By Tsoncho Tsonchev


The Montréal Review, March 2024



Many books have been, are, and will be written on the subject of international relations. But not many, at least not today, would discuss international order and our perceptions of it from a political-theological point of view. One of the few titles that offers such a discussion is William Bain's The Political Theology of International Order. The book does not pretend to give us direct answers to the most pressing questions of our time: Will there be peace and stability in a world with so many contenders for authority? How can we resolve international conflicts and reduce their intensity? How can we end war and achieve and sustain peace with justice? Bain's goal is not to offer practical solutions to current problems, but rather to show the sources of Western concepts of international relations and thus help us better understand the intellectual framework in which policy decisions are made today. No small task indeed. And not unimportant if done right. Whether it has been done right or not is for the reader to judge, and reality would serve as a testament. The really important question about this book is whether it succeeds in drawing lessons that can be applied to real politics, and also whether the reader comes away convinced that theology has any value in discussing political reality.

The reader will not find a theological vision or argument from the author himself. For political theologians, this may be disappointing, for they are unlikely to learn much new from the book. Political theology, like everything else, needs a creative approach to old concepts and interpretations. That's why a “professional” theologian would turn to a book that discusses theological problems-to find new inspiration for old truths. The creative approach is by definition personal (and risky). The truly creative approach is usually reserved for the “prophets,” the people who break established patterns of thought. This book is anything but personal or challenging. It is written by a 21st century scholar (not a theologian) for 21st century scholars. The author is almost invisible, recording the visions of path-breaking intellectuals. For the more general reader (most likely the college student), however, the obscurity of the author's own theological vision may be acceptable and even desirable.

The book could be described as a more or less unusual (because of theology) introduction to the history of European thought on international relations. More specifically, it is about the development of Christian nominalism and its impact on political perception. Bain avoids theological language, but the reader will find theology in abundance in the theories and authors discussed. Most likely, the theological arguments would sound exotic and unconvincing. Today, theology in politics and political theory is considered outdated. It is generally seen as a distraction (even a danger) from the search for practical solutions to contemporary problems. And yet the very suspicion we have of theology today, at least in the West, is, as Bain shows, a result of the historical development of Christian ideas and concepts. The complete removal of the Christian intellectual tradition from political discourse, Bain more or less implicitly suggests, would not remove that tradition from the foundations of Western political thought and action. Rather, it would diminish the quality of our understanding of the contemporary political imagination. Preventing this, I think, is at the heart of the book's purpose and rationale.


The idea of order presupposes something arranged for a purpose. There is no order if there is no goal and actors working in harmony to achieve that goal. Applied to the international state system, the idea of order presupposes an association or arrangement of state relations for the achievement of certain common interests, conducted according to certain common values and rules. In recent decades, however, common values and rules have been gradually replaced by concepts of rational choice and quantitative methods. Empirical evidence supplanted traditional natural law theories (which are essentially "value" theories), while, at the same time, the theories of "cosmopolitan justice" began to be seen as merely aspirational, without particular practical value.

Bain goes against this trend. He challenges the idea that international order, or "the modern state system," is a secular arrangement that emerged from the collapse of medieval Christendom. Rather than following modern approaches (rational choice and quantitative methods), he explores the idea of international order in the context of historical development of theological concepts and categories. This makes him a historian of ideas.

Bain goes beyond Carl Schmitt's view that modern politics and theory now run on their own without the help of explicit theological arguments. He believes that the theological background is still functional, although not consciously grasped. Therefore, it should be of interest not only to historians of ideas but also to political scientists and policy makers. Human beings, says Bain, have taken the place of God, but they remain locked into patterns of thought that reveal [theological, metaphysical] logic. In fact, he adds, even Schmitt doesn't completely reject the persistence of theological "reason.” The old “patterns of thought,” or the essentially Christian character of modern perceptions, is what Bain emphasizes.

According to Bain, there are two classical views that still function in the background of contemporary approaches to politics. He calls them "immanent" and "imposed." I don't recall seeing such a designation applied to politics elsewhere. For me, this is Bain's original contribution. The first view, called "immanent," is Platonic and Augustinian, in which a god or creator acts according to pre-existing ideas. The second, the "imposed," is nominalistic (or voluntaristic), of a God who acts according to his absolute will, without the presence of an initial idea, goal, or plan.

These two views, according to Bain, represent two basic theories of order that are difficult to reconcile: the theory of immanent order, in which a rational God "thinks" the universe into existence, and the theory of imposed order, in which a volitional God "speaks" the universe into existence. The former is contemplative, the latter active.

The theory of immanent order consists of an initial pattern, in the mind of God the Creator, that constructs the universe according to a strictly formed, finished idea. It doesn't allow for a multiplicity of outcomes. The end is known and foreseen from the beginning. In contrast, the theory of imposed order implies the existence of a universe, spontaneously created, with no end goal or pre-existing plan. Creation, according to this view, could be assembled and reassembled in different forms. The final result could never be predicted, nor is it sought. In fact, there is no aspiration to an end at all. The immanent order includes the idea of progress and perhaps evolution; while the imposed order is open to eternity without the concept of progress and development. The former may be considered linear and dynamic, the latter cyclical and static.


