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The Brink

Confronting the Existential Crisis of Political Theology

The rise of political theology in the twenty-first century is correlated to the eclipse of liberation theology in the twentieth—but recent works by Michael Hogue, Adam Kotsko and Karen Bray suggest the emergence of a futural theopolitics challenging the sacred/secular binary.

In this prolonged season of death and terror, it was perhaps easy to overlook the loss of Ernesto Cardenal, the mystic, poet, priest, and liberation theologian who died at 95 in March 2020. In the 1960s, Cardenal and residents of the Nicaraguan archipelago Solentiname celebrated collaborative masses, created art, debated Marxist theory, practiced communal agriculture, and supported the revolution.

Following the Sandinistas’ victory, Cardenal was named Minister of Culture, over Pope John Paul II’s strenuous objections. When the globetrotting Pope visited Nicaragua in 1983, Cardenal was present in the receiving line and knelt to kiss the Pope’s ring. John Paul wagged his finger angrily in Cardenal’s face, yielding one of the iconic images in the storied history of liberation theology. Defiant and utopian, Ernesto Cardenal represented the holistic vision that the gospel invites the oppressed to liberate themselves, to shape a “new human being” freed from structural misery, and to forge a society modeled on the reign of God, filled with justice, beauty, and hope.

Yet, that dream was dashed. Cardenal himself eventually conceded: “liberation theology is in crisis. Capitalism won. Period. What more can be said?” Reflecting on Cardenal’s lament, Miguel De La Torre writes in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology that liberation theology became inadequate to the “new, neoliberal world order” (40-41). While liberation theology’s star has faded, recent years have witnessed a resurgence of political theology. Yet unlike liberation theology, political theology can claim no unifying ethic, methodology or hermeneutic. During an AAR panel discussion in 2019, theologian J. Kameron Carter expressed his bafflement regarding the identity of the field: “I think ‘political theology’ is a term people use when they want to sound cool.”

Political theology is embroiled in an existential crisis regarding its critical and constructive tasks. Three recent books showcase the crisis facing the discipline, while also challenging one of its widely-shared assumptions, namely that there exists a binary of traditioned/secular or confessional/non-confessional political theology. Michael Hogue, in American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World, suggests political theology involves “the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of ultimately orienting symbols and practices” (16). Adam Kotsko, in Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital, defines political theology as “the study of systems of legitimacy, of the ways that political, social, economic, and religious orders maintain their explanatory power” (8). Kotsko here confines the task of political theology to critique, leaving re/construction aside altogether. Karen Bray, in Grave Attending:A Political Theology for the Unredeemed, mediates between the two, offering “a bipolar hope: a depressive attention to what is and a manic chance at what might be” (194).

The approaches of resilient hope in Hogue, unrelenting suspicion in Kotsko, and despairing solidarity in Bray are complementary dispositions for confronting political theology’s existential crisis. The texts invite us to ask: how might political theologians take human and planetary catastrophe seriously enough, without allowing our theological work to devolve into intellectual hipsterism, a knowing cynicism far too jaded to tarry with hope, too cool for talk of liberation?

The only point of consensus when it comes to “political theology” is that its disciplinary boundaries are uncertain. The Cambridge Companion’s editors note the field’s revival has yielded a variety of approaches, unified only in their “having something vaguely to do with how the theological and the political impinge upon one another” (xi). Vincent Lloyd, in Race and Political Theology, states that, broadly speaking, “political theology” deals with “religion and politics” while in the narrowest sense it refers to Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s thesis that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (36). Gary Dorrien’s Social Democracy in the Making challenges one standard genealogy, arguing that Christian socialisms in Britain and Germany “paved the way” for liberation theologies of the twentieth century. Dorrien is amazed that “a great deal of contemporary religious thought proceeds as though Christian socialism never happened and Carl Schmitt invented political theology” (3). And Lloyd notes that Political Theology was originally subtitled “The Journal of Christian Socialism” (8).

Neither is there consensus regarding what is meant by “theology.” The editors of the Wiley Blackwell Companion name a distinction between “secular” and “traditioned” political theology (3); Luke Bretherton’s Christ and the Common Life identifies a “division between confessional and nonconfessional approaches to political theology.” Yet “confessional,” for Bretherton, entails “confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior”; he further asserts the primacy of the Bible and the creeds for political theological construction (17, 21). None of the three texts I will consider meet Bretherton’s criteria. Yet if they are not “confessional,” neither could they fairly be called “secular.”

