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Theology in the Public Sphere: Public Theology as a Catalyst for Open Debate

Sebastian Kim
Published by SCM Press in 2011

Theology in the Public Sphere is written by one of the leading public theologians, Sebastian Kim, editor of the International Journal of Public Theology. Kim’s aims in this volume are threefold. First, in the context of the postmodern world, Kim attests that the role of the church is not to keep passive, but to be active in opposing any monopoly on socio-political or religious-cultural power. Second, Kim states that the task of “public theology is to oppose the privatizing of faith and to urge the whole community of faith to be engaged in the public spheres.” Third, he argues that doing public theology is the outcome of theologians, pastors, and lay Christians’ prophetic interactions with those of other religions on various issues of common interest for a wider society (ix).

The book’s first chapter introduces the readers to the key contributors and their methodologies and goals for the developments of public theology in global context. In dealing with the methodologies and characteristics of public theology, Kim interestingly compares and contrasts it with liberation theology. While the two have common goals, they have different characteristics. While “liberation theology takes a revolutionary position, public theology takes a reforming position” (22). The theological emphasis of liberation theology is a particular group of the oppressed, while the theological emphasis of public theology is the kingdom of God, which embraces the issues of both the oppressed and oppressor in a wider society (24).

The second chapter proposes to read the Bible as a public book. In reading the Bible as a public book, Kim interestingly discusses the way the Bible is received in African contexts as authenticating Christianity and faith. Treating the Bible not simply as a text, but as a religio-magical symbol of God’s presence and power, African Christians place the Bible on a patient’s body in time of healing prayer for them. African Christians believe that the Bible is the final authority in determining all doctrinal truths and Christian ethics (II Timothy 3:16). Thus, the local use of the Bible plays a crucial role in constructing African public theology and missiology. In other words, African public theology/missiology is a Bible-based public theology and missiology (30-33).

Reading the Bible as a public book in the global context, Kim provides two hermeneutical readings—inter-textual readings and incultural readings—as most important tasks (47- 54). From this, he moves to chapter three, which deals with a public eco-theology. Building on Psalm 24:1—“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (NRSV)—Kim approaches eco-theology through the lens of public stewardship. Kim discusses issues of eco-justice, feminism, and spirituality to demonstrate the place of public theology. What stands out to me most as an Asian reader is the way he depicts feminism and spirituality as grounds for eco-public theology. Since feminists (mother-earth) and spirits (spirits who rule nature) are associated with an Asian cultural practice of ecology, it is important to consider the insights of feminism and spirituality for constructing eco- public theology (66-76).

The fourth chapter examines the concept of the Christian church as a public body. Drawing upon his own experience in India, Kim provides four models that make the Indian church public and authentic. The first model is the ashram model, which rethinks the problem of proselytism and opposes church-centered mission (80-88). The second model is the secular model, which sees the incarnation and fellowship of Christ as the paradigm for Christians’ engagement with the world. This is a world-centered model. But this does not mean that Christians are to be conformed to the secular world, but rather to transform it by engaging with it (88-94). The third model is the inculturation model of a synthetic approach, which urges Christians to engage with secular culture without losing the truth of the Gospel (94-100). Finally, Kim discusses the liberation model, which urges Christians to embody the nature of God as an advocate for liberation of the oppressed (100-6).

The fifth chapter touches upon the issues of injustice and division in Korea as significant subjects for an Asian public theology of justice and reconciliation. This chapter examines how Christians should respond to the problems of oppression, poverty, and division. If justice has more to do with the liberation of the oppressed (minjung), reconciliation has more to do with the reconciliation (or ‘reunification’ in a political sense) between the two Koreas (123- 28). Since Korea is no longer a poor country in Asia, some Asian theologians may question whether minjung theology remains relevant to Korea, although the reconciliation between the two Koreas remains crucial and ongoing in a post-minjung context. The author should have touched critically on the former issue.

Chapter six deals with two major themes, economic injustice in Latin America and the unequal relationship between North and South Americas as core subjects for public theology in Latin American context. The author offers new insights into seeing the “global Church as the body of Christ” (139) as the ground for theological and social-cultural interaction between Christianity in North America and South America. This chapter also argues that Latin American Christians should construct liberation theology and public theology as partners in praxis against economic and political injustice (137-53). Chapter seven examines the idea of public theology as peace-making in the context of the Iraq War (155). Kim analyzes the limitations and relevancies of just war theory and argues for the church’s need to utilize just war theory rightly in the context of war (154-67).

Chapter eight discusses public theology in the European context. This chapter starts with the growing challenges for public theology of multiculturalism and secularism in Britain in particular and Europe in general. The author then interacts with Rowan Williams’s lecture on Sha’ria law and agrees with him that the task of the church’s public engagement is not to fight against religious differences, but to “be prepared to be shaped by each other’s differing values” (186) for common interests. However, the UK’s implication of Sha’ria law is not relevant to all Muslim countries. For example, a Malaysian government’s use of Sha’ria law is a discriminatory law for non-Muslims. The author should also have touched upon the latter issue. In chapter nine, Kim deals with freedom of expression and respect for faith in the context of the Danish Cartoon Controversy. Freedom of expression and respect for faith are two related issues for public theology. The role of the church is to create a democratic space of mutual respect in a multi-cultural society. Kim insists that “creating a democratic space of mutual respect through mutual tolerance is a vital aspect of multi-cultural society” (207).

The last chapter examines different concepts of identity and the need of critical dialogue in a pluralistic and secular community. “Since religion is not something we can change (it is against the will of Allah for Muslims and dharma for Buddhists)” (224), the only way the church could do this is to appreciate the religious practices and beliefs as their identities and to be shaped by them. In this respect, public theology employs dialogue as a tool of one’s desire to learn other faiths better and to be enriched by them in the sense that other religions have natural laws, which could contribute to the cooperative vision of building a democratic society for mutual benefit in a global world (226).

In sum, this book is about a “global public theology” as Kim highlights and analyzes the global and local issues of public theology. As the subtitle (Public Theology as a Catalyst for Open Debate) suggests, the author does not provide a fixed model of public theology, but he invites us to approach public theology from different perspectives of debate, discussion, and dialogue. In this sense, Kim’s proposal of public theology is a discipline that engages more than what David Tracy fixes as three audiences—the “academy, church and society.” This book is a helpful resource for those who want to comprehend the public discourses of theology in the context of World Christianity. The point is not whether we would agree with everything Kim discusses, but whether we are willing to listen to his insights from the perspective of a public theologian.

Cite this article
David Thang Moe, “Theology in the Public Sphere: Public Theology as a Catalyst for Open Debate”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:4 , 410–411

David Thang Moe

Asbury Theological Seminary
David Thang Moe is a Ph.D. candidate in Intercultural Studies with a concentration in Historical-Theological Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.