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Abstract

This occasional paper addresses a set of four related questions. • What is the proper task of ‘public theology’? • Does public theology have a valid claim to be taught and practised as an academic discipline in a state-funded university? • If public theology is a legitimate academic discipline, is it necessarily theology of the Christian sort? • What do we mean by ‘public’, anyway?
1
What is public theology?
David B romell1
Visiting Fellow, Centre for T heology and Public Issues
University of O tago, M ay 2011
This paper addresses a set of four related questions.
x What is the proper WDVNRIµSXEOLFWKHRORJ\¶"
x Does public theology have a valid claim to be taught and practised as an academic discipline in a
state-funded university?
x If public theology is a legitimate academic discipline, is it necessarily theology of the Christian
sort?
x WKDWGRZHPHDQE\µSXEOLF¶, anyway?
F rom religion to theology
Religion is the primary form of culture through which humans explicitly express some understanding
or other of ultimate reality (variously conceived) in its meaning for us. By way of contrast,
metaphysics, at least as traditionally understood, is a branch of philosophical inquiry that thinks about
being as such, or reality in itself.
In other words, religion is a human, culturally constructed response to an existential
question: What
does ultimate reality mean for our own possibilities of existing and acting authentically as human
beings, in relation to self, others and the whole µZRUOG¶?
We express some kind of existential self-understanding implicitly through how we live, decide and
act; i.e., through all our other (non-religious) cultural systems. Religion, however, is the primary
cultural system through which humans have expressed an explicit understanding of ultimate reality in
its meaning for us.2
Theology is critical thinking about the meaning and truth of religious self-understanding (faith) and
life praxis (witness). It is thus a
second order of reflection²LWLQYROYHVµVWDQGLQJEDFN¶IURPclaims
made or implied by religious faith and witness and critically assessing: (1) what they mean; and (2)
whether and to what extent any reasonable person might accept these claims as true, and in what
sense. Theology as critical thinking proceeds by means of evidence and argument that are relevant to
the kinds of claims religion makes.
1 David Bromell has a PhD in Systematic Theology from Otago (1990). He is a Principal Advisor in the
Ministry of Social Development and a Senior Associate of the Institute of Policy Studies, School of
Government, Victoria University of Wellington.
2 My understanding of religion and of the task and branches of theology is heavily indebted to Schubert
Ogden. See especially Ogden 1986, 1996, 2010. Ogden in turn drew on the work of Clifford Geertz in
developing his understanding of religion as a cultural system.
2
As defined by the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully
conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered
from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a
guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values
that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance,
sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness (
Defining critical thinking
).
What makes theology distinctive as a discipline is that it pushes beyond describing and analysing the
history and meaning of religious faith and witness (religious studies), to critical assessment of claims
to validity
expressed or implied in religious faith and witness. This includes analysis and assessment
of whether the metaphysical and ethical implications of those claims are true, and in what sense.
Theology thus presupposes but is distinct from the related disciplines of philosophy (especially
metaphysics, ethics and philosophy of religion) and religious studies.
Theology is
logos
about
theos
, however
theos
is conceived. Christian theology is critical thinking
about data provided by Christian faith and witness. Of course, theology can also be Jewish, Muslim,
Hindu or Buddhist, and so on²in which case, it is critical thinking about data provided by Jewish,
Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist faith and witness respectively.
Theology and the university
By legislation (Education Act 1989, Pt 14), universities must have all of the following characteristics:
x they are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop
intellectual independence;
x their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by
people who are active in advancing knowledge;
x they meet international standards of research and teaching;
x they are a repository of knowledge and expertise; and
x they accept a role as critic and conscience of society.
By convention and by legislation, the academic freedom and autonomy of tertiary educational
institutions are to be protected and enhanced. This includes, for example:
x the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom,
to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions;
x the freedom of the institution and its staff to regulate the subject matter of courses taught at the
institution; and
x the freedom of the institution through its chief executive to appoint its own staff.
Defining theology as second-order, critical thinking about the meaning and truth of religious faith and
witness is consistent with the characteristics of a university and has at least three implications.
1. A religious body should not expect to determine or influence the subject matter of courses. A
university is a place for open inquiry and open debate, where the best argument wins until
someone develops and presents a better argument.
2. A religious body should not expect to determine or influence the appointment of staff. Indeed, it is
not necessary for a theologian to identify personally as Christian, or to affiliate with a Christian
3
church, in order to do Christian theology. Equally, one need not identify as Jewish to do Jewish
theology, or as Buddhist to do Buddhist theology, etc. Without the prior faith and witness of a
religious community or some sort of other, however, there would be nothing to reflect on, no data
with which to do theology. (As second-order reflection, theology is, in a sense, a parasitic
activity.)
