THE political theologian Oliver O’Donovan once observed that almost the entire vocabulary of salvation in the New Testament — salvation, justification, peace, faithfulness, faith, the Kingdom of God — had a political pre-history of some kind. Early Christians picked up and repurposed words that educated first-century Greeks would have heard as being about polis, power, and emperor.
His point, which is central to Luke Bretherton’s latest, substantial, and very impressive work of political theology, is not so much that Christianity is “political”, in the sense that it should be interested in political questions, but that both politics and the Christian faith are inherently engaged at the nexus of power and the co-ordination of our common life. “Talk of God and talk of politics”, as Bretherton writes in his introduction, “are coemergent and mutually constitutive.”
This is an important message and a timely one, as forces of secularism and populism swirl in the North Atlantic world, while religious politics either surges or is repressed elsewhere. Christ and the Common Life is focused primarily on Europe and North America, but the way in which it shows how the key political concepts of the North Atlantic world were formed by its commercial and imperial encounters with Africa (and elsewhere) delivers it from any parochialism.
Its range is enormous. Part one reviews five “case studies” in political theology, going beyond the usual suspects to incorporate chapters on humanitarianism, Pentecostalism, and “Black Power”, reflecting Bretherton’s endeavour to “reconfigure” the canon of political theology. The second part explores the things that “corrode” our common life, such as social hierarchy and inequality. The final part sets out a more constructive political theology, in which Bretherton articulates the ways in which democracy, economics, sovereignty, and the idea of “the people” can be encouraged to generate patterns of common life (including non-human life) rather than undermine them.
When so much ground is covered, it is hard to pick any single dominant theme, which is partly Bretherton’s intention. The book represents “multiple intersecting pathways” through the contemporary political landscape rather than “a single linear genealogical road”, and can profitably be read as discrete chapters rather than sequentially.
That said, two ideas strand out for this reviewer. First, Bretherton’s understanding of politics as the on-going negotiation of a common life — between friends, strangers, enemies, and the friendless — is a helpful corrective to our confused and cynical attitude to “politicking”. Second, his recognition that political theology is founded on our conception of the human, or “theological anthropology”, is liberating — and vitally important if we are to remove the constraints on political dialogue imposed by illusory ideas of “reasonableness” and “neutrality”.
Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.
Christ and the Common Life: Political theology and the case for democracy
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