The Language of Public Theology


Can the language that we use and take for granted be such a problem for public theology? As we search for a vision, a sense of purpose, a dream that will motivate and inspire as 2012 begins, I want to suggest that the language we use does indeed create barriers to what we are trying to achieve. The very term “public” itself presupposes that there is a clear distinction from what is “private” and that therefore what holds good in the one is not to be tolerated or accepted in the other. When I wrote my chapter for “Christianity and the New Social Order”, I used the work of Rawls and Habermas who both want to see a difference between the realm of public reason and that of a private or internal community-based religious commitment. There should be a point in public and political debate beyond which the language of faith is not acceptable and decisions should be justified only in the terminology of a public reason that all can share. Whilst understanding why such a stance might be attractive, I have never been able to grasp how individuals can cut themselves in two and leave their faith component at the door of the Parliament or Senate House. Integrity surely means wholeness and a consistency of attitude and behaviour, so how can one be expected to park one’s faith commitment outside the public forum? In which case, the supposed boundary between what is public and what is private must be blurred to say the least.

So we need an alternative to the language of public and private, a way of describing what happens in practice and which does justice to the complexity and subtlety of public and ethical discourse. In some of the language that I have “mined” in my attempts to make this clear, we need to point out when and how the words that we use are either an “enclosure” or a “threshold” – when they hold us captive to a false view of the world, and when they set us free or challenge us to see that world afresh. (The language of enclosures and thresholds I derive from the political philosophers Hardt and Negri in “Empire”, “Multitude” and “Commonwealth” – they also attempt to use words differently in order to construct an alternative politics).

When I originally wrote the chapter referred to, I closed it by referring to some of the language that I wanted to suggest might fulfil this subversive function. Both my two fellow authors and our editor decided without much debate that this section of the chapter had to be omitted as it would only serve to confuse and obscure the points we were trying to make. In a way then, the punch-line that the rest of the chapter had been building up to was never delivered, and I felt that I had been cut off at the very point where I had something original to say. I got as far as saying that the language of public and private is an enclosure, but was not allowed to propose some of the terms that might provide a threshold to what is new. One accepts the constraints of a particular text and hopes to utilise the more radical suggestions elsewhere, which is what I have done. Particular authors whom I have found helpful in this process include the dead French philosopher Deleuze (sometimes in his partnership with Guattari), their notion of lines of flight, assemblages, striated and holey spaces and so on. Theirs is virtually a new language in its own right, but helps to point to the fluid, interactive and dynamic nature of human existence. Also the live French philosopher Badiou and his notion of fidelity, and fidelity to fidelity itself which seems to me to capture something of the unconditional nature of commitment. And finally the writing of Bruno Latour, again French, but more of a sociologist of science or anthropologist than a straight philosopher – his replacement of matters of fact with matters of concern; his questioning of the distinction between the human and the non-human and of that between fact and value. He talks suggestively about the notion of reassembling and the need to give proper attention to the detail of all matters of concern rather than employing terms such as “social” (or even “theological”) which short-circuit genuine research. So perhaps you can begin to sympathize with my colleagues who wanted this material omitted from the book. Some of this will however turn up in the forthcoming edition of Political Theology itself, which is dedicated to a conference held in the UK last June looking at the developing relationship between Philosophy of Religion and Public Theology, and particularly the movement known as Speculative Realism.

I would like to promise that “all will be revealed”, if not made plain, in that edition (and a couple of other forthcoming chapters in books) but that would be to go too far. There will be other publications and other attempts to open up this debate about the language that we use. In the meantime I will go on “reassembling” both theory and practice in a different way, and hope that the process will prove both productive and challenging.

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