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Category: Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0

What tools from critical theory are useful for scholarship in political theology, or more generally for thinking in novel ways about the connections between religion and politics? While political theology is increasingly understood as an interdisciplinary field, bringing together scholars of religious traditions and scholars from across the humanities theorizing the connections between religious, political, and secular ideas and practices, the reservoir of contemporary theory and philosophy from which the field draws has often remained relatively narrow, centered on European men such as Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Jacques Derrida – with Carl Schmitt looming in the background.

We started this project with a few names in mind – Achille Mbembe, Adriana Cavarero, Enrique Dussel, Byung-Chul Han, and Julia Kristeva, among others. We put out an open call for essays that would introduce these figures and would point to ways that their work can contribute to conversations in political theology. We were enormously pleased with the enthusiasm and creativity colleagues brought to this project, volunteering to write essays about other important figures and making connections that open up new avenues for research. Contributors range from graduate students to senior faculty members, from secular to ordained clergy, from scholars of literature to political theory to religious studies to theology – reflecting the rich diversity of the Political Theology Network. Collectively, these essays offer a foretaste of where the field of political theology is heading in the decades ahead.

While these essays are focused on political theology, we think that they can be read as resources for broader conversations about theory in the study of religion. Indeed, even scholars with no particular interest in religion will find these brief introductions, complete with annotated bibliographies, helpful guides to entering into the thought of these important figures.

We realize important figures are still missing from this project. We see this project as a living archive, and we welcome proposals for new essays (they can be sent to Alex Dubliet at aleksey.dubilet@vanderbilt.edu and Vincent Lloyd at vincent.lloyd@villanova.edu). We also realize that there are plenty of important theoretical topics and tools that go overlooked by organizing this project around theorists. Indeed, we anticipate a sequel that will focus not on theorists but on key terms that are important for political theology, with particular attention to terms circulating in Black, Indigenous, and feminist studies.

Essays will appear at a rate 1-2 a week over the next few months. After all the essays appear, we will reflect on what the collection as a whole teaches us about the state of the field and its future. We are confident that, in their conceptual diversity, the essays will demonstrate the irreducible importance of theoretical work for any serious understanding of political theology. By helping us focus our attention and questions in novel ways, the theoretical approaches introduced by the essays that follow will help sharpen political theology’s critical edge in its struggle against the injustices of the world.

Refusal

Refusal is a strong current resisting the structure of settler colonialism. It crashes, churns, and erodes the death-dealing dams of settler knowing. Its path turns away from the settler’s gaze.

Money

The triangulation of money, sovereignty, and divinity is a good point of entry to study the mutual constitution of theological and political concepts and the questions about ultimate value and social form that they raise.

Matter

A preliminary question for political theology is how to understand the meaning and significance of matter. The response to this question shapes how a political theology does or doesn’t engage political economy and theological tradition.

Care

If theorizations of care are to more directly address the current “crisis of care,” we need not only to prioritize the kinds of embodied, particularized care that care ethics has highlighted in the past, but to explore a wider range of caring relationships and their diverse structures.

Queer

Queer, I think, should remain different, differing, dissonant, and plural. It shouldn’t contract or calcify into anything singular or solid.

Sympathy

For political theology, we might find ourselves compelled by practices that seek to connect us with our ecologies, our communities, and our relations with ourselves – in ways that are more about humility and provisionality than finding cures or solutions.

Reflections on The Racial Contract

Today marks the one-year anniversary of Charles Mills’ death. To commemorate his life and the 25th anniversary of his influential work, The Racial Contract, we invited scholars to respond to the question: How has The Racial Contract helped you think in new ways about the connections between religion, theology, and politics? Here are their reflections on Mills’ legacy in their own work and beyond.

Personhood

The conversation about nature’s personhood and rights is always political, often legal, and sometimes theological. Most importantly, it is a localized conversation about the boundaries of a given community – who is part of the community and who isn’t.

Mourning

That structural violence is always also relational, proximate, and personal is, perhaps, one of the core insights that the concept of mourning brings to the fore for political theology.

Command/Commandment

The modern state form itself is inextricable from the commandement, not just as an emblem for sovereignty in Schmitt’s sense, but also because the exemplary political form of modernity, the nation-state, has racist and exclusionary tendencies that can be understood as political-theological transfers of monotheistic principles.

Kinship

While kinship has traditionally held a vibrant conceptual life in anthropological inquiry, more recent studies on kinship as a form of spiritual relationality have opened up a new space of interdisciplinary exploration for political theology.

Affect

What is still nascent… is an explicit conversation between political theology and critical theories of affect, particularly in a way that might contribute to constructive projects. The sort of political theology that might emerge from such collaboration would consider how affective regimes intersect with theological constructions or religious performances.