The visionary potential of the Biblical legacy

Although often cast as a barrier to progress, religion has made an invaluable contribution to developing political thought.

William Blake depicts Elohim creating Adam.
William Blake depicts Elohim creating Adam. Credit: Historical image collection by Bildagentur-online / Alamy Stock Photo

This essay originally appeared in ‘Religion : in the past, the present day and the future- Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2014′ published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.

Religion today is more often than not seen as a destructive force in the global political arena. Be it in the form of sectarian claims of particular ethnic groups, or in the form of grandiose universalist ambitions (as in the expansive, missionising factions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam), religion tends increasingly to undermine healthy political processes. I shall first consider the criticism this politicisation of religion has prompted. But rather than rehashing some of the contemporary criticism — which often tends to pit religion against secularism in overly simplistic ways — I shall revisit some of the twentieth-century debates on the utopian aspects of religion. An interesting aspect of these debates is the focus on the subtle interplay between religious and secular ideologies throughout modernity. Secondly, I will move beyond this criticism and turn my attention to the more benign visionary potential of religion, whereby I also wish to raise the question as to whether religious heritages, exemplified by the biblical legacy, may in fact offer constructive impulses to contemporary political thought.

Is religion, when transposed on to political or ideological enterprises, altogether a bad thing? This question has been raised a number of times throughout modernity and it was raised in a particularly incisive way in the mid-twentieth century. I am here referring to the extensive debates that took place in the aftermath of the Second World War, when a number of prominent intellectuals in Europe asked whether the totalitarian enterprises that had devastated the continent were in fact an outcome of the religious heritage of the West. Among the many analyses that were carried out, perhaps the most compelling is Karl Löwith’s classic work, Meaning in History, which was published in 1949. As the title indicates, Löwith’s endeavour is to dismantle the illusion that history is endowed with a higher meaning. It is precisely this illusion that lies behind the Faustian endeavour to direct history by force in order to achieve a perfect society.

Like a number of liberal writers, such as Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin, Löwith saw the totalitarian fantasies of the twentieth century prefigured in the grandiose philosophies of history of the nineteenth century. However, he claimed, it is not enough to try to locate the roots of modern utopias in German Idealism and its offshoots. Rather, the problem lies in the biblical legacy itself. It was within this cultural framework that humanity began to conceive of history as divine, as an eschatological drama of damnation and redemption, governed by divine providence.

During the Middle Ages this conception persisted and was refined, reaching its culmination with the Calabrian Abbot, Joachim of Fiore, in the late twelfth century. In an original trinitarian theology of history, Joachim redirected the glances fixed on the other world towards a future period on earth. With this gesture, an unparalleled explosion arose. From the millenarian movements of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, down to the German peasant wars, the Joachite vision of an ‘Age of the Spirit’ gave fuel to the dream of heaven on earth. With the eventual fading of the biblical worldview, a couple of centuries later, humanity definitively turned its faith in a supra-historical object towards history itself. Thus was born the modern utopia of a perfectly just society, an idea that has generated successive totalitarian projects in which the ends have justified the means.

It is precisely this illusion of a society without conflict that Löwith prompts his readers to give up, by dismantling its roots in messianic visions of a coming heavenly kingdom. If Western modernity has been obsessed with the idea of progress through political and scientific means, it is only because it stands in essential continuity with the ‘Hebrew and Christian faith in fulfilment’ — and it is not until we do away with this faith that we can begin to engage with history in more moderate ways.

Löwith has, of course, not been alone in making this point. A similar criticism was launched by the German political thinker Eric Voegelin at about the same time and later, in the 1970s, American writer Melvin Lasky published his seminal work Utopia and Revolution. Today, perhaps the most fervent advocate of this anti-utopian tradition is British writer John Gray who, in his best-selling book Black Mass: apocalyptic religion and the death of utopia (2007), laconically observes that ‘modern revolutionary movements are a continuation of religion by other means’.

The question is whether this is exclusively a bad thing: whether the history of Western theology is only ever a burden upon modern political thought. If thinkers such as Löwith and Voegelin warned against the potentially totalitarian outcome of the Western religious heritage, there were also other voices, predominantly of Jewish descent, who emerged to defend the constructive political impulses inherent in the biblical legacy. I am here thinking of figures such as Ernst Bloch, Martin Buber, Abraham Heschel and Gershom Scholem, to name but a few.

