Capitalism as Divine Necessity: Toward A Political Theology of the Cross

I’ve been looking for ways to describe the current politico-economic order of Western capitalism in religious terms. The task of political theology is to bring theological thought and analysis to bear on the current structures of power. The underlying assumption in this endeavor is that the world can best be described in theological categories because human reality is ultimately religious before it is anything else. What exactly this means, I have to leave for another time. But the basic idea is that the way humans interact with each other on an individual and a corporate level is infused with a religious imagination. That is to say, gods, divine revelation, liturgy, and worship play a central role, albeit in a demythologized and secularized form. As the West transformed from a deeply Christian civilization to a secular one, religion merely took another form; religiosity morphed into another domain: capitalism.

A simple analogical transference of concepts from organized religion to the secular realm, then, won’t do because it tends to look at superficial characteristics that both forms of Western culture have in common. It is not difficult to describe the typical mall as a place of worship for the average consumer who goes there to placate the gods by offering money in exchange for divine blessings in the form of materialistic consumer goods (J.Smith makes good use of the metaphor though, in his kingdom series). Similarly, the market can be called God (Harvey Cox), but why would we? Or, if we do, why is the analogy so easily made? And precisely that question remains unanswered by the analogy. While the analogy is probably spot on, it does not satisfy in that the deeper structures of the Western mind have not been examined. Who is god here and why? In what way does analogy denote identity?

At one point, wrestling with philosopher Agamben’s concept of potentiality, I was playing with the concepts of potentiality and necessity, pondering how they function in theology and wondering how they might bear on politics and economy. I started reading a bit and realized that I was on to something. So, below is a rudimentary version of the beginnings of a political theology that suggests that the medieval scholastic ordering of God and world along the concepts of potentiality and necessity has, in spite of the breakdown of the medieval unity of grace and nature, and in spite of the abandonment of the god of Christianity, transformed into what today is the capitalist neoliberal order. After that, I will offer a critique of this semi-religious order based on the same theological paradigm that stood at the basis of the deconstruction of the scholastic theological system, Luther’s theology of the cross.

Necessity and Potentiality in Aquinas

In the 13th century, Aquinas achieved the grand synthesis between Neoplatonic Christianity and the newly discovered work of Aristotle. Conclusions in Aristotle’s work seemed to contradict the Neoplatonic ordering of the world. Was Aristotle’s work more world-oriented philosophy going to cause a rift between nature and grace? A new understanding of nature and the world seemed to be in tension with the entrenched inheritance of Neoplatonic thinking that was fully integrated with Christian theology. In order to overcome the tension, Aquinas brought it all together in one big theological understanding of God and world.

Part of this understanding was how God and God’s being were related to the being of the world and the things in it. We find a concise understanding of how Aquinas saw this in one of his proofs for the existence of God. The proofs do not concern us at the moment. Of interest is that in one of the proofs Aquinas made an ontological distinction between God and non-god beings. He said that God is a necessary being while all other beings are merely possible beings. To start with the latter, you and I are possible beings. We come into existence and pass out of existence. We once were not and once will not be; at least not in the world and not physically. In other words, you and I exist possibly. We are the kind of beings that could or could not exist and the world would not be better or worse off because of it.

But when you are thinking about cause and effect, that is, when you wonder where you and I come from, we realize that our being was caused by other beings. Those beings, in turn, let’s say our parents, were themselves effects of other causes. You could go on and on, but eventually, there needs to be an originating cause, a being that is itself uncaused. The chain of cause and effect needs to come to rest; it must have a beginning point. If it doesn’t, our minds, or at least Aristotle’s and Aquinas’, would blow up. And there you have it: there needs to be one being that is the original cause, as Aristotle would say, the prime mover, of the whole thing called the world and everything in it. That being must necessarily exist. It is a necessary being. And Aquinas was sure that this is what we usually mean when we talk about God.

Necessity, virtue ethics, and salvation

In the medieval schema, beings are ordered according to a Neoplatonic hierarchy that places God as the originating–and therefore necessary–being on top of a pyramidal structure. The world flows forth, emanates from God into higher and lower forms of existence. The world is also drawn back into the divine being. For human beings, this ascendancy toward God at the end of which we experience the beatific vision of God consists of both grace and nature. Yes, God saves but this saving is predicated upon human beings doing the very best that is in themselves, i.e. within their own nature. It is here that our potentiality as non-necessary beings is connected with a potential within us that needs to be developed.

