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Public Theology: Public Theology: An Open Concept
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Public Theology: An Open Concept
Participation is requested to help define what a Public Theology should be after the events of 911.

By Ed Knudson

It may seem unusual to associate the two terms public and theology. Theology is often placed in the category of private opinion and for good reason. 18th century constitutional democracies made explicit efforts to separate the influence of religion from political institutions because religious divisions had caused such great war and human suffering for the centuries before. Even today some of the most violent conflicts among human beings are generated from religious commitment. Many conclude that it is best to relegate religious belief to the private, personal realm; the phrase "keep religion out of politics" is widely affirmed.

Yet religion continues to be an important factor within the political life of the nation. The religious commitment of persons influences how they choose to participate in the political process. This participation tends to take two forms. First, a view has developed among so-called "conservative" observers that society needs religion; that is, there is a basic social function for religion in the moral development of the people and to provide meanings by which individuals are integrated into the life of the nation. Officially sponsored prayer in schools is encouraged, for example. There are currently efforts by the Bush administration to find ways to institutionalize a role for faith-based organizations in providing social services within communities. In the extreme this form is like the current government of Iran where religious authority is basically the same as state authority.

Secondly, religion may be a source of criticism of political programs and personalities. In this form religious political participation does not aim to give religion an institutional form within the structures of government, but to change those structures, processes, policies, or personalities for some other purpose as defined from within religious sources. The Social Gospel movement, the efforts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer against the Nazi regime, and Liberation Theology are examples of this approach.

Both of these forms may be referred to as a type of Public Theology and provide a distinction which will be used within these pages. And both can be found in the bible in both the first and second testaments. Hebrew prophets were both supporters of and critics of how Israel was being governed. The Apostle Paul in Romans 13 calls for Christians to be respectful of the non-Christian government of the time, while the book of Revelation uses code language to expose the evil of that same government. Which form of public theology should characterize the relation of church and state today is the major question of these pages.

The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann strongly rejects the first form in a section of the last chapter of his influencial book Theology of Hope where he says "The Christian church can consequently no longer present itself to this society as the religion of society." He then begins to lay the basis for how Christians can be involved in a critique of modern society. For Moltmann the church is over-against society.

There is one school of thought within theology which has used the term "Public Theology" to refer to itself. It is constituted by several theologians engaged in dialogue with the social philosophy of Jurgen Habermas. Habermas wants to redeem the Enlightenment project through his emphasis on communicative rationality and in no way promotes return to religious authority. But in pointing to the act of communication as the center and source of community it is therefore a "public" act involving agreement between two or more people. Theology may well have something to say in the midst of this public act of communication.

This is a type of Public Theology which respects the independence and non-religious nature of civil society but is never-the-less able to participate in the midst of it without trying to dominate it based on its own authority. Action is dependent not on religious authority but on the results of the public conversation.

At the same time, this view can be very critical of society, founded on communication, in-so-far-as society fails to realize its own principles and promise. Matthew Lamb, one of the theologians involved in this dialogue with Habermas has written: "Could it be that modernity provides the best communication networks in world history, but has nothing substantive to communicate?" He goes on to say "the public forum of 'enlightened' societies fails to support vigorous and reasoned public debate and consequently political participation declines." We have certainly been seeing the decline of political participation in this country despite, perhaps because of, otherewise impressive developments in communications technologies.

For some years there has been developing an intellectual orientation called "postmodernism." It is associated with such persons as the French philosopher Michel Foucault who died in 1984. It calls into question the whole project of "modernity" itself with its claim that through science and technology human beings are able to create ever higher forms of civilization. Postmodernism is a critique of modern society itself from the inside, so to speak. It has affinity with the idea of multi-culturalism including the notion that primitive cultures may reflect beliefs and values which are important correctives to the excesses of modern industrial societies.

Postmodern perspectives are important to consider in discussions of public theology today. Jurgen Habermas believes these perspectives are inherently conservative. Some of the postmodern criticisms of modern culture sound like the religious right, for example.

But for the religious right, and even for those so-called neo-conservatives like John Richard Neuhaus, editor of First Things, the nation is the highest form of the public context within which social ethics can be legitimately discussed. Neuhaus seems to reflect a kind of Lutheran immigrant consciousness (he was Lutheran before his current Roman Catholic identity) in his inability to be ultimately critical of the United States as "nation". I believe that we need to be able to think the thought that the United States as a nation is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of the church catholic. It is not a sacred nation with a divine calling. It may not live forever. It has done, is doing, and is getting ready to do some things that are threatening the future of not only the people of the planet but of the earth itself.

