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.
by Rod Benson

Grief meets each of us when we lose someone or something we care deeply about. But in a world driven by instant gratification, where well-being is measured in shallow emotional highs, are we scared to feel sad? Do we overlook the goodness and growth that may attend grief?

Paul Tournier (1898-1986) was a Swiss physician and author who acquired a global audience for his work in pastoral counselling. He was a pioneer of person-centred psychotherapy. In his book, Creative Suffering (1981), Tournier reflected on his own bereavement. He wrote:

People talk of ‘widows and orphans.’ I am both. I hesitated for a long time [before writing this book]! Because what I have to say is that I have indeed felt a renewal of my creative urge since then …. This is quite the opposite of a denial of grief. It really is suffering …. The greater the grief, the greater the creative energy to which it gives

Since my wife’s death I have come to realize that I had lived all my life in mourning, waiting for reunion in heaven with my parents …. Now, with my new bereavement, my link with heaven is made stronger still, and that stimulates, rather than diminishes, my interest in the problems of this world. The human heart does not obey the rules of logic; it is constitutionally contradictory. I can truly say that I have a great grief and that I am a happy man.

Does that mean that I am, in fact, performing my work of mourning in Freud’s sense? I do not think so. With Freud it is a detachment, a disinvestment, to borrow a term much used by the psychoanalysts. It is, he writes, a matter of severing one’s attachment to the object that has been abolished …. You will see that what I have done is the exact opposite.

Sometimes, faced with grief, we restrain a God-breathed creative energy. There is good we can do in this world because we have experienced grief. Are you ready to walk along a path toward growth? Then go with God.

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