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Announcing Political Theology 15.2 — Religion and Radicalism

This issue of Political Theology focuses on the theme of “religion and radicalism.” It is one of the fruits of an international research network of the same name, a network that has members from nearly every inhabited continent on the globe.

This issue of Political Theology focuses on the theme of “religion and radicalism.” It is one of the fruits of an international research network of the same name, a network that has members from nearly every inhabited continent on the globe. The network’s nerve centre is the University of Newcastle in Australia, and from that base I and a number of others coordinate its research focus and activities. Thus far, we have held five conferences: Copenhagen (September 2010), Taipei (September 2011), Newcastle, Australia (October 2012), Herrnhut, Saxony (March 2013), and Helsinki – St. Petersburg (September 2013). But what do we mean by religion and radicalism? The underlying theme of this project is to explore the various permutations of the intriguing political ambivalence of religion, especially of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. By ambivalence I mean the simultaneous tendency to support oppressive state apparatuses with alarming ease, but also to foster one revolutionary movement after another.

In our project, we seek to answer the following questions. How exactly should we understand the call to social and personal transformation in the “religions of the book” (Hebrew shuv, Greek metanoia, Arabic tawbah)? Is religion a reactionary force or does it involve revolutionary potentiality? Or is religion, particularly the Abrahamic religions, fundamentally twofold, originally based on a revolutionary event but developed into a power system of the Church? Is this the reason why revolutions tend to run into the mud, fostering even more oppressive regimes in their wake?  Or is the very power of the Church based on fidelity to the revolutionary event of its origin? What about religious doctrines? In the Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul proclaims that every person should be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13), while in the same letter he observes that we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Further, in Acts 5:29 we may read the Apostles’ collective reply to the high priest who charged them not to preach in the name of Christ: “We must obey God rather than men.” Indeed, does not religion open up a transcendent dimension of freedom within the immanence of political order? Or is it precisely this transcendent dimension of freedom – but also that of secrecy (arcana) – that is needed in order to legitimize clerical and political power? Presumably, there is no definitive answer to these questions, for it is quite obvious that we have to take into account historical contexts: it is probable that same religious principles that empower revolutionary militants can be used by the established Churches in order to suppress them. Or is it? Our project may in the end be able to answer all of these questions, but our real desire is not so much to provide definitive answers but to shift the debate so that new questions may be asked.

The project has two distinct emphases in its exploration of the ambivalence between the radical and reactionary potential of religion. One is more theoretical, engaging with and seeking to move beyond the current intersections between philosophy and theology. The other is concerned with what may be called case studies in the long and rich history of this problem. The current issue of Political Theology focuses on the latter. It does so by looking at both sides of the opposition and then troubling their tense relationship. Thus, the study by Sean Durbin deals with the more reactionary side of the tension. He explores the dynamics of identity construction in the many-sided movement known as Christian Zionism. While it is a truism that for groups to gain a clear identity they need an outsider, an enemy to oppose, the specific dynamics of that process in relation to Christian Zionism have not been explored in the way Durbin does. He distinguishes between outsider and insider enemies, the former being Islam and the latter a vast collection of “liberal” Christians and academics, the “mainstream media,” “elites, indeed, anyone else who suggests that Israel is implicated in the problems of the Middle East and that a negotiated solution for a Palestinian state and shared Jerusalem is the way forward. While this opposition provides a clear set of positions for Christian Zionists, it is then complicated by a desire to step back into the Bible, which in its turn provides a language by which to frame the world. The outside enemies (Islam) become scripted in terms of the struggle between Isaac and Ishmael, while the inside enemies are all those complicit in the death of Christ, revealing thereby the subtle workings of Satan against God’s plan.

The second article also concerns the conservative side of the political ambivalence of Christianity, now with a study of the curious body known as the Australian Christian Lobby (established in 1995). This is not a mildly right-wing group, but one that sits at the extreme edge of the religious right. Although it is small, it has made all the right moves to become a significant political lobby group in Australian politics. Its significant achievement has been not only to position itself rhetorically as middle-of-the-road and widely representative of Christian positions, but also to shift what counts as the middle. Through its clever positioning, the right-wing radicalism of the ACL has been able to influence not merely avowedly religious politicians, but even those who have little interest in religion.

The next article by Matthew Sharpe is really a turning point in this issue, for it negotiates the shift to consider left-wing religious radicalism – the other dimension of the political ambivalence noted earlier. However, the topic is somewhat unexpected, for it is none other than the apparently secular and atheistic Albert Camus. Sharpe’s article explores what may be called Camus’ effort to recover the radical dimensions of Christianity from their institutional containment. More specifically, Sharpe studies Camus’ neo-pagan religiosity embodied in a sense of wonder at the majesty of the world; his tackling of the problem of evil, which continues to beset theology, as the basis of modern anti-clericalism and political subversion; his appropriation of the egalitarian ethics of Christianity, without their fashionably secularised eschatological forms that have comprised the common path for so many in the modern era. Each topic is not so much an eclectic appropriation from Christianity, but a struggle with that tradition’s core features.

In Tamara Prosic’s contribution we move from Camus to Eastern European Orthodoxy, which offers a further example of negotiating the political ambivalence of Christianity. Prosic challenges the caricature of Eastern European Orthodoxy as a tradition than tends theologically – through Caesaropapism – to support authoritarianism and autocracy. Or rather, this is a one-sided view, for these tendencies certainly exist within that tradition. In order to explore the other side, Prosic focuses on the doctrine of symphonia. This doctrine delineates the two spheres of responsibility of church and state (much like the Lutheranism). However, in the case of Eastern Orthodoxy, symphonia opens up not only space for support of the emperor, but also the resources for undermining and even overthrowing the state. One need only consider the many currents within the Russian Orthodox Church before and after the Russian Revolution that sympathised with and actively supported the communists to see how such a possibility arises from within Eastern European Orthodoxy.

The final article also touches on the Russian Revolution, but it does so focusing on the thought of the Russian Bolshevik and first Commissar for Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky. In particular, the articles offers a detailed analysis of Lunacharsky’s two-volume Religion and Socialism (1908, 1911), which has mouldered away in obscurity ever since Lenin condemned the first volume in 1908. Yet to be translated into any language, the work pays close attention. This is not merely because of its effort to recover the “warm stream” of Marxism well before Ernst Bloch, not merely because of the understanding of human beings which was deeply shaped by religious traditions, not merely because of his engagement with Christian communism, not merely because of his effort to construct what was called “God-building,” but above all because of his sharp awareness of the political ambivalence of religion. Of course, Lunacharsky clearly wanted to take sides with the progressive, socialist dimensions of religion, for then they would become part of the effort to construct socialism itself.


My hope is that this sample of the work we have been doing with the Religion and Radicalism Network provides an insight into our interests and research agenda. Many have been the discoveries along the way, and many have been the fruitful discussions. We anticipate much more.

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