Can Dirkie Smit be called a public theologian? I wish I had a different question to consider because this one confronts me with my own ambivalence as to the scope and nature of public theology. Twenty minutes will not allow me to consider my reservations, such as: What constitutes public theology in the South African context? Which public are we talking about, and how is public theology different from other theologies? My task is to consider whether Dirkie Smit fits the description “Public Theologian”. In order to do so I need to get to grips with my somewhat ambivalent understandings of public theology.1
Let me begin by with what I understand public theology not to be. First, public theology is hopefully not magisterial theological pronouncement from the church that claims to teach the public “out there” in an authoritative way. Public theology is not another grand endeavour that seeks to reclaim the polis for the church.2 Second, public theology is not what Duncan Forrester calls “the in-house chatter or domestic housekeeping of a sect, concerned above all with its own inner life and with little interest in what goes on outside.”3 Third, public theology is also hopefully not theological discourse that is obscure and inaccessible, technical laden with academic jargon, with its own agenda understood only by specialists. So far so good. How is public theology therefore defined?
Forrester describes public theology as “…confessional and evangelical. It has a gospel to share, good news to proclaim. Public theology attends to the bible and the tradition of faith at the same time as it attempt to discern the signs of the times and understand what is going on in the light of the gospel.”4
Martin Marty says that when the “public church” reflexively examines and critiques existing social practices and cultural understandings in the light of the deepest religious insights into justice and the good society, it does public theology.
Jürgen Moltmann also makes the link between public theology and the gospel through the metaphor of the reign of God. He says: “Theology for the sake of God is always kingdom-of-God theology. As kingdom of God theology, theology has to be public theology: the public, critical, and prophetic cry for God – the public, critical and prophetic hope for God. Its public character is constitutive for theology, for the sake of the kingdom of God”.5 Later Moltmann continues: “The theology of the kingdom of God is theologia publica, public recollection of God, grievance against God, and hope in God.”6
Public theology can be the deliberate use of distinctively theological commitments to influence substantive public debate and policy, according to Victor Anderson. Roger Shinn believes that public theology identifies the theologian’s responsibility “to enter into processes of public discussion that determine policy”. Clearly public theology has a number of different key meanings.
This plethora of views raises further questions: To what extent is public theology critically contextual? To what extent does pubic theology seek to articulate certain convictions about truth, goodness, freedom, justice, love and peace in the public sphere? South African public discourse generates a large number of crucial themes: the inviolable worth of every human being regardless of gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation; justice that is more than a call for equal treatment but which holds the common good and individual integrity as its goal; issues of corruption, governance, violence, poverty, disease and unemployment. Public theology’s concern with social issues should therefore seek to bring to light the conditions and the hopes of those ignored by the powerful as well as to affirm redemptive hope. A further question – the understanding of public theology can be slippery – how are the boundaries of public theology defined? Are all theologians whose work is concerned with social issues and the impact of faith practices and traditions on the public sphere – this would for instance include liberation, feminist, and environmental theologians – actually public theologians?
In very broad terms, I thus understand public theology to be concerned with how the Christian faith addresses matters in society at large. It is concerned with how Christian beliefs are relevant in the public sphere. I also think that public theology requires both critical, theoretical reflection and practical engagement. Public theology is one voice among many in the marketplace of ideas. How many publics it addresses seems to vary: church, academy, civic society, creation, the global world, all or some of these and probably more? I would like to think that the scope of public theology takes cognizance of both the reality of secularism, plurality, cultural diversity and other religious traditions and seeks to be relevant for all humanity.
What is clear to me is that this is a challenging task in the South African context. Our context is multi-layered, exceedingly complex, full of contesting views, and values. We live, often uneasily, with the reality of societal pluralism and tensions between different cultures, religions. How do we deal with this reality as theologians who wish to address different publics? Here my understanding of public theology blurs. Could I be tagged as a public theologian who addresses gender concerns, more particularly those of women within the South African context? This may be both true and untrue for a feminist theologian cannot consider gender issues outside of our Christian traditions and practices, social and cultural histories of discrimination, economic realities, spirituality, biblical interpretation and so on.
In summary, I would hope that in the broadest possible terms public theology is theology which talks about God in terms of God’s own desires for the world in a manner that makes such truths accessible to all concerned with the pressing issues of the day. This, however, seems to me the task of all theology to a greater or lesser extent.
