A public theologian will have two questions constantly in mind: Where is the public square with which I am expected to engage? And, what are its terms of engagement? Both questions necessarily involve examining the nature and role of the media as it touches upon the given context, and it is the intention in this article to reflect upon the challenges and opportunities of undertaking public theology in an environment where, (a) significant sections of the mass media accord very low priority to serious discussion of current issues and (b) voices offering a ‘faith’ perspective, or seeking even to draw upon the language of conviction or moral value, are at worst unwelcome and at best misunderstood. What does it look like to do public theology in a ‘straitened’ public square? What challenges are presented and how might they be met?
The role that religious language should play in the ‘public square’ has long been a matter of debate. As Rawls, Rorty, Audi and others have long argued, albeit with subtle variations, discussion on public issues must be truly ‘public’ and therefore employ vocabulary, principles and reasoning which are intelligible to any reasonable person and based on public canons of validity. But does this argument do justice to religious voices? Can the growing number of such voices clamouring for the right to be heard continue to be ignored? Does excluding conviction-based language from public debate lessen the quality of that debate and the potential to find effective solutions to policy challenges? Drawing upon recent work by Jonathan Chaplin, Rowan Williams, Roger Trigg and Michael Sandel, this article examines the current state of scholarship on the question of language in public discourse, and concludes that the case for ‘confessional candour’ to be accepted in such discourse is overwhelming and could have a positive effect on policy outcomes. A prerequisite to this, however—at least within the context of New Zealand—will be a fresh debate about the meaning and scope of the term ‘secularism’.
This article argues that the global economic crisis which began in 2008 creates opportunity for a wide-ranging debate about how internal and international markets operate; a debate to which theology would have much to contribute. While on the one hand it is important to look at the factors behind the crisis with a view to preventing its repetition, of greater worth would be a conversation—involving all stakeholders—about the values that should underpin economic activity once the crisis has passed. This will involve asking questions about the fundamental purpose of market activity—is it simply to achieve ‘growth’ in GDP terms or, additionally, outcomes like ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’—and exploring how markets can operate to strengthen societies and enable all to enjoy ‘fullness of life’.