What is political theology? What does it do? The conventional way to begin is with Carl Schmitt’s well-worn dictum that all significant concepts of the modern theory of state are but secularised theological ones—both in historical origin and by virtue of their systematic nature. In order to understand this claim one should probably begin with the immense influence exerted by Hegel on German philosophy, or more correctly the sheer mystical weirdness of the chapters on Christianity in Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which the function of Christ is a resolutely social and political one, a kind of “god-building” of the eventual final community of reconciled equals. Depending on how one interprets this colossal monster of a book (I increasingly find it difficult not to think of it as the result of some sort of Eckhartian religious experience), it may of course not simply be the poor miserable Romans stricken with “unhappy consciousness” at the “death” of their civic gods with the collapse of the Republic at which hour Christ also dies and rises, soon to completely transfigure their entire world, but so too the men of the 19th century living out a similar cyclically repeated death of the Christian God. This Left Hegelian interpretation has been the dominant one in philosophy this past two centuries, though from time to time I have met that rarest of creatures, the Right Hegelian—no, no, not a Fukuyama-stan or Gentilean Fascist, but simply fairly banal conservatives who believe Hegel was a good, wholesome Lutheran boy who didn’t do anything “wrong” at all. Can we believe that?
Nonetheless, if there is one thing that I think we can admit that Hegel did do, it is that in his bottomless hunger to never let anything that vaguely looked like a nice, neat little Two exist without being immanently contradicted and reconciled, he pulled down the curtain on the idea that in Western history at the very least there was never such a naïve unbridgeable gap between the sacred and the secular as the men of the modern era had, for various reasons, very keenly desired to believe, if only, as Hegel gave away, because so very much of the secular was merely a vessel into which might be poured the unfulfilled dreams of freedom, equality, finality and perfection that had fermented inside Christianity for millennia. But what is one to do with this? What happens if the machine breaks down and all the little dreams and fantasies poured from one glass into another still do not come true? When political theologian Roberto Esposito speaks of the horror of the “machine” of political theology and the need to find some way to short out its endless shell game juggling of material between the Two of the sacred and the secular, the villain, the Devil, is dastardly old Hegel. One of the most important but often overlooked functions of the Hegelian Geist in this last century, from primitivist reactionary Ludwig Klages to Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (which owed at least some debts to Klages), is as the Devil, as the “Gnostic” Monster of History.
Thus, rather than asking what does political theology do, it is far more important to ask what it cannot, or perhaps will not do. For the most part political theology is a 20th-century discovery, its most influential proponents—Schmitt, Benjamin, Voegelin, Löwith—were all driven by the need to try to explain the politically horrifying times through which they lived, in particular the phenomena of Stalinism and Nazism. One of the core functions of political theology is a kind of abreaction—a need to pile through history and genealogies in order to simply understand by repetition why it is that one has come to the place one has and accept it. This is perchance why of all hermeneutic-genealogical methods political theology often seems to have the least to offer by way of an alternative to the way of things. That during the last decade when there was something of a boom in the revival of the discipline from the left, most of which amounted to piling through the history of the concept of oikonomia, from Aristotle and the Church Fathers down to the present, just to proclaim “There you go—that’s how we got neoliberalism” was frankly unsurprising. Political theology does not smash idols—rather, it insists that they have never really gone away, maybe never can, no matter how monstrous or dear they might be. It is haunted by the thought that no one shall ever rid it of this turbulent priest.
Walter Benjamin in his famous Theses on the Philosophy of History asks us to accept that inside Marxism a theological dwarf was always hiding. This is not hard to do, for as historian Norman Cohn realised, if you want to understand where the dream of socialism comes from then you must understand the reception of the Classical Golden Age and the ongoing influence of Plato’s Republic in the Middle Ages and their marriage with millenarianism. Far more notable is that the Marxian “puppet” with its labour theory of value is in fact an Aristotelian one. As R. H. Tawney memorably put it: “Marx was the last of the Schoolmen.” And yet, at the same time, this means that we must also accept with Benjamin that empty, homogenous time in which there is nothing but wreckage and thwarted desires piled up shall remain the constant until the very last moment of forever. Only then shall messianic time disjunctively appear and make up for everything that has ever been suffered and lost. Can we do that? Maybe come back in another millennium or five.
