Religious Studies, Politics, Theology

by Matt Sheedy

In discussing the myth-ritual system of medieval Christianity in his book Myth and the Christian Nation, (2008) Burton Mack notes the following:

It was interested only in the church taking its place as the dominant religion in Christian empires and kingdoms. And so, left out of the picture and its applications is the entire range of current human interests in the natural world, the natural sciences, the human sciences, the social sciences, and the issues of social well-being taken up by social philosophers, cultural historians, economists, politicians, and other intellectuals. (246)

Part of Mack’s goal in this book is to bring together a social theory of religion in conversation with the history of the study of religions. (7) He argues that by focusing on how people in various times and places have drawn upon myths and rituals to justify things like public policies or to overturn those policies in light of changing social situations, historians can help us to better understand the ways in which our own situation, which for Mack means the contemporary United States, can still be guided by medieval forms of thinking.

Beyond this theoretical recommendation, Mack also has a political goal in mind, which is to help the United States move beyond the notion that it is a “Christian nation” and to embrace the reality of living in what he calls a “polycultural social democracy.” Furthermore, Mack lauds those who are engaged in what might be called a theology of liberation. As he writes, in contrast to those who advocate for some version of a Christian nation,

There are also many organizations on the fringes of Christian churches engaged in liberation programs and social services called for by interpretations of the kingdom of God as a caring community or a social ethic understood to be rooted in Christianity. (263)

What I find most interesting about this aspect of Mack’s thesis is how he aligns himself with certain types of theology–at least implicitly– as a productive political strategy.

In their recent book Occupying Religion: Theology of the Multitude, (2012) Joerg Rieger and Kwon Pui-lan argue for a re-envisioning of Christian theology along similar lines to Mack:

For too long, theology has been conceived as a reflection of faith for the internal consumption of religious communities, and as a highly specialized discipline with very abstruse language in the academy. We believe that theology should be done in the public square more intentionally, promoting conversations and stimulating debates for the welfare of the people. (5-6)

What I am wondering here is if the evident overlap between the strategic and political aims of a non-theologian social constructionist such as Burton Mack and those of certain schools of theology can serve as one example of how scholars with very different academic identities might find grounds for conversation? To put it differently, might it be useful for those scholars interested in the social construction of religion to view theology as a strategic discourse that sometimes overlaps with their own aims on the bridge of political theory? In my reading of Mack, he would seem to endorse this idea.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual and myth, as well as  social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere and he is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy Movement, which includes fieldwork at Occupy Winnipeg.

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