The “New” New: Challenging Political and Public Theology

History, Traditions

Rather than understanding political theology as a single school of thought, I seek to define political theology as a more inclusive category by looking at the rich historical resources within each of the Abrahamic religions that help each tradition unpack the complex relationship between the political and theological spheres

Is there a conversation around political theology (as concept, field, method, or however you understand it) from the past twenty years that continues to fascinate you?

It has always fascinated me how the New Political Theology that dominated Christian intellectual thought in the aftermath of the Holocaust has narrowly circumscribed the field of political theology. Specifically, I am surprised and somewhat peeved that this rediscovery of “political theology” has given so much weight and influence to the work of German political theorist (and prominent member of the Nazi Party) Carl Schmitt. My own intellectual formation in a public state university included foundational coursework in political philosophy, beginning with classical Greek and Roman thinkers, but also including such major Christian figures as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr. In fact, whether studying philosophy, history, or political theory, I had to learn to read such modern thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the context of the development of Western Christian intellectual tradition.

In other words, by the time I read and engaged the work of Carl Schmitt—namely through the New Political Theology articulated by German post-Holocaust theologians Jürgen Moltmann, Dorothee Sölle, and Johann Baptist Metz—I had developed an ample arsenal of intellectual and spiritual resources that allowed me to engage Schmitt’s “political theology” without having to accept his reformulation of divine sovereignty for a secularized political context as normative. Consequently, I am heartened that in the past twenty years this narrative has been critically challenged and alternative narratives articulated, whether that of a biblically grounded liberation perspective, the rejection of secular Modernism by Radical Orthodoxy, or the appeal to religious socialism in the critical retrieval of the Social Gospel, or in the development of Catholic Social Teaching. As Gary Dorrien has opined, “Political theology needs a better genealogy than the Carl Schmitt story it usually tells” [Imagining Democratic Socialism (Yale University Press, 2019), 2].

If there is a guiding principle holding together my approach to political theology it is the simple idea that political theology—whatever that is—did not begin with Carl Schmitt’s fetishizing of totalitarian power structures in the essay “Politische Theologie” (1922). Rather than understanding political theology as a single school of thought, I seek to define political theology as a more inclusive category by looking at the rich historical resources within each of the Abrahamic religions that help each tradition unpack the complex relationship between the political and theological spheres. Perhaps a second guiding principle is the shared hope among the Abrahamic religions (and specifically the biblical prophetic tradition) that through communal action we can make a radical break with the political status quo in order to bring about profound social transformation.

What conversations working with the concept of political theology do you find most fruitful today?

I think we need to continue and expand the dialogue concerning the place of theological perspectives in public discourse. While recognizing that in the US and Europe religion is giving way to secularism at an alarming rate, the fact remains that Christianity continues to be the largest religion in the world (still growing and expanding in Latin America, Africa, and Asia), and that Islam, the world’s fastest growing religion, will be neck-and-neck with Christianity by the year 2050, so that together both religions will account for 64% of the world’s total population. Therefore, it is vital that religion be part of the public discourse since the majority of the world’s population continues to profess strong theological beliefs and ground their political choices in these beliefs.

At the same time, the way forward is not by advocating a “public” theology, if by public theology one means some form of confession-less, universally appealing discourse that transcends racial, cultural, economic, gendered, and religious perspectives at the expense of concrete and historically grounded differences. In light of this demand that theology make itself understandable to multiple publics, ethicist Jeffrey Stout offers this modest definition of “public” theology: “If you express theological commitments in a reflective and sustained way, while addressing fellow citizens as citizens, you are ‘doing theology’ publicly—and in that sense doing public theology” [Democracy and Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2004), 113]. By demanding religion’s place in the public discourse, political theologians are not imposing theocracy upon existing liberal democracies, nor arguing for some secularized civil religion grounded in the national mythos of the nation. Rather, as Charles Mathewes suggests, political theologians are articulating a “theology of public life” that aims at building the common good [A Theology of Public Life (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1].

It is my hope that the journal Political Theology, and the Political Theology Network, can continue to serve as forums that intentionally invite a diversity of perspectives, cultures, traditions, and disciplines to breathe life into a theology of public life that serves the common good.

Where do you hope to see discussions of political theology in 20 years?

At a recent interreligious conference on religion and violence in Nuremberg, Germany, a Jewish scholar raised a troubling critical question none of the presenters had addressed in their papers: Why do we assume that nonviolence is always preferable to violence without considering the possibility that there might be positive aspects of violence? As Dr. Reuven Firestone, of Hebrew Union College, pointed out, violence, from an evolutionary perspective, is often viewed as a positive force, one of the mechanisms of natural selection. This challenge raises a series of important interdisciplinary questions that the disciplines of political theology and theological ethics will need to engage moving forward. Particularly problematic for a theistic approach is the foundational assumption of evolutionary theory that all life arose by random chance from a single-celled organism through a natural process of selection and mutation to the vast an complex biological diversity known today, which seems to run counter to the theological belief that humankind is the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and therefore occupies a unique place in Creation. Since there are different but complementary ways of describing and interpreting reality, every discipline—including political theology—ought to engage the world by means of a multi-disciplinary and cross-contextual process of inquiry.

20 years, 3 Questions

Symposium Essays

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The Bible and Politics

The narrow formulation of the concept of Political Theology as the tracing of Protestant theological categories in contemporary political thought presents some challenge for the historically oriented biblical scholar.

Gil Anidjar

Reflection on the Ongoing Catastrophe

I cannot say that I hope for more discussions of political theology in 20 years. But I do hope for the endurance of conversation, indeed, for the preservation of the art and wisdom of conversation.

The “New” New: Challenging Political and Public Theology

Rather than understanding political theology as a single school of thought, I seek to define political theology as a more inclusive category by looking at the rich historical resources within each of the Abrahamic religions that help each tradition unpack the complex relationship between the political and theological spheres

M. Shawn Copeland

Wider and Deeper Analysis

While political theology must possess planetary (global) concerns, it must work locally and collaborate across locales to further understanding, decision, and action to meet those concerns.

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Contextual crisis analysis

The question for us, and for the field of political theology, is how do we wish to live in the end?

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Political Theology and Political Crisis

It seems like an important task of political theology is to critically reflect on moments of political crisis by pulling back the veil on its latent theological content.

Cathleen Kaveny

Law and Political Obligations

“What do I owe my fellow citizens whose conscience reaches different conclusions than my own?”

Faisal Devji

Political Theology in the Absence of Authority

How might we think about political theology in the absence of conventional scriptural, interpretive or institutional authorities together with their conceptual worlds?

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Political Theology, Public Life, and Economic Structures

We are currently seeing folks pause to reflect both on what has historically counted as “political theology” and the ways in which those evaluate norms and frameworks need to shift moving forward.

Aristotle Papanikolaou

Practices and Pluralism

Political theology needs to talk more about the role of religion in liberal democratic spaces such that those spaces are constituted as radically pluralistic.

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