Eric Voegelin, by comparison, expended decades on the pernicious legacy of Gnosticism and millenarianism in modern thought. Perhaps the reader has come across the “trads” throwing the beastly G-word about like it were some sort of special sauce in which they might drown all their enemies and then some. Nonetheless, in the end Voegelin was compelled to give up the “history of ideas” hunting for Gnostic “derailing” quite simply because he realised that he too was a creature in history and thus under obligation to try to understand and describe, even try himself to repeat the experiences of cosmic order of Plato and Aristotle that had seemingly set everything else since in motion. He also more than realised that the very Gnosticism he was trying to chase out was also present in even Paul and the Gospel of John, which is why it just kept on endlessly coming back. While “everyone I don’t like is a Gnostic” is too common by far, rare indeed does it seem for many to accept the step of the necessary leap of faith into the dark in search for the barely articulable experience of “order” as Voegelin tried. In the end, the conspiracy of political theology is not some colossal mystified, totalising horror machine with no exit, but rather that the only exit is for it to unironically turn you into a mystic. Can we do that? I know I can and I shall tell you all about it at the end of this essay.
But let us get to Schmitt. After his well-known dalliance with Nazism, Carl Schmitt became increasingly morose at the possibility that in the post-war period the world no longer had anything like an “outside”—it was now a single global system in which rather than wars and combat between political ideologies, there were now only “police actions”. Schmitt’s obsession with political violence and fear of its disappearance and “neutralisation”, rather like that of Georges Sorel, whose conception of “mythic violence” exerted so much influence on him, is often so odd as to be buffoonish. For instance, in an appendix to Political Theology II we find him desperately trying to force the word stasis in the description of the Trinity by the Church Father Gregory of Nazianzus to take on the meaning it had in ancient Greek politics of political faction and revolt rather than the mere “standing apart” distinction of the three members. In the beginning there was Dissention. It is one thing to find in the Kabbalists the idea of the fifth sephirah, the Geburah or Judgement of God, that excessively spills over, bringing suffering and violence into the world (which is carried down into Boehme and thereafter Schelling, Žižek, even Land’s Cthelll “world soul”), but one can almost feel Schmitt sweating at the possibility that the world is not nearly ontologically violent enough.
“Political theology is polytheistic as every myth is polytheistic,” so Schmitt once wrote. There is always competition between myths, narratives and powers over who gets to control the political machinery and perhaps no era in a very long time if ever was quite so violently “mythic” and confounding in its competing ideologies and claims as that of the first half of this last century. Do we live in a “mythic” age? One can now, with a little hindsight and clarity, begin to look back over the 2010s and Platform Revolution, during which, for a brief moment, everyone took it upon themselves to (post)ironically play at communism, fascism, anarchism, post-Moldbuggian Hyper-Agrarian Posadism. One is left not so much with a feeling of pity at our naivety, nor even dawning awareness of the banal fact that most of it was little more than a rather stupid “computer game” that the libs were always going to win and merely use to level up, quite simply because they had real institutional power out in meatspace. Rather, the matter is that so very little of political theological note was said of it all until very late. “Wokeness is a Religion”, the American liberal “Great Awokening” or secularised evangelical “Fourth Awakening”, arrived as a meme well after the rotten prison hulk of the Platform Slump had arrived in harbour. As far as I am aware, there has not even been a single damn book of note on the subject.
Where the “Awokening” has been cut and paste as a meme, there has been very little to it, often that the touted secular religion of intersectionality is merely filling a structural gap where Christianity used to go. There is of course a second kind of “take” on this meme, often slightly more interesting, that consciously associates American “wokeness” with the legacy and secularisation of radical Nonconformist Protestantism in the US.Ah, now we’re getting warmer. Nonetheless, this rarely if ever goes into much detail. Instead, in order to find anyone even vaguely willing to put any effort into taking it seriously one has to descend into the depths of the various “trad” and “weird right” types, most of whom simply seem to be channelling some pale semblance of the work of neo-reactionary blogger Mencius Moldbug/Curtis Yarvin, who, a decade ago, between bouts of foaming Carlylean post-ironic rhetoric about handing over America to airline pilots, used to mention “Creeping Calvinism” a great deal, if only, as we have argued elsewhere, without ever really saying where exactly he first got it from. These days in spite of basically having become a mainstream right wing institution he’s rather more boring, though some of his poems aren’t too shabby. The discourse of 2021 is not that of 2007. New Atheism is as long since over as the need to have to leap through hoops of irony in order to get people to buy the once bespoke notion that the American left liberal elite are a right pack of conniving, power-hungry bastards.
