Doing Theology in Public

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This piece is part of a series of responses to the book Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer by W. Travis McMaken. We will be posting five responses to the book as part of this series. Our fourth contribution is from Stephen Waldron.

Stephen Waldron is a writer who lives in Waltham, Massachusetts. He is a co-host of the podcast Theology and Socialism.

“Thus I exchanged with those about me the signs by which we express our wishes, and advanced deeper into the stormy fellowship of human life…”

  • St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions I/8

“I speak to God in public, I speak to God in public”

  • Chance the Rapper, “Blessings (Reprise)”

In the 1970s and 1980s, North American theologians were dealing with a new pluralism in Christian theological method. After the emergence of theologies of liberation and secular reinterpretations of Christian faith, there was little methodological agreement among people paid to think about God. There wasn’t even agreement about the audience for theology. Who were theologians talking to, anyhow?

Catholic theologian David Tracy influentially claimed that theologians address three social realities, three “publics,” with an emphasis on one or the other depending on circumstances: “the wider society, the academy and the church.” [1]

The church, of course, was an obvious home for theology from the earliest centuries of its existence. Likewise, theology reigned as “queen of the sciences” at European universities from their founding until the Enlightenment. Even in the 21st century, Christian theology is taught at many prominent universities in Europe and North America (or at affiliated divinity schools).

But Tracy’s advocacy of public theology was more audacious. For one thing, he claimed that the “professional competence” of theologians regarding “value issues” was needed by societies. [2] Most relatively secular societies would beg to differ.

More significantly, the rising North American movement known as postliberal theology (sometimes called the Yale School) was developing a differing approach. George Lindbeck’s 1984 book The Nature of Doctrine was, among other things, a response to Tracy’s claims about the publics to whom theologians spoke.

After dissenting from other aspects of Tracy’s approach to theological method, Lindbeck claimed that “The task of descriptive (dogmatic or systematic) theology is to give a normative explication of the meaning a religion has for its adherents.” [3] According to Lindbeck, the world of a religion’s sacred texts is “able to absorb the universe.” [4]

Consequently, theology is a “intratextual” endeavor, one that doesn’t need to involve sources or audiences outside a religious tradition’s own texts and communities. Lindbeck claims that “religions, like languages, can be understood only in their own terms, not by transposing them into an alien speech.” [5] Theologians, then, cannot do much “translation” of a religion’s internal way of thinking without the salt losing its saltiness.

After Lindbeck, countless North American theologians have retreated into what Tracy describes as a situation in which “For some theologians the church seems to function as the sole reference group for theology.” [6] One could even argue that this churchly orientation is the defining characteristic of postliberal theology.

And in many ways, as Milton Friedman once said of Keynesians, we’re all postliberals now. In 21st century North America, even theologians and pastors who wouldn’t call themselves postliberal have almost certainly come under that school’s influence in one way or another. Across theological lines, there is widespread agreement that theology must primarily be done “in and for the church.” [7] (No, really, follow the links and Ctrl-F that phrase. It’s uncanny.)

This is where Helmut Gollwitzer intrigues me. While McMaken highlights Gollwitzer’s socialism as especially relevant for Christians in the U.S. today (and it is), the publicness of his life and work is also quite relevant. McMaken argues that Lindbeck’s “cultural-linguistic” model of theology as done in the church, which is seen as a self-enclosed culture, is a model that domesticates the church. [8] Gollwitzer opposed this domestication.

Some North Americans have done similar public theology: McMaken highlights George Hunsinger’s laudable interfaith campaign against torture in the United States. [9] But the prevailing trend is in the opposite direction. Unlike Chance the Rapper, most North American theologians today have shied away from speaking to God in public, from being publicly accountable for their moral and intellectual positions. (As opposed to tossing churchly bombs out into the world from the shelter of their place “in and for the church.”)

So what can Gollwitzer teach us?

Unlike many North American theologians, Gollwitzer wasn’t afraid to identify his political ideology. While churches in the U.S. fear losing their tax exempt status if they identify with a political party, theologians don’t have that excuse. Rather, they seem to stretch the (wise) separation of church and state into the peculiar idea that Christians have to pretend to be non-partisan to be truly holy.

In contrast, Gollwitzer freely claimed that “God wants socialism,” while also rightly maintaining enough critical distance to only advocate for “the true socialism of the kingdom of God.” [10] By simultaneously admitting his political preference and owning up to its limitations, Gollwitzer was honest in a way that few theologians are today.

Gollwitzer also refused to see his work within the church as a preacher to be necessarily more priestly than prophetic. Rather than coddling his hearers in a November 16, 1938 sermon in Berlin, he told them what they needed to hear in the days following the barbarity of the Kristallnacht pogroms: “God is disgusted at the very sight of you.” [11] We might say that Gollwitzer was doing theology “in and for the church,” but he certainly had a unique approach to doing so.

After the war, Gollwitzer showed how to do public theology by not being afraid of public significance. His 1950 appointment to a position at the University of Bonn put him in the newly-established capital of the Federal Republic (West Germany). During his time in Bonn, Gollwitzer’s writings, ranging from a best-selling memoir about his time as a Soviet prisoner of war to a theological evaluation of nuclear war, were at the center of West German political discussion. [12] His long-standing friendship with West German President Gustav Heinemann was just one piece of his entanglement in political life.

Finally, Gollwitzer wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. In 1961, he leapt into Jewish-Christian dialogue. When he decided to invite a conservative Lutheran group that aimed at converting Jews to Christianity to a meeting with his own group of Protestants, Gollwitzer almost destroyed the entire effort at dialogue. [13]

While we can be critical of his decision in this case, if Gollwitzer hadn’t made this mistake, it would have been another one. People who choose involvement in both religion and politics almost inevitably make that kind of mistake sooner or later. Taking that risk, though, is one of the most Christian things that one can do.

If the Son of God was sent into the world to mingle with sinners and suffer at their hands, surely Christians who claim to talk about God can take on the risk of doing so publicly. Surely they can honestly disclose their political orientations and give up their pretenses to non-partisanship and objectivity. Surely they can tell the truth to and about their own churches as it is appropriate to do so.

In an age in which theology is supposed to be done inside ornate cathedrals or strip mall megachurches, theologians who claim to speak about the Christian God should join Helmut Gollwitzer in following Jesus by going deeper into the stormy fellowship of human life.

[1] David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 5.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), 113. For an overview of the debate between Tracy and Lindbeck, see Richard Lints, “The Postpostivist Choice: Tracy or Lindbeck” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 61:4, 655-677.

[4] Lindbeck, 117.

[5] Ibid., 129.

[6] Tracy, 22.

[7] One could probably write an interesting book tracing the origin and popularity of the contemporary use of the phrase “in and for the church” to describe theology. It may descend from Karl Barth’s concept of a “churchly theology,” but it has taken on a newly exclusive meaning after postliberalism.

[8] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 152-155

[9] Ibid, 49.

[10] Ibid., 28. Also see ibid., 121.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Ibid., 42-43.

[13] Ibid., 44.