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What is Public Theology?

What is Public Theology?

In 2007, Nicholas Lash, formerly Professor of Divinity at CambridgeUniversity, wrote an article entitled ‘Where Does The God Delusion Come from?’

He sought, first, to examine some of the book’s chief weaknesses and second “to address the question of what it is about the climate of the times that enables so ill-informed and badly argued a tirade to be widely welcomed by many apparently well-educated people.”

Lash offered a number of subtle and persuasive reasons but curiously omitted the single, most obvious one: when the book was published.

The God Delusion hit the shelves in October 2006.

That was six years into the Republican presidency of George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian who allegedly claimed that God wanted him to be president[i] and who had come to power by drawing heavily on the support of the so-called ‘Christian Right’.

It was five years after 9/11.

It was three years into an enormously divisive invasion of Iraq, British participation in which was largely determined by the convictions of another publicly Christian leader.

It was a year after 7/7.

It was a year or so after the nuclear programme of the Islamic Republic of Iran had first become a serious international concern.

And it was a year or so after the Islamist group Hamas had unexpectedly won the Palestinian elections.

All in all, it was not an auspicious moment in world history for religion, let alone the interface of religion and politics. If you want a reason why The God Delusion was so popular it is surely this. The book it tapped into a very wide and very deep concern about the role of religion in the world today and, in particular, the role that religion threatens to play as soon as it gets anywhere near the levers of political power.

If public theology is simply doing theology in and about the public – or, more precisely, grounding questions of public morality – whether they be political, economic or social – in explicitly religious commitments – then there is a great deal of resistance to it today. You don’t have to read far in the British press to come across examples of this concern. Thus in response to the efforts of Roman Catholic cardinals to influence the consciences of Catholic MPs over abortion law in 2007 Jackie Ashley wrote in The Guardian:

If any MP really thinks their personal religious views take precedence over everything else then they should leave the House of Commons. Their place is in church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Parliament is the place for compromises, for negotiations in a secular sphere under the general overhead light of the liberal tradition. So liberalism is privileged, is it? Yes. For without it, none of these religions…would have such an easy time. Cardinals, come to terms with the society we live in….[ii]

Now, it is tempting to respond to such criticisms by condemning them out of hand; tempting but unhelpful.

More worthwhile is trying to understand why people object to religious participation in politics and it is only by getting to the heart of this that we can seriously respond to the question of whether Christian thought have anything to say about public life; what, in other words, is the contribution that public theology can make to public life.

There are a number of serious and reasonable objections that people have to the role of religion in politics. It is inherently inflexible. It is inherently divisive. It is inherently inaccessible. [see Doing God for more details on these]

But it is a fourth objection which not only demands an answer but also helps point forward to the kind of contribution that Christianity should make into questions like the role of government.

It is that religion is fundamentally irrational.

In 2009 Michael Sandel, Professor of Philosophy at Harvard, delivered the Reith lectures entitled A New Citizenship. The thrust of the lectures, and in particular the second, entitled ‘Morality in Politics’, was that politics could not be neutral on many issues and that, accordingly, moral ideas and commitments, even when derived from faith traditions, needed to be introduced explicitly into public debate.

Each lecture was delivered in front of an invited audience who asked questions afterwards. One of these came from the now former Liberal Democrat MP and noted secularist, Evan Harris. He said this:

"I do a lot of public policy on abortion and gay rights and assisted dying and embryos and it seems to me that it’s not the morality that’s missing on either side. I come from the non-religious side and I would say that I bring morality – the principle of non-discrimination, the principle of not harming someone unless there’s evidence that your policy creates harm.

“Obviously the religious side bring their morality,” he acknowledged, “but one side, I think, tends to bring evidence and an acceptance that their position might change with evidence, whereas another side, the religious side, is much less likely to accept and consider evidence and bring that to the table, because their moral position is relatively absolute [sic].”

His question, therefore was, “shouldn’t we be arguing that we should be bringing evidence into the moral arguments where appropriate, not bring[ing] morality in when it’s already there on both sides?”

