Contesting secular public-ness
ISTP, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia
Introduction: ‘Public-ness’ under pressure in a neo-liberal polity
In his regular column in the Weekend Australian newspaper in June 1998, Phillip Adams turned his attention (and acerbic wit) to what he perceived to be the calamitous decline of ‘public-ness’ in Australian society. Adams observed that:
There was a time pubic was regarded as a dirty word. Certainly not a word you'd use in public. But not in these full frontal times. Pubic hair is no longer a closely guarded secret, and matters involving the pubic region fill acres of space in women's mags and the masturbatory media…..These days its the word public that can't be said in public. It's public that has become the dirty word. Public, as in public health, public transport, public education and public broadcasting. Public as in public space, public spirited and, God forbid, public as in public ownership. The public sector is being flushed down the public toilet .
Adams’ comments expressed a concern shared by many Australians about the long term consequences of the bi-partisan programme of neo-liberal economic reform that has dominated Australian public policy since the early 1980s. The objective of these reforms has been to achieve greater international economic competitiveness in a time of globalisation. However, in the view of Adams and many others, they have had the disastrous side effect of undermining Australian civic culture and institutions. In the pursuit of economic efficiency and competitiveness, governments have lost sight of fundamental civic values. In response, numerous voices have been raised in defence of Australian public culture, particularly in terms of ideas of citizenship, social capital and the like.
The purpose of this paper is to contribute a distinctively Christian voice to this argument for the renewal of Australian civic life. I share Adams’ dismay and support the advocacy of civic institutions, including public infrastructure, public broadcasting and public universities. However, my Christian support is critical and qualified. Whilst defending ‘public-ness’ I also want to contest its taken for granted ‘secularity’. I hasten to add, though, that my purpose is not to advocate the restoration of a religiously ordered public culture (even if that was practical possibility). Rather I want to recover the deep theological roots of an authentically ‘secular’ society. My claim is that, paradoxically, the elements of a properly secular public order, such as the non-discriminatory rule of law, a respect for the diversity of belief and practice and the limitation of the state’s control over civil society, have deep Christian sources. As Australian public culture loses connection with those sources, the values of public-ness will indeed become even more vulnerable, either to the effects of free market individualism or to a resurgent – and illiberal - nationalism.
My paper develops this theme as follows: In the first section I briefly sketch the programme of neo-liberal reform in Australia and the defence of civil society and the public sphere that it has prompted, and I locate this policy debate in the context of a broader philosophical debate about the adequacy of liberal proceduralism as a public philosophy. I begin the second section by briefly reviewing how the challenge of the ‘secularity’ of the late modern public sphere has been addressed by different public theology paradigms. I then outline what I take to be the key elements of a ‘post-Constantinian’ public theology centred on a recovery of the public meanings of the gospel of the eschatological rule of Christ. This involves three aspects: an epistemological claim that the Christian gospel provides what Lesslie Newbigin calls a ‘fiduciary framework’ of ‘public truth’; an ecclesial claim that theological significance of the church is that it embodies in a provisional way the true ‘public-ness’ of the eschatological kingdom of Christ; and a civic claim that the wider society is preserved as a truly secular and open public space by the communicative logic of gospel witness. Finally, I will return briefly to a consideration of the ways in which this theology of ‘public-ness’ can be practically expressed through Christian engagement in contemporary Australian public life.
1.The legacy of ‘neo-liberal’ economic reform
The catalyst for the economic reform programme of the 1980s was the generally agreed view that in a rapidly changing global environment it was no longer be possible for the Australian economy to rely on the export of its farm products and minerals and a small, domestically oriented manufacturing sector operating behind high levels of protection. The ‘old Australia’, the legacy of the ‘Australian settlement’ had to be re-invented . Over the next few years, successive governments adopted a framework of financial deregulation, the reduction of tariff barriers, the privatisation of a range of government activities, the sell off of government assets and the deregulation of the labour market: all for the objective of making the Australian economy more globally competitive. In the process, others sectors of Australian public life, most notably education, were also brought under the framework of improved market competitiveness and globalisation .
