A Report from the Front Lines: Conversations on Public Theology

[1] This book is a well deserved tribute to Robert Benne for his contributions in theology and ethics—for the church, the academy, and the culture. At the same time, the fourteen authors make it a stimulating contribution to the importance of developing a public theology. In his introduction John Stumme begins with Benne’s own definition: “Public theology . . . refers to the engagement of a living religious tradition with its public environment—the economic, political, and cultural spheres of our common life” (p. xi). In opposition to the assumption that faith is solely a private matter, a public theology must express both the truth of the Christian witness and the common good of society.

[2] In light of this task, A Report from the Front Lines in its first section makes a case for public theology being an imperative for the church and the individual Christian. The second section examines how public theology is a necessity for Lutherans and what Lutherans have to contribute. The final and longest section contains proposals related to contested issues. Stumme renders a valuable service by pointing out with considerable nuance the particular focus and direction of each contributor.

[3] I. Editor/author Michael Shahan’s initial chapter sketches the historical and theological contexts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that make the challenges for developing a public theology even more difficult. And he locates Benne’s work in relation to these contexts. The fact that I soon found myself arguing with the author and writing questions in the margins is indicative of the value of this book in that it is thoroughly, stubbornly, and provocatively theological in its commitment to public reasoning and the common good. Therefore, it is no surprise that the next three contributors are Carl Braaten, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and the late Richard John Neuhaus—none of whom is known for being shy about either Christian faith or public debate. Braaten throws out a major challenge for Christians by identifying the resurrection of Jesus as the core reality of Christianity for which, therefore, a public case needs to be made. As with most of the authors he is highly critical of the Enlightenment’s domination of modern Western intellectual discourse, which has relegated religion and many other “non-scientific” areas of life to matters of private opinion. Yet to engage in public theology the Christian must also appeal to reason, so Braaten begins with Kant’s third great question, “What may I hope?” as a way of broadening the notion of reason to include the language of hope: symbols, stories, songs, etc. He then relates the Bible’s eschatology to these categories in order to make a reasonable case for Jesus’ resurrection as an external event (and not only a subjective belief). In this way the resurrection provides the basis for looking at Christian life and witness in relation to public life.

[4] Elshtain continues along these lines in arguing against not only abortion but also infant euthanasia—as it has been championed by some medical ethicists in the name of reason (i.e., putting “flawed” newborns to death in a humane way). She cites far-sighted works by C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer warning of the loss of adequate moral safeguards for human life when dependent on morality understood as merely expressing subjective values with no objective reality. Here, she says, technical reason has moved from being a useful tool to becoming a world view in which there are no intrinsic goods or evils. Elshtain notes the contradiction here that the present era’s celebration of human rights is somehow to co-exist with forces that undermine the ontological claims of human dignity which must ground any human rights. Her richly argued case is one of the best pieces in this volume, if such a value judgment may be offered.

[5] Neuhaus deserves a prize for saying the most in the shortest chapter (4½ pages). He links Benne’s work to his own with regard to public theology as being “a renewal of Christian confidence in providing a morally informed philosophy for a more just and virtuous society in the tradition of liberal democracy” (p. 47) and reminds the reader of his own contribution twenty-five years ago, The Naked Public Square. He notes the increased public role of religion during the intervening period and links it to the “self-evident truth” that our constitutional system is not sustainable apart from the cultural, moral, and religious assumptions of the truths on which it is founded. He thinks that this process should be seen more in terms of proposing and persuading than imposing (surely a danger in the present era), even though “ours is a fallen world in which reason is not just wounded but gravely wounded, albeit, thank God, not to the point of total corruption. By reason we [must] entice from reason the best of which reason is capable, . . . availing ourselves of available reasonable arguments . . . in order to achieve a closer approximation of justice, which is the virtue most proper to politics” (50).

[6] II. In the second section on what is at stake for Lutherans in becoming (more, and more carefully) a partner in the public theology conversation, there are three quite different chapters, that together make up a more comprehensive view. James Nuechterlein describes from the inside a lifetime growing up as a Lutheran in North America with particular histories, cultures, teachings, and practices. Both in its similarities to and differences from readers who also are long-time Lutherans there is some wisdom here for the public theology called for by this volume.

[7] The Lutheran ethicist Gilbert Meilaender looks mostly at some of the flaws of Lutheranism when it comes to playing a role in this conversation. He sees as a chief problem that Lutherans have understood the chief article of Lutheran theology (justification by faith alone) not as a corrective but as the norm on which the whole of theology is to be constructed. This has led Lutherans to think primarily in terms of their own distinctiveness rather than the many ways in which they are part of, and dependent on, the wider Christian heritage. This emphasis on faith alone has led to the misunderstanding of seeing God’s law as being unnecessary or even harmful to one who has been declared righteous by the gospel. But such a view makes it nearly impossible to construct a public theology or public morality, since reason is part of the arena of law during this present age. It has tended as well to make Lutherans suspicious of any talk of sanctification (as smacking of works) and, more recently, it has led many in Lutheran higher education to move in the opposite direction—separating Christian faith from the pursuit of truth by way of reason, since (in principle) there should be no intellectual difference between scholarship by Christians and by non-Christians (pp.68-69).

