Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Elaine Graham on Public Theology

Elaine Graham, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public Theology in a Post-Secular Age (London: SCM, 2013), xxvii + 266pp.

I am grateful to Third Way for providing a review copy of this book. A version of the below review (painfully limited to 900 words) was first published in the January 2014 issue of the magazine.

Public theology, according to Elaine Graham in this rich and full treatment, ‘draws its agenda from matters of public concern beyond the Church and, similarly, seeks to communicate its deliberations back into wider society’. Christians engaged in public theology thus find themselves between the ‘rock’ of faithfulness to inherited traditions and the ‘hard place’ of openness to a diverse and critical public domain.

But the ‘rock’ and ‘hard place’ of the book’s title also have to do with the post-secular age in which public theology now takes place. Conventional secularization theories hold that as societies modernize they become less ‘religious’ – in levels of affiliation and belief, in the strength of religious organizations, in the political and cultural prominence of religion in society. Yet, for all that, religion remains a potent force, interest in personal spirituality is strong, and global migration has fostered religious diversity. Graham is careful to note that this does not represent a reversal of secularization, still less a religious revival, since secularist discourse remains vibrant. Instead, we are witnessing ‘an unprecedented convergence of two supposedly incompatible trends: secularization and a new visibility of religion in politics and public affairs’ – what Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor and other leading social theorists are referring to as the emergence of a ‘post-secular’ society.

So, the first part of Graham’s book helpfully teases out the complexity of the post-secular moment, where Christian engagement in public life has to navigate between the ‘rock’ of religious resurgence on the one hand and the ‘hard place’ of secularism on the other.

Part Two then essentially explores options for how Christians might respond to the changing presence of the role of religion in public life. In classic liberalism, the public theologian ‘translates’ – using publicly intelligible criteria – the Christian faith for those who are not believers. Public theology is ‘bilingual’ in that it draws from its own tradition while listening to and being understood by others. The risk here is when the attempt to find common ground involves dismantling the integrity of Christian witness.

As Graham notes, one response has been to root public theology in the specifics of ecclesiastical practice, where the church serves the world best not by providing a religious footnote to secular concerns but by living out its own calling. Broadly representative here is the post-liberalism of George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas along with the Radical Orthodoxy movement associated with John Milbank, Graham Ward, Catherine Pickstock, Phillip Blond, and others in broad sympathy with such perspectives, including Luke Bretherton. The fear here, though, is that the church places itself above criticism and loses its footholds in the public realm. While appreciating the emphasis on practice and the everyday faithfulness of the church, Graham thinks the projects of bilingualism, mediation and apologetics of the liberal model are not so easily dismissed.

Nor does Graham hold out much hope for the ‘micro public sphere’ of conservative religion. Here she outlines the actions of a small number of Christians in the UK who have brought high-profile legal cases against their employers, claiming to have experienced persecution for expressing their faith in a work context. Those who advocate this ‘evangelical identity politics’, as Graham describes it, depict themselves as a beleaguered remnant under attack from the dark forces of an aggressive secularism, and seem more interested in defending lost privilege than social justice or the common good. Gratifyingly, Graham recognises that evangelical political behaviour operates across a broad spectrum, and that many evangelicals are world-affirming, seeing cultural engagement as an opportunity rather than a threat.

The final part of the book turns to more constructive proposals, as Graham seeks to recover a view of public theology as Christian apologetics. She takes her cue here from Max Stackhouse, but rightly points to a rich tradition of those who from early days offered a defence of the church’s relationship to public life, right back to the New Testament itself. This is not apologetics of the ‘propositional-evidence-that-demands-a-verdict-closely-followed-by-a-prayer-of-commitment’ sort. Rather, it involves dialogue and persuasion – and imagination – seeking to make a plausible case in terms that can be grasped by others.

In particular, it will be an ‘apologetics of presence’, concerned with seeking the welfare of the city (akin to the call to the Judean exiles in Jeremiah 29:7), ‘contributing critically and constructively (in word and action) to a flourishing public square’. There are resonances here with two recent works that don’t appear in the book: Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011), and James Davison Hunter’s, To Change the World (Oxford: OUP, 2010), the latter advocating a ‘faithful presence’ in society.

Lest we consider ‘presence’ too acquiescent, Graham is clear on the Christian calling to speak truth to power in continuity with early apologists, and the challenge not just of belief but of justice – not just to convince the non-believer but to liberate the non-person. The church, then, is not merely a passive presence, but the ‘sign and sacrament of God’s redemptive presence in the world’. As Graham suggests, this is likely to happen most effectively not only where churches equip their people to give an account of themselves in society, but which support the everyday witness of the laity in their secular vocations, where the grassroots practices of discipleship spill over into active citizenship.

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