Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

The Political Theology Syllabi Project: Martin Kavka

ottawa protest

Part of the reason why I’ve hesitated in offering a syllabus is that this Political Theology course — a graduate seminar for students in the religion/ethics/philosophy track of the Department of Religion at Florida State University in the summer of 2009 — was really something that was thrown together as a way to get students (and me!) a handle on a body of literature.  There’s not really an organizing principle in the class.  As you can tell from the course description, I even started the course by asking, in effect, “Why are people using this term?”

I’m still not sure that I know the answer to that question almost five years later.  In teaching the course, the question of the academic worth of the material was at the forefront of discussions during the entire semester.  “What was wrong with liberalism again?” was a question that, sometime around week six, took on full zombie status: it would just not die.  As I wrote in the “course objectives” section of the syllabus, political theology arises out of a crisis of foundationalism — liberalism is not obviously or naturally rational.  This we already know from the unstable rhetoric in Kelsen on the Grundnorm, as Schmitt pointed out in Political Theology  in an argument that was the jumping-off point for a conference paper I wrote later that year, which would eventually become “What Do The Dead Deserve?: Towards A Critique of Jewish ‘Political Theology,'” in a volume that I co-edited with Randi Rashkover and that appeared late in 2013 with Indiana University Press. But just because liberalism might not be right doesn’t mean that it’s not good; this is the point that especially my student Jeff Gottlieb made with regularity.  John Rawls realized this as well; this is signaled by his obsession with stability, and so I’m not always sure that even a powerful critique of Rawls like that of Chantal Mouffe fully hits the mark.  It doesn’t necessarily give the constructivist aspect of Rawls’s Kantian liberalism its due.

I haven’t taught the course again; indeed, I probably won’t teach it again, now that I’m at Lehigh University.  The readings, and my students’ probing questions, raised far more questions than answers, not only about the grounds of political views and arguments, but also about how academic categories spread, why they spread, and whether they have good reason to spread. Much Christian and post-Christian political theology is anti-Jewish; much Jewish political theology does not really value this world (this is most obvious in Benjamin, but arguably also the case even with Gershom Scholem and Hermann Cohen).  Those instincts are anathema to me, and I still scratch my head when I ask myself why they are not anathema to others.  That’s not to say that teaching the course wasn’t intellectually generative.  It was, but just not in the way that my graduate seminars have typically been.


Martin Kavka is Director of the Berman Center for Jewish Studies and Philip and Muriel Berman Professor of Jewish Studies at Lehigh University. He is the author of Jewish Messianism and the History of Philosophy and co-editor of four books, including Judaism, Liberalism, and Political Theology. He co-edits theJournal of Religious Ethics.


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