…which begs the question: “What is political theology?”

I’ve been feeling lately that I am on the losing side of a terminological dispute. The term in question is one that has become absolutely central to my academic research: political theology. It is, admittedly, a somewhat ill-named field, and thus ill-defined. The juxtaposition of the two terms and the relation of noun and adjective makes one think initially of a politically-engaged theology (i.e., “political” is the determinate difference that distinguishes “political theology” as a species of the genus “theology”). If one had to venture a further guess, one might hit on the idea that it refers to treating politics as though it were theological: political theology as opposed to political theology. But surely no naive reader of the phrase would hit on precisely the definition that I prefer: namely, the study of the very relationship between politics and theology, centering on structural homologies and conceptual exchanges between the two fields. Instead, while maintaining some space “my” version, the field seems to be converging on the first, most obvious meaning as the guiding thread.

Why do I insist on the less intuitive definition? It’s not because it better reflects the origins of the field, though it does. Schmitt’s Political Theology mixes all three versions to some extent, but the third, counterintuitive version is the real innovation and contribution. Yet obviously Schmitt does not deserve our loyalty. Nor is it simply because I have written books using that paradigm and don’t want to have to scrap all that work — which I don’t have to do in any case, since “my” approach is certainly still seen as a valid part of the big tent of political theology.

My insistence comes, instead, from a belief that the third, counterintuitive definition provides the greatest chance of contributing something distinctive. This conviction comes from two observations. The first is that “political theology” is not a distinctive species of the genus theology. All theology is intrinsically political. All theology bears on our shared life together: it lays down norms of conduct, defines communities in terms of insiders and outsiders, and puts forward certain claims of legitimacy and authority. It is only the cultural idiosyncracies of post-Westphalia European secularism that prevents us from seeing that by setting up “religion” as this separate thing that must be kept as far from “politics” as possible. This is not to say that I advocate or support any particular avowedly “theological” form of politics — the vast majority seem to me to be hugely destructive. But I oppose them not for the formalistic reason that they are “theological” and thus don’t belong in politics, but for the reason that they are destructive.

There is, at the end of the day, no possible coherent distinction between religious and non-religious forms of community and political life. Given the cultural norms that obscure this obvious fact, there is certainly a pedagogical benefit in highlighting the political element of theology. But substantively, all theology is political and always has been. “Political theology” in that sense is contributing only a new emphasis or a new level of transparency, not establishing a new or distinctive field.

By contrast, “my” version — which explores the synchronic parallels between political and theological systems and the diachronic process by which concepts “migrate” between the two — was a genuine innovation at the time of its establishment. It didn’t spring out of nowhere, as Schmitt was building on Weber’s approach, but it was genuinely a step forward. And practicioners in this corner of the field continue to make methodological advances and shed new light on historical phenomena in ways that seem to me to be more likely to provide durable intellectual touchstones than any given attempt to, for instance, imagine how one of the Church Fathers would have responded to a contemporary political debate.

But that very example shows one of the perceived drawbacks of “my” version: its purely critical or diagnostic quality, which does not seem to have any actual political payoff. I admit that this critique — insofar as we insist on taking it as a critique — does apply to my own work in political theology, which has been almost entirely critical in character thus far. Yet I think that we would do well to hold off on application or solutions until we grasp the full extent of the problem, and that is something we will have a lot of trouble doing if we insist on finding “theological” solutions to “political” problems. The reason for this is that such pursuits — whether carried out by traditionalists or liberationists — are bound to be searching for the “good version” of Christianity (or whatever religious tradition they are working out of, though Christianity continues to predominate). In fact, there is a persistent temptation to view the “bad versions” of Christianity as something other than “real” Christianity and therefore as irrelevant.

By contrast, I insist that the “bad versions” of Christianity really are versions of Christianity. They really are responding to themes and tensions within the tradition. Sometimes, even often, they are doing so in bad-faith and opportunistic ways, but they are not simply making things up. They are part of the Christian tradition, and Christian theologians need to take responsibility for them. But they mostly refuse to do so, which is why we need political theologians like me to pick up the slack.

The overwhelming fact of the modern era is that Christian Europe conquered and ruthlessly exploited nearly every corner of the globe, committing unparalleled and almost unimaginable world-historical crimes along the way. Christians set up the trans-Antlantic slave trade, kidnapping human beings, shipping them vast distances, and working them to death on an industrial scale for centuries. They not only believed that this activity was compatible with their Christian faith, but they often developed explicitly theological justifications for it. One could bring forward similar stories in realms like colonialism, the establishment of industrical capitalism, the devastation of the environment, and — to be frank — almost every other serious social, political, and economic problem facing us.

This cannot simply be a mistake or a misunderstanding. I do not doubt that there are redemptive, subversive, and even revolutionary elements in Christianity, nor do I believe that we can simply dump such an important part of our cultural tradition and “start from scratch.” Yet until we take the full measure of the Christian contribution to the rolling disaster that we laughingly call the modern world, attempts to reappropriate the Christian heritage will be incredibly risky. That risk is undoubtedly much less among non-white, non-Western Christian communities — and highlighting such approaches to theology is the biggest single benefit of the hegemony of the “politically-engaged theology” model within the field — but even in such cases it remains real.

In the end, maybe we will finally settle on the “good” version of Christianity, just as we might actually figure out how to discard all the “theological baggage” to arrive at a truly secular world. But it seems to me more likely that we will find that the gesture of separating the good version of Christianity from the bad is part and parcel of the Christian supremacy that underwrote colonialism and enslavement or that the desire to purify secularity of the theological dross is a profoundly religious one. In other words, I assume that, if we are being truly honest about our political and theological systems, our buzz will be killed — and political theology, in the purely diagnostic and critical sense, is at its best when it stands ready to kill every buzz without mercy.

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