Peterson’s Political Theology

by modestinus

A brief scan of Google Scholar and some other assorted outlets revealed very little in the way of secondary commentary on Erik Peterson’s Theological Tractates, published in English for the first time last year by Stanford University Press. I have written about Peterson before on other blogs, and despite the long absence of a full translation, his “Monotheism as a Political Problem” (included in the book) began receiving a second academic life due to its (softly?) polemical stance against his friend Carl Schmitt’s infamous Political Theology: For Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. The Peterson/Schmitt friendship-turned-sparring partners is just a small part of Peterson’s personal and intellectual biography. By converting from Lutheranism to Catholicism, Peterson tanked a promising academic career. As a layman in an era when Catholic theology was still dominated by clerics, Peterson never found a permanent home in the academy, and the outbreak of World War II further stifled his chances for any advancement in his native Germany. While a handful of European Catholic intellectuals (including one Joseph Ratzinger) praised Peterson’s works, his somewhat premature death in 1960 marked the end of his already limited theological influence.

The reasons for Peterson’s fall into obscurity are subject to some debate, though it is interesting to note that few have focused on how “out of sorts” Peterson’s personal beliefs were with the culture that would come out of the Second Vatican Council. In his own lifetime Peterson had to navigate suspicions of modernism due to his use of critical-historical methods in some of his earlier work and, later, his qualified use of Alfred Loisy’s infamous dictum, “Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church.” (It should be mentioned that Ratzinger has defended Peterson on this front, stating that he managed to put Loisy’s observation in its proper, orthodox context.) Once he stepped out of the realm of dogmatic theology, Peterson advanced a number of traditional Catholic position that proved toxic after Vatican II. For instance, in “Witness to the Truth,” a theological-spiritual reflection on the centrality of martyrdom to the life of the Church, Peterson vigorously argues that any concrete political society that does not embrace Christ is against Him. In true Kierkegaardian fashion, Peterson assails the embourgeoisement of Christianity and the denial of Christ’s right to reign over the temporal sphere. The privatization of religious belief and the dogmatic embrace of pluralism were, in Peterson’s view, the natural outgrowth of the Reformation. He had nothing but scorn for it. Had he stayed on this earth long enough, Peterson no doubt  would have found Dignitatis Humane‘s teaching on religious liberty nauseating. During his own lifetime Peterson rejected Christian capitulation to “the times,” whether in the form of internalizing the liberalism that began to sweep the European continent in the 19th C. or choosing to take its marching orders from the neo-pagan cultic outlook of the Nazi regime.

Some recent Peterson scholars, like Michael Holleric of the University of St. Thomas, seem to misunderstand their subject insofar as they take Peterson’s emphasis on Christ’s Kingship as “eschatological,” i.e., looking always to the end of time when — according to the Creed — “He will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom will have no end.” That is a decidedly post-Conciliar (mis)reading of the doctrine of Christ’s Kingship, one which is properly spelled out in Pius XI’s encyclical Quas Primas. As many traditional Catholics know, the Feast of the Kingship of Christ, which was originally placed on the last Sunday in October, was moved to the last Sunday of November — the end of the liturgical year — to symbolize the eschatological dimension of Christ coming at the end of time. While this symbolization is not in and of itself false, it is problematic to the extent that it obscures the temporal reign of Christ in the here and now. Post-conciliar alterations to the liturgical hymn for the feast center the meaning entirely on what is to come later, not what ought to be now. This liturgical-doctrinal change would have been unknown to Peterson and certainly out of sorts with his understanding of Quas Primas and other Papal statements related to Christ’s Kingship.

And this gets us to an interesting tension in Peterson’s work. On the one hand he denies, contra Schmitt, the existence of any authentic Christian political theology. On the other, Peterson not only embraced, but agitates for, the social reign of Christ and a Church that does not capitulate to compartmentalization and pluralism. Too many superficial readings of the Peterson/Schmitt quarrel have held Peterson up as the great opponent of political theology when, in fact, he only ever proved himself to be an opponent of a specific type of political theology, one that attempt to recapitulate the Heavenly reign of God over all creation through a particular emperor in the temporal sphere. It is Christ who reigns, according to Peterson, not an emperor (or Tsar) acting in persona Christi on the throne. To put it another way, Peterson’s understanding of the distinct, but interrelated, functions of Church and State is entirely Catholic, not Byzantine. The Church is not the handmaid of the State for the State is not, by way of a certain political theology, divine.

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