Histories of the Postsecular: An Interview with Maxwell Kennel

This interview is about Maxwell Kennel’s new book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time, published by Palgrave Macmillan in November 2021. In the exchanges below, coordinating editor of Anabaptist Historians Joel Nofziger asks how the book stands in relation to Anabaptist history and political theology, and questions how the book relates to the history of memory and the construction of national identity.

Postsecular History advances a critique of certain ways of dividing up time and history. Drawing from the field of political theology, it questions how theological and political ideas combine to form powerful legitimation strategies; and drawing from thinkers who approach the politics of time, it is concerned with how temporal and historical terms are periodized – especially how historical categories of ancient, medieval, and modern, and temporal categories of past, present, and future, are used in value-laden ways.

Joel Horst Nofziger: How did you become concerned with the ways that theopolitical thought creates temporality and historical periods?

Maxwell Kennel: I think that whether we are talking about reading and writing or teaching and research, scholarly activity is always influenced by biography, circumstance, and experience. The construction of historical periods and the configuration of time became important issues for me during my graduate studies, which is a time when the unstructured temporality of ‘study’ tends to replace more common ways of living in time (like the 9:00-5:00 schedule of the work-week).

As I managed my time and mediated between my academic work, family life, and other labor, I noticed that the terms and images I was receiving and using were simultaneously theological and political. One place where this realization came through most clearly was in the factory I worked in during the year between my masters and doctoral degrees. I wrote a personal essay on these experiences called “Factory Time,” which has recently been published in Hamilton Arts & Letters, and I think that it is a good introduction to the underlying concerns and problems that prompted my more abstract inquiries in Postsecular History.

JHN: Postsecular History is a theopolitical text. How do you understand political theology as a field?

MK: I think that, at its best, political theology should be a paradigm or lens through which to understand how concepts that appear to be secular often have very religious histories and structures.

For me, the field of political theology is far more diverse than one might gather from the anthologies that have been published in the past few years by Blackwell and T&T Clark. The term ‘political theology’ need not solely refer to the theological use of political analysis, and there are many scholars who work in political theology without doing so for the benefit of a particular religious tradition. By contrast with approaches that prioritize theology, I feel drawn toward the more pluralistic way of thinking about political theology that I see in the Political Theology Network, which presents its work as a rigorous form of interdisciplinary inquiry that is critical of power and oriented toward justice.

That said, political theology struggles to reckon with the traumatic memory and reception of its founding figures; the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt being the most salient example. Schmitt’s insight was that many modern state concepts are really secularized theological concepts, and the field of political theology has used this narrative of partial secularization to analyze a variety of social and cultural phenomena. But I worry about how enmity, competition, and violent forms of conceptual displacement remain within the discourse on political theology. In Postsecular History I critique the ways that political theology can be taken in by the desire for religion (especially Christianity) to remain in a relationship of competition or enmity with secularity, such that the identification of religious structures within secular concepts would represent another victory for religion over some caricatured image of secularism. In my dissertation I critique an exemplary expression of this pattern in John Milbank’s work, which first constructs an enemy called ‘secularism’ and then uses insights from political theology to position Christianity as the solution to the crises we experience in the ‘postsecular’ world. Instead of being beholden to this competitive displacement of secularity by Christianity, I think political theology is well equipped to think beyond dualistic oppositions between secular and religious ways of thinking, and instead theorize the complex mediations and entanglements between competing normative orders that structure our world.

JHN: In the acknowledgments section that opens the book, you note that you have been influenced by Travis Kroeker’s political theology, building on and from his approach which is “neither Catholic nor Protestant, neither Mennonite nor secularist, neither orthodox nor heterodox.” What does the pursuit of this kind of political theology look like to you?

MK: For a variety of reasons, I am fortunate that Travis Kroeker supervised my dissertation and guided me into political theology. Throughout my time at McMaster University between 2016 and 2021 my entire way of thinking was changed by both his seminars and published works. What I appreciate most about Travis’s work is his critique of possessive desire, and my appreciation for this way of thinking comes through most clearly in Postsecular History when I argue that the prefix ‘post’ cannot adequately fix upon the secular in a way that would allow us to move beyond it.

