The phrase “political theology” is used in many ways, across many disciplines. Over the past few years, an increasing number of courses have been offered calling themselves Political Theology, or describing their topics as political theology. We have invited faculty from political science, religious studies, theology, and history who teach courses on political theology to share their syllabi on this blog over the coming weeks, and to reflect on political theology pedagogy. I have kicked off the series with some reflections on my own courses.
When teaching graduate students in religious studies departments, I find it most useful to frame political theology as both a theoretical conversation (standing between Christian theology and the humanities) and a method that can be used in reading texts (in the broadest sense). As a method, political theology is useful for budding historians of religion, ethnographers, ethicists, religion and literature scholars, and many others because it develops attunement to the way that religious ideas are present but repressed in ostensibly secular contexts. Moreover, given the inextricability of power and politics from all scholarly inquiry, political theology offers religious studies students a way of thinking about how religion, power, and politics are entwined. To develop skills in using political theology as a method it is necessary to engage with theoretical and theological texts. This is where I encounter resistance from graduate students in other subfields who see themselves as more interested in “application” than in “theory.” But a method is a way of thinking, not automated machinery, and so wrestling with the contest of ideas that has defined the field of political theology is unavoidable. I think that offering historical and social context to “theory,” and framing “theory” as a set of conversations, makes it more accessible to those prone to resistance.
The first political theology-related course that I taught, Race and Political Theology (syllabus), started with several weeks of theory and then invited students to apply that theory to works of African American literature. The course was challenging in that the students were a mix of theology students and humanities students (philosophy, literature, and religious studies), and they were a mix of masters and doctoral level students. Everyone enjoyed, and I think learned from, the novels that we read. This “application” phase of the course also showed students that they were not just observers to a distant conversation but could themselves be participants, both in class and in final papers.
This semester I am teaching a course simply titled Political Theology (syllabus). We are more thoroughly tracking various conversations among and between theologians and secular theorists. The final four weeks of the course are left unscheduled, and students will be invited to share with the class political theological readings of texts relevant to their own interest during those weeks. Somewhat surprisingly, we have found that using the blackboard to draw diagrams is particularly helpful in making sense of the dense writings of Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben, and Claude Lefort. While we have a week towards the end of the semester focused on more recent developments in political theology, including racial and gender inflections, I wish I would have done more to incorporate engagements with difference throughout the course.