More than anything one cannot help but think that in nearly all instances the meme of “Awokening” exists as little more than a shibboleth, a team-building exercise, a territorial in-joke. Often it is simply a passing snort from TradCaths to the tune that the Reformation has turned out rather badly indeed. Tut tut. The older fellow who first told me about Moldbug back in the early 2010s seemed particularly keen on the “meme” because he worked with a lot of liberal atheist Boomer types who considered themselves very clever people, and there seemed no better put-down, no more superior an ironic revenge than the idea that they were a product of Christianity. Of course, he never said this to their faces any more than anyone does now. No one is going to have a proper conversation with “the libs” about the past five hundred years of theology (“As if they’d even care!” I hear you say), any more than they might with the evangelical Rapture people, California “New Agers”, and anyone else over whom the shared genealogy of Nonconformist “woo” might seem to linger.
The problem with political theology is that even in its highest, most scholarly forms it often gets little further than our silly “Awokening” meme—a kind of repeated in-joke that can go decades without being told, then being resurrected for a little while, and then once more depart into oblivion. Political theology has an amnesia problem, because, as we have already been beastly enough to propose, its instrumentality is nearly always simply abreaction, cope and intellectual fad for the purpose of sewing team sports uniforms. As one biographer put it concerning Carl Schmitt after his Nuremberg trial, he “now portrays himself simply as a myth. He makes himself the centre of his own world by creating a private mythology composed of aspects taken from classical mythology, classical theories of the state and classical literature.” The point, perhaps, should be to avoid this kind of purely defensive mythic barrier at all costs, whether one might find it efficacious for the production of some sort of mythic Schmittian “friends and enemies” division or otherwise. This is, of course, a very, very hard thing to do, though there are, heaven forbid, more than Two Things in the world, as strange as that might sound to some, and as basic as dichotomy is to what someone like William James would call “common sense”. It should not be overlooked that the reason we find Schmitt absurdly trying to find dissention in the Trinity is quite simply because Erik Peterson had pointed out to him the very obvious fact that the Trinity has three persons in it.
To count as high as Three, as Plato also managed in the Timaeus concerning the mysterious Khora reachable only through analogical “bastard reasoning”, leaves us with the strange possibility that for inside and outside, being and becoming, sacred and secular, friends and enemies, what we have been waiting upon since the beginning of forever is the unveiling of a messianic “place” that is neither a combination of the Two nor a mere mediator or Aufhebung, but something distinct that then changes the perceived relational meaning(s) of them entirely. We may well be waiting a very long time indeed for something truly “post-secular” in the sense of even some alternative “new” third vessel into which the failed theological dreams that were poured into the secular may, in turn, then be poured into another vessel and start the machine over again but differently. For now, at least, we remain stuck in a world governed by the Lords of Creation and the homogenous time of the endless cyclic repetition of katechon after katechon, founding crime of “mythic violence” after founding crime, fugazi millennium after fugazi millennium. Can we do that? Have you tried turning the world off and on again? Have you tried throwing yourself on the ground like Thomas Aquinas and begging God to help you solve the irreconcilable?
The best that we have for now at least is simply the realisation and concomitant challenge that team sports are easy, but thinking is hard. What would it mean to take the dumb “Great Awokening” meme seriously and do something with it? To even accept it and use it as a launching point to put meaning back into the tired old term “Nonconformism”? So I have detailed elsewhere in the past on this very topic, Jonathan Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World has quite a bit to say about the two “tectonic plates” of Nonconformist millenarianism in America, one epitomised by obsession with the Rapture, the other “secularised” into the idea of being the magical land of perpetual progress. Eric Voegelin also dealt with the idea, and argued that the Anglosphere had experienced a “second reformation” in the form of movements such as Wesleyanism which had encouraged active political participation and the enlarging of democratic franchise. This is even if he was more than aware that traces still remained of the sorts of tendencies towards creating “perfect” elect communities epitomised in the phenomenon of Calvinist Geneva and other similar hothouse experiments during the Reformation.
