What’s faith got to do with it? Whatever political theology involves, faith has everything to do with it. In a time of political meltdowns, pandemic and war, deepening and widening inequities around the globe, we need more than a political “theology” or “theory.” We need faith, preferably one that refuses the sacred and secular binary while recognizing the insights from both for thinking about politics. That is what I take political theorist George Shulman to offer us in his Letters on Political Theology. This essay reclaims the value and role of faith in Shulman’s political theology and shows why it is important for wrestling with our contemporary political realities.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic (and now war, Russia’s “war” with Ukraine but certainly not the only ongoing war), we were already facing one of the most difficult challenges in our lifetimes. We were—and are—living in an age of international mass manufacturing of disprovable lies with planetary reach and consequences that are certainly not always foreseeable. Perhaps, if it were possible to know in advance that a global pandemic was on the horizon, we would have taken truth claims and science more seriously. And we could have ensured that they were fortified as best as possible without being made indestructible. Since truth claims and science, however, were already being weakened before the political meltdowns, pandemic, and war, the groundwork was already being laid for those very catastrophes to exist while the conditions for their mitigation were being constantly arrested.
What, then, are we to do? While any answer will be varied, multilateral, and rife with conflict, I want to focus on the way Shulman moves us away from “theology,” “philosophy,” or “theory” as principled conceptual frameworks for thinking about the political and its challenges. In shifting our attention to what subtends any political theology, Shulman highlights the underlying power of faith — our ultimate commitments and unnamed affectivities that we cannot get behind yet animating so much of what we believe (to be true or false) and how we act politically. “Every regime,” Shulman writes, “is anchored in faith–whether faith in god or atheism, or in rule by reason, or in equality and universal human rights–and… every ‘faith’ has a worldly bearing on the collective life we make.” No individual, group, or governing body is without some kind of faith. Even those of us who might be convinced that we are “outside of faith,” are still subject to its power, since Shulman thinks it likely “we have not yet identified the faith (the presumptions, the framework) we remain within.” By identifying faith as that which is at the bottom of any political theology or ideology, Shulman locates what we cannot afford to take for granted in our thinking about the political.
This point is crucial and it holds across the spectrum of political and religious differences. If we cannot identify the faith that is buried within our political thinking and affectivity, then we are at the mercy of the ideological winds of that political perspective. We can only hope that those winds would blow in our direction, a direction in which all stand to benefit. But they often times do not — without action or force. Those winds are often found blowing in the direction of—usually at the behest of—the ruling elite and the professional managerial class. If we all are clinging to some presumption or faith, no matter how maximalist or minimalist, then it is likely to be in our individual and collective best interest to figure out what those presumptions entail in order to determine how and to what degree those commitments might be antagonistic to living together on this planet. The stakes—of faith—could not be higher.
Shulman’s reconceptualization of political theology as (postsecular) faith forces us to ask: What kind of faith do we already have? In what ways does our faith encourage an expansion or enclosure of whoever we take our kin(d) to be? What is the object of that faith? Is our faith worth preserving? To begin answering those questions, we first need to understand that his reconceptualization of political theology is also a reconceptualization of “politics.” He wants us to “imagine politics not simply as ‘government’ but rather as naming what we would call ‘collective self-fashioning’—i.e. how people form and shape themselves—and are formed and shaped–into collective subjects (communities, groups, tribes, peoples, city-states, nations, empires, churches) and thereby take shape as individuals.” In this sense, a proper political faith, for Shulman, recognizes the importance of not only our deepest commitments and affects, but also our intersubjectivity and interdependence.
While it might appear that Shulman is deemphasizing the significance of power and governance in thinking about politics or political theology, he does not want us to lose track of the seemingly disposable fact that whatever we take politics to be, it is inescapably about us — as collectives and individuals. That focus, then, should (re)sensitize any power-oriented theory of politics that runs the risk of displacing any of us, especially the least of these among us, for the sake of its metaphilosophical, structural, and procedural analysis. Shulman deepens his relentless focus on people by being attentive to how politics is also fundamentally about contestation. Wherever people are, people will contest each other and whatever else around them. The moment we get stuck thinking about politics in the abstract, we have lost something invaluable and a critical safeguard against overly conceptualizing contestation in depersonalized terms. That seems to be a deep intuition of Shulman. I read him in that way because he poetically offers five ways to “imagine politics as contests,” outlining them as follows:
Imagine politics as contests over power and rules (over who rules and how, over who rules and by what norms or values, as contests involving both power and legitimacy). Imagine politics as contests over how we conceive, rank, and practice values. Imagine politics as contests over our central constitutive practices – how we labor, reproduce ourselves (not only biologically but by way of culture as cultivation). Imagine politics as contests over the meanings we make and live by. Imagine politics as constantly contesting and redefining that “we.”
Within our current political landscape, while we might be more aware of various attempts at “constantly contesting” the “we,” Shulman helps us to notice that “we” is also constantly being redefined while being contested. This insight tells us something inherent to politics for Shulman, that is, “‘politics’ at once instantiates and disrupts a community or institution.” Such instantiations and disruptions are often for purposes, political and otherwise, that are not always (or meant to be) obvious, particularly to the non-elites.