We believe God is a God of life and our call is to live the values of our biblical notion of “the kingdom of God”. Public theology should be unqualifiedly engaged on behalf of life by addressing human needs in both civil and ecclesial society. While I have emphasized contextuality as a prime concern for public theology, it is important to repeat that our context is deeply pluralistic and that we are part of a big, wide world. With the values of the reign of God as a touchstone, public theology can be evaluated in terms of how it is serving God’s cause in the world.
If this is a fair description, in the broadest terms, of what public theology is, I find that I might well qualify as a public theologian. Yet, this is not where I identify myself. The boundaries are again blurred. Perhaps many of us are public theologians without knowing it, for I cannot conceive of doing theology that is not relevant to the lives of people in the context in which I find myself.
To get to the point – Where does Dirkie Smit fit into this rather porous understanding of public theology? Can he be called a public theologian? In view of my questions, and in view of the fact that I cannot claim familiarity with his entire opus (which is overwhelming to say the least), I am not really competent to address this question in any comprehensive or satisfactory manner. But I am going to try to do so by narrowing down my focus to a particularly public aspect of Dirkie’s writing – his weekly columns in Die Burger.
Dirkie, I find that I resist labelling your theology. You are a multifaceted theologian, whose interests range across the theological disciplines, who is at home in the interface of philosophy and theology, whose theology is permeated with your love of reading, often way beyond the field of theology. I would not be surprised to see you writing about the theological ethics of rugby or cricket! And perhaps you should! A cursory glance at the post-graduate degrees you have supervised (covering at least ten different scholarly disciplines), gives evidence of your varied interests. Public theologians may respond by saying that you simply addresses different publics. This is may be true, but when you delve into systematic theological issues, plumbing the German theological canon, or Calvin or Barth’s Reformed theology, I see you in a different space.
However, you do directly address a certain public in your weekly columns in Die Burger. So my attempt to assess you as a public theologian will be limited to this contribution. I have two questions: 1. What means do you use to communicate with your chosen public? Are they the tools of a public theologian? 2. Why does an overly committed academic theologian like you, take time to write a weekly column for readers of a newspaper? Does this indicate that you see yourself as public theologian of a specific kind?
I want to respond to my first question with three points. What means do you use to communicate to your chosen public?
1. These columns are written with an awareness of the state of the world, and more particularly the South African context. You are a public theologian in the sense that you read the signs of the times. I believe that theology has the unique task of reading the sings of the times from the perspective of the coming reign of God. Albert Nolan, well known Dominican theologian, recently held a series of talks in Cape Town. He said we are entering an age of disillusionment, even despair and then proceeded to list the realities with which we are all too familiar: environmental crisis, war, poverty, the implosion of the world’s economic systems, and so on. I found it hard to disagree with him. Not everyone however is in a state of despair – “There is always hope”, he said, and spoke about what it means to hope against hope. You are adept at reading the signs of the times and using them as a background melody that hums along as you tackle the subjects you are addressing in your columns. This, I believe, a public theologian should do in order to be relevant to the context addressed.
2. The style in which you write your columns is in my view a successful exercise in communicative praxis. As a woman theologian, I have over the years found critical theory a useful tool for making sense of my social environment, and ecclesial traditions and practices. I may be pushing the point, but I often feel that a critical theoretical perspective shapes these columns. Readers are engaged on ethical grounds where faith encounters morality and where hope and freedom are ever before us. We know that language expresses our intention and our interest. By keeping it “simple and straightforward”, your style of writing makes use of short questions, humour, and conversational colloquialisms as you seek to engage your readers. Your columns are very readable, and thus accessible to your chosen public.
3. The topics addressed in your columns are richly varied. It appears important to you to open new areas of interest to what biblical scholars, somewhat comically, call ‘ordinary readers’, as you range across pressing contemporary issues to books you have read, conferences you have attended, and theological and ethical topics. I can recall some of the following subjects: broken homes, the lack of role models for children, the dearth of skills, conflict, nepotism, cultural violence, injustice and so on. Your theological agenda is made accessible by speaking to these issues very often from a theological ethical perspective. At times you succumb to the irresistible temptation of peppering your contributions with philosophical references, from Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon to Kant, Kierkegaard, Locke, Hegel, Marx and Gadamaer, among others, but always in a neatly casual way that is informative and may just drive some readers to consult these thinkers. I know you sent me back to Kant on laughter!