By the late 1980s this reform programme had provoked a good deal of criticism, both in relation to whether or not it would actually meet its central economic objectives and also its likely impact on Australian public institutions, democratic politics and social life more generally. There were many who accepted the need for significant market based economic reforms, but who believed that ‘economic rationalism’ had become a socially destructive form of public discourse and has significantly eroded the Australian public culture.
How can Australian public culture and public institutions be defended? Whilst some have argued for the restoration of an expansionary social democratic welfare state, it has generally been accepted that globalisation means that it is no longer possible for governments to raise sufficient revenue to maintain the post-war welfare state. Many believe that the fundamental techno-economic changes that catalysed the end of the old Fordist system of production and led to the development of the new global communication networks also required the development of different political ideas Besides, it is also believed that a large bureaucratic state was also an impediment to democratic politics and civic life. Instead, the concepts of citizenship, civil society, social capital and the like offered a more promising way of defending public life without relying so much on the state.
Philosophical arguments about ‘the public sphere’
Underlying this policy focussed debate between the so-called economic rationalists and the defenders of social policy priorities is a broader philosophical debate between liberals on the one hand and communitarians and civic republicans on the other Whilst this has been primarily a North American and British debate it has provided an important background to our own more pragmatic approach to the issues of ‘public-ness’.
There are a number of points of opposition between liberals and communitarians that are particularly relevant. One is in relation to their conceptions of political agency and political action. Whilst liberals tend to view political action in more instrumentalist terms, as the pursuit of pre-formed interests, republicans interpret political action as having a more ‘constitutive’ importance. They argue that it is through our participation in social and political life that we are formed as persons and citizens. In this perspective, the division between public and private spheres is much more ‘porous’. It is neither desirable nor possible to relegate questions of a moral and spiritual nature to the private sphere.
Another is the different conception of the relationship between individual rights and some sense of a shared common good. Communitarians, such as Michael Sandel (1996), have argued that the ‘public philosophy’ of Anglo-American polities is a procedural liberalism that posits that individual right precedes any shared substantive conception of the social good. Sandel, like many other communitarians and republicans argues that this ‘procedural republic’ is ultimately incoherent or mistaken, since all societies necessarily assume some underlying conception of the good which sustains the defence of rights and obligations. Despite liberal disclaimers, communitarians argue that liberalism does tacitly assume a substantive conception of the good: that of the primacy of individual freedom and choice. Unfortunately, they argue, the neutralist alibi inhibits the vital task of articulating and strengthening that shared vision of the good upon which the liberal culture of rights and freedoms depend .
Arguments for the priority of some shared conception of the good are alarming to liberals, who fear their deployment for state intrusion into the sphere of economic and personal freedoms. This is a fear shared by various feminist theorists, notably Nancy Fraser, Iris Marion Young, and Marilyn Friedman. Whilst supporting the communitarian critique of liberal individualism, they have been highly critical of what they see to be the authoritarian and homogenising tendencies of communitarianism. Thus, in response to Sandel’s argument for the notion of an ‘encumbered self’, that is, that who we are is essentially formed by the communities into which we are born, Friedman argues for a notion of relational individualism which preserves the primacy of individual choice even whilst acknowledging the intrinsically communal nature of our existence. Similarly, Iris Marion Young argues that the republican advocacy of a richer public sphere is too homogenising, resulting in the displacement of a whole array of marginal voices and communities. Instead, she argues for a plurality of heterogeneous publics.
Clearly this liberal communitarian debate addresses some of the deeper philosophical issues raised by the neo-liberal reform programme. This programme reflects a philosophical commitment to individual freedom of choice and the denial of any shared moral goals which should regulate them (thus Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement: ‘there is no such thing as ‘society’). By contrast, the defenders of government intervention and for civil society reflect a more republican or communitarian perspective.