The great literary critic Harold Bloom was also certainly convinced of the ongoing influence of radical Nonconformism in American culture. As he saw it, the Nonconformist’s instant access to God through the pneuma (spirit) lay at the base of all manner of expressions of the “American Religion”—the world-feeling of intense self-importance as the agent of history. There is also some rather interesting new material on the influence of Behmenist and Kabbalist ideas by early Quaker settlers on the formation of the American concept of Manifest Destiny. Much has for that matter been written on the strange correlation in the Progressive Era in the US in which large numbers of reformers and pro-reform journalists seem to have come from especially rigid evangelical households in which, as in the early days of US settlement and “visible saints”, it was expected that one was to have religious epiphanies, but these never arrived. So too did psychologist Paul C. Vitz back in the 1970s explored the more than obvious links between American consumer “self-psychology”—Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Carl Rogers—and its prehistory in radical Protestantism. All of this is but the tip of a very big iceberg indeed.
For that matter, while Weber certainly overplayed his hand concerning the importance of Calvinist Predestination in the formation of the “protestant work ethic”, British socialist R. H. Tawney long ago did the necessary work to the show that something very strange did happen to British Nonconformism in the last quarter of the 17th century in its discovery of the mercantile way of life as the Christian way of life and the idea that the poor were simply lazy. Nonetheless, as he also knew well, Nonconformist businessmen also exerted a powerful legacy in England and America in the service of the poor and the abolition of slavery. So one might note, the Guardian newspaper, that ultimate Anglo left lib organ, which recently celebrated its two-hundredth anniversary, emerged from this very particular world-feeling. Capital has, perhaps, always been as “woke” as it has been beastly. One might also make mention of the once very influential historical work of British Marxist and Nonconformist Christopher Hill—in particular The World Turned Upside Down and Liberty Against the Law that did much, if for only a brief moment, to dispel the enduring royalist agitprop that nothing much at all happened during the Protectorate except Cromwell cancelling Christmas and dancing. In spite of this, there is not to my knowledge such a thing as a Big Book of Anglo Prot Weirdness in which libertarian gun-hoarders sit side by side with “New Agers”, Gerrard Winstanley and Lady Conway, and all those tiresome American liberals who keep saying that they’re on the “right side of history”.
The funny thing about the “right side of history”, as everyone knows, is that everyone wants some, whether you’re the “moral majority” or the tiny virtuous outsider “elect” rattling around an enormous Evil Empire. Having one’s outsider cake and eating it too is, as always, the most popular choice, as surely as Matthew 21 tried to solve a particular problem in the comprehension of a certain Old Testament prophecy by having Christ ride into Jerusalem not with two donkeys, but riding both of them at once. Here it bears mentioning that as deeply serious as the Acts of the Apostles with Paul and friends drifting from place to place, avoiding capture and telling fine convincing speeches might seem to be, it would most certainly not exist as is without the ancient Greek romance novel and its endless silly string of contrived misadventures around the Mediterranean as a frame. That, in the end, those under the auspices of Tyche or Eros finally get to live “happily ever after” after endless deferrals and dangers is perhaps the greatest fantasy of the Hellenistic and the “unhappy consciousness” resulting from the cosy world of the polis giving way to strange and distant powers over imperial “large spaces”. This little narrative machine stands behind most every silly old dime novel of contrived misadventure and every “road trip” movie you’ve ever seen. But it also stands behind an entire religion and all its secular offspring, behind entire Empires.
St. Paul might have got himself decapitated (spoilers), but what he started led the Roman “large space” to become a truly ecumenical one, a cradle for universalism. And there is most certainly no such thing as universalism without both empire and ecumenical religion to fill it. So Voegelin says somewhere on the subject, the problem with this ecumenic expansion outwards, this symbolic filling in of areas carved out by conquest, is that so very often it has come at the expense of expansion inwards, into the anagogic understanding of what the very symbolisation is really about. Once you sign on for being the katechon, the Holy Roman Empire charged with keeping Order in the world until you inevitably get co-opted by the Beast and are annihilated by God, once you win-but-have-not-yet-lost, good old Bergsonian “openness” tends to cop it in favour of structuring “closed society”. Concretisation, dogmatism descends. All that was once airy hardens into shite, and it is the work of aeons to try to avert this, to refresh it, to keep the damn thing on life support. If you fail you may find yourself centuries later having to live out the coprolitic remains of all manner of undead, strange theological decisions. Can we do that?
