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Public Theology: The Paradoxical Vision in Canadian Context
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The Paradoxical Vision in Canadian Context
Here is a perspective on 'public theology' from Canada which discusses a book by Robert Benne and is concerned with his polemical advocacy, individualism and civil religion.

By Sherrie Steiner

Editor's Note: Sherrie Steiner (Ph.D.) is Associate Professor and Chair of Behavioural Sciences at Booth University College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. She has prepared the following paper for a faculty event there. It offers a Canadian perspective on public theology.

There are a variety of possible expressions of public theology. As diverse faculty gather, tensions may emerge that can be partially mitigated if there is greater self-awareness on the part of educators. This paper is a response to a gathering of faculties from four Christian liberal arts institutions in Canada who invited Robert Benne, author of The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-First Century, to discuss his views on public theology. As professor emeritus at Lutheran Roanoke College in Virginia and director of the Center for Religion and Society, Robert Benne brings a distinctively American neoconservative perspective to his work on public theology. I reflect upon the appropriateness of his approach to doing public theology in a Canadian Christian liberal arts context.

Robert Benne defines public theology as “the engagement of a living religious tradition with its public environment—the economic, political, and cultural spheres of our common life” (Benne, 1995: 4). The living religious tradition draws implications from ultimate truths associated with the character of God and applies them to penultimate questions about the public order. According to Benne, public theology matters because the Christian tradition has something comprehensible to contribute that can be applied to ethical issues that are indispensable for public life.

Public theology also matters because it shapes students and communities. There are a variety of possible public theologies depending upon the theological tradition, the liberal arts tradition, and the cultural context. For example, public theologies, as part of a liberal arts education, can foster elitist civic leadership or egalitarian critically minded community engagement; public theologies can be part of a tradition that attempts to free the student’s mind or shape the student’s character; public theologies can attempt to preserve a community’s heritage or disrupt a community with iconoclastic civic engagement (Hoeckley, 2010:2). In his 1995 work, Benne described a Pre-September 11th American landscape characterized by a de-centered failed Calvinistic vision that was now open to pluralism. Citing scholars such as H. Richard Niebuhr, Martin E. Marty, Harry S. Stout and Sydney Ahlstrom, Benne recognized that his distinctively Lutheran “take” on public theology could offer a minority contribution to an American religious context heavily shaped by the Calvinistic tradition. Religious diversity, in America, meant that the Catholic, sectarian and Lutheran public theologies could now have their say in a conversation framed by Calvinistic underpinnings. Into that pluralistic space, he articulated a distinctively neoconservative Lutheran voice(1) emphasizing the grace and faithfulness of God. From a Lutheran perspective, he contended, Calvinistic public theology had set people up for failure by creating unrealistic expectations. Although Calvinistic public theology recognized that power could serve the public good by transforming social institutions, Lutheran theology suggested that failure to bring about the kingdom of God should be expected. When the inevitable failure occurs, Lutheran public theology diverted any ensuing crisis of faith by reminding disappointed would-be activists of foundational theological principles such as the pervasiveness of human sin, the corrupting influence of power, the error of works righteousness, and the affirmation that it is God who saves. As Benne puts it, “Christian love is rarely expressed directly into the institutional world, though it may more frequently be communicated in personal relations” and “Christians always remain sinners both before God and in their worldly callings…The paradoxical vision allows no total victories within the confines of human existence” (Benne, 1995:68). By offering a Lutheran corrective to Calvinism, he demonstrated the benefits of pluralism.

Finally, Benne offered guidelines for others who might want to apply their particular vision of public theology in a pluralistic context. He said that direct influence should be credible, should distinguish among levels of authority, should be intelligible and should be clear about the exercise of power regarding direct action. With regards to advocacy, Benne indicated that the church should speak proscriptively, not prescriptively. His final principle advised public policy advocates to “focus on extremes but leave the great middle ground alone” (p. 222). Benne’s approach was, and remains, intentionally polemical. In a tenth anniversary review of The Paradoxical Vision, Benne wrote “standing more than ten years after the book was written, I’m afraid my current assessment would lead to even more polemics than were in the original book” (Benne 2005:para.5).

There are several aspects of Benne’s public theology that are not readily suitable to the Canadian context. In particular, I will discuss three: polemic advocacy, individualism, and civil religion.

