Political Theology

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POLITICAL THEOLOGY is one in a series of attempts made by Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians since the 1960s to come to grips with the foundations of Christianity in light of the twentieth-century crisis of culture. After World War I, theology had reached a kind of equilibrium wherein the Protestants were constellated about the three giants, Karl Barth (18861968), Rudolf Bultmann (18841976), and Paul Tillich (18861965), and the Catholics were still operating under the auspices of the scholasticism evoked by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, when he called for a renewal of Thomism. By the close of the Second Vatican Council (19621965), however, these liberal and neoorthodox solutions to the mediation between Christianity and modern cultures had suddenly become irretrievably passé, for it was widely felt that none of the dominant theologies, estimable as they might be, had really come to terms with the crisis of modern culture in ways that were sufficiently profound or adequately differentiated.

These deficiencies were registered within the mainly academic context of European and North American theology through the increasing influence of the nineteenth-century "masters of suspicion," Karl Marx (18181883) and Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900). Nietzsche's critique of modernity had probed the enervating effects upon life in the West caused by the invasion of other cultures and the various forms of reflection upon culture by historical consciousness in terms of nihilism and the death of God. In his unforgettable image of the "last man," Nietzsche had limned the outcome of the liberal democratic and socialist solutions to the political problem. This radical crisis of meaning and value was explored during the mid-1960s in a variety of Christian theologies: the God-is-dead theologies of Thomas Altizer, Gabriel Vahanian, and Paul van Buren; the universal-historical theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg; the post-Bultmann hermeneutical theologies of Gerhard Ebeling, Ernst Fuchs, and Heinrich Ott; and the post-Heidegger theology of Karl Rahner. Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose Truth and Method became required reading for theologians in the 1960s and 1970s, resumed the meditation of Martin Heidegger (18891976) upon the crisis indicated by Nietzsche and formulated the issue as follows: Since all normative traditions have been rendered radically questionable, hermeneutics (the auxiliary science of interpretation) has become a universal issue. However, the challenge of hermeneutics to theology is usually diffused in one of two ways. In academic theology hermeneutics is trimmed down to conventional scholarly dimensions, whereafter theology is subjected to subdisciplines that divide up the data on Christian religion for ever more minute and critical study. Alternatively, hermeneutics may be subsumed within a transcendental-metaphysical reflection (as in Rahner) or a wholly ontological reflection (as in process theology). These responses to the issue of a universal hermeneutic as formulated by Gadamerfragmenting on the one hand, and totalizing on the otherbore the earmarks of that sort of interpretation that Marx, in his famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, said needed to be supplanted by practice. It became a real question whether theology was anything more than either a species of intellectual history or an academically domesticated speculation without any practical bearing or importance.

During the 1960s and 1970s this question became inescapable. At the same time a common awareness was starting to emerge of the spiritual impoverishment arising from what were cynically labeled state-controlled monopolies in the East and monopoly-controlled states in the West. In the developing nations, dissatisfaction spread at the popular, grass-roots level in opposition to the dependence engendered by colonialist and imperialist policies of advanced industrial societies. In brief, the stage was set for theology to shift from hermeneutical methods of mediating Christianity with contemporary cultures to new approaches known as political or liberation theologies.

By 1970 it was already manifest that there were two distinct originating points for political theology: from within an academic context in advanced industrial societies, and from what have come to be called "basic communities" (from the Spanish comunidades de base ) in developing nations. It is clear that both styles of theology are seeking to come to terms with the universal hermeneutic problem as portrayed by Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Paul Ricoeur. But it is no less evident that they mean to follow Marx's imperative of changing, rather than merely interpreting, history.

The leading exponents of political theology in Europe, the German Catholic J.-B. Metz and the German Protestant Jürgen Moltmann, might justly be characterized as asserting that interpretation of God is a practical and political issue. There is no split between change and interpretation: Human and even revolutionary change is at root interpretative; and, especially when it comes to the reality of God, interpretation is primarily a matter of practical reorientation (conversion) and concrete action (transformation of individual and collective life). Moltmann at first depended upon Ernst Bloch's philosophy of hope but later moved on, using motifs from the critical theory developed by the Frankfurt School to reinterpret Luther's theology of the cross in terms of its revolutionary social implications. Metz, ever a disciple of Rahner, was challenged by the experience of the Holocaust and by the writings of the enigmatic Jewish-Marxist satellite of the Frankfurt School, Walter Benjamin (18921940), to reformulate Rahner's theological anthropology in terms of less idealist and more concrete notions such as "dangerous memory," "religion as interruption," and "narrative theology." Both Metz and Moltmann have used the "dialectic of enlightenment" (that is, the secularist thesis that the progress achieved by modern science and technology and by the bourgeois and communist revolutions has been perverted by the dominance of instrumental reason and the "iron cage" of bureaucracy) as it was formulated by Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Georg Lukács. Metz and Moltmann transpose that dialectic of progress and decline into the tension now being lived out between the pole of liberal democratic and Marxist "ideologies of winners" and the opposite pole of redemption with the radical evangelical challenge to solidarity with history's outcasts and victims.

