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?

Learning Outcomes

By the conclusion of this module, a student will be expected to be able to:
(a)  demonstrate a critical understanding of well-established scholarship on political theology;
(b)  demonstrate critical knowledge of the main methods of enquiry within academic work on political theology, and to evaluate critically the appropriateness of different approaches to key problems;
(c)  engage independently with relevant intellectual materials to undertake critical analysis of relationship between theological and political concepts and apply arguments to relevant contexts;
(d)  reflect on the relationship between theological ideas and issues of peace, justice, inclusion and strong institutions. (UN SDG 16)

Assignments

Second year assignment
Answer one of the following questions: 
1. ‘The theological problem of evil … is a version of the political problem of legitimacy’ – Adam Kotsko, Neoliberalism’s Demons. Discuss this claim with reference to at least four of the required reading texts from this semester.
2. In his The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt argues that the political is defined in terms of the ‘distinction … between friend and enemy’ (Kotsko discusses this distinction in Neoliberalism’s Demons, p25). If political theology is the study of homologies between the political and the theological, what would be the theological equivalent of this distinction?
3. Compare and contrast the accounts of the relationship between theology and the economy found in at least three of the required reading texts from weeks 5-10 (Weber, Benjamin, Agamben, Goodchild, Hartman and Kotsko).
4. Compare and contrast the accounts of political theology and time found in the required reading texts by Taubes, Scholem, Agamben and Benjamin (weeks 11-13).
5. CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE. If you would like to write your essay on a topic other than those set out in the questions above, you are free to do so on the condition that you a) pick a topic that will enable to you to meet the learning outcomes and b) get my approval for your chosen essay topic before you submit the essay. I’m really happy to talk over ideas with you and suggest readings etc. but you MUST get in touch with me before you submit your final essay.

Third year assignment
Write a 150-300 word pitch and a 2700-2850 word thinkpiece drawing on the required readings for this module. We will be using our advanced seminars to think about how the texts we are reading in class might help us to think about contemporary issues, to learn about how to craft a pitch, to look at some examples of thinkpieces, and to help you develop your own ideas for the final assignment. 

WEEKLY OUTLINE


Week 1. Introduction/Sovereignty
Week 2. Sovereignty/Law and violence
Week 3. Law and Violence/The Exception
Week 4. The Exception/Capitalism
Week 5. Capitalism/Providence
Week 6. READING WEEK
Week 7. Providence/Credit
Week 8. Credit/Guilt
Week 9. Guilt/Debt
Week 10. Debt/History
Week 11. History/The Messianic
Week 12. The Messianic/Apocalypse
Week 13: Apocalypse/Module recap & assignment preparation

Week 1. Introduction/Sovereignty
We will spend the first half of this session introducing the module and the concept of ‘political theology’. In the second half of the session we will explore one of the fundamental concepts of politics and theology – the idea of sovereignty – and the work of Carl Schmitt, one of the key figures in political theology.

Required Reading
Adam Kotsko, ‘The Political Theology of Late Capital’ in Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital (Redwood: Stanford University Press, 2018), 11-38.

Week 2. Sovereignty/Law and violence
We will spend the first half of this session discussing the required reading extract from Carl Schmitt. In the second half of this session, we will introduce the 20th century Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, and his discussion of law and violence. We will consider how a social order come into being, how it is maintained, and how can it be disrupted; and we will explore the role that theological concepts play in justifying both law and violence.

Required Reading
Carl Schmitt, ‘Definition of Sovereignty’ and ‘Political Theology’ in Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 5-15, 36-52.

Week 3. Law and Violence/The Exception
In the first half of this session we will discuss the required reading by Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’. In the second half of the session we will introduce the contemporary Italian scholar Giorgio Agamben, who discusses the role of ‘the exception’ in the formation of political and theological structures. Who is excluded from the church/society, and how are these excluded people seen by those who are included?

Required Reading
Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’ in Walter Benjamin, On Violence, edited by Bruce B Lawrence and Aisha Karim (New York: Duke University Press, 2020), 268-285.


Week 4. The Exception/Capitalism
In the first half of this session we will discuss the required reading extracts from Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. In the second half, we will explore two key theorists of the influence of Christian theology on the emergence of capitalism: the sociologist Max Weber, whose The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues the capitalist work ethic emerges out of Reformation-era anxieties about how we can know whether we are saved; and Walter Benjamin, whose short text ‘Capitalism as religion’ argues that (as the title suggests!) capitalism is structured like a religion and, specifically, takes its shape from Christianity and Christian theology.

