Welcome to The Brink: a space for emerging work in political theology and affiliated fields. Featuring soon-to-be-published content (interviews, roundtable discussions, and book discussions) from the journal Political Theology in an accessible, open-access format, The Brink aims to challenge our readers’ assumptions about the relationship between religion, theory, and politics. In this introduction, the Political Theology special projects editors—Méadhbh McIvor and Milinda Banerjee—as well as Political Theology editor Vincent Lloyd provide some insights on what The Brink will be as a space betwixt and between discourses, practices, and worldviews.
While our title plays on the fact that these pieces are on the cusp of publication, it references other kinds of thresholds, too. Indeed, as an anthropologist, my first thoughts on hearing the phrase “the brink” are of liminal stages, spaces, and statuses. In classic analyses of rites of passage, for example, the mid-point of the ritual is a kind of brink, a threshold one must cross to either achieve or acknowledge a fundamental change.
Coming after one’s separation from the mundane but prior to one’s reintegration into it, this liminal stage is often marked by the suspension of the status quo. In this moment, initiates are “betwixt and between,” no longer and not yet. Inhabited by those who are dead to the old but not quite yet born to the new, the liminal stage is one where certainties are questioned, hierarchies are upended, and nothing is quite what it seems. Replete with the symbolism of both birth and death—the waxing and waning moon; the snake shedding its skin—the liminal stage of a ritual is often the most interesting (both to experience and to analyse), in part because it upsets the sense of stable possibilities on either side.
As a field, political theology stands at such a point. In this liminal stage, where the ordinary rules are held in abeyance, scholars of religion, politics, history, ethics, and anthropology are refusing to stay in their disciplinary lanes as they analyze the relationship between the religious and the political. Responding to and engaging with both current events and longstanding academic debates, work featured on The Brink moves beyond the confines of our disciplinary identities. Indeed, by bringing critique into conversation with activism, our contributors’ takes on political theology work to dissolve not only the boundaries between disciplines, but between scholarship and practice more broadly.
As with initiates and other “threshold people,” the meanings attached to these works-in-progress are necessarily ambiguous. Their final contribution is unclear. Our hope is that the essays, interviews, and provocations featured here will spark sustained engagement and critique. Some showcase emerging and ongoing research. Others may plant the seed of a new project or collaboration. And some conversations, no doubt, will simply peter out. This, too, is part of the process.
After all, the excitement of the liminal lies in not knowing what comes next.
“If you are on the brink of something, you are almost in a very new, dangerous, or exciting situation.” So says the dictionary, and so say we: let us experiment with content and form, mixing ideas and methods – and then hold our breath and see what happens. Too often, scholarship involves ploddingly uncovering evidence of the obvious, and public scholarship involves authorizing conventional wisdom. What happens if, rather, our goal is genuine surprise, with the pleasure and danger that brings?
Flirting with the new, the wholly new, the new that interrupts, startles, reorients: this is the alure of political theology. The political alone can be stale, about institutions, elections, interests. The theological alone can be sclerotic, about preserving and transmitting religious ideas. But political theology promises to transform stale politics, to animate religious ideas – to bring about something very new, dangerous, and exciting.
Scholarly writing is very effective at draining away excitement (and danger). At making us forget our passions; the reason we were drawn toward a topic in the first place. How do we write about political theology in a way that engages the passions, opening us to something very new?
The answer is not polemic, for polemic does not engage the passions; it harnesses them. For years, the humanities relished the pleasures of critique, calling attention to the machinations of the powerful evidenced in texts, images, and practices – and so elevating the wise critic to a position comfortably above the fray. More recently, scholars have acknowledged attachments to their objects of study, turning scholarly study into a practice of attention and care for that which is beloved.
But neither critique nor care bring us to the brink. They do not open us to the very new. If the genre of political theology is to match the promise of political theology, some other style of engagement is necessary.
Which other style? We don’t know. But we can experiment.
We can experiment by bringing together different methods: historical and ethnographic, textual analysis and the analysis of images, philosophical reflection and participant observation.
We can experiment by thinking across religious traditions, across geographical regions, across time periods.
