What is public theology?

New words and phrases about ethics appear from time to time – such as “co-belligerence,” “consistent pro-life ethic,” and “public theology.”  Co-belligerence refers to the waging of war by two or more parties against a common enemy, especially where there is some kind of remoteness between the co-belligerent parties, cultural, ideological or otherwise. 

 An example of co-belligerence in Christian ethics is where Baptists and Catholics unite to oppose moves to legalise abortion on demand, or physician-assisted suicide.  An unusual example that I heard of recently is the Australian Christian Lobby and the Eros Foundation, which both campaigned against changes to film classification laws (ACL on classical Christian moral grounds, and Eros because lowering standards would hurt their X-rated film revenue!). 

 A consistent pro-life ethic refers to an ethical position that opposes abortion and also opposes capital punishment.  Many Christians, especially in North America but also in Australia, are strongly opposed to abortion on the ground that it is the murder of a human life, but feel quite comfortable with imposing the death penalty on certain criminals, even though that sentence also requires the murder of a human life (albeit by the state). 

 What of “public theology”?  My bio describes me as an ethicist and public theologian, and people are always saying, “What’s that?”  Let me explain.

 First, what it’s not.  Public theology is not the opposite of private theology (whatever that is).  And it’s not the theology expressed by ordinary Australians, or by post-religious people who retain elements of “residual Christianity.”

 Public theology is concerned with how the Christian faith addresses matters in society.  It is concerned with the “public relevance” of Christian beliefs.  It seeks to provide resources for people to make connections between faith and practical issues facing their community.

 For Clive Pearson, a prominent Australian public theologians, public theology assumes that theology is relevant to everyone (not just to Christians), and to other academic disciplines; and that theologians should attend to the specific needs of different audiences (e.g. the world, the church and the academy).

 Pearson would also say that public theology has no privileged status in today’s marketplace of ideas.  Its aim is not proselytism but the common good – the well-being and flourishing of a whole society.

 At their best, Baptists have always been advocates for public theology and for the common good.  Indeed the sixteenth-century Baptist insistence on religious liberty was grounded in a concern for the common good: freedom to practice religion, or no religion, according to conscience.  Today we face fresh challenges to strengthen our heritage of radical thought, freedom and progress.

Now a word of caution.  We may extend the boundaries of public theology to embrace what philosopher John Rawls describes as “public reason” – to translate religiously-based concerns into universal values.  This is what many politicians and academics tend to do.  For example, while Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama are both public Christians and use the language of public theology, their rhetoric sometimes stretches toward the universal, losing its Christian distinctiveness. 

We need public theology (and public theologians!).  But let’s keep our ideas and arguments firmly anchored to Jesus Christ and the biblical witness.

This article first appeared in the Victorian Baptist Witness, March 2008.

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