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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.

Thing

Thing as concept can be helpful to elucidate the specific yet ambiguous interaction of the religious and the political. Using recent thingly theoretical work within these two spheres, with an emphasis on body and shape, I will suggest ways through which thing (and things and thingness) both clarifies and challenges that interaction.

Techno-Orientalism

Asian American literary criticism’s analysis of contemporary orientalisms centered around the figuration of Asian subjectivities reminds political theologians that unconscious (white) fear and fascination with the Orient still guides political and theoretical engagement with the Asian “other.”

Gratuitous Violence

Signifying a critical homology between the fields of Black studies and political theology, gratuitous violence is an important keyword for interrogating how religio-political concepts can afford unique insights into issues of slavery, race, and the human which continue to inform our world today.  

Abolition

Abolition is a process of imagining alternatives to the settler colonial, carceral present; it requires modes of kinship and care to replace prisons and policing.

Sovereignty

Where state sovereignty as theology would have subjected groups accept their condition with its attending violence and suffering, the micro sovereignty I propose here – not merely as a futuristic idea, but more as a reflection on how subjected groups have dealt with subjection – invites us not to accept that violence and suffering, but to find creative ways out of it through the cracks of Empire.

Autopoiesis

In autopoiesis, there is no separation between what we do and the particular way in which the world appears to us.

Martyrdom

Facing the violence of contemporary terror, many intellectuals have spoken in our present times about a return of political theology and religion in its violent forms. Attention to the concept of martyrdom has reappeared due to an increasing interest in religious conflicts.

Relationality

Where relationality is most productive in critical projects is where it transcends its projects of critique and explores the possibilities—ethical, political, and theological—of its account of subjectivity and community.

Survivance

Native survivance, in [Gerald] Vizenor’s parlance, is a combination of the words “survival” and “resistance,” and it “creates a sense of presence.” According to him, “The suffix -ance designates a condition, a nature, or a quality that is more than a mere description of survival.”

Critical Theory for Political Theology: From Theorists to Keywords

We launched this series to make available theoretical resources that keep pace with the concerns raised by those working with political theology today, whose interests are increasingly tied not only to questions of genealogy, speculation, and political modernity, but also to questions of race, colonialism, gender, sexuality, disability, ecology, labor, finance capitalism, and economies of affect. 

Lauren Berlant

Berlant is our preeminent contemporary theorist of how intimate practices bleed into and with national formations, and condition specific and powerful fantasies for what a good life or functional society would involve. To read their work is to become attuned to a set of dynamics that can be excavated in any given scene: the attachments being made and unmade, the forms of belonging that flash up and dissolve, the feeling-worlds that mediate everyday life, what remains unfinished.

Hortense Spillers

What would it mean for scholarship in political theology to claim monstrosity? Perhaps it would mean focusing on underappreciated aspects of the Christian tradition, and other religious traditions, particularly those developed by women’s intellectual labor.