TRS Chester

— the unofficial blog of Theology & Religious Studies, University of Chester

Publication: Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Elaine Graham)

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Cover Image for Between a Rock and a Hard PlaceBetween a Rock and a Hard Place: Public Theology in a Post-Secular Age

This book begins with sociological theories of secularization and the ‘post-secular’, and proceeds, via public theology, to Christian apologetics. My concern is to respond to social and cultural trends in the West which suggest that religion, far from becoming marginal to society, is returning to public prominence as a significant factor in global politics and civil society. Tony Blair’s recent comment that ‘religious extremism’ will be a major source of global conflict throughout this century may be a little simplistic (ignoring as it does other factors such as competition for natural resources, migration, climate change and economic polarization), but it does go to show that faith is not dead. This is particularly evident in areas of public policy, which highlights the renewed currency of religious belief and practice, particularly around its potentially beneficial contribution to welfare reform, well-being and community cohesion.

But whilst the predictions of classic secularization theory are cast into question, I don’t subscribe to the view that we are experiencing anything like a religious revival. This is due to the enduring influence of secularism as a political and philosophical framework. Critics of religion have argued that it has no place in public life. Religious belief may inform a person’s publicly declared statement of faith and action, but the legacy of the Western Enlightenment inhibits the terms of its expression, since religion is deemed an illegitimate, even irrational, form of public discourse.

Hence the title of the book: we find ourselves between a ‘rock’ of religious resurgence – or at least its renewed visibility – and the ‘hard place’ of secularism, such as the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, Polly Toynbee, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. Whilst the particular versions of religion they attack – and the supposed theological positions underpinning them – may not be immediately familiar to many believers themselves, the views of such writers still command authority. But it’s the nature of the uncomfortable space in between these two contradictory trajectories that is of interest to me. How do we negotiate the unprecedented co-existence of these two discourses?

My concern in this book is to consider whether the discipline of public theology can articulate new norms for Christians who are concerned to engage constructively with public debate and political policy, but are aware of the growing gulf between the discourse of faith (after all, that Enlightenment convention dictates ‘we don’t do God’ in public) yet who still want to communicate the basis of their faith and the roots of their concern for the common good convincingly and reasonably to the world at large.

Public theology varies across different contexts, but has a number of core features. Broadly, it seeks to comment and critically reflect from a theological perspective, on aspects of public life such as economics, politics, culture and media. It also means that public theology sees itself as rooted in religious traditions, but strongly in conversation with secular discourse and public institutions.

So my question is, can public theology articulate its core principles in terms that are accessible to pluralist, secular society whilst remaining authentic to tradition? I answer this by calling for a renewal of the practice of apologetics: of offering a reasoned defence or rationale for one’s faith. Whilst this has often been conducted in terms of asserting propositional truths such as the existence of God, or the historicity of the miracles, I want to return to a tradition which dates from the earliest years of Christianity, whereby the apologists were effectively public theologians: they made a case to the political authorities for the value of Christians within the public square as citizens. In contemporary terms, a public theology that ‘gives an account of the hope that is within you’ (in the words of the first letter of Peter in the New Testament) is something that demonstrates convincingly, as much through action as words, that faith can make a positive contribution. Christians need to cultivate a public vocation that is more interested in the well-being of society than the survival of the Church, which is prepared to ‘speak truth to power’ and enables them to be advocates for the marginalised and powerless in society.

P.S. Sorry about the price: not my decision but the publisher’s, who don’t seem to want anyone to buy it. The good news is that an early version of the final text is available on the University of Chester Repository: http://chesterrep.openrepository.com/cdr/handle/10034/312179

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