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Why Exactly Does Political Theology Need To Become A “Real Discipline”? – A Response To Jonathan Cole (Edwin Bacon)

Political map

The following is a lengthy response to Jonathan Coles’ article entitled “Christian Political Theology Needs To Grow Up And Become A Real Discipline” published on Oct. 5.

Jonathan Cole’s recent post argued that Christian political theology needs to grow up and become a real discipline.

Reading Cole’s arguments elicited from me delighted agreement at his call for political theology to develop along ever deeper and more robust lines to provide a constructive faith-based apologetic in the contemporary political context. My heart chimes with Cole’s considered view that political theology must amount to more than the shallow claiming-in-aid of Scriptural mandates for whatever normative position an author has with regard to the latest political events.

When  Cole talks of a choice ‘between a robust political theology and a weak political theology’, we would most of us take the former – though perhaps with the caveat that a robust political theology may well lead to a kenotic political practice, the apparent weakness of which confounds secular notions of strength.

It is from this position of embracing Cole’s purposive exploration of Christian political theology that I diverge from some of the substantive elements of his blog post. In doing so, I seek to deepen rather than diminish the debate that he has initiated. In sum, Jonathan Cole regretted the “cacophony” of a “bewildering diversity” of Christian attitudes to politics within contemporary political theology, and called for a deeper knowledge of politics and political practice within the political theology community in order “to transition to a full-blown, bona fide discipline”. It is to these two central aspects of Cole’s argument that I respond.

Embracing Cacophony

Cacophony has perjorative connotations; a babel of discordant noise impeding clarity and the discernment of a clear voice. Jonathan Cole argues that cacophonous contemporary political theology offers a confusing and bewildering plurality of positions, where God is represented as being on every side and none on virtually all policy questions.

Two immediate questions arise from such a stance in relation to political theology as a discipline: What is the alternative? And what is the relationship between ‘cacophony’ and a robust scholarly discipline?

Call cacophony “polyphony”, and it looks different. Different Christians have different political perspectives, political theologians likewise. Give me untidy disaggregated plurality over controlled uniformity any day of the week. The nature of most academic disciplines, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, means that they thrive and develop on a multiplicity of countervailing arguments, as assertions and evidence alike are held up to the critical light, assessed, re-assessed, synthesized, occasionally all but canonized, and more frequently debunked.

I presume that Jonathan Cole’s regret is more for the eisegesis that he identifies as prevalent, than for the fact of competing normative claims surrounding divergent theopolitical stances. In that case, we should be clear that the issue is one of analytical robustness, not of a multiplicity of views.

Such an interpretation is strengthened by Cole’s commendable call for a widening of perspective beyond Western liberal democracy. Widening in this way would both add to the cacophony and benefit the discipline. Christian political theology beyond the West brings situations and understandings into view that challenge and oppose Western norms.

My own specialization as a political scientist is Russia, where theopolitical positions on the whole tend towards a more nationalist perspective than my theological understandings are comfortable with. Nonetheless, it is through the exposition and analysis of contentions contrary to our own understanding that we, and the discipline, develop and deepen.

Not that international voices and a plurality of views are quite so absent as might be supposed. Just leaning across to take a couple of books from my shelf, I can span 40 years of international, ideologically diverse political theology, with Alistair Kee’s A Reader in Political Theology (1974) in one hand and Michael John Kessler’s Political Theology for a Plural Age (2013) in the other. That a range of different political positions – those I like, and those I don’t – can be given a robust theological defense enriches the debate.

The Bible sees the cacophony of Babel, where the people are confused as they begin to speak different languages (Genesis 11), set right at Pentecost where the people of many nations are amazed to understand what the Spirit of God is saying through the disciples of Jesus (Acts 2).

That many nations come together and understand what the Spirit is saying becomes possible because of God being at the heart of the message. In terms of the cacophony of voices and views within political theology, from the perspective of faith there must be an irreducible core that makes them Christian, situated around belief in Jesus as Christ and commitment to his assertion that all the Law and the prophets hang on the injunctions to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). With that in place, let the theopolitical perspectives blow where they wish, as those born of the Spirit (John 3:8).

