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100 Years of Political Theology: Vincent Lloyd’s Top Ten

Two parallel stacks of books on blue background

From the editor: Yesterday, Ted A. Smith of Emory University posted a wonderfully useful “Political Theology Start-up Kit” at the Religion in American History blog, summarizing what he thought were some of the key texts in the field over the past 100 years.  In response, I have invited a range of editors and contributors to Political Theology and Political Theology Today to offer their own “Top 10 lists” over the next couple weeks, based on their diverse approaches to and experiences within the field.  Our first contribution is from Vincent Lloyd, a co-editor of the journal Political Theology.

If an academic field is defined in part by its canon, wide divergence on canon would suggest that what appears to be a field might not really be one. In the case of political theology, there seems to be this sort of incoherence: an anthropologist writing an article about political theology may never have heard of Dorothee Sölle, while a seminary professor writing an article about political theology might never have heard of Claude Lefort.

I would argue that this is not incoherence but rather, in the contemporary Anglophone scholarly world, two separate conversations that have some overlap. One conversation is about political theology as a species of the genus Christian theology (and, some would claim, of “Jewish theology” or “Islamic theology” if such categories are coherent) that deals with questions of politics. The other conversation is happening in the critical humanities, that is, among certain literature scholars, political theorists, historians, anthropologists, social theorists, and cultural studies scholars who share an interest in questioning ideology, questioning the regnant ideas in the contemporary world that support the interests of the wealthy and powerful. These scholars note the way that secularism, the exclusion of religious ideas and practices, supports the interests of the wealthy and powerful, and they believe that turning to religious ideas – a turn once forbidden by their disciplinary conventions but now quite trendy – will do good political work. Carl Schmitt serves as a model for these critical humanities scholars because he both showed the link between secularism and liberal ideology and he turned to religious resources to present an alternative. Scholars in the critical humanities clearly have reason to listen to theologians talking about politics, for they are the guardians of those religious resources excluded by secularism; theologians have reason to listen to scholars of the critical humanities, for the latter can expand the sites in which theologians can see God working in the world and can sensitize theologians to the dangers of idolatries promoted by secularism.

This description of political theology in the contemporary academy as two conversations intentionally marginalizes certain types of scholarship. Humanities scholarship about our “secular age” that is not motivated by suspicion of ideology, I would assert, is not central to political theology. Scholarship that simply states the tenets of a religious community and applies them to a political problem, rather than describing the political in theological terms, is not central to political theology. Both systematic theology and secular “theory,” while important prerequisites for political theology of the two types, are not themselves central to political theology (so neither Barth nor Balthasar, neither Althusser nor Foucault make my top ten list).

The discipline of religious studies, one would think, is uniquely suited to bring together the two conversations about political theology. However, this has not often been the case, in large part because of the extent that many religious studies scholars define themselves in opposition to theologians, and because of the resistance within religious studies to scholarship motivated by ideology critique (I’m not sure religious studies can even be considered part of the critical humanities). The journal Political Theology and this, its blog, do attempt to bridge the two political theology conversations, and I would like to think that they offer the most promising direction forward.

 

In compiling a “top ten” list, of the past century’s scholarship on political theology, I’ve had to make two lists, a list of five books that are important for theological discussions and another list of five books that are important for critical humanities discussions. Obviously, in such a short list, my choices are, to some extent provocative rather than comprehensive. These are not the books that are cited the most frequently. Rather, they are (some of) the books that, I think, given the current shape of the conversation, ought to be considered central. Within each list, the books appear in alphabetical order:

“Theology”

James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory

Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

 

“Humanities”

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings

Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion

Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies

Carl Schmitt, Political Theology

Eric Voegelin, Modernity Without Restraint

One Comment

  1. Pingback: 100 Years of Political Theology: Dave True’s Top Ten | Political Theology Today

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