For instance, when people today ritualistically mope about the End of History and curse Francis Fukuyama’s name, they seem to overlook the very obvious fact that Eusebius had already announced the End with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity nearly two millennia prior—one ruler on Earth to mirror the One God in Heaven. Who is he really speaking of here, the Emperor or God?
The name of the one Supreme Ruler of the universe is proclaimed to all: the gospel of glad tidings connects the human race with its Almighty King, declaring the grace and love of the heavenly Father to his children on the earth.
In the same way on the coming of Augustus and Christ, each seems to meld equally into the other too:
For before Him there was great variety of government, all nations being under tyrannical or democratic constitutions…. until the Lord and Saviour came, and concurrently with His coming, the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, conquered the nations, variety of government was almost completely ended, and peace was spread through all the world, according to the prophecy before us which expressly says of Christ's disciples: “Wherefore they shall be glorified to the ends of the earth, and this shall be peace.
It might be very upsetting for our Catholic friends to hear us suggest as much, if even with a little tongue in cheek, that no, no, you are not living out some “Dark Fukuyama”—a horrifying final curse against which no words, no actions, no events seem to possess even the faintest power—but rather a “Dark Constantine” that has never really left. The political theological effects of the Constantinian revolution have been a disaster for the human race, or at the very least for Christianity and those who continue to live in its wake, ploughing all thought endlessly back into mindless obedience to the “king’s two bodies”, the naive univocity of Being, in which there is nothing but just so many little power-hungry imagines Dei seeking to swallow and LARP divine “projections”. If Christ is King, then he scuttles the machinery of all other kings forever as surely as the Sermon on the Mount unleashes a profoundly anarchic and demanding way of life that cannot ever be truly perfected or reterritorialised. Wheresoever the conniving imitation appears let it be defaced, let it be rejected as phantasma (ghost, idol, copy)—all the more readily when it comes in the name of “peace”, of “care”, of “love”, “diversity”, for it has always done so and as long as it lives out its ghastly undead existence it always shall. Can you not feel the great, cold, iconoclastic Puritan urge rising up in you to condemn and shit on its whole mortifying, imaginary and symbolic theatre? Christian anarchy remains, as ever, the option.
Of all people of recent memory, perhaps American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick has felt most profoundly the uncanny, horrifying feeling that the Roman empire never really ended. As his biographer Emanuele Carrère explains:
The average American sees nothing, but Rome is the underlying reality of the world in which he lives. The Empire never ended. It has merely hidden itself from the eyes of its subjects. It has spun a fantasy universe, like a film projected onto a prison wall, a shameless fiction that the inmates take for a factual documentary depicting nineteen centuries of history and the world in which those years have culminated. But while the movie plays, the war goes on.
As a child, PKD was haunted by a recurrent dream of being in a large bookshop looking for an old sci-fi story titled The Empire Never Ended, but was never able to find it. Eventually it came for him, he found himself living in it. In March 1974, or “3-74” as he was later to term it, after a visit to the dentist and drugged off his face, he was stricken with what he could only later call a divine invasion that was to completely change the meaning of his life and work. An entity that he called VALIS/Zebra, an aspect of Christ assembling itself backwards through time from the millennium in order to defeat the Empire, reaching into the sleeping minds of people here and there awakening them, revealed to him that he was not merely a bum with a few good books living at the end of the 20th century, but simultaneously also an early Christian in 70 AD called Thomas. PKD was thereafter to embark on a massive project attempting to synthesise the entirety of Western philosophy and theology (and some Hindu and Taoist elements too) simply in order to try to understand exactly what happened to him, how history seemed at once to be resolutely “anamnetic”—backwards facing, towards remembering, recall, simultaneous existence in the past—and “progressive” in the sense of the then very popular “transhumanist” evolutionary theology of Jesuit palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin (though he admitted that he had never read a single word of the latter). PKD wanted everything. He wanted Christ on two donkeys, so to speak. He wanted Spinozan immanence and Gnostic transcendence and escape at the same time.
