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Public Theology and the Public Square
April 22, 2014 richardstevenpark

Public Theology and the Public Square

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Following on from my previous two blogs posts (here and here), in this post I would like to consider briefly the idea of ‘public theology’ which is increasingly becoming of a term of art and of endearment. The idea has been considered and somewhat popularised by noted Christian theologians such as Max Stackhouse and Jürgen Moltmann. Stackhouse calls ‘public theology’ specifically ‘public’ because:

‘[first,] that which we as Christians believe we have to offer the world for its salvation is not esoteric, privileged, irrational, or inaccessible’; and secondly, ‘such a theology [which] will give guidance to the structures and policies of public life [is] ethical in nature.’ (See his Public Theology and Political Economy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. xi.)

Similarly the leading German theologian Jürgen Moltmann describes the enterprise of public theology as follows:

‘Its subject alone makes Christian theology a theologia publica, a public theology. It gets involved in the public affairs of society. It thinks about what is of general concern in the light of hope in Christ for the kingdom of God. It becomes political in the name of the poor and the marginalized in a given society. Remembrance of the crucified Christ makes its critical towards political religions and idolatries. It thinks critically about the religious and moral values of the societies in which it exists, and presents its reflections as a reasoned position.’ (See Jürgen Moltmann, God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology  (London: SCM Press, 1999), p. 1.)

In both its content and its implications, Christian theology (argue Stackhouse and Moltmann) is an inherently public matter, engaging on public issues.

Considered sociologically, there are four logical possible relations between religion (including its artivulation – its theology) and the public sphere: (1) what José Casanova calls ‘deprivatization’ whereby religion plays a definitively public role in shaping public policy and a common life (see more in my previous blog here; see also Casanova’s Public Religions in the Modern World); (2) religious privatization whereby the public sphere is nonreligious and religion is reserved for the private sphere (see Peter Berger, The Social Reality of Religion) – what much of Western Europe looks like today; (3) what Peter Berger calls ‘counter-modernization’ or ‘re-traditionalization’ where the public sphere is ‘swallowed up’ by religion, representing a sort of religious totalitarianism – characteristic of much of the global south; and (4) antireligious totalitarianism in which the state attempts to extinguish any remnants of religion in all the members of its domain.

I agree with Casanova that privatization of religion in many Western societies has been linked to the historical ‘emergence of the modern social order’ (see p. 40). However, I disagree that this relation is ‘intrinsic’, as he argues. That is, with Casanova, I recognize the significance of the process of social differentiation ‘whereby the secular spheres emancipated themselves from ecclesiastical control’; I further agree that religion, having withdrawn from the public sphere, ‘[found] refuge in a newly found private sphere’. However, I disagree that such secularization necessarily entails privatization – that it is intrinsic. That is, while it is true that the typical features of modern society are those common to Western modernity – most specifically that of social differentiation – nevertheless, such features, I contend, are indeed only typical and not essential or intrinsic. Secularization is either an accident of history or a theoretical prescription (or both) – but it is not a necessary feature of modernization.

As Christian thinkers and citizens, we ought to challenge the prevailing metanarratives of secularism and offset the pressures of secularity by (among other things) articulating a robust, if nuanced, public theology, and by entering the public square with a winsome and wise voice and visible witness.

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