Sandel responded with customary politeness, observing that he thought “there are dogmatic secularists, just as there are dogmatic religious fundamentalists.”  What he did not say was that Harris’ question appeared to misunderstand or ignore everything that Sandel had just said.

Sandel’s point was and is this: when you are doing politics, even quite mundane politics, you inevitably run up against profound moral issues, moral issues that demand you draw on moral conceptions and commitments. These moral conceptions and commitments relate to questions such as

  • how do you understand and define the virtue of freedom and how much weight do you attach to it?
  • how do you understand and define equality and how much weight do you attach to it?
  • to what extent can a community – of whatever size – local, national, international – be self-determining?
  • how do you understand the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural environment?

And so on and so forth.

These questions are fundamentally about our vision of the good and behind that our understanding of human nature.  A friend of mine who is an anthropologist at the LSE once told me that he thought all political questions were, at the end of the day, anthropological ones. How we see human nature will inform how we understand the relationships we develop, the communities we form and the politics we conduct.

You could respond to this that if you think you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Nonetheless, I think he is right. How we understand ourselves will inform how we do politics.  But being human beings, our anthropology cannot but involve theology. Put another way, how we see ourselves is profoundly shaped by our answers to those fundamental questions of identity, purpose and destiny:

  • Who am I?
  • What am I here for?
  • Where, if anywhere, am I going?

Everyone has answers to those questions, even if they are simply – an evolved primate, nothing and eternal darkness. However you answer them, though, will shape your attitude to human nature, human society and human politics.

There is a character in Moliere’s play The Would-be Gentleman who says with astonishment: “For more than forty years I've been speaking in prose without even knowing it!”

We could adopt that for politics. Whether we realise it or not, we have all been doing anthropology all our lives. Or, more contentiously, we have been doing theology.

That is why Evan Harris’ question was so misplaced. It is not that evidence is unimportant. Of course, it isn’t. Political debates need evidence and more evidence and more evidence. But they cannot be decided on evidence alone.

Evidence – of what the current situation is, what similar situations exist in other countries, what impact similar policies in other areas have had, etc, etc – is vital, but it will inform political minds that are fundamentally shaped by some basic moral presuppositions that empirical evidence itself cannot determine.

Some examples should make this clearer.

The obvious ones relate to the start and end of life. Where you stand on abortion will depend a great deal on how you understand life. The position you adopt will depend heavily on the values you attaches to human life, to dependence, to autonomy, to choice.

The same, incidentally, goes for infanticide. I doubt whether anyone in Danish society would openly advocate infanticide today, although some philosophers and some feminists have aired the idea, but we should realise that historically this aversion is pretty unusual.

The Spartans threw weak babies off cliffs. The Romans exposed them. Jews and Christians were unusual not only for not doing that but for taking in babies that had been exposed and rearing them themselves, a practice that led to the development of orphanages.

The point is not to adjudicate which of these positions is right or wrong – although most of us will have a strong view on both issues – but simply to say that if you want to decide on this, you will need to draw on some moral – i.e. theological – conceptions.

You can make similar arguments relating to other big moral issues like bio-medical research or euthanasia. But to dwell on these would risk the proving the stereotype – that religious people are interested only in sex and death. So let’s take a different example:

Last month in UK the government reluctantly conceded that prisoners should have the vote. In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the blanket ban imposed by Britain on its prisoners’ right to vote was discriminatory following a legal challenge by John Hirst (who was jailed for killing his landlady with an axe). When the government failed to acquiesce, Peter Chester (who raped and murdered his niece) launched a legal challenge claiming his human rights were being breached by the refusal to allow him to vote.  Finally, reluctantly, the government was persuaded that they had to concede and allow them the vote.

How should we respond to this?

The first thing to say is that you cannot decide this issue rationally.  What axioms and rational principles can define with certainty whether it is right or wrong to give prisoners the vote? The answer is none.

There are plenty of arguments that can be deployed on both sides and some may be more valid than others. But none of them can avoid resting on unproveable moral axioms. So, on the pro-side is the argument that without the vote

  • prisoners become non-people;
  • governments pay no attention to them;
  • and they are further alienated from the mainstream society into which they are going to be re-introduced.

