Book Review – Political Theology by Fiorenza, Tanner, and Welker

Political Theology is currently a flourishing field, with even atheists like Slavoj Zizek contributing to the task. This book, Political Theology: Contemporary Challenges and Future Directions, edited by Francis Schussler Fiorenza, Klaus Tanner, and Michael Welker capitalizes on this field’s popularity and seeks to give some direction to the current discussions within Political Theology. The goal of this book was specifically to articulate “an understanding of the future tasks and potential of Political Theology in a local and global context.”

For those of unfamiliar with this field, Political Theology seeks to articulate ways in which theological concepts (explicitly or implicitly) serve as a foundation for all political, social, economic and cultural thought. It isn’t simply a discussion of Church and State, neither is it simply concerned with God’s role in politics. When speaking of Political Theology we must understand that we aren’t doing Theology proper (that is why even atheists can do Political Theology). We might consider Political Theology a sort of Feuerbachian “Theology as Anthropology” or at least carrying that tradition into our day. Johan Baptist Metz makes this anthropological connection in his essay when he points out that his own Political Theology has been shaped by Karl Rahner’s “anthropological turn” of the discourse of God. All this to say, in this book we are dealing with a political “theology as anthropology.”

This short book (only 86 dense pages long) consists of six essays, all birthed out of a Political Theology conference at the University of Heidelberg in 2010. Jurgen Moltmann makes the first contribution – he highlights the fact that all theologies are political and gives us a brief tour of several forms of Political Theology. Johan Baptist Metz writes an essay contrasting his own Political Theology with the theology of Carl Schmitt. He advocates for a theology which is even more grounded in current contexts as opposed to a metaphysical timeless Political Theology. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza adds her typical feminist take to this discussion. She argues that Political Theology needs more feminist analysis. Her husband contributes an essay as well – he argues that politics in a pluralist context needs Political Theology because religiously shaped discourse contributes something that no other sort of tradition can. Klaus Tanner makes his contribution by examining the Political Theology of Pope Benedict XVI. Michael Welker concludes this collection of essays by contrasting the Political Theology of Habermas and Ratzinger. He argues that Political Theology needs to draw more from the social sciences, and that it could take its cue from the philosophy of Habermas.

Overall this book highlights three themes: 1) The future of Political Theology needs to understand the contextual nature of social relations, 2) Political Theology requires a higher degree of interaction with the social sciences, and 3) Political Theology must embrace multicontextual and pluralistic environments (XII-XIV).

Analysis

The two essays that I found most helpful were Motmann’s and Francis Schussler Fiorenza’s essays. Moltmann made a strong case that there is no such thing as a-political theology. He presents the reader with a strong overview of how his thesis plays out in various context (Latin America, places undergoing ecological crises, and other global contexts). He also makes a good point that one cannot have Liberation theology in non-Christian contexts since Liberation and justice comes in the name of Jesus Christ. Francis Schussler Fiorenza’s essay was also very helpful. More than any other essay, this essay explained Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology and provided a helpful contrast with it. He makes the case that much of American political theology has been shaped by Schmitt’s ideas – both liberal and neo-conservatives are full of Schmitt’s ideas. What is needed is a critique of his theology – this critique will involve two deeply Christian concepts, that of Sin and that of Transcendence.

There are plenty of things that I felt like critiquing as I was reading this book, but I am going to restrain myself from focusing too much on any one essay – rather I will explain one issue that I have with Political Theology in its entirety. The one problem that I had with political theology is that it really doesn’t seem to be “Political Theology” it really seems to be “Political Anthropology.” God actually plays a very small role in most of these theologian’s theology (except for Moltmann and Fiorenza’s). As I mentioned in my summary above, Political Theology is a sort of Feuerbachian “Theology as Anthropology.” Metz (it seems to me) would wholeheartedly agree. This is a shame because I had thought that Theology had moved past its Feuerbachian stage. I though that Barth had exposed the foolishness of “Liberal” theology, yet Political Theology (it seems to me) is Feuerbach redivius. Consider the fact that even atheists can do Political Theology – it doesn’t get more Feuerbachian than that!

Do I recommend this book? Yes I do. If you want a taste of what Political Theology is like, and you want a glimpse into it future then this is a great book. Yet to me it seems as though the entire project of Political Theology is built on a foundation of quicksand. Unless Political Theology starts doing a little more “theology” I am probably going to stay away from it unless absolutely necessary.

(Note: I received this book courtesy of NetGalley and WJK in exchange for an objective review.)

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