The following is the second of a pair of roundtable commentaries on the state of political theology today. The first by Ted Smith was published by PTT on September 16, 2016. These commentaries originated as contributions to a panel discussion at the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta in November 2015. A similar roundtable will be offered on the program of the AAR in 2016 in San Antonio.
If there is a “field” of political theology, I would say, at the risk of over simplifying, that it has been dominated by three trends over the last 10 years.
These are: 1) uses of Carl Schmitt to diagnose and analyze problems of democracy (on the right and the left)2) reimaginations of the political using Christian theological ideas, or Christian-inflected political theory (the work of John Milbank, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek comes to mind) 3) political theory and philosophy outside of religious studies that analyzes the role of religion in the secular. These are split somewhat unevenly between the constructive and the analytical, with the weight on the constructive.
More recently, into this mix we have had the welcome critique of the supercessionism of Christian-inflected political theologies; the race-critical, gender-critical, and postcolonial critique of universalizing discourses in political theory and theology; and more participation of religious scholars who are not theologians bringing their knowledge of particular traditions and contexts to the exploration of political theology. Within this mix, I’d like to highlight two under-utilized resources: biblical studies and gender and sexuality studies.
Until now, scholarship on the Bible has for the most part been used to construct Christian, or less often Jewish, political theologies, while gender and sexuality have (sometimes) been lenses by which to critically analyze theopolitical practices. These roles could profitably be switched, especially if the field is to de-center hetero-patriarchal, supercessionist Christianity as a universalizing norm. Gender and sexuality (with attention to how these are inflected through race, and ethnicity) could be recognized as foundational to theopolitical formations and necessary to the reshaping of political theology’s methodologies. At the same time, the attention to uses of scripture(s) could be used to help deconstruct political and religious philosophies that create and hide systemic injustices.
Yes, gender and sexuality are central to the intersection of religion and politics and not special interests, or “topics in” them. Yet even now, the integration of gender and sexuality into political theology is still in an additive phase instead of being fully integrated into the analysis. This is where the field needs to grow. What is forgotten is that as far back as the mid 1980s, feminist scholars of religion and feminist postcolonial anthropologists were doing work that was not called political theology, but was aware of the inextricability of religion from culture and therefore from politics.
These scholars paid particular attention to the intersections of religion, gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity with politics. And although it is not always recognized, this work has also strongly influenced the study of religion and has contributed to the turn away from sui generis religion, which in turn affects how we do political theology.
Put another way, the lived differences of gender and sexuality, along with race and ethnicity should not just be seen as issues for analysis of specific political formation (la politique)—which political theologians, like political theorists, may have tended to dismiss as less significant than the more abstract le politique. Rather, we should understand difference as integral to the study of more abstract theorizations of the political order.
How can we deal with any of the most pressing issues in the shaping of the political today—within and across borders–without dealing with gender and sexuality, as also intersected by race and ethnicity? This is an obvious point, but we cannot think about the structure of the political, or about revolutionary politics, or the shape of social justice without thinking about embodied effects and experience. If it is to be more than an academic exercise, political theory and political theology needs to wrestle with political formations and injustices implicated in, invested in, or predicated on race, ethnicity, sex, gender, as well as the more traditional category of class.
So how do we accomplish analyses that integrate la (théo)politique into considerations of le (théo)politique? I find helpful the definition of political theology in Vincent Lloyd’s introduction to Race and Political Theology. He argues that the work of political theology is “to make vulnerable the political and the theological through engagement with text and context” (17). This phrase “making vulnerable” catches so much—it is about critical description, analysis, and exposure; it is also about power, accountability and destabilization. It resists the temptation to simply valorize religion as a model for the political. The language of vulnerability turns the usual power dynamics on their head; now those (religiously informed) systems that create vulnerability—for instance in the form of the sexualized raced political subject—are themselves held accountable by critical investigation.