Potentiality was connected with virtue ethics in a peculiar way. Though God, the prime mover, was responsible for the existence of things and beings as their original cause, the coming into existence of beings was not of a static nature. Aristotelian causation theory had it that beings are not just caused by their external causation, they also have a causative effect built into their own structure/being. We would say, they have the ability to develop their potential. Aristotle called it efficient cause. So, the God who caused beings caused them to be with a potential that they needed to develop on their own accord. All beings have their own kind of potential. The specific potentiality given to human beings, however, was to develop into virtuous human beings which, incidentally, was the first step into the direction of moral perfection in the eyes of God. Inner potentiality (efficient cause) drew, as it were, people back to God, But it was something that was your own responsibility. Hence the virtues. Character building is something you have to train for.

By integrating Aristotle’s causation theory in his theology, Aquinas had integrated soteriology (salvation) with Aristotelian virtue ethics. There is nothing wrong with virtue ethics per se; what’s wrong with trying to develop a good character? In scholastic theology, however, virtue ethics provided a path of purification and sanctification that prepared the way for grace. Salvation meant to proceed on the path of sanctification through the exercise of the (Christianized Aristotelian) virtues toward God. The final goal was, after having ascended up to the divine through virtuousness, to attain the beatific vision, to behold God in moral perfection.

It is highly significant to note that the notion of divine necessity, initially conceived as a proof for the existence of God, leads, through a hierarchical ordering of entities in the world, to a deep organic connection between ontology, ethics, and soteriology (salvation). Necessity is not incidental to the theological imagination, it drives everything from thought to praxis. It identifies the location of power and determines who are the intermediaries, who represent this power on earth and determines the path one needs to take to get to God, the highest good.

Necessity and Power

There are two ways the medieval ordering of God and world can be visualized: three-dimensionally-hierarchically, on the one hand, and spacially-concentrically, on the other. The first, sees God residing on the top of the pyramid with all created beings deriving their being from God and returning back to God. The second sees God residing in a center with beings ordered in relative distances from the center. In both cases, God reigns supreme. In the first, the higher you are, the closer you are to God, i.e. the more you represent the being and qualities of God. In the latter, it is all about the center which is where all power emanates and where everything is drawn to. It is important to locate things with regard to their relative proximity to the center. The closer you are to the center the closer you are to the center of power with its corresponding access to power.

The lower a being is in the hierarchy, the lower the importance attached to it is. A rabbit is a lower life form than a human being while a virtuous human being is a higher life form than an unvirtuous one. In more than a few cases, lower forms of being might well want to regret their potentiality of being. In fact, according to Dante’s Inferno, there are many forms of being that will live out their eternal immortal existence out in hell. Those beings wish they did not have the potentiality of being and regret not having developed their potentiality for virtuosity. Similarly, looking at the two-dimensional model, those living at the edge of the circle are absolutely removed from the center and have no access whatsoever to power, since their function is not to exercise power (indeed, there is nothing beyond the periphery). They merely exist to indicate the outer realm over which power extends itself. They are utterly used for the benefit of the entire realm from center to margin without themselves having any intrinsically meaningful role to play.

There is undoubtedly a strong correlation between the ontological and ethical ordering of the world in Aquinas’ theological imagination and the feudal structure of society in the medieval era. While I do not further explore that correlation here, it provides probably one of the best arguments for connecting the medieval order with that of the capitalist society that would emerge later.

Necessity and power are correlated in an absolute way. The necessary being of God has absolute power, since of necessity it provides the chain of being with its initial causation and, as such, continues to be necessary in order to uphold reality with its power. Inasmuch there is a chain of cause and effect, there is also a chain of mediation of power as some potential beings stand closer to the necessary being of the divine than others on the basis of their mediating function as priest, bishop, or cardinal, or on the basis of their presumed progress on the scale of virtue and sanctification (saints, relics, sacraments).

The two models of the hierarchical pyramid and the concentric circles need to be understood as existing in different modes. There is an ontological sense in which certain beings stand closer than other beings to the necessary divine being with regard to the status of their being. But there is also a moral/soteriological level. That is to say, the lower one is the further one is from the qualities that characterize the divine necessary being. And in addition and corresponding to the ontological and the ethical stands the political/economic.

As we consider the integration into this necessity-potentiality dialectic of the hierarchical structures of power and the ethics of ascendancy we can easily be struck by how the idea of a necessary being is very unlike the Hebrew or early Christian concept of God who is known as the One who is present to save. No wonder then that for Luther, working toward the end of the medieval period, this whole theological system with its attendant idea of the sovereignty of God and the way this divine power is hierarchically connected with human power (pope, holy roman empire) is no more than an idol.

It is my suggestion that this idol has simply been transplanted to our secular age. The same idol who has exchanged a religious mask for a secular one with the same victims: the peasants, serfs, the slaves, the workers, the blue-collar laborers. Necessity has subconsciously been inscribed into the ordering of our modern civilization and has as its corollaries power, hierarchy, domination, being versus non-being, justification of injustice by means of the idol of necessity, etc.

