Liberation Theology or Public Theology

A question that is often asked in the May 3-5, 2007 meeting of the Global Network for Public Theology (GNPT) in which I participate at the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) in Princeton, concerns the difference between “liberation theologies” and “public theologies”. Theologians from South Africa point to the new situation that arose after the abolition of apartheid, while theologians from Latin America (Argentina and Brasil) point to the radicalisation of liberation theology that attempts to define clearly its enemy, while forgetting the necessary reconciliation in a society in transition.

My own opinion is that (a) liberation theologies are public theologies, although not all public theologies are liberation theologies. (b) It is a mistake to assume that liberation theologies are basically antagonistic as they orginate in ecclesial praxes that concern all – both oppressed and oppressed – in view of the Kingdom. (c) It is true that liberation theologies should articulate more clearly their aim at community building in view of the Kingdom, e.g. by stressing methodologically the element of “celebrating” as an addition to the classical “seeing, judging, acting”. (d) One should exercise a healthy ideological suspicion with regard to public theologies: are they not in danger of forgetting the issues of justice that are at the core of liberation theologies and that find their articulation in the preferential alliance with the excluded and the poor? (e) One should take into account the meaning of the word “public”: public theology means more than a discussion with politicians; it also refers to stir up a discernment process in the ecclesial communities. The goal is not only to find a political issue to societal challenges, but also to change the hearts of people as a necessary condition for answering these challenges. (f) Public theologians have to respect the hermeneutical reality: theology is born in the interaction between faith and lived realities, and not one-sidedly as a reflection upon faith that is, in a second move, applied to reality.

The tension between liberation and public theologies is, therefore, fruitful. In pointing liberation theologies to the necessity of emphasizing its ecclesial perspective on community building towards the Kingdom and towards reconciliation in its relationship to justice, public theologians empower their liberation colleagues to confront more decidedly today’s global challenges as there are: the environment and injustice due to neo-liberal global exclusions and injustices.

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