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?

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.

Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion Seminars

The Association is pleased to announce a series of online seminars between February and April 2021, featuring speakers who will be well known to readers of this blog. To attend, please email Steven Shakespeare on shakess@hope.ac.uk for a link.

All seminars run from 4pm – 5.30pm, GMT. 

Wednesday 17th February

Tommy Lynch, ‘Beyond Sovereign Subjects: Knowledge and Vulnerability’ Ferreira da Silva identifies a ‘transparent I’ as a key feature of modern racialised subjectivity. This paper examines the epistemic dimension of the transparent I and its role in constructing a vision of the sovereign subject. This sovereign subject’s agency is predicated on an ability to know self and world. Drawing on work in social epistemology (Tuana and Alcoff) and political philosophy (Mills), I argue that this knowledge and the resultant sovereign vision contain an essential ignorance. In contrast to this sovereign subject, I argue in favour of a politics of epistemic vulnerability.

Tuesday 9th March

Kirill Chepurin and Alex Dubilet, ‘Immanence, Genealogy, Delegitimation: On German Idealism and Political Theology’. This paper will in part be a presentation of Kirill Chepurin and Alex Dubilet (eds) Nothing Absolute: German Idealism and the Question of Political Theology (Fordham University press, 2021).

Tuesday 23rd March

Danielle Sands, ‘Religious Experience, Political Responsibility and the Muteness of the Animal’ In ‘How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,’ Derrida explores silence, via negative theology, as a “modality of speech.” Returning to the question of silence in The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida considers the apparent muteness of the nonhuman animal, opening the possibility “of acceding to a thinking […] that thinks the absence of the name and of the word otherwise, and as something other than a privation.” At first glance, Derrida’s focus on nonhuman animals’ disconnection from human language might feel misplaced in a context where increased knowledge of animal communication has begun to inform, as Eva Meijer outlines, “a theory of political animal voices.” Tracing Derrida’s understanding of the complexity of silence and its transformative potential to his earlier engagement with negative theology, in this paper, I shall consider whether Derrida’s revaluation of silence might complement rather than conflict with the work of Meijer and others.

Wednesday April 21st

Marika Rose, ‘A Political Theology of Disenchantment’ In this paper I will suggest that the invention of the secular and the modern takes place as and alongside the invention of sovereignty, private property, and a political, theological, and disciplinary concern for propriety. Rather than escaping the binary poles of the Christian and secular, then, in this paper I will explore the theme of magic, which is improper to both; and narratives of enchantment and disenchantment which have been important to the struggle between the Christian and the secular, as the secular has sought to escape the clutches of the Christian and the religious, and the Christian has sought to re-establish its sovereign power. If, on the one hand, disenchantment marks the break between medieval Christendom and secular modernity, then magic exists at the border of both, not so much lost in the transition as transposed from being Christendom’s rejected other to being modernity’s rejected other. It is this transposition which, I want to suggest, make both magic and enchantment proper – or, rather, improper – subjects for political theological enquiry, taking us not quite beyond but rather to the borders of and between the Christian and the secular

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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What was blogging?

Yesterday I got into a fight on Twitter with the official WordPress account. My complaint was that they had imposed a new, inscrutable editor on us — not just a different interface, but a different paradigm for composing our posts — when it would cost them nothing to let us choose the old editor (which can be found with some effort; I am writing this post in “classic” mode right now). I was feeling some profound emotions about this situation, far out of proportion to the objective gravity of my complaints. I could after all just learn the new system, or I could content myself with workarounds, or I could change hosting services. Yet the very fact that I needed to take such extraordinary actions just to maintain the status quo made it feel like blogging was being stolen out from under me.

Blogging has been dead for a long time, of course. Continue reading “What was blogging?”

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.

Continue reading “Angels and Demons syllabus”

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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How can you not hate the world? (even if it’s hard)–Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event

The thing I most feared during the process of completing this book was that no one would read it. That fear was followed closely by the worry that someone would read it. To have a group of people take the time (in a global pandemic no less) to engage, analyse and challenge my argument for an apocalyptic political theology has been incredibly thought provoking (at least for me!). There is something reassuring about readers both identifying what you are trying to do and pointing to the issues that haunted you as you submitted your manuscript. I am very grateful to everyone who has participated and to Anthony for organising the event.

There are a number of themes that run throughout the responses. First, there is the matter of defining the nature of political theology, its relation to philosophy and the question of secularism. Second, there is the challenge of thinking and living apocalyptically in an era where liberal political ideas remain dominant (even if that dominance is perhaps more visibly under threat than when I finished the book). Is it possible to disinvest from the world without lapsing into apathy on the one hand or a blanket endorsement of violence on the other? Finally, there is the question of whether or not it is actually possible to think apocalyptically. Can one avoid apathy without slipping back into liberalism (however bleak)? And is it possible to prevent apocalypticism from falling back into the comforts of messianism? Continue reading “How can you not hate the world? (even if it’s hard)–Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event”

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.

Continue reading “An Abolitionist Apocalypse–Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event”