The Divine Necessary Being of the Free Market

Above I have described how potentiality and necessity came to be attached by Aquinas to the theological apparatus of medieval scholastic thought. Created beings are potential beings but the Creator is the necessary being. How did this transform into the free market of capitalism? This story takes us from the failed synthesis of Aristotelian and Platonic thought through the Reformation to the Enlightenment and on.

The Collapse of the Religious order of Nature and Grace

In the late Middle Ages, there were already signs that Aquinas’ integration of Aristotle into the Neoplatonic ordering of the world was not going to hold. Nominalists were busy creating a distance between God and the world. Their thinking about God made grace more dependent on the uncertainty that came with an absolutely free God. The distance grew into a fissure between grace and nature.

Luther exacerbated the situation by positioning the cross of Christ, that eminent symbol of divine grace, as the antidote against human systems of thought, especially human thinking about God. The systematizing theology of the scholastics was no longer seen as keeping grace and nature together. Moreover, Luther’s insistence on one’s conscientious interpretation of the Bible, as opposed to the required obedience to state and church authority, did something weird to the way God was conceived. Divine necessity was now justified, not on the basis of the official teaching and tradition of the Church in a world were Church and states vied for political dominance, but on the Scriptures. God’s beginning was in Scripture and from there God’s influence permeated the world.

This was a weak basis to maintain the medieval ontological ordering of the world, esp. since Luther was extremely effective in subverting that ordering with his new theology of freedom in Christ. New discourses could and did emerge that eventually displaced the discourse based on Scripture. It undermined the notion of divine necessity of the God of Scripture. Bacon experimented with the newly developed scientific method while Descartes partly located the justification for God in human reason (or at least, that’s the direction where his dictum Cogito ergo sum was taken). Inductive knowledge and skeptical thinking were the new way to go. It did not take long for philosophers to think the world outside of Scripture and otherwise than Scripture. Apparently, the world worked just fine without the divine necessity of scholasticism.

What happened, however, is that divine necessity was not going to go away. The ordering of the world in a hierarchy with something on top on which the entire world depended for its existence and to which all of the world was on its way in a quest for fulfillment continued under another name. Divine necessity was immanentized and transferred to another domain that was to be imbued with all or most of the characteristics of the Neoplatonic God of scholastic thought and granted all the absolute necessity of radiant unavoidability. In the first place, divine necessity was made immanent, i.e. it was no longer ascribed to a postulated divine invisible being in a supernatural world but was applied subconsciously and in non-religious terms to something in the here and now. Secondly, it was transferred to another domain. Immanentizing it automatically implies a transference since the Enlightenment brought about displacement and eventual erasure of the supernatural world and any metaphysical speculation on it.

In the secular age, all notions of a divine being who rules the world have been discarded. Yet, the necessary being continues to play a role. It has, detached from its theological origins, attached itself to a new immanent and impersonal entity, the free market of capitalism. This turned out to be a logical transformation. If God is rejected as the highest authority no power is left to prop up the claims to power of earthly rulers. The French Revolution broke the world open to a new horizon in which the old hierarchical order of feudal system and nobility was replaced by the new era of the bourgeoisie. The Industrial Revolution took care of the rest.

One could wonder why the French Revolution ideal of egalité, fraternité, and liberté were so quickly replaced by a new hierarchy, a division of society into classes and the enslavement brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Was it merely greed? Was it the technological progress that brought the machine? Or did the new ordering of society merely copy the old one? I believe the latter is the case. Just as Luther provided a protest against the scholastic system and the exploitation of the common people by the medieval Roman Catholic Church, Marx raised his banner against the capitalist system. This link between Luther and Marx is not often explored. The analogy is not simply between Luther and Marx but also between scholasticism and capitalism.

Before digging deeper into the nature of the subconscious reappropriation of divine necessity, I want to briefly touch on how different theological concepts that were part of the scholastic system can be mapped onto the free market of capitalism. Next to the assignment of necessity to the free market as a dominant all-encompassing system regulating all aspects of life, potentiality was assigned as a morally neutral attribute to the human agent within that system: the consumer. The consumer is called into being by the system and is fully dependent on it. The consumer having been granted life by the system possesses the potential for upward mobility. Progressing through the “virtues” of consumerism, from need to greed to self-aggrandizement, the consumer may attain the beatific vision which consists of the conflation of being ultimate consumer and ultimate producer. The CEO is the true demigod. The downtrodden, destitute, and exploited of this world are assigned the shadowy status of non-being and function as the raw material from which being is exacted for the system. As such, capitalism is a perversion as well as the ultimate fulfillment of Western Christianity and is the secularized continuation of it.

