The Withholding Power. The Problem of Political Theology


We shall focus our attention on the problem posed by a single aspect of the relation between theology and politics in Western Christianity, one that has become central in contemporary debate thanks to Carl Schmitt.1 It is the problem raised by the enigmatic words of the Second Letter to Thessalonians 2:6-7, which, even if not Pauls own, are certainly consistent with his doctrine. They speak of something or someone that/who contains-defers-withholds (to katechon - ho katechon) the final triumph of the Spirit of Iniquity, so holding off its own annihilation by the force of‘the breath issuing from the mouth of the Lord'. While the relation between theology and politics must always presents itself in historically determinate terms, it also poses questions of a more general theoretical order. Should we simply analyse the transformation of‘religious' ideas immanently [1] according to the schema applied in the various enquiries into the process or destiny of secularization? Perhaps this assumes that the essential principles of Revelation or the Gospel - even before being captured' and conceived as dogmas - are able to be transposed or translated into constitutive elements of political action.[2] The expression political theology cannot be limited to the influence of theological ideas on the forms of worldly sovereignty, for this assumes an original separation of the two dimensions; instead, it must comprehend the orientation or political finality immanent to religious life that underlies its theological elaboration. A relation, we shall see, that is neither linear nor completely resolvable, one that is in continuous conflict, and in which there can be no peace other than that of mediation and compromise.

Paul - or the faithful disciple who interprets or tries to explain his thought - returns in The Second Letter to Thessalonians to the eschatology of The First Letter to Thessalonians in order to warn that the Lord Jesus will not return until the work of his Adversary (Antikeimenos) is complete. His Day must be preceded by the full unfolding of apostasy (discessio), of the mystery of anomia (;mysterium iniquitatis);[3] the mystery that is the epiphany of Christ is followed by the apocalypse according to the force of Satan, of iniquity, of the one who pretends to be God and demands to be worshipped as God. The day of the Lord must be be awaited during the passage through this time of immense devastation. The end is decided. There is no novitas,[4] nothing new to discover. Nothing remains but to suffer with a martyr s resolve the ultimate assault of the ancient Dragon. It is the test imposed by the Lord prior to his victory.

Nevertheless another power seems to be at work in the spasm of this end-time (eschaton) one whose duration defies conjecture; it is a power that restrains the apocalypse or the perfect unfolding of the iniquity. When whoever embodies this power is removed leaving nothing to stand between the Adversary and the Lord Jesus, the latter will definitively condemn all those who did not believe in his truth. The Greek word for this power is first used in the neuter case to katechonSand now you know what withholdeth ...’ (et nunc quid detineat scitis ...’) and then in the masculine case ho katechon, only he who now letteth ...’ (qui tenet nunc ...’). The present work will take issue with this katechon and its immense historical, political and theological significance. But first it is necessary to introduce the general context presupposed by this difficult biblical text and so permit the fundamental orientations of political philosophy associated with this apocalyptic vision of time to emerge.

It is well known that, with the exception of the Johannine Letters, the term Antichrist is absent from the New Testament. Yet the features given the Adversary in The Second Letter to Thessalonians, in the Book of Revelation and even earlier in Mark 13:22 (the false Christs and false prophets who give signs and prodigies to beguile the elect) remain the same. This is the Hour - the Kingdom is now - but only for those who have decided to believe, who have decided-to-be for the Event. Such is the sense of apocalyptic time: in every instant every individual is called to decision; in every instant they are called to decide in the face of an ultimate either/or face to face with the eschaton: whether to live wholly in the truth of the Event or believe entirely in the energy of deception. This call is addressed to everyone without distinction. The differences of traditions and customs, of class and language, in a word, of ethos are abolished. No longer peoples but multitudes of the chosen. The only thing that matters is the difference between those who live this time eschatologically and those who live it as a moment destined to pass over into other epochs, as a figure of history in which no decisions can ever appear final.