Travis’s work in Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics and his booklet Empire Erotics and Messianic Economies of Desire seems to be based on the idea that the desire to possess, control, and dominate things is a key theological problem, and I think it is just as much a problem for political theology as it is for religious studies. But where Travis tends to use Augustinian formulations to name this problem (the libido dominandi of the earthly city), I prefer Hartmut Rosa’s argument for the “uncontrollability [unverfügbarkeit] of the world.” However one puts it, the fact remains that it is not only a matter of ethics whether we are possessive and controlling in our scholarship. It is also a descriptive fact that such forms of possession do not work. One does not need theology or theory to know that the tighter and more anxiously we try to grasp things, the more we lose perspective.

Travis’s approach to political theology evades categorization and makes his work difficult to place in the discourse, but to me that is its benefit. His work inspires me to ask: must we be confined to the distinction between secular and theological approaches to political theology, where theologians confidently assert that we are ‘post-secular’ and secular scholars claim to have a better grasp on their object of study than those who believe in the doctrines they study? This is too simple. For me, political theology stands in a far more unique and generative relation with descriptive and normative approaches to the study of religion because it allows scholars to mediate between proximity and distance from what they study without either the fantasy of value-neutrality or the forcible imposition of normative categories.

Despite its flaws, I see the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition as one that can assist in this kind of critique of possessive desire in ways that have interdisciplinary consequences. Is it possible that a methodology based on the critique of violence could inform the works of scholars across the social sciences and humanities? I think so, and I explore this connection further in the introduction to a special issue of Political Theology that I edited earlier this year.

JHN: In what ways have your choice of topic and methodological approach been shaped by Anabaptist thought?

MK: Very deeply. My Mennonite background and Anabaptist sensibilities motivate my fundamental concern for how violence and other forms of force and coercion inhere in our ways of thinking, speaking, and knowing. This led me to write my dissertation on ontologies of violence in the works of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Mennonite political theologians, and feminist philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen. As I revise my dissertation for publication, I have been reflecting on its relationship with Postsecular History, and I think that underneath the topics and sources of both works is a fundamental concern for the place of peace and justice in a world where the distinction between secularity and religion is inadequate.

In Postsecular History I critique ways of thinking about the category of the postsecular that privilege certain problematic configurations of time and history. I want to reject approaches to the ‘postsecular’ that use the prefix ‘post’ to indicate possession, novelty, freedom, and instrumentality. Rather than possessing the secular so as to move beyond it, and rather than proclaiming a new time after the demise of the secular, and rather than thinking that we can free ourselves from secular or religious histories, and rather than using the prefix ‘post’ as a conceptual instrument to mold the secular into a rejectable image, I argue for less violent ways of thinking about the postsecular that account for the complex mediations and entanglements that the term tends to point toward.

My current postdoctoral project “Critique of Conspiracism” is also underpinned by the same underlying values and questions, specifically concerning how conspiratorial thinking periodizes time and history in theopolitical ways, and how such ways of thinking can lead to violence. It seems to me that conspiracy theories are connected with religions in ways that entangle secularity and religion, and this is nowhere more evident than in the rise of QAnon and its connections with American evangelicalism. Postsecular ways of mediating between religion and secularity are at the heart of conspiratorial thinking, especially if we follow Michael Barkun’s suggestion that conspiracy theories are based on the idea that: “nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected.” My current work focuses on how this formulation serves as a theopolitical way of narrating the relationship between origins and ends, and does so in ways that allow for the justification of violence – for example, the events of January 6th 2021 in the American capitol. I think that the term ‘postsecular’ can helpfully name the confluence of religious and secular ways of thinking within conspiratorial thinking, and my next step in the project is to consider how conspiracy itself might be a secularized theological concept.

JHN: For the purposes of your argument, you settle on a definition of “postsecular” as “the confluence of Christianity, religion, and secularity with critiques of these terms that resist both religious and secular assertions of dominance.” What led you to this understanding?

MK: I conceive of the postsecular as a category that names the confluence of religious, secular, and Christian ways of thinking, but is also inseparable from the normative confrontations and contradictions that arise between these ways of thinking. My argument in Postsecular History is that we are better able to understand how religions and secularities become entangled and mutually critical of each other if we think about the postsecular without inscribing triumphalism into its prefix.

