Political Theology and Theological Politics

I just finished reading Arne Rasmusson’s The Church as Polis. The book is really interesting to me, as Rasmusson’s project is to bring together and put into conversation the two theologians who have, so far, shaped my own theology the most: Jurgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas. For those who aren’t steeped in 20th century Euro-American theological trends, to have these two voices reigning supreme in one’s theological discourse is a bit like trying to organize your life with simultaneously with an IPhone and a Google Chromebook (another bit of meshing I participate in; stick with my stretched metaphor here): on the surface, it seems like it could work, as they purport to do similar things. But in the details, they just don’t mesh, and in fact, you come to find they come across as quite oppositional to what each is trying to achieve.

Jurgen Moltmann & Stanley Hauerwas

Nevertheless, I insist on having both Moltmann and Hauerwas speak loudly in my work, because I can neither shake Moltmann’s shattering and paradigm-orienting Theology of the Cross and basic theodicy, nor Hauerwas’ entirely prescient and important orienting of church and world in relation to one another. As a result, I have been fascinated by Rasmusson’s book. His basic goal is to critique and correct deficiencies in Moltmann by a reading of Hauerwas, so he isn’t overly enamored with Moltmann. Nevertheless, he is always charitable and willing to engage Moltmann seriously, and his ultimate goal is keep what is really good in Moltmann while correcting the rest with what Hauerwas does so well. It’s similar to the same yearning I’ve had over the last couple years, and I just couldn’t name it until I read The Church as Polis.

Anyways, my goal here isn’t to get into the weeds of the hermeneutical debate between postliberal and liberal theologies. Rather, I want to comment on the concrete way this book has shifted my thinking, as Rasmusson has really done a good job of verbalizing something I was feeling. The subtitle of the book is “From Political Theology to Theological Politics as Exemplified by Jurgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas.” That important turn of phrase – “political theology” to “theological politics” – gets at a really important point. Let me explain.

Political Theology is a well-established tradition in liberal theology in the 20th and 21st century. Arising out of the thought of German theologian Carl Schmitt, political theology is the work of using various social sciences – anthropology, political science, economics, classical philosophy – to relate Christian theology to the prevailing liberal nation-state and the workings of policy, economy and government. In short, it translates Christianity into a language that enables the Christian to also be an activist. Out of political theology rises what you commonly associate with people like Rev. William Barber, or the theological work of Martin Luther King Jr, or liberation theology, or even, on the other side, the political engagement of conservative Christians (although the Religious Right is equally, if not more so, ideologically dependent on the original evangelistic impulse, Fundamentalism, and Dispensationalism.)

Political theology has been the dominant world I, and most every progressive-leaning Christian, exists in. We hardly ever question the engagement of the church in political language and advocacy, much less the rationalization behind such engagement. For me, liberation theology was a huge entry point into theology. The assumptions this kind of theology brings – of theological work at inherently practical, of the necessity for the church and theology to respond to political events, of the mere compatibility of faith and political causes – are ingrained in many. Political theology partly rests its assumptions on a reading of Matthew 25, but like all areas of liberal theology, it does not assume a necessity for Scripture as a foundation for its hermeneutical worldview, instead drawing upon natural theology in the interest of interfaith and secular outreach in order to advance the political mission it advances. Scripture is used to bolster a previously formulated argument, not necessarily to ground it.

I, and so many others, have taken this view for granted, as just the way Christian theology is, that criticisms like that of Rasmusson – and, by extension, of thinkers like Haeurwas, Yoder, and Lindbeck – seem radical and unreasonable at first. Taking Rasmusson as our guide here, they criticize the ground on which political theology stands, by accusing it, in essence, of being a reactionary doctrine. In other words, political theology does not formulate a theory of the world that it then lets guide its actions. Instead, it takes its cues from modernity, from the priorities of the liberal nation-state, resting its assumptions upon the necessity of state power, and the primacy of the radically liberated individual, making decisions in one’s own self-interest first and foremost. Rasmusson critiques Moltmann on these grounds. Throughout the book, he notes how Moltmann doesn’t root his vision of theological engagement with the world in Christianity as much as he does in liberalism.

The shift, then, to theological politics comes at the level of first-order justifications. Whereas political theology is asking, “what situation can a Christian respond to, and how?”, theological politics asks, “what do politics look like in the context of the Christian church?” This means, what does a community formed and guided by the traditions and assumptions of Christianity look like? Only from that starting point can a Christian even begin to aim towards political engagement with the world. But, this political engagement will never accept the rules of the game laid down by the liberal worldview. Instead, theological politics, and postliberalism in general, tries to envision what a community of faith rooted in the specific, historical practices of the Christian faith, look like. In this  way, it doesn’t propose an agenda or blueprint for fixing the things that arise in society, but instead envisions itself as a whole other way of being in the world, anticipating the Kingdom of God and showing, by way of contrast, an alternative. It doesn’t try to take a 30,000 foot view of society, in line with the technocratic assumptions of modernity and the social sciences, but instead envisions a better world achieved moment-by-moment, in the interactions of real people, formed and informed by the Christian virtues taught by the church. Rasmusson terms it a “contrast society”; he writes,

“This concentration on the church’s life and on everyday life does, Hauerwas thinks, prevent the church from speaking to the larger society. Instead it is to make use of the best resources of the church. The church, as a distinct community with its own tradition, can be a carrier of alternative practices and alternative ways of seeing the world.


A church with a strong sense of community, living with a tradition and practices that partly stand apart from the dominating stories, traditions and practices of modernity (as a contrast society), might have a larger ability (because of a different ‘grid’) and the social space to see modern society from other perspectives, and to form and sustain new ways of thinking and living.”

(Rasmusson, 373)

I’ve come around to this way of thinking. For so long, as this blog has evidenced, mine has been a distinctly “political theology,” forming theology to address political issues. I wasn’t necessarily conforming my theology to fit my politics; I still hold on to my beliefs about the dignity of all human beings, the equality of all, the need for compassion and common sense in our communal lives. However, I no longer view the mission of the church as advancing this white paper or that legislative initiative. I don’t think real change in the world, change that reflects the Kingdom, comes through our systems as they are. I am more committed to and interested in localism, a la Wendell Berry, and I think the assumptions of the liberal order are inherently flawed and unworkable. I don’t assume a utopian outlook any more, wherein we have the possibility of realizing the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Instead, we can merely point towards it, but only in the context of a community of virtue, situated in specific practices and traditions.

One of my goals here is to continue to work this out for myself. That’s what I’m trying to do here and one of the themes I will continue here. Because it has been my way of thinking for so long, it is still difficult for me to approach issues and happenings in a new way, but I’m hoping to practice that here. I want to reflect on things happening in the world a little more slowly, and with this different, postliberal lens.

As always, your feedback is appreciated.



One thought on “Political Theology and Theological Politics

  1. Justin: Intriguing. New concepts to me which I will need to digest in order to understand them better but, at first blush, I like them. Must admit I’ve read a bit of Haurwes but nothing of Moltmunn, though. Anyway, thank you for your review. Food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

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