2. The question of secularity: public theology responses
However, from the perspective of Christian public theology what is striking about these debates is the taken for granted exclusion of ‘religion’ as a constitutive factor of Australian public culture, state and public institutions. Of course it is recognised that ‘religion’ has a voice in public life, but only as one of many voices in a ‘secular’ sphere which is itself neutral with respect to religious belief.
The current hegemony of the secular is of course the result of a long and complex process of secularisation which I cannot discuss in any detail in this paper. Suffice to say that it has involved several strands: intellectual, involving the growing explanatory power and influence of secular enlightenment modes of thought, particularly in the natural and social sciences; political or institutional, involving the displacement of the church from a position of power and influence over public life, including government, the judiciary and higher education; and sociological, involving the increasing diversity and complexity of modern industrial society which has done so much to undermine the plausibility structures of a pre-modern religious culture. The displacement of ‘religion’ is reinforced by the ideological dominance, particularly amongst cultural elites, of a secularist public philosophy which consistently down plays the historical significance of ‘religion’ in Australian history.
This is not to say that this dominant secularist narrative is entirely uncontested. The expectation that religion would simply wither has not been realised. Instead there has been a continuing expression of different forms of religiosity and the search for transcendent experience, even within the heartland of secular technological civilisation itself. There is a pervasive sense of spiritual emptiness and nihilism within secular society. These are evident in the wistful fascination with the traditional culture of indigenous peoples, the attraction of a deep green environmentalism. However these religious stirrings are still on the fringes. The dominant languages of public life - of economics, of public policy, of scientific and technical expertise are still overwhelmingly secular in nature.
How should Christians address the challenge of late modern ‘secularity’ and the dominant secularist narrative? I suggest that there are four different approaches, distinguishable on the basis of three key factors: how, both practically and theologically, they view the relationship between the church and the system of power, governance and knowledge in the wider society; what core theological categories they deploy in their understanding of ‘the world’; and what basic epistemological stance they take with respect to truth and knowledge.
(a) First, a conservative Christendom approach which seeks to restore the institutional centrality of the church within the wider social order (often reflected in the still influential role of the established churches and their leaders in relation to public policy debates). This approach deploys a theological framework in which human persons and society are located within a divinely ordered creation structured according to some version of ‘natural law’. Epistemologically, it assumes the objective validity or ‘knowability’ of divine law. This perspective keeps alive the idea of a Christian society in which Christian beliefs and values are dispersed through the culture, supported by a basic alliance between church and state institutions. A secular society represents a falling away from a divinely sanctioned order in which the church is properly a central religious institution.
At a theoretical or theological level, this view has limited support, but at a political or popular level it finds strong support amongst both spokespersons for the established churches and those Christian activists who wish to preserve a legal system and political culture based on Christian teaching and tradition.
(b) The second approach, (the dominant approach and deeply entrenched in the institutions, practices and discourses of mainstream Christianity) also assumes a basic harmony between church and the wider social order. However it involves a much greater degree of accommodation and adaptation to modernity. It more or less accepts the validity of the framework of the enlightenment and its diverse scientific, political and aesthetic expressions, either mainstream or oppositional. It views the task of public theology as one of entering the public realm on its terms and contributing the resources of Christian tradition. Christian theology adapts to the findings of modernity: in relation to scientific accounts of the world and to ethical developments such as opposition to racism, the growth of social justice movements, human rights, feminism, ecology and so on. The theological categories used to describe the world are the more universalist ones of creation or ‘the Judeo-Christian tradition’. These categories do not fundamentally challenge secular approaches to knowledge, politics and ethics, but express the religious or transcendental conditions of society. It thus seeks to preserve a role for ‘religion’ within the grand narrative of enlightenment secularisation. It is a modest and domesticated public theology, content to make offer its voice or perspective in a pluralistic, multi-cultural and multi-faith society.