The Idol

In the capitalist society, necessity, potentiality, virtue ethics, soteriology, and beatific vision, those all-determining concepts of scholastic theology, are secularized. In order to facilitate the immanentization of the necessary being and to make the transference to another domain possible, it needs to be secularized. That is to say, the concept of necessary being needs to be divested from its religious character. This is not an active and conscious process in which the culture says: we want to retain the concept of divine necessary being. Rather God is rejected and made irrelevant. And with the irrelevantization of God, the notion of divine necessity is obscured and forgotten. And this is precisely how it is retained. It continues to dominate the collective consciousness of the culture and functions as ideology: i.e. it determines the boundaries of and conditions under which we imagine the world.

And just as this happens for the divine necessary being so it happens with the other interlocking concepts. Human beings are told to develop their potential to be virtuous, i.e. to be good consumers, in order to ascend on the ladder of salvation/sanctification. If they are successful, they experience the beatific vision of the Wirtschaftswunder. They then occupy the highest tier of the hierarchical pyramid around which our western civilization is ordered. The jet set consists of those who have undergone a form of deification which comes with a certain divine authority stipulating that they are above the law and shall live in perpetual luxury at the expense of the non-being, i.e. those who do not participate in the divine cycle of divine emanation and ascendancy, i.e. the chain of supply and demand. The narrow path of virtue to be traveled runs between career and consumption. Excess will be the final reward if it doesn’t cost you your life in the process.

My argument is that in the West we are incapable of envisioning a world in which divine necessity does not emerge in some shape or form. While it is up for debate whether the emergence of market capitalism is dependent upon the grafting of divine necessity into scholasticism, or both are exemplars of a systemic function of human sociality, bringing the two together is necessary, I believe, for an analysis of our Western culture in order to open it up to transformation.

Providing a redescription of the market as the divine being highlights the dangers involved for human self-destruction, survival of animal species, and the ecological state of our planet in the near future. It helps uncover the religious nature of our secular age. It is precisely through its implicit necessity that the free market is never exposed as harmful or called to account. It is precisely in the invisibility of the religious dimension of this necessity that the idol sets itself up as a Moloch able to devour millions of poor people while causing many species to go extinct.

Religiosity as Ideological

One question remains: why? Why is it that medieval divine necessity still plays a role in our current Western secular society? Perhaps a reference to Zizek’s critique of ideology can be helpful. In his The Sublime Object of Ideology, he insists that the power of ideology is not in the masking of reality in thinking but in the praxis of reality, a praxis we cannot do without. There are certain structural features to the ideological that are both invisible and prevent us from envisioning the world otherwise. He even goes so far as to say that even where the cynical person has exposed the ideological for what it is, that same cynical person continues to enact those ideological features subconsciously and compulsively. We could easily apply this to the cynical rejection of religion by our culture at large. In spite of this rejection the god, the idol, is enacted.

We could perhaps say, roughly and imprecisely speaking, that our modern world is constructed with religious symbols–or a religious structure–that we simply cannot do without. Even when in our thinking we have abandoned religion and religiosity in our secular age and excised them from public discourse and banned religions from participating in the public sphere, we continue to enact religiosity subconsciously in our daily praxis, such that our world is still dominated by it. And this is not some vague process that we struggle to identify by way of analogy or symbol. We have, in all concreteness retained and reworked the being of divine necessity and its hierarchical ordering of society. We cannot do without divine necessity. We have to locate it somewhere, enshrine it as holy, worship it, and pay it homage. This in spite of our adherence to the ideals of democracy and the classless society.

Luther and Divine Necessity

The above analysis is pointless if the hegemony of the being of divine necessity is not critiqued and challenged. As the necessary divine being the free market has inflicted immensely more damage than the medieval Christian-Neoplatonic-Aristotelian god ever could. The Christian God was at least an entity that was morally bound (in principle) to its own rules and knew how to behave. Economists, however, are at a loss of how to predict the free market. It is indeed an impersonal entity that is out of our control even when our very being and our society for their self-development (i.e. the actualizing of their potential) is completely dependent upon it. The system controls us. As long as we are close to the top we’re safe but those at the bottom may face extinction, which is the threat of the state of non-being, at any time.

I start my critique with the thought of Luther for various reasons. The best location to critique and expose the ideological nature of religious ideology is to start with religion. There is no better deconstruction of theology than some good deconstructive theology, as Luther knew very well. If my thesis is correct that the scholastic welding together of Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism and Christian theology is the origin of the current neoliberal order, Luther’s thought, as the insightful and highly effective deconstruction of that political and theological ordering of society, stands to provide us with invaluable resources to do our work today. Luther’s theological work is fruitful in uncovering the religious archetypes of neoliberalism. Theology may well be the ideal location for being an assault against the rampant consequences of our capitalist market economy.

The Hidden God

Luther rejected the medieval ontological ordering of God and world, the separation of beings in necessary and potential beings, and relegated the necessity of God to the realm of the Deus Absconditus. Deus Absconditus, Latin for “hidden God,” marks that realm belonging to the divine that is hidden from sight. Is God almighty? Is God omniscient? And particularly important: does God elect people for salvation? Luther was adamant: It is not spoken about. Don’t speculate on the unknown things because (a) we cannot know it, (b) it can bring us to rather dark places, (c) it misses the point of the Christian God.

