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?
For me, the category of political theology is closely linked to the notion of “crisis,” and I think this association remains a helpful way of articulating the stakes of political theology. As Reinhart Koselleck shows, the term has its etymological roots in ancient Greek (krino)—there, it is a verb meaning “to cut”, “to select”, “to decide,” “to judge.” He shows that in the Christian Testament, it was used in close association with the event of God’s judgment, particularly God’s final judgment. In the medieval period, krisis was Latinized and medicalized, then associated with decisive points in the progression of diseases. In the early modern period from the 17th to early 19th century, “body politic” rhetoric became central to state-building projects, and the term was used to address crises of political legitimacy in particular. (“Diseased” states were qualified by disorder, chaos, revolt, etc.)
The term “crisis” is important for me because it seems that interest in what we call political theology comes in times of chaos and uncertainty about established political order. I’m thinking of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the 30 Years War, and the English Civil War; Carl Schmitt’s justification of totalitarianism through his “sociological” method called political theology during the interwar period; and now, in a post-9/11 world that is also on the brink of unprecedented environmental collapse. It seems like an important task of political theology is to critically reflect on moments of political crisis by pulling back the veil on its latent theological content. Ideally, this reflection is helpful for envisioning a way out of the crisis, and a way forward.
What conversations working with the concept of political theology do you find most fruitful today?
I approach the category of political theology from an historicist perspective, and I specialize in 17th century natural law, so these factors generally determine what conversations I find most intriguing. I am particularly invested in conversations that aim to complicate historiographical narratives about the development of modern theories of sovereignty and what makes a theory “modern”, which are often only considerate of intra-European warfare and conflict. Towards this end, I am convinced that Kathleen Davis’ book Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time provides not only one of the most interesting contemporary engagements with 20th century political theology—it also models how political theology’s investment in the categories of sovereignty and temporality can help produce much needed interventions.
Davis’ thesis is that “the history of periodization is juridical, and it advances through struggles over the definition and location of sovereignty.” For example, feudal-ism, as distinct from heterogenous instances of feudal law, was not reified as a concept, nor was it identified as “medieval” and therefore sharply distinct from modernity, until the 18th and 19th centuries by thinkers who were invested in historical periodization and progress narratives, like Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and Marx. She revisits the widely influential work of 18th century royalist historian and jurist, William Blackstone, who is responsible for how we think about feudalism today. Davis is able to show that he was explicitly invested in viewing the “history of Feudal law through the lens of contemporary colonialism” in order to justify royal dominion over colonial territories. As Blackstone wanted to argue that all English law “was anchored in history”, his reification of England’s feudal “past” was meant to suggest that there is precedent (therefore, legal justification) for the crown’s “feudal” sovereignty in a colonial context.
The fascinating implication of the reification of feudal-ism is that it engenders a periodizational schema in which coloniality is an emblem of a past political arrangement, thereby qualifying colonial subjects as inherently not-modern (therefore not progressive, etc). She engages with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work, whose Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial and Historical Difference laid the groundwork for critiques like Davis’ by problematizing the very notion of historicization as an idiosyncratic side-effect (a severe, volatile one, no less) of European modernity, colonization, and racializing hierarchies. I’ve done this book very little justice here (it’s really good), and though it’s about a decade-old, I think it still stands as one of the best examples of the kind of work that conversations in political theology can produce.
Where do you hope to see discussions of political theology in 20 years?
Right now, “political theology” means so many different things to so many different people, so I wouldn’t want to overdetermine its future. But as I’ve mentioned above, there seems to be a common desire that political-theological discourse be capable of responding effectively to political crises. By the year 2039, I am certain that we will have undergone unprecedented changes in our political and economic structures due to climate change. For this reason, I would hope that political theology participate in the critical work of exposing the latent theological content of the climate crisis. A way out, and a way forward will surely involve a reckoning with the providential capitalist myth of unlimited growth, imperialist expansion justified through Christian heathenization of indigenous populations, and the contemporary alliance between right-wing evangelicals and the oil industry.
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