Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Beliefs Have Consequences In Public…Who Knew!? Thinking just a bit with Max Stackhouse & Steven Bevans

Written by: on July 14, 2014

“Current evangelicalism in the US lacks an articulate political or social theory except for a generalized patriotism.”[1] So writes Max Stackhouse, long-serving emeritus professor at Princeton.  Unfortunately – including beyond the scope of simply “evangelicalism” – much of the “theology” we see applied in the public sphere today is more bafoonery than it is articulate, nuanced, contextualized, researched and practiced substantive belief.  Here’s the thing, substantive political engagement doesn’t often fit well into the sound-byte political carnival we’ve typically got parading around these days.  And so, we’ve got a population that by-and-large has grown-up on and continues to be fed sloganeering faith.  If they like it, they buy-in hook-line-and-sinker.  If they don’t like it, they want nothing to do with it at all.  Neither of these aspects is desirable.  In a sense, politically and theologically, we don’t primarily want protagonists or antagonists; we want deuteragonists, tritagonists and other agonists.  We don’t really want people who are too comfortable with completely excluding others who do not fully adhere to their particular beliefs.  We want people who are willing to in the best possible manner relationally walk in the tension of figuring out how to navigate life with others while not ever (or certainly hardly ever) arriving at complete concurrence.

So, without taking a lot more time this brings us to, the fact that “Public theology is, oddly, more like socialism is in theory, for it too sees the fabric of society as decisive for every area of the common life. It differs from socialism, however, in that it does not see the polarization of the classes as the fundamental characteristic of society—either in theory or in fact—and does not expect the state to control economic life by centralized planning and capitalization.” That is, in a good Catholic sense, it sees parish and neighborhood community as vital to the healthy functioning and maintenance of a healthy society.[2]  Personally, I like Stackhouse’s use of Althusias’s idea of “society as a ‘consociation of consociations’, a ‘federation’ of’covenanted’ communities.”[3]  I find that this fits well with the idea of contextual theology.  In the sense of understanding that all theology is contextual and the idea that something contextual is woven together (from the Latin origin of contextus made up of ‘con’ – ‘with’ or ‘together’ and ‘texere’ – ‘to weave’) perhaps it might be important to talk about “Publics Theology” (plural) alongside “Public Theology” (singular).  This interaction would seemingly allow for more conversation pertaining to the equitability of the distribution and implementation of power.

Stephen Bevans suggests that using contextual theology as a way forward (in conversation with Max Stackhouse, we would offer, “as a way forward for doing public(s) theology”) for implementing “proposed models of practical theology that also propose, in various ways, a dialogue between tradition and context for transformative action.”[4] So, here we have a theological method that recognizes the necessity (inevitability) of engagement with the surrounding world, but also refuses to let such engagement become too fully entagled within the corridors of power and in yet another form once again marginalize those not “in.”

So as the title of this short piece suggests, beliefs do have consequences in public.  It has just been than far too often the beliefs of people in power are held signficantly at the expense of those not in power.  A comingling of contextual and public(s) theological undestanding and method would work to change this.

[1] Max Stackhouse, “Civil Religion, Political Theology and Public Theology: What’s the Difference?” Political Theology 5:3 (2004): 279

[2] Ibid., p. 288

[3] Ibid., p. 289

[4] Stephen B. Bevans, “What Has contextual Theology to Offer the Church of the Twenty-First Century?” in Contextual Theology for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Stephens B. Bevans and Katalina Tahaafe-Williams (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 13.

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Clint Baldwin

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