Political Theology syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for this course, and also to Sean Capener, some of whose ideas for excerpts I have borrowed, and to Robin James, whose pitch/thinkpiece assignment I’ve adapted! I’ll be starting to teach my joint second- and third-year course on Political Theology next week and I’m somewhat nervously looking forward to it – I think of all the courses I’ve taught this is the one with the most texts that have most profoundly shaped my thinking, which I know can sometimes make it more difficult to teach well.

Module summary:
“All significant concepts of the modern state are secularized theological concepts”. With this claim, Carl Schmitt began the discipline of political theology, which seeks to understand the relationship between theological conceptions of God and the world and politics. This module will seek to explore these interconnections, from the bureaucratic function of angels to the god-like power of money. How have theology and politics informed one another, and what does it mean to recognise the theological origins of many key systems and structures of many of our supposedly secular ways of thinking?

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Thoughts in the wake of the Texas anti-abortion law

[A blogpost version of a Twitter thread from earlier this morning.]

I grew up as a conservative evangelical and understand why the appeal to the life of the fetus has proven such a powerful argument. But forced childbirth is ghoulish and dystopian and it concerns a 100% definite human being we can see and talk to right now.

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What is the chief end of man?

A few months ago, my friend Anthony Paul Smith posted a couple tweets that I have continued to mull over. Responding to some online discourse worrying about the declining birthrate in the US, he wrote:

There’s something deeply, ontologically creepy about birth rate discourse and how so much is tied to the Ponzi scheme we’ve set up as a society that requires unlimited population growth to support unlimited creation of wealth, unmoored from ecological connections.

Also I think we’ve reached a stage in human development where most people don’t know what the point of the future of the human race is. Make iPhones by oppressing a majority of the world? Helping Elon Musk send a bunch of corpses to Mars for his own ego? Unlimited breadsticks?

I think the same about returning to “normal” after the pandemic. I have certainly longed for normality, but now that it’s becoming more of a reality, I’m reminded of all the annoying and boring and mildly humiliating things that we accepted as “normal.” Why were we in such a hurry to get back to this? And why — despite all the early-pandemic articles speculating that this massive disruption could be a social reset allowing us to clarify our goals and values — does there seem to be no alternative to the binary of pandemic misery or everyday normal misery?

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A Sabbath Rest

I am tired. I recognize that I’m privileged, that I don’t have kids, that we were able to keep our jobs, etc., etc. But I’m still tired. I lived through a pandemic, I lived through completely retooling my teaching for a format it was never meant to be in, and on top of that I bought a new apartment. Originally this summer, I was planning on starting a book project — a fun one, even — but I kept… not starting. It would have been my third book in three years. I couldn’t.

I deferred that project and since then have been doing this thing called “relaxing.” I’m working slowly and steadily toward things that I eventually need to get done — class prep mainly, but also a small handful of shorter writing commitments — but the majority of my days are free-form. Some days I read comic books, other days I dip into scholarly works I’m curious about. I play my NES Classic Edition and play piano. I sit around and argue with people on social media, or stare out the window, or do one of the hundred minor chores available to a new homeowner. In other words, I do some things that could be classified as “work,” but not Work in the strong sense that has dominated my life since college and maybe even before.

Looking back, my life has been dominated by a sense that the life of the mind I was enjoying was a temporary fluke and I must get the most out of it while I can. Continue reading “A Sabbath Rest”

Christianity, Race and Colonialism reading questions

When I was preparing to teach my Christianity, Race and Colonialism module for the second time round, I realised that one of the main things I was trying to do in the module was to help students develop the skills to recognise the ways that the entanglements of Christianity, race and colonialism show up in the world around them. The module was assessed by an oral exam, where students were asked to analyse a theological text, and to answer the question ‘How does the text reflect and/or resist the entangled histories of Christianity, race and colonialism?’ I told my students that I wasn’t expecting them to go off and do a lot of additional research on top of the core readings for the module, because what I really wanted was for them to think about how they could take what they’d learnt from lectures, readings and seminars and apply them to other texts. One of the things I did to help them prepare for their assignment this time around was to put together a worksheet, where I briefly recapped what we’d covered each week, and gave them some questions they could ask of their chosen theological text to help them spot where key themes and ideas were showing up. It seemed that, for at least some students, this was helpful for thinking about how to draw connections between the material we’d covered in class and the texts they presented on for their oral exam – many of them certainly produced really excellent work, though I obviously can’t take all the credit for that. Anyway, it’s the first time I’ve done something like this, and I thought that as a pedagogical tool it might be of use and/or interest to readers of the blog:

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Help me plan a course on Political Theology

In September I’ll be teaching a joint second-and-third-year undergraduate course on political theology – by which I mean political theology as Adam helpfully defines it, ‘the study of the very relationship between politics and theology, centering on structural homologies and conceptual exchanges between the two fields.’ rather than just a course about politics and theology. I have a good sense of the broad ‘canon’ I’m working with (again, broadly along the lines that Adam sets out here), but much less of a sense of how to find and teach texts that undergraduates will find accessible and engaging. So I’m posting this in the hope that readers of the blog might be able to share any accumulated wisdom from teaching in this area. Which texts or authors work well for undergraduates? Which do not? Any suggestions/advice/tips gratefully received. As always, I’ll post my syllabus here once it’s done.

Here’s the module description I created when I first set up the module:

“All significant concepts of the modern state are secularized theological concepts”. With this claim, Carl Schmitt set the terms for the discipline of political theology, which seeks to understand the relationship between theological conceptions of God and the world and politics. This module will seek to explore these interconnections, from the bureaucratic function of angels to the god-like power of money. How have theology and politics informed one another, and what does it mean to recognise the theological origins of many key systems and structures of many of our supposedly secular ways of thinking?

