Saturday, February 28, 2009

Doing Public Theology

Public theology is a challenge for the church. Theology is essentially 'God-talk' and there are a number of difficulties that become obvious when engaging in 'God-talk' in the public domain. Firstly, not everyone believes in God and those that do may not believe in the same God that you do. Even within the Christian church this cannot be taken for granted. When we do public theology badly, we reinforce an image of a church that is outdated and irrelevant, only interested in making moral pronouncements on the rest of society (and too frequently ignoring the 'log' in our own eyes).

Very occasionally, healthy, intellectually engaging, genuine theological discussion emerges in the public arena. One of the reasons that I'm a big fan of the TV show, The West Wing, is the way that religous topics are handled. The episode "Take This Sabbath Day" explores some of the political and religious dimensions of the death penalty. The show's creator, Aaron Sorkin, consulted with a priest, a rabbi, a Quaker and a Baptist minister while working on the episode. Here's a snapshot from one scene:

Toby: The Torah doesn’t prohibit capital punishment.
Rabbi: No.
Toby: It says, ‘An eye for an eye’.
Rabbi: You know what it also says? It says a rebellious child can be brought to the city gates and stoned to death. It says homosexuality is an abomination and punishable by death. It says men can be polygamous and slavery is acceptable. For all I know, that thinking reflected the best wisdom of its time, but it’s just plain wrong by any modern standard. Society has a right to protect itself, but it doesn’t have a right to be vengeful. It has a right to punish, but it doesn’t have a right to kill.

That's the kind of honest, public theology that I think we could have more of.


Anonymous said...

I must admit that I too am a West Wing fan.

I was talking to my wife yesterday about the connection of theology and experience in spirituality.
Theology should enhance our experience, providing a framework for reflection on our experience.

To often 'theology' is telling Christians (and by extension non-Christians) what they shouldn't do. It then struggles to connect with our experience when we find ourselves in the real world. The West Wing episode you mention and the quote from it, shows theology as a tool of reflection on the real issues of our lives.

The harder question is how do we rescue 'public' theology? And shouldn't all theology be 'public'?

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you're discussing moral philosophy here.

So is theology just an extension of Moral philosophy. A messy and confused extension of moral philosophy.

I don't see how the topic of morality can become more informed when you throw in concepts of imaginary beings with super powers (God) and then play a game of imagining various attributes of said entities. In fact, it seems to confuse matters, especially when these imaginary beings are said to speak through ancient texts which have lost much of their meaning and significance through time.

No matter what games theology might like to play, a philosophy of morals has to be based on agreed axioms and argued logically. Sure, it might lead to conflicting systems, but at least you can get clarity and logical construction this way. Far better than the sayings of a God which every Christian sect/group/denomination insists on interpreting differently.

Now you may disagree about the imaginary status of God, and you might base that on some kind of "personal salvific encounter with Jesus" or some such. Whatever. Still doesn't stop you arguing logically from starting premises. And we all tend to start from common ground, belief in God or not.

No. Theology does not inform. Historical evidence, cultural studies, evolutionary biology, neurological investigation, the study of human behaviour - all these may be used to inform our understanding of morality and ethics.

But not theology. Not some collection of ancient myths and superstitions about blood sacrifice and leaps of faith - that's just junk leftover from a superstitious past.