Liberation theologies emanate less from the academic superstructure than from basic communities at the popular level. They reach public discourse in the writings of teachers like Gustavo Gutiérrez (Peru), Juan Segundo (Uruguay), José Miguez-Bonino (Argentina), Jon Sobrino (El Salvador), Leonardo and Clodovis Boff and Rubem Alves (Brazil), and so on. But they are also published in documents emanating from bishops' conferences as well as in the writings and political activity typified by the Nicaraguan priest-poet-revolutionary Ernesto Cardenal. In liberation theology the experiences of political and social oppression and of massive poverty have provoked a reading of the Bible and a celebration of ecclesial sacraments that are immediately political in the sense of being directly linked to the issue of emancipation from "structural" sin. Bourgeois social, political, and economic theories do not adequately explain the institutionalized schemes of recurrence that define the Latin American experience of oppression. Thus, liberation theology debunks bourgeois notions of "development" in favor of hypotheses like "dependency" and "national security state" in which Lenin's ideas about imperialism are applied anew. This is just one instance of the theology of liberation's penchant to have recourse to Marxism (especially the humanist strands) and Leninist or Maoist strategies in order to diagnose and remedy structural sin. This approach places liberation theologians under a double constraint since, on the one hand, genuine evangelical experience of God and faith in Jesus Christ Liberator is for them the wellspring and motive for social critique and action in a way that neither Marx nor Lenin could envisage, and, on the other hand, the theoretical weaknesses in Marxist analysis and practice sometimes threaten liberation theology with collapse back into the posture of the secularist dialectic of enlightenment. Added to this, liberal democratic and orthodox Christian misunderstanding and opposition perhaps unwittingly force the practitioners of liberation theology into increasing partisanship with secularist Marxist-Leninists.

Both European political theology and Latin American liberation theology have the Marxist orientation toward overcoming specifically bourgeois biases. In other advanced industrial countries like the United States and Canada, the Marxist analysis of structural sin in terms of class yields to three other emphases: racism (black and other ethnic theologies), sexism (feminist theologies), and issues of ecology. Like the liberation theologies of Latin America, each of these orientations struggles with the ambivalence between its roots in Christian religious experience and the terms of power and legitimacy as these terms were first formulated by secularist Enlightenment thinkers. Miscomprehension and unfavorable criticism force them, too, into stances ever more indistinguishable from their secularist counterparts. But then, reactions to such extremes among their cohorts have also led to recoveries and discoveries of Christian meanings and values.

Another increasingly prominent aspect of political theology is being explored by Ernest Fortin and James V. Schall, students of political philosopher Leo Strauss (18991973). Strauss took up the hermeneutic challenge laid down by Heidegger only to return to premodern authors (Xenophon, Plato, Maimonides, al-Fārābī) as an alternative to the mediations of the social sciences in the mold of Marx or Max Weber (18641920). Straussians bring out the tension between Christianity and liberal and socialist democracies. They tend to render Christianity as utterly apolitical; as a result, whereas liberation theology tends to flatten out into Marxism, Straussian political theory is perhaps too content with Platonic or Aristotelian reasons for espousing liberal democracy at the cost of solidarity with the poor.

The work of political scientist Eric Voegelin (19011985), as demonstrated by his multivolume Order and History (1956), makes the tension of human existencelived out in "the in-between" ("metaxy") as expressed paradigmatically in noetic and pneumatic differentiations of consciousnessnormative for practical and political thought and action. Voegelin's ideas provide an antidote to the tendency of some political theologians to collapse that tension, and his ecumenical and transcultural comprehensiveness adds scope to conventional political theology. Nevertheless, by its very power and genericness, Voegelin's enterprise has a tendency to be too global to do justice to the particular problems of political practice.

Metz's American student Matthew Lamb has recently called attention to the relevance for political theology of the work of Bernard Lonergan (19041984). Lonergan, by demanding that the criteria of authentic performance in science, in scholarship, and in ordinary living be reconnected with the criteria for being authentically human (thematized in his notions of religious, moral, and intellectual conversion), has given political theologians a useful framework for the mediation of saving meaning and value in history. His stance toward the future in the light of the past, along with his germinal but still little-known work in economics, Lamb suggests, provides Christians with the first genuine alternative to either Marxist or liberal democratic political and economic theory. Whatever may be the fate of political theology as we know it, its reintegration of earlier forms of theologyemphasizing retrieval of past meaning and doctrinal and systematic restatementinto foundational, practical, and political questions about the right way to live can only be salutary for the practice of faith in society both now and in the future. Many contemporary theologians believe that political theology is, in fact, the chief symptom and response to the paradigm change theology is undergoing.

