What Can Public Theology Do in Asia?

By Rowena Robinson

It is clear from all the definitions, that public theology is understood as advising rather than advocating for society of any section of it. In so far as this is the case, it must rely on and work with other secular and religious institutions of civil society and seek to engage with them in a critical understanding of social and political issues in the light of its own spiritual insights into what constitutes the ‘good society’. At the same time, there is no reason to limit ourselves to the perception that public theology emerges only from the church.

In the plural religious contexts of Asian societies, it is certainly true that Christian theology will learn from other religious traditionsand use these to reflect on itself; but that alone is not what I refer to here. One must look for, reflect on and relate to other religious theologies in a dialogue that is not merely framed as “Christianity in an inter-religious context’ but as Christian theology in an inter-theological conversation.

As such, there is much labor for public theology in Asian societies: the work of justice; of decreasing profound economic and social inequalities and lessening social, political and religious conflict. The question has been raised of how ‘equal’ ‘the debates of the public sphere can be, when deep inequalities prevent large sections of the people — women, Dalits, tribals, religious, ethnic or sexual minorities — from having a voice on that terrain? It must hence be the effort of public theology to expand the sphere of public debate and to enable — really and discursively — the participation of marginalized sections. At the same time, nothing can be more destructive to the public sphere if it seeks to take over the work of the state or trample on its institutional and Constitutional framework. Certainly, emotions run high in areas of society outside the state. As Wilfred (1) suggests, the notion of the ‘public’ finds it difficult to accommodate elements that go beyond ‘reason’ and enter into the space of the ‘non-rational’ or of ‘pure affect’.

While certainly the public sphere must be made more sensitive to modes of thinking that lie outside the strict domain of Weberian rationality, it seems to me that the work of public theology is not only to make a space for the ‘non-rational’ within the ‘public’ but to persuade the ‘emotional’ to speak a language that may be communicable to all and that may allow ‘state’ and ‘society’ to converse. Society needs to listen to the anguish of the oppressed, but we should also recall Ambedkar’s discomfort with those who employ unconstitutional methods relying on forms of emotional coercion such as fasts or satyagraha to put pressure on the state. Ambedkar prescience discerned how these forms of protest could result in hero worship that subverts institutional structures and he referred to these as being nothing less than the ‘grammar of anarchy’.

The public sphere is certainly complex and plural; it may also be thought of as being multi-layered. Public theology can certainly do the work not only of creating the space for the voiceless’to speak but also of listening to and ‘feeling’ the agony of the deprived or of the victims of violence and injustice. At the same time, their labor will be directed to strengthening and engaging the Constitutional institutions of the state rather than bypassing these. Though a critique of the state is undeniably part of siding with the marginalized, this critique does not try to ignore or diminish the state but tries to make it more responsive. Public theologians will have the challenging task of mediating between the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’, the ‘individual’ and the ‘state’, the ‘personal’ and the ‘institutional’ so that these do not talk past each other, but instead engage in a continuing and more effective conversation. Without this mediation, ‘emotion’ and ‘reason’ may never be able to dialogue.

There are different spheres in which the work of public theology is of relevance in Asia. To mention only one of the important areas, I refer to the threat of Hindu nationalism in India, which requires theologians not so much to close in on themselves, but to join together with civil society organizations (which are run by a wide-range of people of all religious faiths) and minorities to ensure the protection of India’s plural culture and its Constitutional commitment to political secularism. In this respect, I believe that the Christian Church in particular can play a central role. With the depth of its establishment, it has the potential for creating a strong network of those working for peace and conflict-management. The point here is that the Church has resources — institutional, intellectual and so forth — and these should be part of its work of public theology. Then, public theology will not be only about conversation, but also about the sharing and building of the social and cultural capital of those with whom theologians are engaged.

To conclude, I wish to say — drawing on Wilfred (2)theologians should consider the fields of the social, the political, the cultural and the economic as legitimate and viable ‘fields of action’. In my understanding, this should imply that if public theology responds to society, the most important need for Asian societies today is upright and ethical citizens in every walk of life. Corruption has, indeed, corroded public life. In such circumstances, public theologians must also work in the world, and not only reflect on it or critique it as members of theological bodies or institutions. In other words, we need also a considerable number of theologians to work from within — to participate in the-world-as trained economists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, professors — and to inform their work, their engagements with others and their commitment to their profession with the strong ethical, principled and moral stance that their spiritual training and insights will give them. I have the leadership and guidance that such persons can provide within secular institutions or groups and the ways in which they can transform the work of such organizations from within. They lead by example as well as by word and that might be the most transformative role that they can play in the somewhat floundering societies of Asia today.



1&2 Felix, Wilfred, “Asian Public Theology”, Lecture delivered in ‘Trinity College, Dublin: 20 January, 2011. See also Felix Wilfred, Asian Public Theology: Critical Issues in Challenging Times, Delhi: ISPCK, 2011.



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