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Politics of Scripture

What Is The Canon Of Political Theology? (Vincent Lloyd and David True)

The following is the editorial for Volume 18:17 (2017)  of the print journal Political Theology.

In last year’s editorial, we sketched a way of understanding the field of political theology — and so of understanding the remit of this journal. We appreciate the contribution of specific, disciplinary discussions to the broader field — discussions in political theory around the work of Carl Schmitt and discussions in Christian theology around the work of Jürgen Moltmann, Johann Baptist Metz, and Dorothee Sölle.

We also appreciate the varied, and often quite loose, ways that the field of political theology is invoked in a variety of disciplinary and transdisciplinary contexts across the humanities and some of the social sciences, often as a marker of critical (rather than empirical or purely descriptive) approaches to the intersection of religion and politics. In all these contexts, political theology usually brings with it a sometimes explicit, often implicit concern for social justice.

We have argued that political theology ought to make room for these varied discussions — and contentions. The field is at its most fecund when it is interdisciplinary, international, open to multiple religious traditions, open to critical as well as constructive projects, and guided in some way by social justice. Because of contingent features of the academic landscape (related to secularism), religious studies and theology scholars tend to import their theory from elsewhere and not export much, despite their sophisticated skills aimed at a crucial aspect of the world.

Our aspiration is for Political Theology to model an intellectual space without such a “trade deficit,” for it to be a place where scholars from across the humanities who invoke political theology can thicken their understanding of theology, and religion more broadly, and for it to be a place where scholars of religious studies and theology can learn about the most useful critical tools developing in other disciplines. At the end of the day, we aspire to create a sufficiently complex and vibrant space animated by intellectual questions that these disciplinary labels recede, if only for a moment.

What, then, is the canon of political theology? What are the texts that define the field, as we understand it, and as we wish it to be? The journal has hosted discussions of this question online at Political Theology Today.

A few years ago, we invited leading scholars in the field to name and explain their own “top ten” lists of political theology books, effectively making proposals for the field’s canon. Then, we invited scholars from various disciplines teaching political theology courses to share their syllabi and to reflect on why they thought the particular set of texts they taught represents the field of political theology.

This year, our colleague Roberto Sirvent created an online archive of “Five Favorite Book” lists from scholars at all stages in their careers, in a wide variety of disciplinary locations. Together, these provide a variegated network of responses to the question of canon.

Another way to approach the question of canon, one that underscores our aspirations for the journal, is to reflect on the scholarship of our distinguished editorial board members. These scholars volunteer their time to referee papers for the journal, to provide general guidance, and to serve as ambassadors for the journal. In many ways, their scholarship has defined the field of political theology as it is emerging today. They come from the disciplines of anthropology, political theory, law, comparative literature, Christian theology, and philosophy.

Half of them are based in the US, others are based in India, Israel, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada, Brazil, and Slovenia. They all draw on “classical” texts of political theology, whether these be by Carl Schmitt or Augustine of Hippo, John Howard Yoder or the Talmud, John Locke or Toni Morrison. But they all do more.

Ted Smith takes ideas from Walter Benjamin and applies them to a creative analysis of the abolitionist John Brown. George Shulman draws on the theories of Jacques Rancière and others to examine the way religious tropes animate African American literature and cultural criticism. Julie Cooper and Judith Butler recover resources from the Jewish political tradition for thinking subtly about diaspora, foregrounding questions of justice.

Hussein Ali Agrama, an anthropologist, immersed himself in the world of the Egyptian legal system, discerning the complex, ongoing contest between the religious and the secular which he takes to be constitutive of secularism. Rowan Williams, well-known for his leadership of the Anglican Communion, is a renowned scholar of Orthodox Christian thought and a constructive political theologian highlighting the way religious thought appreciates the difficulties of social life. Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan priest now teaching at Notre Dame, brings together peace-building practices in Africa and political-theological reflection on conflict and its resolution.

Bonnie Honig juxtaposes ordinary political practice, including the food politics the slow food movement, with Jewish political thought, including the intricate system of Franz Rosenzweig, in order to re-orient the field of political theology away from the problematic set by Carl Schmitt. Ludger Viefhues-Bailey and Erin Runions ask how Christian ideas operate in the background of debates about homosexuality.

These are just a few of our thirty editorial board members, and just a few instances of the sorts of intellectual projects that we take to be exemplary for the field of political theology. (If you are interested in how we conceive of the field, we would encourage you to peruse the publications of the full board.)

Over the coming years, we hope to see the diversity and vibrancy of such projects increasingly reflected in the pages of this journal. We are also eager to see this view of the field’s canon reflected in the book review pages of this journal, and our new team of book review editors are working to implement this vision. Jean-Michel Landry, an anthropologist based in Canada, Karma Ben Johanan, a historian based in Israel, Hannah Hofheinz, a liberation theologian based in the US, and Joshua Mauldin, a Protestant theologian also based in the US, are bringing their energy and intellectual curiosity to book discussions that will soon cross platforms, including not only the book reviews in the print journal and review essays but also online discussions and, in the longer term, book-centered discussions at in-person convenings.

It is through embracing complex collaboration guided by intellectual rigor and animated by social justice that we can provide a firm foundation for the next generation of scholars — allowing vigorous discussion to continue on questions of canon.

Vincent Lloyd and David True are the editors of the journal Political Theology.

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