The theological significance of the recent events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa can hardly be predicted. Nevertheless, from afar, and with only the knowledge that is available on mainstream U.S. media sources (NPR, the New York Times, etc.), I have found myself beginning to ponder this question. I offer here only a few hesitant and inchoate thoughts:
1.) Political revolution is not a thing of the past. It remains, in many regions of the world, a focal point of practical consideration and collective action. To the extent, therefore, that those of us working in theology employ, from time to time, a sort of revolutionary rhetoric–e.g., by invoking a radical disruption in or transformation of history–the recent events (reverberating from Tunisia) might remind us that these tropes do not only function as intellectually sexy fictions of postmodernity but also pertain to very real, in some respects deeply ambiguous, and yet nevertheless hope-filled events, affecting countless lives, for better or worse.
2.) There is a question of secularization. On the one hand, this process has been bemoaned by many Christian thinkers in the West, who would like to revive some sort of theo-political synthesis, whether this is best represented by medieval Christendom or by pre-Constantian forms of Christian society. On the other hand, however, there is a persistent–to some extent orientalist, racialized, overgeneralized, and to that extent unjust, but not for all that entirely groundless–fear of Islam, which seems no less prevalent among Christians than non-Christians in the North Atlantic world. For those who would desire a closer alignment of theology and politics, the Middle Eastern and North African context could prove difficult to assess. There is the possibility of thinking revolution as a profoundly Jewish and Christian idea (stemming from the prophetic, messianic, and apocalyptic themes in scripture). Nevertheless, at some level, there could be a choice to make between greater fidelity to a religious political culture (largely shaped by Islam) and a secularizing vision of pluralistic democracy.
3.) The poor are still with us. Jesus’ words (Mt 26:11) should not be consoling. That they constitute an accurate prediction does nothing to exonerate centuries of greed and indifference. The question, though, is how best theology can serve the poor, whose misery remains a powerful motivation for political upheaval. This is the question which gave rise to various movements of liberation theology in the twentieth-century. To what will it give rise in the present?
Jean-Yves Lacoste draws an analogy in several of his works–including both Note sur le temps and Experience and the Absolute–between Heideggerian “care” and Augustinian “restlessness.” The analogy identifies a similarity located within a greater dissimilarity. On the one hand, both care and restlessness express the unavoidable unease that comes with living in a temporal world of transience and death (the similarity). On the other hand, Heidegger’s concept of care presupposes that the meaning of being which is manifest in the structures of human experience is definitive, whereas Augustine’s account of restlessness aims at an ultimate horizon of divine freedom which subverts the hold of any supposedely manifest finality in the here-and-now (the greater dissimilarity).
This analogy might help to explain the attraction which Christian thinkers have had to Heidegger’s philosophy and other similarly rich descriptions of human-being-in-the-world which have emerged from the phenomenological tradition. For there is a common concern to acquire a more nuanced understanding of what might loosely be called the “human condition.” And yet, the analogy also demonstrates why these dialogues, these relationships, will always be strained. Ultimately, the relation between theology and phenomenology is more dissimilar than it is similar. The address to God, the hope in God, the existence lived before God–these primary theological practices have their final significance in things not-yet seen, in realities beyond manifestation, in a future without the apparent definitiveness of death. Theology’s concern are just different.
I realize that this point may be obvious to some, perhaps to most. But it is something which occurred to me with a sense of refreshing newness today.