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Announcing PT 16.1: Theology, Plurality, and Society

Issue 16.1 of the journal Political Theology is devoted to theology, plurality and society. Below guest editor, Dr. Peter Scott, introduces the issue.
Must a religiously plural society fall apart? How does theology process plurality? This special issue of Political Theology addresses the issue of plurality from a variety of theological perspectives. It began life as an attempt to respond to an earlier special issue of the journal, which assessed critically the political and theological phenomenon of Red Toryism. In the earlier volume, there was persistent criticism of an appeal to a common tradition in the context of a religiously plural society.

Issue 16.1 of the journal Political Theology is devoted to theology, plurality and society.  Below guest editor, Dr. Peter Scott, introduces the issue.

Must a religiously plural society fall apart? How does theology process plurality? This special issue of Political Theology addresses the issue of plurality from a variety of theological perspectives. It began life as an attempt to respond to an earlier special issue of the journal, which assessed critically the political and theological phenomenon of Red Toryism. In the earlier volume, there was persistent criticism of an appeal to a common tradition in the context of a religiously plural society.

In a religiously plural and multi-cultural society, what is the common tradition that might be recovered, and in what senses is it ‘‘common?’’ We must, it seems, acknowledge that there are competing religious versions of the good. What is the relationship between these competing notions and how do these relate to a common tradition? A common good or a common tradition presupposes participation — but by whom, and in what ways? This raises the matter of dissent, and the encouragement and tolerance of dissent. Does the state have a role in addressing participation — and can it be relied upon to pluralize? With religious plurality, there also comes cultural and political diversity. Moreover, this is partly the case for religio-practical reasons. The communities of religious traditions have their own cultures, which are wider than acts of worship — and which may include social activities, community support, etc. We should expect that people might participate in the wider religious culture and not only the worshipping culture. This, then, is the contribution of religious communities to a wider cultural plurality.

Secularism and the role of churches in governance also become key issues. What role does religion play in the governance of a multicultural society? How has plurality influenced the religious beliefs of the people, and how does theology respond? How does theology engage with the theological issues, which materialize in socio-cultural settings beyond the academy and beyond the Church? In addition, further aspects of plurality are also brought to the fore: is anthropocentrism a form of anti-plurality, and can a pluralistic worldview also incorporate non-humans and nature? The notion of otherness is also brought into question in a number of these articles: does plurality necessarily imply difference? Why not instead opt for an approach stressing unity — would that not be more diplomatic, or would that devalue and under represent diversity? In countries like Britain, plurality becomes a pivotal concept in terms of theological discussion and indeed socio-political discussion. The articles in this issue point to these questions, and offer insightful reflections on the nature of plurality and its use conceptually, metaphysically, and pragmatically.

In my own article, I consider the issue of plurality in the context of the relationship between humanity and nature. I acknowledge the complexities of this relationship and consider whether there is a parallel between plurality in society and plurality in nature. In fact, I go further by suggesting not a parallel but that such plurality might be one and the same, given that humanity in many senses is a part of nature, and nature a part of society. I suggest that this scenario — the realisation that nature is not external to ourselves — requires a revised approach to right, which he terms ‘‘postnatural right.’’ In particular, I am concerned with addressing anthropocentrism and developing a new metaphysics, which will be viewed as eschatological and teleological, progressing towards the common good. Consistent with my outlook, such a common good will of course be nonanthropocentric and perhaps exhibit a sociability and mutuality between humans and non-humans. I end his paper by applying his metaphysical/conceptual position to the tangible issue of climate change, and exploring how a revised appreciation of the human–nature relationship might bring with it a pragmatic call-to-action for greater society in this context.

Graeme Smith approaches the issue of plurality with respect to the audiences of, and perhaps the very nature of, theology itself. He does so by considering what role theology has, and how theology ought to be ‘‘done’’ in certain settings. His paper has a particular focus on the concept of a ‘‘public theology,’’ which separates theology from its formal incarnations in the Church and academy, and focuses on its role in contemporary society. He acknowledges that a public theology might have an ephemeral character, given that it does not rely on the lexicon of the Church or the academy, nor does it confine itself to their problems. A popular public theology emanates organically from society and thus reflects its concerns, its pliability, and its multifaceted nature. As such, a public theology can fluidly and seamlessly drift between academic disciplines, social justice issues, cultural engagement, and metaphysics. Public theology considers seriously the theological contributions of culture and thus allows theologians a platform, or perhaps even forces theologians to engage with social, cultural, and political debates.

The notion of a ‘‘post-secular’’ society is probed in Elaine Graham’s article. She begins her discussion of plurality by describing a society that is not ‘‘after’’ secular necessarily, but a society that encompasses a declining church attendance and a rise in the popularity of secularism and atheism. Within this setting, society is being stretched by two seemingly opposed trends (secularism and religion). Yet perhaps this is a pluralistic setting rather than a conflicted one. In any case, Graham questions how the encounter with the greater good manifests itself in a world that sees a declining orthodoxy and rise in secularism. The dimension of existence within which many of theology’s existential questions lie does not disappear in a secular world, and thus, on the frontier where philosophy meets public, Graham questions where the religious finds its space. Is the post-secular society then representative of a religiosity that is dynamically evolving rather than a sequential paradigm of religious decline followed by a rise in secularism? Post-secular would not then be a term to describe a chronological time after a secular movement, but more a pluralistic depiction of the limits of secularism when confronted with a greater good. Anecdotally, one notices a rise in the adoption of religious language, metaphors, and narratives to deal with this encounter, even when orthodoxies are viewed as limiting or even oppressive. The language of ‘‘spiritual’’ and ‘‘holistic’’ seeps its way into secular practices, and perhaps a converse adopting of secular icons as religious symbols is also evident? The ‘‘making sacred’’ of urban spaces, perhaps? Ultimately, Graham points out the value, legitimacy, and need for religious and theological language in the pluralistic blending of secularity and religiosity.