The Prison Governors Association, for example, has warned that the ban on voting hampers inmates’ rehabilitation.  So, in the words of Zoe Williams in The Guardian:

I'm in favour of prisoners voting: it keeps them moored to society; it keeps politicians mindful that inmates, having votes, are also human beings; prisoners are taxpayers (90% of them smoke); and voting is a duty as much as a right, so there's no reason why they should be exempt from it just because they've exempted themselves temporarily from the other trials of liberty.

On the anti-side are the arguments that:

  • denying the prisoners the vote is part of their entirely justified punishment;
  • it is part of what loss of liberty means;
  • it is an example of the idea of civic death on which the previous law (1870 Forfeiture Act) was based.

So, in the pungent words of Ed West in The Daily Telegraph:

I’m so glad Ian Huntley and Roy Whiting may soon be allowed to vote because it really offended my sense of natural justice that they were denied that privilige.

And I think it’s so healthy that we have unelected judges far away in another country whose sense of legality is so in touch with most people’s sense of right and wrong. It’s really good for the law generally, and very healthy for democracy, I’m sure.

All of these are arguments worth debating. Some of you will do just that later. But if you think you are going to settle them without drawing on some idea of the good; of rights, responsibilities, community, authority, democracy, and without answering some fundamental questions, such as…

  • how should we view and treat those who have offended?
  • what responsibility do we have to them?
  • what rights do they lose and can they claim?

… we are going to be disappointed.

Now, it’s not my job to tell you how to respond to this issue. It would be unreasonable for me to leave it at that, however, so I want to end with couple of examples of how we might respond.

The classic response and the classic danger is to seek specific biblical texts as a means of answering the question.

So, we might turn to Matthew 25 in which Jesus tells people that if they visited prisoners they were also visiting him. From this we might extrapolate a general sympathy to prisoners which we could them use to show how we should support the idea of giving prisoners the right to vote.

The problems with this approach are many and well-known. Why Matthew 25? We might equally quote Old Testament texts which tell us that some offenders, such as those who knowingly take another’s life, should not be allowed to hold onto their life, let alone their vote. And even if you can justify using Matthew 25, you are faced with other questions, such as why not pay similar attention to its apparent acceptance of the institution of slavery.

Proof-texting, then, is not enough. As has often been said, a text without a context is a pretext.

Basing political ethics on single texts is inadequate. The challenge instead is to develop a coherent and systematic political theology. Different traditions do this in different ways, and I want very briefly to outline two that come from very different theological spectrums and use very different methods but come to pleasingly similar responses.

Catholic Social Teaching is the body of Catholic thought on social and political issues. It comprises teaching from scripture, ecumenical councils, pontifical councils, papal encyclicals, and the Church’s catechism. A Compendium of the teaching was published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace five years ago but friends who know more about these things than me tell me it is not really representative of the church’s teaching.

This is a massive resource and the basis of its political engagement, which is explicitly anthropological. Or, in the words of CST itself, “The direction that human existence, society and history will take, depends largely on the answers given to the questions of man’s place in nature and society…The first of the great challenges facing humanity today is that of the truth itself of the being who is man.” (Para. 15-16)

In other words, get human nature right and you will build the right kind of politics.

CST’s answer to this question is founded on the idea that “Being a person in the image and likeness of God ... involves existing in a relationship, in relation to the other ‘I’” (Para. 34) “To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion.” (Para. 33) The first and most important axis of that communion is with God, and this relationship serves as the basis for all the other relationships. “Man, in fact, is not a solitary being, but ‘a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential.’” (Para. 110)

From this basis, CST works through various key building blocks in society – family, work, economic life, the political community, the environment, international relations, and so forth – articulating teaching and advocating measures – it rarely goes as far as policy – that recognise, respond to and respect this fundamentally “relational and social dimension of human nature”. Thus with regard to prisoners, CST argues that “Punishment does not serve merely the purpose of defending the public order and guaranteeing the safety of persons; it becomes as well an instrument for the correction of the offender.”

