What is Public Theology?

A Note Before Starting

The phrase “public theology” is often used in a general way to refer to an intersection where theological and religious reflection bump up against public issues. Sometimes it means making academic theology more accessible to non-academic theologians. It is also the case, though, that it is an established discipline with its own journal, professional organization, and academic specializations. While the stuff below applies to a certain degree to “public theology” in the general sense, I intend for it to primarily be a response to the academic discipline, especially as it is done in the Christian context.

The Stuff You Want

As with many areas of theological study, exactly what it is that “public theology” means varies from scholar to scholar. One factor that contributes to its various usages is the reality that many scholars come to academic public theology from another discipline like social ethics, pastoral theology, or practical theology. Others do not come to academic public theology at all, using the word to refer to a kind of faith-based logic and rhetoric for social action and policy change. Some insist that even academic public theology must necessarily also be non-academic.

For example, The Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI) is a research center based in the theology department at the University of Edinburgh. Founded by Duncan Forrester, the Centre is clear that “public theology is best done in collaboration with people outside the academy” and that “theology itself is developed through engagement with the issues being addressed and in conversation with those who have experience of the issues.” That is, “[Public theology] is not worked out in the academy and then disseminated to a waiting public. The public itself is sought out and constructed by this process.”1 Forrester’s vision of public theology is one which builds and supports community as well as policy change.

This version of public theology does not just involve work among research subjects in an attempt to get at their lived experience, it entails conferences, planning sessions, and group discussions wherein stakeholders are brought together for extended periods of time — often more than once — to authorize, develop, vet, and critique public theology.

In these discourses, the theologian is the host, and this means that the participants have permission to talk about matters of deep emotion. One of Duncan Forrester’s favourite stories comes from the working group on crime and punishment that brought together representatives of prison governors,  ex-offenders, advocates, prison visitors, criminologists and policemen. He refers to the moment when the participants realized that there was no place for dealing with guilt and extending forgiveness in the criminal justice system. People involved in policy development often fight, shy of talking about passions, fears and hopes, yet these are the core of the stories people want to tell. Public theology can construct a space in which these emotions can be properly addressed.2

Responding to what he saw as a possible threat to government support brought about by the Thatcher-led government in Britain, Forrester founded the CPTI and was clear about how important is was to relate theology and policy. Specifically, he proposed two queries as standards to assess the Church’s voice and influence:

First, does the work “ talk behind the backs of the powerless ” or give a voice to the excluded?

Second, does the work help us “see things through others’ eyes and lead to a more adequate and rounded understanding of the situation?”3 

Though any given congregation or organization is entitled to host conversations which bring multiple constituencies to the table, Forrester argues that in every instance, these questions must be held up as norms to truly support a public theology. This community-gathering style of public theology is not often used in the American context, which leads to another factor that contributes to the diversity of definitions: location.

Sebastian Kim, editor of the International Journal of Public Theology, notes that since 2000, there has been a marked difference between US scholarship on the topic and work being done elsewhere. Writing in 2011 he noted that, “in the last decade, there have been relatively fewer writings published in the USA on public theology and instead initiatives have been coming from Europe, South Africa and Australia particularly. Unlike the US situation where individual scholars are leading discussions on the topic,  elsewhere centres for public theology have been established within universities and denominations.”4 Institutional support and varying academic climates have contributed to the variance of definition. That being said, some of the contours, especially historical referents, are widely shared.

Origins

Martin Marty is often pointed to as the progenitor of the phrase “public theology,” developing it in conversation with Robert Bellah’s ideas about “civil religion” which emerged in the late 1960s. In early writings Marty framed “public theology” as the action of the “public church,” defining that as

“A family of apostolic churches with Jesus Christ at the center… that are especially sensitive to the res publica, the public order that surrounds us and includes people of faith.” Public theology, then, was “an effort to interpret the life of a people in the light of a transcendent reference.”5

Marty’s work with Bellah was such that Bellah too began to use the term “public theology” in his continuing scholarship on civil religion. Identifying civil religion as “the recognition that religious influence often becomes institutionalized in general sets of cultural convictions of the people, reinforcing patriotic values,”6 Bellah differentiated public theology from it as the intentional reflection on the interaction between social systems and faith. In short order, though, the term was picked up far beyond Bellah and Marty.