The believers now form the body of cives futuri, citizens of the future, prefiguring Paul's citizenship in the heavens, politeuma en ouranois (Philippians 3:20) in the steadfast hope of the true Peace of the heavenly Jerusalem. The others, the pagans', know neither the true city nor true citizenship - they are reactionaries' incapable of hearing the radical novitas of the Gospel, they resist only in order to survive. The decision separating those who hear and believe from the stubborn and the stiff-necked' is from the outset expressed in the image of two forms of citizenship: one that works here-and-now to enfuture itself5 by understanding its present in terms of the promised future, and the other that clings to the present and works to insure and conserve its form. The first is the community of hope founded in faith while the second struggles for the hopeless end that there be no End! Although the conflict between the two is prejudged, its torment and its history, as we shall see in Augustine, precedes our time and continues in it ever more intensively

The decision for a future citizenship issuing from faith in the novitas of Jesus as the Christ cannot but express a permanent eschatological reserve against the exercise of any power whose main objective is to hold in form, to guard and preserve. In the eyes of the believer, the auctoritas[5][6] - the power that inaugurates, innovates, allows to grow and flourish - belongs essentially to whoever has raised the sword for eschatological time against every preceding ‘state5. The Supreme Author is undoubtedly the Father but a Father who summons us to the heavenly civitas so freeing us from the father of the earthly city (genitor), from the generations and from the violenta consuetudo of the earthly citys ethos defined by Augustine in the City of God.[7] Potestas, worldly power, cannot pretend to authentic auctoritas. It may ‘reign, in the ‘secular sense of the word rex, but it certainly can neither lead nor reign over final ends. Such prophecy makes it impossible for any State to ‘be at peace.

The value assumed by the category of decision, the idea of novitas opposed to all conservative power and the break of the link - ontological for Rome - between potestas and auctoritas are key elements of the Christian theological symbol determining the political dimension of the Age[8] it inaugurated. By representing these key elements, the saeculum in all its forms and conflicts finds its bearings in accordance with their meaning - a meaning that can only be understood in the light of the eschatological view of time informing those New Testament passages where the figure of the katechon appears. This brief time, the spasm of waiting demands interpretation. Is the katechon nothing more than an image of this deferral? Or is its power determinate, a subject consciously acting in order to defer the ultimate confrontation between the incarnation of Iniquity and the parousia, the full and perfect presence, of Logos-Truth? And what possible relationship could there be between such power and the potestas that merely rules and shows itself in time contra the auctoritas of future citizenship?

Venturing an answer requires us to return to the general problem of political theology, for the essentiality or otherwise of the catechontic figure can only appear within its framework. The problem is to specify what form, riven by what aporias, political sovereignty can assume within the perspective of a theology for which authentic auctoritas is precisely what enfutures’ us, a theology that seems destined to undo all will to form a state'. It is readily apparent that such theology cannot be favourably disposed to any kind of power claiming self-sufficient authority There can be no ‘monotheistic' sovereignty We may explain such reluctance in the light of the essential paradox of the Gospel, i.e., the paradox of consubstantiality within the distinction of Father- Author and Son, provided we know how to draw all the consequences from it, and provided we properly understand what makes the relationship between this theology and all forms of secular power at once highly problematic and unavoidable.

The tension of awaiting, of showing forbearance while waiting, renders any political confusion between potestas and auctoritas intolerable and inevitably leads to understanding political sovereignty as necessary in hoc saeculo, in this time.[9] The time that remains cannot be ‘disembodied' from the powers or the archons' who represent it. Those who have decided for the Hour at hand, the believers, must confront them - otherwise, on pain of sin, they will come to regard themselves as already immaculate, already spirit, already blessed citizens of the heavenly citizenship. Nevertheless, confrontation means mediation, and what does mediation entail if not compromise? Here we come upon an irreducible contradiction: to the degree that every power appears as a secularization of a theology which affirms the sovereignty of Logos it will be called upon to express itself as mediation. The mediator enjoys real command but auctoritas cannot be immediately exhausted in him, nor is he the autarchic source and site of it. Power represents - and for that reason depends for its authority on the represented, and while the believer sees in the nexus of Father and Logos distinct faces of the Unum, the One, in political representation this is necessarily impossible.

While the believer demands that power configures itself in the image of the theological nexus - and does not know it other than as power of mediation - his own theology reveals the radical inconsistency of this image. The believer reflects on political power from a theological perspective that views the sovereignty of Logos as freely expressing its full obedience to the Author and freely mediating the Author's will to the multitude, while at the same time recognizing that the secular relation between representing and represented bears no resemblance to the exegesis of the Father that is at work in the incarnation of the Logos. The relation between the ‘faces' of God is neither adventitious nor contingent while in the political relation, in political mediation, no one properly holds auctoritas and neither can any potestas be from the outset‘believed' to be immanent to the Author who reveals and incarnates it.

