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.

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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.

 

 

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The Angry White Male

This story came to my attention today. Apparently, the University of Kansas is offering a course titled “Angry White Male studies” as part of their Women’s and Gender studies course offerings in the fall. The course description on the KU website says,

This course charts the rise of the “angry white male” in America and Britain since the 1950s, exploring the deeper sources of this emotional state while evaluating recent manifestations of male anger. Employing interdisciplinary perspectives this course examines how both dominant and subordinate masculinities are represented and experienced in cultures undergoing periods of rapid change connected to modernity as well as to rights-based movements of women, people of color, homosexuals and trans individuals.

Taught by (noted white male) Dr. Christopher Forth, it seems to be a course responding to the growing cultural awareness that white men in America, in large numbers are angry about something (evidence: one Donald J. Trump) and the rest of the world should probably take notice and figure out why they are angry.

From what I can tell, the emerging debate around this class has centered on two questions: first, is this a legitimate class for a university to offer; and second, are white man unusually or especially angry? As someone who just spent the better part of the last year researching and writing a thesis centered around figuring why white people – of which I am one – are angry, and how the Church can begin to formulate a constructive theology that takes this anger seriously and begins the work of healing and reconciling, I feel I am somewhat well equipped to think about these questions.

We’ll start with the second: are white men especially angry right now? I began my research with the premise that white people in general – and especially white people inhabiting rural and working class areas – are indeed quite angry. To say this isn’t a value judgment. I’m not overly interested in why white people angry in the sense of trying to fix those things; this is because I think a lot of the things driving that anger – immigration, cultural demographics, empowerment of women and LGBT people – are good things on net, and basically aren’t going to be changing their trajectory. This doesn’t mean some of the other reasons for the anger aren’t legitimate – for instance, growing economic inequality, the slow death and degradation of small town and rural life, the cultural scorn often directed at rural working class people.

All in all though, I am less interested in the causes of that anger, and more interested in the fact that that anger is real and deeply felt and is being expressed in loud and often socially damaging ways. What ways? Well just name two, the growing rise of white nationalism:

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and the high numbers of mass gun violence committed by whites:

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Apart from the socially-destructive aspects of white anger, there is also the fact that white people are the only demographic group currently experiencing a growing mortality rate, or that suicide is an increasingly larger reason for cause of death among white men, or that drug and alcohol abuse it rising at alarming rates, including the well-publicized effects of the opioid epidemic. Clearly, there is an alarming level of existential angst amongst white people, manifesting itself both publicly and as self-harm, and it is worth our attention.

In my own research, I came across an abundance of sources on the growth and drivers of white anger. Justin Gest, in his book The White Working Class, does a great sociological analysis of white people in the United States and the UK, unpacking the demographic drivers behind growing support for right wing movements like Brexit, white nationalism and Trumpism. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land is an extraordinarily moving account of a particular context of white working-class people in Louisiana, documenting their anger and despair over a changing world. As she writes in her book, “Trumo was the identity politics candidate for white men.” And finally, Rev. Tex Sample’s Working Class Rage does a really good job of exploring a Christian approach to the anger felt by white working class people.

You don’t have to dig into academic works, however, to investigate the phenomena of white anger. A simple Google search for “white anger” will return a plethora of articles at a variety of news sources on the nature of white anger in America. So, in answer of our first question, yes, I would say white men are very angry. I think a lot of people are angry right now, but as we have seen, the anger of white men is manifesting itself in particularly public ways.

Which leads to our second question: is a class on white male anger something a university should be offering? In short, yes. Seeing as how we just noted a variety of ways in which white people – of which at least half are white men – are particularly angry at this moment in history, then it seems legitimate to me that a humanities department at a major university in the United States would want to attempt to study and think about it. This doesn’t seem overly objectionable to me; in fact, this is what the academy is all about. Exploring questions, even if the answers to those questions ultimately prove spurious, is one of the primary missions of the academy.

