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Some theses on ‘political theology’

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1. Caesar is not an archetype.

2. Constantine is not an archetype.

3. Empire is not an archetype.

4. The state is not an archetype.

5. Combining all of these non-archetypes together will not produce an archetype which one might then set against “the lordship of Christ” (whatever this frequently pompous-sounding phrase might be taken to mean, as if all “political theologians” were actual forerunners of the eschaton).

6. What’s that? You aren’t an economist? Well then, why do you try so hard to sound like one?

7. And wait — there’s more? You also have no academic training whatsoever in economics — neither at the graduate level nor even at the undergraduate level? Well then, why do you write as if you do?

8. Theological study does not equip theologians to approach any other academic subject or field — for example, economics or political theory — from a privileged position.

9. All education requires toil. If a theologian wishes to write about economics (for example), then he or she must undertake the same toil as an economist, mastering the same body of knowledge according to the same academic standards. This applies to all other academic subjects and fields as well.

10. If theological education does not endeavor to teach according to these same standards, and if it does not require its students to adhere to these same standards, then it will degenerate into merest mechanical preaching.

11. Today, political protest is for people who want to hear themselves speak (or chant, or yell), as if complex issues might be oversimplified and reduced to nothing more than slogans. Thus protest today is not a form of political engagement but a form of political neglect — and, in extreme instances, political abuse.

12. The Christian is called to seek and embody far more than the activist’s will to power.

13. Learn to think historically and logically or you will not be able to think at all. Only small minds are impressed with big fat books animated by speculative theses and punctuated by esoteric terminology.

14. While perusing the tomes of knowledge, one should constantly hear an echo of the voice of God: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord?” (Job 41:1ff.)

15. If education does not produce a profound sense of one’s own finitude, then one deserves to hear only the judgment of God: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2)

16. The context of theology is never the Academy (and never a culture, and never a polis) but always and only the Church in the world.

2 Responses to “Some theses on ‘political theology’”

  1. Craig Uffman says:

    Ben, your thinking here in fact privileges current divisions in academia, embracing secular claims as normative.

    Caesar, Constantine, empire, and the state may not be archetypes, but any scholar well-read in the field of political theology over the last fifty years recognizes them as technical terms — as metaphors invoking decades of disputation about the relation between church and state. They are a helpful shorthand as long as one is well-read in the field and so knows how these connotations have been qualified through argument already.

    “Lordship of Christ” is similarly well-established symbolic language arising from studies, in particular, of Luke’s two volumes, wherein Luke’s special focus is to narrate the unfolding of the world’s recognition of Jesus as Lord, over and against the emperor of Rome. Those same themes resonate in Paul’s corpus. If this is “pompous-sounding” to you, that suggests an unfamiliarity with the trajectory of biblical scholarship in Lukan and Pauline studies since the 1960s wherein the prominence of Christ’s lordship as a theme of the New Testament has been well-established.

    I can well-understand how the terms in #1-#5 would be threatening to defenders of the status quo, whether it be Roman or American power or that of King Charles I. Chronologically, they arose from ethical discourse informed by liberation theology in its critique of Latin American political domination, and then became commonly used metaphors as the branch now called ‘ecclesial ethics’ developed, criticizing both the methods of both liberation theology (‘subversive ethics’) and universalist ethics (deontology, utilitarianism, etc.).

    Your thesis #9 is where puzzlement is most evident. You suggest that to speak with authority on economics or other divisions of knowledge one must have expertise in what the academy values in terms of the field of economics. Your thesis seems to be unaware of the hierarchy of knowledge areas which see all knowledge as one, and which locates philosophy and theology at the top, with others being specializations that can only be properly understood through the lens of proper philosophy and theology. Theology is nothing if not political, and nothing if not economics. These two fields are not properly divided from philosophy and theology, but are divisions of them. A theologian is certainly capable of valid critique of our economics and politics because both are examples of what’s called practical theology or practical divinity or, most simply, ethics.

    The two best examples that demonstrate this are Torah and the gospels where the entry point into discussion of politics and economics is a set of descriptions of reality (the dispositions of God, humankind, and the relation between the two). These descriptions of reality ARE theology. But one could just as easily disprove your thesis by simple reference to Aristotle or the Puritans. Theoria and phronesis are distinct but inseparable, and we can have confidence that our knowledge is sound only when it can be demonstrated from first principles.

    So, contrary to your claim, philosophers and theologians do not at all need to be immersed in what the academy calls economics or politics in order to critique the fruits of practitioners. Those fields are simply convenient divisions of theological ethics into specialized silos for the convenience of the academy. A quick study of the history of philosophy and the university will confirm that the divisions that you now proclaim as normative in fact are inventions of the academy in response to the fact of pluralism. In Christendom, no such walls were acknowledged because knowledge itself was seen as one. (If this is unfamiliar to you, I refer you to the work of the great Franciscan scholar from the University of Paris, Bonaventure, who refutes your divisions in his discourse with Aquinas over the role of Aristotle in theology).

    In critiquing those fruits, the theologian does so from the perspective of one authorized and prepared especially for the task of “working with words in the light of faith” (Hauerwas’ way of describing our role). That sentence is tightly bound. “Working with words” entails working with our descriptions of reality which is the special domain of philosophical and theological inquiry (reason and revelation). Describing reality requires a grammar, and grammar is the domain of philosophy. The philosopher engages our discourse on economics or politics from the perspective of one charged with clarifying our descriptions of reality so that our reasoning is grounded in ultimate reality. The theologian does so, however, “in light of faith.” That means that the theologian does philosophy particularly from the perspective of expertise in the endoxa of faith. To describe reality so that it is grounded in ultimate reality is to describe reality so that it is grounded in that which God has revealed about God and creation, which is to say we must speak of God, “but the God to whom and about whom we must speak defines the words we use.”

    This obviously limits what a theologian can rightly say to clarifications in our descriptions of reality arising from the light of faith. It makes no sense for a theologian without additional expertise to offer comment about macroeconomic theory, but a theologian can certainly contribute to the discussion by reminding us that the economics of scarcity that is the beginning point of much economic theory is in fact a false view of reality, and propose that we rightly see economics in terms of the superabundance that God providentially provides. And a theologian can rightly contribute to political discussion by reminding us of Jesus’ own teachings against violence, and reminding us that the truth about the world is not that it is essentially violent but that it has received the gift of peace. Both of these are lines of prophetic discourse proper to theologians, and have been since the first prophets of Israel.

    Theologians speak of economics and politics not from a privileged perspective, but from a particular perspective. They speak “in the light of faith,” and, as such, their discourse in these fields is rightly understood as words to the church and for the church and about the church. When speaking of these things they are properly engaging in ethical discourse that ought not be offered or received as universally applicable, but rather ought be offered and received as words directed particularly to, for, and about the ethics of the church.

  2. How can a metaphor be a technical term? This makes no sense.

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