This is Part 1 of a conversation between Inese Radzins and Vincent Lloyd about his book, The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology. For the second half, go here.
Vincent Lloyd lives in Syracuse, New York, where he teaches in Syracuse University’s Religion Department and where he’s involved in political organizing with the Solidarity Committee of Central New York. He’s published several books in the area of political theology. In his latest, The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology (Stanford, 2011), he offers the field a new direction by developing a post-secular, post-sectarian political theology. Beginning not with political philosophy but with political theology, he investigates a series of religious concepts such as love, faith, liturgy, and revelation and explores their political relevance by extracting them from their Christian theological context while refusing to reduce them to secular terms. The following two-part interview was conducted by Inese A. Radzins.
IR: First off, thank you for writing such an interesting book. I read it over the summer and really enjoyed it. I think that it generates new pathways for thinking political theology. I am wondering about the genealogy of the book: you have brought together an intriguing group of people (James Baldwin, Gillian Rose, Simone Weil and Franz Kafka) and theories (philosophical, race, literary, theological, and cinematic) with contemporary political and ethical concerns. How did you get the idea for this book?
VL: I’m glad you enjoyed it. I had been thinking about the way various “religious” categories, like love, hope, and liturgy, might be useful politically. At the same time, I was dissatisfied with a lot of the “theory” heavy political theology I was reading. Focusing on categories other than sovereignty (like love, hope, liturgy, etc.), and understanding those categories as social practices, seemed like a promising alternative approach. In the background, I’ve been wrestling with how to bring together the pragmatic orientation I took from training at the Princeton religion department and the Continental/theoretical orientation I took from training at the Berkeley rhetoric department.
IR: Might this also be the “middle” you are talking about in the book: between pragmatism (American/Princeton) and what might be called a more theoretical (Continental/Berkeley) approach? And yet what is so compelling about the “middle” you articulate is that it is not a compromise position.
VL: Yes, I don’t really see the “middle” as a halfway point. Rather, I tried to suggest that the middle is what remains when fantasy (or ideology) is removed. There’s something very frustrating about the pragmatism of both Barack Obama and Cornel West, as much as they try to distance themselves from each other. In a sense, it tries to locate a middle, and acknowledges that finding the middle may be very difficult — it may require pragmatism to become “prophetic” (I think Obama would agree with West on that). But I want to say that locating a middle requires, first, the critique of ideology, which determines the options that appear before us. But the critique of ideology requires an attentiveness to tradition, and to social practices and norms. The “Continental” side talks a lot about ideology critique, but rarely does more than gesture towards those social realities.
IR: Since you mentioned Cornel West, let me ask you about your chapter on “prophecy.” In general, the book proposes a kind of “new” religious vocabulary. One of the ways it does this is by calling into question the “normative” understanding of crucial terms, like prophecy. It had always seemed to me that West does precisely what you are calling for (beginning with critique) but you seem to argue otherwise. Can you say more about the critique of the prophetic?
VL: I think Cornel West is a fantastic speaker who does the extremely important work of motivating a diverse array of his listeners to start participating in grassroots political organizing. And I think he also does a fantastic job of creatively utilizing a religious vocabulary to reframe political problems–that his rhetorical performances do the job of ideology critique. But rhetorical performance, aimed at a very specific audience at a specific time for specific reasons, is quite different than theological or philosophical inquiry. In The Problem with Grace I am critical of certain things West has written on theological/philosophical grounds. The much larger worry that I have is that West, and the “Princeton pragmatists,” don’t see a difference between rhetorical performance and philosophical/theological inquiry; I think both are important and that they are complementary aspects of the critique of ideology (or, in theological terms, idolatry).
IR: You offer a similar reformulation of the concept “revelation.” Here you engage Baldwin and argue that his work is a helpful theopolitical strategy that cannot be understood to support “democracy” or the democratic project. How does Baldwin’s strategy function to call into question democracy?
VL: I think there’s a way of seeing democracy as thin or thick: it’s a problem today that democracy is thin, and the solution is to make it thick. Baldwin is sometimes enlisted in this thickening project. I’m uncomfortable with framing democracy in that way. The Problem with Grace aspires to be anti-theoretical, and I worry that the thin vs. thick democracy picture is a theoretical picture. Our task is supposedly that of offering descriptions of what thick democracy would look like, then trying to change the world to look more like that picture. I want to see democracy as a name for the (impossible) state a world without ideology — a world where the people govern because the mystifications of power have been exposed. That is how I see Baldwin talking about democracy: exposing the mystifications of power and so allowing people to realize that they are capable of governing themselves.
IR: Wouldn’t this also be a kind of theory (perhaps in the best possible sense of the term)?
VL: Sure, in the sense that theory is best when it is self-destructive. But I also worry (especially looking back now at The Problem with Grace) that focusing on the (anti-)theoretical work, as I did, ignores how that is work necessary in an elite discourse that only a minority of people are committed to. The vast majority of people, the working class, don’t need an antidote to ideology because the artificiality of ideology is so obvious. They need organizers and social movements that demonstrate how ordinary people have the power to take control of their worlds by challenging the mystifications of power.
IR: I see where you are going…but I might argue that taking control of the world by organizers and social movement is also a theoretical enterprise (but we can save that conversation for another day…). Let’s turn to another topic: One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that you are moving the conversation about political theology (Schmitt, Lilla, et al) in a different direction (in this sense, you may be a kind of postmodern Spinoza). This includes the call for questioning supersessionism, exposing mystifications and enchantments, and questioning various hegemonies of the visible. Would you venture a definition of your political theology?
The second half of the interview will be posted next Monday, October 10.
Inese Radzins is Assistant Professor of Theology at the Pacific School of Religion and Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA where she teaches courses in constructive, feminist and political theologies. Her research interests lie in the intersection of modern religious thought, philosophy, women’s/gender studies and political theory. Dr. Radzins has published articles on Simone Weil’s thought, the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg and is currently working on a manuscript that explores the relationship between politics and cosmology in Weil’s oeuvre.