Promoting good discussion on public issues
For the last four years I have been building and directing New Zealand’s first Centre for Theology and Public Issues. Based in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Otago in Dunedin, the centre is one of several ‘public theology’ institutions around the world, with a remit to contribute to thinking on current issues from a Christian theological perspective. As well as seeking and responding to opportunities to do this through the media, the Centre also undertakes research and teaching, and runs a busy programme of public lectures, forums and conferences.
The discipline of public theology is premised on a conviction that the resources of the Christian faith – primarily Scripture but also the teachings of the Church and the writings of individual theologians and thinkers – contain a wealth of insights, visions, teachings and narratives that, with careful exegesis and due regard to changing contexts, can enable fresh light and wisdom to be shed on the many challenges we face globally, nationally and locally.
The idea that theology might have anything interesting or worthwhile to say about public issues will strike many people as odd, particularly in a proudly ‘secular’ country like New Zealand. No one objects to people having religious beliefs – that’s a basic human right – but the idea that public thinking or government policy might be influenced by opinions based on a religious world-view is, for many people, deeply troubling. A draft document released by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission in July 2010 summed up this view quite neatly when it stated that ‘matters of religion and belief are deemed to be a matter for the private, rather than the public, sphere’. This document also made it clear that this demarcation between the public sphere, in which religion has no place, and the private sphere, the proper place for ‘matters of religion and belief’, is what essentially defines New Zealand as ‘secular’.[i]
One can readily understand the rationale for such a position, since religious people do often like to impose their views on others, even when they’re in the minority. And the language and line of reasoning they adopt can sometimes be incomprehensible, or simply unacceptable, to those not sharing their beliefs. No-one would argue that discourse in the ‘public square’ shouldn’t employ vocabulary, principles and reasoning which are intelligible to any reasonable person and based on public canons of validity. But this narrow understanding of ‘secularism’ also means that the genuinely-held differences people might have on moral issues remain hidden, as well as discriminating against those who want to offer religiously – or ideologically –rooted opinions in a non-dogmatic way. Hence a more ‘inclusive’ interpretation of the term ‘secular’ has been advocated by both religious and non-religious intellectuals and commentators in recent years, one which recognises that the quality of public debate can be enhanced when all voices are granted a hearing, provided none is privileged over the others.
Public theology is acutely aware of the marginal position that religion has in today’s world, and the implications this has for the way it needs to offer its perspective in the public square. Yet it also wants to stress the value of that perspective because of the fresh and constructive nature of the insights it can bring to sometimes rather stale and circular public debates. For example, asserting that, despite the radically different contexts in which they emerged, Scriptural insights into the nature of humanity, the ‘gifted-ness’ of Creation, the importance and nature of ‘justice’ and the purpose and meaning of markets, have much to teach us in the 21st century.
Public theology is also concerned about the language it uses to make its contribution, recognising that it will need to find a way to talk about concepts like ‘the sanctity of life’ or humankind having been ‘created in the image of God’ in ways that will be readily understood without devaluing their deep and unique (and theological) content.
One notable way in which our Centre at Otago contributes to ‘public issues’ is by creating the space for informed, respectful and balanced conversation. Given that debates in Parliament often generate more heat than light, and that our (now all commercially-driven) television channels give low priority to serious ‘current affairs’ programmes, universities seem increasingly to be filling the gap by generating reflection on public issues. In one sense this is to be expected, given their statutory obligation to be ‘critic and conscience of society’.[ii] Nevertheless, at Otago we have found a high degree of interest in the public forums our Centre has organised, often in collaboration with other similar centres based at the university. TV producers (and the advertisers whose revenue they need) are probably right in thinking that serious discussion of public affairs is only a minority interest, but there is certainly an appetite for it, and not just in Dunedin.