To get back to my earlier point: this is the exact kind of thinking people need to be doing right now, especially in the church. As I said, I’m not as interested in questions of why white people are angry, except as those reasons inform our ability to address that anger. Because, whether the reasons are legitimate or not, the fact of the matter is, the anger and hurt and despair being felt by white people – and being expressed by white people – is very real. And, not only should we be thinking about it with a utilitarian motive – as in, it’s importance because of the way it effects us – but, as Christians, we should also be thinking about it because these are our fellow human beings. Their pain is real, and we have a responsibility to take another human being seriously when they are telling us they are in pain. Even if we don’t understand the reasons, or agree with it. Understanding is worth our time, because only by understanding is empathy created and solutions found.

I think, from this view point, the KU course is a really good thing. I hope more universities start grappling with questions of real substance concerning the forgotten world of rural working class people in America, rather than dismissing their interests and situations. While I hold no illusions about some of the non-constructive directions this course could take, I also think there is the potential for the unequivocal goods of empathy-building and the door that opens to building bridges and, ultimately, communities of reconciliation and healing.

On Social Media Breaks and What Matters

I’ve recently taken about two months away from all social media. I made this choice at the end of January in order to focus on the process of writing my Master’s thesis, a full draft of which I turned in this last Monday. I wanted to get away from social media chiefly because my various news feeds (Instagram, Twitter and especially Facebook) were becoming big time vacuums, wherein I would easily lose 15-20 minutes at a time without even realizing it.

Offline.Beyond the functional element to the decision, I also wanted to test run a time away from the daily church of social media. This had been something growing inside of me for a while, partly influenced by some blogs I read regularly, and podcasts I listen to, who were spending a good amount of time reflecting on the power of social media and technology to shape our daily lives. For me, this meant an unreasonably large amount of time and attention being sucked up into obsessing over the political news of the day. I felt so stretched, and angry, and like I had no ability to focus. I know it was affecting my ability  to write, both academically and here.

So, I’ve gone two months without any social media in my life. And it’s been actually really, really great. Great for me on a personal, psychological level. Great for me on an academic level. I’ve been able to slow the pace of my own mind, to take time to really think about things, and take time for reflection. I’ve been practicing what Cal Newport calls solitude, which isn’t necessarily being alone, but is instead the idea of not having any input; that is, not allowing anyone else to be contributing thoughts or ideas into your head, whether that be reading or listening to a podcast or music or looking at social media or anything. Instead, solitude means you are alone in your head with your thoughts; it gives you time to think, and it may at time feel scary, but after a while, it becomes really freeing. On a recent podcast with Ezra Klein, Newport said you can even experience solitude on a crowded train, as long as you aren’t actively seeking an input of any sort. Give it a try. It’s really great.

Being away from social media has also helped reset my priorities. For so long, I, like almost everyone else I know, was driven by the daily news cycle, mostly via my Facebook news feed. You know what I mean: whatever the daily news story is, no matter how trivial or crazy, becomes what everyone is talking about, posting about, ranting about, thinking about. Whether its the latest Trump controversy, something a politician said, a political flash point, a celebrity controversy, or whatever: simply by being on Facebook or Twitter, and seeing a hundred stories about it, it becomes what you are thinking about in a latent fashion, and it gains outsize importance. It, in effect, becomes its own bubble, a bubble that distorts its own importance. Things in this social media bubble seem very, very important to the future of our political discourse because everyone is talking about them, and so they must be important.

For instance, I left social media right at the height of the controversy surrounding a Native American protester and his confrontation with a young MAGA kid. Remember that? It seemed terribly important at the time. I remember being very angry about that for days, even when I wasn’t on Facebook. It seemed like a huge deal that said Something Very Important about politics.

And then I left social media. And I no longer saw anything at all about it. And I realized: it wasn’t important at all. I mean, it was important for the people involved. But, in a larger scheme of things – and I don’t just mean in a larger, four-year election cycle scale, but a scale even wider than that – it just didn’t matter at all. I subsequently forgot about it; from what I can tell from talking to people, it faded from the news and was replaced, and has hardly been thought about since. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t really reveal anything about our political moment, or public policy, or the way the world is. It just….happened. And then nothing.