For all their differences, what these thinkers shared was a rejection of the idea that the biblical legacy had been discredited by the violent ideologies of Western modernity. Although one can compellingly argue that throughout modernity theological ideas of redemption have inspired reckless utopian enterprises, one can also demonstrate how the prophetic heritage has inspired numerous genuinely emancipatory movements. In order to understand this dynamic, we need to go back to the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible. If anti-utopian writers charged this literature with being the origin of political utopianism, radical Jewish philosophers like Bloch and Buber suggested a rather different reading of the same texts.

It was, for instance, the ancient Jewish prophets who first advanced the idea of a God for all of humanity, an idea that arguably extended what had initially been a national idea into a universal vision and thus laid the ground for subsequent ideals of social equality. Another pronounced feature of the prophetic literature is the unwillingness to assign trans-historical authority to any worldly institution or social order. In the eyes of the prophets, divine justice transcends every fixed political, legal or cultic order, with the consequence that these orders can always be challenged in the name of a higher justice. Throughout history, this belief in a transcendent divine justice has been a vital force for marginalised peoples, who have found in their faith a bastion against repressive structures, both political and religious.

In sharp contrast to those who reflexively rejected the biblical legacy, Bloch and Buber (but also Heschel and Scholem), were thus able to argue that the prophetic promise of impending redemption has inspired people to revolt against unjust and oppressive orders. This is not to say that they ended up defending a utopian view of redemption as something which could be achieved once and for all. Rather — in line with traditional rabbinical thought – they depicted messianic justice as a task to be carried out continuously; the ‘arrival of the Messiah himself’, in the words of Scholem, ‘is tied to impossible or, at any rate, highly paradoxical conditions.’

In this view, the messianic idea of redemption appears more like a counterforce to totalitarian ideas of a perfectly just society: if what ultimately characterises totalitarianism in its various shapes is the desire to make everything present — to install heaven on earth — the messianic idea in Judaism rather indicates that there is always more to history, more to hope and strive for, and thus urges us never to grow complacent with the present state of affairs.

What is striking about these twentieth-century debates on religion and utopianism is the two quite different assessments of the political value of the biblical legacy that come to the fore. One of the points I wish to make in this essay is that both assessments contain an important grain of truth. One can quite compellingly argue that theological ideas of redemption have throughout modernity inspired reckless utopian enterprises. But it is also possible to demonstrate how the prophetic heritage throughout the ages has inspired people to criticise, protest and, perhaps, even overthrow corrupt and unjust political orders.

Given that religious traditions are dynamic entities — ongoing negotiations between different interpretations — this complexity should not surprise us. The biblical legacy, like any religious heritage, quite obviously contains both constructive and destructive impulses. The true challenge for anyone who wishes to engage critically with this heritage is therefore to identify and encourage the constructive impulses inherent in its texts, beliefs and practices.

This is also where I think the anti-utopian criticism of the biblical tradition ultimately falls short. If writers from Löwith to Gray are convinced that modern politics is better off without its theological past, one is bound to ask whether they haven’t abandoned the tradition too soon. Whether we want it or not, the biblical legacy, in all its varieties, remains the crucible in which the political and intellectual cultures of the West have been moulded. To distance oneself from this legacy, instead of making claims on it as a common cultural concern is, arguably, to hand it over to the groupings within both Judaism and Christianity who define their respective traditions in a manner that fairly well corresponds to the excesses that the anti-utopian critics see as representative of biblical religion (dangerous utopianism, theocratic fantasies, forsaking of the present in the name of a future goal).

Finally, to do away with the biblical legacy for politico-philosophical reasons is also to fail to recognise that religion may in fact offer important resources for constructive political engagement. This brings me back to the question at the beginning of this essay – whether religious heritages, exemplified by the biblical legacy, may in fact offer constructive impulses to political thought. I shall conclude by briefly pointing to three aspects of the biblical legacy that I believe can serve as critical tools in the ongoing debates on issues such as universalism, identity, justice and democracy (needless to say, this restriction on the biblical legacy is by no means intended to deny or obfuscate similar critical impulses present in other religious heritages).

The first aspect I wish to pinpoint is a universalism sited in particularity. This phrasing may perhaps not be the first thing that comes to mind when you consider the track record of Christianity. The history of Christianity and, by extension, Western civilisation, has tended to foster arrogant and even violent versions of universalism – that is, universalist visions that have been blind to their particular or traditional presuppositions and thus failed to respect the particularity of other traditions. This pattern has marked, above all, the relation between Christianity and Judaism, where Christianity, throughout history, has often manifested its claims to truth and salvation at the cost of the Jewish tradition (what is generally referred to as ‘supersessionism’). Christian claims to possess universal truth have also prompted various missionary and colonial projects up to the present day.

