Book Review: Christian Faith, Philosophy & International Relations: The Lamb and the Wolf

    Review by: Dr. Trineke Palm, Assistant Professor International Security Studies, Netherlands Defence Academy


    With the religious turn in International Relations, which is closely connected to 9/11, more attention has been paid to the role of religion in international politics. Often, this research remains limited to an analysis of the role of religious actors and takes religion as a “variable” to understand war, conflict, peace and cooperation. In line with this approach, the edited volume by Polinder and Buijs includes chapters that demonstrate how the international politics of political leaders, such as the Dutch protestant Abraham Kuyper, the French catholic Robert Schuman and the Swedish UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, was driven by their Christian convictions.

    However, the main contribution of this edited volume is not so much its empirical analysis of religious actors in international politics. Rather, it challenges the discipline of International Relations to take the religious turn more serious. It demonstrates the added value of Christian philosophy, especially Dooyeweerd’s neocalvinism, in critically reflecting on both the state of International Relations as an academic discipline and international relations as a political structure.


    A normative approach of theory

    While the study of International Relations has its origins in Christian political thought, its impact today is limited. The volume starts out with Patterson’s sobering assessment that Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism has been adopted by the English School and Walzer’s Just War theory in a secularized way. Yet, it moves on to show that Christian philosophy has something to offer to the discipline of International Relations. First, Christian philosophy takes a normative approach towards theory. Theories are by no means neutral endeavors, as Jonathan Chaplin convincingly maintains. The concepts we use determine what we can and cannot “see.”

    Second, Christian philosophy contributes to a better understanding of religious and spiritual knowledge. To this end, “knowledge” has to be understood beyond “ideas”, but also include rituals and practices that transfer this religious knowledge (as argued, for example, by Scott Thomas).

    Third, although Niebuhr’s Christian realism and Dooyeweerd’s neocalvinism differ in terms of their appreciation of the role of institutions, they are both critical of power relations and power structures. It introduces the notion of public justice as a normative benchmark against which to assess the purpose of political entities – both in national and international politics. Its critical stance towards power makes a Christian philosophical approach of International Relations a critical theory, rather than a mainstream approach, such as realism and liberalism. This argument is further advanced by Lucas Freire who builds on the well-known securitization theory of Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde.


    A prophetic critique

    The volume shows how Christian philosophy helps to interpret and evaluate specific developments in international security, globalization, European integration and ecology. For example, Beatrice de Graaf uses the Christian understanding of “evil” to reveal the totalitarian, irreconcilable and fragile character of the dominant secular security narrative. Katherine Pettus argues that this idea about “evil” in absolutist terms is not limited to secular actors. She backs up this claim with a critical assessment of the role of churches in the international war on drugs. In accordance with Jonathan Chaplin’s argument, Sander Luitwieler maintains in his analysis about the European Union as a community of peoples, that legitimacy trumps coercive power as the defining characteristic of political systems. Finally, Menno Kamminga shows how the ethical critique of carbon commodification is underpinned by a prophetical discourse that connects emotions to ethical considerations, mobilizing opposition in a domain that is characterized by technical knowledge and expertise.


    From Lamb and Wolf to Snake and Dove

    In short, this edited volume invites students of Christian political thought to relate to issues of international politics. Rather than focusing on debates among different Christian traditions (e.g. Christian realism vs. neocalvinism, Roman-Catholic vs. Protestant), however, Christian philosophy should not contain itself to a warm bubble of likeminded – or the “religion”-section of ISA for that matter. With its rich toolbox of concepts and perspectives, acknowledging the brokenness of political structures and human behavior as much as providing normative criteria for thinking about how things could be different, it has the potential to speak to the discipline at large.

    International politics is far from stable. Existing power relations are shifting, multilateral institutions and international law are under pressure. Hence, there is a need to bring in “public justice” as prophetic critique in the international public domain. This is not just about the lamb and the wolf. Also, keep in mind the call to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” – as academic and practitioner.


    Christian Faith, Philosophy & International Relations: The Lamb and the Wolf

    Edited by Simon Polinder and Govert J. Buijs, Leiden, Brill, 2019, 340 pp., £53 (paperback)

    ISBN: Paperback 978-9004409880, E-Book (PDF) 978-90-04-40989-7


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