For example, I attempt to think about postsecular entanglements without Christian anxieties that motivate a return to foundations or a desire to assure final ends. Both the image of a return and the invocation of an end are simultaneously theological and political (‘theopolitical’). Messianic returns and teleological ends are theological concepts that also serve as politically usable means of persuasion. By pointing backward and forward in time simultaneously, a ‘return’ knits together tradition and novelty. So too with origins and ends, which are often mediated in persuasive ways by those who call for returns to a golden age or progress toward utopian or apocalyptic futures. All told, I see most ways of periodizing time (past, present, future) and history (ancient, medieval, modern, postmodern) as powerful persuasive techniques that ascribe value to certain terms and not others. Time and history are not given; they are made. What matters is how we engage in that act of making.

JHN: You discuss how “periodization serves as one kind of theopolitical justification narrative that is used within the logic of neoliberalism” and you suggest that “authoritative periodizations assist the neoliberal project in justifying and ordering the world.” The idea that neoliberal periodizations reorder our relationships with the past, present, and future reminds me of two texts on memory.

I am reminded first of Benedict Anderson’s argument in Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983) that “awareness of being embedded in secular, serial time, with all its implications of continuity, yet ‘forgetting’ the experience of this continuity …engenders the need for a narrative of identity” (265). How does the theopolitical control of defined historical periods interface with nation-building projects of communal memory? I also remember reading Jonathan Tran’s The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory (London: Blackwell, 2010); especially Tran’s discussion of the possibility of a Eucharistic time where the Lord’s Supper becomes the reordering power rather than authoritarianism.

MK: Yes, I do see the connections that you are pointing towards between the construction of memory, community identity, and national identity.

It makes sense to me that, by his own admission, Benedict Anderson was influenced by Walter Benjamin and Erich Auerbach. When I look at Imagined Communities, I see substantial connections between the imaginative construction of nationhood and the theopolitical periodization of time and history that I write about in Postsecular History. For Anderson, the nation is an “imagined political community” that is “both inherently limited and sovereign” (6), and this limitation is found in the borders that demarcate the nation and prevent others from gaining access to its spatial body. Anderson argues that even “the most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation,” by contrast with a Christian vision of universal membership (7). He also argues that the nation is imagined as sovereign because it arose during a time when “Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm” (7).

To me this shows how the nation – as a figure and bearer of identity – was born of legitimation crises where religious and secular ways of thinking confronted each other, and its hold on sovereignty is at least partly owed to how nation-building projects use theological and religious modes of persuasion to retain power. In answer to your question, I see theopolitical forms of periodization as usable strategies that nationalists tend to employ in order to keep the image of the nation stable. Although the former is extremely violent compared to the latter, both Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” use periodizing terms to build national identity. The words ‘back’ and ‘again’ serve to periodize time and history by reaching back into the past and bringing values into the present for the sake of a future. The figural mediations between these terms are powerful because religious visions of history endure in partly secularized forms of nationalism. In the final pages of Imagined Communities, Anderson is critical of narratives that forget the past and create identities out of this amnesia. For him, what cannot be remembered (bodily) “must be narrated,” and this narration occurs in “secular, serial time” that structures both individual life stories and the stories nations tell about themselves (204-205).

I am not as familiar with Jonathan Tran’s work, but when I look at The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory, I feel a great affinity with its diagnoses of the temporal problems of modernity (as in the section on “The Detemporalization of Time”), but I am not very sympathetic with how Tran positions the Christian Eucharist as a solution to such temporal problems. Again, I appreciate Tran’s diagnosis of the problem of forgetting in his book’s seventh chapter, but I do not think that the Eucharist is the best way of performing the important bodily rituals of remembrance that, for example, one would require in order to heal from trauma. Isn’t the communion table also a site of exclusion where identity is formed by often-violent boundaries between the baptized and unbaptized? Tran’s concept of Eucharistic memory seems somewhat idealized and disconnected from the deep power problems that lie within community identity formation. When thinking about how to remember and work through traumatic events I think that something like the Internal Family Systems model has more potential for promoting healing in our ‘postsecular’ and ‘postreligious’ world.

