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Religion in the public realm

21 May 2012

If only the discussion were less cloistered, says John Atherton

The Future of Political Theology: Religious and theological perspectives
Peter Losonczi, Mika Luoma-Aho, and Aakash Singh, editors

Ashgate £50
Church Times Bookshop £45

HOW we have moved, and continue to move, from the late 1990s to 2012, from an age of excess, secular­isation, and the pluralities of post-modernity to an age of austerity, declining trust in secular politics and economics, and the rise of religions, as together constituting the post-secular: Graham Ward’s foreword helpfully so contextualises this book. What is, therefore, and should be the part played by religion in political societies?

The growing number of contri-butions on political theology is rep­resented by The Blackwell Com­panion to Political Theology (2004; Books, 15 July 2005). This new book moves beyond the Christianity of the Companion to include contributions from Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. The latter is of particular importance, given the current global rebalancing through the rise of China and India, and their religions.

Somewhat negating this necessary development are the European nature of this project, and its focus on the early-20th-century work of Carl Schmitt, that all modern political concepts are secular­ised theological concepts, traceable to early Christian Euro­pean history. And yet the rest of the world before 1800 and after 2000 is not Western at all.

The authors usefully seek “to reinforce the voice of the religious in the public realm” through three parts that examine, first, the past of political theology, second, new theological trends, and, third, its emerging context and future prospects. In doing so, they rightly claim not to be encyclopedic, but limited in scope, exploring the different paths that could constitute the beginnings or a reorganisation of political theology.

They again, rightly, claim not to seek to return to the old order of church-state or throne-altar relationships, and instead seek to respect different interpretations of God’s ways with the world. Yet two of the contributors have advocated a Christianity that seeks to outnarrate all other narratives. This, therefore, lies uneasily with the Buddhist liberation-type theology and the Muslim contribution on religiously based family and marriage laws in Iran. Again, perhaps unfortunately, the latter are part of the case studies in the future-orientated part three, and not in the more foundational theoretical first two parts.

The book itself represents a contribution from the European-based International Research Network on Religion and Democ­racy, as its publication by the acad­emic Ashgate Press and price illus­trate. It is, therefore, primarily religious academics talking to religious academics. Oh, for examples in which religious and secular academics share thinking — and for more accessible William Temple-type books, such as his Christianity and Social Order, whose 70th anniversary we celebrate this year! This work deeply influenced the post Second World War British welfare-state settlement. Now, that’s political theology and practice.

Canon Atherton is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Chester University.

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