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  • An Unlikely Convergence:W. E. B. Du Bois, Karl Barth, and the Problem of the Imperial God-Man
  • J. Kameron Carter (bio)

Back beyond the world and swept by these wild, white faces of the awful dead, why will this Soul of White Folk,—this modern Prometheus,—hang bound by his own binding, tethered by a fable of the past? I hear his mighty cry reverberating through the world, "I am white!" Well and good, O Prometheus, divine thief!

—W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater (2003 [1920], 74)

We suppose that we know what we are saying when we say "God." We assign to Him the highest place in our world . . . [w]e press ourselves into proximity with Him . . . [but] [s]ecretly we are ourselves the masters in this relationship. . . . And so, when we set God upon the throne of the world, we mean by God ourselves. . . . God Himself is not acknowledged as God and what is called "God" is in fact Man.

—Karl Barth, Der Römerbrief (The Epistle to the Romans) (1968 [1921], 44) [End Page 167]


As the guns fell silent in 1918 with the conclusion of the First World War, it was unknown at the time that what in fact was being concluded was but the first, painful episode in what one historian has called, summarizing the first half of the twentieth century, an era of "total war." It was then, with the First World War, that "the great edifice of nineteenth-century civilization crumpled in . . . flames," and a new framework for carrying out the Western civilizing mission started to arise phoenix-like from the ashes (Hobsbawm 1996, 22). With the Treaty of Versailles, the old form of domination through imperial dynasties was giving way to a new political form of Western hegemony: the nation or, more accurately, the nation-state. Indeed, the term "nation" itself was embedded in the name of one of the chief products of the post-War settlement: the League of Nations.

In the spirit of Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," I will interpret World War I and its aftermath not with a view to recognizing "the past 'the way it really was,'" (Benjamin 1986, 255) but rather as a "flashpoint"1 that exposes the mechanisms of political theology that have been at work and that arguably remain at work within secular modernity. I contend that it is between the Christian doctrines of christology (that is, the study of the person and work of Jesus Christ) and eschatology (from the Greek word eschaton, the study of the end times or last days) that secular modernity can be seen as a moment within modern political theology. It is this enterprise of political theology that has animated what Brett Bowden has recently called "the empire of [Western] civilization" (2009). With the First World War and its aftermath as a reference point, I interrogate in this essay the theological architecture of secular modernity with special attention to the problematic, eschatological Kingdom-community it has sought to create and the Utopian figure as its stabilizing center. This is the figure of Western Man who has operated as an imperial God-Man. [End Page 168]

Mark Lilla on Modern Political Theology

My argument has some parallels with Mark Lilla's inquiry in The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (2007). Thus, to avoid confusion and, at the same time, to put a finer edge on my own argument, I briefly consider Lilla's view on the problem of modern political theology.

With his characteristic skill at presenting complex ideas with extraordinary lucidity, Lilla offers an account of the crisis of modern political theology by focusing (as I do) on the era of the World Wars. It was during this time, he writes, that one sees a full-throttled return to political theology. Yet this return signified a fundamental contradiction: "the great separation" (55) of politics from theology that supposedly resulted from the sixteenth-century Wars of Religion should have precluded any return to revelation-based approaches to political life. If politics in the modern world means anything, writes Lilla, it means that situating politics at the crossroads of a "divine...


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