Public Reason and Public Theology: How the Church Should Interfere

By Pace, Bradley | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Public Reason and Public Theology: How the Church Should Interfere


Pace, Bradley, Anglican Theological Review


Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple wrote that the Christian is in the awkward position of being a member of two societies, the church and the state, and that this dual citizenship creates problems. On the one hand, the Christian faith is a divine revelation that takes precedence over all other concerns. On the other hand, religious faith is often seen as purely personal and irrelevant to public, political, or social issues. This paper gives some reflections on the public nature of theology and its connection to Christian mission. The position taken here runs against the grain of traditional, liberal political theory for which social and political reasons must be public. This kind of liberalism fails to make sense of the strength of the Christian claim to public truth, which reaches both the private lives of Christians and the public and relational aspects of all human beings. However, the case for a public Christian theology must be made without hubris, maintaining space for a plurality of divergent religious and moral worldviews. On this view, the church is a gadfly that challenges the prevailing political and social principles at work in the world.

In Citizen and Churchman, then Archbishop of York William Temple writes that the Christian is in the awkward position of being a member of two societies. "The simultaneous membership of the two societies," he observes, "creates some problems for every Christian."1 On the one hand, those "citizens who profess the Christian faith believe that they have received a divine Revelation, which declares the character and purpose of God and, by consequence, the way of life for men [sic]. As this revelation is divine, its authority is higher than that of any earthly State."2 On that basis, then, the Christian might claim that the church has a position of authority over political institutions and decisions. On the other hand, there is a strong tendency for both Christians and non-Christians to think that religious convictions have to do with personal, subjective, internal, or spiritual matters, and not public political or social issues. "It is commonly assumed," Temple writes in Christianity and Social Order, "that Religion is one department of life . . . and that it is playing the part of a busybody when it lays down principles for the guidance of other departments."3 Political institutions and decisions - and indeed the general structure of social life more generally - involve a whole other set of beliefs, attitudes, goals, and expectations. In addition, even Temple, the head of a state-sponsored church, realized the problem of diversity. How can a Christian demand that the social order be organized according to "principles which many members of the public do not accept"?4 Now more than ever, contemporary Western society is characterized by a plurality of religious beliefs (not only among different denominations of Christians, but of non-Christians as well) and other types of comprehensive moral worldviews (what we might also call conceptions of the good).

In this paper, I offer some reflections on the public nature of theology and its connection to Christian mission. The church is called to act in a way that goes beyond the personal, spiritual Uves of individuals and touches on social and political institutions. This view runs against the grain of traditional, liberal political theory for which social and political reasons must be public - that is, open and acceptable to anyone regardless of her religious belief, conception of the good, and so on. On my view, this kind of liberalism fails to make sense of the strength of the Christian claim to public truth. This claim reaches not only tie private, inner Uves of Christians, but also the pubUc and relational aspects of all human beings. Nonetheless, the case for a pubUc Christian theology must be made without hubris; it must maintain space for a plurality of divergent reUgious and moral worldviews. Seen this way, the church is a gadfly that challenges the prevailing political and social principles at work in the world.

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