January 18th, 2019
University of Toronto
Hector Acero Ferrer
Interview with Jayne Svenungsson
Hector Acero Ferrer: Thank you very much for taking the time to give this interview, Dr. Svenungsson! I would like to start our conversation by hearing your thoughts about the tension between “law” and “liberation,” which is central to current theological understandings of concepts such as sovereignty and land. In your response to the work of Giorgio Agamben, you question this polarity and offer a way to reconcile them. Can you expand on this understanding?
Jayne Svenungsson: Laws are often understood as oppressive. What has struck me in these discussions about law and liberation is that we tend to use law as a negative construct, something that prohibits us from doing this or that.
Agamben is an extremely fascinating thinker in this regard–among several of the political philosophers on stage today. Broadly speaking, he is one of the most incisive current thinkers when it comes to understanding the interaction between theology and politics. And he is quite sensitive, also, to how traditional anti-Jewish tropes are present in Christian theology, unlike others who tend to unwittingly bind to traditional dichotomies between the universal and the particular, in which the universal is associated with Christianity and the particular with Judaism.
There is one thing that has puzzled me in the work that I have been doing on Agamben, regarding the connection between Christianity and Judaism: when he is talking of the tension of “law” and “grace,” or the tension between “the letter” and “the spirit,” he tends to fall back on a traditional stereotype that fails to recognize the constructive aspects of “law”. I think it has to do with the fact that he is stuck with, what I would call, a Christian–or even Protestant–notion of law.
Luther has an extremely interesting theology of law. For him law is something good, something which gives us healthy roots for life, and so on, although he also speaks of the law as that which reminds us of our incapacity to ever fulfill our duties. Now, the popular view of Luther’s account of the law has placed emphasis on the latter aspect. Historically, within the Lutheran tradition, this approach tends to enforce the conception of “law” as the impossible shadow, which reminds us of how bad we are, how sinful we are, that we will never be able to fulfill our duty. And I think that this view has reinforced the notion of the law as something negative, something oppressive, something from which we need to be liberated. Additionally, with the advent of the 20th century and a philosophical exercise that is more and more secularized, the notion of the law as something oppressive is imported from theology into philosophy. I think that this has played out also in other areas of philosophy, and in so many of our discourses.
Having started reading modern Jewish philosophy, and being fairly well acquainted with Jewish thought in general, and theology, you realize that this negative understanding of the notion of law is not accurate. Although it is an idea that has often been projected upon Judaism, in Jewish thought law is not, for one thing, static; it is not just a set of written rules. From the start, Jewish law has been a practice of interpretation. It is dynamic; it is alive; it is vital. On the contrary of being oppressive, it is precisely what enables us to live, to be free.
So, I come back to your question about “law” and “liberation.” In Christianity, particularly in certain secular strands of Christianity, law is set in opposition to liberation, while grace is understood as liberating. From a Jewish perspective, on the other hand, law would precisely be grace. It is not an opposition. Law is what helps us, what gives us tools to complete, to make this world a better place. And the law, in Jewish tradition, is also really tied to materiality. It is not by accident that so many of the individual Jewish prescriptions have to do with food or hygiene (what food types can be mixed, what to do with a corpse, etc.) So law, on this account, is something that ties us to the concrete world of people and things, the everyday world.
I think this temptation to abolish the law, which is a very strong trope in parts of contemporary political philosophy, risks ending up in a flight from the everyday world. If the law in this theological sense symbolizes all those tiny practices that bind us to the everyday, that enjoin us to remember, and that safeguard our physical being, it is also here that its politico-philosophical value lies. The law becomes a metonym for the Realpolitik demands, protecting us from the illusory attempt to escape the contradictions, tensions, negotiations and unstable conventions that define everyday politics.
Hector Acero Ferrer: Your reflection about the understanding of law in Judaism made me think of the Rabbinic tradition of the first century. For them, law creates the space that protects what happens in human interaction; it is liberating because [it] opens up this space.
Jayne Svenungsson: Exactly.
Hector Acero Ferrer: And Latin American liberation theology within the Catholic tradition, my area of research, does a bit of that. It attempts to recuperate an understanding of law that is liberating.
Jayne Svenungsson: Yeah, yeah, and I definitely think there is a difference between Protestantism and Catholicism in this regard. I would not blame Luther for it, because I think he was a great theologian in many ways and his understanding of law is quite complex. Some interpretations of his theology, however, reinforce the opposition between law and grace, and I do not think at all that it is the same in Roman Catholic theology.
Hector Acero Ferrer: Now, a second line of questions I had for you today centers on the role of theology in the academy. I believe that some version of this encounter of theology and other academic disciplines happened here, in these two days. But that seems like something which really does not happen that often. However, all the issues that we are facing as a society now, that political theology tries to account for, are bringing that conversation to the forefront of our attention.
What are your thoughts about that interaction between the discipline of theology and other academic disciplines? What do you think is the role of theological exercise in the current academic world? And how should political theology enter into larger political conversations?
Jayne Svenungsson: I am grateful to be in the university context. I think all disciplines have an extremely important role to play in responding to the crisis we are facing globally. But a problem at the modern university is that it has tended to become more and more compartmentalized. Often, there has been a lot of mutual suspicion between disciplines, and theology is a very good example of that. Especially in a country like Sweden, which has had a very strong secularist tradition in the post-war era, for better or worse. By the mid-twentieth century, huge debates raged over “faith and science” and the proper place of each in public life.
As a consequence of these debates, a lot of processes were set into motion. There were very strong voices arguing for theology to be banned from state universities. The argument was that theology was a confessional discourse and, as such, it did not belong in the modern university. However, it has survived. The debate was justified because theology was at the time extremely confessional. Often the persons having the chairs in systematic theology or church history would be Lutheran clerics, circulating between the bishop chairs and the university chairs.
The process of scrutiny of theology in Sweden, I think, was for the better. It was a healthy process of self-examination for theology as an academic discipline. It meant that theology had to become highly self-reflective, as it was always targeted for having an agenda, for having “something up its sleeve.” I have often encountered that kind of suspicion: “So you are in theology, does it mean that you’re a priest?” So there is still this image of the theologian as someone who wants to proselytize.
What I find interesting is that this process of always being under suspicion has made theologians, at least in a country like Sweden (but I think that it is the same in several European countries), extremely aware of their own historical limitations, of how delicate it is to obtain objectivity (acknowledging biases, etc.). This might explain why the incursion of “postmodernism”, of the linguistic turn, and so on, was never really a big challenge for theologians, because, theology had already been through these self-critical processes.
To answer your question, I think, first of all, that various disciplines have a lot to learn from each other at the methodological level. Theology today can play an important role in fostering such exchange. By way of the self-critical journey that I have described earlier, theologians have become critically aware of the biases, and of the claims they can actually make. Theologians today have a capacity, for instance, to look at an anthropological discourse or a philosophical reading of, say, modernity, and see all its theological underpinnings as well as the problems that come along with them. I have come across Hegel scholars, for example, who are more or less unaware of the theological underpinnings of Hegel’s thought, of how fundamental Trinitarian theology is for understanding Hegel’s philosophy, or the entire domain of Romantic and idealist philosophy.
I think that examples like this one illuminate how theology could contribute to interdisciplinary dialogue about history, politics, humanity, and so on. Theology can help other disciplines see how foundational, for better or worse, Christian legacies have been to so many levels of academia, to other thinkers, to the modern project, and to modern society.
Concretely, this brings us back to that question of the relevance of theology when analyzing what is going on in Sweden today. As a theologian, you are able to see how certain social and political trends unwittingly assume a Lutheran conception of public and private, collective and individual and so on, and thereby become discriminatory for Swedes who don’t share this particular cultural background.
So, that would be an attempted answer as to what theology could contribute today. I do not want to sound arrogant because I think, obviously, that theology too has a great, great deal to learn from other disciplines. However, I think that all disciplines have very much to learn by giving up their “territories,” trying to break out of this compartmentalization and see how to reach each other across the disciplinary divides. The most exciting cooperation, or collaboration, I have had in my career has been in the context of interdisciplinary projects. I have been working a great deal with historians and philosophers, of course. But I am currently planning a project with lawyers and anthropologists. It has been extremely rewarding.
Hector Acero Ferrer: There is something of which you have reminded me today, that is, how crucial a critical reinterpretation of tradition is and how it can be achieved. In your previous answers, you have provided a response to this question from the perspective of theology and I would like to hear more of your thoughts about that. What does it look like to approach tradition with that kind of hermeneutical lens? What would be its bearings in political theology?
Jayne Svenungsson: That will be a question about the task of theology, not only in relation to other disciplines, but what theology is in itself. Every tradition that is still operative is a living tradition. I think theology is precisely a way to constructively develop a living tradition. If we speak of Christian theology (because theology could, of course, also be Jewish or Muslim theology), it is not always evident what its “tradition” refers to. It can be a religious tradition in a strict sense, with churches and denominations embodying sets of practice. But it can also refer to tradition in the broader sense of a cultural or civilizatory legacy, involving philosophy, literature, art, music and so on.
I think the task of a theologian–or what theology could contribute–is precisely to continue to think critically and constructively about tradition in its broadest sense. This not only means to reflect on church and church practices, but also on how the Christian tradition–or the biblical legacy–lives on, in the aesthetic domain, in literature and film, or in music. If you want to understand the profound sense of Bach’s pieces, you will need to advance more into theology to get there.
