Developing an Asian Public Theology
By Fr. Felix Wilfred
In spite of the innovative character of Asian theology, it is a fact that the reflections have remained internal to the Church and its pastoral needs. In the context of multireligious and multicultural societies with fast transformation in societies, economies, cultural life, theology needs to interrogate itself regarding its responsibilities to the larger world. Traditional theology tends to cut everything – the world, society and culture – to its size, reminding us of the Procrustean bed! Asian theological reflection needs to be open-ended and should begin from the world. It will endeavour to respond with others to the question and issues thrown up from the life-situation of the people and societies. Such a theology can be characterized as public theology which needs to be promoted more and more.
To understand more closely what is meant by public theology, it is better to see what it is not and how it distinguishes itself from other related forms of theologies. Firs of all, we need to draw a distinction between theology for public life and public theology. The first one speaks about faith-motives for involving oneself as a believer in the affairs of the world — politics, economy, culture, violence, war and peace etc. An example of this is Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II. Another variant of this is political theology.
Public theology is related to but different from liberation theology. This latter theology broke the privatization of religion and made its way forcefully into the public. However, the motivation for praxis of liberation came from Christian roots, and the methodology and tools of analysis were by and large Marxian in character. Public theology incorporates the concerns of liberation theology but its approach is much wider and its premises lie in the kind of relationship of religion
to common good. Today, the pursuit of common good calls for the praxis of liberation.
Public theology is also different from a theology relating to public life pursued by Protestant neo-orthodoxy, as for example by John Milbank and Max Stackhaus. Here we have a theology of Barthian inspiration, rather than a contextual theology adapting to the culture and society. This theology relates with the public life so as to make it conform to transcendental values, to the Kingdom of God, to God, who is “totally the other” and who challenges and judges the world.
Public theology refers to a theology that focuses on questions and issues that are public in nature and touches everyone across borders. In the process it frees itself from doctrinal moorings that have no or little bearing on the shared life and history with others in a society or polity. Since this needs to be done differently depending on the concrete situation, public theology cannot but be contextual. Public theology culls out from tradition and sacred sources those elements and insights that could contribute in every context to the wellbeing of the people and of nature. This is a theology which has a language that is inherently dialogical and is ready to cooperate with all forces contributing to common good.
Public theology is an invitation at the same time to reconsider the relationship of religion to the public realm; it is as well an invitation to rethink the dominant conceptions of secularism. Public
theology implies two general considerations which are interrelated and yet are distinct: On the one hand it implies state-religion relationship. It also implies the relationship of religion to civil society. Religion in relation to public sphere involves both these aspects.
The construction of public theology – whether in the East or West – depends on how these questions are addressed. We shall begin from the case of the West.
In the last couple of decades there has taken place a shift in the perception of the relationship between religion and public life. With the fall of the thesis of secularization and the progressive abandonment of the thesis of religion as private, there have come about new equations between religion and the public life. I need not elaborate how the explanation of secularization got discredited following closer scrutiny of the religious phenomena. What I intend to do is to examine two most significant voices in the West whose position on the relationship of religion to public life has become the core issue in public theology and at the same time most vigorously discussed and debated.
Juergen Habermas: We could identity three phases in his thinking in relation to religion. a) Suppression of religion through communicative reason b) co-existence of religion and reason c) cooperation of both for upholding the gains of modernity. The new turn to the third phase can be discerned in his works since 2001: The Future of Human Nature, On Faith and Knowledge, Between Naturalism and Religion. In the third phase of his thinking, Habermas shows his openness to the contribution of religion to the public sphere, challenging the claims of a narrow secularity. He notes:
Secularized citizens may neither fundamentally deny that religious convictions may be true nor reject the right of their devout fellow citizens to couch their contributions to public discussions in religious language.
By way of example, I may adduce here how Habermas shows the importance of Christian doctrine of creation for the strengthening of human dignity and rights. He also sees its importance in addressing biomedical technological issues such as the genetic enhancement. Theological beliefs could throw light on this intricate question and contribute to the present and future wellbeing of humanity.
John Rawls: He speaks of “comprehensive doctrines” and “overlapping consensus”. By comprehensive doctrines he means a system of thought or explanation that claims to give a full-range and comprehensive explanation of the world, nature, society, etc. their origin, value, their future, etc. In simple terms, comprehensive doctrine means a theory of everything. Religions are habituated to present such a theory of everything – about God, humans, the world and so on.
To be able to understand Rawl’s political theory and his conception of the role of religion in relation to public life, we need to grasp how he transforms Kant’s ideal of moral autonomy (Critique of Practical Reason), in an inter-subjective manner. Here is a question of abiding by those laws and arrangements that find acceptance among all concerned in a polity on the basis of their public use of reason. Moral autonomy is not simply to be free from coercion; it has a
necessary reference to the other and to the public. This moral autonomy is linked to political autonomy. A religious group is politically autonomous not simply when it is free from any coercion, but when it is able to abide by what the common good requires and what finds acceptance among all concerned in a particular society. In this sense, religious freedom today needs to be defined not in isolation from the other, but in relation to the other and to what
concerns the general good of all concerned.
Religion and Public Reason
In the context of the discussion on public theology, one of the questions that has of importance is the relationship of religion to public reason. Here is an issue which allows a wide interpretation but also raises many intricate questions. Contribution to public reason means that religious traditions take a distance from their internal convictions and belief-systems and have before them the general interest of the people. It would involve a kind of translation into secular language those beliefs which have public significance. The beliefs and convictions held by religious groups require to be supported by public reason, if they are to have any role in public life. We could, for example, take the creation narrative to support the equality of woman which is a secular issue in the polity; or the same creation story to support the cause of human rights because according to Christian belief human beings are endowed with dignity since they have been created in the image of God. The question then is, should religions be denuded of their beliefs to reach a ground of neutrality where they could enter into conversation with other similar religious groups. Don’t we loose, in this way, the richness the religious beliefs and myths contain. Why not the religions carry these with them and enter into conversation with others, and thus through a mutuality that touches deeper chords reach consensus and understanding? This is a point which many Western theologians (Linda Hoggen, Nigel Biggar and others) contend
when responding to the position of Rawls and Habermas in relation to public reason or overlapping consensus. Linda Hogan notes, for example: “[A] fundamental flaw in the idea of public reason lies in the manner in which it requires the speaker and listener to believe both the self and the other to be, or to act as though he or she is “rootless’’.
The Normative and the Factual
The positions of Rawls and Habermas are at the level of the normative, and are abstracted from concrete context. They follow a procedural reasoning in determining the relationship of religion and public sphere. But the factual reality does not correspond to this theorizing. As a matter of fact, in many European countries, there is the so-called established religions. The clearest example is that of U.K. There the bishops form part of the House of Lords. Similarly in the Scandinavian countries Lutheranism is the established religion. In these cases as well as in Germany, Belgium and Holland what we find is a kind of accommodation of the religious and a continuing role in the public sphere. It is expressed in different forms, such as state-funding for educational institutions managed by Catholics, Protestants, Calvinists, etc. Collection of tax for the Church by the state.