18 August 2008

by Rod Benson

New words and phrases about ethics appear from time to time – such as “co-belligerence,” “consistent pro-life ethic,” and “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, one of Australia’s best 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.

Rev Rod Benson is an ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute, an activity of Morling College, Sydney.

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