The main limitations on our Centre’s work in this field are time and resources: there is certainly no shortage of ‘public issues’ crying out for serious, intelligent analysis. Some observers query how issues like the partial sale of state-owned assets, or the global financial crisis, or MMP (all topics we have covered in public forums in the past eighteen months) can be ‘theological’, but of course they are in the sense that theology has much to say and deep questions to ask. Questions about: the nature of our society and the values underpinning it; how and in whose interests markets operate; how we elect our representatives; how natural resources are owned and distributed; and how serious we are about pursuing the common good. Among the more ‘obviously theological’ issues we have tackled in recent years are care of the planet, our treatment of children and older people, and the nature of our secular society. We have also explored wider issues such as the global food shortage, the situation in the Middle East and lessons from the Breivik trial in Norway. Interestingly, these ‘international’ forums have been among our most popular and valued.
The paucity of quality public debate in our country has huge implications for the shaping of public opinion – and public policy – on bioethical issues. One topical example is the debate about legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide., While our television, radio and newspapers will devote considerable air-time and column inches to reporting, often in a quite sensational way, notable cases of one individual helping another to die, relatively little time or space by comparison will be allocated to exploring the issues surrounding these cases. And while readers may often be left with the impression that the punishment meted out to a person responsible for hastening their friend or relative’s death was harsh or unjust, and that therefore the law needs changing, little effort may have been made to provide commentary or expert opinion to help them to think in a critical or balanced way about the deeper issues. Given that a private member’s bill to legalise certain end-of-life options is currently in the mix, it is not overstating things to say that we face the very real prospect of significant changes in the law relating to euthanasia and assisted suicide being passed with only minimal public consideration of the profoundly important issues and implications at stake.
Last year our Centre sought to avoid this scenario by staging what has so far been its most influential public forum. Titled ‘Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: A discussion we need to have', the panel featured Nathaniel Centre director, John Kleinsman; medical-ethicist and neurosurgeon Professor Grant Gillett; Labour List MP Maryan Street, the proposer of the putative ‘End of Life Choice Bill’; and Professor Sean Davison, the South African-based academic who was sentenced to a period of home detention in 2011 for assisting the death of his mother in October 2006. We were fortunate to secure the attendance of Professor Davison in the short period between the completion of his sentence and his return to South Africa, and undoubtedly his presence contributed to the profile our event secured (which included coverage on TV3’s ‘Campbell Live’ and Radio New Zealand National’s ‘Morning Report’). The fact that some 300 people turned out for two-hours of discussion and debate, including a 20-minute presentation by theology student Thomas Noakes-Duncan on how the debate on euthanasia and assisted suicide has been conducted in New Zealand in recent years, shows our preparedness to properly inform ourselves and engage in meaningful debate about serious issues.
Indeed, one striking feature of this event was the quality of the questions and comments from the floor, particularly from students in the medical faculty. (For a podcast of this event see the Centre’s website - www.otago.ac.nz/ctpi/resources/podcasts
Feedback from this event suggests that it has helped in a modest way to stimulate serious thinking on a highly important topic. Indeed, I would say that even making it known that we held such an event is important in terms of reminding people that issues like euthanasia and assisted suicide need much more than the ‘sound-bite’ treatment they sadly often only attract. Democracy, we need to remind ourselves, involves far more than the casting of a vote once every three years, and as both Amartya Sen and Michael Sandel have argued in recent works, it is public reasoning, more than elections, which defines what it is essentially about.[iii]
I hope that our Centre can continue to promote more ‘public reasoning’ around the challenges we face, including those we might categorise as quite literally ‘issues of life and death’.
Andrew Bradstock is Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago and Director of the University’s Centre for Theology and Public Issues.
[i] NZ Human Rights Commission – Accessible HTML Document, ‘The right to freedom of religion and belief - Te tika kia watea ki te whai whakapono, ki te whai haahi - Draft for discussion’. <http://www.hrc.co.nz/hrc_new/hrc/cms/files/documents/25-May-2010_14-47-52_Right_to_freedom_of_religion.html> [accessed 16 July 2010].
[ii] Under Section 162 (v) of the Education Act (1989) a university is required to ‘accept a role as critic and conscience of society’.
[iii]Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (London: Penguin, 2010) 321-37; Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the right thing to do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).