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Since starting my work as a public theologian, I’ve talked about it with others and a significant number of them have asked me

“So, what is public theology?”

If theology in its most basic sense is the study of God, then, also in its most basic sense, public theology is the study of God done by or for the public, or as it pertains to issues in the public sphere.  Public theology is theology about and for the public.  If something is a public issue, public theology has something to say about it.  

On Being host Krista Tippett gave these characteristics of public theology in her introduction to civil rights activist and theologian Ruby Sales.  Tippett posits that public theology: 

  • has to emerge from and speak to the vast diversity of our modern lives, and in some cases it uproot our traditional grounds;
  • models the virtues that accompany the intellectual work of theology;
  • connects up grand, religious ideas with human reality which is messy; and,
  • is the ability to articulate religious and spiritual points of view to challenge and deepen thinking on every side of every important question in public and political life.

(as an aside: by the gauge of reach alone in the public sphere, On Being is doing more public theology than anyone else at the moment.  I think that's significant - that a collaborative, interfaith (including humanists) media initiative is doing the most innovative, far-reaching, substantive, and extensive work in public theology right now.  If you're not listening to their weekly podcast, you should.)

Similar to Tippett's criteria of public theology, the South African public theologian John de Gruchy asserts it can be identified by the following 7 criteria.  Public theology:

  1. does not seek to give preference to Christianity but to witness to values that Christians believe are important for the common good;
  2. requires the development of a language that is accessible to people outside the Christian tradition, and is convincing in its own right; but it also needs to address Christian congregations in a language whereby public debates are related to the traditions of faith;
  3. requires an informed knowledge of public policy and issues, grasping the implications of what is at stake, and subjecting this to sharp analytical evaluation and theological critique
  4. requires doing theology in a way that is interdisciplinary in character and uses a methodology in which content and process are intertwined;
  5. gives priority to the perspectives of victims and survivors, and to the restoration of justice; it sides with the powerless against the powerful, and seeks to speak truth to power drawing its inspiration from the prophetic trajectory in the Bible;
  6. requires congregations that are consciously nurtured and informed by biblical and theological reflection and a rich life of worship in relation to the context within which they are situated, both locally and more widely;
  7. requires a spirituality that enables a lived experience of God, with people and with creation, fed by a longing for justice and wholeness and a resistance to all that thwarts well-being. (1)

A very important point in de Gruchy’s identifying characteristics of public theology is the phrase “for the common good.”  Many of the religious voices we hear in the public sphere at the moment are decidedly not for the common good – they are for their own good, their own pockets, for their own congregations or communities, or for their own narrow interpretations of faith.  They seek for the world to be shaped and defined by their criteria and to hell with anyone who doesn’t agree.  This is theological malpractice and it is public theology’s job to expose these voices as much as address any other issues that have a bearing on the common good of society.

Public theology also understands and accepts that 1) we live in a diverse, multi-faith society and 2) there are many people who are wary of religion.  Given the madness we have seen as part of the 2016 US Presidential campaign as well as the general political power of the Religious Right and fundamentalist approaches to faith throughout the world, it is completely understandable that phrases such as “religion in public life” can cause alarm.  Many would argue (and I would be inclined to agree) that in some instances religion plays too great a role in public life.  

And yet, religion will never go away.  Regardless of your thoughts about God, religion as a framework of values which motivate and give meaning to one's life is one of the things that makes us human.  Furthermore, it may shift and take different shapes, but humanity has always created social and political structures that take some form of religion into account (even if it is in reaction against religion).  The most constructive thing we can do is to make sure our theology contributes to the wellbeing of all and supports the common good. 

A concern for the common good cannot be based in the domination or supremacy of the Christian faith.  We cannot achieve common good unless we are willing to question our own power and be willing to share it with others whose voices are not heard.

So, what is the difference between public theology and political/liberation theologies?  Inevitably, public theology will be political as there is very little in the way of public issues that isn’t also a political issue. The main difference lies in their motivations and from where the different theologies arise.  Sebastian Kim has said it better than me in his book Theology in the Public Sphere:

 “Public theology does not require the privileging of Christianity in public life and its theologians do not necessarily see their work as superseding the other two theologies.  Public theology takes its place in the different contexts of plural and secular societies as a complementary approach alongside many other theologies and philosophies…[P]olitical theology is responding to the privatization of religion, the challenges of the Enlightenment, the complicity of Christians in the Second World War…[and liberation theology] tries to ‘interpret Christianity in a way that is relevant to people’s liberation from all kinds of exclusion, dependencies, and exploitations.’… [whereas public theology tries] to make Christian claims public to postmodern society with the liberating and critical resources of the Christian tradition.” (2)

The three – public, political, and liberation theologies (in all their various forms) – work together.  They complement each other and all build on and are shaped by the other.  But when it comes to doing work in the public sphere with people who are not fellow theologians or co-religionists, public theology is a more effective construct for communicating the ideals of inclusion, social justice, and the ways in which Christianity and religion on the whole are both complicit in evil and courageous against it.

A famous German political theologian, Johann Baptist Metz, used political theology to understand history – namely what happened to Christianity in the lead up to, during, and in the wake of World War II – and how we are called to remember and dedicate ourselves to that which is “dangerous” and subversive, questioning empire and its minions for a vision of a world where justice and love prevail.  Famous Latin American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez used liberation theology to “liberate and find hope for the poor and all those who suffer innocently,” focusing primarily on those who are oppressed and marginalized. (3)  Public theology, in comparison to the others, looks for ways “to affirm and give hope to every ‘other,’ especially to the repressed ‘others’,” according to Gaspar Martinez. (4)  

I think Martinez's use of "repressed" here is interesting.  It signals to me both those who whose rebellion against oppression is being violently put down AND those who are complicit in oppression through their silence and passivity.  One will never be free until both are free.  

Public theology sees the cost of suffering and oppression and speaks as or to those in the community who are in pain, providing solace through hope and solidarity.  But it also sees the cost of violence and oppression on the souls of those who enact, enforce, and allow it and speaks to them as well, both in prophetic rebuke but also in presenting a vision of a different world where everyone is free and that each person’s liberation is connected to everyone else’s. 

An example of this is in the South African concept of ubuntu, as described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his book No Future Without Forgiveness:

“Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobunto’; ‘Hey so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.” (5)

Similarly, Nelson Mandela described ubuntu by saying:

“In the old days when we were young, a traveller through a country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or water; once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is, are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you, and enable it to improve? These are important things in life." 

You cannot improve the community around you if you are unwilling to listen and prioritize the experiences of others.  There are those within our communities who are struggling to survive.  Public theology calls everyone to listen to those who are struggling and change the system that threatens their survival and keeps them from thriving.  It calls us to interrogate our assumptions and to do better.  It is not just for fellow church members or even for Christians.  It is for everyone.

1.  John de Gruchy, “Public Theology as Christian Witness: Exploring the Genre,” International Journal of Public Theology, 1/1 (2007).

2.  Sebastian Kim, Theology in the Public Sphere: Public Theology as a Catalyst for Open Debate, (London: SCM, 2011), 21-22, quoting Gaspar Martinez, Confronting the Mystery of God: Political, Liberation, and Public Theologies, (London: Continuum, 2001), 217.

3.  Gaspar Martinez, Confronting the Mystery of God: Political, Liberation, and Public Theologies, (London: Continuum, 2001), 251.

4.  Gaspar Martinez, Confronting the Mystery of God: Political, Liberation, and Public Theologies, (London: Continuum, 2001), 251. 

5.  Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, (New York: Random House, 2000), 34-35.

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