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Teaching Political Theology, Part 3: Making Theology Political and Politics Theological (or Teaching Political Theology to Conservative and Liberal Students)

Political Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed (book cover)

[Note: This is part 3 of a 4-part series, available here. Check back next month for pt. 4!]

We have all been around people who constantly tell stories in which the person telling the story is also the clear hero of the story. And none of us wants to be that person. I think this should be the case not only in the sharing of personal anecdotes, but in the stories we tell one another professionally about our professional lives, so it would be disingenuous to write a series on teaching political theology which leaves readers with the impression that I have it all figured out (or think that I do!).  This month I want to share a story about a particularly persistent problem in teaching political theology – one to which I will not suggest I have the answer.

It was the end of an academic year. My teaching colleague and I had labored through fifteen weeks of lectures and twenty-four hours of small group discussions with our political theology students. We then gave them the opportunity to submit any lingering questions to us, around which we would shape the content of the lecture and discussion in the final session. Most of the questions were of the usual and expected varieties. Students asked for overviews and reminders of the finer details of theologians and movements which we had been studying, or for guidance in understanding points of interrelation between them. But one question stood out:

‘It seems to me that Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God is primarily to be read as a spiritual kingdom that is addressed to individuals and there needs to be a response of repentance and faith – this course on political theology I feel overemphasizes the political nature of the kingdom of God – and suggests that the kingdom of God is primarily a manifesto for social justice – is this not a distortion of the message that Christ came to proclaim?’

We knew this student to be a rather conservative Protestant, and would not have been at all surprised to know that students like him began the course with such questions. But our hearts sank to see that after all these months, after all these lectures and discussions and readings, the question still remained. And in fact, it was not a question at all. It was a statement: ‘Thanks for all this, but I reject your efforts to make my theology political.’

While this was a very starkly articulated rejection of political theology from a conservative perspective, I must admit that my heart sinks no less when I read essay answers on the exams which represent the less intentional corollary rejections of political theology from liberal perspectives. These are the sorts of answers which all too obviously betray that the received liberal politics which the students brought to the course have met no serious challenge, reorientation, or transformation. All the political theologians who have gone before them seem to have only endorsed the vision of individual activism and state-based solutions to political problems which all good liberals already know to be necessary. These answers unintentionally proclaim, ‘Thanks for all this, I have learned a lot of new information, but I am impervious to your efforts to make my politics theological.’

I take both of these heart-sinking responses as an indication of my failure – at least in the case of some students – to have truly initiated them into the practices of political theology. One maintains a stubbornly conservative insistence that Christian theology is not political and the other maintains a stubbornly liberal torpor which prevents politics from being properly theological.

One aspect of this failure must be that pre-modern and post-modern political theologies were not presented well enough to push these students beyond the deep conditioning in modernist liberalism which the two responses share in common. (Now of course I am speaking of liberal in the sense of the modern, liberal, democratic nation-state; the liberalism which conservatives and liberals share in common.) Both have maintained the cordon sanitaire between politics and theology which is demanded by liberalism, with one focusing on the intensely personalized and individualistic nature of modernist theology and the other focusing on the exclusively statist yet equally individualistic nature of modernist politics. The one is unable to believe that the church should be doing anything political, and the other is unable to conceive of true politics being enacted by the church. In short, they believe exactly the same thing while perceiving themselves to be opposites of one another.

How do we overcome such stubbornly entrenched convictions?

I deeply admire the amazing work done by people like Ron Sider who seek to convince conservative evangelicals that politics is in the bible, and that bible-centered Christians must act on the political implications of the biblical texts. Sider’s books have transformed many hearts and lives. Yet I do not think it is enough to prove that political theology is biblical.

I cannot overestimate the influence and importance of the work of people like Stanley Hauerwas who seek to shake mainstream liberals out of their assumptions, opening them to the idea that the church itself is a political agent, not merely a gathering place of individuals who can then ‘translate’ their theology into good, liberal politics. Hauerwas’s work has completely transformed the conversation. Yet I do not think it is enough to insist that churches, instead of just individuals, can and should practice political theology. I feel I am still waiting to read (or become?) the kind of theologian who can take the next, further, crucial steps.

