What is Public Theology?

Thandiwe Gobledale
The Public Church in America
March 18, 2010

What is Public Theology?

Possibilities for Corporate Reflection on and Response to Sin

In our society, the lines between public and private often blur.  We struggle as a nation to establish some consistency with regards to the role we think the government should take in affecting public and private life, and, as a society, we move increasingly toward more individualistic understandings of our own roles and responsibilities in the world.  In this paper, I want to explore the possibilities for public theology, when it emanates from and interacts with a society such as our own, to refocus people’s attention on the needs of the society as a community of people and on the corporate responsibility of communities, and even societies, to address the needs of the whole as manifested by the needs of individuals who live within the confines of such a society.

Public theology has the potential to offer a corporate response to questions of sin.  All too often, churches across the United States cultivate a more private theology that addresses issues of personal sinfulness, restitution and salvation. While questions about individual sin also offer realms for meaningful inquiry and reflection, individual sin is often simpler to address than corporate sin that occurs on a societal level.  As Niebuhr suggests in Moral Man and Immoral Society, individual humans have a greater capacity to act with compassion and justice than do societies.  Thus, in order to strive for a more just world, people must create tools or mechanisms by which to recognize, acknowledge and respond corporately to sin.  This is the role of public theology that I wish to explore.  In such an endeavor, it will also be important to consider the question of the divine and the role of God.  In other words, it is important to consider the value of public theology in contrast with public discourses that envision and strive to achieve some degree of common good for example with regards to social justice or environmental sustainability.

