Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Political Theology of International Order
by william bain
oxford, 272 pages, $85

Whatever international order there is today, it certainly is not beholden to political theology for its justification. Nevertheless, William Bain, a professor of international relations at the National University of Singapore, shows in this book that the idea of international order was justified in terms of medieval political theology in the past and can be once again. This is his great hope. For Bain, international order is a desideratum, calling for a cogent justification, which he argues—not, in the end, persuasively—can and should come from medieval Christian political theology of a certain kind.

Bain argues that the relationship between theology and political ­theory has developed in three stages. The first stage was the medieval vision of a divinely ordered cosmos whose order is teleological. Following a distinction made by A. N. Whitehead, Bain sees this order as “immanent” rather than “imposed,” meaning that it is what God thinks rather than what God wills. Human polities gain their legitimacy theologically, by participating in this divine, teleological, cosmic order. This is accomplished when human polities are governed according to natural law, which is a participation in the eternal law of God. This law or criterion is inherent in God himself; it is not created or willed into being by God. The chief proponent of this idea of theologically grounded politics is Thomas Aquinas (following Augustine and Aristotle).

In the second stage, we find the later medieval idea of a cosmos that is both created and ruled by God’s will, but not “according to rational archetypes” in God’s mind. Since human politics cannot very well participate in this inscrutable will, they can only be governed analogously. That is, human rulers are authorized by God to rule their earthly realms as God rules the universe. So, order is not immanent or “natural” in the world; instead, it is imposed on “a system of external relations.” It is the order human rulers will for their political realm in imitation of God’s will, not of God’s mind. And as long as human rulers do not usurp God’s universal authority as proclaimed by biblical revelation (theology’s ­foundation), they have free reign to rule majestically.

The chief proponent of this idea is William of Ockham. His nominalism has us arbitrarily imposing our meaning on the world rather than learning truth from the world itself. Not only was Ockham a nominalist when dealing with ontological and epistemological issues, he was a nominalist or “voluntarist” also when dealing with political and legal questions. In fact, he was primarily a canonist, mostly adjudicating according to the law revealed by God. Bain sees Ockham’s nominalism as leading to the theologically conceived politics of Luther and Hobbes. This shift was buttressed by Newton’s physics, which described the world “without any reference to a structure of final causation that links creator and created in a necessary pattern of relations.” Bain hopes to revive this view, representing it as the best model for a cogent conception of international order today.

In the first stage of this historical trajectory, theology gives politics its rational justification. In the second stage, politics gets its legitimate authorization from theology. The ­theology that justifies politics in the first stage is what has been called “natural” theology. The theology that authorizes politics in the second stage is “revealed” or biblical theology. For with the elimination of final causation in the cosmology brought about by Galileo and Newton (though both were believers: the former Catholic and the latter Protestant), natural theology could no longer justify politics. Its notion of “nature” was no longer convincing. Though one could still hold that God had created the universe as its external efficient cause, one could no longer cogently explain how or even whether God operated within the universe. Furthermore, with the growing displacement of biblically based theology by Enlightenment secularism, this kind of theology could hardly authorize any nation’s politics, let alone an ­international order.

In the third stage, using Ockham’s Razor to undercut Ockham’s political theology, eighteenth-century ­Deists argued that politics does not need theology. This view has prevailed for more than two centuries, making a theist like Bain quite rare among contemporary political theorists, even more so among those who concentrate on international relations. Therefore, as a political philosopher and not just a historian, Bain takes on a formidable task in attempting to restore a theologically justified politics.

But what is to be restored? Is it the political theology of Aquinas and his successors and predecessors, or is it the political theology of Ockham and his successors and predecessors? Throughout the book, Bain opts for Ockham. Ockham’s political theology is retrievable; Aquinas’s is not. Nevertheless, Bain must show more than that modern political theory cannot avoid seeking a justification for international order. He must argue why the medieval political ­theology he prefers provides a better justification for politics than do all theological and secular alternatives.

Perhaps Bain’s first task, at least in arguing for a renewed relation of theology, should have been to differentiate his concept of political theology from that of the infamous Carl Schmitt in his 1922 book, Politische Theologie. Largely because of his notion of political ­theology, Schmitt became the chief legal theorist of and apologist for the Nazi regime, both before the rise and after the fall of Hitler. Yet Bain quotes Schmitt only once and briefly—and quite approvingly, as if Schmitt were simply one more modern political theorist following in Ockham’s footsteps. Bain speaks of Schmitt’s “influential proposition that concepts associated with the modern theory of the state are correctly imagined as secularized theological concepts.” Instead of quoting Schmitt so innocuously, shouldn’t Bain have taken on the challenge of answering him? Schmitt is the elephant in the room of all contemporary political theory. Could it be that Bain has no ­satisfactory answer to Schmitt’s challenge—of which he is no doubt aware—and that is why he only mentions him en passant?