JHN: One of the challenges you grapple with early on in Postsecular History is that the “postsecular” does not have a readily accepted definition, and in its construction of both the “post” and the “secular” the term promotes problematic forms of periodization. This might be most clearly addressed in your discussion of the Dutch Collegiants in Chapter 3 where you note that “despite its proclamations of novelty and succession – the term ‘postsecular’ cannot make good on the claim of its prefix by placing itself beyond the secular, nor can it successfully exceed or free itself from either its secular or religious history.” Why is it that “postsecular” continues to be a powerful idea despite this problematic assertion?

MK: I think that the main problem with the category of the postsecular, as it is applied to a whole range of ideas and experiences, is that it implies that we can get past the past. The very notion that secular ways of thinking can be placed in the past using the prefix ‘post’ is contrary to what historians do all the time. My argument, in part, is that the postsecular is situated within a history that it attempts to overcome, but cannot overcome because the past remains in the present. And I fear that this contradiction is not the kind of contradiction that results in dialectical tensions that lead to creativity and life. Instead, the aspiration to overcome the secular leads to forms of forgetting and memory loss that prevent the making of living connections between past, present, and future.

JHN: I think your fourth chapter is perhaps the most fascinating. In it, you give a parallel reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick alongside a consideration of fanatical Anabaptism—as understood in relation to the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. Where did the inspiration come from to make such a juxtaposition?

MK: Well, that’s another interesting accident of history. Initially, the fourth chapter of Postsecular History was supposed to be a revision of my 2019 article in Political TheologyMüntzer, Taubes, and the Anabaptists” where I trace Anabaptist connections within Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology. But due to copyright problems I was forced to remove it at the last minute. However, in the early months of 2020, before the pandemic began in force, I was also auditing two graduate seminars. The first was Travis Kroeker’s seminar on Augustine’s City of God and Melville’s Moby Dick, and the second was Mike Driedger’s seminar on fanaticism at Brock University. The material I wrote while sitting in on these seminars was influenced by my work on the Postsecular History manuscript, and I began asking questions about how fanaticism figures in Melville’s novel and relates to how literary works periodize their narrative unfolding. Luckily, when I had to remove the middle chapter of the book, I had material from both sets of my seminar notes that fit together and meshed with the book’s argument, while also serving as a letter of gratitude to my teachers.

JHN: In conclusion, what would you say the contribution of Postsecular History is for historians and scholars in political theology?

MK: Jakob Burckhardt writes in his Reflections on History that “the philosophy of history is a centaur, a contradiction in terms [contradictio in adjecto] for history co-ordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical.” Burckhardt argues that the problem with philosophy and history is that both are given to the idea that “our time is the consummation of all time” such that “the past may be regarded as fulfilled in us.” I suppose that my work in Postsecular History is focused on moving away from both coordination and subordination, toward richer and more textured ways of mediating between temporal and historical terms that do not abandon the desire for historical and temporal terms to facilitate movements from promise to fulfilment.

Part of this effort to find better ways of mediating between temporal and historical terms requires that we both understand the limitations of thinking in relation to origins and ends, and that we do not abandon the project of drawing promising and fulfilling connections between origins and ends. That is why I want to close with a quotation that followed me throughout the writing of this book but never fit well within its pages. In his book on Dostoevsky, Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin writes that

nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.

In the case of postsecular life where religions and secularities intermingle and the past returns ceaselessly in the present, I think it is important to hold things open and resist finality wherever it is found. My attempt to provide an historically attentive approach to the concept of the postsecular is part of this effort, and I hope it will cause its readers to pause and question the periodizing divisions of this age. But this pause should be informed by the topic of the concluding chapter of Postsecular History, which is waiting. I think that one remedial strategy for the temporal crises of our time – both the acceleration of time and the decay of its measures – is to cultivate a form of waiting that is actively engaged in the undoing of violent forms of periodization. For this I turn to the amazing work of German feminist Christian theologian Dorothee Sölle, whose mantra in her essay on waiting is “this is not it.” That’s what I think is the contribution of the book. Simply to say, with Bakhtin that the final word on the world has not been spoken, and with Sölle that the present state of things is not yet as it should be, in so many ways.

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