We began work on this Reader with the realization that there was no recent collection of readings in contemporary political theology. Our moment is complex and difficult to come to grips with. It is characterized by God refusing to go away, with people of numerous faiths not taking the much-touted, purely secular politics lying down. Whether one sees this as a recent development (post-9/11, say) or the way things have always been depends largely on one’s perspective. Do the most pressing questions have to do with Christian theology’s inherent and ineradicable relevance to all things political (human well-being, the nature of power, and so on)? Or do they have to do with the reverse—the fundamentally theological nature of politics, even where religious questions have been thought most successfully to have been purged from it? It will take more than a reader to answer such questions, but collecting a wide variety of voices in one place can help us understand why we are now faced with them.
“I think China has to face the fact that Mao was a monster, one of the worst people in human history … You’ve got to break the spell.” So spoke Robert Bellah in a recent interview while promoting yet another book, Religion in Human Evolution. We’ll return to Chairman Mao in a moment, but first a few comments about Bellah’s old-fashioned position.
In an age when nothing is sacred nothing is more difficult to understand than violations of sacred space. Yet that’s precisely what Mark demands of us in his account of Jesus’ first public action, an exorcism in the synagogue.
From the moment Jesus sets foot in the religious and political center of Capernaum, he is engaged in a contest with the scribes over authority concerning that space itself and all that it represents. It’s clear from the beginning that his audacious move catches the attention of everyone. The people notice: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (1:22).
I should add, from a Christian point of view, liberty is neither a virtue nor an ideal. History is ripe with examples of how liberty may turn to tragedy for individuals as well as for whole peoples and civilizations. Nonetheless, there is, it seems, a stubborn fact: in the soul of one who is not free there can neither be reason, nor beauty, nor love. One could say that a man doesn’t really exist as a man without these, and can’t even begin to comprehend the divine. Shortly before his death Christ told his disciples: “Unless I go the cross, the Holy Spirit will not come to you.” And do you know why? Because as long as there is some higher authority, be it even God personified, from whom men simply take words as facts, as some kind of a command, then they are not acting according to their own free will. And community with the Holy Spirit is reserved for free souls. Without freedom, love is impossible.
Personal control over one’s body is an essential pre-condition of ethical behavior, and reproduction is one of the most important and private aspects of bodily function any person has.
Drone warfare also continues the attitude towards technology that has marked the history of aerial warfare, the attitude that we need just one more technical fix to make it work the way we think it should. The history of warfare in the twentieth century is replete with advantages gained with a new technology but these advantages did not last long. Should we assume that nowhere in the world is there a group of bright engineers trying to design and produce a counter to the drone? We do so at our peril.
Commenting on the role of the state in a recent article in the Church Times (UK), John Milbank as one the leaders of Radical Orthodoxy says that the state has no goals “save its economic power and no interest in the person save as an atomised cog in a well-oiled machine”. In other words, it is hard to see how the state contributes anything other than an instrumental approach to the affairs and concerns of its citizens. Such a negative and dismissive interpretation of the state seems the predominant view not only within influential sources in theology but also from the realms of more radical political philosophy. Why is this so and is it a satisfactory and adequate understanding? If it is not, what alternative approach might be adopted by a Political Theology?
The world is ever changing and God calls Christians of every time and every place to be a part of this change. While often misread as a call to abandon the world, this weeks reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one of many of these calls contained within Scripture — urging Christians who are in the world to change the way in which we interact with and thus influence the world.
The business of religion, to use that unfortunate turn of phrase, is to change the world. The theo-political implication of radical democracy is that we cannot wait for a God to save us. If democracy indeed is the political instantiation of the death of God, then this is a task that is ours alone.
It’s easy to see why Santorum might appeal to some culturally conservative Catholics and moderate evangelicals who are wary of Democrats but also turned off by the Republican Party’s cozy embrace of economic libertarianism and tireless defense of struggling millionaires. Santorum is more comfortable with communitarian language, has been a strong supporter of foreign aid to impoverished countries and connects with personal stories of his blue-collar upbringing. But it’s a political delusion to think Rick Santorum is a standard-bearer of authentic Catholic values in politics. In fact…