In his Political Theology, Schmitt famously advocated a startlingly new conception of the relation of politics and theology, and that conception appears to follow from ­Ockham’s nominalist political theology, to whose retrieval and reconception Bain is so committed. Bain quotes Schmitt as saying, “The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.” Yet, for Schmitt (an excommunicated Catholic), jurisprudence as the legal aspect of politics is more than merely analogous to theology. Schmitt sees politics replacing theology, insofar as the modern head of state (soon to be Adolf Hitler in Schmitt’s Germany) can always contradict the laws of his polity by intervening in a political crisis, just as God could always contradict the laws of his cosmos by miraculously intervening in a religious crisis. For Schmitt, God in the past and Hitler in the present are unrestrained by any order, whether imposed or immanent.

William of Ockham did not go as far as Schmitt does. For Ockham, God’s will is restrained by “the order he [God] chose to create by virtue of his promise and covenant that he instituted with man.” That covenant is ­instantiated in both natural law upheld by the state and revealed law ­upheld by the Church. God promises to abide by both laws, as God commands humans to abide by them. Schmitt, conversely, saw both natural law and revealed law as being ­inoperative in a modern secular society. Ockham’s restraints on a ruler’s caprice had been eliminated by Schmitt and his secularist ­predecessors.

Furthermore, Schmitt’s notion of political theology—which is really politics replacing theology—could not be “of international order.” It is antithetical to international order in principle, looking at particular nation-states to be either positively disposed toward their “friends” or negatively disposed toward their “enemies.” Since nations usually have many enemies and few, if any, friends, international relations are like Hobbes’s state of nature, “the war of all against all.” This is a perpetual state of international disorder. It is the very opposite of the ­international order Bain clearly advocates, what the Bible calls “My covenant of peace” (Isa. 54:10), by which God will “enlighten the nations” (Isa. 42:6).

Finally, Bain is aware that the imposed order he favors for international relations by itself can become and often has become an ­irrational, even evil, political project. In a striking phrase, he bemoans the fact that “Auschwitz is, so to speak, the nihilistic end of the road of a world that is nothing but will and caprice.” Thus, there is a need here for “the theory of immanent order . . . [to provide] relief when the abyss of unfettered freedom draws near.” But where is this needed immanent, restraining order to be found? Bain answers that it arises from the belief that the order God has willed is because of God’s “care for human affairs . . . as the realization of his purpose in history.” In other words, one must have faith in God’s will: that it is not capricious, that it is directed to a beneficent purpose, one that is far more perfect than the purposes of “human beings [who] are not good like God.” Surely, too many human rulers often rule others for their own perceived benefit, which is frequently to the detriment of those who are ruled by them.

Why, though, should anybody have faith in God’s good purposes? What reason do those who do believe have for their faith? Surely, it is because they believe God’s promise to fulfill his purpose, which includes bringing about a truly just and peaceful international order: “For then I shall turn to the nations with clear speech, to call upon them in the name of the Lord to serve Him with one accord” (Zeph. 3:9). Indeed, this order is more than inter-national. Being the work of God, the Creator of the universe, it must be universal, that is, an ontological order, not just what Bain calls “a system of external relations.”

Yet who could reasonably trust this promise, except those who are already serving God by living according to God’s revealed commandments? In other words, from their past experience of God’s having kept his promises to them, from their present keeping of God’s commandments for them, and from their hope for God’s full realization of his promised final redemption of them and the rest of the world, their faith is not a wishful fantasy about an imaginary future. Such faith, then, is reasonable only when it constitutes the past, present, and future lives of those who “live through their faith” (Hab. 2:4). That crucial aspect of even Ockham’s political theology is missing in Bain’s attempt to convince nonbelievers to have faith in a God whom they do not worship, whom they do not obey, and to whom they do not pray to bring into the world the international (or now the “global”) order they desire. Such faith, obedience, and hope can only truthfully intend the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (as Pascal so memorably put it). Nobody has faith in, obeys, or has hope for what Bain only takes to be a “presupposition,” even if it is the “transcendent idea or value” he wants theology to provide politics with.

In the meantime, in the absence of any universal religious consensus in today’s pluralistic world, it seems better to justify international order in reference to natural law—a secular, penultimate, moral criterion of international relations (though not atheistic, as most dogmatic secularists insist). Realistically, fallible humans can only hope to govern themselves here and now according to natural law, whereas the transcendent, cosmic order that includes international order is an ideal to be realized only by God in the radical future or ­eschaton. In this view, natural law (ius naturale) functions as the “law of nations” (ius gentium) of later Roman jurisprudence, namely, what actually operates in relations among (inter) nations. This is the political role natural law plays in the theory of Protestant Hugo ­Grotius in the seventeenth century, and of Catholic Jacques ­Maritain (and of Jewish René Cassin) in the twentieth century. Its most significant practical political manifestation is in the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a document that is saturated with natural law reasoning (as Mary Ann Glendon has so insightfully shown in her book on it). Nevertheless, it is from revealed theology that religious believers (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) have a metaphysical foundation to ground our entrance into natural law discourse and its praxis in good faith. It is a foundation believers should not have to deny upon entrance into this theoretical discourse and political activity, nor is it one that we should insist others acknowledge in order to engage with us in this noble international enterprise. 

David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines