Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Adam Kotsko's "The Prince of This World"

Adam Kotsko is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Shimer College in Chicago. His books include Why We Love Sociopaths (2012) and Politics of Redemption (2010).

Kotsko applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Prince of This World, and reported the following:
The curious thing about page 99 of The Prince of This World is that it does not explicitly mention the devil at all. Instead, it discusses two key steps in the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury’s famous text Why God Became Human. First, it talks about the dynamic by which God entraps the sinner into an unpayable debt. For Anselm, we owe God absolute obedience:
Anselm characterizes this obedience, which every rational creature (angelic or human) owes to God unconditionally and perpetually, as a way of giving God his proper honor. By disobeying God, the creature is depriving God of the honor due to him, and not only does this create a debt to God, but it digs the sinner ever-deeper into the hole.
Secondly, it begins discussing a curious feature of Anselm’s text—the fact that he pictures God as a property developer, trying to fill all the units in his heavenly city after some of the angels unexpectedly rebel against his rule.

While this passage may seem purely expositional, it is revealing of the roots of the project. A close reading of Why God Became Human convinced me that the devil could serve as a kind of index for tracking major shifts in Christian thought. Most contemporary Christians follow Anselm’s account of why the incarnation of Christ is able to save us—namely, that he was somehow making up for our sins, paying off our debts vicariously. Previously, theologians embraced the view that Jesus came to set us free from the domination of the devil. Anselm aggressively refutes the previous view, and in so doing he ushers in a huge change to Christian political theology—for the worse, in my opinion.

Finally, the discussion of debt and property development reflects the fact that I view the seemingly abstract theological debates about the devil as surprisingly and even urgently relevant for understanding the deep dynamics of contemporary Western societies. We are all increasingly entrapped in debts that we can never repay—both literal debts and more figurative obligations, such as the impossibly absolute submission the police demand from black Americans—and told that it is nonetheless our responsibility to fix the situation. Unfortunately for us secularized sinners, however, no savior appears to be forthcoming.
Learn more about The Prince of This World at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue