What is Political Theology?

In order to define Black theological-political selfhood, it is first important to define the term more broadly in relation to political theology as “an attempt to relate religion to the political character of the society in which it exists.”[1] This is very true, indeed, particularly if the way religious character is shaped is by how political character is shaped, and vice versa. For Michael Kirwan, political theology “is meant to bridge [the] gap between gospel inspiration and specific political commitment.”[2] More specifically, when considering that political theology reconciles the “theological” with the “political,” this relation is relevant and necessary due to the world-wide nature of the church and of its theological enterprise.[3]

Such a theological enterprise, as Ched Myers contends, means to “argue that theology should be fundamentally politically grounded in context, content, and method.”[4] To that end, it becomes important that, if theology is “politically grounded,” the context, content, and method that it assumes, certainly, is skewed towards the public realm. In this case, theology speaks to that public realm in a voice that is distinctly its own.[5] In my view, theology uses a theological voice that articulates itself with contemporary political language. What this means is that, for theology to be political, it must engage “debates about theology, about the way a tradition has reasoned about God and God’s relationship with the world.”[6] However, it is more than just about being theologically literate. Instead, it is about developing and employing a certain skill set “to enter into a conversation that has been taking place across a diversity of contexts for generations.”[7] I find this to mean that, as Kirwan asserts, faith has political implications and that to do theology calls for the person doing the theologizing “to imagine and work for a transformed world.”[8] This transformed world, as the Introduction to An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology suggests, has taken shape in the twentieth century in the wake of European wars.[9] Obviously, political theology, when operating in such a transformed world, is meant to serve the contingent needs of those that have been impacted by their transformed world. As Myers rightly ascertains, “political theology must be about where, how, and with whom we do our reflection.”[10] But, the “where,” the “how,” and “with whom” occur in a variety of contexts.

Regardless of the contexts involved, political theology requires a special kind of vision[11] capable of analyzing and critiquing “political arrangements (including cultural-psychological, social and economic aspects) from the perspective of differing interpretations of God’s ways with the world.”[12] Perhaps this can be understood on two fronts when considering political theology. First, “theology” makes it possible to understand God’s ways with the world and examine how human persons relate to God. But, “the political” makes it possible to understand “God’s ways with the world” and how human persons relate to God in relation to the “use of structural power to organize a society or community of people.”[13] Therefore, the relationship between “theology” and “the political” is, in my view, dialectic, where “theology” informs what it means to be “political” just as much as “the political” informs what it means to do “theology.”

Not only is this a Hegelian dialectic with respect to how “theology” and “the political” inform one another, but, by simply invoking the term “political theology,” the encounter between “theology” and “the political” denotes, as Georg W. F. Hegel suggests in Phenomenology of Spirit, a “relation of the self-conscious individuals [where it] is such that they prove themselves and each other through a life-and-death struggle.”[14] Though, admittedly, I am aware that Hegel is describing what has come to be labeled as the Lordship-Bondsman dialectic, and that “theology” and “the political” cannot be exactly correlated to what Hegel was articulating. That is, “theology” and “the political” cannot be bestowed with personhood in the same regard as the lordship and the bondsman. I am the first to concede that fact, and confess that there are limitations in such an application. Still, there is something very helpful in the Hegelian dialectic, especially with the idea of two self-consciousnesses. In effect, if appropriating what Scott and Cavanaugh believe, “politics and theology are therefore two essentially distinct activities, one to do with public authority, and the other to do… with religious experience and the semiprivate associations of religious believers.,”[15] To that end, I would argue that “theology” and “the political,” in fact, have inherent self-consciousnesses in the way that they function in our lives and the means by which we engage with them as separate entities.  To use Hegel, “theology” and “the political,” within political theology, do “prove themselves and each other through a “life-and-death struggle,” which is a struggle, in my view, where each balances out the other without completely obliterating one another in the process.

But, to move a little further beyond the Hegelian dialectic, I find that that “life-and-death struggle” synthesizes into one struggle, or one juxtaposed meaning. This is the Kantian dialectic that I have mentioned at the beginning of this paper. Instead of belaboring this point, I will argue that the two representations of “theology” and “the political” unite “to form a certain content”[16] that is purposely slanted towards a specific goal, or task.

Scott and Cavanaugh describe political theology in terms of having different goals and serving varied tasks.[17] One very important way that Scott and Cavanaugh define political theology is that its task “might be to relate religious belief to larger societal issues while not confusing the proper autonomy of each.”[18] They go on to suppose that political theology is particularly reverent to the fact that “theology reflects and reinforces just or unjust political arrangements,”[19] which I would argue is critical to understanding the task of political theology.

The task, then, of political theology, as Scott and Cavanaugh assert, “might be then to expose the ways in which theological discourse reproduces inequalities of class, gender or race, and to reconstruct theology so that it serves the cause of justice.”[20] Using terms such as “justice,” “gender,” “race,” “class,” and “inequality,” I find that the task of political theology is advanced in reference to issues of power. That is, the powerless versus the powerful. What this means, as Myers rightly concludes, is that “for theology to be political… it must engage the Powers, [and] for politics to be theological, it must aspire to nonviolence”[21] when engaging “the Powers.”

[1] Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright, eds, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 520.

[2] Michael Kirwan, Political Theology: An Introduction (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 4.

[3] The world-wide nature of the church and of the theological enterprise at a time of a widening gap between rich and poor, with the majority of Christians and of the unevangelized being among the poor, should oblige any forward-looking theology to be political… not at the expense of leaving out the challenge to personal commitment and obedience to Jesus Christ. Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright, eds, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 522.

[4] Ched Myers , “Introduction,” in An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Theology, eds. William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 337.

[5] William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey, eds, An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), xviii.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Michael Kirwan, Political Theology: An Introduction (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 3-4.

[9] William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey, eds, An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), xxiv.

[10] Ched Myers , “Introduction,” in An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Theology, eds. William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 341.

[11] William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey, eds, An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), xxiv.

[12] Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh, “Introduction,” in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), 1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Georg W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A. V. Miller (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1979), 113-114.

[15] Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh, “Introduction,” in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), 2.

[16] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1929), 111.

[17] Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh, “Introduction,” in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), 2.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ched Myers , “Introduction,” in An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Theology, eds. William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 341.

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