By Rowena Robinson
Through the 1970s and 1980s, liberation theology continued to have a strong influence, including on the ecumenical movement in the Churches. Though the liberation theology movement is still alive today and remains very relevant particularly in the context of the concerns of Asia and India, it has to some extent lost the momentum of earlier decades It has been suggested, certainly, that the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe and the spread of capitalism across the globe has contributed to crisis in Marxist critical perspectives.
Further the spread of and struggle for political democracy in different parts of the world in recent decades has created the space for more thinking with regard to the domain of the ‘public’, an element critical to the making of a public theology. It is possible for us to consider the subject of theology somewhat along the lines that Burawoy constructs the discipline of sociology. Certainly, if we do so we can think of liberation theology as combining – with respect to conventional theology 一 some of the aspects that Burawoj attributes to ‘critical’ as well as ‘policy’ sociologies. Because liberation theology is ‘critical’ it challenges the foundational premises of conventional theological thinking. Indeed, within the Catholic church, liberation theology is still perceived as threatening and its radicality is viewed as a ‘crisis’ as it offers a new interpretation of Christianity and a total picture of Christian reality which the church must oppose and negate. 1
Liberation theology may also be said to have something of a policy or perhaps we could say ‘advocacy 5 perspective in that in local sitxiarions it attempts to struggle against concrete realities and find practical solutions to specific concerns of injustice or inequality. As such, however, it has been critiqued — as have other theologies such as Black theology or feminist theology 一 for taking on a more particularistic bent. Public theology is the structural equivalent of public sociology in terms of the relationship it bears to its conventional and/or professional sibling. It is usually understood as the reflection on public issues in the light of theological convictions. Employing the discipline of theology, it invokes a way of practicing theology that contributes to productive and enriching dialogue with those outside of the congregation or seminary, and works together with these individuals or groups for, as Le Bruyns refers to it, the ‘common good’. 2
It is further, clear, that public theology envisions for itself less the role of advocacy than that of creating ‘better intelligence’; in other words, an informed society. For its realization and relevance, it must therefore assume the existence of the sphere of the public within which such informed debate can be carried on. According to Clint Le Bruyns, the idea of the ‘public’ in the context of public theology encompasses notions of ‘sociality’ and ‘relarionality’ .As such, public theology employs the idea of the ‘public’ in terms of Jurgen Habermas’ notion of ‘the public sphere’. In this understanding, the public sphere is a distinctively modern development and it is characterized by what Habermas calls ‘communicative action’. 3 It is the ‘critical’ sphere of the exercise of judgment by essentially private individuals.
According to Habermas, The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. The medium of this political confrontation was peculiar and without historical precedent people’s public use of their reason. 4
The public thus does not involve merely the state: it in fact consists of all participants who engage in rational and participative discussions concerning the issues raised by the administration of the state. It may include agents of the state but is not exclusive to them. Why do I enter so closely into trying to understand the definitional boundaries of the idea of the ‘public’? I do this because it must be emphasized that ‘public theology’ quite like ‘public sociology’ assumes the existence of a particular framework and context. That is the context of a modern democratic structure within which the state is constituted as an impersonal locus of authority.5 When this happens, a separate domain is carved out — which is the domain of ‘civil society’. Civil society is another hard-to-pin-down term. For Habermas Civil society is made up of more or less spontaneously created associations, organizations and movements, Which find, take up, condense and amplify the resonance of social problems in private life, and pass it on to the political realm or public sphere. 6
For some scholars, ‘civil society’ consists of organizations outside of and independent of the state. For others, it includes only those organizations that are outside both of the state and of the market. Whatever the limits of one’s definition, for our purposes it is clear that both the organizations of civil society must be active in the realm of politics, and also that any notion of public theology must rely on the existence of a strong, active civil society. An effective civil society and a vibrant public sphere are both vital to the making of a public theology.
Cardinal Ratzinger, as viewed on 16 August 2011, http://christendomawake.org/pages/ ratzinger/liberationtheol.htm
Clint Le Bruyns, as viewed on 16 August 2011,
Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press, (1989): 27.
See Craig Calhoun, (cd.) Habermas and the Public Sphere, Boston: MIT Press, (1993): 8.
Jurgen, Hcbermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democraty… op.cit. 367