Wolterstorff’s “The Mighty and the Almighty”: What is Political Theology?

For an upcoming conference, I am reading Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent and The Mighty and the Almightyeminently readable book, The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology. In some future posts, I will get into his argument concerning the dual authority of the church and the state, as well as some important counterpoints to his view (he takes Augustine to be one such counterpoint, and this will also allow me to resume my Augustinian posting).

For this first post, though, I thought to explain a little bit about the subject itself. Political theology may be misinterpreted by those who are imbued with the spirit of post-20th-century American constitutionalism to be tantamount to ecclesiastical or clerical rule (or, perhaps, rule by theologians). But it is actually an account of the relationship of divine and human authority in matters of politics and governance. As Wolterstorff puts it: “[A]t the core of traditional political theology was the question of how God’s authority is related to the authority of the state.” (2) Political theology treats the question, for example, of how a person or a people can reconcile these different authorities and demands in their own lives. And it is Wolterstorff’s aim to articulate a distinctly Christian political theology in the book.

Even so, putting the problem of political theology in this fashion may sound unusual to modern ears. Even if God’s authority was once a political problem, have we not gotten past all of that? Mark Lilla, whom Wolterstorff cites early in the book, recently explained in his intellectual history of the subject that the God of political theology is actually a “stillborn God”–a God that ought not enter into the political calculations of modernity. Though I wonder whether Wolterstorff is exactly right that Lilla was offering a requiem for political theology (more like an admonition to be mindful of the dangerous endurance of political theology), Wolterstorff presents two cogent reasons for the salience of political theology today.

First, believers in God have reason to attend to political theology because the relationship of God’s law to the civil law is a perennial problem for them. And, indeed, there is a long Christian tradition stretching for more than 1000 years (from roughly 500 to 1600) that offered a compelling answer to the problem of political theology–what Wolterstorff calls the “two rules doctrine,” which he contests (more on this in future posts).

Second, political theology is not dead; rather, says Wolterstorff, it has been “flying under the radar.” (3) Wolterstorff’s primary focus here is on some of the writing of Augustine, Calvin, and John Howard Yoder (a twentieth century Christian ethicist), but I might put the point more broadly. Many accounts of political thought have buried within them a collection of assumptions–often not explicitly laid out–of the relationship between the state’s power and other powers (perhaps greater powers) that lie outside the state. Attending directly to the ways in which a political system conceives of the authority and power of different realms (including its own) helps to excavate and shine a light on its deepest commitments.

Gentry, “Offering Hospitality: Questioning Christian Approaches to War”

This September, Notre Dame published Offering Hospitality: Questioning ChristianP03070 Approaches to War, by Caron E. Gentry (University of St. Andrews). The publisher’s description follows.

In Offering Hospitality: Questioning Christian Approaches to War, Caron E. Gentry reflects on the predominant strands of American political theology—Christian realism, pacifism, and the just war tradition—and argues that Christian political theologies on war remain, for the most part, inward-looking and resistant to criticism from opposing viewpoints.

In light of the new problems that require choices about the use of force—genocide, terrorism, and failed states, to name just a few—a rethinking of the conventional arguments about just war and pacifism is timely and important. Gentry’s insightful perspective marries contemporary feminist and critical thought to prevailing theories, such as Christian realism represented in the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and the pacifist tradition of Stanley Hauerwas. She draws out the connection between hospitality in postmodern literature and hospitality as derived from the Christian conception of agape, and relates the literature on hospitality to the Christian ethics of war. She contends that the practice of hospitality, incorporated into the jus ad bellum criterion of last resort, would lead to a “better peace.”

Gentry’s critique of Christian realism, pacifism, and the just war tradition through an engagement with feminism is unique, and her treatment of failed states as a concrete security issue is practical. By asking multiple audiences—theologians, feminists, postmodern scholars, and International Relations experts—to grant legitimacy and credibility to each other’s perspectives, she contributes to a reinvigorated dialogue.

Inazu, “Freedom of the Church (New Revised Standard Version)”

Have a look at our friend John Inazu’s insightful new piece, Freedom of the Church (New Revised Standard Version).  A methodological theme in John’s writing is the importance of excavating the theological assumptions which lie below many of our current legal doctrines and theories, particularly (though not exclusively) in the law and religion context.  This piece pursues the Inazian (I would have said Inatian, but that’s perhaps too close to Ignatian) theme with respect to Catholic and Protestant ideas about ecclesiastical liberty.  Here is the abstract:

Significant discussion about the “freedom of church” has recently emerged at the intersection of law and religion scholarship and political theology. That discussion gained additional traction with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. E.E.O.C., which recognized the First Amendment’s “special solicitude” for religious organizations. But the freedom of the church is at its core a theological concept, and its potential integration into our constitutional discourse requires a process of translation. The efficacy of any background political concept as legal doctrine will ultimately stand or fall on something akin to what Frederick Schauer has called “constitutional salience.”