(c) By contrast, post-liberal public theology and ‘radical orthodoxy’ makes a direct challenge to the epistemological and political framework of secular modernity. It does not accept the legitimacy or neutrality of the secular, but deconstructs it as fundamentally hostile to Christianity and expressive of an ‘ontology of violence’ From this perspective, mainstream public theology continues a ‘Constantinianism’ which has betrayed the primary eschatological relationship between the church, called to be a provisional sign of the kingdom, and the wider world in which it is located. The Radical Orthodoxy group in particular tells a story of ideological displacement in which secularism is an anti-theology. It seeks to recover the distinctive counter ‘public-ness’ of the Christian tradition and Christian community.. At times it appears that the goal of Radical Orthodoxy is to return to the more sacramental ordering of civil society ,Rather than speaking in general ‘universalist’ terms, it aims to recover the particularistic language of Christian orthodoxy: of the primary narrative of the kingdom, of Trinity, and of the eucharistic basis of economic and political community.
(d) A fourth approach – which I take to be a less adversarial variant of the third - is represented by Lesslie Newbigin, Colin Gunton and Oliver O’Donovan and (in some ways) John Yoder. This view is also post-Constantinian, inasmuch as it seeks to recover the epistemological primacy of the gospel and the basic eschatological or missionary tension between the church and the wider society in which it is located. The central principle of its public theology is the eschatological rule of Christ. The ‘rule of Christ’ gives rise to the call of the church to be the ‘sign of the kingdom’, a provisional anticipation of and witness to the eschatological city of God, and in the process, to the re-constitution of the wider society as a penultimate social order, no longer autonomous and thus always potentially sacred, but as on the ‘threshold of the kingdom’. This implies support for a distinctively Christian vision of the secularity of the wider society in which the church is situated. Thus, whilst it shares a great deal with the radical orthodoxy view, it is more positive towards secularity and modern liberalism. It is more inclined to argue that these have deep Christian roots. Rather than seeking to oppose and displace the secular it wishes to recover its proper theological grounding.
3. Contesting secular public-ness in Australia
Although in this paper I will draw on both of these latter post-Constantinian approaches, the primary counter narrative of modern secularity that I wish to tell is one of its deep theological ambiguity (O’Donovan et al) rather than as an anti-theology (Milbank). As the last approach suggests the sources of secularity lie in the gospel itself, since, with the ascension of Jesus, all forms of sacred kingship have been dethroned, all the principalities and powers have been defeated. The proper response to the eschatological rule of Christ is thus the joyful obedience to the life of the Spirit in the church on the one hand, and the preservation of an open ‘secularity’ in the wider society on the other. However, in this in-between time, between the already and the not yet, there is a continuing tension with an ever present tendency of human society to turn away from the freedom of Christ’s rule and to embrace new – or old – forms of the sacred.
In this perspective the supposedly ‘secularising’ processes of modernity, in which faith in Christ is reduced to private religiosity will paradoxically result in the idolatrous re-emergence of new forms of the sacred. As various people have argued, the secularist framework of the enlightenment is spiritually unsustainable and nihilistic. Even in the midst of the continuing dominance of secular reason, there are plenty of signs of what Jacques Ellul calls ‘the new demons’, including the sacralisation of the ostensibly secular domains of the economy, the neutral state, science and technology and so on. So, as Ellul once argued, Christians have a special calling from God to bear witness to the public vision of the gospel in such a way as to preserve the world’s freedom and open-ness..
How are we to do this? To begin with, it means that we should not uncritically accept enlightenment secularism as the taken for granted framework of the public sphere, but argue for an alternative theologically grounded vision. In the following passage from The Desire of the Nations, O’Donovan points to three key aspects involved in this daunting task: epistemological, ecclesial and civic:
..the Ascension is the foundation which determines all future time. Its logic leads from Christ's absence on the Mount of Olives to his unqualified presence at the Parousia. The contrast between these two moments is mediated by his 'presence in absence' at Pentecost, so that not only ultimate future, but intermediate future is governed from the moment of the Ascension: the time that lies between ourselves and his past time, the time which we ourselves now inhabit and the time which is still future up to the point at which the Kingdom is published universally. In one sense it is a secret foundation, since that ultimate publicity has not occurred; yet in no sense is it a private foundation, but one which determines all public existence. It determines the ultimate and most truly public existence of all, when the contradiction between the private and the common is to be resolved and disorder overcome. Prior to this it determines the public existence of the church, which participates in the coming of the Kingdom and witnesses to it; and through the church it determines the provisional public life of the world in which the authorities are subdued, reformed and given a limited authorisation.