In Christianity God comes to humanity and becomes, in fact, a human person. The “I am who I am” is not the ontologically necessary being but the One present to save. Christ is God in the flesh: the incarnation. This may sound odd for non-religious readers, but the consequences of insisting on the incarnation and nothing beyond it, are startlingly refreshing; even today. In Luther’s thought, thinking about God is narrowed to the Christ-event (i.e. incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ).

Remarkable things happen when the Hidden God is only referred to but not invoked or assimilated into a theological system. On the one hand, questions remain unanswered. For instance, the question of divine election (i.e. who gets saved by God; a rather pernicious question back in the day since theologians reasoned that since God is omnipotent, absolutely free, and in control, salvation or damnation of the individual soul cannot be left to chance or human agency.) Since God cannot be assimilated into a system God cannot be imagined as sitting on the top of a hierarchical pyramid of being. God cannot be located anywhere; much less on a throne. Authorities, therefore, cannot derive their power from a divine necessary being who stands in approval above them (but in reality under them because to speak on behalf of God is to let God speak your own words).

A New Ontology of Self-Giving

The Christ-event, furthermore, is marked, not by dissemination of being or causation of beings who need to realize their potentiality, but by being unconditional promise and providing forgiveness. It brings the freedom beyond freedom, which does not consist in unfettered realized potential but in being the gift. It imagines the world otherwise in a way that is not available within the current structures of human existence.

It comes with a new ontology, i.e. a new form of being, that is structured as a gift, as self-giving. That is to say, its potentiality (to stay with the scholastic-Aristotelian nomenclature) is to give itself away. The maximization of its potentiality is precisely the opposite of the potentiality of being in Aquinas thought. It is not a self-organizing being that draws energy, expends it in order to be fully itself if need be at the expense of other entities. Rather, it gives; it gives itself away. Its diminishing is its realization. Christ is the divine gift that lives on behalf of others expending its energy in the giving away of itself and thus maximizing its potential into non-being. The ontology of causation and effect is replaced by an arrival in the midst of time of that which is neither necessity (because it is free) nor potentiality (because it is gift).

This is its freedom. This is Christ’s freedom: to lay down his life on behalf of those he loves. The announcement of this new being in the person of Christ provides a rupture in the system, in any system: the Jewish law, the Roman order, the scholastic hierarchical order, as well as the economic order that stands in service of the free market. Moreover, for Luther, God does not make God’s Self known within the framework of abstract universal ontological categories. God’s revelation speaks to the particular situation of power and oppression. God comes in the mode of impossibility: in weakness and powerlessness.

Powerlessness Instead of Hierarchy

By reserving a central place for the cross of Christ, Luther subverted the human system (in which God and world were welded together with Aristotelian categories) and showed us a God who is otherwise than power. Both necessity and potentiality are not categories through which the world is to be understood since such abstract categories reduce human beings to ciphers and make of God a Moloch who devours flesh despite the best intentions to let this God speak the language of grace. God is, in Christ, not necessity, but the gift of love while the world is, not potentiality, but the beloved.

This brings us to an important observation concerning the pyramidical structures of scholastic thought built on the dual concepts of necessity and potentiality. The pyramid is turned upside down. Quite literally. The God of the divine being of necessity who sits on top of the structure that orders the world is replaced by the servant God who comes in the body of an infant and lives and dies to serve humanity. Power, or more precisely, necessity in the form of omnipotence, is replaced by powerlessness. Christ is the weak power whose appearance is neither necessity nor potentiality.

His death is the result of the mechanical cause and effect process produced by the system. The system is based on power and dominance and uses the god-figure as the justification for the exertion of power, the extension of dominance, and the amassment of wealth. The god of the system has to enact the death of the Christ-figure. The disruption of the flow of power and wealth that the system produces in the interplay between necessity and potentiality cannot be interrupted by the radical gift of love and must be exterminated.

Thus Christ is crucified. But in this crucifixion, the tables are turned and the pyramid is overturned. The defeat of the death of Christ is the ultimate vindication of the divine love that poured itself in Christ for the world. The God of Christ is revealed as the one who does not justify power, dominance, and greed, but justifies the sinner and brings justice to the sinned-against. Of course, I’m contrasting concepts here. I’m not suggesting that scholasticism crucified Christ, but, in a way, Christ was indeed crucified by the religious leaders of his own time in collusion with the worldly power of the Roman emperor and in that sense, inasmuch the gospel was domesticated and systemized, Christ was and is crucified again and again. Yet, it is in the repeated enactment of crucifixion and annihilation that the system itself is subverted.

