from public policy to theology

November 23, 2011

The broad assumption of public theology as the theology has implications for public policy and life in general. Public theology assume that theology does not merely speak about the spiritual life of the individual believer of community, but that churches and individuals can make a unique contribution to the well-being of society by drawing on our particular tradition. In short, we believe that by drawing on language reflecting on God we can point to ways in which society can be better.

The question on how this should be done has received a bit more debate: is our task to merely repeat the words of our tradition in public, contributing the tradition itself to public life, or should we translate our specifically theological vision into language which is accessible to those outside our tradition? Although we can’t say that there is consensus on this, my feeling is that in Ecumenical theology we are more prone to speak in words which can be understood and used even if those who listen do not share our tradition. Some would argue that there might be times when this is impossible (how do you translate the love of enemies into language accessible to the modern democracy?) and others that we should continue to enrich the public discourse by our own language as well (thus we draw a bill of rights to remind society that everyone is equal, yet add that we believe everyone is equal and valuable because they are made in the image of God). But I do find that more and more churches and theologians speaking about public policy do it in way which would be understandable to the broad society.

We might argue that this is a good thing. It imply that churches recognized their place in a pluralistic society, assume that they have to take others into account, and participate in a public discourse without asking all other parties to adopt their rules of engagement. It imply that the church recognized that society is not the church, yet also affirm that what happen in society is of importance to God as we understand God. I think there is a lot of value in this.

However, there is a danger as well. The danger is that we can participate in the public discourse and raise our voices on issues of public policy without drawing on our own tradition, but by merely affirming a political model or the view of a political party. By stating this as a danger, I’m not suggesting that political theories is inherently problematic, but I am affirming my belief that as church we have a unique perspective to contribute. What I am suggesting is that public theologians and the public church might at times need to commit to reverse engineer our stance on public issues and our suggestions for public policies, asking ourselves how this would sound if we state this as a theological position.

For example: if we as church take the stance that individual property rights may not be rejected in a process of land reform, what is the underlying theology? If we defend democracy, or a specific form such as a constitutional democracy, how would we motivate this to ourselves by drawing from our own wells? I don’t want a church writing a theological treatise to government on the issue of land reform, but for the church to engage with itself on our own suggestions on public policy, we need to articulate how this connect with how we speak about God.

This might not always be possible. Our theological tradition is certainly not the only, and often not the best, voice to inform our opinions on issues of public concern and public policy. But if this is the case we might want to admin among ourselves that we take a position on pragmatic grounds, or because of our commitment to this or that theory which belief has won the debate on what is the best for society. It might only be a thought experiment, but I do think it might be one worth engaging in: let’s consider for a moment what our churches’ stance on various issues reflect about our underlying theology. Let’s consider that our actions are a lived theology which can be engaged by seeing God in what we say concerning issues of public policy. So where public theology like to claim that we argue from theology to public policy (something which I have my doubts on how often it happens), I want to suggest that we argue from public policy towards theology, seeing which God is shining through the cracks of our participation in the public discourse on politics and public policy.

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2 Responses to “from public policy to theology”

  1. Matt Says:

    Interesting thoughts. There’s definitely a fine line to walk between becoming too partisanly political and becoming too politically withdrawn.

  2. Steve Says:

    Right on!

    Someone read a paper to a bunch of students 50 years ago, in which he said:

    “I am seriously afraid that if the Church does not quickly act to shatter this impression of being a company for the organizing of religious activities, an association for the propagation of a localized mystique which attracts people who like dressing up but has no real impact on society, if it does not more effectively become what it is and possess its possessions, if it doesn’t more effectively reveal what happens in the Eucharist and live that action out in the broken world that Christ came and died to
    save, if it does not show that the `political’ utterances of its leaders are no personal crankiness, but arise directly out of the new birth in water and the Spirit and the four-fold action that takes place on every altar, then the people to whom we are sent will say more and more, `What have these people got that we can’t do ourselves?’, they will more and more count Christianity as merely a religion among religions, a superstition among superstitions, the Zionists will take all hearts and lives, and our so-called mission work will die of inanition – and that will be part of God’s judgement.”

    A very long sentence, but the bit about the “political” utterances of its leaders arising from personal crankiness is important, and one of the ways of testing that, is, as you suggest, working back from the political utterance to the theological assumptions on which it is based, and comparing that to the theological views that are expressed, and there is often a disjunction.

    So it must be tested both ways — from theology to to political utterance, and from political utterance back to theology.


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