What is political theology? As we near the exciting launch of the Political Theology Network, it is certainly a question worth asking. After all, what good is it if we want to promote political theology as a discipline when we are unsure what that discipline is or should be?
Rather than police the boundaries of political theology, perhaps this is the perfect time for us to figure them out together, with the help of what I’d like to call “messy collaborations.” We may not know what the field of political theology will look like in one year, two years, or ten years. But this shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. Instead, it is the kind of vulnerability, surprise, and disorder that we should embrace.
The field of political theology has grown in large part due to many enriching conversations and collaborations. If political theology is going to continue to grow it must continue this practice. We must collaborate.
And these collaborations need to be messy.
What do I mean by messy collaborations? They are collaborations with people who we would never think of collaborating with. They are collaborations with authors who irritate us, colleagues whose work you do not take seriously, activists who have never attended college, and intellectuals with whom your dean does not want you breaking bread.
Messy collaborations are also in spaces and places we never would have imagined before. They are collaborations outside of the Ivy League auditorium and elite publishing houses. They take place in community colleges, mosques, elementary schools, town hall meetings, hospitals, and the local newspaper that (you think) no one reads. They also take place at the unglamorous academic conferences that your department chair refuses to take seriously.
What would it look like, for example, if I attended a small colloquium or graduate student conference at my local state university? What if it was in a field I’ve never even heard of? What if I didn’t feel the need to present a paper? What if, instead, I was perfectly okay with just listening, or setting up chairs? What if I were able to make some new friends?
Finally, messy collaborations explore topics, stories, and methods that are, well, messy! In the field of political theology, how often do we close ourselves to others’ ideas because they’re not theological enough? Or they’re not political enough? Or they’re too theological? Or too political? But these are conclusions we cannot afford to make in advance.
Not when there’s so much at stake. Who are we to say that our conceptions of what is sufficiently theological or political are the right ones? Might we be missing out on a chance to have these narrow conceptions of ours challenged, dismantled, and enriched by refusing to even entertain these disruptive ideas? If the field of political theology is going to be devoted to the processes of learning and disciplining, it must be equally devoted, if not more, to the processes of un-learning and un-disciplining.
So what are some practical ways we can engage in messy collaborations with one another? I’ve outlined a few preliminary suggestions below, but I invite readers to add their ideas in the comments section:
- When trying to find someone with whom to write your next article, instead of asking “Whose work do I really admire?” consider asking, “Whose work is a little strange to me?” or “Whose work borders on heresy?” This isn’t to say that you should stop working with people whose work you love. By all means, please continue to do so since this can be one of the most life-giving experiences of academia. Rather, the point is that by occasionally initiating a collaboration with someone whose work already sits in tension with your own, it might generate insight and wisdom that neither of you could have anticipated. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. It might even get really messy. But you won’t know until you try.
- Do you plan to invite some guest lecturers to your class this year? Most of us tend to invite scholars or clergy-members whose work we know well. The comfort here is that we have a pretty good idea of what they are going to say. Perhaps a messier collaboration would involve inviting someone whose work we don’t know well and who might even be known for being a little too provocative (whatever that means). To make it even better, consider asking this guest lecturer to refrain from sharing the topic they will be covering. What better way to use the classroom as a place of risk, surprise, and an intellectual adventure than by having absolutely no idea what’s going to be taught today!
- How could we all practice a little bit more disciplinary promiscuity? This is a term floating around certain humanities circles that encourages scholars to resist mastery and instead immerse themselves in and flirt with disciplines outside their primary field. The risk here is that other colleagues in your field won’t take you seriously since you don’t stick to your discipline’s canon. In short, you risk being viewed as superficial at best or an academic fraud at worst. But disciplinary promiscuity is the kind of method that political theologians should embrace. I, for one, could practice a lot more promiscuity in my research. If I weren’t such a slow reader—and an even slower writer—then I could pursue the following “promiscuous” research projects:
- Reading Latin American theologian Elsa Tamez alongside decolonial philosopher Maria Lugones and Columbia professor Saidiya Hartman.
- Reading Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God alongside Lisa Marie Cacho’s Social Death and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake.
- Reading Saba Mahmood’s critique of secularism alongside Su’ad Abdul Khabeer’s Muslim Cool and Lutheran pastor Ken Chitwood’s research on Islam in Latina/o and Latin America.
- Constructing a critique of liberalism from William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence, Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents, and Aziz Rana’s forthcoming book on constitutional veneration.
- Imagining a world free of prisons by placing Vincent Lloyd’s and Joshua Dubler’s new book Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons in conversation with Kelly Lytle’s Hernandez’s new book City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles and Amber Rose Howard’s activism efforts at Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB).
Many of these projects might lead to something worth publishing, and others might not. Again, I won’t know until I try. But it might turn out that a little promiscuity can go a long way.
We must certainly be sensitive to the anxiety some of us feel in pursuing these messy collaborations. One of the main objections political theologians might have is how such collaborations are perceived in academia. Since part of the risk is that we will never know in advance whether our collaboration will lead to a published article, ground-breaking book, or keynote lecture—many of these probably won’t— it can discourage PhD students, adjuncts, and tenure-track faculty to pursue them. The fear is that our department chairs, deans, or colleagues won’t take this research seriously and will see many of our collaborations as failures.
There is no easy way to fix this. Obviously, it will take more than just a few good-hearted college presidents or tenure committee chairs to reduce our anxiety. What is needed is a change in culture. And it’s this change in culture that the Political Theology Network is in a prime position to generate. It will take the whole network: its scholars, activists, teachers, authors, clergy people, students, journal editors, publishers, etc. to change the way we think about collaborations and the way we think about the production of knowledge.
Ultimately, the Political Theology Network can play a pivotal role in how we think (and un-think) dominant ideologies of success and failure in academia. To do so, the network cannot only involve those of us on the inside; it must listen to those on the outside as well. Those who, we presume, don’t fit in with what we’re trying to do: those who are suspicious of theology; those who are suspicious of politics; those who reject the field; those who the field rejects.
This isn’t to say that political theology will mean everything and therefore will mean nothing. Different people will negotiate the discipline’s boundaries in different ways for different purposes. To be sure, some of these boundaries will be legitimate, even necessary. But we cannot know these boundaries in advance. We cannot figure them out on our own. And the process of drawing them will always, hopefully, remain unfinished.
Roberto Sirvent is Associate Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University. He is co-author with Duncan Reyburn of God, Gods, and Throwing Like a Girl: A Political Theology of Sport (Cascade Publications, forthcoming) and Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine (Pickwick Publications, 2014).