I first taught this graduate seminar in 2008 as a “Topics in Political Thought” course, and called it “Political Theologies” – a political theory seminar, cross-listed with Study of Religion. Part of the motivation for teaching it was finding a set of themes and readings that would work well in a cross disciplinary way, as I’m jointly appointed to both Political Science and Study of Religion and fullfill my split teaching obligations by teaching courses that work cross-disciplines (hence the JPR code – Joint Politics Religion).
As you can see from the texts, the course is mostly about what Hent de Vries called “the turn to religion” in continental political philosophy. The main reason for this problematic and the selection of texts was that I wanted to better master both the questions and the texts – we all know grad seminars are a great way of doing this. After its second year, I changed the title of the course, partly because I thought it was something of a misnomer – the course takes up the problem of the theologico-political in democratic thought, which isn’t the same thing as an inquiry into political theology. Mostly however, it was because there was a sense among colleagues that the “theologies” part was off-putting for political theory students!
Over the 5 years I taught the course, I always had a fairly even split between political theory students and study of religion students, who were typically more varied in their disciplinary focus – some philosophy of religion, some Islamic studies, some Christian origins, some anthropology. Most students were unfamiliar with continental political philosophy and were approaching these thinkers for the first time. So the syllabus was pretty challenging, even though there was a certain progression or logic in the order of readings. Over the years I experimented with different readings – Claude Lefort’s “The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?”, Agamben’s Homo Sacer ( which logically came after Schmitt and Benjamin and before Derrida’s force of Law), Derrida’s Rogues (which I found was too much, and replaced with a “light” version, Philosophy in a Time of Terror) are texts I’ve taught in previous iterations. I always hesitated over “Faith and Knowledge”, but always ended up including it, even though it’s incredibly dense and difficult. The sessions were built around directed close reading, rather than general discussion, since I think the material really demands it.
The exchanges between the political theory students, who often came better equipped to take on political concepts and their histories, but who’d never thought of the canon from the perspective of a theologico-political problematic, and the religion students, who were much better prepared to think with and not just against the religious or theological, were what made this seminar so exciting and fruitful. One of the other great things that came out of it were the connections made between religion and political theory students that lasted beyond the course, through reading groups and seminars. Finally, the course was incredibly fun to teach, and helped me immensely in my own thinking about “political theology” as a problematic, in the double sense of the word.
Ruth Marshall is Associate Professor of Political Science and the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Political Spiritualties: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria (University of Chicago Press, 2009).