Theology in the Public Sphere: Public Theology as a Catalyst for Open Debate

Written by Sebastian Kim Reviewed By Estifanos T. Zewde

Written in easily accessible language, Kim's work is about the contours of doing theology in the public sphere in a plural, multicultural, multireligious, and even globalised world. In face of this contemporary reality, the tools of doing theology are humbleness, generosity and dialogue. As a distinct orientation within the wider enterprise of theology, responsible public theology takes to its core the notion of dialogue or conversation. According to Kim's analysis, dialogue/conversation is the only viable option for theology in the public square. He supports this position by exploring certain narratives of public engagement of various theologies from Britain and from the rest of the world.

The meaning and function of public theology is by no means an unequivocally agreed matter. For some, it is an undogmatic engagement with the issues society faces. For others, it amounts to an ecclesial critique of the social, political, economic, moral, etc. dimensions of life. Still others advocate for a total collapse of the artificial chasm between the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular, the public and the private, the church and the wider society. Kim advocates a dialogical or conversational paradigm in public theology. In Kim's own words, 'Public theology is Christians engaging in dialogue with those outside church circles on various issues of common interest' (p. 3). He identifies conversation to be the key word and a key concept for public theology that underlines its praxis-oriented methodology. Academically, a legitimate question arises about the disciplinary identity and locus of public theology. What makes public theology distinguishable from political and/or liberation theologies?

While acknowledging the context-specific emphases of political and liberation theologies, Kim underscores the methodological distinctiveness of public theology from these two types of theology. He identifies four distinguishing marks of public theology: (1) it attempts to create common ground for conversation on issues in the public sphere; (2) its guiding mechanism is searching for the public meaning of theology and for a theology of public life; (3) it posits itself as a reforming theology instead of a revolutionary one; and (4) major issues in public theology include not only inequality but also the increased privatisation of religion that resulted in the dominance of the state, the market and the media in the public sphere. These marks amount to taking theology as 'a public activity' (p. 15)

Importantly, Kim takes the Bible seriously as a 'public book'. This is not meant to imply that the Bible addresses all issues in the public sphere. Instead, public theology draws authority and inspiration from the Bible, which has the power to speak to people of different faiths in different social contexts. Ultimately, Kim objects to any idea that the Bible is hermeneutically the exclusive possession of the ecclesia. However, how the Bible is read by peoples of different faiths remains unanswered. Yet Kim attempts to show the hermeneutical openness of the Bible in changing contexts by taking the examples of liberation (Latin America), feminist (Africa/Asia), inter-textual (India/S. J. Samartha), and inculturation (Africa). The hermeneutical focus of public theology reminds and challenges its interlocutors to constantly discover, reinterpret, and appropriate the meaning of texts in the plurality of contexts.

The remainder of the book is committed to elucidating how public theology as a practical discipline can be done by taking wide-ranging examples from diverse methodological and concrete contexts. This includes ecocenteric theology in which public theology's significance is underlined in its social, creative, and holistic dimensions; how the church is perceived as a public body in the quest for just and authentic community in India; how the church contributed to perceptions of justice and struggles against injustices; exploration into how the churches in Latin America decisively voice against economic injustices; and how public theology can play a role in peace-making by taking the example of the diverse response of the western churches to the Iraq War. The successes and failures of the church in these contexts are indicative, Kim argues, that 'any public theology has to be constantly revised and shaped by new ideas and new situations otherwise it will cease to be an authentic public theology' (p. 170).

Kim's focus on the global significance of public theology does not deter him from looking into his own backyard. His emphasis on the hermeneutical significance of public theology draws him to address such realities as the religio-cultural pluralistic and multicultural society. To this end, he takes the controversial cases of Rowan Williams's lecture on Sharia Law, the Danish cartoon controversy, and the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill in UK. What is of significance in these controversies is the place of secularism and religious life. Kim views that the crux of these controversies is secularism's desire for hegemony to the extent of disrespecting and being intolerant of worldviews other than its own. His point is that churches have the capacity to contribute to common humanity more than secularism would seem to allow. It is within this mutually inclusive and dialogical/conversational dynamic that such notions as freedom of expression, justice, and human rights can be ensured.

The problem, if any, with the study is that although Kim has done a brilliant and penetrating study of the engagement of the church in the public sphere with matters of common interest while allowing the church to maintain its ecclesial identity, he seems to have left, hopefully, to others to address how this practical engagement is theologically fleshed out. In other words, what is lacking is a theological reconstruction as to what should constrain the extent of this noble engagement. Notwithstanding this minor and, indeed, humble critique, the book is an excellent piece of work on the significance of mutual practical inter-penetration between the church and the public sphere.

Estifanos T. Zewde

Estifanos T. Zewde
St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews
St. Andrews, Scotland, UK

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