’s two-kingdoms doctrine is free to own that fact as, in fact, a great good.

John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

  • John Ehrett

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