Christianity Culture and Society Philosophy

On Public Theology

I’ve been very preoccupied by my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) unit these last few months, which has put paid to my desire to blog. However, at college this week we did a sequence on public theology. This is what I had to say.

Life, said the Buddha, is difficult. This seems like a very basic place to start my piece of public theology. In fact, what I am attempting is better described as “meta” public theology, because I want to draw your attention to a basic issue that the Buddha’s aphorism describes so eloquently.

I can’t immediately think of a dominical statement which addresses the issue so concisely, so I will point to complexity and paradox in Scripture. For example, Jesus said:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

But he also said:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Which is true? Are both true? Are they referring to different things? Whatever answer we might propose, it is certainly true that it is complex.

When we turn to the many problems of the world, all pushing themselves into our consciousness as news alerts buzzing on our phones, clogging up our newsfeeds and getting in the way of the cat videos we were hoping to find there, news of terrible things happening seemingly everywhere, we can be overwhelmed. Overwhelmed, or seized with a strong sense of urgency – something must be done! We recall Barth’s instruction to pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other and think yes! Here is an opportunity for action! I shall immediately begin my career as a public theologian!

And quite right too. A church that does nothing but worry about the state of the roof and organ fund and the ever-lasting MSR is not, I suspect, the church that Jesus wants us to be.

However, reality is complex, and our world seems to be polarizing at an alarming rate. How are we, as public theologians, to respond?

The beginning of wisdom is to realize that I know nothing. Specifically, before I wade into a debate, I should ask myself: do I actually know anything about this? As a citizen, no doubt I am plentifully supplied with opinions. But have I worked in the area, or studied it seriously? Can I state both sides of the argument?

We are all busily studying theology. So if one opens, say, the pages of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, what strikes us is primarily how little he knows about theology. In fact, he makes a virtue of this.

Well, he’s entitled to his point of view I guess, but I am unlikely to be persuaded by what he has to say, because his great knowledge of evolution does not equip him to add to the discussion in any useful way.

Similarly, if I get involved in a debate in a way which merely reveals my profound ignorance, I am unlikely to persuade anyone else. I will merely add to the polarizing world of fake news.

And this brings me to my second point. Perhaps his aim is not, in fact, to argue, to persuade, but merely to demonize his opponents? I’m not sure what his intentions are, but this sort of motivation is frequently observable in public debate. For instance, the phrase that is credited by some with losing the US election for Hillary Clinton: the “basket of deplorables.”

Calling someone names, technically known as an ad hominem attack, might have its place in debate. But it is not a very good way to convince someone, fundamentally because it demonizes my opponent, rather than treating them with respect.

And presumably convincing others is the point of doing public theology at all? We have the rare privilege of reading old books – not just to critique them, but to learn from them. If theology has any role in public debate, surely it is that theology is our culture doing its best to reflect on what is deepest and most significant – bringing to conscious awareness our basic beliefs about the nature of reality itself. We, of all people, should be in the business of putting the long view, the “yes… but” perspective. We want to bring our ancient wisdom to bear. And we need to do it in a way that has some hope of persuading the other.

So, if we are to engage in public theology, if we hope to bring the ancient wisdom of our traditions to bear, we will make sure we are really across the issue. We will treat our opponents seriously, rather than merely demonising them. And in doing these things we will follow Jesus’ commands to love our enemies – even if they have the temerity to disagree with us.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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