While in a department meeting at my college this week, an opportunity raised its head for me to speak from this week’s reading, and I was excited to share. So I read:
Public theology, as I understand it, is not primarily and directly evangelical theology which addresses the Gospel to the world in the hope of repentance and conversion. Rather, it is the theology which seeks the welfare of the city before protecting the interests of the Church, or its proper liberty to preach the Gospel and celebrate the sacraments. Accordingly, public theology often takes ‘the world’s agenda’, or parts of it, as its own agenda, and seeks to offer distinctive and constructive insights from the treasury of faith to help in the building of a decent society, the restraint of evil, the curbing of violence, nation-building, and reconciliation in the public arena, and so forth. It strives to offer something that is distinctive, and that is gospel, rather than simply adding the voice of theology to what everyone is saying already. Thus it seeks to deploy theology in public debate, rather than a vague and optimistic idealism which tends to disintegrate in the face of radical evil.
Little did I realize what a firestorm I would create by reading this passage. In the next five minutes I was accused of being a “liberation theologian” and basically not knowing what the hell I was talking about. This reaction was quite a surprise. What was most amazing to me was that this group is not (necessarily) a group of theologians; rather, it is a group of humanitarians. The greatest irony is that this is supposed to be – by definition – the most open, liberal, and free group of thinkers in the institution. Suffice it to say that I didn’t say much the remainder of the meeting and, thankfully, I had an appointment with a student directly after leaving the department gathering that was a much more edifying time. I did not realize until now that it took courage to read about Public Theology in that group. But I see it now. Some people cannot handle new ways of thinking about theology. Little did I know that I had pressed some hot buttons. Public Theology is a new notion for me and several of the articles we read this week did a good job of explaining the concepts. What impressed me the most is that those who espouse Public Theology are particularly courageous in their ability to “get into the ring” of the real world to embrace others’ views without fear, without apology. This was such a refreshing concept to digest. Duncan Forrester says that public theology responds to the challenges of a secular context by sometimes challenging the civil agenda. He states, “Through wrestling with particular situations, public theology hopes at least from time to time to come up with theological insights which are recognizable as ‘public truth’ not just in the situation or context in which they were conceived, but more generally as well.” Public Theology is not afraid to get down and dirty in the trenches of public discourse. It is not wimpy theology. It is tough, very tough, and it has in its roots in some very respectable thinkers including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great 20th century German Christian martyr. So where does Public Theology fit into the 21st century? Forrester makes some excellent points that relate to September 11, 2001, particularly to how Christian theologians are to deal with the massive problems of a Post 911 world. He says, “The task of understanding [this new world order] is the precondition for intelligent and effective response. And so far the efforts at understanding have not been particularly impressive or illuminating.” If we are not committed to understanding the realities of why terrorists carry out their attacks on the West, we will never get to the bottom of the problem. Forrester goes on to say that the world in which we live is at the same time very new and very old, but this is the world into which the public theologian throws his hat. He continues, “And a theology which can bring out of its treasury things new and old is equipped to understand, interpret, and respond to a world that is full of ‘furious religion’ – and also the world that God loved so much that he gave his only Son.” This is the urgent, serious, and demanding agenda that Public Theology is willing to confront. Christopher Marshall, a lecturer of Christian theology at Victoria University, adds his thoughts in his article “What Language Shall I Borrow?: The Bilingual Dilemma of Public Theology.” Marshall argues that there are two basic positions on how Christians can contribute to public theology. He labels these as The Common Currency Approach and The Distinctive Discourse Approach. The first approach makes public theology more of a kind of natural religion and leans on reason and common sense to present its case rather than revelation. The language of this approach is more secular, yet the purpose is to find a common ground between secular and theological avenues of discourse. The second approach appeals “explicitly to the unique narrative and symbolic resources of Christian tradition.” Christian truths are much more visible in this approach. Each of these approaches has pros and cons and as with any theory or practice, an integrative approach is often the better one. Christopher summarizes in this way: “The former approach [The common currency approach] risks compromising the gospel summons to conversion; the latter [The distinctive discourse approach] risks confining the gospel to the Christian ghetto. This suggests that some mode of operating is needed that combines the strengths of both approaches and compensates for the weaknesses of each.” Christopher then integrates the work of Robert Gascoigne, an Australian Catholic philosopher who argues:
Public theology should constantly derive its perspectives from Christian revelation, not from some objective ahistorical reflection on nature, which is impossible anyway. At the same time, it should always be open to disclosures of truth from outside the Christian tradition and be willing to let other traditions modify and enrich Christian insights. Christians have no monopoly on moral wisdom or moral discernment. Priority should also always be given to the church’s lived praxis in communicating its message to others. How Christians live is much more important than what they say or how skilled their political lobbyists are. Most importantly, the Christian voice should always have two dimensions to it – a visionary dimension, that retells the larger Christian story in the language of faith and liturgy, and a normative dimension, that seeks to specify social, political, and legal norms that will attract public agreement, where appeal to religious premises is not usually necessary.
In my life as a Christian, now for 48 years, I have yet to hear a more balanced and courageous take on bringing Christian theology into the real world. These readings soothed my worn out soul. It is not about “either/or” thinking; rather, it is about “both/and” thinking. Fr. Richard Rohr talks about “dualistic thinking” in his brilliant text, The Naked Now. I did not realize it until this week that what Richard Rohr is talking about is a form of Public Theology. Unlike most conservative Evangelicals, of which I was a card-carrying member for most of my life, the theology of our readings this week deals with theology in a real world that is unafraid to take on the tough issues – but watch out – you just might press someone’s hot button if you dare to suggest that the tenets of Public Theology are a valid way of understanding the theological landscape of a 21st century world. Just remember that courage is a virtuous attribute.
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