For its own part, political sovereignty could not ‘reign if divested of every effective reference to the principle of authority. How can sovereignty reduce itself to mere ‘representing' legitimated only by its capacity to mediate the interests that agitate and divide the multitude? For even the simplest representation implies interpretation. The act of representing cannot be reduced to execution - the act of interpreting itself already involves pointing in a direction, opening up a path ahead and the will to lead down that path. What authority can ground this demand? Only one that hails from above' with regard to the plane of mediation or of effectively pursued compromise. But who is above ? Is the one who holds power placed there by the represented in order to protect their lives? If so, the demands of the latter could always change - and the sovereign will always resist obeying them. The complicity'between the two dimensions is the realm of ontological insecurity. If the sovereign‘transcends those represented simply by containing them insofar as his body appears to be composed' of them, then the sovereign's transcendence is pure artifice. What is more, an artifice that turns on the neutralization of that over which it pretends' to rule while the auctoritas of the theological symbol calls for a freedom capable of triumphantly overcoming its own mere humanity, one capable of transhumanizing.[10] Thus, the transcendence of political auctoritas threatens to make itself unrepresentable. Whoever projects onto this scene the theology of the Deus Trinitas is forced to halt before an unbridgeable abyss: in the theological symbol it is the same Author who presents himself who makes himself present in the distinct face of the Logos-Mediator. And the representing-mediator is en arche, in the beginning and from the beginning, one with the Author. Here, on the other hand, the representation posits a substantial difference, in fact it is only conceivable by force of the difference between representing and represented in order that the two, always and at every instance, are also able to represent themselves as separate and autonomous.

For this reason a political theology conceived in the light of the Deus Trinitas appears even more problematic than one informed by a pure monotheism. Yet it is only by virtue of secularization as its immanent possibility that we can understand the eschatological fullness of the idea of representation and the link between authority and power, of the relation in this time (in hoc saeculo) between the civis futurus, the future citizen, and every form of pagan resistance. Can their compromise be founded on a merely administrative and distributive idea of power? Is the latter a force able to withhold anomie? In what way then would this force be related to the day of the Lord11 and to the awaiting and forbearance of the civis futurus? In what sense may anomie be said to come from above ? Here the enigma of the katechon returns in all its urgency. [11]

[1] For a broad analysis of the debate, see M. Nicoletti (1990) and more recently, G. Galli (2012).

[2] Such a perspective appears to be missing even in a work of such inflated proportions as Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007).

[3] A-nomia or active absenting of law is translated as anomie throughout. In Cacciari’s own words: ‘Anomie means this: the Antichrist is in himself anomos, not because he represents anarchy but because he rejects biblical law. The apoleia (perdition) is connected to the rejection of the idea of Christ as the Redeemer. It is in this sense that the Antichrist is a destroyer, because he rejects the idea of redemption, he rejects the Gospel, i.e., the “good news”, the “glad tidings” of Salvation (Cacciari 2014, p.9) (tr.note).

[4] The Latin novitas (novelty, something new) is retained throughout. In the Christian tradition novitas means primarily radical novelty, newness of a radical kind; it also has the sense of a strange or obscure origin, the beginning of something singular and unique (tr. note).

[5] infuturarsi, a Dantean coinage meaning to enfuture oneself. The term appears for the first time in Paradiso, Canto XVII, 98-99) (tr. note).

[6] auctoritas refers to an inaugurating and creative power. The Auctor is the creator God. In Christian theology auctoritas (inaugurating power) is authentic power and is often contrasted with potestas or worldly power (tr. note).

[7] City of God, VIII, XI (tr. note).

[8] For translating Evo with Age, see Chapter III below and Cacciaris interview in Appendix 2 (tr. note).

[9] in hoc saeculo (en to aioni touto), see for example 1 Cor 3:18, is variously translated as ‘in this time,‘in this age and in the King James Version,‘in this world’.

[10] Transumanarsi:          transhumanize,     see      Dantes Paradiso, Canto I, 70-71.

Transhumanize means to go beyond the human towards God (tr. note).

[11] In 1 Ts 5:2, this day is described as the day of the return of Jesus, a day of rupture. In the Book of Revelation (6:12 ff) it is understood as the Day of Wrath (Gods wrath against the unrighteous) (tr. note).