By Jonathan Cole (This piece is the introduction to his new book Christian Political Theology in an Age of Discontent)

Anarchist political philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon memorably defined theology as “the science of the infinitely absurd.”[1] Proudhon, who made this remark in 1840, was well ahead of his time. For it is only more recently, thanks in no small part to the latter-day high priests of atheism, that religion is now widely held to be responsible for all manner of political problems large and small. Yet if the follies of the twentieth-century’s secular political ideologies are any guide, removing theology from politics is no panacea against absurdity.

The reason that politics is so liable to absurdity, by atheist and theist alike, is the fact that it fundamentally transcends human capability. That is to say that the complex set of mutually interacting variables that characterize the political arena transcend the fallible human minds, finite human lives, and fallen human natures which are expected to master it. This variability presents a real challenge to political analysis. As Jack Hayward soberingly observed, “political scientists have the capacity to offer some hindsight, a little insight and almost no foresight.”[2] Today even the elemental task of describing political reality is contested, particularly in the context of fake news, post-truth, and ideological fragmentation, whereby alternative political realities now vie for allegiance (or a following on social media).

Adding theology to political analysis does not resolve the challenge posed by the latter’s complexity. Nor does it lift the veil of mystery that obscures political destiny. If anything, theology simply compounds the difficulty of political analysis by adding its own complex set of variables to the equation. It also comes with its own set of internal disputes, as even a cursory glance at the literature of contemporary biblical studies reveals, not to mention the well-worn doctrinal and ecclesial differences that have divided Christians for centuries.

Still, political theology is no more an option for the Christian than political thought is an option for the thinking human being. For we all live within a political order and under some form of political authority, both of which materially affect our lives and elicit from us some kind of response, whether it be protest, acquiescence, or cooperation. We all form, whether consciously or passively, certain ideas about the nature, purpose, and legitimacy of the political order in which we live and those entrusted to preside over it.

The Christian believer cannot help but understand that political order in the light of his or her theological convictions. While those convictions might appear absurd to the growing chorus of religion’s despisers, they are what make politics intelligible and meaningful to the Christian, recalling that the atheist has no special inoculation against the transcendent mystery of politics and the tragic absurdity to which it is susceptible.

And yet many Christians, perhaps even a majority, do not bring their theological convictions to bear on their political context in any self-reflective, critical, or systematic manner. This dereliction of duty, if it can be characterized as such, has indeed led some Christians into the realm of political absurdity.

In an age in which Western citizens of all credos risk being politicized to death, it is paramount that Christians develop a robust political theology that can help them navigate, individually and ecclesially, apologetically and constructively, the turbulent political waters of their times. A political theology fit for this task must be intellectually compelling, yet still feasible and efficacious.

All too often one encounters a tendency to reduce political theology to a handful of moral injunctions, such as “love thy neighbor,” or biblio-theological concepts, such as covenant, as if either constituted a viable basis for organizing and running twenty-first-century economies in the midst of an epoch-making digital revolution and on the precipice of revolutions in artificial intelligence and bio-technology.

Political theology now boasts a prolific and proliferating literature. However, little binds this literature together in terms of method, scope, and content, apart from adoption of the term “political theology” by authors in disparate fields. This diversity, which is a charitable way of saying incoherence, is particularly evident when one brings into focus the polar ends of the spectrum of work now designated as “political theology.”

At one end stand devout Christian believers, searching for “true” political insights and guidance in the Bible, theological doctrine, and the life of the church. At the other end stand secular theorists for whom “political theology” appears to be something of a fashionable buzzword to be sprinkled like garnish upon writing that makes no discernable use of theology (traditionally construed), and which inclines towards a type of political gnosticism that is all but indecipherable to the uninitiated. One encounters any number of permutations between these two poles.

Definitions of political theology consequently abound—a reflection of and testament to the “field’s” incoherence. The prudent course of action in this context is to simply stipulate one’s definition of political theology and then march on with benign disregard for the disputatious nature of the term. If nothing else, this approach has the virtue of providing clarity around the definition of political theology that governs a particular work, if none other. To that end I propose to the following definition of Christian political theology:

Political theology is a mode of political analysis that proceeds from the conviction that politics (however defined) is embedded within a Christian ontology and shaped to some extent by a Christian historical teleology.

By “Christian ontology” I mean to denote an ontology that accepts the truth of orthodox Christian theological claims such imago Dei, the incarnation, the exaltation of Christ, a coming apocalypse, and so on.[3] By “Christian historical teleology” I mean to suggest the notion that God in some sense directs, shapes, or intervenes in history with a view to bringing it to some kind of purposeful and meaningful consummation. Historical teleology is meant to capture theological concepts such as divine sovereignty, providence, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Suffice to say, a Christian ontology and historical teleology can be expected to profoundly affect the way one understands and approaches the political realm (both practically and theoretically). Political thought that shows evidence of a Christian ontology and Christian historical teleology signals the existence of political theology.

This particular construal of political theology intentionally leaves “politics/political” and “theology” undefined in order to accommodate different understandings of their respective semantic fields. The definition can therefore fruitfully accommodate theological diversity, such as the Orthodox doctrine of theosis and the evangelical doctrine of substitutionary atonement, as well as diverse definitions of politics, whether restricted to the activity of governments alone, power relations more widely, or the entire gamut of social relations.[4]

The purpose of this definition is to qualitatively distinguish political theology from other types of political thought, namely political science. In the absence of such a distinction, political theology becomes meaningless. In contrast to Christian political theology, political science proceeds from a naturalistic ontology and view of history which deems the authoritative sources of Christian ontology and teleology, namely the aforementioned Christian doctrines, to be irrelevant to an understanding of the natural phenomenon of politics. This is what functionally separates political theology from both secular political science and much contemporary political philosophy.

Jonathan Cole is currently a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology at Charles Sturt University, Canberra Australia. He did his PhD in the political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and prior to that worked for 14 years in a number of departments in the Australian federal government, with the latter half of that tenure spent working on Islamist terrorism in several intelligence agencies. He just published his first book Christian Political Theology in an Age of Discontent: Mediating Scripture, Doctrine, and Political Reality.

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Footnotes

  1. Proudhon, What is Property?
  2. Hayward, “British Approaches to Politics,” 34.
  3. Raschke argues that political theology is “not a theology of the political” but an inquiry into the “ontological grounding” of the political. Raschke, Force of God, xii. Emphasis original.
  4. Papanikolaou has investigated the implications of the doctrine of theosis (“divine-human communion”) for an Orthodox political theology in The Mystical as Political.

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