Researcher of the Month – December 2021, Dr Simon Hewitt

Simon Hewitt is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy, Religion, and the History of Science at Leeds. He is particularly interested in the doctrine of God and political theology, and his latest book is Negative Theology and Philosophical Analysis: Only the Splendour of Light, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?

Ever since secondary school I’ve had a cluster of interests around theology, philosophy, and politics, in part motivated by my own religious and political commitments. When I came to think about graduate study, I initially started work on a theology PhD, but quickly felt that I needed more philosophical grounding, so abandoned that PhD and did a Masters in philosophy. This got me hooked on pure philosophy for the next few years, and I went on to do a PhD in philosophy. I then decided to put my philosophical skills to work in theology, and during a research fellowship at Heythrop College (sadly no longer in existence) and then working at Leeds I developed an approach to philosophical theology that brings especially the philosophy of language into conversation with philosophical topics. I’m now trying to integrate my political interests with this by applying the approach to political theology.

Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?

My most recent work is on apophaticism, roughly the idea – implicit in many mystical traditions – that there is an important sense in which we cannot describe God. I’m afraid this work was sparked largely by irritation! Apophaticism is routinely ignored in philosophical discussion of God, and much work in the philosophy of religion proceeds on the assumption that God is basically a ‘big thing’, a person like us only more powerful. From the perspective of religious traditions of thought about God, this looks hopelessly naïve. In my book Negative Theology and Philosophical Analysis, I try to lay out and motivate an apophatic theology and do a little bit of work relating apophaticism both to key themes in Christian theology and to political questions. I’ve always been interested in the idea that idolatrous conceptions of God are tied up with oppression; one finds this in the Hebrew Bible as well as in modern critics of religion.

What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

I’m just beginning a project on conceptions of God in political theology. People working in various political theologies – liberation theology, feminist theology etc. – have been critical of (what gets called classical theism) in various ways, suggesting for example that the postulation of traditional divine attributes is complicit in oppression. Alternative conceptions of God have been proposed. Whilst politically sympathetic to the motivations of a lot of this work, I want to argue that it has often issued in a misguided anthropomorphism and that classical theism, properly understood through an apophatic lens, is capable of resourcing emancipatory political action. As well as writing a book on this topic, I plan to establish a network where these ideas can be discussed by pastoral workers and activists.

 In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?

My approach to public life is a bottom-up, grassroots one. I am more interested in talking to and working with activists than with, say, public institutions. During lockdown I published a short book Church and Revolution, discussing issues arising at the intersection of Christianity and Marxist politics. This has generated quite a bit of discussion and has hopefully helped people think through their own political and religious commitments. The work on conceptions of God in political theology is aimed at having a similar effect.

I’ve been concerned to promote interest in left-wing Christian traditions, which are under-represented in the public sphere currently. To this end, I co-curated the blog Socialist Christian Voices, which gave a platform to people talking about Christian faith and left-wing political commitment. I’ve written for the Bias, the journal of the Institute for Christian Socialism, a new initiative in this area, and have published on the political theology of Herbert McCabe, a hero of mine.