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Political Theology (政治神學) A Postcolonial Approach

The field has often shown a Eurocentric bias…As such, the field has left out important reflections on political theology during the anticolonial and postcolonial struggles in the Global South.

The field of political theology (政治神學) studies the relationship between theology and political structures, institutions, cultures, and movements. A postcolonial approach to political theology focuses on the impact and legacy of imperial formation and colonialism on both the (former) colonized and colonizers. It uses an intersectional approach to scrutinize the relation of politics with class, gender, sexuality, religion, and colonialism, and so forth.

The field has often shown a Eurocentric bias, focusing on the experiences between church and state in Europe and Euro-America. Its origin has been traced to Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology and its genealogy includes the works of Johann Baptist Metz and Jürgen Moltmann, etc. As such, the field has left out important reflections on political theology during the anticolonial and postcolonial struggles in the Global South. 

The development of a “canon” for political theology is contested because it raises the Foucauldian question of the relation between power and knowledge. The term “canon” means a rule of law and connotes authority. A canon is a mechanism of both inclusion and exclusion. Once it is formed, it has the power to regulate and discipline. I do not think a canon in political theology is viable given the cultural, geographical, linguistic, and historical differences among us. However, I support the idea of a list of key or recommended texts from different perspectives, so that readers can see diverse conceptualizations of the field. This is especially helpful for students who want to be exposed to a more global perspective. I would suggest three key texts from Asia and two essential texts from the Global South.

Key Texts

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

The field of political theology is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Although this text is not theological in nature, it provides a critical postcolonial optic to look at power, politics, race, gender, and the production of knowledge. The question that Spivak raised, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” some thirty years ago remains critical in the discussion on representation, voice, subjectivity, gender subaltern, and the power to narrate. The book demonstrates strategies of deconstructive reading of Western philosophy and interrogates the writing of history and the conceptualization of literature and culture. It criticizes the construction of the “global” and invites self-reflexivity of postcolonial critics and interventionist intellectuals. Spivak has met with theologians and biblical scholars and their exchanges have been published in Planetary Loves: Spivak, Postcoloniality, and Theology.

Commission on Theological Concerns of the Christian Conference of Asia, ed. Minjung Theology: People as the Subjects of History. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983.

Minjung Theology is one of best-known theological movements emerging from Asia. The term minjung means the masses or the people. In the 1970s, mass protests broke out in South Korea to denounce the dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee, violations of human rights, and economic injustice. Theologians provided a biblical hermeneutic, which emphasized the ochlos (crowd) in the Gospels and argued that Jesus was part of the minjung. Using cultural resources such as shamanism and mass dance, Korean theologians wanted to decolonize theology by challenging Western hegemony in theology. The book introduces ideas such as social biography and people as subjects of history and reinterprets messianism. As political circumstances have changed, Korean minjung theologians have also discussed unification of Korea, environmental issues, and the struggles of LGBTQ people.

Choan-Seng Song, Theology from the Womb of Asia. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986.

Taiwanese theologian Choan-Seng Song is a key proponent of narrative theology using stories, myths, folklores, and legends from Asia. He has written numerous books that touch on theological method, political struggles of Asian peoples, the compassionate God, and Christology. While past indigenization attempts in Asia have focused on philosophical encounters with Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, Hindu, or Shinto traditions, Song emphasizes the use of popular culture. This book is an example of using Asian resources to read the signs of the time, reinterpret salvation, and articulate a vision for the future. He has also published more recently In the Beginning Were Stories, Not Texts: Story Theology (2011), in which he attempts to reimagine Christian theology and faith through stories, instead of concepts, propositions, and systems. Through his work and teaching, Song has inspired a generation of Asian theologians in doing Asian contextual theology.

Essential Texts

Vítor Westhelle, After Heresy: Colonial Practices and Post-Colonial Theologies. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010.

The late theologian Vítor Westhelle from Brazil has produced a postcolonial theology that is rooted in the Latin American context. Scholars from Latin America underscore that modernity is inseparable from coloniality. Westhelle scrutinizes the impact of colonialism and the missionary enterprise on the culture and society of Latin America. He presents the crisis of Western modernity from the perspectives of outsiders and insiders of the modern project. He argues that because of the Conquest and the imposition of colonial culture, theology in Latin America is a hybrid and Latin American theology needs to subvert European hegemony through a process of “transfiguration.”

Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has played key roles against apartheid and chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during the political transition in South Africa. Many countries in the Global South have experienced trauma and violence during anticolonial and postcolonial struggles. In this text, Tutu faces the atrocities and horrors of the past with honesty and offers hope for forgiveness and reconciliation rooted in deep faith and spirituality. Today many women in the world suffer from gender-based violence and communities are torn apart by religious, ethnic, racial, and class conflicts. This book challenges us to work for peace and reconciliation against all odds.

At the End of Liberal Theory

The texts I have identified as “need to become ‘essential’ texts” function in this spirit…Each addresses questions of community-creation outside of liberal norms and modes of power.

Deconstructing the Canon

If one speaks of Political Theology as a “field” with its own “canon” one must surely be preparing to deconstruct it.

Political Theology (政治神學) A Postcolonial Approach

The field has often shown a Eurocentric bias…As such, the field has left out important reflections on political theology during the anticolonial and postcolonial struggles in the Global South.

From A Liberationist Framework

My point is that in addition to being annoyingly Eurocentric, the discourse of political theology focuses more on administrators and theorists of the modern State than the victims of State.

Political Advocacy As A Humanist

This is a challenging question for me, as I am on the margins of political theology as a philosopher of religion and religious naturalist.

Christian Interrogation

…Political Theology is the sedimented yet changing and multifarious ways in which Christianity divides itself and (which is to say also: from) the world.

The Fluidity of the Field

Even while the concept of canon has been thoroughly critiqued and deconstructed, implicit canons remain and it may be best to acknowledge their presence rather than seek to repress them.

Wittgenstein’s Ladder

…I see my list on political theology functioning like Wittgenstein’s ladder metaphor in his Tractatus. Once graduate students read and grasp these important texts, they should “throw away the ladder”, so to speak, and deconstruct all they have learned about political theology to illuminate contemporary problems on their own. Once they reach the top, they can throw away the ladder.

One thought on “Political Theology (政治神學) A Postcolonial Approach

  1. Thanks also to Kwok Pui Lan! Can you indicate a more detailed analysis of Schmidtt’s re-entry? Or even write one, if you have not already done so? Gratefully!

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