That incidence, and all the many small Facebook and Twitter-worthy controversies that have occurred since them, made me realize something somewhat profound (at least as far I am concerned): all those things happening on social media – the political debates, the controversies, the stupid things your crazy uncle posts, the fights over any number of things – all that stuff just doesn’t even actually exist. I mean, it kind of exists, in people’s heads. But really, speaking substantially, it doesn’t exist. And yet we all spend so much time getting so worked up over it! We all get so angry, and flustered, and then we start over obsessing over something someone commented on our wall, and we wonder what stupid thing someone posted today, and next thing you know, you are spending all day thinking about a virtual world that doesn’t actually exist and doesn’t actually matter!

I know this could potentially sound, to someone immersed in that world, practically insane. Of course these things matter! Right?

After two months away, I say no. They don’t. There are a lot of news-worthy things happening in the world, things that I heard about despite not being on Facebook, slower moving things that weren’t terribly click-bait-ey, but which are undeniably important and consequential. I was able to refocus on these kinds of news stories, and I was able to do it at my pace, not at the pace dictated to me by Facebook’s algorithm. I have also been able, by not being spoon-fed a plethora of small news controversies and political topics that I actually don’t care all that much about, get a handle on what I do actually care about, what things do concern me and grab my interest. By clearing so much of the political news clutter out of my own personal news feed in my brain, I have become able to realize what kinds of issues really hold my interest and actually matter to me. In my case, it has been the environment and climate change. I have come to be greatly alarmed about what is happening with our natural world, and what it means for our future, and have been able to spend some time reading about our changing world. I had never been quite so terrified about the prospects for environmental change before now, and I think that was because the drive of the news cycle hadn’t allowed me the time to think too deeply about any one issue.

Obviously, this has all entailed theological change for me as well. I have, in the words of Arne Rasmussen in his really good book The Church as Polis, begun to move from a political theology, to a theological politics. I’m going to expand what I mean by this in a future post, but in short, it means I have been able to get to a head space where my theological priorities are less dictated by the world as it is, by politics and public affairs, but instead by letting my theology, my understanding of God and Christ and the story of the Gospel, dictate what my politics are about. This is a notion I had been circling for a long time, well before this social media break, that was sometimes evident in some of the things I had written here, but I had had a really hard time figuring it out. Old blog posts here showcase my own inner confusion. I no longer hold some of the positions that I have written about here; or, perhaps a better way to say this is, I no longer approach things the same way I have before, and I hope whatever writing I do here in the future reflects that. I’m not going to take down or change anything I previously published here, but I do of course reserve the right to work myself out in public and let my changes be evident for all to see. Such is the life of blogging on the internet, I suppose.

I’m not totally back on social media. I have logged back into Instagram, because I really feel like it is the least damaging and absorbing of all social media. I like pictures. It’s easy. I have also logged back into Twitter, which I have always used more as a reader and not as someone who tweets. I am, however, paring my follow list way back, mostly to things concerning the sports teams I care about. As for Facebook, I’m not really going back there in any substantial way. I don’t miss it. In fact, the idea of spending time there, after two months without, is really unappealing and borderline anxiety-inducing. I’m definitely not logging in on my phone, and I’ll just use it sparingly on my laptop, reserving the right to very liberally use the unfollow and block buttons on people. I don’t need that negativity.

One last way this social media sabbatical has effected me: I mentioned this above, but I feel I can write again. Clearing the clutter has given my brain time to slow down, to think about things in a more substantial way, and to develop ideas again, which I hope to be reflected here. We’ll see. I’ve been promising myself for the better part of three years that I’ll write regularly here again, and so far it hasn’t happened so, who knows. Here’s hoping. But I do know that I want to write about:

  • my approach as theological politics, as opposed to political theology
  • social media as performative righteousness
  • the telos of social justice
  • hope, utopian dreams, and nihilism
  • the difference between faith and belief
  • reflecting on topics related to my thesis
  • lots and lots of quotes from books
  • coherence and incoherence

So we’ll see how it goes. Happy spring to everyone.