From the book launch speech by Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm.
There are two stages of editing a practical theology book of essays by different authors. First, there is the decision to set the overall theme. Is the theme relevant? Will it catch the eye of the potential reader?
Then comes the difficult task of choosing prospective writers. Having done that, the worrying question arises: will the authors respond to their task? Will some authors fail to write in an engaging manner?
Well, the editor of this book, Anthony Maher, never had any reason to worry. The theme of the book is highly relevant: Faith and the Political in the Post-Secular Age. And, second, the quality of the different chapters is outstanding.
The first paragraph of the book states the purpose of the book:
Our time is experiencing a resurgence of religious consciousness which leads some scholars to posit a post-secular hypothesis. The purpose of the current book is to explore this post-secular proposition, whilst articulating a practical theology that is responsive to the public square.
This a gem of a book. In less than 200 pages eight authors, of vastly different backgrounds, seek to respond to the book’s aim.
Anthony Maher focuses on three powerful and bleak examples of closed-truth fundamentalist notions of “ultimate truth: “religious fundamentalism; proselytising atheism, and uncompromising neo-liberalism. Yet out of this depressing reality he has hope in a liberated and ‘refounding’ Christianity.
Theologian Elaine Graham, rather like the approach of Pope Francis, calls us to engage the world not in a combative way but through practical Gospel witness.
Bob Dixon well known sociological researcher, follows. With a sharp researcher’s eye he seeks, very successfully I believe, to ground the discussion in empirical findings within the Australian scene. There is “little evidence,” he says, “of any resurgence of religion among Australian Catholics.”
We must face reality: “there is the disjunction of the church and secular society, in terms of two different moral compasses, namely one based on ‘human rights’ of individuals, and traditional ‘natural law’ favoured by the church. Polarization cannot be overcome unless, as Francis righty says, we are open to honest dialogue.
Andrew Cameron, a moral theologian, refreshingly approaches the theme in a way dear to a cultural anthropologist’s heart, namely through the use of socio-theological models or typologies. No one model fits all reality. If we continue to think so, then we Christians will remain bitterly divided and we will fail to engage the complex world in the public square with Gospel values.
John Warhurst, an experienced political scientist, gives us an intriguing insight into how the wider the Australian public have viewed Tony Abbott’s impact, while prime minister, on policy decisions. Abbott firmly asserts that religion must not be confined to one’s private life.
John ends with this comment: “While the evidence is mixed, that persona seems to have attracted and repelled certain classes of voters in the 2010 and 2013 federal elections…It may be that easy-going Australians prefer their religion to be served lukewarm and their leaders to be not too dogmatic and not too intense in matters of faith and morals.” (121)
Theologian Terry Veling incisively turns to the writings of the late Jewish theologian and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas to see how we are to engage our faith in a post-secular age. Veling warns us of an all-too-common reality. Institutions, such as healthcare services, schools, universities, can begin with noble aims to serve the common good, to place the welfare of their members first.
But in time this primary aim is lost sight of. Institutions turn narcissistically inwards, which is a form of violence. What is to be done, says Levinas? Biblical love. “According to Levinas,” writes Veling, “…the original condition of life” is not violence, but “the ethical relation of being-for-the-other…What outlasts violence…is a love without measure…” (132)
Anthony Maher rightly proclaims that “Pope Francis is…perhaps the most significant exemplar of the post-secular hypothesis” (19) Francis seeks to challenge a world that applauds the abuse of our natural resources, a world in which the profit-motive alone counts. But he does this in a dialogue manner.
Brendan Long, research fellow at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, following Francis, calls for not just political action but an inner transformation.
Long concludes: “Australian Catholic theologians, and economists engaging practical theology in dialogue with economics, now have a well-defined brief. That brief is to engage with Francis’ emerging moral theology of economics and apply this to policy debate in this nation.”
Frank Brennan’s chapter logically follows Long’s comments. “Whoever,” writes Frank Brennan, “would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and reason without violence and threats.” Much needed prophetic people know “their audience and speak to their predispositions and historical consciousness.”
Brennan warns that the prophetic message is best spoken in Australia not by religious leaders, but by poets, novelists and folk singers. Religious leaders have much to learn from this statement Let those in public office be people of faith able to communicate truthfully and boldly the sufferings of those marginalized by our society.
As I ponder what these authors have written I ask myself this question: What do these authors believe in their hearts? It is what Anthony has written: “A refounding Christianity will be a church built upon the Christian virtues of love, humility, hospitality, hope and courage, and the abdication of hegemonic power.”
Francis Bacon wrote that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” This is one of those rare books: “to be chewed and digested, and to be acted upon.” This book is healthy food, hope inspired.
Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm
Maher, A. (Ed.) (2015). Explorations in Practical Theology: Bridging the Divide Between Faith, Theology and Life. Hindmarsh, SA: ATF Press.
“This is a must read for practical theologians everywhere... there is an engaging, even unique, freshness in the manner in which the [authors] choose their topics and develop their insights”. Rev. Dr. Gerald A. Arbuckle, S.M., Consultant Anthropologist and Co-director, Refounding and Pastoral Development Unit, Sydney, Australia.
“This volume breaks new ground in providing a deeply contextual work of practical theology from Oceania... The volume presents a dialogical practical theology that is open to wisdom from all sources and seeks mystical-political transformation... a much-needed contribution to the international conversation in practical theology and to the global church”.
Associate Professor Claire Wolfteich, Co-Director, Center for Practical Theology, Boston University, U.S.A; President of the International Academy of Practical Theology.