Finally, Black, Latinx, feminist, womanist, and postcolonial political theologies insist that “the political” is inseparable from histories of imperialism, race, and gender. Lloyd notes that “political theology is haunted by race” (7), and Carter observes that “the problem of modern political theology is bound up with the performance of whiteness” (98). Yet among these theologians too we see disagreement regarding the ends of political theology. M. Shawn Copeland insists, “Black theologies must be and are political—and not for the liberation of black peoples only, but for the liberation of humanity” (264). Yet De La Torre has given up on liberation, calling for an ethics that “screws with” social structures, “creating disorder and chaos” (41).

Neoliberalism’s emergence coincided with that of poststructuralist philosophies that warned against uncritically adopting Enlightenment values, “universalizing” discourses, and essentialist identity claims. Michel Foucault puts the point clearly: “Recent liberation movements suffer from the fact that they cannot find any principle on which to base the elaboration of a new ethics,” and thus reproduce dominant “scientific” assumptions (231). Elsewhere Foucault insists that we “turn away from all projects that claim to be global or radical,” since these invite “the return of the most dangerous traditions” (46). If the neoliberal takeover dealt a materially lethal blow to liberation theology, Foucault perhaps delivered the philosophical coup de grâce.

Yet the three works I will consider were published shortly after Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz declared that neoliberalism is dead. They emerged around the time when Trumpism, a global pandemic, and the largest protest movement in American history have changed the terms of politics forever. Perhaps, then, these texts augur a reconvergence between political theology and the once-dashed dream of liberation.

Hogue takes aim at an American “redeemer symbolic” undergirding exceptionalist narratives that justify the dehumanization of peoples and limitless resource extraction. This narrative has undergone a series of theological mutations, from the Puritan “sacred covenant” of a “city on a hill,” to an Enlightenment “social contract,” and finally the “neoliberal missiology of American hegemony.” Under neoliberalism human relationality is reduced to the “competitive, transactional, and contractual,” and common goods are supplanted by private interests (22-53).

Yet Hogue recovers a dissenting American “immanental tradition” of pragmatic naturalism, radical empiricism, and process thought casting human beings not as exceptional but as emergent, contingent, and interdependent. This tradition reconceives thinking (John Dewey), feeling (William James), and valuing (Alfred North Whitehead). Dewey undercut bifurcations such as nature vs. culture, perceiving how dualistic logics underwrite social hierarchies; the pragmatic naturalism he espoused called instead for an experimental “conjunctive epistemology” (81-85). James challenged the reductive cognitivist model of “experience”; his radical empiricism included also affective, relational, and precognitive elements (92-94). And Whitehead denied that entities hold discrete essences because all things are always already “intrarelated” (101); therefore, human beings have personal value only in relation to the universe.

From our intrarelatedness Hogue derives a theory of moral responsibility. For “what we do to the Earth and to the myriad of more-than-human forms of life, we do to ourselves” (117). While he maintains that “nature has no other,” religiousness is for Hogue an orientation toward ultimacy and vulnerability amidst a vast universe with which we are fundamentally interdependent. In this way Hogue can affirm “the whole cosmos rings with [revelation], from the subatomic to the interstellar, from the unicellular to the civilizational” (141). Hogue discerns in recent decentralized social movements openings toward “resilient democracy” signaling new forms of revolutionary creativity. The Anthropocene crisis renders future prospects radically uncertain, but, as the immanental tradition affirms, “uncertainty is also the birthplace of possibility” (177).

Where Hogue reconstructs a dissenting tradition, Adam Kotsko lingers instead within the inner sancta of neoliberalism. “The political theology of neoliberalism is grounded in freedom as its ultimate concern” (36). Yet neoliberalism offers a highly curated form of freedom, for the state plays an active role in protecting existing market configurations (see the 2008 financial bailout). Neoliberal “freedom” is heavily circumscribed, where those struggling under wretched conditions must be saddled with the illusion of choice, so they can be blamed for their own irresponsibility when they fail. Kotsko interprets this move theologically, as a form of demonization: An omnipotent-omniscient God surely created Satan and other demons with full knowledge that they would sin precisely as they did. Yet the illusion of choice is necessary so that God can righteously punish them. Neoliberalism, Kotsko writes, adopts the same justificatory strategy: “To demonize is to set someone up to fall, providing them with just the barest sliver of agency necessary to render them blameworthy” (83-4). The theology of demonization and redemption applies not only to “workers” generally but to many marginalized persons such as “gay men who ‘choose’ to expose themselves to AIDS [and] black men who ‘choose’ not to display the impossible level of instant abject submission demanded by police” (89).

