Is there a conversation around political theology (as concept, field, method, or however you understand it) from the past twenty years that continues to fascinate you?
As others taking stock of this anniversary of the journal will no doubt point out: Political Theology was founded twenty years ago with the subtitle “A Journal of Christian Socialism.” Its early volumes offered theological analysis of the UK’s New Labour alongside historical retrievals of Anglican divines for contemporary political purposes. This was contextual, political theology emerging from the particular context of the UK at the turn of the century. From this somewhat parochial beginning, it’s fascinating to me to witness the ways another upcoming 20th anniversary, that of the attacks on September 11, 2001 shaped scholarly conversation in and around the journal. Antonie Wessels’s “Faith in the World After 11 September” (2003) presented a first take by reading the attacks as an occasion to reevaluate Western values. What Wessels didn’t anticipate was the depth of that re-evaluation and how it would shape not only geopolitics but the field of political theology. What emerged was not a context-less political theology, but a recognition of the need for a pluralization of contexts. What emerged was a field built on the critical promise of the deconstructive task of critiquing Western and US American messianisms, the comparative task of engaging political Islam, and the constructive task of developing new forms of political life. The special issue “Ten Years after 9/11” (volume 12, issue 5) marks a significant moment in this development. The issue opens with a testimony from Colleen Kelly, a founding member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and includes a roundtable with Amir Hussain, Jean Elshtain, William Cavanaugh, Abdulaziz Sachedina, Tina Beattie, Lenn Goodman, Michael Lerner, and Ted Smith among others. Julie Clague’s introduction to the special issue offers a stunning retrospective of the way the event transformed the field in and beyond the journal. It may, of course, be the conceit of someone for whom 9/11 was not merely a significant milestone but one of the defining moments of my generation, but it seems to me that it represents a defining moment, too, in the development of political theology.
What conversations working with the concept of political theology do you find most fruitful today?
One of the regular sources of excitement for me in working with the Political Theology Network is the way in which scholars drawing on the methods and concepts of political theology thread the needle between pluralism and tradition. Two works in political theology I think do this powerfully are Vincent Lloyd’s Black Natural Law and Kelly Brown Douglas’s Stand Your Ground. Both draw upon traditions of moral and political reasoning that have the power to critique regnant values while also intervening constructively on those traditions to render new possibilities for political life. Neither offers a blithe or hegemonic pluralism, both work constructively with internally plural traditions. I have the pleasure of editing the writing of scholars, religious leaders, and activists who are working in this dialectic between tradition and pluralism on our website. Recent symposia on Love and Politics, Public Art as Political Theology, and #MeToo and Political Theology are all exemplary in this regard.
Where do you hope to see discussions of political theology in 20 years?
Like the events and aftermath of September 11th shaped the field, I expect that in the next twenty years scholars working in political theology will attend with increasing urgency to the ecological transition we are currently living through. The oceans will continue to rise, fresh water sources and ecological biodiversity will continue to shrink, and the flows of climate refugees and costs of climate change will continue to increase. And that all will happen if we do everything we can to mitigate climate change now. Scholars working in ecology and religion have focused most often on the tasks of critiquing the anthropocentric cosmologies that enable resource extractive turbo-capitalism and have called for alternative earth-based theologies. But, as Anna Peterson and Willis Jenkins have argued, this ideational fixation emerges from a naive social theory and therefore call for greater attention to practice. Political theology, it seems to me, offers a constructive way to attend to the coimbricating entailment of ideas and practices, especially when it comes to the challenge of climate catastrophe. As I have told my students in a course I taught last spring titled “Ecoapocalypse”: we are living in the time of the end. It may not be the end of the human species, but certainly is an ending of the world as we know it. The question for us, and for the field of political theology, is how do we wish to live in the end? Answering this question will require attention not just to practices or ideas, but to the complex ways in which our political life emerges from within our traditions and without them.