Benjamin Wood, in his paper ‘‘Plurality and the Rule of Love,’’ offers not so much an analysis of plurality but a suggested way forward. He takes as a departure point significant problems with models of multiculturalism — models which seem separatist and, ironically, estranging. Such multiculturalist models, according to Tony Blair and other world leaders, have met their end. As such, Wood’s paper is timely, contextualized by the struggle and strife of ideological clashes between Western and Middle Eastern value systems in recent years (if such conflicts do not truly exist, then they have surely been invented, to paraphrase Voltaire). Suggesting a way forward, and perhaps a new approach to plurality, Wood relies on an Augustinian exegetical approach, which he feels provides a ‘‘theological vehicle for cherishing forms of ethnic and cultural differences.’’ He argues that Augustine offers a pluralistic approach to scripture, taking seriously the plurality in scriptural interpretations. Such an approach can be broadened and applied to theo-politics, perhaps even politics in general. Yet, Wood notes that contemporary Britain and Europe may have fallen into the trap of a relatively peaceful yet fragmented, perhaps ghettoized multiculturalism. To avoid this, a sincere acknowledgement of difference is vital. This, too, he finds in Augustine and his politics of love, which may allow for a ‘‘radical cultural plurality but places it within intelligible bounds.’’ In this sense, Wood offers a theological third way between communitarianism and liberal multiculturalism.

Mark Chapman begins his consideration of plurality by acknowledging the Church of England’s (renewed) focus on the common good and contributing to the local community, particularly regarding solidarity with the poor and marginalized. In a sense, this marks a return to ‘‘hard-core’’ Gospel values. This acknowledgement, he argues, takes place in the context of the ‘‘small church’’ and the changing shape of Christianity in contemporary British society, and indeed, in contemporary British politics. By utilizing a number of surveys, Chapman illustrates a situation of a declining participation in church life in Britain. He discusses a morphing in British Christianity where dogma has given way to a lack of homogeneity, where now Anglicanism has become ‘‘counter-cultural.’’ Chapman then addresses the difficulties that emerge in this setting. Can language of a ‘‘common good’’ be useful when a plurality of ideologies are trying to co-exist, and diverse values are in constant contact with each other? Would it be conceivable that the best way forward is for religious traditions to maintain their own agendas and their own ideas of the good, or would this ignore the value of dialogue with the other? This struggle to find a balance between identity and dialogue among religions is echoed beyond religious discourse in the notion of ‘‘big society.’’ Is the notion of the ‘‘big society’’ to be preferred or should it be abandoned in favour of localism? The struggle to find a comfortable position between churches holding firm to their own beliefs but at the same time engaging in a peaceful coexistence in a multicultural setting is indicative of the struggle between the notion of a centralized, governed state and independent cooperative localities. The end question, then, is how can a balance be struck, and can models of theological plurality provide a framework for political plurality?

These articles touch upon the pluralistic relationships between humanity and nature, between the religious and the secular, between the academy, the Church and the public, between communitarianism and liberal multiculturalism, and between religious traditions’ versions of the common good. Our collective efforts to engage with plurality in a highly mediated world will not be comfortable, and strategies will need to be developed in theology as in politics. Yet the need to address the issue of plurality is too pressing to ignore, and therein lies the need for this special issue.

The articles presented here emerge out of a colloquium whose aim was to reconsider plurality, as theme and concept, in theology and society. The colloquium met twice at the University of Manchester and was a project of the Lincoln Theological Institute. I am very grateful to the Trustees of the Lincoln Theological Institute who funded our meetings and to Gary Keogh, the Samuel Ferguson Research Associate at the University of Manchester, who wrote the summaries of each article and oversaw the process of submitting the essays to the publisher.

Peter Scott is the Samuel Ferguson Professor of Applied Theology and Director of the Lincoln Theological Institute at the University of Manchester.

Table of Contents


Does Nature Pluralize? Towards A Greater Society (Peter Manley Scott)

A Popular Public Theology: Issues Of Pluralism, Identity, and Justice (Graeme Smith)

The Unquiet Frontier: Tracing the Boundaries of Philosophy and Public Theology (Elaine Graham)

Plurality and the Rule of Love: The Possibility of Augustinian Multiculturalism (Benjamin J. Wood)

The Common Good, Pluralism and the Small Church (Mark Chapman)

Book Reviews

Douglas E. Oakman, The Political Aims of Jesus — Edward Dowler

Nicholas P. Miller, The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State — Mark E. Gammon

Aristotle Papanikolaou, The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy — Zachary Kostopoulos

Lloyd Steffen, Ethics and Experience: Moral Theory from Just War to Abortion — Philip LeMasters

Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt — Vincent Lloyd

Richard J. Mouw, The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship: Essays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper — Autumn Alcott Ridenour

George Yancy, Christology and Whiteness: What Would Jesus Do? — Kara N. Slade

Elaine Graham, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public Theology in a Post-Secular Age — Graeme Smith


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