Here O’Donovan draws out what he considers to be the significance of the risen, ascended rule of Christ for our understanding of public-ness: first, though obscured, the ascension is a public event, yet much more than that, it re-defines the true criteria of public-ness itself; second that church exists to anticipate and bear witness to the true public-ness of the Kingdom; and thirdly that it is through the church that the wider society is given its provisional public life. I shall discuss these three themes in a little more detail.
(a) Epistemological: The claims of ‘gospel truth’ in a pluralistic public world
There is a close connection between ‘public-ness’ and truth. On the one hand, the question of truth ultimately depends upon some kind of public argument, demonstration or refutation. On the other hand the discursive formation of public-ness reflects or presupposes some shared conception of the nature of truth and reality. The notion that the gospel is ‘public truth’ entails not only that the transcendental claims about Jesus must be brought into the public realm of late modern societies and tested in public debate and argument rather than being held as a private, subjective belief. It also involves the more startling claim that the gospel re-constitutes the criteria of ‘truth’ as well, or what Bruce Marshall calls a claim to ‘epistemic primacy’. Marshall argues that the basic mistake of much of modern theology ‘has been to offer a reinterpretation of the most central Christian claims.. which meets modernity’s epistemic standards’. Instead
A more satisfying approach to truth as a theological problem, rather than taking the church’s central beliefs to be especially in need of epistemic support, will take the church’s trinitarian identification of God itself chiefly to confer epistemic right. In order to plausibly maintain that the Trinity and other distinctively Christian doctrines are true, without drastically altering the meaning the Christian community ascribes to them, these doctrines must be regarded as epistemically primary across the board, that is, as themselves the primary criteria of truth.
Of course such a claim provokes strong objections from both modern and postmodern perspectives. From a modernist perspective, the Christian claim that the nature of reality is known through the story of Jesus has been overwhelmingly debunked by the progressive discoveries of modern science. Yet such triumphalist scientism is being vigorously contested, particularly in the growing field of dialogue between theology and science. Despite the astonishing capacity of the modern sciences to provide powerful and empirically corroborated explanations of the universe, from its cosmic immensity to its sub-atomic micro world to the emergence of biological complexity, it cannot tell the complete story. The irreducible world of personhood, moral and spiritual experience requires an even more fundamental framework that goes beyond the paradigms of objectivist science. The sciences cannot tell us the whole truth about reality. Nor can they define the criteria of truth.
However, in our more post-modern times the dominant objection to the gospel claim to ‘epistemic primacy’ is that it violates the principles of tolerance, pluralism and respect for difference. Christian claims to ultimate truth are regarded with deep suspicion, especially in the light of the public record of Christian coercion and oppression in the long centuries of Western Christendom.
The dominant secular liberal account of pluralism and tolerance should not be accepted uncritically. As various writers have noted, the pluralism of modern liberal societies is itself framed by a hegemonic instrumental reason which reduces diverse religious traditions and moral codes to matters of consumer preference rather than competing accounts of reality and human existence. Nonetheless, whether or not a Christian account of truth, especially in the strong form stated by Marshall, entails a genuine respect for difference and plurality is an important question. In the terms of the theme of this essay, does the logic of the gospel as public truth imply that we should aspire to the restoration of Christian hegemony over the discursive conditions of public life? Do we want to recover a religious public sphere?
