Carl Schmitt, a notorious political theorist, is most famous for his concept of political theology. That is to say that the concepts that we in the Secular West use for politics are actually transformed theological concepts. It is the secularization of God that created Modernity, manifested most viscerally in the climactic days of the French Revolution, but existing before and after this.
One major concepts of the French Revolution was 'regeneration', a perfect example of Schmitt's Political theology. While originally a theological term, explaining the transformation of Man when brought to God's grace, it became a serious political concept. Regeneration took on the fiber of the World, including man, that required the christic grace of civilization. Thus, Revolutionary advocates saw the mass-mobilization of an army of citizens, fanning out across Europe, as a missionary endeavor. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was a liberative doctrine. Those who were caught in its radiance and bathed in its light would be reborn a man, free from superstition and the corruption of layers of tradition.
Regeneration was also applied to the debate over slavery in France's colonies. Even the most ardent abolitionists framed their enthusiasm in terms of Regeneration. The transformative effects of the Revolution could enlightened even the sons of the Dark Continent. However, this doctrine allowed the violence of chattel slavery to continue. These men were still ignorant and if freed they might reject the Republic in vain stupidity and superstition. Even worse, they might ally with France's nemesis, Britain, acting upon selfish desires. Though some agitated for immediate abolition, most agreed that there had to be some transitive step between the life of the slave and the life of the free citizen.
The fate of the Africans, and all People of Color, in the French colonies reflects the true nature of Regeneration. When secularized, the term reveals a kind of violence. Overseers need to remain present until enlightenment might gradually occur, a kind of conversion experience. Perhaps donning the tri-color and reciting the Rights of Man is a form of baptism, but, like children, these slaves must await confirmation until they can partake of the sacrifice of the Republic, namely the full rights of citizenship.
Granted, a lot of self interest went into these rhetorical exercises. Clearly, some were afraid of losing a lot of money if slaves went off the plantation and shut down the coffee and sugar markets. But, I'd argue that even so, the frame of their argument, even if manipulated, reveals a kind of idea at play. This is clearly a theological concept that has been deployed in a new form to reap new results. Instead of God regenerating the blind sinner into someone holy through the rites of the Church (Rome), Nature regenerates the ignorant peasant into a citizen through the rites of the Nation. These parallels are not contrived, but derivative. The Enlightenment owes a lot to the intellectual underpinnings of the Roman Catholic Church.
But as I've highlighted above, this concept of regeneration contains violence. I think this exists within the theology itself. Regeneration is a word found in the Bible, but the version I'm talking about is a particular concept. It is, in a nutshell, fundamentally that grace restores nature. Now, Rome and many Protestants have agreed to this, but have argued over what this means. Rome, following Augustine, argued that Man is not fully Man without grace, the overabundant gift (donum superadditum). The Reformed tended to argue for the perfection of Man in the Garden. But both explain a catastrophic fall. Both accounts reveal man who has, in some shape or form, lost the image of God.
I argue that such is not in the Bible, and is an inferred concept that fails to explain the shape and flow of the Bible. This primarily my beef, but its secular political outworkings reveal a secondary issue: regeneration is violent. The process involves taking man, who is deficient and broken, and bringing him to a new nature. Yes, it is the nature that rightfully belongs to man, but it is a nature that is foreign to the children of Adam. In Protestant theologies, one sees this in a constant ascription of one's good works beyond oneself. Per Augustine, the good we do belongs to God, while the evil we do belongs to us. Rome is perhaps even more bizarre and contrived, with the doctrine of created grace, meaning that God creates in us a spiritual resource from which we might do the good set out for us. It is our acts, but it originates not from Humanity, but Humanity plus, Man given the necessary donum.
What is violent in these theologies is in the implications of how God relates to Man. Calvinistic theologies that accept this premise are relatively comfortable with the violence of God afflicting Man, dominating and crushing his sinful nature and will to recreate it in new form. Augustinian Roman theology tries to pass this off as in a different manner, highlighting the freeness of the Human will forming the deposit of grace into a habit. But the deposit itself is alien to Human nature qua nature. The donum is always something other than Man, but deemed necessary for Man. This can sound liberal, unless one appreciates the magnitude of insufficiency for Man to be Man. This kind of theology ultimately denies that Man's creatureliness is sufficient for the Image of God. The Fall must be catastrophic and yet a Felix Culpa, a round a bout ways to achieve the donum we never had.
