Asian Public Theology: Its Social Location – Part 1

By K.C Abraham

Public Theology has to do with “the public relevance of theology which has at the core of its Christian identity a concern for God’s Kingdom in the public world of human history’’. Moltmann adds – “Its subject alone makes Christian theology a theologica publica, a public theology. It gets involved in the public affairs of society. It thinks about what is of general concern in the light of hope in Christ for the Kingdom of God. It becomes political in the name of the poor and the marginalised in a given society. Remembrance of the crucified Christ‘makes it critical towards political religions and idolatries. It thinks critically about the religious and moral values of the societies in which it exists, and presents its reflections as a reasoned position”.(1)

In other words, dialogic, critical and ecumenical character of public theology is assumed. Theology, God talk, by its very nature is a public discourse. God reality embraces all and into all human reality.

The term public theology may be new, but the concerns implied in it have been addressed in Asian / Indian theology for long. In the wake of nationalism, Indian theologians raised critical questions on the theological paradigm that embraced the religio-cultural experiences of people in India. Concepts, doctrines and symbols of other religions, particularly Hinduism, were used freely and critically by Indian theologians to interpret Christian faith. There was a serious search for an Indian face of Christ, dismantling the foreignness of Christianity. Profound was their recognition that the Christ reality was greater than formal Christianity and that Christ was present but unacknowledged in the religions and cultures of people in India.

Notable attempts have also been made by theologians at this time to relate the gospel to socio-political realities of the Indian situation. A profound analysis of Indian revolution from the perspective of the gospel is provided by M.M. Thomas in a number of his writings. According to him, British imperialism, though ruthless and exploitative, has been the bearer of an ambiguous process of humanisation, especially through technology, industry and liberal ideas of freedom and justice. Christ, the promise of new humanity, he argued, should be confessed as the transforming and judging presence of God. The emergence of organised movement of the dalits, tribals and other marginalised sectors and their determination to do theology drawing on their experience of oppression and hardship as well as their spirituality is a new watershed point in Indian theology. It has posed a serious challenge to the traditional paradigm but more significantly it provides a new way of doing theology — a new paradigm.

Today we have considerable theological reflections on concerns such as Dalit and tribal struggle, women’s experience, ecology, HIV/AIDS and other ‘public’ issues. The impact of individualised and other worldly piety and the emphasis on charismatic renewal, of course, influence the Churches at large. Many of our theologians, however, boldly generate a language that is different, but there is no meaningful interaction between these groups. We face a dilemma. Although our theologians write on public issues, their writings seldom reach an audience outside the boundary of the Churches. It has a public character, but ‘consumers’ are largely Church people — at best students in the theological colleges. How to break this isolation? Why this isolation? Is it because of the language in which they are couched is alien to the secular order? In our search for an adequate public theology the following concerns should be raised.

Social Locations

David Tracy, a prominent theologian of USA has identified three distinct but interrelated social locations of a professional theologian: the Society, the Church and the Academy. These social locations exercise certain pressures on the work of a theologian. He makes mention of these locations and shows that theology is a public discourse. He writes, “Each theologian addresses three distinct and related social realities: the wider society, the academy and the church….The reality of a particular social locus will, to be sure, affect the choice of emphasis in a pastoral setting, a program for religious education, in a small community, in a secular academy, in an involvement in a particular cultural, political and societal movement – each of these realities and others – will affect the self-understanding of any theologian. Sometimes that influence will affectively determine the theology. More often the social location will provide “elective affinities” for a particular emphasis in theology, including the emphasis on what will count as genuinely theological statement.”(2)

Both these aspects, the publicness of theology and the social location of a theologian, are important for theological construction. We construct theology as a public discourse; a privatized theology is a misnomer. There are notable variations in theological construction depending upon the social location from which the theologian functions. In India, most of our theological reflections take place in the institutions and colleges that train clergy of the Church. The first part of this paper takes a look at some of the problems in the area — drawing somewhat exclusively from the Protestant institutions that are related particularly to the Serampore system.


1) Jurgen, Moltmann, God for a Secular Soctety, London: SCM Press, (1999): 1.

2) David Tracy, Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, (1981): 4.



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