3. While theology is an academic discipline that can properly be taught and studied in a university,
there is no reason why
Christian
theology has any special claim to be taught in a public
university, as distinct from a private training establishment.3 Where theology is practised and
taught as critical thinking about Christian faith and witness in a university context, we might
expect, therefore, that it will be taught and practised to the highest academic standard, and in a
non-sectarian manner that does not promote the interests and views of any particular faith
tradition or community.
Br anches of C hr istian theology
Christian theology as an academic discipline is commonly organised in three branches, for practical as
well as theoretical reasons (see Figure 1 below).
x Histor ical theology, including biblical theology (sometimes called biblical studies), is critical
thinking about the history of faith and witness; i.e., what it has been in the past.
x Systematic theology is critical thinking about the meaning and truth of Christian faith and
witness, in terms of its theoretical credibility, now and always.
x Applied theology, sometimes called practical theology, is critical thinking about the meaning and
truth of Christian faith and witness, in terms of its practical credibility at this time, in this place.
Figure 1: B r anches of t heology
Applied
Applied
Systematic
Systematic
Historical
Historical
Religious
studies
Religious
studies Philosophy
Philosophy
Critical reflection on the meaning and truth of
religious faith and witness at this time, in this place
Critical reflection on the meaning and truth
of religious faith and witness, in the past
Critical reflection on the meaning and truth of
religious faith and witness, now and always
Branches of theology
3 By law, a private training establishment must be registered, however, before it can provide an approved
programme or training scheme, regardless of whether the establishment or any of its students receives financial
assistance out of public money appropriated by Parliament (Education Act 1989, Pt 18).
4
Pu blic theology
is a form of applied theology. It reflects critically on the ethical and political
implications, here and now, of claims expressed or implied in religious faith and witness, and does so
in the public sphere, in publicly accessible ways.
In writing on the creation of public valXH-RKQ%HQLQJWRQGHILQHVWKHSXEOLFVSKHUHDV³WKHZHERI
values, places, organizations, rules, knowledge, and other cultural resources held in common by
people through their everyday commitments and behaviours, and held in trust by government and
public LQVWLWXWLRQV´%HQLQJWRQ+HDUJXHVWKDWZKLOHDWRQHOHYHOµWKHSXEOLF¶FRPSULVHVRU
UHODWHVWRRUDIIHFWVWKHZKROHFRPPXQLW\µWKHSXEOLF¶LVOHVVJLYHQWKDQsomething continuously
created and constructed:
Part of the role of government LVWRWDNHWKHOHDGLQVKDSLQJDQGUHVSRQGLQJWRSHRSOH¶VLGHDV
and experiences of the public, of who we are, and what we collectively value²what it means
to be part of, and a participant in, the public sphere, at this moment in time and in this
place/space, and what adds to public value and what detracts from it. This involves a constant
battle of ideas and values, because the public sphere is heavily contested territory, and there
are many competing interests and ideologies in play (ibid.).
Conflict of ideas in the public sphere
The importance of doing theology as critical thinking about the truth, as well as the meaning, of
religious faith and witness is underscored by the conflict of ideas in a liberal democratic, secular state.
1HZ=HDODQG¶VSRSXODWLRQis religiously diverse and becoming increasingly so. Data from the 2006
Census of Population and Dwellings show that:
x just over half (51 percent) of the usually resident population identified, at least nominally, as
Christian²down from 61 percent in 2001
x tKRVHGHFODULQJµQRUHOLJLRQ¶FRPSULVHGDOPRVWDWKLUGSHUFHQWRIWKHusually resident
population, up from 30 percent in 2001, with an additional six percent objecting to answering the
question
x ,VODPLV1HZ=HDODQG¶VIDVWHVWJURZLQJUHOLJLRQDOWKRXJKMuslims comprise less than one
percent of the usually resident population (36,153 individual responses in 2006)
x of people born overseas who affiliated as Hindu or Muslim in 2006, almost half (50 percent and
48 percent respectively) had arrived less than five years prior to 2006.
New Zealand has no official or established religion, and the state seeks to treat all faith communities
and those who profess no religion equally before the law (Human Rights Commission 2009).
If it is to be taken seriously, public theology therefore has to offer more than an interpretation of
principles, values or insights from scripture and tradition applied to contemporary questions of public
life. After all, why should policymakers accept these principles, values and insights as worthy of
consideration and application, particularly when they conflict or at least compete with other SHRSOH¶V
principles, values and insights?
