What IS This Whole “Public Theology” Thing, Anyway?

Public theology is the intersection of faith and culture. Theology is combined with the public sphere to provide a way forward for believers who find themselves in daily contact with a variety of things which Scripture may address — or about which the Bible and church history may be totally silent. For example, what is the Christian take on caring for the environment? How do we think theologically about immigration? What should a Christian’s relationship with Facebook look like? Video games? Popular music? Dungeons & Dragons? (I’ve seen theological critiques of all these things.)

At the heart of public theology is a fundamental question: should the Christian faith speak into public matters, or should it remain an entirely private enterprise? In other words, should Christianity influence every aspect of a believer’s life or be something only discernible at home or in church? Theologians have argued both ways for a plethora of reasons. Many who espouse the private position cite the separation of church and state in the United States as a prime example of how all public life should be. The nonestablishment clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment means the government cannot take sides in conflict of religions, nor can it support one religion over against another by making it the official religion of the state. In like fashion, say some, a private citizen should keep faith at home and not act in overtly Christian ways when interacting with the public realm. No public prayer, no Christian mores about specific issues, nothing. Moral absolutes (inasmuch as they exist from a secular humanist perspective) are the only permissible expression of ethos; Christian distinctives must be relegated to one’s behavior at home and during worship services. In this fashion, the church is kept free from pollution by the state’s overreaching influence, and the public realm is spared from the power of any religious majority (or minority).

On the flip side of things, other theologians believe there is a clear mandate to think theologically about culture and to act theologically in public matters. Scripture and dogma combine to provide a Christian worldview serving as a lens through which to view all of life. If faith is kept a private enterprise and never sees public application, the position argues, what use is it? Believing Christ’s ministry to be paradigmatic, Christians are called to a life of public behavior in uniquely Christian ways. Faith should influence the political process; the music, art, and literature produced; social justice and human rights; how one goes about one’s work; leisure time; conceptions of family; and everything else inherent in culture.

Beneath this lies H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture” types. In his work Christ and Culture (1951), Niebuhr outlines five ways of considering culture from a Christian perspective: Christ against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, Christ above Culture, and Christ Transforming Culture. The Christ against Culture view sees the Savior as opposed to all human cultural achievements, and so the Christian must live in a completely separate, isolated community bounded by the Christian ethos. (Think Amish and Mennonite communities.) In direct contrast to this is the Christ of Culture view, wherein Jesus is established as the highest form of humanity. All human achievements are therefore expressions of faith; culture is “baptized” into something holy regardless of actual content.

The final three types hold Christianity and culture in tension. Christ and Culture in Paradox creates sharp distinctions between the sacred and the secular. Anything secular is against Christ, but the elements of culture promoting Christian beliefs are holy, and the two remain in a dualistic battle until the end of the world. Christ above Culture views the world through a hierarchical lens, with Christian morality at the apex, followed by reason and natural law. Culture has some inherent worth, and Christian institutions can exist in an otherwise secular society, but culture itself will never be fully moral.

Christ Transforming Culture, the final view, was Niebuhr’s own position (and mine as well). Human achievement and cultures are still the kingdom of the world, but God seeks to reconcile all things to Himself. His people then use Christian principles to critique society and work within it to bring it into line with Scripture and Christian ethics.

Public theology (in my view) adopts this transformative perspective. We engage in interactions with culture in order to bring it into alignment with the will of God as revealed in Scripture and theology throughout the history of the Church. As new cultural elements arise (such as social media, military drones, fascism, Reaganomics, etc.), the Church scrutinizes them and holds them to Christian standards. The resulting diagnosis and “treatment plans” become public theology.

The field of public theology (and the field of ethics) will continue to expand as time progresses and new cultural artifacts are created and new positions adopted. At its base must always be the unchanging, immutable Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Christian rooted in a relationship with God and guided by the Holy Spirit will always seek to redeem culture and treat it in Christian ways, and she/he will look forward to the end of the age when God reconciles all things to Himself. Until then, public theology provides a way forward for believers, and the Church will explore the public life’s connections with matters of faith.

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