Public Theology for the Common Good
The public theologian offers discourse clarification and worldview construction for the sake of the global common good (Peters 2018). Just to be clear, public theology is not a disguised form of evangelization or an attempt to usurp the public square for religious influence.
Built into the worldview of a public theology for the common good today is the assumption that the public theologian contributes one voice among many. Many voices are sounding for attention, to be sure. This includes a variety of religious voices. If anything, the post-colonial public theologian within the liberation theology camp admonishes the world to listen to all voices, especially those voices previously muffled or ignored.
There is no global choir. No unison. No harmony. Only cacophony. What the public theologian intones will be heard solely by ears listening for charity of heart, sound reasoning, and wise judgment.
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Again: What is Public Theology?
Are we talking about three different publics: church, academy, and wider culture? Not exactly. Hak Joon Lee refines the notion of public. “Public refers not so much to a locale as a posture of doing theology, namely, the dialogical openness to everybody in pursuing the common good of a society.” Because social media provides the same media through which both church and academy communicate, all theology is already and unavoidably public theology.
Our point here is this: the public theologian speaks as one voice among many on behalf of a single common good. So says Jayme Reaves, a Baptist from America’s Deep South with a theology doctorate from Trinity College, University of Dublin, Ireland.
“If theology in its most basic sense is the study of God, then, also in its most basic sense, public theology is the study of God done by or for the public, or as it pertains to issues in the public sphere. Public theology is theology about and for the public. If something is a public issue, public theology has something to say about it.”
Then Jayme Reaves hits our nail on the head with a sledgehammer.
“A concern for the common good cannot be based in the denomination or supremacy of the Christian faith. We cannot achieve common good unless we are willing to question our own power and be willing to share it with others whose voices are not heard.”
Pope Francis embraces in different terms a vision of a just, sustainable, participatory, and planetary society. He makes clear that the public theologian speaks with one voice among others, even though what is said has universal application.
100. “I am certainly not proposing an authoritarian and abstract universalism, devised or planned by a small group and presented as an ideal for the sake of levelling, dominating and plundering,” says Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti (2020). “For the future is not monochrome; if we are courageous, we can contemplate it in all the variety and diversity of what each individual person has to offer. How much our human family needs to learn to live together in harmony and peace, without all of us having to be the same!”
A Public Theology for the Common Good Includes Social Justice
The number of concerns we could register in a public theology for the common good would make a list longer than π’s decimal points. Like a circle with a center, at the center of the common good we find the flourishing of God’s creation, especially human flourishing for each individual as a benefit of the collective. Today’s public theologian works out of a futuristic vision of a just, sustainable, participatory, and planetary society.
Even if such a vision is conceived in the church and critically refined in the university, it is offered to the planet as a whole. Susan Codone, on the faculty of Mercer University, writing in Christianity Today (August 7, 2020), says…
“public theology is a purposeful effort to place our faith in the public square and make room for others to join us….we can challenge the systemic social problems of racism, sexual abuse, misogyny, and domestic violence with courage—hoping for change, not retribution.”
Will the Post-Christian Public Listen to the Public Theologian?
Increasingly, our public is being populated by “nones” and “dones.” Secular ears are wary when listening to religious voices. “Public theology also understands and accepts that 1) we live in a diverse, multi-faith society and 2) there are many people who are wary of religion,” Codone warns.
This public wariness borders on the hostile. “We are moving into a post-Christian society and this is reflected in increased expressions of anti-Christian bigotry,” writes George Yancey in a Patheos post.
“My research has confirmed that those with this bigotry are more likely to be white, male, wealthy, and well-educated. So, it is very well connected and powerful individuals who have the type of anti-Christian prejudice that will continue to trouble Christians.”
Yancy adds advice for us. “This loss of cultural power is critical as Christians consider how to prepare to operate politically in a post-Christian world.”
Will the U.S. Supreme Court Listen to the Public Theologian?
Concern over hostility toward religion in general and Christianity in particular has risen to the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Samuel Alito has issued an ominous warning: “There’s growing hostility to religion or at least the traditional religious beliefs that are contrary to the new moral code that is ascendant in some sectors.”
Justice Alioto added his concern that our “stable and successful society in which people of diverse faiths live and work together harmoniously and productivity while still retaining their own beliefs” is under threat.
Channeling the late Richard John Neuhaus, the justice cautioned against a privatizing of religious belief and practice where the cultural expectation is that “when you step outside into the public square in the light of day you had better behave yourself like a good secular citizen.”
While Alito is right to worry about the erosion of religious liberty, his speech partially misdiagnoses the problem. Although he referenced multiple faith traditions, he revealed his real concern to be opposition to “traditional religious beliefs” by those subscribing to “the new moral code.” This depiction sets up an antagonism between supposedly secular progressive ideas and conservative religious understandings, with the latter needing special protection from the law and the government. Public theologians tend to be supportive of the more progressive ideas.
Public Theology for the Common Good
Public theology, says contemporary Dutch scholar, Toine von den Hoogen, “is that it is the form of theological investigation which is aimed at the modern media mediated complexes of meaning which arise in the construction of world views and cultural zones from the fusions between religion and culture, religion and economics, and religion and politics” (Hoogen 2019, 10).
Little more than a century ago, another Dutch theologian and statesman introduced a nascent form of public theology to Europe. That was Abraham Kuyper, Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905. “The government, too, is the servant of God,” Kuyper reminded us (Kuyper 2022, 251). The public theologian continues to remind us of this.
Kuyper spoke to a Christian society. We do not. Ours is a pluralistic society. Today’s post-colonial or liberation theologian will publicly raise one voice among many for the common good of the many. When offering to the public square discourse clarification and worldview construction, the public theologian must be careful to speak with charity of heart, sound reasoning, and wise judgment.
Ted Peters pursues Public Theology at the intersection of science, religion, ethics, and public policy. Peters is an emeritus professor at the Graduate Theological Union, where he co-edits the journal, Theology and Science, on behalf of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, California, USA. His book, God in Cosmic History, traces the rise of the Axial religions 2500 years ago. He previously authored Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom? (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2002) as well as Science, Theology, and Ethics (Ashgate 2003). He is editor of AI and IA: Utopia or Extinction? (ATF 2019). Along with Arvin Gouw and Brian Patrick Green, he co-edited the new book, Religious Transhumanism and Its Critics hot off the press (Roman and Littlefield/Lexington, 2022). Just published: The Voice of Public Theology (ATF 2022). See his website: TedsTimelyTake.com.
This fictional spy thriller, Cyrus Twelve, follows the twists and turns of a transhumanist plot.[▓  Resources and persons in public theology for the common good abound. Here are some.
Lutheran World Federation, “Open Access Public Theology Resources”
University of Chicago Divinity School, “Public Orthodoxy”
Fordham University, “Public Orthodoxy”
Hoogen, Toine von den. 2019. Public Theology and Institutional Economics. Cambridge UK: Cambridge Scholars Press.
Kuyper, Abraham. 2022. On Charity and Justice. Bellingham WA: Lexham.
Peters, Ted. 2018. “Public Theology: Its Pastoral, Apologetic, Scientific, Politial, and Prophetic Tasks.” International Journal of Public Theology 12:2 153-177; https://brill.com/abstract/journals/ijpt/12/1/ijpt.12.issue-1.xml.