The existing debate over the freedom of the church obscures these insights in two ways. First, its back-and-forth nature suggests that translation succeeds or fails on the level of individual arguments. Second, its current focus on a mostly Catholic argument neglects other theological voices. The kind of cultural views that affect constitutional doctrine are less linear and more textured than the existing debates suggest. This paper adds to the discussion a Protestant account of the freedom of the church: the New Revised Standard Version. Part I briefly sketches the process of translation that any theological concept encounters in the path to constitutional doctrine. Part II summarizes the current debate in legal scholarship about the freedom of the church. Part III introduces the New Revised Standard Version through three prominent twentieth-century theologians: Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Stanley Hauerwas. Part IV assesses the possibility of translation, and Part V warns of the theological limits to translating certain theological concepts. The New Revised Standard Version reinforces some of the normative claims underlying the Catholic story, but it does so through a Protestant lens that is somewhat more familiar to American political thought. It also differs from the Catholic account in two important ways: (1) by characterizing the church as a witnessing body rather than as a separate sovereign; and (2) by highlighting the church’s freedom in a post-Christian polity.

Kessler (ed.), “Political Theology for a Plural Age”

First things first: a very happy new year to our readers.  Mark and I are excited to continue sharing with you all sorts of new items of law and religion interest in the coming months.

Second, here is what looks like a very worthy book to kick off our 2013 Political Theology for a Plural Ageroundup of new scholarship: Political Theology for a Plural Age (OUP 2013), a volume of essays edited by Michael Jon Kessler of the Berkley Institute at Georgetown.  Some of the specific entries look really neat, including a “conversation” among José Casanova, Michael Kessler, Mark Lilla, and John Milbank.  Readers of CLR Forum will perhaps remember Mark Lilla’s entry in the political theology field in 2007, The Stillborn God (I had the pleasure of participating in one of Lilla’s seminars a few years ago on The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, and it was a wonderful experience).  The superb Reinhold Niebuhr scholar Robin Lovin also has an interesting essay called, “The Future of Political Theology: From Crisis to Pluralism.”  And it looks like there are two pieces that take on the subject of political theology from a distinctively Augustinian perspective (though they may, and I am guessing probably will, have quite different things to say): Patrick Deneen’s “The Great Combination: Modern Political Thought and the Collapse of the Two Cities,” and Charles Mathewes’s, “Augustinian Christian Republican Citizenship.”  The publisher’s description follows.

Political theology has traditionally explored the legitimization of political authority on the basis of divine revelation and of natural reason informed by religious authority, texts, and traditions. New challenges emerging in the postwar era gave rise to ongoing debate about the place of religion in public life, in the United States and in other established democracies, and this debate has dramatically reshaped the way scholars, policymakers, and religious leaders think about political theology.

Political Theology for a Plural Age provides historic and contemporary understandings of political engagement in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, engaging political theologies not merely as a set of theoretical concepts but as religious beliefs and principles that motivate specific political action. The essays in this volume, written by leading thinkers and practitioners within each tradition and their secular counterparts, examine a number of core issues at the intersection of religion and politics. They contest the definition of political theology, establish a common discourse across the three Abrahamic traditions, and closely examine how globalization, secularization, and pluralism affect the construction and plausibility of political theologies. Finally, the essays offer insight into how political theologies might adapt to the shared global challenges of the twenty-first century.

Grasso & Rodriguez Castillo (eds.), Theology and Public Philosophy

Here is a very interesting set of exchanges edited by Kenneth Grasso and Cecilia Rodriguez Castillo, Theology and Public Philosophy: Four Conversations (Lexington Books 2012).  The contributors include Charles Taylor, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Jeanne Heffernan Schindler, Robin Lovin, Jean Porter, and many others.  The publisher’s description follows.

This volume brings together eminent theologians, philosophers and political theorists to discuss the relevance of theology and theologically grounded moral reflection to contemporary America’s public life and argument. Avoiding the focus on hot-button issues, shrill polemics, and sloganeering that so often dominate discussions of religion and public life, the contributors address such subjects as how religious understandings have shaped the moral landscape of contemporary culture, the possible contributions of theologically-informed argument to contemporary public life, religious and moral discourse in a pluralistic society, and the proper relationship between religion and culture.

Indeed, in the conviction that serious conversation about the type of questions being explored in this volume is in short supply today, this volume is organized in a manner designed to foster authentic dialogue. Each of the book’s four sections consists of an original essay by an eminent scholar focusing on a specific aspect of the problem that is the volume’s focus followed by three responses that directly engage its argument or explore the broader problematic it addresses. The volume thus takes the form of a dialogue in which the analyses of four eminent scholars are each engaged by three interlocutors.

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