Why the need for public theology?

September 10, 2008

I’m finally getting around to writing my dissertation. First chapter is a broad outline of public theology, very broad! Here is a few draft pages from chapter 1. I’ll have the whole of chapter 1 on the wikispace as soon as I’ve written the complete draft. Any critique welcome.


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Why the need for public theology

If the field of public theology is only two decades old, one must ask whether theology has not had a public voice before the emergence of this field. And if theology did take part in a public conversation, why did a field like public theology become necessary? In his important work, The Analogical Imagination, which has had a mayor influence on the field of public theology, David Tracy argues that all theological discourse is public discourse, and that the theologian need to identify the public which is being addressed, which would then influence the theological language which is used (bronverwysing).

In a similar way, Jűrgen Moltmann said that “From the perspective of its origins and its goal, Christian theology is public theology, for it is the theology of the kingdom of God” Moltmann in Marshall 2005:11). “As such it must engage with the political, cultural, educational, economic and ecological spheres of life, not just with the private and ecclesial spheres” (Marshall 2005:11). Both Moltmann and Tracy by implication challenge the idea that there is a part of theology which is public, while another part is not. Why then the sudden need for public theology?

The end of Christendom

Although there is no consensus among historians as to whether the rise of Constantianism was a positive development or not, they do agree that the church was decisively changed by the decisions taken by Emperor Constantine after A.D. 313 that ultimately led to Christianity being recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 under Emperor Theodosius I. Christianity was transformed from a movement located on the margins of society into the official religion of the Roman Empire, from being perceived as a threat to the security of the empire into a guardian of the status quo. Such a profound change in the identity of the church could not fail to have far-reaching implications. Indeed Europe would be known as Christendom until the twentieth century. (Shenk 2005:74)

In Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens, as well as the first article of the International Journal of Public Theology, we find similar pictures of Christendom in the mid twentieth century: It was a time where children grew up to be Christian simply by growing up. What was taught at home, school, church, community and even the media, all contributed to Christian formation (Hauwerwas & Willimon 1989:16; Storrar 2007:6-7). This was a time when biblical faith and society lived in a symbiotic relationship, when society was eager to receive the moral fruit of the church (Hunsberger 2006:16).

Since the time of the enlightenment, attempts came to moderate or restrict the public role of religion. Public policy was to be formed using reason, positive law and individual human rights. Theology was welcome at the public table, as long as its voice conformed to the truths of reason, and could be validated by social consensus (Marshall 2005:13). As long as the consensus remained nominally Christian, theology continued its potent public role, but with the growth of secularization and the final fall of Christendom, this positive reception was lost. Although the right of Christian theology is protected by the democratic principle, and therefore Christian theology has the right to take part in public conversation, its voice is tolerated, not welcomed (Marshall 2005:13). On a tacit level a Christian consensus remained part of society until the 1960, but churches continued to operate within this supposed Christendom-consensus well after this time (Drew 2005:21). But even today attempts at a continuation of Christendom is found (Drew 2005:23)

Hauerwas & Willimon (1990:15-16) speak of the night in Greenville, South Carolina, when Fox theatre opened their doors on a Sunday evening and the church suddenly had to compete with the theatre for the worldview of the youth. Although the end of Christendom didn’t happen overnight, the picture they sketch does ring true for anyone who has experienced this shift, like the sudden shift in a South African society when professional sport was allowed on a Sunday. Looking back, we can point to certain events which should have warned us that this symbiotic relationship was over, but for a long time church and society was still perceived to be one, since our eyes were trained to see them as one. Whether church and society ever could have been one, or was one, is open for debate, but by the time it was impossible to see them as one any longer, it wasn’t a slight move apart, the whole image was scrambled (Hunsberger 2005:315-316).

Today, however, the post-Christendom era is not characterized by the victory of secularism, of philosophical materialism, over religion. Rather a pluralism of spiritualities are available, but none are allowed public control (Drew 2005:23). The secularization thesis predicted religions demise, but as studies appeared proving this thesis, others pointed to the failure of religion to disappear, or even to remain completely privatized (Maddox 2007:84).

“…just as the adoption of the church into the cultural center in the fourth-century radically changed the nature of its existence, the recognition of its end has created a radical sense of loss and marginalization to which the churches are responding in a variety of ways. The fourth and twentieth centuries form bookends marking transition points in the history of the church. Just as the fourth century adoption of Christianity by Constantine forced the church to struggle with it’s self-understanding as the new center of the culture, twentieth-century Christians must now struggle to understand the meaning of their social location in a decentered [sic] world (Roxburgh 1997:7-8).

The end of Christendom cost Christian theology and the church its privileged position in the public conversation. Within the public conversation it had to take part using the rules of modernity, and was tolerated as long as it supported the consensus. The church mostly remained tied to this irrelevant self-understanding, found in a former authoritative role within Christendom (Drew 2005:21). With the demise of Christendom, and the shift in consensus, if Christian theology claims that it has public relevance, a new approach towards the public conversation will need to be found.

Religious faith constricted to the private realm

Together with the demise of Christendom, a second factor contributes to the need for a specifically public theology. Where pre-enlightenment and pre-twentieth century times knew a worldview where religious faith had definite impact on all aspects of life, the Enlightenment brought the idealization of reason and positivism, which made faith redundant within the public realm, since all moral truth was supposedly accessible via reason. By the twentieth century religion, as least within the European context, was confined to the private realm of a overshapened public/private distinction (Morton 2004:26).

This was not only propagated by those outside the church, but also from within. Christian pietism has long provided the soil for fideism, and from within theology many theologians followed Rudolf Bultmann by accepting the positivist constraints, agreeing that Christian faith is not a matter of public truths, but of privatized, individual truths (Drew 2005:21). As pointed out above, the consensus within society remained Christian, but with Christian faith privatized, the end of Christendom suddenly left Christian theology without a way of pointing to the public relevance of theology, within a society that is no longer distinctively Christian.

Maybe Marshall (2005:11) is correct when stating that the label public theology is an unhappy one, since it suggests that one part of theology is public, while another is not. As have been pointed out above, theology is by it’s very nature public (see also Drew 2005 21-23), however, similar to the way the demise of Christendom has caused Christian theology to loose it’s public voice, the relegation of religious faith to the private realm has done the same. This further contributed to the need for the rise of this unhappy label. For theology to be public the notion that religion affects only private life, must be rejected (Morton 2004:25).

A bibliography up to this stage can be found here.

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