Public Theology’s Kairos Moment

Today I discovered that the International Journal of Public Theology started publication earlier this year. The first issue is available online for free.

The chair of the editorial board, and writer of the first article, is Rev Dr Will Storrar, formerly of Edinburgh, and now at CTI, Princeton. He is also the initiator of the Global Network for Public Theology, which includes the Universities of Auckland and Otago and the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI). I look forward to seeing him again in Canberra at the ANZATS‘s 2007 conference on public theology.

Prof Storrar understands “public theology to be a collaborative exercise in theological reflection on public issues which is prompted by disruptive social experiences that call for our thoughtful and faithful response”. He also thinks that 2007 is a kairos moment for public theology. These are his reasons why:

In closing I want to suggest five reasons why our meeting in Princeton and our launching of this new journal seem so timely and truly represent an opportune moment for global collaboration from my perspective at the Center of Theological Inquiry. First, we all recognize that only the ecumenical fullness and global breadth of the Christian tradition, in dialogue with the other great religious traditions, can enable a faithful theological engagement with contemporary public issues. Secondly, we all recognize that those public issues increasingly have both a local and a global dimension to them and therefore require to be studied from both perspectives in collaborative research projects around the world. Thirdly, we all recognize that such local-global public issues are being debated by an emerging global civil society and public sphere. As public theologians we are all committed to participating in that global public sphere as well as critiquing the economic, social, political and environmental disruptions of globalization. Fourthly, we all recognize that this requires us to be dialogical and pastoral as well as analytical and prophetic in doing public theology. The model of the single prophetic voice that characterized public theology in the twentieth century is giving way to a more collaborative approach to our theological task and public witness, involving faith communities and the marginalized as well as scholars and experts. Fifthly, we all welcome the commitment of our academic institutions around the world to international research collaboration in all disciplines and look to the Global Network and this journal to help make public theology a leading discipline in this global academic enterprise.
[W. Storrar, ‘2007: A Kairos Moment for Public Theology’, International Journal of Public Theology, 1 (2007) 5-25.]

No doubt his predecessor at Edinburgh, Duncan Forrester thought that there was a kairos movement for public theology when he established CTPI in 1984, during the reign of Thatcher. Since then, as Storrar notes, things have changed:

With the election of a Labour government in Britain in 1997, there was a real sense of moving into a post-Thatcher era. Blair and his ‘New Labour’ party and government presented themselves as practising a progressive ‘Third Way’ politics and non-ideological approach to national and global governance after the fall of Communism, leaving behind the old party divisions of left and right as outdated and irrelevant to the times. This was all rather different from the crusading neo-liberal rhetoric and heightened old War atmosphere in which CTPI had been born and initially pursued its work in the mid-1980s.

This lead to a different method of engagement for CTPI in the post-Thatcher political environment:

This all made for a more direct and closer relationship to government for CTPI after 1999; one that was very different from the distant and prophetic relationship with the Thatcher and Major governments that CTPI was known for in the 1980s and 1990s.

In some ways it is easier for a church agency to be in opposition to the government. It means it can be, in the words of Storrar, “prophetic”. I wonder if CASI and other church agencies are struggling under a Labour government to find a place of opposition and prophetic utterance.

There is still a place for prophetic utterance whenever there is a government, since they inevitably want people’s hope to be put in them and their policies (such as unlimited economic growth) in favour of God. We may have to look harder behind their policies and also set aside our own ideological commitments (depending on our political orientation). For Christians in America, that may be the Republican Party, for others in the UK and NZ, that may be the Labour Party).

I would also say, in conversation with Storrar’s point four above, that the single prophetic utterance is a biblical model that remains, to this day, in tension with corporate speech, whether from a church, public theology conference or government. Collaboration and agreed positions are not always where God is to be found. Occasionally God will use individuals (such as a Jonah, Exeziel or Jeremiah) to call us back to faithfulness. A public theologian needs to be able to assess the validity of individual prophets and be open to a range of methodologies. But perhaps I misunderstand “public theology.” Is it merely concerned with issues that the public is interested in, or does it describe a public methodology, having the public involved in the theology itself. The latter approach is what Prof Forrester used to do, involving, for example, the poor in discussion about poverty. Hopefully some answers will become clear at the conference.