We can experiment by creating conversations: putting in the same room, or on the same page, writers whose orientations and interests are quite different, nudging them to explore what they could say to each other, and together.
A scholarly journal, Political Theology included, carries the weight of the past, scholarship that has come before and has disciplined its authors, and the weight of the institutional landscape in which it is embedded. A blog is unburdened, sometimes to an extreme, centering the concerns and styles of the moment. The Brink stands between the two, at the edge of both, a space of experimentation. A place where we can encounter the very new.
Experiments make a habit of failure. So they must be tried again, with different ingredients, different mixtures, different procedures. The Brink is a laboratory where the aspirations and passions that surround political theology can try to find their form, and try again, and again.
“An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.”
Keats’s lines in the Endymion are rooted in archaic Indo-European, more broadly Eurasian, beliefs about a heavenly jar of ambrosia that periodically overflows to earth, nourishing mortals. Communion with the divine is a libation – humans offer wine, honey, milk, and other food and drinks to the gods, who in turn anoint them to undying life. We are promised perpetual overflow, letting-go, cascade into Being. Rabindranath Tagore declares in the Gitanjali:
“I have come to the brink of eternity from which nothing can vanish […]
Oh, dip my emptied life into that ocean, plunge it into the deepest fullness.”
The brink here is the very edge of Being – hence a favored term for poets and philosophers. In his interpretation of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a seventh/sixth century BCE Sanskrit text, the anti-colonial politician and thinker Aurobindo Ghose reflects on Dawn: “it is the Being’s movement forward […]. Ushas or Dawn to the early thinkers was the impulse towards manifest existence, no longer a vague movement in the depths of the Unmanifest, but already emerging and on the brink of its satisfaction.”
In Keats, Tagore, or Ghose, being on the brink is less about putting oneself in peril – it is more about stripping oneself of finitude. Purnatva, plenitude, fullness – cognate terms, sensibilities, in Indian and European philosophical traditions.
Late twentieth/early-twenty-first century sensibilities often gaze upon such sensibilities with incredulity and suspicion. For the Buddha, tanha – thirst, desire – was the root of suffering. King Capital reigns through a perpetual withholding of satisfaction, of fullness. As long as there is incompleteness, there is desire – and hence there is consumption, commodity chains, profit. Life is turned away from eternity’s brink – it must be incarcerated within possessive individualism. Bourgeois life is atomization masquerading as freedom. The cost of unchecked surplus value extraction – of the commodification of human and other-than-human beings – is mass extinction, environmental degradation, and climate catastrophe.
Yet, beings yearn to overflow. They refuse to be turned to killable bare bodies, to commodities, to Unbeing. Black Lives Matter, Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi uprisings, feminist and trans movements, Indigenous rebellions, climate protests – solidarities coalesce.
Amazonia, Dakota, Minnesota, Nandigram, Niyamgiri – not just political flashpoints against capital, against the colonial, racial, patriarchal structures that seek the reduction of beings to atomized and disposable mortality – they are sites of political libation, of world-making. To borrow the words of the Black theologian M. Shawn Copeland, “a cry of presence”.
The Brink describes a world on brink. On the brink of universal death – the Capitalocene, as age of mass extinction, is Necrocene. On the brink of eternity – political struggles today are ontological struggles. In capitalist ontology, all dissolves in money as general equivalent – the abolition of this value-form is life’s demand. Life-making must no longer be subordinated to profit-making. The world must not be destroyed by Capital. Never have the stakes been higher – the promise of life cannot be deferred to eternity.
In the brink of our species-existence – justice, to be just, must be more-than-human, must desire “the weal of the many, the happiness of the many.” This Buddhist vision of bahujanahitaya bahujanasukhaya animates Bahujan politics in India – the multitudes against the ruling castes. The weal of the earth – care and mutual interdependence – against the profits of the few.
The Brink aspires to describe these ontological wars – and in a polarized world, reaffirm our beingness – our ability to assemble, be-in-common, root ourselves in each other.
To be at the brink of our finitude. To be Beings-for-each-other.