It talks about the need to “encourage the re-insertion of the condemned person into society… [and to] foster a justice that reconciles, a justice capable of restoring harmony in social relationships disrupted by the criminal act committed.”

It laments the fact that “the conditions under which prisoners serve their time do not always foster respect for their dignity”, and even talks about “the rights of the guilty as well as those of the innocent”.

It does not talk about prisoners’ voting rights (at least as far as I am aware) and you could read the above teaching as pointing in either direction. The point is that it doesn’t decide the issue, but provides you with a theological underpinning or equipment to reach a decision.

A second example comes from a very different theological position.

The Jubilee Centre is a conservative evangelical think tank that has been operating for nearly 30 years and for which, I should mention, I used to work. Unlike some conservative reformed evangelicals, Jubilee totally gets the gospel imperative for social and political action. Christianity is not simply about reforming the individual on earth, still less warehousing him for heaven. It is about profound and widespread social and political change.

The basis of Jubilee political thought is the model of Old Testament Israel. This is liable to terrify non-Christians and indeed a fair number of Christians, who have images of American theonomists who want to replace the US Constitution with the Torah. Needless to say the Jubilee approach is infinitely more sophisticated than that. In the words of the Old Testament theologian, Chris Wright, who is not a member of the Jubilee Centre but certainly a fellow-traveller:

The social shape of Israel was not an incidental freak of ancient history, nor was it just a temporary, material by-product of their spiritual message.

Rather, the social reality of Israel was an integral part of what God had called them into existence for. Theologically, the purpose of Israel’s existence was to be a vehicle both for God’s revelation and for the blessing of humanity. They were not only the bearers of redemption, but were to be a model of what a redeemed community should be like, living in obedience to God’s will. Their social structure, aspirations, principles and policies, so organically related to their covenantal faith in the Lord, were also part of the content of that revelation, part of the pattern of redemption.

This is very much the basis of Jubilee thinking. The model of OT Israel is the model of a godly community. The foundational idea of this community is right relationships. The Christian God is a god of relationships. Christianity is a relational religion. His people are called into right relationships. The greatest commandments, on which all the law hangs, are those to love. The people of Israel were called to be an example of this.

Their identity was to be marked by virtues like justice and righteousness, holiness, faithfulness, loyalty, love, hope and shalom, as opposed to say liberty, freedom, choice, equality, prosperity, tolerance, and progress (which is not to say these virtues are in themselves wrong – merely insufficient). By means of these ideas, Jubilee outlines what the implications are for nationhood, government, family, welfare, finance, economics, criminal justice, and so forth.

Again, Jubilee thinking does not dictate whether prisoners have a right to the vote. But it does offer an underlying moral foundation. Justice in the OT, it points out, is not simply a matter of punishing people but of putting things right. Punishment is necessary not only as a means of recognising the personhood of the victim but also of the offender, treating them as a responsible person of moral worth, rather than soulless automaton. True justice will involve the victim and the community. It will envisage the possibility of compassion and forgiveness, and also countenance the option of community exclusion or ‘civic death’.

Again, that doesn’t tell you what you should think about prisoners’ voting rights, but it should inform the way you think about it.

I have not, I hope you will notice, addressed the specific question of what according to Christian thought government should do in these issues. Rather I have tried to point out that because

  • all politics is moral
  • all morality is in some way anthropological
  • all anthropology is in some sense theological

Christian thought does have a contribution to make to the role of government in the present political situation. 

In the words of the great early Christian Socialist, F.D, Maurice, writing to another Christian socialist John Ludlow, “my business, because I am a theologian, and have no vocation except for theology, is not to build but to dig, to show that economy and politics…must have ground beneath themselves.”

Because economy and politics…must have ground beneath themselves, Christianity has something very profound to say to politics today.

[i] See Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty (Macmillan, 2006) pp.153-162. Albright adds a note that Bush’s oft-quoted statement “I believe God wants me to be president” was, according to Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, incomplete. He actually said “I believe God wants me to be president, but if that doesn’t happen, that’s OK.”

[ii] The Guardian, 4 June 2007


Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 15 August 2011


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