By 1976, Christian ethicist David Hollenbach was drawing on the work of John Courtney Murray to champion “the formulation of a public theology which attempts to illuminate the urgent moral questions of our time through explicit use of the great symbols and doctrines of the Christian faith,”7 and by 1981 David Tracy’s The Analogical Imagination brought the publicness of theology into the forefront, discussing the ways in which all theology is accountable to the three publics of the academy, church, and society.8. This accountability is an especially important dimension of current public theology discourse in that much attention has been given to the ways in which Christianity has been publicly yoked into the service of imperialism, patriarchy, and racism.9

Issues Today

Present public theology scholars are particularly self-aware of the ways in which Christian theology can be claimed as an authoritarian source of legitimacy for oppressive systems and are wary of such claims not only because they want to resist oppressive structures, but also because, methodologically, strong, doctrinally-based arguments which only self-legitimate do not support the broad sense of the pluralistic public most public theologians want to address. That being said, care is usually given that “public theology” is not merely a stand in for “theology reflections on the particularities of oppression.”

The notion of ‘public’ in public theology should arguably not be reduced to simply meaning the opposite of ‘private’. Nor ought it merely become synonymous with ‘social’. There is a fundamental sense of public theology lost when it receives these kinds of reductionisms, as being nothing mo to do with ‘public’ being used interchangeably with ‘contextual’. Public theology is indeed concerned with relationality, with sociality, and with contextuality – but it need not be reduced to any of these aspects, as important as they are concerning the nature and role of public theology. Perhaps a fourth reductionist issue relates to public theology being viewed as ‘particularistic’ in the same way liberation, political, black, feminist, womanist, African, minjung, dalit, and other so-called particularistic theologies are stereotypically regarded with particularity in mind.10

I agree, and… there is a danger with this line of “non-particularistic” thinking. Positions like Le Bruyns’ above can easily veer towards a kind of late-Modern universalism in which there can be (a) claims that broad strokes of support for some imagined public good trickle down and eventually make life more full of flourishing for actual, particular communities all the while (b) individuals in those communities continue to lack any notes of change. Indeed, policing the boundaries of what it is that counts as public and a public good is an area under intense scrutiny, especially by feminist and womanist scholars addressing public theology.

The Definition I Use

Thus, while acknowledging that there are other framings of the term that have their own justification, I understand public theology similar to pastoral theologian Duane Bidwell, whose definition11 is the basis of mine as follows:

Public Theology:

Consists of critical and constructive theological reflection on culture, policies, and discourses pertaining to ideas of the common good, society, media, and economics;

Promotes the public good, with a goal to concretely support efforts that alleviate suffering and disclose misuses of power that restrict justice, reconciliation, and abundant life, especially for those most affected by oppressive systems;

Draws on disciplines from a number of fields — especially those that examine social and political dynamics — while emphasizing spiritual and religious resources including texts, traditions, and practices;

Communicates to communities that are diverse, intending to generate informed understandings of the theological and religious dimensions of public issues and develop analysis and critique in ways that are accessible and conceivably persuasive across disciplines and faith-traditions;

Resists confessional and authoritarian forms of reasoning and argumentation to be accessible and compelling to people in and beyond religious communities.


  1. Alison Elliot, “Doing Theology: Engaging the Public.” International Journal of Public Theology 1.1 (2007): 296-7
  2. Alison Elliot, “Doing Theology: Engaging the Public.” International Journal of Public Theology 1.1 (2007): 298
  3. Duncan Forrester, Truthful Action. (2001): 99
  4. Sebastian Kim, Theology in the Public Sphere. (2011): 99
  5. Martin Marty, The Public Church: Mainline – Evangelical – Catholic. (1981): 3
  6. Max Stackhouse, “Civil Religion, Political Theology, and Public Theology: What’s the Difference?” Political Theology 5.3 (2004): 283
  7. Hollenbach (1976): 299
  8. David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of
    Pluralism (1986)
  9. E.g. Burns & Monro’s Public Theology and the Challenge of Feminism; Day’s Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism; McBride’s The Church for the World; et al..
  10. Clint Le Bruyns “The Rebirth of Kairos Theology?” (2014): 2
  11.  Duane Bidwell, “Religious Diversity and Public Pastoral Theology: Is it Time for a Comparative Theological Paradigm?” Journal of Pastoral Theology, 25:3 (2015): 137

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