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Teaching Political Theology, Part 1: Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed

I am an American who lives and teaches political theology in the United Kingdom, and for the next few months I will be reflecting on the experiences, pitfalls, and opportunities in teaching political theology. This month I begin with a summary of the book which I recently published as an aide to teaching political theology, and this will be followed in the coming months with reflections on teaching political theology in the US and the UK, teaching political theology to conservative and liberal students, and teaching political theology ecumenically….

[Note: This is part 1 of a 4-part series. Part 2 can be found here, and check back next month for pt. 3!]

I am an American who lives and teaches political theology in the United Kingdom, and for the next few months I will be reflecting on the experiences, pitfalls, and opportunities in teaching political theology. This month I begin with a summary of the book which I recently published as an aide to teaching political theology, and this will be followed in the coming months with reflections on teaching political theology in the US and the UK, teaching political theology to conservative and liberal students, and teaching political theology ecumenically.

For the past four years I have been one of the lecturers for a collaboratively taught course on political theology in an ecumenical federation of theological training institutions. One of my greatest frustrations was that each year we had several students to whom the subject of political theology was entirely novel and they always asked us to suggest an introductory book they could read which would help them get a better grasp of the subject. They needed the big picture, both historically and theologically, as well as some conceptual hooks on which to hang the specific topics and readings explored in the course. There was no single book which was brief, concise, and introductory enough to help them get started yet also wide-ranging and broad enough to give them a wider picture than a single author’s own perspective. This is the gap I have attempted to fill with my new book, Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, which is a volume in T&T Clark’s Guides for the Perplexed series.

The book proceeds in two parts: Part One, ‘Defining Political Theology’ and Part Two, ‘Issues in Political Theology’.  The two chapters in Part One discuss ‘The Emergence of Political Theology’ and ‘Approaches to Political Theology’, and are meant to establish a ‘map of the terrain’ of political theology as an aspect of Christian theology. First we see how at least three different (not contradictory) stories can be told about the beginning of political theology. In its most basic sense, political theology begins in scripture, in the narratives and theologies of Israel and the Church. Brief overviews of John Howard Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan are offered here as a way to trace some of the common themes and significant differences in interpretations and employments of scriptural political theology. In another sense, as a practice of Christian theologians, political theology began most clearly with St Augustine’s City of God, considered by many to be the founding text of political theology. And, in yet another sense, political theology as a distinct theological discipline did not emerge until the twentieth century.

Chapter two adds to these historical markers in the emergence of political theology a consideration of the different ways we can distinguish types of political theology in both historical and contemporary theologies. Four sets of classifications are offered which situate political theologies in relation to theological understandings of creation, fall, and human nature (special consideration is given here to St Thomas Aquinas, and his affinities and differences with St Augustine); to theological and ecclesial traditions; to the various streams of the first generation of twentieth-century political theology (Political, Liberation, and Public Theologies); and to streams of second generation, late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century political theology (including Postliberalism, Radical Orthodoxy , and second-generation ‘Contextual’ Theologies). This is not a typology, per se, in that no political theology will fall into a single category discussed. Instead, every Christian political theology could be distinguished in terms of its theological and ecclesial roots and perspectives, and every recent Christian political theology (in the West) could be distinguished in addition to these by how it relates itself to the various contemporary movements and schools of thought. These are overlapping and somewhat porous distinctions which are not meant to allow readers to easily label political theologies; instead they are meant to bring an initially confusing array of differing approaches into some sort of conceptually navigable order.

The second part of the book introduces some of the historically enduring and contemporarily pressing issues of political theology. Each chapter briefly introduces the key questions, the issues at stake, and/or the history of the conversation on a given topic followed by a consideration of how those questions and issues functioned in the life and work of a few specific political theologians. While an introduction as brief as this book cannot claim to be comprehensive in any sense, it is hoped that between the theologians and movements discussed in Part One and those whose work is introduced in Part Two, beginners will also be exposed to many of the key figures in both historical and contemporary political theology. Throughout the book, each time an author, movement, or school of thought is introduced, it is followed by an endnote which suggests where readers should begin if they want to read more in that area.

