Public Theology

With the generous support of the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the Center is hosting an interdisciplinary program in Public Theology. The program enables the Center to bring visiting scholars to campus to conduct research and writing and to participate in interdisciplinary discussions about the role of religion in public affairs. In this and other ways, the program allows pre-tenured scholars with an interest in theology and theological ethics to benefit from Princeton University’s rich offerings in the interdisciplinary study of religion.

During the first three years, the competition for scholars focused around a particular theme. The three themes selected have generated particular interest in wider intellectual contexts and have a strong base of support in the Center for the Study of Religion and at Princeton University more generally. The broad theme for which visiting scholars were recruited for the first year (2001-02) was Public Theology in the United States, paying particular attention to historical and contemporary manifestations of public theology in Christian faith communities. We began with this theme in order to focus attention on such questions as: How does theological reflection contribute to American democracy at the start of the twenty-first century? What are the venues through which theologians can enter public debates about collective values? Is the training and expertise required of public theologians changing? Are there opportunities for increasing the public influence of theology?

The second year of the project (2002-03) focused on Public Theology in a Religiously Diverse World, exploring the implications of religious pluralism–and of heightened awareness of this diversity both in the United States and in the wider world–for theological reflection. Questions of special interest included: How are theological arguments about the uniqueness or distinctiveness of Christianity being influenced by greater exposure to world religions? What are the implications of historicist and narrative-oriented theological responses to religious pluralism? Are there possibilities for productive engagement between theology and arguments about post-modernism and multiculturalism? What can be learned from the study of previous encounters with other religions? How are global communication and trade transforming the issues on which public theology should focus?

During the third year of the project (2003-04), the focus was on Public Theology in an Era of Scientific Challenges. Questions addressed during this year focused broadly on the role of theology in a scientific culture, and more specifically on such topics as bioethics, theological implications of mapping the human genome, cosmology, and eco-theology. Recent decades have witnessed enormous advances particularly in three areas: molecular biology, especially through studies of genetic structure; astrophysics, especially through studies concerned with the farthest reaches of the universe; and micro-processing, especially through its applications to computing, artificial intelligence, and information technologies. Each of these areas (among others) possess significant social and ethical challenges to which theological attention needs to be paid, as well as raising fundamental questions about human life and its place in the universe that have far-reaching implications for theology itself.