The current signs of the times do not bode well. In response to the question of whether the future would be ‘good, bad or ugly’ Simon Dalby – a political economist of climate change – suggested that the Anthropocene would be ‘ugly’.1 The recent fires and high temperatures in North America and Southern Europe are indicative of what the climatologist, Friederike Otto has described as ‘angry weather’.2 Writing as a human geographer the Cambridge-based Mike Hulme nevertheless insisted that ‘climate change is not everything’. Hulme was wary of what he called ‘climatism’ and how it might deflect attention away from a catalogue of threats to world peace, democracy and well-being.3 The task before a future public theology is not surprisingly rather daunting, Hulme was able to write in this vein because of where he is located. For those who live on low-lying islands in the Pacific the future looks grim. They are ‘weak actors’ on the geopolitical stage. They must balance in the present a desperate concern for a future with the ties that bind an indigenous people to the ancestral and customary past.
Peter Hooton argues that ‘the threats human beings pose to the future of life on Earth’ require a global ethic. It is as if the Earth is facing an a ‘Judgement Day of sorts’ due to a range of existential challenges posed by nuclear weapons, climate change, pandemics and the like. The task is considerable insofar as these threats have been ‘largely engineered and driven by human beings themselves’. Is it possible then to unearth a global level of solidarity that might be ‘more than the sum of existing declarations on rights and freedoms and systems of judicial redress’? Hooton suggests the need for a ‘forward-looking global ethics’ that would normally be based upon the quest for universal values rather than a ‘backward-looking’ version that seeks to deal with specific problems and interconnections. There is a difference, though. Hooton’s forward-looking global ethic with a focus on the transcendent – ‘on the things that take us out of ourselves and rests more on religious rather than purely secular assumptions’. Hooton imagines that Christians and secular humanists might pursue this task together, hence opening the scope for a public theology. It is, after all, an emerging discipline that possesses ‘a global perspective, [a] strong sense of humanity’s interdependence with the rest of creation and its focus on some version of the common good’. Hooton is not unaware of the complexity of worldviews across religions, cultures and languages but does not believe that these rule out the possibility of a convergence. The obstacles are admittedly ‘formidable’. He weaves together six elements from Bonhoeffer’s theology to make the case for a way of seeing the world and acting responsibly in these troubled times.
Stephen Okey is especially conscious of how the present and unfolding future differs from the origins of a public theology. For that reason he looks back to the case David Tracy made for a public theology in the light of a digital age. Other writers have examined the debilitating role that social media can play in furnishing fake news and undermining democracy. Okey’s concern is for the digital sphere. In addition to the standard description of the three audiences of a public theology, Okey pays attention to the three-fold hermeneutical lenses to be found in Tracy’s work – that is, the sociological, conversational and theological. In what ways might the ‘digital sphere’ have some bearing on what is public. It is assumed that ‘the digital is a new context for the various publics and thus requires a contextual theology.’ It is a part and parcel of a broader ‘mediatization’ in which the institutionalized forms of social media are ‘defining narratives and symbols meaningful to human life’. It is as if a ‘distinct institutional media’ is displacing the role of religious institutions while creating an intimacy that ‘shape interpersonal human relationships’. The portability of media has further increased the levels of accessibility and thus altered how participation may occur in a rather different public sphere. For a public theology the issue becomes one of whether the ‘digital sphere [is] simply a component part of one of the existing publics’ – or does it create a new sub-discipline? What happens if an ‘ecological’ view of how media ‘fundamentally alter the cultures in which they emerge and can do in ways that are both helpful and harmful’? Are they not more than ‘simply tools’?
The uncertainty of the future can lend itself to fragmentation. Joel Gillin examines the vocation of a public theology in ‘conditions of increasing pluralism and social complexity’ through a rather different trajectory. His focus is upon the role of rituals and how they can strengthen democratic politics. At face value Gillin recognizes that such an appeal may seem rather unlikely. The tendency of ritual can be to bolster rigidity, set forms and conservatism. It can seem to favour social cohesion at the expense of pluralism. In making his case Gillin is composing an interdisciplinary enquiry through the drawing upon of insights taken from anthropology to show how ‘ritual ambiguity’ may unify rather than fragment. It can play a part in the creation of ‘the conditions for forms of life in which a shared discourse can emerge’ – hence play a role in the construction of citizenship. Gillin is rarely explicitly theological: nevertheless, the case he mounts he believes is ‘a piece of a broader public theology of pluralism that identifies the potential of rituals and liturgy of different communities to contribute to the political common good.’
