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Theologians do politics

23 August 2013

They just can't help it, Martin Gainsborough agrees with this author


Political Theology: A guide for the perplexed
Elizabeth Phillips

T & T Clark £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (use code CT559 )

ELIZABETH PHILLIPS, who is Tutor in Theology and Ethics at Westcott House, Cambridge, has written an excellent introductory text to political theology. This book does everything it ought to do.

Drawing on William Cavanaugh and Peter Scott, she defines political theology as "the analysis and criticism of political arrangements (including cultural-psychological, social and economic aspects) from the perspective of differing interpretations of God's ways with the world" (The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, Blackwell Publishing, 2004). In response to those who might say that mixing theology and politics is a bad idea, Phillips argues, quite rightly, that it is "entirely unavoidable".

The book is divided into two parts: "Defining Political Theology" and "Issues in Political Theology". In the former part, we learn of the roots of political theology in scrip- ture and Augustine's City of God, but also how it emerged as a distinct theological discipline in the 20th century, as theologians sought to make sense of the Holocaust and respond to secularisation.

In the book's second part, there are stimulating chapters on "The Politics of Jesus", "Liberalism and Democracy", and "Creation, History and Eschatology", to name just a few. I am a political scientist, and my antenna is usually up when theologians write about politics. Phillips is, however, accomplished in both disciplines. It was only when she appeared to dismiss all non-liberal regimes as totalitarian that I winced somewhat.

While Phillips suggests ways of distinguishing between different approaches to political theology ("optimism versus pessimism or Covenant versus Leviathan", differing "theological and ecclesial traditions"), it is in her distinction between "first-" and "second-" generation political theologies that we come closest to contemporary debates about how the Church should engage with the political.

First-generation political theo- logians, who include liberation theologians, can appear rather conservative by today's standards, and, while it would be mistaken to dismiss them entirely, the second generation, which includes writers such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank, is surely right to emphas-ise the very strangeness of God's word in respect of the world, and the importance of the Church's looking critically at liberalism's truisms. Nevertheless, as ever, the devil (or is that God?) is in the detail. 

The Revd Martin Gainsborough is Professor of Development Politics at the University of Bristol, and Priest-in-Charge of St Luke with Christ Church, Barton Hill, and St Matthew Moorfields, Bristol.

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