LEST XIII Dissenting Church: Exploring the Theological Power of Conflict and Disagreement

Readers of the blog may be interested in the upcoming 13th Leuven Encounters in Systematic Theology Conference, which will be taking place online from 20-23 October. The conference is free to attend, and you can register here.

I’ll be taking part in the final conference plenary as a keynote speaker. The theme for the panel is, “The theological power of conflict and disagreement?” Papers will be made available online before the conference and during the conference itself we’ll discuss the key ideas and arguments presented by the panellists. My paper is titled ‘Love your enemy: theology, identity and antagonism’, abstract as follows:

Christianity has always been characterised by disagreement, conflict, and inconsistency; so much so that it is tempting to define Christianity precisely as an ongoing disagreement about what it means to be a Christian. Theology has, for the most part, evaded this messy and embarrassing reality in favour of fantasies of wholeness, maintained by a range of strategies from sleights of hand, outright denial, or projection. Contestation cannot become a point of departure for theology so long as theologians are invested in denying its existence. To understand this desire for coherence, which grounds so much theological evasion, this paper draws on the work of Slavoj Žižek, whose materialist reading of Lacanian psychoanalysis offers resources for considering theology’s desire for unity, and suggests a number of possibilities for understanding, unsettling, and reworking our theological investments in fantasies of identity. As continental philosophy in the wake of Hegel has consistently held, however, we cannot understand self-relation and identity without also understanding the relationship between the self and the other. To consider contestation within Christianity, then, we must also pay attention to the fundamental antagonism which makes possible these internal conflicts: the distinction between Christian and non-Christian. This distinction is homologous with Carl Schmitt’s definition of the political as the dimension of human relations that concerns the distinction between friend and enemy. This paper, then, explores what it means to take seriously the centrality of the distinction between friend and enemy to the construction of Christian identity, and will consider what it would mean to undertake to love our enemies, our selves. 

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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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?

We Wish You A Merry Dead Gay Baby Angel Christmas

A theme that emerges if you watch enough angel films is that the presence of an angel in a film is usually an indicator that it’s not a good film. A New York Christmas Wedding is no exception – as Christina Cautericci writes, it’s a ‘wild, howlingly bad queer holiday movie for the ages‘. But what might seem at first like a bizarre and incoherent plot makes sense when we read the film as a Christmas angel film: that is, a film about family formation and love as the solution to social reproduction in crisis.

[spoilers ahead]

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God bless us, every one

A Christmas Carol isn’t just a Christmas story, it’s the Christmas story (sorry baby Jesus), the one that brings us all together. Who can hate the heartwarming story of a lonely miser, moved to repentance, generosity, and kindness to his hard-worked employees? It’s tempting to read it as an inherently left wing story, except that it’s not just people on the left who love it; it’s everyone.

A central contradiction of capitalism is between the tendency, on the one hand, to erode people’s capacity to feed and house themselves, to take care of one another, to behave morally and believe in the morality of the system in order to maximise the extraction of profit and, on the other, the need to reproduce the system, to keep people alive in order that they may continue to be exploited, to keep people happy enough that they’ll keep doing what they’re expected, to maintain at least some kind of moral legitimacy so that we keep paying our bills and racking up debts. Capitalism wants to suck us dry and spit us out, but it also needs (some of) us to love our families, to feel hopeful about the future, to have children, to invest. This is the real meaning of Christmas, and of The Christmas Carol.

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Angels and Demons syllabus

Thanks to everyone who helped out with reading suggestions for this module. I’m currently somewhere between weeks 3 and 4 and so far it’s been really fun to teach. To recap, this course was designed as a medieval philosophy and theology module, in a department with a mixture of philosophy, theology and religious studies students. We didn’t have any existing modules that focused on the medieval period, so this is basically an attempt to cover some of the key bases of medieval philosophical theology but in a way that’s engaging for students who aren’t necessarily already invested in understanding what scholasticism is. I’ve tried to cover some of the key moments in medieval intellectual history: the arrival of Jewish and Islamic thought, the rise of scholasticism and then the emergence of nominalism and the beginnings of Enlightenment humanism and Renaissance science. I’m expecting to teach this course once every couple of years for the rest of my time at Winchester so it’s not too late to tell me about the brilliant book that I absolutely must read. Likewise, please feel free to borrow as much of this as you’d like, or drop me a line if you’d like to see any of my course materials.

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Fatherhood: or, being dead

One of the central functions of angels in films is to do the work of producing and reproducing the heteronormative family. I think this is to do with a mixture of the idea of the guardian angel and the increasing association of religion with the home, the private sphere, and social reproduction which follows on the emergence of capitalism and the seculaization of the west. Because angels work to make sure that people meet, fall in love, and have children, angel films often tell us a lot about contemporary anxieties around love, marriage, and the family. It’s also the case that a surprising number of angel films are remakes of earlier angel films; I’d guess partly because angel films are rarely pushing the boundaries of film, art, or culture. But that means we have a number of films where we can take a look at the way that the same story is told in two or even three different periods.

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An Abolitionist Apocalypse–Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

An abolition(ist) university would be kinda like an abolition(ist) prison or an abolitionist plantation
Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, ‘the university: last words’

We charge that the university-as-such is a criminal institution … We understand the university today as a key institution of an emerging form of global, racial capitalism, one that is a laboratory for new forms of oppression and exploitation, rather than an innocent institution for the common good.
undercommoning, Undercommoning Within, Against and Beyond the University-as-Such

There is a pleasure in hierarchy. We begin with an education in our hierarchies. We begin with childhood and childhood begins with education. To be exact, education begins our childhood. We are called by race, by gender, by class, and so on. Our education cultivates our desire in the direction of our hierarchies.

Education and freedom are the same call, the same calling. Education requires abolition. Abolition requires education. Freedom is the only education. One can only be called to freedom … Education is dangerous to slavery, to the system of white-over-black.
Anthony Farley, The Perfection of Slavery

Thomas Lynch’s book ends with a call for an immanent apocalypticism, a hope not in some positive future utopia but in the possibility of the end of the world: the end of nature, capital, gender and race. These death-dealing systems cannot be reformed, cannot be fixed by the demand that they be better versions of themselves; they can only be abolished.

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A precarious balance: Constantine (2005)

Alongside a bigger project about angels, I’ve been working on an article about angels and film, and by ‘working on’ I mean I’ve been watching a lot of films with angels in, taking the Wikipedia page on “Films about angels” as my guide. The page title is a bit misleading, actually; it’s more properly a list of films with angels in, often in fairly marginal roles. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, for example, features angels only very briefly, in the form of pastel-clad flight attendants checking people’s tickets as they arrive in heaven (air travel being a frequent association with angels going at least as far back as  1941’s Here Comes Mr Jordan, in which grey-suited angels check people onto planes presumably transporting people to heaven). Anyway, point is I’ve watched a lot of angel films at this point, and thought it might be worth trying to jot down some thoughts about them here as I go, so consider this your welcome to a new occasional blog series from me about films with angels in.

Spoilers ahead

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