Defining Politics and Practice

The second substantive aspect of Jonathan Cole’s argument on which I want to expand relates to his argument that political theology is strong in theology and weak in politics. There are two specific aspects that Cole points to here: first, that politico-theologians have little knowledge of political practice; second, that they tend to have little expertise in politics as a field of study, notably with regard to political thought and political history.

In relation to the first of these, the point is well made that politics is about practice as well as theory. As someone engaged in teaching, at a London university, the still somewhat niche subject of applied politics, I endorse an emphasis on politics as practice, both from the point of view of students preparing for life post-university and also from an intellectual perspective.

Eudemonic conceptualizations of “the good life” ought never to be a matter of abstract theory, but by definition ought to be lived. I would want, however, to take Cole’s point further, and to question his view that “in today’s technocratic world … politics is the realm of professionals’” As a matter of fact, that view is only partly true, omitting as it does the army of voluntary actors who undergird and outnumber the professionals in contemporary political life.

More significant though is that the statement “politics is the realm of the professionals” ought not to be seen as a description of a state of affairs, but rather as an outcry against much that is wrong with today’s politics. Politics ought never to be confined to the domain of the professionals. That way lies the danger of exclusivity and self-interest on the part of the professional politicians, and exclusion and abdication of responsibility on the part of the ruled.

I write this after a church service where we took donations for the local food bank and for work among refugees arriving in the UK, heard a progress report from a church-backed organization seeking to prevent women being trafficked for sex, and had a talk from someone working in a church-based one-to-one drug rehab program that restores the lives of people beyond the reach of the local authorities.

Political matters all. Like faith, politics must indeed play out beyond the realm of belief and into action. That emphasis is to be welcomed, but to focus on professional politics alone is to miss perhaps the greater part.

The second element of Cole’s view that political theology is strong in theology but weak in politics makes the argument that for political theology to become a “bona-fide discipline”, theology schools and seminaries ought to enable theologians to engage in “the long study of politics required to develop true expertise in the field”. I am struck, partly from an autobiographical position, at the absence of political scientists and political philosophers from Cole’s discussion of disciplinary development.

The notion that political scientists with no formal training in theology might develop the same in collaboration with theologians and schools of theology would represent a simple balancing proposal. Beyond this straightforward suggestion, Cole’s blog post prompts in my mind deeper questions over the “ownership” of the discipline.

Must political theology sit within the sole remit of theology schools and theologians? The closeness of political theology and political philosophy speaks of fuzzy boundaries between the two disciplinary areas, as does the explicit (let alone implicit) engagement with political theology in recent years of leading political thinkers and non-theologians from outside the community of the church – I think, for example, of Slavoj Žižek, Simon Critchley, and Georgio Agamben.

Such blurred borders and disciplinary overspill open up further the normative question at the heart of the blog post’s titular assertion that “Christian political theology needs to grow up and become a real discipline”.  Cole has brought us again to consider the question of political theology as a discipline, and he takes the normative position that the status of “full-blown, bona-fide discipline” represents something good.

I hesitate before such certainty, seeing both benefits and dangers in strengthening the disciplinary status of political theology. Yes, such a move might enhance political theology in terms of clarity and recognition, but draw boundaries too clearly and you risk excluding those on the other side of them. Asking how to make political theology “a real discipline” opens up a number of fascinating and important questions.

But before posing those I would want to ask – and I ask with genuine openness – what does it mean to be “a real discipline”? And why should political theology concern itself with that status?

Edwin Bacon is Reader in Comparative Politics at Birkbeck University of London and has specializations in the politics of Russia and of religion. He has published six books on Russian politics, history, and society, and many articles in peer-reviewed journals. Edwin has taught in universities for over two decades and holds the Birkbeck Excellence in Teaching Award. He has also worked as a Senior Research Officer for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and as a Parliamentary Special Adviser to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the House of Commons.

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