"Thick and Thin" in the Public Forum

Faith in the Public Forum

Neil Brown & Robert Gascoingne (eds)
AFT Series 1, Adelaide: Open Book, 1999

Reviewed by
Winifred Wing Han Lamb

Our debate about the public life in contemporary liberal democracies have been framed within a 'secularisation thesis' and in the context of liberal understandings of what constitutes 'public' and 'private'. Accordingly, we have fastened upon the parallel, regulative notions of 'thin' and 'thick' to resolve the 'fact of pluralism'. In order that the heterogeneity of human selfhood is affirmed and freedom is not stifled, it is believed that the public realm must be thinned of what is highly textured and this includes religious notions of the good life.

The discussion in this book challenges that understanding of religion and of its role in public and private life. The public forum is understood as 'the arena where the concerns and interests of a people as a whole (my italics) are articulated, debated and resolved to the extent that is possible' (vi) and for that reason, cannot be stripped bare and naked. Neither can there be a fixed arrangement regarding what is 'public'. 'Private' and 'thick' conceptions of life are not static like endangered species, neither is the public forum itself a fixed process since it reflects, and takes up these shifting realities and interests. 'Faith' in this collection is understood 'in its widest sense' as that which 'deals with the deepest concerns of our lives, those areas which define who we are both as individuals and communities, and what finally we are committed to amid the conflicting values of everyday life.' (v) Our age is marked by increasingly powerful interests and our postmodern consciousness is alert to manipulative attempts to appropriate that public good for their own causes. These papers draw attention to the 'precariousness and fragility' of that public good, however, we are also alerted to opportunities and possibilities for the church within it.

What is it for the church to stake its claim in the public arena? As the editors note, 'no hard and fast lines separate the public from the private domain.' (ix) and that continuity makes it possible for the church to be heard even if it speaks from within its own 'thick', particularist concerns. Postmodernism has supposedly opened up a space for such engagement yet it brings with it doubts about the possibility of shared understanding.

The papers in this book, (presented at a conference jointly sponsored by the Australian Theological Forum, the Australian Catholic University and the Catholic Institute of Sydney in January, 1998), have a profound contribution to make to this complex debate. In its own way, each challenges dichotomies that lead to impasse by notions and practices that cross those divides. The papers also reflect the ecumencial and inter-disciplinary character of the conference. David Hollenbach (Boston College) and Ann Loades (Durham University) write as theologians from, respectively, the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. John Phillips is an economist, formerly of the Reserve Bank and engages with Eva Cox who emphasises the importance of 'social capital' for the public good. John May (Irish School of Ecumenics, Dublin) shows how in religion and society in the Asia-Pacific region there is no corresponding division between private and public life and religion is continuous with public, political considerations. Such a model could help to challenge our thinking while also creating new complexities. Michael Putney's recommendation that dialogue should proceed with 'utter fidelity and utter openness' (132) while hard to sustain, is nevertheless a courageous way of addressing that complexity.

Philosophically, the discussion opens up the debate and offers new insights for tired ways of thinking. The anthropological realities that John May presents provides a palpable challenge to the increasing tribalisms in the world in the midst of increasing pluralism As Hollenbach writes, '... we face a paradox: attaining a vision of the global common good is increasingly problematic precisely at a historical moment when the need for such a vision is growing'. (8) In this regard, there are powerful notions that offer hope. Hollenbach asks how Christians can remain faithful to their conviction of the truth of the gospel while engaging others with the respect that is demanded if common good is to have 'plausible meaning'. He further asks how this can be done in a way that is neither triumphalist nor totalising. Putney urges the practice of ecumenism in his rich examination of the resource that is afforded to the church in the variety of Christian approaches to the world and to culture.

These papers make a genuine contribution in both practical and conceptual ways. Hollenbach's notions of 'dialogic universalism' and 'intellectual solidarity' are based on a natural law ethic which gives rise to the conviction that human reason is capable of discovering the basic outlines of the universal human good. Those notions are advanced by a strong statement of our historicity and our finitude which, far from leading to relativism, draws attention to our embeddedness together in history and culture. All claims to truth are historically conditioned and shaped but this affirms universalism, rather than fragmentation. Our historicity is in fact the ground of our solidarity. While the church calls it koinonia, it has a world dimension as evidenced in greater ecological consciousness in both the physical and epistemological realms. Hollenbach grounds the possibility of dialogue and of respect for the other in a material dimension since dialogue will only be effective in practice if persons have both political space for action and the material and institutional pre-requisites of communal life that make such action possible. Commitment to 'solidaristic understanding of the human good' is thus tied to a commitment to social justice on a world scale in material and economic terms, an idea that is strongly espoused by both John Phillips and Eva Cox in the context of Australian social and economic life. Human rights must therefore move beyond abstracted individualism to embrace materiality, solidarity and mutuality. This is the strong message in all the papers.

The appreciation that there is a beauty in the solidarity of human existence is found in Ann Loades' idea of 'travelling light' and in the passages in her paper that remind us of the sheer beauty and the mystery of sacramental life. What happens if the Christian church more boldly enjoyed and shared this beauty instead of being frightened of it and marginalising our poets? Ann Loades' paper struggles with the integration of 'word and sacrament', with the power of beauty and order, forgiveness and asceticism in the church's witness to the world.

The discussions in this book bring hope, a dimension that is implicit rather than explicitly addressed. Perhaps it could have featured more prominently but even the hope that is implicit here (what Eva Cox calls it 'an optimistic view of human nature') (72) would not be possible if there were no ontological grounds for it. This is found in the Christian God of compassion and mercy and an ontology of love and peace in a Christian theology of creation. Against this backdrop, all acts of violence become penultimate rather than ultimate. 'The final word on the One beyond the many shards of our broken experience is beneficent, not maleficent...' and, 'Once such an interpretation of public life has been brought about by our encounter with the risen Christ, the stance of suspicion can be left behind' (27)

At a time when old paradigms for the discussion of such questions are strained, this book offers a rich Christian wisdom to further the debate.

Australasian Theological Forum Ltd
Ph: (08) 83542299
Fax: (08)83542399
Mobile: 0411876099

Street Address
26 Clark Street
SA, 5034

Postal Address
PO Box 504
South Australia 5007

ABN : 90 116 359 963

Visitor Counter by Digits
Visitors since February 2007.
WebCounter provided by