The more observable roots of the concept of immanent order can be found in Plato, more specifically in his dialogue Timaeus. In a conversation with Socrates and Critias, Timaeus explains a reality that is singular, unique, the only possible and existing order, created by a creator, a demiurge, according to his unchangeable, just and perfect idea. The world is a copy, a work of art of the idea, created by the hands of the Creator. This Platonic idea of the cosmos, of order and reality, was close enough to the biblical story of creation to be quickly adopted by early Christian thinkers. Of course, the adoption of Platonic creationism was not only due to its closeness to the biblical story. The early Christians simply followed the established Greek patterns of logic and rational discourse in explaining the mysteries of their faith. Or, as David Runia, quoted by Bain, says, Greek philosophy became the language of reason "with which to elucidate Scripture.”

Augustine and later Aquinas, the two most prominent Christian theologians, embraced the idea that God creates according to a "rational plan." Not simply faith, but the regularity observed in the natural order could serve as evidence for the existence of a universal, rational design. According to Augustine and Aquinas, everything that exists is possible because it participates in the divine reason (idea). Creation, with its constituent parts, they believed, was contained in the mind of God. For them, the order of creation (of nature) was hierarchical and teleological, defined by degrees of participation in divine reason and by goals leading progressively to an ultimate goal. Despite the equal dignity of all parts, there were degrees of inferiority and superiority: matter and physical laws were subordinate to reason and moral laws. The highest point of the natural order was the human person. For only man was capable of rational and moral thought. The Augustinian/Thomistic order, the immanent order, is summed up by Bain in three words: "interconnected,” “hierarchical,” and “intelligible.” Thus, interconnectedness (e.g., the unity of people, secular rulers, and bishops), hierarchy (the supremacy of bishops over rulers and people), and intelligibility (the eternal law accessible through scripture/revelation and the natural law accessible through reason) became political and social ideals for medieval Europe. But not for long.

The religious worldview of interconnectedness, hierarchy, and intelligibility was increasingly challenged in the early modern period, not from a secularist point of view, as Bain (and many others) note, but from a Christian theistic one. The argument was in the spirit of Tertullian's famous words: "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" There was a breach of trust, so to speak, in the idea that Christianity could secretly rely on pagan concepts (or language). The Aristotelianism of Aquinas was gradually discarded, faith was shielded, reason separated from faith. In a word, the integrality of the immanent order, the belief in the existence of a universal world in which the spiritual governs the rational and the material, disappeared. The first visible sign (but not the starting point) of this shift in perceptions, according to Bain, was the Condemnation of 1227 (the errors contrary to the Catholic faith, proclaimed by Etienne Tempier, bishop of Paris).

Clearly, the break came from the position of faith, not reason. Faith had to be preserved from the corruption of speculative rational inquiry. God's mind or plan could not be known, nor could it be explained in rational categories. It would be more appropriate to explain creation, or nature, or the world, from a fideistic point of view, so to speak, which has no knowledge of God's purposes. The only access we have to God's mind is God's action in the world. Thus, not God's mind, but God's will becomes more important. This is the beginning of the gradual dominance of the view of imposed order. God's freedom and will replaced God's mind and plan. Deciphering and speculating about God's intentions began to be seen as a waste of time, or worse, a way to replace God's will with human desire. 

The condemnation of Aristotelianism or pagan philosophy in the 13th century gave rise to the nominalist view, which challenged the Platonic belief in universals, ideas, and a world of degrees of participation. The whole was no longer dominant over its parts; the ground of reality shifted to the individual, the particular. The order we've seen was not caused by pre-existing patterns, it was a reality that was constantly being actualized, becoming. It was discovered and followed, not created. It was contingent, not stable. The God of Genesis is not the God of reason, but the God of action. It is not the goal or the idea that is valid and certain, but the appearances. God is free. He creates without a rational plan. His mind is unknown. This nominalist view, though similar to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies, was nevertheless Christian. It still placed God and his will at the source and center of the cosmos.

William of Ockham, the most prominent of the nominalists, emphasized the absolute freedom of God the Creator. The individual things in the order He created did not remain in a harmonious, predictable whole, connected to each other in an ascending way, but were directly connected to God, and thus separated and then reunited by God. In such an order, miracles and sudden changes were expected. Reality was fragmented, with a sovereign surrounded by interchangeable fragments that had no direct connection to each other. The imposed order of nominalism perceived reality as having a powerful, non-natural foundation and no direct, casual relationship between individual things. Or, as Bain explains, the imposed order of nominalism was "contingent, individualistic, and voluntary rather than necessary, interconnected, and rational in character.”

Bain argues that so-called "secularization" has been heavily influenced by nominalist ideas, where concepts such as sovereignty, anarchy and balance of power are prevalent. He also argues that what we call "turning points" in history do not fully reflect the truth. They are mostly "simplifications" of deeper and longer processes in the development of Western culture. For example, the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 (or even the French Revolution of 1789), often described as the initiator of European secularization, cannot seriously be called the "big bang" of the new epoch.