A plea for anti-anti-wokeness

The online debate about “wokeness” torments me, because it is so amazingly stupid and uninformative. But it also torments me because I am torn between two thoughts.

The first is that there has to be room to discuss the potential pitfalls of the various lingustic formulations that one used to group together as “political correctness” and now designates as “wokeness” (I can see literally no difference between the two categories). Those pitfalls might, in any particular case, include a tendency to alienate the very groups they’re meant to serve, an inaesthetic clunkiness, or even the simple fact that they periodically seem to arise suddenly from who knows where, like neoliberal “best practices” that become instant unconditional requirements.

The second is that no white male leftist who takes a blanket anti-PC or anti-woke stance — especially in mainstream media contexts — can expect to be trusted, because they are objectively treating their white male perspective as the point of neutrality from which they can hand down judgment of what activists and theorists of other groups should say and focus on.

How does one reconcile these two thoughts? The first step is to recognize that the second thought is more important, both ethically and strategically. Even if individual “woke” speech expectations are short-sighted or self-undermining, the blanket anti-woke screed objectively, performatively reinstates the power hierarchies that all leftists should be seeking to unravel. Especially given how often the anti-woke white male leftist has access to bigger platforms than the activists they’re critiquing, it is a clear example of punching down — when we presumably don’t want to punch our allies in any direction. Strategically speaking, it is more likely to give aid and comfort to our enemies than to somehow make leftist ideas more persuasive or leftist organizing more attractive.

It may well be the case that PC or woke language is holding back the left in this country, but I would humbly suggest that white men who want to be part of that strategic conversation should adopt the rule of first shutting the fuck up and listening. Learn to process your defensiveness and gut-level objections into sincere questions. If you get frustrated and need to vent, save it for the DMs. With time, you will realize that no one is mandating that you have to adapt your speech unconditionally to whatever the latest rando on Twitter demands. Doubtless we will all stumble as we seek to practice this spiritual discipline, but hopefully we will train ourselves to resist the urge to pitch op-eds to publications that are eager for anti-leftist content and would never consider publishing the perspectives of actual activists or organizers.

Stop “trusting the science” and start trusting democracy

I’m an educator and a scholar by profession. So if you ask me, in the abstract, what students should do, I’m always going to go all out — do all the reading you can, pick the most challenging paper topic, take the courses that engage you the most intellectually, etc., etc. That’s because that’s my expertise and my life. If students come to me with problems that keep them from doing that, I’m happy to help them talk through their priorities, but I’m no more help than any other trusted person. I’m not a life coach, I’m an educator — I want to tell them how to get the best education.

The same thing happens with health professionals, I think. I have been having episodic symptoms that prompted my doctor to recommend I abstain from coffee and alcohol for a week and get back to him. When I told him the symptoms hadn’t come back under this new regime, his initial recommendation was for me to continue it for the rest of my life. And that’s fine. He’s a doctor and he’s going to give the maximal medical recommendation. It’s up to me to balance that with other quality of life concerns. (And to his credit, when I pushed back on his recommendation, he was happy to help me think of ways to experiment and strike a balance that works for me.)

This is all the more true when it comes to public health officials. If you ask them how you prevent the spread of covid, they will lead with the maximal plan, just like if you ask if vaccinated people pose a danger of spreading covid, they will say yes because there is still some miniscule danger. Just as it’s up to my students to figure out how to square their education with other concerns and up to me to figure out how to square my symptoms with quality-of-life concerns, so too it’s up to a democratic society to figure out how to square the public health officials’ advice with other factors.

Our elected representatives have mostly done a really shitty job of that — Republicans more than Democrats, of course, but across the board — and the answer to that is not to “trust the science” and just do whatever the expert commands you to do. The answer is a more robust democratic culture, including higher quality public officials with more creativity and integrity. And if the behavior of a big portion of our population makes you distrust democracy, keep in mind that they behaved that way in large part because they felt that the measures in question were an arbitrary imposition by some outside force, rather than the result of democratic deliberation in which they are invested — and on that point, and that point alone, they were correct. Public officials have tended to berate and bully and manipulate us rather than actually treating us like adults who live in a democratic society. That’s all they know how to do. That’s “best practices.”

We deserve better — all of us, including the asshole anti-maskers.

Self-regulation

I am a very self-disciplined and routine-oriented person. This has been true of me from a very young age, and my experience of college and grad school actually reinforced it. In college, I had a very generous but very stringent scholarship that I could lose irrevocably if I fell below a 3.8 GPA. Hence the typical startegies of cramming and all-nighters felt too high-risk to me. After choosing a PhD program with inadequate funding — and then getting the rare opportunity to write a book before my dissertation — I felt pressure to build some kind of routine to grapple with the great looming maw of unstructured free time, so that I could actually finish.

These experiences have led me to view monastic routine with a kind of nostalgia, as a way to achieve a great deal without ever becoming overwhelmed by excessive demands. I have proven to myself over and over that slow and steady work, even work that feels phoned-in much of the time, can lead to great results. Doing a 45 minutes or an hour of language work for several months can give you a baseline comfort and familiarity with a foreign language to the point where you can easily dip into the original text to check translations, for instance. More dramatically, write a page or two a day, and before long you have a chapter and then a whole book. Real life doesn’t allow such neat and tidy sequences, of course, even during summer vacation. Yet I often think of my life as asymptotically approaching that ideal state, even if the progress is continually interrupted.

In many ways, this idealization of routine is strange, because the times when I had the steadiest routine were among the most miserable of my life.

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