Required Reading
Giorgio Agamben, excerpts from Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 136-159, 166-180.


Week 5. Capitalism/Providence
In the first half of this session, we will discuss the required reading extracts from Weber and Benjamin. In the second half of the session, we will explore the role that the Christian doctrine of providence (the belief that God is ultimately in control of human history and can even make use even of bad things that happen) plays in the emergence of capitalist ideas and beliefs about ‘the economy’ and ‘the invisible hand of the market’. 

Required Reading
Max Weber, extracts from The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism (London: Routledge, 2005), 13-17, 39-41, 102-125.
Walter Benjamin, ‘Capitalism as Religion’ in Walter Benjamin, Toward the Critique of Violence, edited by Julia Ng and Peter Fenves (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021), 90-92.


Week 6. READING WEEK
There will be no formally scheduled activities this week.


Week 7. Providence/Credit
In the first half of this session we will discuss the required reading extracts from Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. In the second half of this session we will think about the nature of money, and the role that belief or faith in money plays in the economy. We will introduce the work of Philip Goodchild, a contemporary philosopher of religion who argues that we can understand contemporary markets in terms of faith in and worship of money. 

Required Reading
Giorgio Agamben, extracts from The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, translated by Lorenzo Chiesa (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 46-52, 277-287.

Week 8. Credit/Guilt
In the first half of this session we will discuss the required reading text by Philip Goodchild. In the second half of this session, we will consider the relationship between the Christian theological concepts of sin and guilt and contemporary capitalism, and will introduce the work of contemporary political theologian Adam Kotsko (who we also read in week 1), who argues that contemporary beliefs that people are rewarded and punished by ‘the market’ have their roots in Christian ideas about sin, the devil, and damnation.

Required Reading
Philip Goodchild, ‘Exposing Mammon: Devotion to Money in a Market Society’ in Dialog: A Journal of Theology 52.1 (2013), 47-57.

Week 9. Guilt/Debt
In the first half of this session we will discuss the required reading extract from Adam Kotsko’s Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital. In the second half of the session we will consider the relationship between guilt and debt: how do Christian moral ideas shape the structure of indebtedness in capitalism? We will introduce the work of Saidiya Hartman, who makes use of political theological ideas about morality and indebtedness to consider the changes which took place in North America when slavery was abolished. 

Required Reading
Saidiya Hartman, ‘Fashioning Obligation: Indebted Servitude and the Fetters of Slavery’ in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 125-163.


Week 10. Debt/History
In the first half of this session we will discuss the required reading extract from Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. In the second half we will explore the influence of Christian theological understandings of history on contemporary ideas about time and history. We will introduce the work of 20th century Jewish philosopher Jacob Taubes, who argues that modern understandings of time and history are profoundly shaped by the Christian narrative of creation, fall and redemption.

Required Reading
Adam Kotsko, ‘Neoliberalism’s Demons’ in Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018), 69-96.


Week 11. History/The Messianic
In the first half of this session we will discuss the required reading extract from Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology. In the second half of the session we will introduce political theological discussions of ‘the messianic’, with a particular focus on Gershom Scholem, a 20th century Jewish scholar whose The Messianic Idea in Judaism argues that Jewish understandings of time, transformation and redemption are shaped by a particular tradition of understanding the figure of the ‘Messiah’. 

Required Reading
Jacob Taubes, extracts from Occidental Eschatology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 3-15, 31-40.

Week 12. The Messianic/Apocalypse
In the first half of this session we will discuss the required reading extract by Gershom Scholem. In the second half of this session we will discuss Jewish and Christian understandings of ‘apocalypse’, and will explore the intersecting themes of time, history, the messianic, and apocalypse in the work of Walter Benjamin.

Required Reading
Gershom Scholem, ‘Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism’ in The Messianic Idea in Judaism: And Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (Westminster: Knopf Doubleday, 2011), 1-36.


Week 13: Apocalypse/Module recap & assignment preparation
In the first half of this session we will discuss Benjamin’s two short texts, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ and ‘Theologico-Political Fragments’. In the second half of the session we will recap some key ideas and themes from the module as a whole and consider how to approach the module’s final assignments.

Required Reading
Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Critical Theory and Society: A Reader (London: Routledge, 1989), 255-
Walter Benjamin, ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’ in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 3:1935-1938 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 305-306.

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