Theology as Deconstruction of Capitalism

Analyzing the political through the lens of the religious has the advantage of uncovering hidden traces of thought that originated from the religious imagination and have gone undercover, so to speak, during the process of secularization of Western civilization. It seems that though modernity does indeed constitute a major rupture in the Western mind, it was not so deep that it changed the basic structure of our societies or the cultural imagination. While it is true that the process of secularization of our world has brought about almost limitless possibilities for human development, the basic patterns of freedom and bondage, power and subjugation, as well as our tendency to locate power in absolute necessity hasn’t really changed much. If in the premodern era the Christian God was set up as the idol, regulating the power structure and ordering bodies on a continuum of actualized potential, in the modern and late modern period the role of the idol has been assigned to the free market. And thus the regulating and the ordering continue as before.

The question remains whether a theological analysis is any use given the entrenched position of the free market. Or, better, whether any theology has the wherewithal to take on the idolatrous position of the free market. I think the theology of the cross, rearticulated for today and brought into conversation (or better, alliance) with other theologies that have originated from the margin and stand in solidarity with those to whom ontological status in the system has been denied, has indeed the capability to do so. More than that, I suspect that only a theology can get the job done since it is only in the theological realm that a truly different ordering of the world can be realized breaking open potentialities that are simply non-existent in the current system.

It will be a theology that does not belong in the category of “theologies.” It can’t be put in the same category as the theology that brought about the scholastic systemic ordering of the medieval world. Rather, it is in another category altogether. It has affinities with important moments of disruption in history but is at the same time unlike all of them. As a theory, it simply bears that name because there is a theoretical component to it that articulates what it is about. Other than that it has little to do with theory no matter how many books are written about it. It is called theology simply because it refers to the appearance of God in human history but it is not religious in nature. Not more religious, that is, than anything else human beings come up with or do. As such it is not religious over against non-religious things, religious imagination over against a-religious imagination. It simply stands over against everything conceived by humanity inasmuch it stands outside the system of necessity and potentiality. It addresses humanity from outside its framing, capabilities, imaginings, and doings. It is theology as the human non-possible and thus originates from beyond ourselves. It imagines reality otherwise and its arrival is not in power but in weakness. And as weakness, it turns the world upside down.

Two Gods

There are two basic uses of god under religion: one invokes God for power and the other invokes God for justice. When God is invoked for power its use leads to systemization and hierarchy. When God is invoked for justice, its use leads to decentralization of power. We see both functioning at the end of the medieval period. The former in the scholastically theological system, the latter in Luther’s subversion of that system.

In the secular age, the first use of God has not receded but has instead become secularized. The word “god” is no longer used, but the god still functions. When I say “god” I do not use it here as metaphor or placeholder for the unnamable but as the indicator of an invisible but real ontological power. An actual entity that reigns with demonic autonomy. The “god” is the location of justification for those who are in power. Its location is behind and above those who are in power in order to justify that particular ordering of the world that facilitates their power. Its ontological status is manifest in the reality of the system that it embodies. Its necessity is shown in humanity’s inability to change it and in the indignation that surfaces should anyone dare challenge its hegemony. All beings in the world are dependent on it for the actualization of their potential while countless beings, individuals, tribes, ethnic groups, species, and ecosystems have to see their actuality reduced to less than potential, i.e. they are annihilated. This god is rightly called the idol, whether it reigns as the biblical God or the secular god of the free market. Its proper name is idol and its power is real. That is why calling it idol is the beginning of truth and the beginning of its subversion.

The big problem we have created is that we allow the god of the system to operate invisibly. Precisely by not unmasking this god we pay homage to its status as an idol. We allow the Moloch to devour the masses in the name of necessity. Because, we think, this is not god but the system of necessity, the self-grounding, self-validating system of capitalism. By not invoking god-talk we simply allow the system to maintain its necessity. We do not uncover the religious nature of the system held in place by the thirst for wealth and power of the mighty. But when we call this god out and expose its necessity as fiction, we can begin to work for change. We have then taken away the powers of the worshipers of the idol: necessity and invisibility.

The second use of God has sadly retained all the characteristics of the very religiosity that secularity had gotten rid of. While the secular age created a new space that was, in its deep structure, every bit as religious it was no longer recognized as such. The second use of God, the God of mercy, was kept alive in the secular age. Its only function, however, was to demarcate precisely that space that no longer played a role in the real world: religion. In that sense, the use of the God of mercy nicely played into the hands of the submerged God of power, the first use. The God of mercy was encouraged to be as merciful as possible as long as this mercy did not impinge on the secular realm or infringe on the realm of the idol. And Christianity, both in its conservative and liberal appearance, obliged.

