Responding to a perceived lack of theological literacy in political theory, Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Sovereignty: God, State, and Self suggests that sovereignty, as a theo-political concept, has migrated across the social and disciplinary divides. As with the work of Radical Orthodoxy, this is a book about the will; the decline of an Augustinian-Thomist theological and social synthesis in the face of the onslaught of post-Ockham accounts of the state, the self, and the divine. Elshtain says: ‘the puzzlement for our purposes is whether or not there were developments in understanding God’s authority and power that either helped to pave the way for absolutism in politics or were concomitant with its emergence’ (p. 20).
Elshtain answers this in the affirmative. And the majority of the book is taken up by an analysis of the transition, in theology and its associated debates, from ‘God as love and reason to God as command’ (p. 37). Pre-modern theology holds open the possibility that ‘we can act from the law we discern… because God committed himself to the integrity of the nature that is his creation, meaning that “natural law” is stabilized’ (p. 29). This carries a range of socio-political implications: a pluralism of legitimate locales of power in one societas Christiana, a trust in the intelligibility of things, and the submission of earthly rule to natural law.
The shift to a univocal paradigm, in which sovereignty applies equally and not analogically to God and humans in their respective realms, sets the frame of intelligibility for secular, absolutist states, and the atomistic self-determining individual of modernity. Immanently realised absolutism is clearly problematic, and Elshtain is right to note the problems associated with the state’s power to decide on the exception, and our collective inability to recognise the dignity to those who fail, or are unable, to express their self-sovereignty.
However, on occasions, Sovereignty’s conclusions abscond from the hard reality of discerning a plausible return to the pre-modern arrangement she so clearly desires. Elshtain is right to say that ‘God’, paradoxically, ‘is neither utterly transcendent – so removed God offers no coherent analogy to our selves – nor is God so entirely immanent that we are simply subsumed into this God-substance and become indistinguishable from it’ (p. 236). But, when she goes on to affirm Bonhoeffer’s ‘freedom is… a relationship and nothing else’ her paradoxical theology has already jettisoned itself, for must we not be free, in some sense, in order to be in relationship (p. 237)? It may be in theological vogue to castigate all will, volunteerism and univocity, but don’t such monolithic degradations of these terms foreclose serious avenues of investigation that take the uncoerced will as constitutive to relationship? Furthermore, Elshtain does not consider the market as a source of sovereignty, again, here, might not the expression of will, individually and collectively, factor as a significant feature in the redemption of our social and political lives?
Yet, as a lively introduction to the elective affinity of theological concepts with societal conditions, particularly attentive to the distinctiveness of the medieval arrangement, Sovereignty is an engaging introduction to the field of political-theology.