I do not expect that any current politician on the national scene will be able to engage in such criticism in the public context after September 11, 2001. The general public is at this writing being whipped up by a national media eager to exploit its power over the public agenda. But I do expect that there are professionals, people who have been trained to think about things, people who provide insight and knowledge to others, people who try to function according to professional standards and ethics, able to think beyond the narrow constraints of nationalism. It is these professionals - journalists, teachers, advisors to politicians and business, laypersons and pastors, who are the intended audience of this particular website.

Let me offer a specific life experience that occurred for me just last night. I was at a retirement party with many folks in the health care profession. I walked up to a small group discussing the terrorist attack. People were expressing their sorrow and outrage. Someone asked, "How could anyone do this to us?" I responded rather meekly that what this country has done around the world has not always been beneficial to others or the environment. What happened then was rather amazing to me, at least in terms of the mood and tenor of what I had been hearing on the radio and television. A physician began to speak, in a slow but forceful manner, of how dangerous he believes this country has become to the health and welfare of people in other countries, and how arrogant it is in refusing to begin limiting its outrageous use of the world's resources. It was like a switch had been turned on; others began to express examples of how this country has hurt more than helped. The public context of that little group was switched from one that disallowed any criticism of the country to one that allowed honest expression. We need to help turn that switch, not for the sake of negativity, but for the sake of truth. Then it may be possible to discuss how the policies of this country might be changed so that it is a benefit to others rather than a threat to them.

A brief history: The Vietnam War divided the nation in the 1960's and early 70's. The United States lost the war. A sense of demoralization seemed to set in. Then the religious right emerged. The television preachers found a ready audience for their message that the country is favored by God. Even after the Soviet Union fell apart new enemies were found within the country, those supporting abortion, gay and lesbian groups, and anyone supporting so-called secularism. These groups became scapegoats, accused by the religious right of causing the moral breakdown of the country. Large numbers of people followed these television preachers and they became a political force, funded by private corporations, adopted by the major media as spokespersons for Christianity. They helped to elect Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and caused the Democratic Party to turn to the right in the formation of the so-called New Democrats, which includes Bill Clinton. These religious conservatives continued as a force in the election of George W. Bush, though more moderate voices in the Republican Pary agreed on Bush as the potential candidate very early to avoid having the religious right too much say in the party.

Meanwhile, the so-called "liberal" elements of the church have increasingly been ignored by the media to the degree that one almost never even hears anything about the World Council of Churches or the National Council of Churches. Either the media refuses to give these elements a voice in the public discussion or liberal spokespersons have stopped talking. Theological inquiry has been occurring in several fresh and important ways, but mainly within particularized groups each putting forward a theology from within their own experience, such as feminist theology, black theology, environmental theology, gay theology, and so forth. Much good has come of this. However, I believe it is now also time for those within these communities to draw on these diverse resources for contributions to a "public" theology addressed to the entire community. Without such an effort the general public context will continue to be a vacuum filled only by the religious right. It is hoped that there can be a discussion of public theology here (and in many other forums and efforts) that can contribute to justice and peace for all people within a global context.

We do have resources. The debate between Jurgen Habermas and the postmodernists is one source of getting to the roots of the issues in terms of basic philosophy. Habermas continues to place hope in the act of communication and it is our intention that this website will be a place for communicative acts helpful in creating a public theology which enables a future for all people. The scriptures and the history of the church are major resources, our life experiences and our effort to interpret them are major resources. Theological voices in the various historical traditions of the church continue to be important resources. The cultural experiences of people both within and outside the dominant patterns of western industrial society are important resources. We ask for your help in bringing these resources to this website in the most effective and comprehensive manner.

But specifically what should be the content of a public theology? Though in this article I have pushed in several directions, it is finally an open concept, to be explored in these pages by everyone who participates.


Habermas, Modernity, and Public Theology, edited by Don S. Browning and Francis Schussler Fiorenza. New York, Crossroad: 1992.

Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: Critical Essays on The Philosophical Discourse on Modernity, edited by Maurizio Passerin d'Entreves and Seyla Benhabib. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press: 1997.

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Date Added: 9/18/2001 Date Revised: 9/22/2001

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