One of the crucial ways communities, institutions, and collectives are (re)constituted is through the use of narratives. I do not think I can overstate how significant narratives are for Shulman’s political theology. Narratives are both the imaginative story-formed instrument of ordinary people and of (corporate) state power. They have been created and deployed to underwrite many kinds of political projects. And they are often indistinguishable from the political project itself.
This seems to be what leads Shulman to argue that “the fundamental political act is ‘framing’ circumstances and history by narrative story-telling, and by artful speech and powerful examples, people are interpellated by leaders and poets into that faith or narrative frame.” Shulman continues, “Narratives frame every controversy, precede all ‘pragmatic’ action. Narratives are both the site and medium of politics in its more conventional senses.” If narratives play such a powerful role in politics (in a conventional sense), then the faith upon which destructive narratives thrive must at least be contended. And they must contend against what Shulman calls an “alter-faith” or “counter-theology.” To appreciate the richness of such faith or theology, one should note that, for Shulman, (postsecular) faith has much to do with poesis—“the organizing fictions, narratives and metaphors by which people imagine, name, and shape the world and themselves.” This understanding of faith brings into relief the myriad ways in which we arrange ourselves into various collectives and the imaginative narratives that frame how we understand the circumstances of our lives and the actions we could and even should (or should not) take collectively.
While the narratives that are currently circulating with political force (e.g., “Take back this country for God;” “2020 presidential election was stolen;” “All lives matter;” “Critical Race Theory is being taught in primary schools”) are imaginative and fictive like every narrative, that does not mean they do not have global and material consequences. Almost everything is wrapped in some kind of narrative, making it even more difficult to examine and question the faiths that could unwittingly stand in the way of achieving higher ends. Whether it is (an unidentified) faith in democracy, rules, laws, norms, institutions, justice, identity, civility, radicality, tribalism, (anti-)capitalism or any cherished object, we should be wary of their likely hold on us. If whatever we hold ends up holding us tighter, that seems to be the making for propaganda to flourish, instead of a healthy skepticism. In short, faith without doubt is propaganda.
With Shulman’s analytic of faith, we can better determine the frames and narratives that might need to be abolished, amended, or augmented. This perspective positions us to fulfill our civic responsibilities prophetically, becoming the prophet of which Shulman believes we all are capable.
Every person is capable of being a prophet, an idea that runs through radical Protestantism to Blake and then into the Emersonian tradition in the US. Every person bears that prophetic capacity because every person is called to and can (in principle) hear/channel ‘the voice of god’ (Blake calls it both our ‘poetic genius’ and ‘the voice of honest indignation’–our imaginative capacity and our sense of justice) – and because every person is called to and can (in principle) bear witness to suffering, name its causes, and poeticize its meaning.
While I certainly appreciate Shulman democratizing the office of prophet, I cannot help but wonder what he would make of our contemporary moment. As I see it, almost everyone seems to think they are a prophet of some kind or at least being prophetic, especially in publics like social media. These “prophets” who take themselves to be some version of “telling it like it is” seem to be more interested in scoring points and accumulating profits. In my view, Shulman’s prophet, however, channels a higher vision and bears witness to the sufferings of others at the expense of building one’s own brand, pockets and stature. The “alter-faith” of the prophet has to be less preoccupied with oneself in order to better hear the voices of others outside of oneself.
With this kind of prophet-enabling faith, we, as (re)emerging prophets, should avail ourselves to “our imaginative capacity” and courage to cut through the darkness parading around so much of our (political) lives while extinguishing as much of it as we can together for one another. However, we might have to risk losing faith in order to (re)gain faith, one upon which a better world can be reimagined and restructured. It may be that we have to risk losing our faith—giving up our sacred cows and our debilitating attachments to them—to gain a more suitable vision for recreating a more inhabitable world. To live into the prophetic role we all have been called to, prophets of alter-faith must develop a habit of critically reading the world the way Shulman urges his students to read texts:
How you read these texts [or the world] will tell you about yourself, because our readings inescapably manifest how you ‘read’ and engage the world beyond the text. Do you read for contradiction and ambiguity? Do you allow yourself to be seduced by a text [or this world], undone, opened up, only later recovering or achieving critical distance? I hope we will make steps in learning to begin with humility rather than arrogance about one’s preconceptions, to put one’s assumptions and identity at risk, to surrender–at least at first–to the experience a text [or world] creates. I think that is the only path to real learning — by surrender and risk. Consider the contradictions in the text [or the world] not as a fault (the mote in its eye, while a plank is in your own) but as illustrative or instructive — ask, what is going on here, what is the author struggling with, trying to dramatize, what problems and questions is the text [or the world] raising, addressing, or answering? Are they our problems and questions, too? Ask, too, what questions or issues are being avoided or covered over or falsely resolved? In what ways does the text [or the world] “answer” the questions it asks or raises? Does it complicate its answer? Suggest there is no solution? Show the necessity of the question but the plurality and contingency of how it can be answered? Imagine your relationship to the text [or the world], your way of reading, as a mirror of your relationship to life, your way of living. To consider how to read is always to consider how to live, and each is, at once, a personal and political question.
 Interesting enough, while Shulman does not seem to engage “postsecular” discourse in his “Letters on Political Theology,” this faith can be understood as a kind of “postsecular” faith.
 Shulman, “Letters on Political Theology,” 1.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 5.
 Shulman, “Letters on Political Theology,” 6-7.