Critically, there is also room for theology in contemporary discourse because, since it is still a living tradition, in this broadest sense, Christian tropes continue to evolve and to migrate and to take on new guises. It does not make sense to make this clear-cut limit between Christian and secular spheres. The limit is much more porous. So many Christian tropes and motives continue to live on in what many of us would consider secular practices, or secular arts, or secular literature, and secular movies.
I think that is one of the most important tasks, or urgent tasks, for theology today, at least in Europe and in a country like Sweden. The presence of Christian tropes in the political discourses of countries in which Christianity has been the majority religion should be studied critically, and here theology could contribute. As more societies become increasingly and rapidly more diverse, a secularized Christian mindset lingers, and sometimes takes quite nasty expressions that generate exclusion. As I have already hinted at, such exclusion tends to target non-Lutheran Swedes or non-Christian Europeans.
It is also a well-known fact that several of the nationalist parties across Europe today draw on Christianity, on Christian symbols, as they formulate their platforms. Such reclaiming of a “Christian Europe,” of Europe as a “Christian culture,” has been going on for a couple of decades now. Last year, in Bavaria the CSU issued a decree that all public venues should display a cross. The “unintended” outcome of this legislation was to indicate who belongs (and who does not belong), and to indicate that Germany is a Christian country, and to make it clear to non-Christians that they should be grateful that they are allowed to be there.
I believe that theology has a significant role to play here. As theologians, we should enter the debate and challenge the claims that are laid to the Christian tradition. No one has the monopoly of what the cross implies and means; none of its symbols are static! And precisely for that reason we need to argue for the better interpretation. In order to argue for this, we need knowledge and criteria with regard to the basic texts and practices of the tradition. We could develop epistemological arguments of coherence, explore their ethical consequences, and so on.
Theologians are in a particular stance because they are trained in precisely these critical interpretations, and therefore, they have an important role to play in challenging and discussing what is happening in these political scenarios. Theologians should definitely participate in the public debate about Christian values and symbols, by posing questions such as:  what does it mean to declare a region “Christian” in relation to newcomers, migrants, and refugees? and  which narratives in the bible are we drawing on and which not, when we articulate certain political ideals (because it is no secret that you could use the bible to defend slavery and the abolishment of slavery, misogyny and feminism, etc.)
This approach enters in direct conflict with the kind of critical secularist voices that want to do away with religion, assuming that eliminating religion will resolve the problem. I am sorry, but this is not going to happen. Whether we like it or not, religion is here to stay for an unforeseeable future, which is why we need to have an informed and critical debate about all these issues.
Hector Acero Ferrer: Thank you for outlining this methodological contribution (or potential contribution), of theology to the public debate about religion. It helps me understand the relevance of a public dialogue that includes theology in regards to politics.
Out of the issues that you have mentioned, in terms of the lingering Christianity, and the way it expresses itself in the public sphere, in lesser or more nasty ways, is there one issue that keeps you up at night, that you think, this is something I see in the country of Sweden, or Europe, and you think needs more immediate attention?
Jayne Svenungsson: It has shifted over the years. In the past decade, I would say I have been quite preoccupied with philosophy of history, and history writing. This also pertains to your question about tradition. What does it mean to have a tradition, and to handle a tradition? You can do a lot of things by means of history writing. You could pursue very strong political interests by way of certain history writing. These kinds of questions interest me a lot. The potential of going back and looking closer at history fascinates me. I think that a good theologian has to be a good historian. You have to know not only your own history but history in general. It is a delicate task: being a good historian means that you can go back in history and you can rewrite, not in a manipulative way, but in a way that makes it more complicated.
Something which has struck me, which fascinates me, is that some of the most progressive strands in theology in the past decades, such as feminist theology, black theology or queer theology, are radical precisely in the sense of going back to the roots. This means that they are radical, not by breaking with tradition in the sense of throwing tradition over board and launching something entirely new. This has always been a Protestant temptation throughout its history. And perhaps it is not by accident that many of the most radical first-generation feminists and queer theologians were Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics. That is one of my observations. So they have been radical by going back to the tradition and revealing how tradition is often much more complex that we want to imagine, and sometimes more radical than we are ourselves. I am thinking, today, about works of theologians such as Tina Beattie, who is a British Catholic theologian who has done incredibly interesting work by, for instance, going back to Catherine of Siena and Thomas Aquinas and showing the complexity of those thinkers.
Challenging the contemporary narrowness by way of retrieving tradition, in other words. That is something that really engages me.
Hector Acero Ferrer: Thank you for taking the time to respond to these questions, Dr. Svenungsson!