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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.

Ernst Bloch

In many ways, Bloch’s work inverts the classic dictum of political theology advanced by Carl Schmitt, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” For Bloch, theological concepts are intimations of the freedom of the secular and revolutionary socialist society.

Roberto Esposito

In Esposito’s most explicit political theology work, he is concerned with re-working, or rather destabilizing, the essence of political theology.

Jean-Luc Nancy

The subtlety and poetry of Nancy’s language can mask the rigor and the urgency of his thinking. I hope to share that rigor and urgency here, particularly as it relates to global capitalism, Christianity, and ontology.

Adriana Cavarero

Cavarero’s feminist theory of nonviolence takes the biblical commandment of “Thou Shall Not Kill” as its starting point. This commandment is ethical (it is about one’s relationships with others) and religious (it is about one’s relationship with God), but it is also political (without it, political communities cannot exist).

Frank Wilderson III

Wilderson doesn’t use the term “zombies” in his work. But his afropessimist stance includes a set of concepts—social death, gratuitous violence, sentient (but not living) existence—that could be easily applied to any episode of The Walking Dead.

Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe’s work excavates the legacies of colonial reason and violence shaping the powers of death in the world today.

Julia Kristeva

Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach and practice shed light on the unconscious, affective, and bodily formation(s) of religious and political discourses and systems.

Marcella Althaus-Reid

Althaus-Reid’s work asks whether Political Theology is capable of accounting for the power of sex, a power that comes to the fore if the theologian focuses on queer bodies.

Cedric Robinson

Vega focuses on three Robinsonian concepts that are useful for political theology: racial capitalism, Black radical tradition, and African metaphysics.

Michel Henry

What [Henry’s] oeuvre offers political theology is a reimagining of what constitutes life together—an attention to Life and thereby, spirituality.

Anibal Quijano

Quijano reimagines the long-lasting and contemporary status of colonialism seen through the lenses of race, modernity/rationality, and economic exploitation, encouraging us to produce theological and political critiques from the ever-enduring nature of coloniality.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler’s work has altered the trajectories of multiple disciplines in the last thirty years; what can they teach scholars of political theology?