I believe that we do not and that the concept of truth inherent in the gospel is not coercive but is characterised by a ‘self-limiting’ communicative open-ness that constitutes and acts to maintain the moral freedom (and responsibility) of the other. I shall briefly mention four reasons for this.
* The eschatological provisionality of Christian truth claims. As St Paul stated so famously, we do not yet see clearly, but through a glass darkly. Our present knowledge of the truth of God and thus of the created order is mediated and limited, still pointing to a fulness that yet awaits us. What we know is only a foretaste, something that is mediated through metaphor and analogy. This should affect the ways in which we engage with the world, the judgements we make in relation to its events, its political regimes and its histories. Our readings of the world and of the ultimate shape of the kingdom can only be provisional. We do not know fully how things will turn out. We remain painfully aware of our fallibility, our partiality, our capacity for self delusion and mistake.
* The Trinitarian ontology of the gospel. The deepest, most fundamental source for the communicative open-ness of the gospel is the Trinitarian relationality of God that underlies the story of salvation. This has been a central theme in the recent revival of trinitarian theology: that God’s existence is not one of monistic autonomy, from which the universe has been created as an act of arbitrary will. Rather it is intrinsically one of relationship, which Zizioulas calls ‘being in communion’. It is this trinitarian ontology which undergirds both the unity and diversity of the created world, including the plurality and diversity of human personhood and society.
* The incarnational vulnerability of Christian mission: Perhaps the most powerful statement of the Christian understanding of truth is the prologue of John’s gospel: the Word became flesh. The truth of God does not force itself massively upon us but comes to us in an amazing, embodied vulnerability. Even though he was the very source of all that is, Jesus was truly a first century Jewish man, limited not only by his basic human biology, but also by the limits of his culture, cosmology and political traditions. Jesus’ incarnational vulnerability continues to be the paradigm of Christian mission. The communication of the gospel requires an entering into the diversity of worlds, becoming subject in risky ways to those worlds’ customs, knowledge and rules and incarnating the truth of God in communities of witness rather than power. To be sure, the purpose of this mission is to transform those worlds, but as McFayden puts it, in ways that aim not to destroy them but to make plain what they truly are within the ‘horizon of the coming kingdom’.
* The dialogical open-ness of Christian community: The relational and incarnational nature of Christian truth finds further expression in the deliberative processes of Christian communal reflection. Gospel truth should not be understood as propositionally and doctrinally fixed, to be proclaimed monologically and accepted uncritically. Instead Christian doctrine provides the paradigm or framework for continuing communal theological reflection and application. Thus gospel truth is a communal practice, known in the processes of speaking, listening, arguing, storytelling and of course most deeply in the improvisory communal practices of the eucharist.. Indeed, the capacity of Christian mission to communicate the truth of God peaceably to a wider world in ways that is both faithful and respects the freedom of the other depends vitally on this practice of truth in the Christian community.
(b) Ecclesia: The civic assembly of the eschatological city
The second aspect of ‘public-ness’ entailed by the gospel is its practical expression in the life of church. A central theme in the post-Constantinian public theology of John Yoder and others is the theological and practical challenge to the church to live up to its calling as a provisional sign of the alternative politics of Christ’s kingdom. For Australian churches this a profoundly radical challenge. Most Australian Christians, I suggest, continue to assume that the ‘church’ is primarily an a-political religious association located in the private sphere which, theologically speaking, has little relevance to public issues and vice versa. To be sure, as Christians we are often concerned with political issues: questions of inequality, human rights and public morality. We may believe that ‘the church’ has a responsibility to speak out on such issues, either in defence of ‘Christian moral principles’ or in support of ‘social justice’. Yet we take it for granted that the internal life of the church is essentially apolitical, concerned with spiritual matters.
