Learning by Doing

Being a Public Theologian in the Debate on Ageing

in International Journal of Public Theology
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In this article the author develops four essential methodological guidelines, discovered while engaged as a European public theologian in the debate on ageing. They might be exemplary for public theologians working in other spheres of the public domain as well. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological understanding of reality functions as a leading intuition. A public theologian (1) finds her- or himself involved and already situated in discursive practices; (2) critically and constructively contributes to the development of ‘social imaginaries’; (3) is an expert in her or his field; and (4) looks for allies and gladly cooperates with them.




Cf. Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p. 143: ‘. . . at fateful moments individuals are today likely to encounter expert systems which precisely focus on the reconstruction of self-identity: counselling or therapy.’ ‘Expert systems’, according to Giddens (Ibid., p. 243) are ‘systems of expert knowledge, of any type, depending on the rules of procedure transferable from individual to individual’, replacing traditional practical wisdom.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 8, John W. de Gruchy, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 486 (Letter from July 21, 1944).


Cf. Kenneth J. Green, An Invitation to Social Construction (London: Sage Publications, 1999), who distinguishes between ‘constructivism’ and ‘constructionism’: ‘for constructivists the process of world construction is psychological; it takes place “in the head.” In contrast, for social constructionists what we take to be real is an outcome of social relationships’ (Ibid., p. 237). Taking a radical constructionist position has far reaching implications for theological language, which I have to leave aside here.


Cf. Stephen Katz, Disciplining Old Age. The Formation of Gerontological Knowledge (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1996), who develops a Foucauldian perspective on gerontology. ‘Old Age is caught in gerontology between the efforts to discipline, calculate, and manage it, and the forces that undiscipline, diversify, and fragment it. This contradiction is central to the development of critical gerontology, a development to which I hope this study contributes’ (Ibid., p. 139).


Martha Holstein and Meredith Minkler, ‘Self, Society, and the “New Gerontology” ’, The Gerontologist 43:6 (2003), 687–796 at 795.


Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, p. 427 (Letter from June 8, 1944).


Cf. Gilbert Meilaender, Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).


Frits de Lange, ‘Loving Later Life: Aging and the Love Imperative’, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 33:2 (2013), 169–84.


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