Now the “why” question: Why do you continue to write these columns in the midst of a pretty gruelling academic routine – week after week? Is this a calling to be a public theologian?
- I suspect that your involvement in these columns is prompted by something underlying – something from the heart. I think the weekly columns are a vehicle for expressing your spirituality, your ministry, your hope for a redeemed world.
- Repeatedly, I find a call to your readers for greater discernment (onderskeidingsvermoe) in these columns. Discernment is a profoundly spiritual quality. To discern is sometimes difficult and laborious work. Distinguishing between what is good and what is not is not always easy or straightforward. It is not an exercise of ecclesiastical or theological know-how or superior insights. We are all involved in having to discern by making careful distinctions in our thinking about what is true and good, and what is not. To discern is to be able to detect, define and discriminate between truth and error in teems of our understanding of our faith and then hopefully to apply it to our actions. Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he counselled the Thessalonians – “test everything; hold fast to what is good, Abstain from every form of evil”.
- You approve of Hannah Arendt’s view that moral discernment requires “hearts that understand” and say “…when we no longer have hearts that understand, we no longer see, know or want to know”. We need to discern whether “to weep or to laugh”. We gape at vain pretentions and miss what we ought to see. Life has been commodified and consumerism is eroding our souls, you say, resulting in “superficiality and the loss of depth”. We have lost the personal values of simplicity, moderation and sobriety together with social virtues such as caring for the needy – all exchanged for greed. We settle for what you call “smiley-face” happiness.
- Lastly, I think you write these weekly columns so faithfully because you really enjoy doing so. I hope I am not wrong? It is not easy to keep churning out material week after week. But if they were not written with some enjoyment they would not communicate so well.
These cursory comments that draw on your weekly columns, illustrate your ethical concerns, and your pastoral appeal for self-examination, greater humility and the need to reclaim the values that make for a better world.
I do, however, have a few caveats. Your columns address a particular, quite specific public – Western Cape Afrikaans-speaking readers of Saturday’s Burger, perhaps many of them from a Reformed background. As these columns have over years appeared in book form, they also reach a wider reading public among Afrikaans-speaking people in South Africa. Personally, I would truly like to see them reach an even wider reading public. Undoubtedly you see this specific community as the one to which you belong and are, therefore, called to address. It is a limited public that has differences within itself. One further insignificant caveat, your voice in these columns is often quite guarded, more subtle and muted that that of a public theologian speaking truth to power in a particular context. But that is not your style. And lastly, for obvious reasons the columns also do not cross denominational, or religious boundaries.
Are these columns in Die Burger examples of public theology? They could be, albeit in a limited manner. They are often contextually engaged, critical and relevant. Although they may not respond to all the criteria for public theology set out previously this, I think, is not their intention. I have solved the dilemma of how to name this aspect of your work, namely your weekly columns in Die Burger, by calling you a “theologian for others”. By “others” I mean those who are not necessarily academics, who may be members of churches or not, and who may simply be interested readers. I want to avoid any limitations of your endeavours by boxing them in as one theology and not another. I want to include the breadth of your theological and philosophical insights, your skilful communicative praxis, and your profound spiritual concerns, the ease with which you can move from a specific more limited public to a more global theological discourse while remaining a Reformed theologian who has studied Karl Rahner!! Keep writing in this mode – you are singularly graced for this endeavour. And a happy birthday to you as you celebrate with your family tomorrow!
- Denise Ackermann
1 The notion of publics in theology was mooted by David Tracy, see his The Analogical Imagination (New York, Crossroad, 1981), chaps 2 and 3. Other Catholic and Protestant theologians who identify themselves as public theologians are Michael Novak, John R. Niehaus, Roger Shinn, Ronald Thiemann, Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray.
2 See Duncan B. Forrester, Truthful Action: Explorations in Practical Theology (Edinburgh, T & Clark, 2000), pp. 118-122 for a discussion on this issue.
3 Ibid., p. 127.
4 Ibid. p. 128.
5 Jürgen Moltmann, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Ellen T. Charry, ed. By Miroslav Volf, A Passion for God’s Reign: Theology, Christian Learning, and the Christian Self (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 1-2.
6 Ibid., p. 52.