Polemic Advocacy

Benne advises his readers to “focus on extremes but leave the great middle ground alone” (Benne, 1995:222). Benne intentionally promotes a politics of name-calling rather than an approach characterized by deliberative discussion, rational debate and critical reflection. This approach may be suitable to a more militant American context (e.g., Hunter, 1991), but it would be imprudent and culturally insensitive to import this style into the Canadian context. Canada is a culture that emphasizes negotiation over violence. From its founding, Canadian policy has prioritized the well-being of its citizenry (Saul, 2008). When Benne applies public theology, he compares the best of what he agrees with to the worst of what he disagrees with and leaves out any respectable approach to the topic that might represent reasonable partners for negotiation on the issue. For example, when he discussed gender feminism, he only made reference to the stream that images God as Mother Goddess (1995:36). In Canada, a more appropriate approach would be to identify potential dialogue partners such as evangelical scholars like Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen or organizations that take a high view of Scripture such as Christians for Biblical Equality. Benne specifically “leaves out the middle” because negotiation is not intended to play a part in his application of public theology. By way of contrast, Canada’s own Centre for Public Theology clearly states that we “value dialogue with other university disciplines, and the involvement of both traditional and non-traditional stakeholders in conversation concerning issues of public concern in contemporary Canada.”(2) Polemic advocacy undermines respect for differing opinions. For example, Benne offers his Lutheran public theology as a corrective to a Reformed theological flaw. Respectful dialogue seeks to fairly compare the best and worst of both sides to one another. A more Canadian approach to difference values the depth of insight gained when multiple perspectives share their different approaches to a problem: Good negotiators do not equate difference with flawed. Good negotiators recognize that, despite the disagreements, there may be occasions when others might actually be right. In the case of the Lutheran “corrective” to Calvinistic over-optimism, a more Canadian approach would recognize that despite these theological differences, there may be moments of sermon when God moves with great renewal and ushers in more aspects of the Kingdom of God than Lutherans would have dared ask or think. Such an approach allows for the possibility that God might actually choose to work at moments in history with a newness and freshness of God’s own choosing in accordance with Reformed hopes that greatly exceed what Lutheran theology would suggest. In Canada, the goal for public policy should be, and is, “not advocacy so much as intelligence—in a better informed academy, in a more discerning church and other religious institutions.”(3)

Finally, polemic advocacy does not represent higher order critical thinking skills. A Christian liberal arts approach to higher education should aspire to develop in our students the ability to handle ambiguity and complexity rather than intentionally promoting dualistic thinking. The college years are key times of cognitive and ethical development for our students. Using the research of William G. Perry as a guide (see Table 1), V. James Mannoia, Jr. calls on Christian academics to stretch our students to resist the temptation toward reductionism and the oversimplification of results as they develop their critical thinking skills (Mannoia, 2000:47).

Table 1 - Perry’s Positions of Cognitive Development

Position 1: Basic duality
Position 2: Multiplicity—prelegitimate
Position 3: Multiplicity--subordinate
Position 4: Relativism subordinate/multiplicity correlate
Position 5: Relativism (competing, correlate, or diffuse)
Position 6: Commitment forseen
Position 7: Initial commitment
Position 8: Orientation of commitment implications
Position 9: Developing commitment

(Source: Mannoia, 2000:47, See Appendix A for explanation of positions)

Benne’s polemical approach to public theology does not promote development of higher order critical thinking skills in the minds of students. Rather than cultivate dissonance and the development of community so important for the development of critical commitment (Mannoia, 2000: 77-92), Benne’s approach dismisses the complex middle in favor of an aggressive agenda intent upon public influence. Such an approach would not be effective in Canada. We would lose dialogue partners in a public that is better educated in the religious and ethical dimensions of societal issues, in full view of a world in which religious conviction is of massive and increasing public importance.


Benne’s approach to public theology is characterized by individualism. Theologies and politics that express concern with groups are repeatedly labeled, politicized, judged and then summarily dismissed. Benne states that “[g]roups are incapable of repentance and the reception of grace” (1995:69). Such an approach is incompatible with Canadian, and especially Winnipeg, culture that has embraced a much more communitarian public theology than that found in the United States. Sometimes entire groups are capable of repentance and the reception of grace. I am reminded of Don Richardson’s account of translating the gospel among the Sawi of Netherlands New Guinea. When the tribe was at war, they celebrated Judas as the hero of the Passion of Christ. Only when Richardson witnessed a cultural praxis—the passing of the peace child—and reframed his telling of the gospel using their cultural concepts did they understand what the Richardson’s were trying to explain. Identifying a redemptive analogy(4) existing within the Sawi culture, Richardson explained that “Jesus is the peace child that never dies.” The tribal leadership responded with a “Why didn’t you say so?” and both tribes fully embraced the Christian tradition. The individualism of Benne’s public theology is more characteristic of neoconservative American culture than it is a reasoned description of how God works in the world. While I would agree with Benne that we delude ourselves if we think group membership saves us, nevertheless, God can, and does, work through entire groups of people.

