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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Author Meets Critics: A Theology of Public Life

boisi center for religion and american public life

On October 11, the Boisi Center hosted an “Author Meets Critics” panel discussion about a provocative and important new book by Charles Mathewes, entitled A Theology of Public Life (Cambridge, 2007). Mathewes, a professor of religious ethics and the history of Christian thought at the University of Virginia, was joined by two of the most eminent practitioners of “public theology” today: David Hollenbach, S.J., the University Professor of Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, and Ronald Thiemann, Bussey Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. Erik Owens, assistant director of the Boisi Center, moderated the lively discussion.

Mathewes began with an overview of his book, which, he noted, asks not “What does God have to do with politics?” but rather “What does politics have to do with God?”  This distinction hints at the important difference he sees between a “public theology” (which becomes self-destructively accommodationist when it focuses too much on its non-Christian audience) and a “theology of public life” that is more completely rooted in Christian theology. Indeed, Mathewes’ book articulates a “theology of engagement” in public life based upon “a distinctively Augustinian account of God and God’s relation to the world.” An Augustinian theology of public life condemns the many forms of escapism—from God, neighbor and nature/creation—that are widespread in modern culture, and highlights the grace that properly orients people toward their neighbors and toward God.

In this sense, Mathewes argued, Christians should understand citizenship as a type of liturgy, the collective act of a community. The theological virtues of faith, hope and love can help Christians  participate in public life in ways that are both distinctively Christian and fruitfully civic.

In his response, David Hollenbach praised Mathewes’ understanding of public life “as a mediation of divine grace” by which citizens can encounter God through their neighbors in the public sphere. And he commended Mathewes for his awareness that an overvaluing of public life can become a form of totalitarianism in which the political takes over the whole of life. Hollenbach’s chief critique focused on what he saw as Mathewes’ conflation of the natural (i.e., the political) and the supernatural (the religious) due to an erroneous reading of Thomas Aquinas, who in fact differentiated the realms without separating them.

For his part, Ronald Thiemann commended Mathewes for meditations on the political and public aspects of faith, hope and love that are “rarely articulated with such beauty and power.” But he challenged the distinction between “public theology” and a “theology of public life” that gives the book its title, arguing that they appear to do much the same work. To the extent that the approaches differ, Thiemann argued that public theology takes a more sympathetic and nuanced view of its audience; people can move between belief and unbelief, or religious and secular approaches, and Mathewes’ exclusively Christian arguments fails to address this movement.