Chapter three explores ‘The Church and the Political’ through a brief historical overview and a discussion of Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms and how Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer responded to the doctrine in the context of Hitler’s Germany. Chapter four addresses ‘The Politics of Jesus’ through the contrasts of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s assessment of Jesus’ politics in light of his views on love and justice. Through these chapters it will have already become apparent to the reader that the issues of violence and peace are central to the enduring questions of political theology, and these are more explicitly addressed in Chapter five. The chapter begins with a brief introduction to pacifism and just war theory and closes with a consideration of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s argument in Just War Against Terror. However, just war or its impossibility are not the only issues related to violence and peace in political theology, and the chapter also explores how Augustine has been read not only as foundational to just war theory but as arguing for an ‘ontology of peace’, and how Augustine’s own views on violence and coercion shifted during his lifetime. William Cavanaugh’s work on the idea of ‘religious’ violence is also introduced.

Chapter six discusses one of the debates in political theology over the past few decades: the relationship between Christianity, liberalism, and democracy. An overview of types of liberalism and key critiques of liberalism is followed by introductions to two critics of liberal democracy who are sympathetic to one another, but whose projects have important theological and philosophical differences: Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank. In contrast, the argument for a constructive employment of ‘Augustinian liberalism’ in Eric Gregory’s Politics and the Order of Love, is also considered. Chapter seven describes how attention to oppression, marginalization, and liberation have been features of political theology from the scriptures and throughout Christian history, as well as how these themes have had special prominence since the twentieth century in Liberation, Black, and Feminist Theologies.  The introduction to these theologies focuses on the ways in which three authors came to see various forms of oppression and marginalization as interrelated and interdependent with one another. Martin Luther King, Jr highlighted the interwoven realities of racial, economic, and military injustices in the Vietnam War era.  Rosemary Radford Reuther has drawn the attention of her readers and students to the connections between the oppression of women and the exploitation of the earth. And Marcella Althaus-Reid believed that Liberation Theology must be attentive not only to the economic and political margins but to the margins of race, gender, and sexuality.

Part two closes by observing how the doctrines of creation, history, and eschatology permeate political theology. The discussion then considers why ‘eschatology’ has come to be understood as preferable to ‘apocalyptic’ in recent political theology. Two recent books, Charles Mathewes’s A Theology of Public Life, which advocates an anti-apocalyptic, eschatological political theology, and Nathan Kerr’s Christ, History and Apocalyptic, which advocates apocalyptic as a mode of political theology, are contrasted. An argument is then offered for an employment of apocalyptic which differs from both these proposals, drawing on Yoder’s use of apocalyptic as well as the relationship between creation and eschatology in Aquinas. Finally, the book’s conclusion offers not only a summary or recap of the previous contents, but seeks to draw together the topics covered as an interrelated whole, as opposed to a simple list of issues and authors.

Throughout the book I hope to have stressed that political theology is not only about understanding the theological thought and academic work of some specific authors; it is about the lived experiences of Christians and their communities as they struggle to understand and instantiate rightful relationships between the kingdom of God and ordering of life on earth. And teaching political theology is not merely an overview of a history of ideas, as it must be deeply attentive (albeit in different ways in differing teaching contexts) to the politics already at work in the lives, churches, nations, and institutions of instructors and teachers alike, and it should call all those involved to renewed understandings, orientations, and practices of political theology. I look forward to exploring the possibilities and problems with this enterprise over the coming months.

Elizabeth Phillips is Tutor in Theology and Ethics at Westcott House, an Anglican theological college in Cambridge, England. She is also an affiliated lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. She teaches introductory and advanced theological ethics, political theology, and interfaith encounter. Her research interests include American Christian Zionism, eschatology and apocalyptic in political theology, Israel/Palestine, and theological ethnography. Her husband Jeff is also her colleague at Westcott and Cambridge. Her publications include Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2012).


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