The provocative assertion of Yoder, Hauerwas and others is that this assumption misrepresents the central calling of the Christian church to be an alternative ‘political’ sign of the kingdom, the provisional representation of the ‘counter-politics’ of the rule of Christ.. Rather than assuming that ‘public-ness’ and ‘politics’ is defined by the institutions, practices and discourses of the wider society, we should recognise that it is the church, inspired and guided by the creative power of the Holy Spirit, that is called to demonstrate in its corporate life and most fully, in its worship of the risen Christ, what true ‘public-ness’ means .
Some theologians have argued that the task of the church is to be itself a ‘public’. However I don’t think this is quite right. For the church always stands in an eschatological relationship with the wider social, political and natural order in which it is located. It exists as an alternative reading of that world, a sign of what that world, that city, that public sphere is ultimately called to be. In this perspective, the church cannot be a independent ‘public’. It represents God’s promise of transformation of that wider public world in which it is located.
Several writers have highlighted the way in which the early churches represented a politics radically counter to that of the Greco-Roman society in which they were located. Bernd Wannenwetsch, for example, notes the very different ways in which the relationship between oikos and polis were understood and practiced by the first Christians. In the new politics of the kingdom, the hitherto basic division between the (male) public world of freedom and the domestic world of necessity was overcome, a reworking that was reflected in a new language of political community.
The practical task of recovering this radically different gospel politics to which the church is called is an exciting contemporary challenge. One significant contribution to meeting this challenge has been John Yoder’s little book, Body Politics. Yoder describes five key ‘sacramental’ practices through which a church community is constituted and sustained by God: the exercise of restitutive church discipline, the holy meal, baptism, the exercise of diverse gifts, and communal deliberation in response to the preached word. Yet in Yoder’s account these are not purely ‘religious’ practices. They are fundamentally social and political practices, central to any form of human community, yet in the church they are transformed through their re-orientation to the rule of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. In them, the people of God are called to demonstrate to the ‘watching world’ the very different upside down politics of the rule of Christ. I suggest that it is as we seek to recover the deeper theo-political meanings of the central practices of communal worship, those practices through which we are constituted as ‘the people of God’, that we both confront the distorted nature of the ‘public sphere’ in which we live (with its current antinomies, inequalities and alienation) and also discover in tentative and provisional ways how a true political life might be lived.
(c) Civil society: Preserving a secular public sphere
The apparent weakness of an eschatologically framed, church centred public theology is that it seems to provide no positive theological grounding for the wider ‘public’ sphere in which the church is located. The conception of an eschatological dualism between the kingdom (provisionally anticipated in the worship and life of the church) and the world implies that the world is little more than a sphere of rebellion, destined in the fulness of time to pass away. Taken to its logical, sectarian, conclusion this is scarcely a public theology at all, since it would seem to encourage the least possible involvement in the affairs of the ‘worldly’ public. Thus, those wanting a theological rationale for more positive engagement in public life turn instead to a more general, world affirming doctrine of creation or natural law.
However, as the statement by O’Donovan suggests, the vision of the eschatological rule of Christ does provide the grounds for a positive, though conditional conception of the ‘public-ness’ of the wider political order. This ‘public-ness’ is not, I suggest, something that is ontologically given in the ‘order of creation’ but is (re-) constituted and sustained by the ‘communicative rationality’ of gospel mission which itself testifies to the ascended rule of Christ. By this I mean that the activity of gospel witness brings into being a distinctive space of social communication, of public open-ness. This is characterised by the giving to those to whom it is addressed a new freedom and dignity (even the poorest beggar is addressed as a child of God, as one for whom Christ died), and, in the process, the development of a culture of deliberation and debate.
In this perspective the rule of Christ over the wider society, in which the principalities and powers are made subordinate to him, might not be best understood in terms of the sanctioning of hierarchical forms of civil, political and military authority. Rather it may be better conceptualised in terms of the creation of a new public open-ness, dynamically sustained by the self-limiting, incarnational work of mission. The ‘frontier’ of mission gives rise to a public and political space, not of Christian dominance, but of continuing conversation in which people have both the freedom to receive the gift of God – or to refuse it.
