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Defining "Public Theologian"

President’s Blog
April 10, 2014

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Philippians 2:1-4 (Common English Bible)

Breanna HQ
Garrett-Evangelical alumna, Breanna Dahl (G-ETS 2013)

At the school, we have been recently thinking about what it means to be public theologians, about the implications for our curriculum revision, and about the questions of how we might teach in ways that would better prepare our graduates to be public theologians. I am becoming more familiar with the related literature and with some of the academic complexity in defining the term. And, I am learning about the wide range of definitions that can be attributed to the term, from public theology being an improper pursuit at all to definitions so broad the term ceases to have any useful specific meaning.

In the midst of these intellectual considerations, it seems obvious to me that Jesus was a “public theologian” as were the prophets before him. At least this is the case if we understand “public” to mean a reference to concern for the wellbeing of all. Jesus’ directive to love our neighbors as ourselves (which follows as a necessity if we are loving God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul), also ensures that we must look beyond ourselves and beyond our comfort zones. Much of our work and many of our efforts can be insidiously self-serving in ways that are blinding.

For me, being a public theologian means being able to bring the resources of our faith to the public square with concern for “the common good.” It means being mindful about where God is at work - or not - in certain circumstances. It means explicitly using the language of our faith -  sometimes. And, sometimes it means simply caring enough, across the otherness we encounter in the public square, to participate with those of different faiths, or no faith, in a set of shared ethics and the actions that ensue from these commitments. This kind of collaboration with others for the wellbeing of all increases our impact on issues of homelessness, violence in our communities, poverty, hunger, unemployment, immigration justice, health care, sustainability of our environment, access to quality education, etc.  

Recently, I was in Indianapolis visiting with an extraordinary group of highly accomplished women leaders.  Our Board of Trustee member, Rev. Kevin Armstrong, President of the Methodist Health Foundation, and our friend, Judge Sara Evans Barker hosted a lunch meeting for the purpose of introducing these women of faith (United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Quaker) to Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, as well as providing an opportunity for me to learn something from them about leadership. 

The visit was lively and full of good humor. As I began to hear something from each woman about her work and the extent of her public involvement, I was stunned, absolutely stunned, by the cumulative contribution for good in the public square represented in the room. To a person, some form of “giving back” and community service was definitively present. For example:

  • leadership of and for the United Way
  • Big Sisters
  • illustration of Jewish children’s books that teach inclusivity
  • directing exploration of vocation and faith with undergraduates
  • working for public safety
  • pastoral leadership in denomination and faith community
  • chairing and participating in community foundations and philanthropy that supports many forms of education and assistance to women
  • serving boards that support the prevention of child abuse
  • working in legal aid
  • leadership supporting music in the community
  • elected representation in local and state politics
  • health care policy work
  • activism
  • journalism
  • chamber of commerce service
  • service on higher education boards
  • architectural work
  • supervision of a hospital chaplaincy training program 

I was compelled to seriously reconsider, in a new light, some of the recent invitations I have received to join community-focused boards. As a result, I decided to accept an invitation to join the Evanston Health Ministries Board as a way of helping our school gain more visibility in the community and as a way of exploring how we might contribute to this new work.

The lunch meeting was a wake up call to the ways in which we can live fairly insular lives, in our own little comfortable spheres of influence (as important as these are) taking care of our own loved ones and not venturing too much further out. Garrett-Evangelical has not in recent times been systematically intentional about the role of public theology in our educational mission, or, about what I believe we intended in our institutional emphasis formed almost 20 years ago on “prophetic interaction in society.” To be sure, there is much good service and public theology going on all across our community. It is in our institutional DNA and I have made a call for us to be more explicit and intentional about how a commitment to public theology will support the formation of bold, spiritual leaders, leaders who are willing to take the necessary risks.    

We will continue to clarify for ourselves what we mean by the term, but for now, we can look to Philippians and harken to the admonition of St. Paul when he says, “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others." 



# Jon Wymer 2014-04-15 21:12
I enjoy your blog articles as our seminary president, and particularly benefited from this one. It is certainly a good thing for every seminarian to consider what it means to be a public theologian.
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# Clint Twedt-Ball 2014-04-22 21:55
Lallene, This is a good and thoughtful article. I must say that what you are talking about is exactly what I felt I learned from you and Marti Scott through the Carpenter Group of 1998-99. This public theology is what has guided me in my ministry and in starting a new ministry in Cedar Rapids. It is where I believe the church needs to be. I especially like your thoughts on using the language of our faith- sometimes. We must be prophets, but we must also be able to move comfortably between a variety of public sectors if we are going to impact the world and change systems. Thanks for continuing to help lead the way.
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# Sarah Sarchet Butter 2014-04-24 12:05
Thank you for these thoughts Lallene. I am very interested in public theology. Mainline Christian DNA has a rich heritage of such, and so many of our pew people live it in their volunteer ad professional lives. Your thoughts spur me to plan a sermon and service of celebration lifting up the practicing public theologians in our congregation. Blessings!
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