In my own approach, I have found the work of Gayatri Spivak to be particularly helpful. She suggests looking for what she calls subreption—places where truth claims appear independent of the conditions that allow them to emerge. In literary terms, she suggests looking for metalepsis, the literary or discursive chain of cause and effect that produces truth claims, but is forgotten. Put another way, she urges us in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason to look at how “truth” hides its tracks and its dirty wars—to look for the hidden power dynamics behind assertions of truth, or unexamined political theologies.
It is along these lines that biblical studies (influenced by feminism, postcolonialism, and minority critiques) can offer analyses of scripture in politics for the working of power and the inscription of embodied difference. The real contribution of biblical studies to political theology should be genealogical, investigating subreption and highlighting forgotten power dynamics.
The recent turn to biblical reception history in biblical studies can help with this work, as can the (very slow) broadening of biblical studies from focus on limited Jewish and Christian canons to the study of sacred texts more broadly. We can identify points in the history of reception of religious texts that allow them to influence, ground, and validate political formations as they do. We can identify the philosophical and political debates that shape the way texts are known and understood, even as these debates are forgotten.
The task is then to map out the constellations of historical and contemporary political philosophies that metaleptically circulate around the use of the Bible and other scriptural texts in politics. If we do this we can start to see something new about the shaping of the political in the contemporary moment. As it turns out many of the uses of scriptures in contemporary politics are concerned with sexuality. So we need to see how biblicized political debates about specific embodiments—say for instance non-normative sexualities—connect with other power dynamics.
There are a number of people doing this work of looking at how understanding scriptural interpretation and reception makes the political vulnerable and looking at how analysis of the political puts pressure on received modes of biblical interpretation (to name just a few – Caroline Blyth, Roland Boer, Elizabeth Castelli, James Crossley, Gregory Cuéllar, Jione Havea, Jacqueline Hidalgo, Tat-siong Benny Liew, Joe Marchal, Robert Myles, Yosefa Raz, Yvonne Sherwood, Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg, Ken Stone, R.S. Sugirtharajah, Jay Twomey, Gerald West, Vincent Wimbush, Gale Yee, myself, and others). Interestingly what drives much of this work are questions of the effect of the Bible on the specific embodiments gender, sexuality, race, and class.
For the most part, though, these conversations seem to be in parallel with those of political theology, rather than integrated into them. Often it seems that biblical studies is sidelined in the crossfire of the legitimate criticism of the focus on Christianity and the more naive boredom with the seeming familiarity of the Bible.
It may also be that the difficulty in integrating biblical studies into political theology is a problem of graduate programs and job openings, which may be a problem for political theology more generally. One of the things that is so difficult about engaging political theology via any sub-discipline is the sheer scope of possibility both for subject matter and method. There is much to be accountable to when one broaches the intersection of religion and politics: questions of religious tradition and texts (which may require learning languages), historical knowledge, political knowledge and theory, knowledge of economics, knowledge of the fields of gender and sexuality studies or race and ethnic studies, knowledge of cultural studies and media studies, and awareness in the latest scholarly thinking in the humanities, for instance on affect, the posthuman, new materialisms etc. How many graduate programs within Religious Studies are able to train people this way?
Within programs that contain biblical studies, I would venture to say that there are very few. Most biblical scholars doing this work are at undergraduate liberal arts colleges, precisely because of the openness to interdisciplinarity that exists there in ways that are different than the subspecialty and historical critical demands of R1 institutions.
So to sum up: political theology would do well to theorize how specific religious ideas and embodied practices can constructively make systems of power vulnerable and how analyses of scriptural substrates and influence can destabilize the logics that shore up these systems of power. Biblical studies and reception history can help, and the founding influence of gender, sexuality, race and postcolonial studies should be made central. These are challenges both for individual scholars, for the field, and for graduate programs.
Erin Runions is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Pomona College. Her most recent book is The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty (Fordham University Press, 2014).