Beyond convincing conservative Christians that politics is in the bible and beyond convincing liberal Christians that politics can be done in church we need pedagogies and practices which actually transform people and churches into those for which the cordon sanitaire and the individualism of modernity no longer loom so large – people who no longer need to be convinced that theology is political and politics is theological but who have moved beyond the necessity of such conviction into the constructive convictions of the actual practice of theopolitics.

I do not yet seem to have learned how to bring my students to that place. Have you? All suggestions are welcome.

Next Month: Part 4: Being Ecumenical without Being Bland (or Teaching Political Theology in Ecumenical Contexts)


Elizabeth Phillips is Tutor in Theology and Ethics at Westcott House, an Anglican theological college in Cambridge, England. She is also an affiliated lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. She teaches introductory and advanced theological ethics, political theology, and interfaith encounter. Her research interests include American Christian Zionism, eschatology and apocalyptic in political theology, Israel/Palestine, and theological ethnography. Her husband Jeff is also her colleague at Westcott and Cambridge. Her publications include Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2012).

One Comment

  1. Christopher McDonald - Reply

    Thank you for this essay. Acknowledging the age of this post, I still find this problem interesting. I sense the distance I have from your circumstances, both in time and geography, and I wonder whether my limited experience can contribute much to such a conversation.

    Nonetheless, I am curious about how you come to frame the question. Why do you ask the question in terms of “overcom[ing] such stubbornly entrenched convictions?” Perhaps you could clarify what you mean by “overcome”? It simply doesn’t seem to me that, because some do not hear, your presentation of the material must be a failure. I haven’t had the opportunity to read your book on political theology yet, but it sounds like a substantial and worthwhile contribution to me.

    I may be reading you the wrong way, and if so please let me know, but for me it seems that Jesus’ own engagement with the crowds was incredibly indirect at times, especially in his parables (I am reminded here of Eugene Peterson’s reflections on the words of Jesus through the scope of Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”). And in the context of his actions, his language seems to have been even more incredible. You might say, there is an element of being nonsense to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews in prophetic discourse. Surely, then, there is a sense in which speaking truth will at times fall on deaf ears or offend, no? I think particularly here of Isaiah 6 or the multiple refrains of Jesus: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” And perhaps then there is a sense in which over time there is a sort of naive hopefulness we can cultivate in ourselves for others’ sakes, a hopefulness neither indifferent to their catching the spark nor ultimately contingent on their becoming inspired…an eschatalogically oriented hopefulness. That is to say, it seems to me that Dostoevsky’s Christ-like characters, such as Father Zossima or Alyosha, embody the sort of hopefulness (and patience?) that is necessary to sustain any theopolitics worth having.

    All that being said, in my undergrad we faced a similar difficulty with a thin theological culture among students. The issue seemed to be that Student Life (the branch of school administration that facilitated student activities, community, and events) functioned entirely separately from the Faculty, and yet Student Life also determined in many ways the kind of student culture that could exist on campus. Obviously, it could never fully determine such culture, but the lack of thoughtfulness and academic expertise in Student Life was evident in the lack of corresponding thoughtfulness in the student body. Some professors described this as the juvenilization of campus life (a problem particularly acute on a predominantly North American Evangelical campus–that is to say, the lack of liturgical consciousness certainly impacted the sorts of events/activities/communities students could participate in). We held a few panel discussions on this issue and did not really come to any concrete conclusions other than the fact that there seems to be a problem with this disconnect between the Faculty and Student Life (plus, the Faculty have no extra time to donate). I have a sense that there is a similar problem for those students who simply do not “get it” in your class. Just as those who grew up with no books in the house are less likely to become readers, those who have no regular contact with thinking theologically are less likely to become thinkers in such a way. The classroom is too easily fragmented from day-to-day life, even for students.

    Hence, my suggestion is as always…table talk and more pubs!

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