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in Latin America; Heidegger, Martin; Lonergan, Bernard; Marx, Karl; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Rahner, Karl.


European Political Theology

Metz, J.-B. Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology. Translated by David Smith. New York, 1980. A nuanced statement of Metz's mature position, with an account of the genesis and aims of political theology, his differences with Karl Rahner, and a basic elaboration of major concepts and themes.

Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. Translated by Robert Wilson and John Bowden. New York, 1974. Uses themes from critical social theory as transposed into the perspective of the interaction between Father and Son in the crucifixion.

Latin American Liberation Theology

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra B. Ramos. New York, 1970. An extended commentary on the intrinsic nexus between language and life-form as the key to initiating a reflection upon and transformation of life-practice and to our becoming subjects instead of objects of history.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. Translated and edited by Caridad Inda and John Eagleson. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1973. Probably the classic text embodying the demarche of liberation hermeneutics, it correlates biblical texts on emancipation with the contemporary social situation as brought to light through Marxist social theory.

Feminist Liberation Theology

Plaskow, Judith, and Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, eds. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Chico, Calif., 1985; Decatur, Ga., 1985. A semiannual journal devoted to feminist research, discussion, and dialogue in all areas of religious studies, with articles regularly by all the leading theorists as well as newcomers.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. New Woman, New Earth. New York, 1975. Here one of the most solid theorists not only retrieves many feminist motifs centrally important to secular feminism but goes on to use them to show how the concerns of feminist social critique are of intrinsic value to other emphases related to racism, ecology, and so forth.

Schüssler-Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York, 1983. A superb critical historian and a tough-minded and sane thinker, Schüssler-Fiorenza is able to document clearly how patriarchalism is not integral to Christianity, how the Christian community got derailed from its own meanings and values, and how these meanings and values can be recovered in the present to the benefit of all Christians.

Black Political Theology

West, Cornel. Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. Philadelphia, 1982. A brilliant work from the second generation of black theologians that brings the emancipatory thrust of black theology into dialogue with a large number of influential "discourses," including those of Jacques Derrida.

Wilmore, Gayraud S., and James H. Cone, eds. Black Theology: A Documentary History, 19661979. Maryknoll, N. Y., 1979. An excellent "backgrounder" with all the most influential statements and figures, along with bibliography.

Miscellaneous Works

Fiorenza, Francis S. "Political Theology as Foundational Theology: An Inquiry into Their Fundamental Meaning." Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 32 (1977): 142177. Brief, lucid, and reliable, this is the best overview of the development of the notion of political/civil theology in the West from antiquity to the present.

Lamb, Matthew L. Solidarity with Victims: Toward a Theology of Social Transformation. New York, 1982. A difficult yet rewarding look at the possibilities of a comprehensive, differentiated, yet committed framework (for the tasks articulated by Metz, the Latin Americans, and the critical social theorists) to be found in the thought of Bernard J. F. Lonergan.

Lonergan, Bernard J. F. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957). Reprint, San Francisco, 1978. An invitation and phenomenological maieutic toward an appropriation of one's rational self-consciousness and an intellectual conversion of the heart of concrete practice.

Lonergan, Bernard J. F. Method in Theology. New York, 1972. The best elucidation to date of the foundations of theology as practical and political in a differentiated society.

Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago, 1953. The best available account of the moral and political revolution from the classic tradition of natural right and natural law to the modern horizon of natural and human rights, along with its profound ambiguities.

Strauss, Leo. Political Philosophy: Six Essays by Leo Strauss. Edited by Hilail Gildin. Indianapolis, 1975. An expression of the core of Strauss's orientation, of which perhaps the most beneficial statement is the essay "The Three Waves of Modernity."

Voegelin, Eric. Order and History, vol. 4, The Ecumenic Age. Baton Rouge, La., 1974. An extended expression of Voegelin's most mature position, but especially pertinent reflections on the context of political theology in what he calls "historiogenesis."

New Sources

Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. rev. ed. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1997.

Donovan, Oliver. The Desire of Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Ellis, Marc, and Otto Maduro, eds. The Future of Liberation Theology; Essays in Honor of Gustavo Gutiérrez. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1989.

Gottwald, Norman K., and Richard A. Horsely, eds. The Bible and Liberation: Political and Social Hermeneutics. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1993.

Hennelley, Alfred T., ed. Liberation Theology: A Documentary History. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1990.

Peterson, Anna L. Martyrdom and the Politics of Religion: Progressive Catholicism in El Salvador's Civil War. Albany, N.Y., 1997.

Smith, Christiana. Disruptive Religion: The Forces of Faith in Social Movement Activism. New York and London, 1996.

Tabb, William K., ed. Churches in Struggle: Liberation Theologies and Social Change in North America. New York, 1986.

Frederick G. Lawrence (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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