Is Public Theology Regressive with Respect to Political Theology

A more recent variant of political theology has emerged in the form of contemporary "public theology," which is quite different from political and liberation theologies. A brief discussion of public theology is important here, since it might be seen as an "inheritor" of political theology, which it is not. Public theologians assume the role of "religious critics" whose task is to formulate and develop the "ultimate meanings" and "spiritual culture" of society (Dean 1994: xiv) in order to rescue modernity from anomie and spiritual breakdown through a revital-ization and updating of Christian values. This represents a shift from the focus on historical change and political action to a more spiritual renewal of societal values along Christian lines. From this perspective, the political relevance of Christian beliefs and values contributes to a more authentic understanding of human nature and society in modernity (Schussler Fiorenza 1992: 3). David Tracy advocates revising Christianity by "correlating" it with "a common human experience" (1978: 43) that is resistant to modernity's banishment of religion to the purely inward, personal realm of spiritual faith and individual salvation. Christianity, or the "Christian fact," as Tracy puts it (p. 43), corresponds to a universal human experience that can be elaborated through rational public dialogue. According to Matthew Lamb, "Christian theologies for the public realms communicate a universality through the solidarity of the reign of God" (1992: 113). Public theology is "faith seeking to understand the relation between Christian convictions" and the larger social, cultural context (Thiemann 1991: 21). The question is: What is a "universal" human experience and who and what defines it? How can there be a "universal" human experience in the modern, pluralistic, and diverse societies to which Christian theology speaks?

Many of the public theologians have long been interested in the theory of communicative rationality developed by Jürgen Habermas, seeing in his expanded concept of reason a way to rehabilitate Christian values over against instrumental concepts of reason that have colonized most areas of human experience in modernity. The public theologians lament the fact that Habermas does not take a serious interest in the role of religion in society and individual life (Schüssler Fiorenza 1992: 3). They contend that Habermas' theory can be used to show that religion (by which they mean Christianity) provides a rationally defensible meaning for reality and the human experience of it that is compatible with the insights of modernity. Aided by Habermas' critique of the ambiguities of modernity, they posit that an updated theology that takes seriously the accepted cognitive insights of modernity and revises itself accordingly would be able to demonstrate its own truth, normative appropriateness, and sincerity within a pluralistic world. Religion then is demonstrated to have its own internal rationality that coincides with modern culture, so that a "public correlational theology" becomes a "fully modern critical discipline" in its own right (Tracy 1992: 35-6).

It is not difficult to understand the appeal of Habermas' theory of communicative action, along with his critique of the hegemony of instrumental reason in modern societies, for contemporary theologians interested in promoting a critically reflective and socially relevant Christianity. Their position is that Christianity offers unique and superior ethical and spiritual resources for the public sphere. They even follow the spirit of Habermas in agreeing that a public, political theology must be "willing to submit its religious claims and their political implications to the challenge of public discourse" (Schüssler Fiorenza 1992: 6). A statement such as this is disingenuous at best, since however "correlative" or updated any theology strives to be, it inevitably rests upon certain axiomatic assumptions that are inherently non-negotiable. This is inevitably the case with a theology that claims to account for universal human experience.

In Habermas' view, any theory that aspires to account for all of human experience by appealing to the universal validity of a totalizing view of reality is self-contradictory and premodern. Habermas' critique of metaphysical philosophies applies to theology as well: "Philosophy can no longer refer to the whole of the world, of nature, of history, of society, in the sense of a totalizing knowledge . . . All attempts at discovering ultimate foundations, in which the intentions of First Philosophy live on, have broken down." His theory of communicative rationality regards "determinate theological affirmations" as "meaningless" (1985: 12). Habermas makes this point quite clear in his reply to the public theologians that the "premodern certainty" (1992: 240) provided by religions has no place in modern, complex, and diverse societies where religious traditions and metaphysical worldviews have collapsed (1990b: 72). Since theology is embedded in a specific religious tradition that has its own language and symbol system, it can have no universalizable claims to truth beyond its own borders of belief. Yet the public theologians continue to assert the universal validity of Christian values and truth claims in their efforts to privilege Christian sensibility and political values in public, political life. This is a very different approach from that of political theology. Consider Davis's view that "there is no specifically religious language," and that "the indirect nature of all religious meaning makes it impossible to ground a political claim upon it in confrontation with other competing claims" (1994: 115). For Davis, an argument for privileging a specific religious tradition over all others lies beyond "what can reasonably be urged" (p. 204). To do otherwise is to abandon a critical theology that engages in an emancipatory critique of all traditions, including its own, and to risk losing sight of its own participation in the structures of social domination.

Public theology has fallen behind the intent of the former political theology, whose critical method, however limited, rejected attempts to Christianize the world. Public theology intends to substitute Christian theology for history and society as the locus of meaning in the quest for social justice, resulting in a theology that is merely applied to politics and society. The dialectical nature of the theory-practice relationship sustained by political theology collapses into an identification of political practice with Christian values and goals. Public theology reverses political theology's acceptance of the "secularized," "religiously emancipated society" (Metz 1970: 37) in an attempt to restore itself implicitly to cultural and political hegemony. Whereas political theology asserted "its essentially universal categories ... as a negative critique" (p. 37) in its effort to mount and sustain an ideology critique of society and of itself, public theology prefers to forge the "universal categories" of Christianity into a political ideology. To achieve this in modern pluralistic societies can only result in the marginalization of difference to the peripheries of political action.

Toward the end of his life Max Horkheimer declared that "a politics which, even when highly unreflected, does not preserve a theological moment in itself is, no matter how skilful, in the last analysis, mere business" (1975: 60). By "theological moment," Horkheimer was not expressing allegiance to any particular religion or political ideology. The "theological moment" rather refers to the longing for "perfect justice," what might be for Marx "the heart of a heartless world." In Horkheimer's view, the idea of God functions as a repository for the hope that justice is not a mere illusion and that the misery of this world is not without alternatives. "Dissatisfaction with earthly destiny is the strongest motive for acceptance of a transcendental being" (1972: 129), he maintained.

Critical theory and political theology, in their different ways, attempt to shift the hope for justice from an eternal beyond to the historical present by transforming the longing for a humane world into social action with an emancipatory goal. In Horkheimer's view, this utopian move cannot be adequately supported or advanced by religion as theology: "Mankind loses religion as it moves through history, but the loss leaves its mark behind. Part of the drives and desires which religious belief preserved and kept alive are detached from the inhibiting religious form and become productive forces in social practice" (1972: 131, emphasis added). Although critical theory argues that religion and its attendant theology have reached their historical threshold with the transition to modernity, their contents have not disappeared, but rather enter new forms that are more commensurate with those forms of action whose conscious intent is the emancipation of human beings from all manner of alienation. Horkheimer's argument for preserving a "concept of infinity" that is conscious of "the finality of human life and of the inalterable aloneness of men" is that "theological moment" that is transformed in critical theory into a utopian ideal rooted in historical possibility and solidarity with living, finite human beings. Unlike political theology, critical theory will offer neither guarantees nor consolations, thus maintaining its negative critique while political theology ultimately reverses its negativity into the positivity of divine promise. This is perhaps one of the reasons why political theology and liberation theologies could not sustain or develop their critical impact, especially in complex pluralistic, modern societies. The question of the future of religion in modernity requires further exploration.


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