As rather rough, frenetic, even amateurish as much of PKD’s Exegesis material on these experiences might seem, one cannot help but think that this utterly quixotic attempt to synthesise everything has far more in common with the abstruse efforts of Renaissance thinkers like Giordano Bruno and Ralph Cudworth than with anything like the “New Agers” of the last century with whom obvious parallels are all too easy to draw, especially when we find him talking about VALIS invading him through his DNA lineage and now rather trite sounding ideas like our world being but a digital “simulation”—a purgatory of tape recordings on an endless loop. How could the greatest speculative fiction writer of the last century, one of the most astounding thinkers ever, take this sort of stuff deadly seriously? He needed everything to agree, which of course meant that the science fiction of PKD had to agree with it too. And yet, like Spinoza—more than Bruno or Cudworth—one cannot help but think that he is merely using the language of others—including himself as an “other”—in order to try to express something very different, something that could hardly be expressed with what was available at all.
There is some famous old footage of Phil describing his “3-74” experience at a sci-fi convention in France in 1977 as part of a talk titled “If You Find This World Is Bad, You Should See Some of the Others”. The combination of confusion, amusement and shock on the faces of the members of the audience who expected they were turning out to hear a guy just talk about writing books is palpable. PKD was without a doubt extremely odd, even probably quite insufferable as a person. Were he with us, one cannot help but think he would be sharing 5G conspiracies and sliding into the DMs of young ladies everywhere. In November 1971 this most paranoiac of 20th-century philosophers, believing that someone wanted to steal one of his unfinished manuscripts, found the prophecy fulfilled when someone actually did, blowing up part of his house in the process. Ultimately, however, he was forced to whittle down the list of potential suspects to no one but … himself: “I blew up my house and forgot I did it … I blew up my house to convince myself I was sane.” Is there anyone else of whom such an absurdity is recorded? It’s like something out of the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers with their terribly forced ironic deaths. Heraclitus? Died of dropsy of course.
Nonetheless, PKD stands for something (perhaps something of a very particular time and place now passed) but something very important nonetheless. Something exceedingly rare in this last century and liable to be even rarer in this one. PKD was a person who refused to believe that the “system” of Christianity, all the possible orthodoxies and heresies, had long been ploughed, and most of them found to be, as Chesterton once famously said of heresy—“boring”. Indeed, what could be more intensely boring than “Gnosticism” with its evil or simply incompetent creator and little transcendent spirits trying to escape the Hell of meatspace? Since at least the epochal publication of A Voyage to Arcturus in 1920, the tone of much of 20th-century speculative fiction was a resolutely “Gnostic” one when it came to asking about the Big Questions: a downloading of secret teachings about the Fall of creation, the malevolence of the Creator. PKD’s 1965 The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch may well be the greatest piece of “Gnostic” cosmic paranoia ever produced. When did you take the Chooz-E? Maybe Palmer Eldritch was always there, immanent to everything. One might be strongly reminded of the sort of paranoiac sentiment we find at the start of Roberto Esposito’s Two concerning political theology—when did we enter into its little dispositif? The day and the hour can never be known. Once you have stepped over the line and the door has slammed shut maybe there is no way out of it at all …
And yet if the later post-3-74 Phil was a Gnostic (he himself claimed as much), then he was a very odd Gnostic, as diverse, bizarre and often overlapping as the “Hellenistic soup” of antiquity was out of which arose “orthodox” Christianity, Hermeticism, Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. If there is any “serious” thinking with which to compare his Gnosticism, it is the Gnostic Non-Christianity of François Laruelle. To Laruelle gnosis stands for a messianic last instance in which the truth is always-already known, always immanent to the lived-without-life of humanity but forever put off and delayed, in spite of the colossal theological machinery of Athens and Jerusalem descending upon Christ two thousand years ago and proclaiming that he had completely fulfilled the Jewish and/or the Greek Law. Like PKD suspended in time simultaneously between the “anamnetic” Thomas and the “final” VALIS, Laruelle would have us give ourselves over to the first becoming last and the last becoming first, but strangely: forever unable to complete or totalise the system.