Neoliberalism is thus “a totalizing world order” which “has progressively transformed our world into a living hell.” Yet despite his unrelenting suspicion, Kotsko discerns “a paradoxical glimmer of hope” in a growing rejection of the neoliberal system, notably among young people (95-6). Kotsko is mindful of the need for a “genuine alternative” (96), but cautious about specifying what this new social order might be, other than “we will know that it is a new paradigm when we find ourselves building it.” He concludes that the death of the neoliberal God should be celebrated, and that the future paradigm of political theology is a humanistic one which “will not seek to resurrect a dead God” because “no one can deliver us from this body of death but us” (143-4).

Karen Bray brings process thought, affect, crip, and queer theories, and Black studies into conversation to ask what neoliberalism feels like. Our society expects us to be “productive, efficient, happy, and flexible,” or else we are “marked as worthless.” Rather than “rush toward redemption,” Bray argues we must fully experience feelings of “grief, rage, depression, and anxiety” before authentic hope might emerge (2, 4, 27).

Just as crip theory seeks not inclusion but disruption of the terms of the able-bodied paradigm, so Bray rejects neoliberal demands for productivity and happiness. Depression can manifest as “extreme sensitivity to the world.” And Bray argues that “our greatest agential and ethical hope” can be found in becoming “ever more sensitively oriented toward one another” (25, 61).

It is this practice, a “Holy Saturday theology” that refuses redemption, that Bray calls “grave attending,” a responsiveness to the complex emotions we experience as neoliberal subjects (10). Rather than awaiting the exodus, the messiah, or a revolution, Bray asks what radical possibilities are opened by “the slowdown of exhaustion” and “quotidian acts of refusal” (84-5). Bray also situates herself as a white woman in the context of “climates of antiblackness and coloniality” operative even at her own academic institution (186). Drawing on the refusal within Black studies either to redeem the holds of the slave ship or to allow it the last word, Bray suggests that “to atone is to attune; it is to pay greater attention, to materially attend to all those for whom we were never supposed to stand” (192).

I situated the resurgence of political theology in relation to the eclipse of liberation theology and poststructuralist critiques. Yet in critiquing liberation Foucault says, “I prefer the very specific transformations” of recent years regarding gender relations, insanity and illness, “partial transformations” rather than grandiose “programs for a new man” (26-7). I suggest that Hogue, Kotsko, and Bray offer helpful dispositions for what De La Torre calls “screwing with” the system. None offers a ready-made program for liberation. Instead, all three commend a coalitional politics foregrounding the leadership of marginalized persons, and a creatively open-ended posture toward what comes.

They each offer different tools for the struggle. Kotsko’s unrelenting suspicion helps to interrogate the world-ordering theologies already at work in our social structures. Suspicion alone, however, does not produce socially just outcomes. Therefore, it should be balanced with Hogue’s resilient hope which “take[s] the American ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy seriously enough to think that they ought to be more fully realized” (9). We must also acknowledge the possibility that these American ideals are themselves “irredeemable,” that supremacism goes all the way down. For this reason we also need Bray’s despairing solidarity which begins in what Christina Sharpe calls “the wake of slavery” (187) and refuses the cheap grace of redemption’s escape.

The postures of resilient hope, unrelenting suspicion, and despairing solidarity are also helpful in disrupting sacred/secular, confessional/nonconfessional binaries. Unlike the mid-twentieth-century Black freedom struggle, today’s decentralized social justice movements are not predominantly Christian; instead, they reflect a generational change in which 40% of millennials (and an even higher percentage of Gen Z) now identify as religiously unaffiliated. Yet with regard to religion and ideology, let us not confuse young people’s agnosticism with apathy. Works like Hogue’s, which find revelation ringing in the cosmos, and Kotsko’s, which identify Christian rhetorics that make life a living hell for young people, and Bray’s, which locate sacrality and power within depression and anxiety, can meaningfully speak to a generation of seekers who are resilient and hopeful, who are unrelentingly suspicious, and who find solidarity in sharing the burden of despair.

If we cannot create a “new humanity,” we can at least learn from the past. Where Cardenal envisioned “liberation” in straightforward Christian Marxist terms, these works by Hogue, Kotsko and Bray display a political-theological agnosticism. Though clearly left-aligned, they offer no revolutionary recipes. Theologically they are “not confessional, but not secular,” and in that sense display a political-theological affinity with the growing population of “spiritual, but not religious.” In place of definitive doctrine and ideology, they offer dispositional openness. Yet they retain the crucial liberationist belief that the principal tasks of theology are to assist in the alleviation of social suffering and to join in the imagination and creation of a more just society. May all of us be emboldened to write the kind of thing that, even if it doesn’t save the world, might at least cause a Pope to shake his finger in our faces.

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