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The Fluidity of the Field

Even while the concept of canon has been thoroughly critiqued and deconstructed, implicit canons remain and it may be best to acknowledge their presence rather than seek to repress them.

Key texts: 

  1. Eusebius of Caesarea, Oration In Praise of Constantine
  2. Augustine of Hippo, City of God Against the Pagans
  3. Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk

Since political theology tends to be discussed as a modern discipline, I chose two founding texts from the ancient world. Eusebius and Augustine have set the course that both Christian empire and its reflection on the relation between theology and politics have taken in the long history of Christianity and of Western societies more broadly. Whether called to mind or not, these two texts in particular provide the groundwork for what later thinkers—including the many modern ones that will be named in this initiative—have responded to in their constructive proposals.  

Eusebius’ Oration provides one influential example and template of the theological legitimation of centralized, hierarchical rule. He also sets off a discussion of the very relation between religion and politics, and it is no coincidence that two oft-cited founding figures of the modern discipline of political theology—Erik Peterson and Carl Schmitt—make Eusebius a centerpiece in their sparring match. While Eusebius’ Oration focuses on the role of the sovereign and his administrative apparatus, Augustine’s City of God broadens the scope to include issues of church-state-society relations and the nature of the political as such. Some have conjectured that the founding of modernity was centrally influenced by debates about competing forms of Augustinianism. Whether he deserves such pride of place (and personally I’m fatigued by the long obsession with Augustine), this text remains worthy of note for the field. In addition to questions of sovereignty, both thinkers have contributed attitudes and dispositions about outsiders, racial and ethnic others, and matters of human embodiment in ways that have inflected racial discourse. 

Finally, since political theology tends to be depicted from straight, white, male vantage points, the groundbreaking work of Delores Williams must retain centrality. As a founding contributor to womanist theology, Williams makes the experiences of poor, Black, lesbian and straight women central frameworks for theologizing. In doing so, she exposes and critiques interlocking systems of oppression with a subtlety and nuance often missing from wide-ranging systemic or theoretical analyses in political theology. Her work issues the reminder that finely textured attunements are necessary and that political theological models require authentication in concrete experiences of exclusion and exploitation. Even further, her work makes clear that problematizing marginalization in abstraction must give way to historicized accounts of political theology that address the actual legacy of Black and brown enslavement and colonization, and the surrogate suffering of Black women more particularly. 

Essential texts: 

  1. Marie-José Mondzain, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary
  2. Silvia Federici, Caliban and The Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation
  3. Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race

All of Mondzain’s work is groundbreaking, highly original, and relevant to political theology. This text, one of the few that has been translated, brings together discourse around the image and representation, economy and exchange, and imperial rule to excavate ignored discourses that may have profoundly shaped our current moment. Mondzain provides background to classic studies such as Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle by showing how theology and Christian empire factored into the modern reign of the image. This work provides one highly original way of conceiving theology’s relationship to both economy and politics. Mondzain’s untranslated texts, including Le Commerce des Regards and Homo Spectator, are equally profound and relevant explorations in materialist phenomenology and should be attended to within political theology.

Likewise, Federici’s entire pathbreaking oeuvre of Marxist feminist scholarship is of great importance for political theology. This book sheds light on questions of social reproduction and women’s invisible labor within premodernity and the early colonial encounter. Approached through the lens of the witch hunt, it centers the role of religion, empire, and economic modes of production as played out on gendered and raced bodies. Her work attends to the background conditions and repressed supplement to capitalist accumulation: the necessary yet occluded role of women’s affective and reproductive labor. Theological critiques of unjust economic arrangements need to include such insights.

Jennings’s justly celebrated text is fast becoming central to the political theology conversation. While spatiality and critical geographies have been on the radar of those using critical theory with theology, Jennings breaks new ground in this convincing integration of theological genealogy with matters of space, place, and territory. He excavates how sovereignty and race have long been essential to how theology has developed in the West, revealing roots in the premodern period. His work also serves as a wonderful exemplar of integrating theory and history in theological writing.

Political theology as a theme and field of study: 

Most broadly, political theology as a field is the study of the interaction that takes place between theology and politics. Such interaction may be described in terms such as near identical overlap, correlation, mutual shaping, clear separation, or antagonism. Political theology as a theme, practice, or ideology involves the theological legitimation of or challenge to particular political arrangements. It may also involve the reverse: the political legitimation of theological doctrine and practice. While sovereignty has always appeared as a central concern for political theology, the operations of race have been more subtle, even if equally present. If sovereignty involves the legitimation of power structures and authority, race signals one of the ways such power is administered and allocated among the bodies of the governed. 

On the concept of canon:

Even while the concept of canon has been thoroughly critiqued and deconstructed, implicit canons remain and it may be best to acknowledge their presence rather than seek to repress them. The field of political theology presents no more special challenge to canonicity than any other field, for all fields of knowledge are fluid, open and contested, and subject to change and redefinition. If we can think of fields, like any traditions, as constituted by debate and agonism around the identity and boundaries of the field, then canons emerge even as they are continually under revision. To the extent that we create recommended reading lists with “key” or “essential” texts in a field, canon is created. If one’s definition of canon necessitates hard and exclusionary boundaries, this strikes me as problematic. But if canon invokes more the internal clustering of texts and conversations, with less regard for rigid lines around such clusters, this strikes me as workable. Discursive density around certain texts or groups of texts that converse with one another appears far less problematic than what we as humans have done with canon: enforcing and policing thematic boundaries, issuing value judgments about how our fellow humans interact or do not interact with such canons, and using institutional power structures to create consequences for such fellow humans based on our idiosyncratic evaluations of their use of canon. It is the latter set of responses, far more than canon itself, that should be confronted and denounced.

At the End of Liberal Theory

The texts I have identified as “need to become ‘essential’ texts” function in this spirit…Each addresses questions of community-creation outside of liberal norms and modes of power.

Deconstructing the Canon

If one speaks of Political Theology as a “field” with its own “canon” one must surely be preparing to deconstruct it.

Political Theology (政治神學) A Postcolonial Approach

The field has often shown a Eurocentric bias…As such, the field has left out important reflections on political theology during the anticolonial and postcolonial struggles in the Global South.

From A Liberationist Framework

My point is that in addition to being annoyingly Eurocentric, the discourse of political theology focuses more on administrators and theorists of the modern State than the victims of State.

Political Advocacy As A Humanist

This is a challenging question for me, as I am on the margins of political theology as a philosopher of religion and religious naturalist.

Christian Interrogation

…Political Theology is the sedimented yet changing and multifarious ways in which Christianity divides itself and (which is to say also: from) the world.

The Fluidity of the Field

Even while the concept of canon has been thoroughly critiqued and deconstructed, implicit canons remain and it may be best to acknowledge their presence rather than seek to repress them.

Wittgenstein’s Ladder

…I see my list on political theology functioning like Wittgenstein’s ladder metaphor in his Tractatus. Once graduate students read and grasp these important texts, they should “throw away the ladder”, so to speak, and deconstruct all they have learned about political theology to illuminate contemporary problems on their own. Once they reach the top, they can throw away the ladder.

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