God also works through social structures. Universal health care is a reflection of Canadian public theology; this does not make Canadians Marxists. There is something good and ethical in the building of sewage treatment systems and water treatment facilities when the leading cause of infant death world-wide results from a lack of potable water. One need not be a liberation theologian to understand that social structures can bear witness to the Kingdom of God. That said, Benne reminds us that there is no room for works righteousness in public theology which is why someone like Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, would claim not to be a social activist even as he advocates for gender equality, environmental conservation and economic justice. According to Sider, “Social action without Jesus’ resurrection has no power. Social action without Jesus, true God and true man, at the center is not Christian” (2009:23-24). In Canada, one might just as readily ask if evangelism without any social action is Christian? General William Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army and Booth college’s namesake, identified seven essential elements of any outreach likely to command success, several of which involved paying attention to the group and addressing injustices embedded in social structures.(5)

Civil Religion

Benne is writing for a distinctively American context. His development of public theology is shaped by a uniquely receptive environment that is often not found in other settings. He describes the United States as characterized by scholars to be
the redeemer nation called to realize a new order for the ages. America, like Israel, is in a covenantal relationship with God. If America lives up to its calling as a covenanted people, it will receive God’s blessing. (Benne, 1995:27).
As director of the Center for Religion and Society, Robert Benne promotes a distinctively American civil religion.

This is Canada. What would a Canadian civil religion look like and how would it differ from American civil religion? Firstly, Canada is not the hegemonic world power. Canada is one country among many.(6) Hence, any Canadian public theology would be aware that it is one country among many. Canadian civil religion would not be triumphalistic and self-referential on the global stage. Secondly, a Canadian public theology would critically reflect upon American civil religion as an outsider. It would not imprudently import American civil religion. Canadian public theology would critically assess ways in which America points us to the Kingdom of God on earth and ways in which America acts as Empire (see Harsley, 2003). As Knudson, founder of the more liberal Lutheran Center for Public Responsibility puts it:
Any theologian who takes as a starting point the ideology of neoconservatism, as Robert Benne does, with its goal of national glory and even ultimate empire for the United States over all other countries is one who should be very seriously questioned by anyone who believes in the God who has created all people in all nations, the God who wills peace and justice for the world God loves. These are not small matters of partisan politics and personal importance. They are the reality of the world set before us each day as we wake up to try to love God and neighbor. How should we act responsibly in this now global world? (Knudson, 2006:24)
Canadian Christian Liberal Arts institutions can bring an outsider’s perspective to Benne’s vision of doing public theology in a pluralistic context. We may be congenial neighbors, but we are Canadian. Canadian public theology must find its own voice.


It is a worthwhile endeavor to discuss public theology in light of one’s own tradition and goals for Christian higher education. The comparisons can provide opportunities for self-clarification. In this case, the distinctively neoconservative Lutheran public theology identified by Robert Benne highlights aspects of Canadian culture that diverge from the polemic advocacy, individualism and civil religion associated with his work in the United States. Canada is a complex, diverse country that values negotiation, community and peace in ways that suggest a different type of public theology than that which emerges from the American context, as articulated by Robert Benne.

There is a growing number of 4-year Christian universities and colleges in Canada. It is beneficial for them to be in dialogue with the larger and more established network of Christian universities and colleges in the United States. However, in doing so, Canadians must critically reflect upon what they encounter. Social reproduction of American civil religion into Canada is not culturally appropriate in many ways. I have identified three. Other scholars will surely find additional points to consider.

Increasing self-awareness on matters of public theology is important because public theology has implications for how we teach our students, how we engage our community and the way we relate to the global context in terms of local-global interaction. Rather than import a version of public theology from the United States, this discussion helps us define for ourselves what Christian higher education’s public theology might distinctively become in the Canadian context.


1 - For the neoconservative assessment of this vision, see Knudson, 2006 and the review by Himes, 1995. For a liberal American Evangelical Lutheran Church of America perspective, see the Center for Public Responsibility.

2 - The" target="new">Centre for Public Theology is located at Huron University College with a panel of advisors including respected scholars such as Duncan Forrester, Douglas Hall, Emmanuel Katongole, and Lamin Sanneh,

3 - See “Public Theology in the Canadian Context,”" target="new">Centre for Public Theology.

