Saturday, October 18, 2014

What is Political Theology?

By Craig Hovey

Sometimes students ask me what political theology means. It's a class I love to teach so I thought I'd share the long description I came up with when I proposed the course.

REL 308 Political Theology - Spring 2015 TTh 10:50 am.

Fulfills Humanities Core.

This course introduces students to the major loci of contemporary political theology, including but not limited to current critiques of statecraft, recent developments in liberalism and democracy, political readings of the Bible, the fundamental orientation of the church vis-à-vis the political, violence and justice, marginalization and liberation (especially on matters of race and gender), the economy and globalization, and apocalypticism and eschatology. (The term “political theology” very often implies a focus on recent scholarship, as it is meant to do in this case. The term originates with Carl Schmitt’s 1922 essay by the same title.) The course is highly text-focused and deeply analytical, demonstrating and requiring a great deal of critical care in the handing of religious and political ideas.

It is hardly possible to overstate the degree to which our historical moment is ripe for the kind of serious and sustained exploration of theo-political questions which this course examines. From the profoundly renewed political self-awareness and self-confidence of fundamentalisms of many kinds, to the perceived inadequacies of secularizing moves enacted on entire nations (such as Turkey), to challenges from Jürgen Habermas, Pope Benedict XVI, and others for Europe to find an identity vis-à-vis its Christian past, to many of the political assumptions long taken for granted in the Christian West now facing resistance within Islam in ways that are at times acute, to the well-attested shift of Christianity’s center of gravity to the global South, the opening decades of the twenty-first century present a pivotal challenge to bring greater depth and clarity to topics of political theology that are likely to be with us for some time. This course is designed to be timely and relevant in light if these kinds of developments. Over time the course will adapt to shifts in scholarly and popular religious and political trends in order to remain on the cutting edge of theological-political matters.

Following several decades in which the term “political theology” was seen by many to indicate how religious beliefs could “go public” by being made to serve political ends, the discourse is now experiencing resurgence. Spurred on by a number of attempts to recover classical Christian sources that predate contemporary nation-state forms, contemporary political theology now often presents itself in a way that few would mistake for the “public theology” of the late-twentieth century. Several strands of theology once again assert the significance of Christianity’s political inheritance as a theological topos in its own right. This course investigates the enduring significance of classical political-theological texts and concepts through contemporary writers. The resurgence of political theology is not only of interest as a matter internal to Christian theology; it also represents a notable riposte to the popular surge of interest in “new atheism” and works on “religious violence” which consider the mixture of theology and politics to be necessarily ill-advised, if not extremely dangerous.

One result of this renaissance is a certain ambiguity concerning the way that political theology is identifying itself, an ambiguity that this course explores. Principally: what does a theological understanding of political matters have to say to other understandings? For example, many working in the liberation theology tradition have discovered that, on their own, Marxist critiques say too little, truncating the full expression of the Christian gospel’s liberative message by conceiving of liberation in opposition to existing power structures, thus mirroring them. Likewise, as Christian political expressions have attempted to break down the confining structure of liberalism’s strong dichotomy between the public and private spheres, moral questions among the religious and non-religious “others” in a pluralist society demand the kind of careful and vigorous attention that this course promotes. Related to this is recent scholarship on the meaning of “the secular” (in the work of John Milbank, David Martin, and Charles Taylor, for examples), particularly as its genealogy can be shown to be a development within theology rather than a straightforward departure from all things theological. For these reasons, this course approaches political theology as a broad area of theological study that also touches on a number of other disciplines.

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