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Intro to a New Reader in Contemporary Political Theology

We began work on this Reader with the realization that there was no recent collection of readings in contemporary political theology. Our moment is complex and difficult to come to grips with. It is characterized by God refusing to go away, with people of numerous faiths not taking the much-touted, purely secular politics lying down. Whether one sees this as a recent development (post-9/11, say) or the way things have always been depends largely on one’s perspective. Do the most pressing questions have to do with Christian theology’s inherent and ineradicable relevance to all things political (human well-being, the nature of power, and so on)? Or do they have to do with the reverse—the fundamentally theological nature of politics, even where religious questions have been thought most successfully to have been purged from it? It will take more than a reader to answer such questions, but collecting a wide variety of voices in one place can help us understand why we are now faced with them.

We began work on this Reader with the realization that there was no recent collection of readings in contemporary political theology. Our moment is complex and difficult to come to grips with. It is characterized by God refusing to go away, with people of numerous faiths not taking the much-touted, purely secular politics lying down. Whether one sees this as a recent development (post-9/11, say) or the way things have always been depends largely on one’s perspective. Do the most pressing questions have to do with Christian theology’s inherent and ineradicable relevance to all things political (human well-being, the nature of power, and so on)? Or do they have to do with the reverse—the fundamentally theological nature of politics, even where religious questions have been thought most successfully to have been purged from it? It will take more than a reader to answer such questions, but collecting a wide variety of voices in one place can help us understand why we are now faced with them.

Nevertheless, calling the collection contemporary was not meant only to give a snapshot of political theology’s landscape at the present moment. We also decided it was important to provide readers with the resources to understand the trends and trajectories that have brought us to where we are. This is the reason we included older readings, such as those by Walter Rauschenbusch, the Niebuhrs, and John Courtney Murray.

We also wanted the selections to cohere in ways that would work well in the classroom. This is a difficult task since “political theology” is, for many of the authors in the Reader, a term used after the fact by others to describe their work and, even worse, is for some a term they would likely reject—and for a variety of reasons.

I decided to use the Reader this semester for an undergraduate seminar I teach called “Church, State, and Society.” I have been matching the themes of many of the readings with chapters from Elizabeth Phillips’s forthcoming book, Political Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed (T&T Clark). For my American students, I am especially eager to see them move beyond the straightforward but misleading idea that we are presented with a variety of options—of how to read and interpret the Bible, how to understand the demands and responsibilities of sovereign power, and so on—from which we must choose. Especially encountering some readings from settings very different from their own, students end up learning lessons about how political contexts are already deeply at work in shaping all of these things. Readings in Dalit, Liberation, Black, and other political theologies help all readers to understand how this works—but especially those who may not have experienced political realities of colonial histories, racism, sexism, and economic oppression in these ways.

In the Europe and North America, it is easy for many to get by assuming that politics and theology occupy two separate spheres. Of course this is not true of the whole of the West. Where the assumption has the strongest hold, it no doubt functions, in fact, as an ideological commitment passed on by those in the position to benefit most directly by it. The margins of western theology demonstrate much more clearly how these spheres deeply influence each other, and even sometimes coincide exactly.

This mutual interpenetration of the theological and the political is something we tried to highlight throughout, but it plays an especially large role in the readings we selected for a section called “Reading the Bible Politically.” Some of these readings reflect on how the Bible functions in the postcolonial settings of Latin America and India. We also included an excerpt from Ernesto Cardenal’s The Gospel in Solentiname from the 1970s in which Nicaraguan campesinos discuss what Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) means amidst and for their political and economic oppression.

The fact that Christianity’s center of gravity moved dramatically from the global North to the global South in the span of the twentieth century is just one of the realities we wanted to take seriously with this Reader. We were grateful for the help of key experts like Walter Brueggemann, Emilie Townes, and George Hunsinger who wrote introductions to each of the eleven sections. Our hope is that readers will find the resources here to engage more fully with our contemporary world and the Christian faith.

Craig Hovey, Ph.D. is assistant professor of religion at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. He is the author of Bearing True Witness: Truthfulness in Christian Practice (Eerdmans, 2011), Nietzsche and Theology (T&T Clark, 2008), To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today’s Church (Brazos, 2008), and Speak Thus: Christian Language in Church and World (Cascade, 2008). Along with William Cavanaugh and Jeffrey Bailey, he is co-editor of An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology (Eerdmans, 2011).

 

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