Theology, Politics, and Apologetics: Pt. 1

There is an important discussion within the field of Christian theology which relates to the practice of politics and has important implications for Christian apologetics. This discussion may be expressed in the following set of questions: Does Christian theology have anything to say about political order? Or does Christian theology, in virtue of its being bound to a particular tradition, have only specifically Christian theological truths to offer, thus restricting its domain to such truths? If the former, then it seems likely that Christian theology would envision some particular kind of political order; if the latter, then not only is Christian theology irrelevant to the practice of politics but it would seem it is also irrelevant to the enterprise of apologetics since it cannot coherently speak across the boundaries of its own tradition into those of atheism and other religions.

In his book Politics, Theology and History, the political and legal theorist Raymond Plant considers the question of what might ground a Christian theology of politics. Plant looks at three main approaches used scholars today: those of a theology of history, of narrative theology, and of natural law. For the sake of simplicity, I will consider only the latter two as they sufficiently illustrate the main issues outlined above. In this post I discuss the approach offered by narrative theology, and discuss natural law approaches in the next post.

According to the project proposed by narrative theology, as Plant summarizes well: ‘The self is narratively formed, and these narratives are going to be highly specific to particular communities and traditions’ (p. 125). Consequently, any ideas of a ‘right’ political order will be ‘right’ only for the community and tradition in question – and not right simpliciter. In this way, narrative theology insists on the tradition-bound and hermetically sealed-off character of communities. To quote a prominent exponent of narrative theology John Howard Yoder: ‘There is no public that is not another particular province . . . all communities of moral insight are provincial’ (The Royal Priesthood, p. 129). Thus, narrative theology fails to secure a political theology insofar as it maintains that different human communities exhibit and embody incommensurable sets of values and practices. So it is with apologetics: there is no truth plain and simple: there is truth which is embodied within particular communities – or so narrative theology would seem to imply.

Plant argues against the entire project of narrative theology:

‘If we live in a narratively ordered world in which there are competing and incommensurable narratives with no possibility of judgment based on history or natural law to arbitrate, are we not left with . . . the problem . . . that there is no transcendent and no truth and that politics is reduced to bargaining between people with different interests and points of view rooted in different narratives?’

We leave off where we began: how, if at all, can Christian theology provide a basis for the practice of politics in modern democratic liberal society? How, as the secularist philosopher of religion Jeffrey Stout puts it, can a theologian ‘speak faithfully for a religious tradition, articulating its ethical and political implications, without withdrawing to the margins of public discourse’ (Stout, Ethics after Babel, p. 163). In my next post, I will consider the approach of natural law in grounding a Christian theology of politics and apologetics.

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2 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Kurt Jaros

    Kurt Jaros - October 22, 2012, 2:36 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Richard!

  2. Profile photo of Richard S. Park

    Richard S. Park - October 22, 2012, 2:38 pm

    Thanks! Hope it’s helpful.

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