In theology, a certain violence surrounds this, perhaps rightfully, and it fits within certain trajectories one sees in secularized, or pseudo secularized variants. I am not arguing for a causative connection, only an intellectual comfortability. In the same vein as above, I think the slaves and slave catechism reveals this phenomenon. There was a sense of tutorage between the missionary and the enslaved. This phenomenon existed in Jesuit and Anglican plantations, where freedom was a far off goal, perhaps never achievable, whereas the state of slavery may be a place for the instruction of Christianity. If Man is fundamentally broken and not truly Man, this might appear in a way to denigrate those who lack regeneration. This might involve a kind of alienation from the community of the righteous, defined along political terms. Or this might say that Man is never good enough as Man. Torture, beatings, sleeplessness, anything is necessary to push Man beyond himself in activating the donum the Church may administer. The Slave is encouraged towards freedom, even as his body is under the domain of another.
Fundamentally, Grace restoring Nature may be a problematic, if subtle, teaching. It might be a font of justifications for torture, brain-washing, and all kinds of coercive transformation.
I want to consider an alternative. Following Athanasius, perhaps it might be theologically richer to discuss grace activating nature. The problem is not in Human nature, but in a person's inability to enact it. Theoretically, this means Mankind is in fact Mankind, even if we are not capable of being transformed into such. This is fundamentally what is accomplished in the Incarnation, where Jesus Christ takes up Human nature, not to restore it,as if it was ontologically damaged (though perhaps epistemically unverifiable). Rather, Christ fulfills it, being fully Man and, in doing so as the Son, unleashes the Human image from the Devil's clutches. This is a cosmic victory that is true, today, tomorrow, forever, ever since the day when Christ took up flesh.
This is not an atonement theory, and thus is nowhere Pelagian or Abelardian. I am not explaining how Christ vanquishes our sins and overcomes the Devil, but how He, in doing so as Man, restores to us the ability to live in light of this. What this does is make sense of the Fall in terms that better befit the Bible. Nowhere does it say Man lost his status as Image of God, yet we hardly see men revealing such an Image. Instead, we see Mankind behaving as if they were beasts. Romans 1 is the gamut run of Human history. Human nature doesn't need fixing or add-ons, instead it needs to be freed to be Human Nature. And this is victory is not something anyone else can instantiate or accomplish. It's already done.
What the grace of God does, being as that is the presence and working of God in all the facets of our life, is open up paths to fulfill the fundamental desires of being Human, which include being a royal priesthood, living a life of virtue. The difference from Grace restoring Nature is subtle, but the major point is that the redeemed life comes from within Humanity's capacities, rather than outside. Again, this is not talking about salvation, but how one does the good works that God had set out for him to do. Righteous living is not alien to Human nature, nor is it something in addition to Human nature.
There is violence in this account, but it is the violence of the person waking up. This approach is not so different than Charles Wesley's hymn where, awaking in a dungeon flamed with light, chains drop off, and the man is free to go. I am not saying the Wesleys, Methodism, or Anglicanism possessed this Athanasian twist, or understood it, but it might have. But unlike the hymn, to come awake in a prison-break is a frightening ordeal. There are many demon captors, there sins and fantastical desires that seek to re-enslave. It's a warzone to get out alive. But the crucial point is that God had ordained us to escape the prison, He took flesh to be the Stronger Man to overcome the Strong Man and plunder his house.
How this cashes out is the difference of a person becoming a person as a process of inner enlivening, or an alien force bringing life. Is my righteousness activate by grace, or does grace have to strip me and rebuild me, brick by brick, from something (however diminished) familiar to something alien?
How one answers this is how one explains how moral reforms actually work. When secularized, the latter approach must be a continually alien encounter, where brain-washing and propaganda makes sense, in certain extreme scenarios. The former approach sees moral reform in terms of self-mastery in the image of Christ. Again, the difference is subtle. In today's prison-moral mentality, the external constraints have been internalized to become indistinguishable. But, to claim an Athanasian approach, no matter how internalize the external approach, such is and will always be an idol and cannot stand indefinitely in the chamber of the heart.
As I've said, these are reflections upon subtle meanings and movements of particular doctrines. I am not collapsing thought-patterns with Human intention, the two remain distinct. I hope only to highlight historical episodes where secularized and institutionalized uses of the doctrine show the flaws I think exist within it, but remain invisible to a dogmatician. If we better understand Human nature and the saving work of Christ, perhaps it will give us a discerning eye for social phenomena that have become warped deployments of doctrine.
Thank God for St. Athanasius, and may we learn from this great father of the faith.