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Around the Network, Pedagogy

100 Years of Political Theology: An Australian Perspective (by Clive Pearson)

For me the field of political theology does not exist in isolation from a number of other disciplinary genres. There are some older texts which helped mark out the territory and possess a kind of classical importance. That claim needs to be seen in perspective. I am writing out of Australia and, prior to living here, taught theology in Aotearoa-New Zealand following postgraduate study at Cambridge.

From the editor: We continue our series of “Top 10 lists,” offering different perspectives on the field of political theology in response to Ted Smith’s “Political Theology Start-up Kit” posted last month at the Religion in American History blog. This week, Clive Pearson offers a distinctive Australian perspective on the issues and texts most important to his work in the field.

For me the field of political theology does not exist in isolation from a number of other disciplinary genres. There are some older texts which helped mark out the territory and possess a kind of classical importance. That claim needs to be seen in perspective.  I am writing out of Australia and, prior to living here, taught theology in Aotearoa-New Zealand following postgraduate study at Cambridge. The theological voice from this part of the world is only occasionally heard: it is often assumed that this voice is fairly similar to what is on offer in the North Atlantic arena – but is it? The personal shape of my political theology is informed by this wider theological discussion but is also responsive to the history and politics of the region in which I live and work.  It possesses a fragmentary and occasional nature.

The work of Reinhold Niebuhr, especially his Moral Man and Immoral Society, and J-B Metz’ Faith in History and Society first attracted me. They presented a way of doing theology and engaging with a range of public issues which was explicit and which complemented the more comprehensive systematic theologies.  Niebuhr effectively demonstrated the tension between individual morality and systemic complicity and the need for political realism. Metz’ emphasis on the ‘dangerous memory of Jesus Christ’ presented an ever-present subversive account of a suffering God sharing in the pain of creation. Both Metz and Niebuhr furnished an antidote to apathy. They were, in a sense, permission-giving for a theological student in a context where ecclesial and dogmatic considerations were more obviously to the fore.

The reading of Martin Marty’s The Public Church was likewise helpful because of its passion for its protest against privatism and individualism and engaging ecumenically with the public space. Marty has sparked a continuing interest in the practice of a public theology and a whole raft of writers who have addressed issues of method, the capacity to discern the signs of the time, pay attention to audience and demonstrate a sense of kairos.  In terms of a public theology I am indebted to an increasing raft of (practical) theologians but would single out the work of Jurgen Habermas on his identifying  various public spheres and  later naming the post-secular democracy. The selection of Habermas and Marty lie in how their work has been seminal in the sense they marked out a particular territory and directed subsequent reading and thinking to other theorists exploring similar ideas. The specific text from Habermas would be The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

That now brings me to my own theological location. The first exercise is historical. What has been the relationship between church and state, faith and politics? How has that differed from the traditions which lie behind political theologies crafted in the United States and Europe? To this end I have selected Tom Frame’s Church and State: Australia’s Imaginary Wall and Laurie Guy’s Shaping Godzone. Neither of these texts will be found on the list of contributors to this blog who come from a different theological geography. The benefit of their work is that it enables the theologian in these countries to take a step back from the immediacy of issues and the increasing expectation of instant opinion in a highly interconnected world. They provide an historical account of how faith has been politically active over an extended period of time and through a range of agencies. For that reason I selected them ahead of Marion Maddox’s God Under Howard and Roy Williams’, In God They Trust? The Religious Beliefs if Australia’s Prime Ministers, 1901-2013.

That reference to immediacy and instant opinion has led me to appreciate Jolyon Mitchell’s Media Violence and Christian Ethics. The practice of national politics is frequently played out in the media. The Murdoch press is especially strong in Australia. The independence of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) is often called into question. Mitchell provides a way of reading how the ‘news’ is framed and provides a means by which there can be a dialogue between theology and the role of media in this country. The latter has been subject to a number of recent local publications. Mitchell’s work provokes further thinking of how  a public and political theology might engage with the increasing presence of the social media.  Are the disciplines nimble enough?

The tendency of a political theology in Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand and Oceania is to engage with specific issues of the moment. In view of their likely ongoing significance I have focussed on asylum seekers and climate change. These issues dominate opinion polls and determine the fate of elections in Australia.  They lend themselves to populism, media manipulation, and self-righteous judgement. Susanna Snyder’s Asylum Seekers, Migration and Church explores a theological method and biblical hermeneutic alongside a range of opinion, rhetoric and response. Snyder helps a political theology ‘read’ what is going on beneath the surface of partisan debate.

With respect to climate change and its intersection with politics the most telling indictment in this part of the world is the work of the public philosopher, Clive Hamilton. Following his exposure of the fossil fuel industry and its vested interests, Hamilton wrote Requiem for a Species. That species is humankind: Hamilton has situated the prospects of climate change inside the emergence of the anthropocene. He has done so in a way which begs the question as to how any theology ought to be done in the future mindful of our complicity in the energy crisis which will be with us for the foreseeable future. Writers like Hamilton help us prepare for the political debates already around us and which in this country are likely to intensify.

My last selection is not a published text. By most standards it does not deserve to be on this list. It will be completely unknown to those outside Oceania. The work of Ernst Conradie on the importance of reconceiving the basic doctrines of a systematic theology give me confidence to posit this option. Conradie is working on a global response to that agenda and encouraged me to write on behalf of the islands of the Pacific. Kiribati and Tuvalu are the most at risk of rising sea levels. Their people face the prospect of becoming in a fairly short span of time environmental refugees. The politics surrounding their plight will anticipate the plight of others. Tafue Lusama is from Tuvalu. His text is a Master of Theology dissertation from Tainan Theological Seminary in Taiwan – ‘The Punishing of the Innocent’.  He examines the local and global politics of climate change and asks ‘are we not your neighbours?’ The hidden question is ‘what did we do to deserve this?’ He recognizes the power of Christian believing and biblical stories  – like Noah’s rainbow covenant – to keep a people politically quiescent. My final political voice is thus one of a climate change activist from the world’s fourth smallest country and which will be seldom heard within the corridors of theological power.


To Recap:

Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society. (1960)

J-B. Metz, Faith in History and Society. (1979)

Martin Marty, The Public Church. (1981)

Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. (1962) 

Tom Frame, Church and State: Australia’s Imaginary Wall. (2006)

Laurie Guy, Shaping Godzone. (2012)

Jolyon Mitchell, Media Violence and Christian Ethics. (2007)

Susanna Snyder, Asylum Seekers, Migration and Church. (2007)

Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species (2010)

Tafue Lusama, ‘The Punishing of the Innocent: The Problem of Global Warming with Special Reference to Tuvalu’. (2003)

Clive Pearson is the Principal & Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at United Theological College in Sydney, Australia.  He has also taught at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Clive’s primary academic interests are in cross-cultural, diasporic, ecological and public theologies. For more than 15 years, he has been exploring the conversation between these kind of theologies and a systematic theology. Clive is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Public TheologyCross-Culture: A Journal of Theology and Ministerial Practice, and Political Theology

One thought on “100 Years of Political Theology: An Australian Perspective (by Clive Pearson)

  1. Thanks Clive – nice to see some down-under voices here. I think a specific Kiwi perspective would have to include Maori voices, especially those of the Maori prophets and their liberation and pacifist theology.

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