Okey’s turn back to Tracey is mirrored in the case that Terry Root makes for the works of Alan Richardson to be considered as a ‘prototype public theology’. This retrospective study is done on the basis that Richardson provides a fine example of a pragmatic engagement with the issues of his day. In the middle twentieth century Richardson was one of the most widely known theologians/clerics in the Church of England. He was so described by his friend Reinhold Niebuhr and shared many of the same concerns of ‘social righteousness’. In Richardson’s case Root notes that he never used the language of a public theology. Its emergence coincided with the end of Richardson’s life. Richardson was perhaps more of an ‘apologist’ for the Christian faith at a time when the drift towards secularization in England was accelerating ‘at an alarming pace’. Root draws out how Richardson rejected a ‘narrow academic focus’ for his work and strove in a ‘pragmatic fashion’ to communicate with a wider audience. He made use of the technology of his day – in particular, BBC radio and television which complemented his public lectures and an extensive corpus of writing. Richardson anticipated the need for a public theology to engage with an audience that lay outside the church and was not necessarily familiar with the contours of its claims. Where Okey emphasized the need for a public theology to engage with a new digital public sphere, Richardson was deeply committed to the work of the Student Christian Movement, the public role of cathedrals (as much as departments of theology) and the vital role of education. The BBC recognized his capacity to be able to ‘speak to people with no theological training and from all walks of life.’
Patrick Byrne’s writing on the city engages in a particular way with an aspect of Hooton’s quest for a global ethic. It may not seem so at first glance. Byrne is concerned with the life of cities in the United States and his interest in moments of epiphany might seem a little closer to Gillin’s interest in ritual and liturgy. It is perhaps a little unusual in times of deepening crisis – especially environmental crisis – to write on behalf of human good. Byrne sets out to make the case for achieving a balance between a reading of nature and how urban life depends upon the practice and oversight of neighbourliness. This attention given to urban life is critical insofar as cities are the greatest producers of carbon emissions and where most people will feel the impact of climate change. It is in cities that a global ethic that Hooton aspires after will need to be played out in daily living. Byrne takes issue with what he detects be an anti-urban bias in thinking about American cities. Making use of Bernard Lonergan he envisages how ‘the interplay of human plurality can give rise to social and cultural goods’ even within the anonymity of sprawling cities. These ‘accidental’ encounters can be transformed ‘into bonds of friendship and love’ that seek out a ‘common goal’. Even in much straitened times the city is not devoid of moments of human good that reveal and reflect a redemptive epiphany.
One of the features of Byrne’s neighbourliness is the role of public characters. In this urban context they were a mix of ordinary people. Simon Rae dwells upon the significance of human agency in the evolution of an Indonesian public theology. In this case T.B. Simatupang made the transition from being a military leader in the campaign for independence to ecumenical strategist and mentor despite the lack of any formal theological education. The social theology he devised for himself was committed to nation-building and Christian participation in such. That is carried out in a Muslim-majority country which aspires to be a secular democracy under the principles of its Pancasila agreement. Under President Sukarno the context and rhetoric was for some time revolutionary. Simutapang argued that Christians must participate in this struggle alongside people of other persuasions: they needed to be realistic and be willing to contest ‘demonic and utopian tendencies within the revolution’.
The non-western nature of a public theology represents a very different trajectory from the more well-known history of the discipline. For a body of knowledge that aspires to be glocalized narratives like that of Simutapang are as important as those of Tracey and Marty. Into this raft of differing aetiologies and histories lies the work of Julius Crump on behalf of the metaphysical foundations of an Afro-protestant public theology. The route he pursues is unusual. It probes beneath the surface of events and cause to examine how African experience in the United States makes use of a public and emancipatory reason.
Simon Dalby, ‘Framing the Anthropocene: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, The Anthropocene Review, 3:1 (2016), 33–51.
Friederike Otto, Angry Weather: Heat Waves, Floods, Storms and the New Science of Climate Change, (Vancouver / Berkeley: Greystone Books, 2020).
Mike Hulme, Climate Change Isn’t Everything: Liberating Climate Politics from Alarmism, (Cambridge and Hoboken: Polity Press, 2023).