$µFRQIHVVLRQDO¶DSSURDFKWRSXEOLFWKHRORJ\µ:HEHOLHYH
X
and therefore think you should do
Y
¶LV
special pleading and a form of ecclesiastical bullying in academic drag. In relation specifically to
Christian theology, presenting particular claims merely as advocacy in the interests of a cultural sub-
group is, moreover, inconsistent with claims to universal truth that are intrinsic to monotheism and the
Judaeo-Christian tradition. In other words, it is internally incoherent.
5
Public theology is critical reflection, not witness. First, it engages in critical thinking about the
meaning and truth of claims expressed or implied in religious faith and witness. Having done so, it
employs
relevant evidence, reasoned argu
m
ent
and resonant rhetoric
to engage with competing
claims and conflicting ideas in the public sphere. This means using relevant evidence and argument to
position claims to validity:
x in relation to everything else we know to be true
x in relation to competing claims
x within the sum of public life, taking account of inter-dependencies and intended and unintended
consequences.
This does not mean that everyone has to adopt the same form of reasoning, or the same kind of
rhetoric and mode of communication. Any claim to validity needs to demonstrate, however, whether
and to what extent a reasonable person might accept it as true, and in what sense.
:KDWSXEOLFWKHRORJ\LV«DQGLVQRW
Public theology is more than NHHSLQJDQGVSHDNLQJµWKHIDLWK¶KRZHYHUGHILQHGLQthe public sphere,
on matters of public life. It is different, for example, from a Sunday sermon that discusses some
matter of community concern. It is different from position papers published by the YDULRXVFKXUFKHV¶
public questions committees and social service agencies.
One might hope, of course, that historical, systematiFDQGDSSOLHGWKHRORJ\LQIRUPWKHFKXUFKHV¶
preaching, teaching and advocacy on public questions. However, a scholarly article, lecture or
university seminar or forum in public theology is a different sort of exercise from a religious sermon
or a faith comPXQLW\¶VDGYRFDF\RQDPDWWHURISXEOLFSROLF\
Public theology as a form of applied theology is not a direct expression of faith and witness. It is
second-order reflection that thinks critically, at this time, in this place, about the meaning and truth of
claims expressed and implied by religious faith and witness. It focuses in particular on the ethical and
political implications of religious self-understanding and life praxis.
Clearly, public theology is not an easy option for students (or teachers) who want to do something
µSUDFWLFDO¶DQGOHVVLQWHOOHFWXDOO\WD[LQJIt is a properly academic discipline that draws on intellectual
resources in philosophy and religious studies, and is grounded in historical and systematic theology
and the broader field of applied theology. For the most part, public theology is a subject to come to at
WKHFRQFOXVLRQRIRQH¶VWKHRORJLFDOVWXGLHVUDWKHUWKDQDWWKHEHJLQQLQJ
What is public theology? ,W¶Vcritical thinking, with others, about religious faith and public life.
6
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Human Rights Commission. 2009.
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On theology.
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Doing theology today.
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The understanding of Christ ian faith.
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... Looking at the history of the 16th century Reformation from the perspective of public theology, many theologians from that era (Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed) could be regarded as 'public theologians'. Bromell (2011) defines public theology as a critical reflection on faith and its implications for society. Furthermore, it employs relevant evidence and reasonable arguments to engage with competing claims and conflicting ideas in the public sphere. ...
Article
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During the 16th century, Europe underwent fundamental sociopolitical changes, which challenged theologians and the church to respond theologically. In light of the celebration of the Reformation (1517–2017) and the theme of this conference, this contribution presents Calvin as a ‘public theologian’. To this purpose it is necessary to define ‘public theology’, describe the sociopolitical changes which challenged theologians during the 16th century, and lastly to focus on Calvin’s contribution to the discourse. Because of the vast amount of material that is available, this contribution is limited to Calvin’s first publication, his ‘Commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia’. Calvin’s fundamental understanding of law and justice, as well as his theological engagement with sociopolitical issues, made him a public theologian par excellence. Calvin’s legal training surfaced whenever he addressed the authorities, for instance, when pleading the case of persecuted Protestants. He had a fundamental understanding of issues such as justice and freedom. The rights, responsibilities and obligations of government and people should always remain in balance. Sociopolitical transformation, as experienced in South Africa during the last three decades, requires of theologians to engage theologically with relevant issues. In this, Calvin set a remarkable example.
Article
In this collection of essays, renowned philosopher Robert Sokolowski illustrates how Christian faith is not an alternative to reason, but rather an enhancement of it. © 2006 The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved.
Statement on religious diversity
Human Rights Commission. 2009. Statement on religious diversity.2nd ed. Wellington, NZ: Human Rights Commission.
Doing theology today
  • S Ogden
Ogden, S. 1996. Doing theology today. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.