- Toward a Pragmatic Political Theology
Life can only be understood as an aim at that perfection which the conditions of its environment allow.–Alfred North Whitehead1
For the pragmatist, the world’s saviors are immanent, multiple, and ordinary.–Gail Hamner2
“Man finds himself living in an aleatory world,” writes John Dewey, “his existence involves, to put it baldly, a gamble. The world is a scene of risk; it is uncertain, unstable, uncannily unstable.”3 This fundamental ambiguity is compounded by the distinct conditions of our late modern, globalizing, postsecular world. Amidst the conditions of this world, the religious meanings, purposes, and desires that have traditionally oriented human life are being relativized; the boundaries of our religious and moral traditions, as a result of their passage through modernity and as an effect of their increasing cultural interconnectedness, have become more permeable to one another. Adding to these changes, some of our most conventional markers of identity, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, are being deconstructed and reconstructed. We experience the world as simultaneously shrinking and expanding—our virtual and actual contacts with far-off places and peoples are more frequent, simultaneously deepening, and, oddly, familiarizing the feel of otherness. As a result of these dynamics, we tend to be much more aware of difference at the same moment that identity is being relativized and the traditions through which we negotiate difference and identity are being destabilized. Ours is an uncannily ambiguous world.
The greatest evidence of the disorienting nature of these experiences is the saturation of our public discourse with pronouncements of certainty and the [End Page 264] stiffening of ideology—witness, for example, the rise of the Tea Party, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and atheistic as well as religious fundamentalisms. To some extent, this pattern is woven through the whole of the western intellectual tradition—the experience of ambiguity drives the “quest for certainty”: “The facts of the ungoing [sic], unfinished and ambiguously potential world give point and poignancy to the search for absolutes and finalities.”4 And yet there are nonetheless times in human experience in which, as a result of the undoing of absolutes and finalities, the quest for certainty becomes especially desperate. These are times of vertiginous change, cultural cacophony, social turbulence, and historical rupture—times such as our own, times in which deepened ambiguity begets deepened vulnerability. We feel more vulnerable, exposed, and at risk when everything seems to be coming undone, and when, at the same time, there is so much morally at stake.
What if instead of resisting ambiguity we found the courage to build it into our ways of knowing and our social, religious, moral, and political habits? What if instead of denying vulnerability we embraced its shared experience as the precondition of more empathic democratic practices? What if, instead of answering vulnerability with the quest for certainty, we sought to build more resilient communities, ones whose constitutive differences enriched their common purposes and whose sympathies were expanded by the vulnerabilities they shared in common? And what role might the idea of beauty have to do with any of this?
This article outlines a larger project in American political theology responsive to questions such as these. By drawing from the neglected theopolitical resources of American process and pragmatist religious thought, the purpose of this political-theology-in development is to theologically ground and politically galvanize progressive religious efforts to build a more resiliently democratic social justice politics. Underlying this purpose is the view that political, social, and cultural change are intertwined rather than isolable, that ideas about the common good and commitments to its realization emerge out of communally learned values and habits, and that a process-pragmatic aesthetics can provide a guiding framework for the culturing of more just, democratic values and habits in a pluralistic society. This political theology is distinguished from others in several ways—it prioritizes the theopolitical significance of vulnerability and resilience over sovereignty; it engages the cultural dimensions of social and political change; it leverages postsecular and multicultural dynamics as resources [End Page 265] for rather than impediments to a more vital democratic political ethos; and it seeks...