Teaching Political Theology, Part 2: Either Side of the Pond (or Teaching Political Theology in the US and UK)

Pedagogy

Some challenges and opportunities are the same on either side of the pond for those of us teaching political theology. Those teaching in seminaries and other ‘confessional’ contexts will find the same resistance to ‘politicizing’ faith from conservative students and the same blasé assumptions from liberal students who obviously already have this all sorted because they are good liberals, both theologically and politically (more on these challenges in Part 3, next month). Those teaching in liberal arts universities will share similar struggles with how (or if) the discipline can be normative or formative in these contexts. And we will all share the wonderful opportunities involved in drawing students beyond their inherited binary views of the theological and the political. In other ways, the challenges and opportunities differ considerably on either side of the pond….

[Note: This is part 2 of a 4-part series, available here.]

Some challenges and opportunities are the same on either side of the pond for those of us teaching political theology. Those teaching in seminaries and other ‘confessional’ contexts will find the same resistance to ‘politicizing’ faith from conservative students and the same blasé assumptions from liberal students who obviously already have this all sorted because they are good liberals, both theologically and politically (more on these challenges in Part 3, next month). Those teaching in liberal arts universities will share similar struggles with how (or if) the discipline can be normative or formative in these contexts. And we will all share the wonderful opportunities involved in drawing students beyond their inherited binary views of the theological and the political.

In other ways, the challenges and opportunities differ considerably on either side of the pond. In the US, especially in seminaries and ‘confessional’ university contexts, there is a particular way in which an important opportunity and a strong temptation arise, both of which are less prevalent on the other side of the pond. This particular promise and peril of teaching political theology arises from the fact that ‘political theology’ per se is not a well-established subject of study in most places in America. It can therefore easily be subsumed by other disciplines and pedagogies. In a liberal arts university, this may be political science, or it may be a cross-listed, interdisciplinary approach more allied to ‘religion and politics’ than political theology. In my experience of theological education in America, which has been in Protestant and ecumenical (primarily Protestant) settings, it is most likely to be ‘social ethics’.

The promise and opportunity which arises from this association between political theology and social ethics is that it seems more straightforwardly possible to ask something of our students in America – something beyond essays and research papers. We can be clear from the outset that we want them to do something with and about what they are learning, instead of simply mastering a discreet set of information.

The perils which go along with this promise are clear. First, political theology too easily can become distorted by the lingering division between theological ethics and social ethics which arose from an attempt to shape the discipline of ethics as a social science, and thus mirror the ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ distinctions between scientific disciplines. The history of and the problems with this division have been so well documented and described by others (especially Stanley Hauerwas), that we need not rehearse them here. If this division is imposed upon political theology, it ceases to be political theology and becomes yet another ‘applied’ or ‘practical’ branch of theological education divorced from theology itself.

Second, pedagogical temptations common to ‘social ethics’ approaches can easily become the temptations of teachers of political theology, particularly teaching as advocacy. The advocate-teacher brings her own agenda for political activism to the center, urges students to become activists in a particular way, and shapes the content, structure, and focus of the course around this intended outcome.

One consequence of this shaping is likely to be that an excessive amount of time is spent on contemporary ‘issues’, to the neglect of historical sources and exemplars. If students are introduced to political theology as a historical and on-going discourse in which they are invited to become participants, they are able to discern varying ways of pursuing this participation. If they are simply given one, prescriptive model by the advocate-teacher, they are left only with the choice of whether to accept and enact that particular model, or to reject it and do nothing. They are far less likely to become practitioners equipped with the skills of criticism and discernment needed to do political theology in their own lives, communities, and contexts. They will simply mimic or ignore the practices advocated by the instructor.

Precisely the opposite promise and peril have become evident to me in the UK, especially in the particular type of context in which I have been studying and teaching. While I suspect these realities are tempered considerably outside of Oxbridge and Oxbridge-inspired contexts, I also suspect other UK contexts would more closely resemble Oxbridge than the American settings described above.

The promise of teaching political theology in the UK is that the expectation already exists, partly due to the fact that political theology is a more established discipline in the UK, that political theology must be taught in ways that are both deeply historical and decidedly theological. In the UK, we are more keenly aware that we are elucidating a particular aspect of the Christian tradition, and less tempted to neglect the riches of history and tradition in a rush to address the pressing issues of the day. There is a deeper awareness that we must have historical and traditional sources as our interlocutors in order to be faithful and fruitful practitioners of (political) theology.

Perhaps you can anticipate the allied perils. First, political theology can become a subject of historical and textual interest only. It can be a history of ideas or a study of great canonical texts which are never discussed in a way which suggests that students can or should do something with them after the essays are submitted and the exams have been marked. Political theology becomes a body of knowledge to be mastered instead of a discourse in which to become an engaged practitioner, and thus can cease to be substantively political or theological.

Second, while much promise and virtue lies in the ability to patiently attend to historical texts before rushing to solve the problems of contemporary politics, just as much peril exists in the potential to virtually ignore contemporary praxis all together. After several years on both the receiving and delivery sides of theological education in both the US and the UK, I have often quipped that theology students in many Protestant institutions in the States could be forgiven for thinking that little of importance happened in Christian theology between the closing of the canon and the twentieth century, except of course for the Reformation; and theology students in certain types of British institutions could be forgiven for thinking that absolutely no theology has been written in the last century, except of course for the work of Karl Barth and the latest publications of their current instructors. Either outcome must be considered theological malformation. And any introduction to political theology which leaves students with an inability to employ the great historical texts and exemplars as they reason alongside contemporary political theologians and within contemporary theopolitical issues, must also be considered theopolitical malformation.

One likely consequence of such malformation is that the critical and contextual discourses which can over-determine the content and shape of teaching in the States can be neglected in some British contexts (either because they are so contemporary they are seen as ‘faddish’, or because post-critical instructors feel free to pass over them instead of allowing students to work through them as we all have had the opportunity to do). This can leave a student of UK political theology just as unfit for the practice of critical theopolitical discernment as the US students of advocate-teachers.

Perhaps it will seem that I have drawn too much on stereotypes of the impatient activist Americans and the scholarly traditionalist British; but these are caricatures born from some measure of real difference in our temperaments and institutional practices – though we could all of course immediately name specific political theologians on either side of the pond who have masterfully overcome these potential perils.

What many such political theologians have long known is that one of the great possibilities of trans-Atlantic journals such as Political Theology, blogs such as this one, and conferences where we can meet one another is that we can perhaps share our strengths with one another and find ways of addressing our weaknesses which are not immediately obvious on our side of the pond. Perhaps through such trans-Atlantic dialogue we can all become both more patiently historical and more boldly formational in our teaching of political theology.

Next month, Part 3: Making Theology Political and Politics Theological (or Teaching Political Theology to Conservative and Liberal Students)

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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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