Yet if we go back to the biblical legacy, we find a rather different conception of the universal. The prophetic literature testifies to an emerging universalism, tied up with the idea that the God of the Jewish covenant is in fact the God of all humanity. What distinguishes this universalism from the kind of universalism characteristic of later Western history is a strong sense of the particularity of the claim being made: it is the God of Israel who is offered also to other peoples, an offer which simultaneously entails the freedom of other peoples not to accept this particular view of the universal. Thus, the awareness of the contextuality of any claim to the universal makes for the recognition of the contextuality of other claims.

Among other things, such a notion of universalism would challenge the kind of arrogant universalism that has too often characterised the Western view of the world. This is not to downplay the importance of universally accepted norms of human rights as a foundation for the UN. But, as Elena Namli has rightly pointed out (in Human Rights as Ethics, Politics and Law), the international discourse on human rights often fails sufficiently to recognise its own roots in a Western liberal tradition and, thereby, tends to exclude other cultural paradigms for human liberation.

In this regard, Namli suggests, human rights discourse may have an important lesson to learn from religious traditions: While human rights, Islam and Christianity all make claim to universality, there is, for historical reasons, greater self-criticism with regard to this claim within the Christian and Muslim traditions than within the human rights discourse. Whereas most Christians and Muslims are aware of the long history of political and social misuse of their traditions, most human rights activists view human rights as a policy exclusively of liberation.

This leads me to the second aspect I wish to highlight: the prohibition of idolatry. If arrogant universalism is one obstacle to healthy political processes, another is growing sectarianism, with either religious or nationalist overtones (or both). Here, again, I believe much could be gained by retrieving the prophetic strand within the biblical tradition, which questions all human efforts to define personal, religious or social identities, once and for all. The suspicion of human projections which is expressed in the biblical ban on idolatry entails not only a questioning of human efforts at grasping the divine, but a questioning of all forms of identity, which take on the logic of an idol. Hence, in the words of Rowan Williams, religious commitment is a matter of ‘unremitting challenge to what we think we know about human beings and their destiny’.

There are numerous political, religious and ethnic currents that today would be well served by a reminder of the provisional nature of every identity — divine as well as human. In this respect, they would also do well to listen to both old and new prophets as they teach us how to smash our idols. It would not, for instance, harm the diehard defenders of the Israeli settlement movement to listen, once again, to Martin Buber’s words apropos the Jewish notion of a people of God: ‘Precisely in the religion of Israel it is impossible to make an idol of the people as a whole. […] Whoever ascribes to the nation or to the community the attributes of the absolute and of self-sufficiency betrays the religion of Israel.’ But the principal meaning of the words could, of course, be applied to any obsession with national identity, racial purity or religious exclusivity.

The third and final aspect of the biblical legacy which I would like to bring to the fore is the notion of a transcendent justice. ‘Transcendent‘ in this context, does not mean that justice hovers somewhere in outer space. What it means is that justice is something that transcends or exceeds existing human orders and institutions. A recurring theme in the prophetic literature is the rejection of political and religious leaders who tend to confuse human power with divine power and regard their government as the final incarnation of God’s justice. In contrast to this, the prophets teach that justice is something that can never be taken as a given for all time. There is, in other words, a productive tension between the idea of justice and any existing system of moral regulations, laws and norms.

The historical value of this particular notion of justice is twofold. First, it includes an awareness that existing social and cultural security should never be taken for granted. Second, and even more importantly, it includes an incentive to question and criticise corrupt and unjust social orders. This may not seem like a burning issue in the relatively stable liberal democracies of the West. But a quick glance at a number of regimes in the world today, or at the history of twentieth-century Europe, should remind us of the value of having recourse to a notion of justice that — to quote Rowan Williams once more — ‘does not change at elections’.

To conclude, I believe the prophetic notion of justice may bring important perspectives to contemporary debates on democracy. It enjoins us to be cautious about regarding democracy simply as a system of governance to be imposed on ‘undemocratic’ societies. Rather, it reminds us that democracy is — or ought to be — a dynamic vision, an open-ended process, which is constantly seeking to become more just — while simultaneously recognising that justice as such can never be wholly attained.


Jayne Svenungsson