“The signal virtue of Christianity is that there is a version of it for the learned (theology) and one for the common people (devotional practice); and though the two may find themselves in occasional contention, they are bound together within the ecclesiastical institution itself. It is hard to come up with a popular version of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind or Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism.” (Terry Eagleton)
From Private Devotion to (Semi)Public Theology
Let’s start with the premise that part of the work of theology is the public articulation of the faith. Theologians, although often writing for the academy, have as their intended audience a reading public.
The best public theology, or the best public theologians, are the voices we rely on to articulate a theological vision in ways accessible to readers of all traditions, secular and religious. Although they will speak out of, or be grounded in, specific religious traditions (and in fact will do their best work if they are grounded in a specific confessional tradition), they will find ways to speak in ways that are genuinely public.
In the meantime, the vast majority of the population do not think of themselves as theologians. They are the “common people” Eagleton mentions above, and their religion is lived out not in the discourse of theology, but in their devotional practices, such as private prayer and church-life.
This form of religious life inhabits a primarily private sphere, is influenced by a largely individualist culture, and even those parts of it that have a corporate dimension (such as worship or membership in institutions) still has an indelible private outlook. Religion in terms of devotional practice is decidedly personal.
There isn’t anything problematic about private or personal forms of devotional practice. They are theology in practice, theology on the ground, theology in real life.
But with the rise of social media, articulations of private devotion now takes on a public dimension, and the public articulation of private religious faith puts us in a strange new world. It means the vast majority of those on social media, whose religiosity when articulated publicly is some form or other of moralistic, therapeutic deism, are now out on a quest to bring their confessional traditions into view, and they are finding their voice, haltingly and steadily.
Let me give just one example, the one currently on all of our minds seemingly all of the time: the politics of elections.
Required: Going Public
Before the advent of social media, the average voter would consume various kinds of media as a resource to inform their vote. They might talk with their family or friends. If they were highly active in politics they might attend town hall meetings or march in parades or canvass neighborhoods or lick stamps for campaign mailings. But before rise of Facebook and Twitter, their politics was still largely private.
Suddenly, with the arrival of social media, voters now had a venue not only to share their political perspectives more freely with a wider audience, but to do so in quasi-public ways. It doesn’t take very long with the rise of new media for a shift to take place from I can share my thoughts on social media to I MUST share my thoughts on social media.
We see this at the height of election cycles, and during widely publicized tragedies. Many Facebook posts become: Although I have been largely silent about this in the past, now, in these latter days, I feel like I must speak out.
Then, people start writing. Sometimes the posts are long. They’re confessional in nature, searching, honest, journalistic, exploratory. But they are decidedly public. Many women’s voices have emerged recently, and are of particular interest, because they are truly finding their voice in a public context.
In the meantime, people’s religious views inevitably inform their politics. But because the majority of the religious have at best a few private devotional practices in place as resources to fund their imaginations, what you watch is the emergence of a religio-political discourse largely un-formed by the traditional resources of public theology.
In particular, the critical tools theologians learn and apply to spell out arguments are mostly lacking, and instead popular forms of piety shape the discourse.
It could also be said, and probably should be said, that since politics was for a long time also private, the average person finding their voice on social media is likely to apply their private political devotional practices as the resource most familiar to them as they find their voice.
In this sense, it was absolutely no surprise that singing the National Anthem (and kneeling at it) became one of the hot topics last election cycle: that song, sung as it is at the American liturgy we call football, is the height of private devotion publicly displayed. Changing the devotional practice and doing so in a public venue became a transformational strategy for opening up space for the articulation of a public theology.
It also highlighted the truly post-religious nature of the new social media youth advocacy.
I think we are all just dipping our toes into something radically new. We are watching a blending of private devotion and public theology happen daily, in our own lives, in our own media streams, and our mutual sharing in one another’s lives.
I am not offering a full-blown taxonomy of what is different, or a prescription for how to do it better. Like everybody else, I’m discovering how to do this thing as we go along. But I do think we are learning. We are all discovering our public voice, which is then revealing the depth or superficiality of our private religious devotion because with the tiny exception of those who consider themselves theologians, we are all bringing our private religious devotion to bear as our primary resource for all becoming public theologians together.
1) I blog. Blogging is the primary place where I engage public theology. But it’s very different than a previous era of theologians whose audience was primarily each other and the academy. My audience is you, those of you reading this. So the nature of the public has changed. Patheos changes things. So does SEO.
2) I post prayers on Facebook. I’ve found that we need private devotions in our emerging public spaces, and they serve us well there.
3) I live as a Christian example and pastor in social media, but I also live as a public citizen there. The two blend together, and sometimes this is helpful, and sometimes its a hindrance. Before social media, most of my parishioners wouldn’t have known much of what I was up to week to week between Sunday services. Now, many know everything, from our daily routines to my personal opinions.
4) I find myself wishing I read less stuff on the Internet, and read books more. The biggest potential loss in this era of everybody finding their voice, is the silencing of the books. Books, and the sustained arguments made in books (or the sustained imaginative worlds presented), are perhaps our greatest resource for theology well-articulated and democracy well-lived. We may need a new monasticism, spaces set apart for reading that aren’t on-line.
5) I worry about the loss of privacy, and sale of the public. The prognosticators who say we are giving our privacy away are correct. And I am watching in real time as we sell all our public spaces to the highest bidder. The social media giants know everything about us, own all our data, and we know nothing about them. We’ve entered the era of Surveillance Capitalism, and it’s not that great. The public is a shared common good and not a commodity, and a private life and the space inside it is richness incarnate. The first requires our collective attention to sustain, and the second requires personal vigilance to exercise rightly.
6) That being said, we are no longer going to be able to simply just keep our private theological and political views to ourselves. It was an illusion to ever expect those with a public voice to be capable of neutrality. The desire for a non-biased press or other form of media, though admirable, was in many ways uninspired. A true secular public will allow for the diversity of voices in an intentional plurality that does not erase, but rather highlights and celebrates difference while finding shared resources for public dialogue.
7) The next public theology is going to arrive from the ground up, from the network itself. I think we’re seeing this recorded in fascinating cultural spaces, like the Harry Potter Alliance, and other new media contexts cataloged by the Civic Imagination Project.