The Theology of the Cross

There is a third use, however. It rejects the use of God as justification for power and rejects the use of God as merely spiritual justification for sinners. It takes the concept of justification back to the world. The justice of the love of God poured out for the world in the man Jesus Christ is a justice that is both gift and call. It is a gift in a two-fold sense. First, it is the gift of love that is willing to sacrifice all on behalf of the other. It is symbolized by the cross. It is also gift in a second sense, namely, that the love given is not a human possibility, that is, it comes from outside of the human system of necessity and potentiality. This love is neither necessary nor does it, because of its weakness and vulnerability, have any potential in this world of ours. And yet it subverts and conquers.

But this justice of God also constitutes a call. And this call is two-fold as well. First, because of its mere presence, it issues a no against the system and proves in its appearance that the world is not to be divided into the exclusive categories of necessity and potentiality. It claims that the only God one is to speak of stands outside this bifurcation and ordering of the world, outside its system. In this way this justice implicitly exposes the God of the system, this God of free market capitalism, as a false god, an idol, thereby taking away the absolutism and necessity with which those in power justify the system and their position. It calls the falls idol and his sycophants out. Secondly, this justice is also a call to participate in that justice. Or in other words, it is the invitation to participate in the new ontology that is neither necessity or potentiality but sheer gift, self-gift, self-giving. This brings justification and love together in the new ontology, the new being that is the gift of oneself to the other. All that is required to participate in this new being of Christ is to no longer participate in the ontological machinations of necessity and potentiality, supply and demand, consumption and consummation.

In the system, whether the religious one of scholasticism or the secular free market, the god is connected to the world in a scheme of necessity in which abuse and exploitation are enshrined from the top down as law. In the notion of God as gift, God is not linked to the world by necessity, causing (and thereby causally justifying) the chain of events that transpire. God is present but not as causation, not as controlling force, and therefore not available to be controlled. As gift, God comes in weakness and occupies a specific location in the world vis a vis the hierarchical system and the center of power. That is to say, God is outside the system, i.e. underneath the bottom of the pyramid and outside the circle of power. This weak God is not connected with the center of power in order to influence the human system. Nor is this God allied with the powerful at the top of the hierarchical system disseminating order and power. This God is present where we find the non-beings with non-potentiality, who have no access to the system and only serve as the raw material for its functioning and are considered expendable, rubbish, the living dead. That is the location of God in Christ; that is the meaning of manger and cross.

This is the theology of the cross. But as said, the theology of the cross is all cross and little theology. Its analysis is purely for the sake of clarifying the otherness of the divine love in Christ and to point to the call that is constituted in the cross. It then gives way to embodiment and enactment. For this is the power of the weakness of the cross. Once your life has been gripped by the transformative power of the cross, once the love of God in Christ has set you free from yourself, you understand the system for the idolatrous system it is and know what it takes to take on the system, namely, passionate self-involvement. This does not mean that my solution to the system is merely individual transformation; that would be individualist faithism. Rather, that which subverts the system is a categorical denial of the system through an embodiment and enactment of the life of Christ, the new ontology of a new community of radical and determined love.

Just as the theology of the cross has a deconstructive subversive moment it also has a constructive formative phase. By this, I do not mean a new system to replace the old with the Jesus of love now acting as the Lord who executes judgment and orders bodies in a new earthly theocracy. On the contrary, the new ontology of Christ is diametrically opposed to the system of cause and effect and freely does the opposite of what cause and effect, necessity and potentiality, tell it to do: it gives and invests itself. What this looks like, is not part of this essay. A few brief remarks may help though. Applying Luther’s reconstruction: the poor in their nonbeing possess the potentiality of weakness; the power of the cross. The impossibility of nonbeing in the margin is the location of revelation. It is where God begins.

Beyond the Religious versus Secular

The theology of the cross I suggest as the deconstruction of the system of the free market is neither secular nor religious. It is not secular in that it is a theology that employs the terminology of God and Jesus. But it is at the same time not religious. Not religious in the sense that it refuses to be locked up in the religious realm nicely tucked away so as not to be harmful to the system. But also not religious in the sense that it doesn’t require a religious outlook on life or conversion experience.

The theology of the cross merely recognizes that the systemic evil that emerges in free-market capitalism is of a religious nature dressed up in secular garb. The free market is the idol that is carried around in order to be invincible. The free market is the new location of divine necessity that enables the construction of a system in which power and wealth are distributed as rewards in terms of realized potential. This theology merely recognizes and exposes this and follows the logical conclusion: the alternative is not part of our imagination. A different way of living, a new ontology that escapes the conditions of necessity and potentiality, is not a human possibility.

