Public Theology: Whose "Public”? How "Theological”?

Public Theology: Whose “Public”? How “Theological”?


“Public theology” as it is usually practiced in the English-speaking world suffers from a fatal lack, for want of “a theology of the public”. Without a Christian and critical perspective on the public-private divide, public theologians are bound to subscribe to the political presumption and agenda of secularism and liberalism. This essay attempts a genealogy of the grand dichotomy of public and private, in order to motivate a theological transvaluation of this and other concomitant binary pairs in modern consciousness.
It is shown that the political topology universally deployed by public theologians who urge theology to “go public” accepts the secularization thesis as fait accompli, that Christian faith has been thoroughly “privatized” and excluded from the public square, therefore Christians must force their way back and bring the gospel “out of” the church “into” the society. Such spatial imagination of the relationship between the church and the society has already succumbed to the secular policing of Christianity, ie unless Christian faith enters into the society on its own terms and is made politically relevant, it remains private and inferior or incomplete. What is overlooked by advocates of public theology is that the church as a way of life, a people, and a polity, is public in its own right. Public theologians search in vain for a wrong kind of public.
Public theology also errs in subjecting itself to the wrong kind of discipline. It aspires to respectability in academia and sometimes fancies itself to become an interdisciplinary (meta-)discourse, thus often elects to set itself free from the discipline of the church and its dogmas . Public theology emphasizes citizenship at the expense of discipleship and discipline, and ends up churchless, disembodied, and disembedded. “God” figures in public theology as an empty cipher for abstract transcendence (mistaken as a guarantee for prevenient publicness of theological discourse) rather than the actual agent of the Trinitarian economic activities. The work of the preeminent public theologian Max Stackhouse is used to illustrate these pitfalls of mainstream public theology and its deficit of theological integrity.

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