Political Theology – A New Introduction

Posted on: 19th November 2008  |
Author: Michael Kirwan
Publication details: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008 240 pages
ISBN: 978-0232527452

Having grown up in Dublin during the 1970s and 1980s, I have witnessed and experienced much change in the political, social and economic landscape of the island of Ireland, north and south. The long and very destructive time of ‘the troubles’, beginning in the early 70s and lasting until very recent times, has left its mark on everyone. Who could ever forget the atrocities committed by representatives of both sides of the sectarian divide – men, women and children losing their lives and communities torn apart by the actions of a relatively small number of extremely violent protagonists? These tragedies were never far from the headlines and coming from a Catholic family meant frequent heated discussions at table regarding events ‘up north’ as they unfolded, especially in the times leading up to the historic Good Friday Agreement.  Also discussed were the many Catholics and Protestants who risked their lives as ‘go betweens’ for the warring factions. Their actions, of course, were usually far from the headlines but everybody knew somebody, and on both sides of the border. For us, the political and the religious always went together.

Michael Kirwan’s book, Political Theology – A New Introduction, makes for interesting and informative reading. The author takes us on a historical journey from ancient Greece to ‘post 9-11’ modernity as he examines the intricate relationship between the political and the theological, mainly within a Christian and a European context. He successfully counters a growing trend in modern scholarship that sees this intimate connection as a ‘poisonous hangover from pre-modernity’; he views history and modernity through the lens of some of the major thinkers in this area, for instance, William T. Cavanaugh, Mark Lilla and Oliver O’Donovan. Kirwan also suggests that there is a pressing need for continuing dialogue with the advocates of the ‘Great Separation’ of the political from the theological. He addresses the ideas of contemporary thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, as well as those dating back to St Augustine, as philosophers through the ages have grappled with what we may consider surprisingly ‘modern’ questions.

The result is an enjoyable, most fair and in the author’s own words, a generally polemic free assessment of past and current trends in political/theological theory and praxis. The book also offers great insight into some of the historical contexts in which the thinkers in question found themselves. For example, Kirwan brings us back to the classics and particularly to Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, which deals primarily with the problem of civil strife in the ancient city states, and the resulting importance of the existing political elites in the channelling of these energies outwards. This could easily be thought of today as primitive and ferocious antagonism projected onto some enemy group or other, or some rival city-state in the ancient Mediterranean; but the author reminds us of the chilling fact that there is still a strong tradition of political thought which sees this containment and the ‘re-channelling’ of violence as the fundamental meaning and purpose of politics. I was particularly struck by the sensitive and revealing treatment of the work of Johann Baptist Metz and Jürgen Moltmann as they came to terms with the horror of Auschwitz in post-war Europe, and their own significant and painful war-time experiences as individuals. We also read about the controversial political philosopher Hannah Arendt and her doubts that Christianity has anything at all to add to the human project as we move into the future. As she sees it, love and the political must be strangers to each other.

After an introduction aimed at giving the reader a foretaste of the ‘fascinating and sometimes bewildering area of theology’, Kirwan presents four concise and engrossing sections. In the first section, ‘The Parameters’, he takes us through some cutting edge ideas regarding the definition and aims of political theology. We are then given a wide-ranging historical overview of the relationship between politics and theology, which takes us from Eusebius’ description of the great emperor Constantine as ‘an imitation of God Himself’, to the classical assertions of St Augustine, ‘the philosopher’, through Luther and Calvin and then to the post-Westphalian world of the Enlightenment and Kant. A third section deals with the theological crises resulting from a 20th Century Europe plunged into chaos, which involved, at the very least, a complete misuse of religious language for political purposes. But we end on a note of hope: Kirwan encourages us with a faith that clearly sees God’s purpose within our fragile and broken social and political systems.

In a touching epilogue, Michael Kirwan laments the scant theological attention given to those societies and churches which until very recently had suffered terrible hardships under a series of brutal dictatorships in Eastern Europe. This reminds us of the ever-pressing need for dialogue between the decision-makers and those who would attempt to influence or inform the human conscience for the better. This book will certainly help those of us who perhaps ought to be better informed in this regard.  Although this book does not always make for light reading, Michael Kirwan assists us greatly by summing up the more thorough sections with clear, concise and insightful conclusions of his own, and this work would be a valuable addition to the bookshelf of any student of philosophy or theology.

The reviewer, Maurice King, is an amateur (but keen!) social observer and a first year student at Heythrop College, University of London.

 Find this book on Darton, Longman and Todd's web site



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