I will not elaborate on Bain's description of imposed or immanent views in the history of European thought. That should be left to the potential reader of the book. The application of these two views to contemporary politics may prove difficult, or at least paradoxical, and - if we take a nominalist position - unnecessary. Unnecessary because, as a nominalist would say, the best way to solve practical problems is the shortest way. Concepts of imposed and immanent order complicate things rather than simplify them, and at worst complicate them in a detrimental way.

It is undeniable that we continue to think within perceptual frameworks established centuries ago. It is also undeniable that we need to know the past in order to better deal with the present and to properly imagine the future. In this respect, Bain's work is helpful. Where it would fail, and Bain makes no attempt to convince us otherwise, is in the application of the theological framework to contemporary politics. There is no way to effectively use the immanent and imposed concepts of order, stripped of their theological baggage, if politics is done without genuine faith in Christ. And politics today does not seem to be "Christian" in inspiration. One could argue that we are in the situation of the early Christian apologists, but in reverse order: if they had no linguistic and cultural frame other than Greek to explain their worldview, we have no frame other than Christian to imagine the world. Through nominalism (and its various effects), Western civilization succeeded in purifying, so to speak, political and social language from theological speculation, but it preserved its Christian character, that is, its Christian apocalyptic and evangelical imagination. But political apocalypticism without the right faith (or moral foundation) could easily turn into madness, while evangelical imagination without divine inspiration and purpose could easily turn into lust for power. Both perversions have been observed in history-not once or twice. And both are real possibilities if Christianity is preserved only as a "language" and "patterns of thought" but lacking a true "religious" essence.

Finally, we can try a small experiment applying the perspective of immanent and imposed order to contemporary politics. What could be an example of immanent order today? Clearly, the European Union is the political construct that comes closest to being built according to an immanent framework: it is rational, it is designed, it has a purpose, the whole is designed to be in balance with the parts. It is hierarchical in the sense that the Union's legal system has degrees of application. The so-called "common European values" dominate over the immediate (or particular) political interest. The European Union is completely different from the international order that existed before the Second World War, and from the order that is emerging on the international scene today. The war destroyed the imposed order of nation-state politics, international anarchy and the balance of power.

Contemporary British politics, on the other hand, is a departure from the immanent dreams of continental Europe. Brexit could be seen as an example of the politics of the imposed order perception: it relies on political opportunism, it tries to cut through the bureaucratic obstacles of the common European system, it acts according to the particular will of the people and leaders and much less according to a rational plan or calculation beyond the national interest. One can even see the paradoxes that imposed order brings to British foreign policy today: for example, it is hard to understand Boris Johnson's policy of British "isolationism" and, at the same time, Britain's vocal (active) involvement in the war in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine could have serious consequences for continental Europe, and less so for small, post-colonial and declining Britain. Independent Britain has no interest in a strong Europe, yet it is helping Europe deal with the conflict in Ukraine. Or, alternatively, Britain has an interest in a weak Europe, so it seeks to prolong the conflict in order to inflict maximum damage on both Russia and Europe. Whatever the motivations, British policy under Johnson is one that could be thought of in terms of the imposed view: no clear plan for a positive outcome, no rational vision, no sense of wider unity and interconnectedness.

A victory for Donald Trump would be another example of the renewal of American politics of imposed order. The very lack of a clear understanding of what the leaders of these two countries - Johnson and Trump - are doing or aiming at proves the dominance of will over reason, or to put it another way, the dominance of opportunism over the politics of "conciliarism". The human mind cannot predict or fully understand the human will, simply because the will is moved by the whims of the environment and desire (or passion). If we look at Russia, we can clearly see an immanent approach in the environment of the imposed international order (which Russia itself creates): rational, though violent, pursuit of foreign policy goals, a clear goal and a plan for its achievement that may or may not work. There is a hierarchy in the Russian Federation, and even a recognition by the leader and the elites of the Christian heritage. The nominalist impulse is much less present in Russia than in Western countries and alliances. Putin's political behavior, however, could be described as typically voluntaristic for a Hobbesian type of ruler, especially when compared to the political behavior of his counterparts on the European continent. The source of voluntarism in Russia is its autocratic political system. Unlike authoritarianism, democracy does not allow the leadership to have de facto legal and executive power. An ideal democracy, perhaps paradoxically, would be a reflection of the immanent order, all because of its inclusiveness and shared vision. Autocracy could also be a form of immanent order, but it is very much subject to the corruption of views of imposed order, i.e. voluntarism and political opportunism.

The above is only a speculation about the practical application of immanent and imposed order views. I do not claim that it is correct or deeply thought out. One can go a long way in applying these two concepts and perhaps achieve excellent results. Certainly, there may be many intellectual possibilities for those who are willing to seriously follow Bain's intellectual construction. I could say, after spending some time with the book, that it is worth trying to explore Bain's ideas and enhance them with fresh and more systematic interpretations. This might indeed lead to the achievement of Bain's stated goal: to make us better acquainted with the foundations of Western political thought and perception, and thus to benefit from this knowledge for the good of our common future.




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