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What Is Public Theology?

Dan Harkins
By Dan Harkins
Updated Jan 21, 2024
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Public theology is a fairly infantile field of study mostly concerned with how religious studies can incorporate a more secular approach to reasonable inquiry. Rather than focusing on proselytizing, this discipline urges an approach that embraces all learned understanding in an attempt to seek truth through religion and scientific discovery as well as to nurture the entire society and not just the loyal flock. This discipline is largely viewed as a mainline Protestant attempt to counter the rise of evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity.

According to the Center for Public Responsibility, which publishes an Online Journal of Public Theology, the field of public theology is largely influenced by the secular, society-centered philosophies of German intellectual Jürgen Habermas. It attempts to blend theological approaches with Habermas' pragmatic ideas of critical social theory, which hold that Enlightenment discoveries, while largely beneficial to society, also have tarnished many of the institutions that people have held dear. This reality should not be decried publicly by only the most radical believers, though, but by those with a firm foundation in scientific truth.

Proponents of public theology orient themselves in a postmodernist way. This means attempting to analyze modern society and discovering the ways in which Enlightenment understanding has changed ordinary human life. Christian advocates of this religious field critique societal conditions in blatant, scientifically pertinent terms, in an effort to wrest the reins from more fundamentalist hands. The alternative, according to public theology followers, is to be judged as a whole for the most tangential beliefs of the religious right and to be governed only by secular laws crafted by politicians.

A chief focus of this field is the takeover of religious institutions, in terms of societal sway, by so-called Enlightenment institutions, such as political organizations and business entities. It is an attempt to utilize a scientific grounding and more interpretationalist approach to Protestant faith. To achieve this most effectively, many proponents advocate the merger of many Protestant sects, such as the Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Methodist churches, to counter slowly dwindling congregations in each and to form a louder voice in the debate over ultimate truth and understanding.

Beyond debate, public theologists attempt to focus their religious studies and actions in community-oriented ways. In this way, they can better position the faith by making it as relevant as possible to society. Some believe the discipline came about, at Habermas' urging, as a way to keep the Christian movement moving through an Enlightenment period that continues to both astound and anesthetize.

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