What manifests as a new ontology comes from beyond and proves itself to be divine love poured out for a fractured world. In the religious imagination this was recognized as God; God in Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh. Etc. In our time, we use different language to express this, but we cannot avoid the inescapable conclusion that a new way of existence is not possible for us. Humanity does not possess the resources. It is simply given with that figure of old, the Christ, in whom a love manifest that inspires others to love similarly by investing their lives for their neighbor. Is that God? Does it matter? In Luther, God is the hidden God. There isn’t very much to say about the “godness” of God. What we can say is that it is something we are not. Decidedly not. Our closed loop of cause and effect, of necessity and potentiality, leaves no room for the love encountered in Christ. And yet it manifests among us, loves us, transforms us, simply is there. It calls us to resist the system and live out another ontology that we are made part of in Christ.


I initially set out to describe how the medieval ordering of God and world within the Thomistic-Aristotelian ontology of necessity and potentiality reemerged in the post-enlightenment era as free market capitalism in which the free market takes on the qualities of necessity that dispenses potentiality to whom it wills. If true, this means that the religious imagination of the medieval period has deeper roots than imagined. It continues to guide the secular imagination. The secular age is considerably more religious than we think. If true, we can also conclude that religiosity has the characteristics of ideology in the Žižekian sense that ideology is not something we can unmask in order to see the world otherwise.

Ideology conditions the way we imagine the world and leaves us no other possibility to see it. As Žižek points out, even an ironic or cynical distancing from the ideological can still not prevent the ideological praxis of precisely those who are skeptical. That is to say, precisely in its cynical abandoning of religion religiosity attached itself all the more strongly to the cultural imagination. The idol was set up (or rather emerged out of necessity) and homage was to be paid, regardless of the modernity of the moderns. The medieval religiosity of necessity and potentiality simply resurfaced, now invisibly, under secular terms, but with graver consequences. The medieval God, though perfectly free, at least operates according to a certain morality. The free market is responsible to no one; it is a “self-regulating” mechanism that radiantly burns as a dark sun demanding ever greater sacrifices. It has brought us the specter of ecological apocalypse, with rising sea levels, mass extinction of species, and widespread famine and water shortage. When will we kill the idol? When hordes of desperate people trying to escape their state of non-being overrun our borders by the millions?

As I wrote this essay, I realized that the necessity-potentiality continuum is but an exemplar of the tendency of human society to create systems that regulate beings, favor the powerful, and trample the poor. It is sad to see how the Western exemplar of the medieval god is a product of the Christian religion of all things. Capitalism, as has been suggested before, is indeed the product of Christian theology and, more specifically, the theology of glory that inscribes power into its dogmas, law, and ethics.

I then moved to the theology of the cross as the subversion of the system, the attack on the theology of glory, the exposure of the idol. Luther’s theology of the cross fulfilled a subversive and reconstructive function vis a vis medieval scholastic theology. Since Luther’s theology was highly effective in disrupting the political-religious order of his time, it stands to reason that his theology provides resources for analysis and subversion of capitalism. And indeed, we do. The theology of the cross places (or rather: hears of) God outside the system of necessity and potentiality as an anomaly and the epitome of weakness.

Even today, in an age where we no longer believe in God or gods, the relevance of the theology the cross remains. In the Christ-figure we see a form of being breaking through that has not been heard of, that stands outside of both the religious and the secular imagination. Christ represents a new ontology of self-giving that can’t be ignored. Yes, it can be subdued, integrated into the system, coopted, etc. Eventually, the system will have to resort to extermination and annihilation of the anomaly of the self-giving of Christ. It is a being that is not supposed to be. But just as its appearance is in weakness, it survives precisely because the power of the system cannot undo the announcement of its being.

Whether we are believers or not, Christ opens up to a new form of existence that simply lies outside of the Western ideological imagination. It can only be received and thus recognized, It can only be recognized in its enactment. And once that happens, nothing can stop it. That is the dangerous weakness of the cross. That is the meaning of Christ for our world today.

Important takeaways are the following:

(a) Nothing has changed too much in the transformation of our civilization from religious to secular. The gods are still among us and ontologically more real than ever and have emerged in a new domain, namely that of the economy.

(b) Secularism is merely a new form of the expression of the religious in our culture. It simply operates invisibly and is thereby infinitely more powerful than the popes in medieval Rome.

(c) The Western God has always been an idol. Even the god of scholastic theology had morphed into a dangerous monster so much unlike the God of Jesus Christ.

(d) One of the best places (maybe the best) to tackle the idol of capitalism is theology. Luther’s theology of the cross proved effective in subverting the medieval order; it may well be suited for the task to address the monster of the free market. God may be dead but theology isn’t at all. There is an important task for political theology.

(e) As the theology of the cross moves from naming the gift of God in Christ to the call to be the gift today, so the subversion and displacement of capitalism as the reigning paradigm can and will only be accomplished through people who do the impossible: invest themselves fully, totally, and radically.

Images: free domain image of Dante’s Divina Comedia, overlayed with a New York skyline image by Robert Zurfluh over at

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

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