Nevertheless, when in Christo-Fiction Laruelle speaks of a “Quantum Christ”' existing prior to being “decided” as fulfilling The Law, the immediate temptation, as with the Space Gnosticism of PKD, might be to snort and file it away as one more specimen of late 20th-century “New Ageism”. Once upon a time there was an awful lot of this sort of stuff about—blogs and web pages crammed to gills with eye-aching animated gifs and brightly coloured fonts proclaiming some almighty Secret Teaching and the End of Days peppered with little folk-receptions of quantum physics, chaoplexity and information theory. If I have ever been susceptible to any species of “Gnosticism” it is by virtue of the fact that an old friend of mine was such an avid collector of this sort of stuff that I find myself completely unable to take “complexity” seriously at all as anything but cosmic kitsch, even when spoken about by very clever scientists, for if something like it does describe our world, then it must surely be the product of a very tasteless Demiurge. Such is the eternal problem of “folk religion”. The peasant in his desperation to understand using what he has, who believes the soul to be a bone or God to be but a very big worm in a cosmic cheese, always threatens to invade Very Serious Things.
If anything like Laruellian “Gnosticism” has ever really existed, it was not in antiquity nor in the 20th century, but in the anamnetic return to the start that explodes everywhere in the 16th–17th centuries in the form of the “standstill” of the Radical Reformation—the horrifying thought that maybe no one since the Apostles had possessed any theological (and thereby also political) legitimacy at all. The only option was to become a “Seeker”, to turn towards pure lived experience and the attempt to articulate it. One of the things that endlessly amazes me is the fact that so little is often said about the real revolution that came with Cromwell’s Protectorate. The collapse of the Star Chamber and state censor brought on the first great literary externalisation of the “inner worlds” of very normal people in the history of the world. Before everyone had a novel or couple of good tweets in them everyone had a pamphlet in them—they wanted to talk about their religious experiences, their misadventures and their struggles. A lot of it is downright weird, tragic, even darkly humorous.
For example, among Familists, Quakers, Ranters, Diggers and a thousand other varieties of mostly short-lived “enthusiasm” of the era we meet one Mrs. Hannah Allen, a woman who at one point in her life became so convinced that she was the evillest creature that had ever lived, that even the Devil might be saved, but not her: “My Sins are so great, that if all the Sins of all the Devils and Damned in Hell, and all the Reprobates on Earth were comprehended in one man, mine are greater. There is no word so near the Comprehension of the dreadfulness of my Condition; as that, I am the Monster of the Creation.” What could Mrs. Allen have possibly done to regard herself as so utterly damned? The answer is that she hadn’t really done anything. She was just a very unstable and amusingly narcissistic person who “much delighted” for a while in thinking herself “The Monster”, though she did eventually find happiness and peace and wrote a very interesting book about it all. Sometimes the “Seeker” romance is a tragedy, sometimes a comedy, often both by turn without anything like a clear ending at all—at least not yet.
Perhaps, reader, you have come across many times online a rather tacky family of reactionary memes asking you to Return to Tradition. Sometimes the “u” is even swapped out for a “v” to be especially quaint, like the funny “e”s in “ye olde tea shoppe”. The trad, God bless his hide, seems often to think of Tradition like some dear little musical box gifted him by Nona from The Old Country. No, it is far more like a storage locker willed to you by an obscure and possibly devious uncle, by someone not unlike PKD who crashes on your couch, hits on your wife and stays up all hours writing weird books off his tits on amphetamines. Do you really want to see what’s in there? You might seriously regret it.
And yet, everywhere and at every moment we are always-already returning to tradition due to the sheer weight of the history of theological decisions and their decaying half-lives, whether we like it or not. If so, then like dear silly Phil and Mrs. Allen one may choose to become a Seeker. While the Empire never ended and may well have generations upon generations still left on the clock, neither has the great formative romance of discovery existing forever contemporary with it, quietly at its periphery ever ended either. We are all PKD and
Thomas at all times, and even VALIS too. There still remain endless “quantum” Christianities yet to be found and foreclosed into Schmittian “private mythologies” and team sports, yet to have been passed into the dogmatic and secularising machinery and out the other side into something else entirely, perhaps even that most impossible of possibilities—the Third Thing hidden and obscured since the very foundation of the world.