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The Political Theology Syllabi Project: George Shulman


First, a word about the syllabus, which is for an undergraduate class. I teach two versions, one more continental and one more Anglo-American, one playing out the death-of-God story and the other tracing liberalism from Milton and Locke through Rawls vs Sandel. It has been four years since I have taught either version, so I would revise each version extensively. But the first seven weeks of each version remain the same, organized around the Hebrew and Christian biblical texts, and that first half of the course had several basic goals.

The first goal was to open up how students “read” a text, which in turn means opening up how they understand both “scripture” and religion. In that regard I consider myself a Blakean – I read the texts as poetry, most of all, but reified into “theology” and law by “priestly” types, so that, to experience those texts again we must go behind how catechisms have taught us to read them. My goal is to open up how complex these texts are, literarily, politically, and ethically. My goal is to read the texts as literature but also as philosophy, and as political theology.

So the very first week I start with the contrast between Blake’s way of reading, an orientation of incarnation, foregrounding the poetic genius as the god within man, but compared to Ernesto Laclau’s way of reading, which is always to insist on the gap between the real and the symbolic, to emphasize not plenitude ad incarnation, but lack. Both theorize idolatry, but in very different ways. This gets across the idea that we need to talk about “god” or “reality” and asks both, how shall we do so, and, how shall we understand our forms of representation? Correspondingly, my goal is to always foreground how the texts raise, but rarely answer, what I call political questions: first, the question of authority – by what or whom are we now (and should we be instead) oriented? – second, the question of identification – with whom do we identify and on what basis? – and third, the question of action, some would say redemption -in what consists, or what are the conditions of our freedom and flourishing? In turn, I try to show that the texts change over time in how these questions are addressed – Genesis is quite different than Exodus, say, or Samuel, and then again there is enormous change in relation to Paul, but nevertheless a certain set of abiding questions are in play, which is ultimately the legacy of the bible, in my view, as those questions continue to resonate, disturb, and provoke. In these regards I am inclined to read the text still as a Blakean – prophet against empire – as always posing the state, the idolatry of “the nations” as a problem, even as the texts continually call forth or produce the Hebrews (and then Christians) as a collective subject. How to create political collectivity, something like a political community, but without idolatry, seems the abiding challenge it leaves us with. I read the text ultimately as democratic in aspiration (and effect) because it teaches suspicion of power and idolatry, but even more important in my mind, is the refusal to idealize or whitewash any figure or institution. As a foundation story that includes all the warts, bloody hands, force and fraud, this text is closer to Machiavelli than to any other text in the political theory canon. (I should mention that I also give students one reading about the actual historical writing and assembling/redaction of the texts that become ‘the Bible.’)

I pursue a second broad goal, as if to enact my sense of my debt to Nietzsche. I try to emphasize the gaps between the Genesis stories, the founding of the law in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the Job story. I see the Job text as putting what Weber called ethical rationalism into question. Morality or justice are no longer linked to god as a law-giver, but rather, as god is placed beyond good and evil so to speak,  morality and justice become human achievements.  So God at once defeats “merely” human conceptions of justice, and yet affirms the necessity that we make such conceptions. God affirms that Job is indeed innocent, that he does not suffer because he has done wrong. I read Job as close to tragedy in this juxtaposition of divine and human perspectives, each perspective affirmed and problematized. Rather than the ethical rationalism of the Deuteronomic/prophetic framework, Job represents a tragic perspective (at least if you ignore the probably corrupt conclusion in which everything is restored to Job.) The Job poet overturns the entire prophetic framework, which insists that the universe is ethically rational, that the Hebrews will be destroyed because of their corrupt conduct.

My students find these arguments profoundly upsetting, and we push toward the idea that we would rather believe that events and suffering are punishments, that is, effects of prior causes in our own conduct, in a universe that is organized in relation to our conduct, than face how events and suffering are irrational and we are helpless in a universe whose operation is completely indifferent to our vulnerability and our aspirations. We would rather believe that events and suffering are signs in a meaningful universe, than see them as meaningless in moral terms. (The difference between Ahab and Ishmael over the whale.) I take this to be the Nietzschean moment, and it is how the Hebrew Bible ends, so to speak, and I find this staggering and amazing. In this way, I take the text to work as what Stanley Fish once called a “self-consuming artifact,” in the sense that the “arguments” or “truths” it seems to advance are rendered incredible or doubtful in ways that release readers from inherited dogmatism. In Nietzsche’s terms, I try to enable readings of the Biblical texts that escape the dictates of the ascetic ideal but rather that put “Truth” into question. This puts my readings closer to Blake, and so to Norman O. Brown.

So my big goals are to teach the art of reading, explore the elements that mark a text as doing something like “political theory,” and introduce issues of faith and truth that I take as the legacy of Nietzsche.  At the same time, I try to create conversations between the biblical texts and modern theory and literature – e.g. Machiavelli and Rousseau, Dostoievksy, Nietzsche and Kafka, Schmitt and Arendt, Blake and Norman O. Brown. These are my goals, but I teach by seminar, and so the classes also take on a life of their own. Students struggle because some are devout and some are not, and we have to work out how to talk together in a that respects and encourages difference.  They really struggle with the idea that the text (especially in Genesis, but also in the bloodiness of Exodus) is more ambiguous morally than they ever imagined. Lastly, many of them, the more literary ones, struggle with their arrogance about “god language,” and some discover instead how that language is inescapable and poetic. (I mean, rather than say, “there is no god” as a conversation stopper, they end up asking, what does “god” mean, what ineffable realities are limned by literary devices like metaphor, simile, narrative?)

I realize as I re-read these comments that I have been teaching something like “post-secularism” without naming it. Likewise I have been teaching a version of Schmitt’s claim that political concepts are genealogically indebted or architecturally parallel to theological concepts, but I don’t actually make this argument as such. I am teaching undergraduates, and trying to create a kind of transitional space in which they can undergo a certain experience of encounter, wonder, and disorientation with a text whose meaning they think they know or believe is self-evident. I am not trying to teach a canon, but to enable a learning experience. It is an introductory class and it is great fun to be a witness to their experiences.


George Shulman is Professor of Political Theory at New York University, where he teaches at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. He is the author, most recently, of American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Culture (Minnesota, 2008).

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