Political Theology or Liberal Religion (Scale)

(views over Harlem on a spring or summer day from Morningside Park)


I don’t think the political theology theorists have carefully considered the ways in which religion is a non-static phenomenon that scales up and down between different types of political places –home, village, city, state, empire.

At more local levels, religion is bound up with the customs of a local place. They are both convention-bound and relative (relative to local custom). A case in point is how throughout the corpus of the Babylonian Talmud the rabbis defer quite consistently less to a universal form of positive law than to local practice. Internally, local custom is iron-like. Externally, it is variable and non-systematic.

The political problem with religion is when it scales up from the local level to the levels of state and empire. It’s at the point that you get the centralization of religion, the crystallization of custom into law, and the universal imposition of religion as law (on everyone). This is the problem with Leo Strauss and conservative religious political philosophy. In Philosophy and Law, he based his concept of religion on law and obedience. Elsewhere, Srauss clearly expressed his preference for small scale communities (in Natural Law and History). I cannot see how transposing the fantasy-image of small scale, conservative politics and religion into the larger form of mass society cannot be anything but a disaster.  I’m pretty confident that these complex social forms require more loose religio-political arrangements.

As a longish aside, I would also add that the centralizing of religion and religious authority may have nothing to do with monotheism. This argument posed by the critics of monotheism is that it is uniquely intolerant. I’m beginning to see how this might not be true. In a private conversation, a Japanese religions scholar with whom I’m friendly once told me how in Japan local deities and their proliferation at the village level were at some point suppressed in favor of a more delimited, centralized pantheon of gods. I would also note the insistence in the Lotus Sutra (arguably the most important text in the Mahayana tradition) on the importance of the single Great Vehicle (or Mahayana) over all other lesser vehicles, as well as the preeminence of, you guessed it, the Lotus Sutra. (My apologies for getting any of this wrong.)

So this might get me into trouble with the post-secularism and political theology people, who tend, no less than conservative political theorists, to be critical of liberalism and liberal religion. (Is despise too strong a word?). And it is true, one thing that secularism does to religion is to force it into a more miniaturized set of places. But the force of this miniaturization, forcing it into local micro-levels, seems to me to operate at a smaller more human scale, which, in a liberal society, is much less coercive than are the state and imperial formats of religion. For those of us who like miniaturized components or even nanotechnologies, I can’t see how this is a bad thing to do to religion and/or to do as religion. It has a better taste (ta’am). Like micro-brewing beer? 

(In the first image posted above, Mt. Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church nestles neatly into the cityscape



About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to Political Theology or Liberal Religion (Scale)

  1. Ken says:


    I love this kind of thinking, but have you ever brewed beer? For micro-brews, even at the small scale they still try to achieve consistency and uniformity. What do you do with that?

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