4 - See Don Richardson, 1981:416 for an explanation of how cultures have preexisting practices that can serve as connecting points, if identified, to the gospel so that it can be understood in cultural terms that are indigenously comprehensible. If this is not done, the gospel can remain alien and be destructive of cultures.

5 - The seven essential elements were: (1) The first essential that must be borne in mind as governing every Scheme that may be put forward is that it must change the man when it is his character and conduct which constitute the reasons for his failure in the battle of life. (2) The remedy, to be effectual, must change the circumstances of the individual when they are the cause of his wretched condition, and lie beyond his control. (3) Any remedy worthy of consideration must be on a scale commensurate with the evil with which it proposes to deal. (4) Not only must the Scheme be large enough, but it must be permanent. (5) But while it must be permanent, it must also be immediately practicable. (6) The indirect features of the Scheme must not be such as to produce injury to the persons whom we seek to benefit. (7) While assisting one class of the community, it must not seriously interfere with the interests of another. (Booth, 1890: 92-95)

6 - The Centre for Public Theology’s discussion of public theology in the Canadian context does just that: it recognizes that “Canadian perspectives are related to the global context and must often be set in terms of a local-global interaction” (, homepage, para. 5). Moreover, the Centre for Public Theology is linked to the Global Network for Public Theology.


Benne, Robert. 1995. The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press.

_____. 2005 “Response to the Four Reviews of The Paradoxical Vision”, Journal of Lutheran Ethics Vol. 5 (#3).

Booth, General William. 1890. In Darkest England and the Way Out. London, England: The Salvation Army.

Boyd, Jeff. 2009. “I Am Not A Social Activist—Making Jesus the Agenda—Book Review” Adventist Today, June 6th.

Harsley, Richard A. 2003. The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.

Himes, Michael J. 1995. “The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-First Century—Book Reviews.” Christian Century. October 11th: The Christian Century Foundation.

Hoeckley, Christian W. 2010. Liberal Arts Traditions and Christian Higher Education: A Brief Guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Institute for the Liberal Arts.

Hunter, James Davison. 1991. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. NY, NY: Harper Collins.

Knudson, Ed. 2006. “Against His Church: The Sad Career of Robert Benne.” Online Journal for Public Theology.

Mannoia, V. James. 2000. Christian Liberal Arts: An Education That Goes Beyond. NY, NY: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Richardson, Don. 1981. “Concept Fulfillment,” Pps. 416-420 in Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (editors) Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library.

Saul, John Ralston. 2008. A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada. Penguin Books (Pearson Canada).

Sider, Ronald J. 2008. I Am Not a Social Activist—Making Jesus the Agenda. Waterloo, ON: Herald Press.

Appendix A: Explanation of Perry’s Positions of Cognitive Development

(Source: Mannoia, 2000:47-48)

Position 1: “The student sees the world in polar terms of we-right-good vs. other-wrong-bad. Answers for everything exist in the Absolute, known to Authority whose role is to teach them.”

Position 2: “The student perceives diversity of opinion and uncertainty and accounts for them as unwarranted confusion in poorly qualified Authorities or as mere exercises set by Authority ‘so we can learn to find The Answer for ourselves.’”

Position 3: “The student accepts diversity and uncertainty as legitimate but still temporary in areas where Authority ‘hasn’t found The Answer yet.’” The student is puzzled by how teachers can assign grades.

Position 4: Depending on whether the student follows a path of adherence (assimilation) or opposition (accommodation) to Authority, either relativism becomes just a special case of “what they want” or a legitimate correlate domain alongside dualism, in which “anyone has a right to his own opinion” and “no one can tell me I’m wrong.”

Position 5: “The student perceives all knowledge and values, including authority’s, as contextual and relativistic.” They subordinate “dualistic right-wrong functions to the status of a special case” of relativism instead of the other way round as in position 4. A revolution has occurred.

Position 6: “The student apprehends the necessity of orienting himself in a relativistic world through some form of personal Commitment (as distinct from unquestioned or unconsidered commitment to simple belief in certainty).”

Position 7: “The student makes an initial Commitment in some area.”

Position 8: “The student experiences the implications of Commitment and explores the…issues of responsibility.”

Position 9: “The student experiences the affirmation of identity among multiple responsibilities and realizes Commitment as an ongoing, unfolding activity through which he expresses his life style.”

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Date Added: 5/10/2010 Date Revised: 5/10/2010

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