In his defence of the central idea of Christendom, O’Donovan argues that in its long history its ‘missionary tension’ was never fully submerged. The many and diverse moments of reform, reformation or reaction represented in different ways a recovery of the basic eschatological horizon of the gospel in response to the constant tendency to being coopted within a single society, either ‘Christian’ or ‘post-Christian’.
O’Donovan’s view is that a post-Christendom political theology requires not the rejection of ‘liberalism’ but a recovery its Christian sources. It was classical liberal society, in which the ‘secularity’ of the state and ‘public sphere’ was sustained by the central liturgical practices of the church, that best expressed the political logic of mission. By contrast, a late modern liberalism which assumes the autonomy of public sphere and the relegation of any claims of Christ’s rule to the private sphere is a ‘modernity of menace’. Thus, the gospel vision of public-ness involves not the assertion of Christian ideological, political and economic power, but both the continuing defence of central liberal political values (of freedom, equality, open speech and justice) and more importantly, the provocative claim that it is ultimately the rule of the glorious, ascended Christ that sustains them.
4. Engaging in debates about ‘public-ness’ in Australian public culture
In conclusion, I want to return briefly to the challenge with which I began: the defence of a culture of ‘public-ness’ in response to the corrosive effects of neo-liberal reform. My argument in this paper has been that Christians should actively defend the public-ness of Australian political culture. Yet we should also contest its taken for granted secularism or supposed religious neutrality. I’ve suggested that to do this we need to recover the alternative epistemological vision of the gospel, its provisional embodiment in the (political) worship and life of the church and in the task of preserving the open-ness of the wider society. How does this broad theological vision shape the more specific practical defence of public-ness?
First, I suggest that it means that we should actively participate in the ongoing debate about how to maintain public culture and public institutions in the context of globalisation and the so-called ‘new economy’. As mentioned above there are numerous areas of policy debate, including public education, public broadcasting, the nature of work, the future of cities, the development of the internet, as well as the civic role of major institutions such as banks, in which the conflict between ‘privatising’ neo-liberal and civic visions are played out. There is ongoing discussion about key ideas such as citizenship, social capital, civil society, deliberative democracy, sustainability, ethical investment and so on. We need to be active participants in such debates, both in relation to the specific policy issues (such as the provision of adequate funds and independence of public broadcasting) and also in relation to the contestation of what those terms mean. Concepts of citizenship etc are ‘essentially contested terms’ and thus provide opportunities for the opening up of more fundamental ethical and theological issues.
Second, there is a vital need for Australian church communities to take seriously the challenge of ‘secular public-ness’ in relation to their own corporate life. My observation is that most Christian congregations in Australia, regardless of denomination, are content to function as religious associations in the private sphere, complacently accepting the freedoms and privileges inherited from a Constantinian past. As I have argued above, our fundamental challenge is to recover a theological vision of Christian assembly as a ‘counter politics’ and to embody it in a creatively subversive political practice. In doing so we will necessarily engage in the issues of public-ness being debated in the wider society. I believe that John Yoder’s brief description of the ‘body politics’ of Christian community provides us with a valuable paradigm of how through the practices of communal worship we can provide and alternative ‘reading’ of the wider public culture: particularly in relation to its most basic issues of how we produce and share our goods and services, how we deal with conflict, how we accommodation of diversity, how we include and exclude and how we ‘reason together’ on matters of the common good.
Thirdly, we need to develop ways in which we can enable lay Christians to contribute to the defence of public life through their various forms of involvement in the wider society: as citizens, as members of various associations, as workers or as volunteers and activists in relation to pressing public issues. Perhaps we need to recognise the diverse ‘ministries of public-ness’: the contributions made by people working in various professions such as law, architecture, planning, medicine, teaching, higher education, engineering, the civil service, finance an so on, to the maintenance of public life; the dogged commitment of Christians involved in issues of social justice, environmental conservation or community development; and the role of ‘visible Christians’ who contribute to the ongoing debates about issues of public importance.