[8] The church historian Mark Noll, looking at North American Lutherans from the outside, identifies many Lutheran teachings as prime candidates to offer as correctives to Protestant evangelical weaknesses in the area of political activity and public moral reasoning. Yet he judges that Lutheran practice has seldom fulfilled the promise of Luther’s theology. (He thinks that Benne is one of the few who escapes this judgment.) It is impossible to summarize this rich and full chapter in a review, so I will only note that in his concluding proposals Noll—warning that he may be importing certain themes from Calvinism into his retrieval of Luther—identifies several particular areas as promising and even essential for exploration with regard to constructing a public theology. I remain troubled, however, with his tendency to equate “public” primarily with “political” and not also with “civil” (not to mention economic, cultural, intellectual, and other aspects of the “kingdom on the left).

[9] III. The final section on contested issues focuses largely on these other-than-political areas of Christian engagement via public theology: economics, education, civil society, and modernity itself. Of the five chapters the two I found most challenging and intriguing were those by Paul Hinlicky and Ron Thiemann.

[10] Hinlicky’s chapter “Luther and Liberalism” not only rehearses the many different ways that Luther has been characterized, used, and misused by scholars and movements in classical Liberalism or “modernity” (i.e., the thought-world and the period in the West during the past four centuries, known as the Enlightenment) but—because of his focus on the relationship of Christian freedom (Luther) and the human struggle for worldly freedom (Liberalism)—he also makes a constructive proposal regarding public theology in a liberal democracy: “Luther’s theological understanding that true freedom is an event that comes upon us from without, a divine liberation for beings in bondage” (p. 97), is the key to constructing a public theology that is both intelligible and best suited for people in North America today.

[11] Perhaps it is because of the chaotic and contradictory overuse of “post-modern” during recent decades that I find studies of “modernity” extremely interesting in helping to understand contemporary life. Hinlicky moves nimbly from Luther’s Christian freedom (and human bondage to sin) to Liberalism’s worldly freedom’s varied meanings, roles, and limitations. He uses the phrase from the French Revolution, “liberty, equality, fraternity,” to make his case. Liberalism lifted up “liberty” as the leading value of the three (vs Marxism’s emphasis on equality and Fascism’s focus on fraternity) and there is the potential connection for Christian and especially Lutheran public engagement—not least because of Luther’s profound consciousness of sin and particularly as it was picked up by Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Liberalism sees liberty as the minimum basis for civilized life, while equality (if it is not to be imposed by force) is to be achieved by social evolution through the democratic process and fraternity is to be left to other forms of association than the state—lest it become fascist (101). Hinlicky ends by pointing to what could be another chapter by proposing that the church in Luther’s terms (“a holy little flock”) is the only possible true community (104).

[12] Ron Thiemann (one of the few or perhaps the only contributor who would identify himself as being left of center) offers a case study of the role of public theologians in recently liberated Central European countries. He offers the image of Christians as “connected critics” (a term he borrows from Michael Walzer) in these struggling democracies—working for a more radical democratic vision along with other movements in civil society and seeking primarily to shape public opinion rather than exercise direct political power. The goal is to revive active citizenship rather than focusing on ideologies, systems, slogans, bureaucracy, or treating people only as consumers. This is the “connected” aspect; but the internal “critic” function also must be included lest even liberal democratic institutions succumb to various forms of corruption (107-108). Thiemann includes continuing petition drives, political demonstrations, and civil disobedience as part of the role of connected critics—who seek “not to undermine liberal institutions but to call those institutions to a higher ethical standard” (109). The communities of faith are crucial to this critical activity, for they are deeply embedded in the fabric of civil society—but they must understand themselves as public theological institutions and as communities of connected critics.

[13] Thiemann goes on to offer examples and other images to fill out his proposals, beginning with the prophets Amos and Martin Luther King, Jr. Christians will be those fully engaged in the society for which they offer constructive criticism. “Connected critics exemplify both the commitment characteristic of the loyal participant and the critique characteristic of the disillusioned dissenter” (113) even as they find within their society principles of justice that may serve as reasons for hope. He links his image to that of “dual citizenship”—being in the world but not of the world—well known by Christians but often not understood by the ruling powers. (I could see Thiemann adding the words “yet for the world” to the “in but not of” terminology.) He concludes by describing five elements of this sort of public theology (114-118): Democratic vision (deepened and made more radical by the biblical witness); Social analysis (of the conditions of modernity and their one-sidedness if they are without the contributions of a Christian witness); Prophetic critique (this must be local and particular as well as willing to call things such as greed, oppression, injustice, and discrimination sin); Acts of resistance/ emancipation (well beyond “social statements” by church bodies); and Acts of reconciliation (based on the biblical vision of Shalom for the entire creation and drawing on examples of Truth Commissions in other contexts).

[14] Thiemann’s contribution sounds more Reformed than Lutheran, yet supplementing Lutheran categories with those of other traditions happens regularly throughout this volume. I think the concept of public theology pulls in that direction.

[15] The book concludes with two chapters about the various possible roles for Christian theology in colleges and universities in terms of public theology in which Christian engagement involves reasoning of a broader sort than the scientific view from the Enlightenment, but without resorting to indoctrination, proclamation, or relegating religion to extra-curricular activities. And finally, economist and business school professor Joseph Swanson offers an interesting, readable, and appreciative overview of Benne’s 1980 book, The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism (my favorite among Benne’s many books and a fine example of what is now being called “public theology”).

[16] Festschriften often end up being merely eclectic collections, but A Report from the Front Lines escapes that fate for the most part. It is well worth the effort needed to read and ponder its chapters. It is also a lively and significant gift in honor of Bob Benne.