William T. Cavanaugh is senior research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology and professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University. In this post, he introduces his latest book, An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology (due out later this month), which he coedited with Craig Hovey and Jeffrey Bailey.
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I have an undergraduate student from Nigeria who likes to stop by my office after class and chat about all things theological. As an evangelical Christian from Africa, he might seem like an unlikely candidate to be enthused about a course dealing primarily with the history of church-state issues in the Catholic Church in Europe in the Middle Ages, but he has been deeply engaged from day one. It took me a while to figure out why, but a light bulb went on a few days ago when he said to me, “In Nigeria, we don’t understand this separation of religion from politics that people talk about over here. How can you separate Christianity from everyday life?” It occurred to me then that European Christians in the Middle Ages didn’t get this separation either. This is why a Nigerian evangelical can feel so at home discussing the Holy Roman Empire.
When we put together the Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology, my co-editors (Craig Hovey and Jeff Bailey) and I decided that we needed to gather not only the great voices in European and North American political theology, but also and especially to gather those from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, where the sense that theology is inseparable from mundane politics is often felt in a more immediate way than it is in a Northern context, where the separation of church and politics is generally taken for granted. While Northern Christians recover an earlier sense that the Gospel and politics are not strangers, Southern churches have for decades been deeply involved in struggles for justice and liberation. At the same time, the center of gravity of the Christian Church has shifted southward. The twentieth century began with 70 percent of Christians in the North, and 30 percent in the South; by the end of the century, the percentages had almost exactly reversed.
This Reader is the first in political theology that takes these new realities seriously. We hope it will serve students and other interested readers by allowing them to trace the lines of Christian political theology from Walter Rauschenbusch’s social gospel at the beginning of the twentieth century to the flourishing of present-day Dalit theology in India. Along with new introductions by experts such as Walter Brueggemann and George Hunsinger, the readings are meant to present the global relevance of Christian theology to everyday life.