    Reinhold Niebuhr’s reflection on the morality of individual people and the immorality of society provides a helpful starting point for such a discussion as this.  Individuals, Niebuhr posits, have the potential for moral action because “[an individual’s] reason endows him with a capacity to self-transcendence.  He sees himself in relation to his environment and in relation to other life” (Niebuhr 25-26).  Thus, an individual is able to look beyond her immediate needs and wants, to care about and for other people and other people’s plight.  Niebuhr suggests that in contrast to individuals, society, without the capacity for reason, does not have this ability for self-transcending reflection.   In Niebuhr’s own words, “Nations will always find it more difficult than individuals to behold the beam that is in their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother’s eye” (107).  As such society inevitably fails to act morally even when the individuals within the society may exhibit great capacity for moral action and selflessness when dealing with others.  I want to suggest that public theology can provide a space in which corporate self-reflection may, and perhaps even must, occur.  Furthermore, when public theology offers such self-critique from within society, it may provide the impetus and the motivation to move individuals, collectively, toward societal transformation.  Martin Marty’s definition of public theology as: “the effort to interpret the life of a people in light of a transcendent reference” (as quoted by Professor Gilpin on 01/05/10)  articulates a certain role that public theology plays in relating the life of a community, a society even, to God.  Public theology, by incorporating God, or the transcendent as Marty refers to it, into the process of societal self-reflection introduces a space in which both “humility before the absolute and self-assertion in terms of the absolute” (Niebuhr 64) enter into the realm of public discourse.  Public theology thus provides a perspective that integrates the idea of relationality with the divine and in so doing, it can uphold reverence in acknowledgment of human limitations while at the same time demanding self-assertion motivated by belief in God and a sense of shared responsibility for the well-being of the planet and of other people.
As noted above, public theology differs from general public discourse in its incorporation of the divine, Marty’s “transcendent reference,” into communal or societal self-reflection.  Marty’s language proves helpful in elucidating the question of the importance of God in corporate, or societal, self-analysis and critique.  God transcends the reality we know; the divine provides a reference point (or a reference plane, if we are to allow for a broad understanding of God) that encompasses and yet also extends beyond the world we experience and in which we live.  In engaging with the divine, with this transcendent plane of reference, we willingly step beyond ourselves into the unknown.  This self-transcendence an individual must exercise to encounter the divine corresponds to the self-transcendence necessary for encountering another, the other, and it enables an individual to imagine and envision a world different from the one she knows.  Thus relating to the divine draws a person out of herself and invites her to relate to others in the same way.  In the context of many organized religions, and specifically Christianity, people often take this step to engage with God within their religious community, in fact with their religious community.  Church provides a space in which the act of reaching beyond the self toward a transcendent plane of reference occurs corporately.  This provides the entry point for corporate reflection on and response to sin, and thus the potential for public theology.
Beyond this, God enters into public theology as not simply a transcendent plane of reference that extends beyond what people experience and know about the world, but as a reference that directs individuals, and communities as well, toward the good.  That is to say toward the good that extends beyond the individual, toward the common good.  Furthermore, Christianity includes within its tradition resources, particularly in scripture, that depict the common good.  Thus, relating to the divine and turning to Christian scripture, and to some extent tradition as well, provide means of establishing an ideal of the common good.  While public discourse around social justice or environmental sustainability may also aim toward a common good that resembles the common good understood by many Christians, the inclusion of God in the discourse establishes a level of accountability that does not exist within the structures of even well-established democratic governments.  This accountability comes through continued relationship with the divine, engagement with scripture and dialogue with a community that is also invested and engaged in corporate societal-reflection and response to sin.
In order for God, the transcendent plane of reference, to direct people and communities toward a common good, people must understand the divine as being intimately connected to all people, and thus connecting all people to each other.  People must envision this plane of reference much as Walter Rauschenbusch does in A Theology for the Social Gospel, as the “all-embracing source and exponent of the common life and good of humanity” (98), a God that “we love and serve… when we love and serve our fellows whom [God] loves and in whom [God] lives” (48).  Without an understanding of God that includes radical love by God for all people and a recognition of the divinity that dwells within all people, the concept of God as a transcendent plane of reference may be dangerous and even destructive when integrated into the public sphere.  For example public theology within the United States has been used over the last ten years to promote opposition to gay marriage, demonizing homosexuality and portraying it as a threat to family values and thus a threat to one understanding of the common good.  In extreme cases, public theology may even be used to incite violence and brutality whereby people envision an exclusionary God that values conformity over life and difference.  Thus, a vision of the divine that acknowledges divinity in all people and at the same time recognizes divine transcendence is necessary to direct people toward an inclusive common good.  Niebuhr suggests that “[the] transcendent perspective of religion makes all men our brothers and nullifies the division, by which nature, climate, geography and accidents of history divide the human family” (71).  In other words, religion’s strong connection to the divine and attempts to see beyond the confines of the experience of a particular group’s experience has the potential to break down the barriers of exclusivity to recognize a unity across humanity.
Christians  who identify with the idea of a divine that acts as a transcendent plane of reference directing people toward a common good and who actively engage with God, scripture and their religious community have the opportunity to reflect together on societal concerns.  As individuals come into community and begin to reflect corporately on the state of their society or the world within churches or beyond, there arises the opportunity to recognize sinful behavior, behavior that separates people from God, that occurs not on an individual level, not committed by a single person, but on a larger scale committed either by a group of people or by a larger system that causes harm to others or the earth.  The church, as a corporate body made of many members, may incorporate the perspectives of its members and thus has the potential for both a broadened as well as a sharpened lens through which to see the world.  When this corporate body, the church, engages with the society around it, it has the potential capacity to transcend the self serving cares and concerns of that society, looking toward a common good for all members of the society as well as for a wider community on earth.  In doing this, it may recognize corporate sin or corporate compliance with an individual’s sin.  Part of the response may, and perhaps must, include speaking out beyond the walls of the church, with regards to the particular issue at hand.  The church must present publicly the theology that articulates the sinfulness of the larger society.
Having explored the potential of public theology to provide an answer to Niebuhr’s criticism of society’s inability to transcend itself in order to reflect self-critically and having discussed the profound role of God in this endeavor, let us look briefly to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of how public theology may operate constructively.  Radical, inclusive love holds a central position in King’s understanding of God, and he quotes from the epistle of John to say, “‘God is love [and] if we love one another God dwelleth in us’” (King 150).  While King to some extent limits his use of explicitly God-centered language, he speaks of love throughout his life, holding love as the transcendent plane of reference to which he holds himself and others accountable.  When King speaks of power at its best, he speaks of it in relationship with God using language of love: “power at its best,” he writes, “is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love” (172).  In other words, for King, power at its best is deeply connected with God’s action in the world.  Thus King’s understanding of God as love is essential to his discourse about working for the common good, for what King calls “the beloved community.”  From this initial understanding of a God that is manifest in the world as love and works in the world through love, King is able to unite first individuals within his religious community and later a much broader base of individuals to motivate them to address, as community, as the “we” to whom King speaks, societal ills such as segregation in the United States and later the Vietnam War.  King acts as a public voice for what becomes a movement, articulating a theology that extends beyond the confines of his congregation in Montgomery, Alabama or later in Atlanta, Georgia, to speak to Americans across the country, black and white, even Christian and non-Christian.  King’s message is backed by King’s actions, by his willingness to risk, and eventually to lose, his life in the effort to create and live the reality of the beloved community, God’s community.  Dr. King’s speeches, writing and work exemplify the ways in which public theology can, and I believe must, from an understanding of an inclusive God who loves all of humanity, act as a self-transcendent force for society, to enable communities to look at themselves in light of a transcendent plane of reference and with humility assert themselves in the task of responding to sin in the world.

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr.  “I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World.” Ed. James M. Washington.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 1986.

Niebuhr, Reinhold.  “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1932.
Rauschenbusch, Walter.  “A Theology for the Social Gospel.” New York: Abingdon Press.  1917.


About Thandiwe

Hopeful cynic, creative, seriously silly, lover of people and places, hypocrite, third-culture kid, queer, life-long learner, white woman, Christ follower, outdoor enthusiast: I am a seeker of justice and truth who has re-found my spiritual home in progressive Christianity. I serve as the Associate Pastor at a small Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation near the mountains of Colorado where I live with my beloved.
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