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

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

[Note: This is the final part of a 4-part series, available here.]

Many people have an immediate, visceral response to the word ‘ecumenical’. For some, it is a byword for the unity and cooperation which is most needed, necessary, and important for the church today. For others, it is a byword for a tired project which is showing its age along with those who entered into it with fervor in the 1960s and 1970s, and are still clinging to it along with outmoded theologies and expectations of unity. For the first kind of person, teaching political theology in an ecumenical context may be looked upon as a welcomed opportunity and important responsibility, while the second sort of person may shudder at the idea of the sort of bland, common-denominator teaching which can be found in some ecumenical contexts. How can the teaching of political theology in ecumenical contexts avoid this blandness while also not being too optimistic about ecumenical political theology?

As I have already argued in this series, pretending to present various traditions of political theology objectively is not the answer. A history of political thought in the Christian churches may make for a very fine course, in history. It will not, however, be a course in political theology taught ecumenically. Instead, such a course should be led by an instructor who fully embraces his or her own theological perspective, modelling for the students the practice of political theology within a particular tradition. And yet, as I have also argued earlier in the series, sheer advocacy of the instructor’s own perspective will not do either. Instead, we should be giving our students tools which enable them to see other traditions sympathetically and learn from them while working within – learning both to critically and constructively engage with the theopolitics of – their own traditions.

Two practical difficulties with this approach are clear; one I hope we can all easily avoid, while the other is more complex. The former is the clumsiness with which many lecturers can attempt to include the perspectives of students from traditions other than their own. The latter is the sheer complexity of teaching students from other traditions how to faithfully be what they are.

Beginning with the former problem, I am reminded of a somewhat elderly professor who once taught me as an undergraduate. He had been raised in and spent much of his life in the bosom of America’s Deep South. He knew that racism was wrong and consciously sought to reject it, yet the marks of the moral formation of a certain kind of white southerner were deep within him. With every good intention, he clumsily overcompensated for the failings of his moral formation with efforts to include and affirm students of color which left us all squirming and cringing. He would introduce students of ethnic minorities to the entire class, just to say how glad he was that they were with us. If he found that his lecture strayed into some area which he thought particularly relevant to his perception of a certain ethnic group, he would single out such a student, saying things like, ‘Isn’t that right, Juan?’. I will never forget how he walked into the lecture hall on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and began the class by sidling up to a black student and saying, ‘This is a very special day for your people, isn’t it?’.

As a graduate student I experienced only slightly less clumsy efforts to include me as a woman. A particular male professor leading a graduate seminar would often ask for a ‘feminine perspective’ on the topic at hand, or even open a discussion with the ‘gentlemanly’ gesture, ‘Please, ladies first.’

While I sincerely hope none of my readers here need help in overcoming such blatantly problematic behaviors, these examples bring into relief through their starkness a tendency against which we must be vigilant in much more subtle forms. Virtually all ecumenical contexts have majority and minority traditions, and dynamics of patronizing and paternalism will always be at play. Part of teaching political theology in such contexts is helping students be critically aware of and also able to engage constructively with these ecumenical politics. It is not enough for the Anglican teaching in the UK to occasionally ask the Methodist students for ‘their perspective’, or for the Methodist teaching in the US to verbally pat the occasional Anabaptist student on the head. Those teaching across the Catholic/Protestant divide must not continue to treat the other within their contexts as wholly ‘other’. And those who are teaching from within a minority tradition in an ecumenical context must model positive engagement, not only critical, chip-on-the-shoulder counter-politics.

However, while it may be obvious that we should call one another beyond clumsy victim/offender scripts or patronizing overcompensation for them, it is of course much less obvious precisely how to teach constructively across traditions. Specifically, how can I teach a student of another tradition to be a faithful theopolitical practitioner within that tradition? With most students, we cannot assume that they have either breadth or depth of knowledge and understanding of their own traditions; they are in the process of learning their own traditions as well as learning our specialist subjects. Although we want learning to be participative, we cannot assume that our students already have the ability to respond to an approach which basically says, ‘Here is how it is done in my tradition; what is the analogue in your tradition?’ Yet I cannot pretend to have a breadth or depth of knowledge and understanding of all Christian traditions equally.

It seems to me that there are three keys here: readings, discussions, and commissioning. I cannot teach all traditions equally well, but I can assign readings which have been most formative and/or are most representative of the various traditions of Christian political theology. I expect my students to read a considerable amount more than most of their other instructors, and my experience has been entirely consistent: they complain about it annoyingly throughout the academic year but at the end their evaluation forms say, ‘It was a lot but it was worth it.’ However, it will only be worth it where there is time and space for discussion. We must practice aloud together making the connections and drawing the distinctions between our traditions and others, articulating possible ways forward on particular theopolitical issues within our various traditions, and connecting course materials to experience and praxis.

Finally, we should commission our students. This may seem a strongly evangelistic term, which is as it should be. We should be clear with our students that all we can do in a single course on political theology is introduce them with the broadest brush strokes to the various traditions, texts, themes, and issues of political theology and that they are sent out with a commission to dig more deeply into both the resources of Christian history and tradition and how these are best enacted in their contemporary contexts. They should leave our classes with a strong sense that although the exams and essays are completed, their work as political theologians is only beginning.

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).

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