Calling For Public Theology (A Brief Convocation Address)

Calling For Public Theology (A Brief Convocation Address) October 7, 2014

Below is a brief convocation address I delivered recently at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, which I am proud to call my new employer. I gave the address a few weeks ago, along with three other new faculty at UTS (Matthew Johnson, Thorsten Moritz, and Samuel Subramanian). It was a dynamic event, reflecting a mood of hopefulness for the future of UTS as a fertile and diverse place to do theological reflection for the church and world.


Why do companies go public? My business sense could fill an espresso cup, but from what I understand, there are basically two reasons: (1) to generate more revenue (by injecting cash) and (2) to spread the risk across a broad pool of investors. Going public necessitates some vulnerability and openness. Steve Zuckerberg resisted going public for that very reason—there are some advantages to remaining private (remember that in your Facebook settings!). Upon going public, a company is required to open its books—and it is, from that point on, responsible to a potential large pool of faceless investors. The company becomes answerable to shareholders, but expands its network of responsible partners.

While theologians are reticent to compare our work to the mundane and profane work of business (recall my espresso cup metaphor), there’s an interesting analogy here to illuminate what happens when theology goes public.

“Public theology,” as a self-conscious discourse, emerged in the 1960’s. But there are innumerable precursors, to be sure. Most—perhaps all—of the best-known and respected theologians in history would qualify “public theologians” Think of St. Augustine, St. Theresa, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Sölle, Martin Luther King, Jr., Sallie McFague, and James Cone, for just a few examples.

These theologians were not writing solely for an erudite, exclusive audience—say a particular research guild in the academy. The problems they working with were not obscure, technical ones, but weighty matters of truth, justice, and the meaning and quality of life. Academic specialists are necessary. But too often theology is encumbered by specialization, whether because of genuine interest, or fear, or simply the daunting challenges of communicating across borders—at least without starting a war (even if just a war of words). Theological sectarianism, like any sectarianism, is understandable (it’s easy to feel exposed when you go public, remember), but it’s ultimately regrettable. As ISIS wreaks havoc across Iraq and Syria, as Ebola takes thousands of lives in West Africa and western aid workers are killed by terrified villagers, as Israel and Palestine continue locked in conflict, as racism raises its nasty head again and again—in our own country and in our own city—theology must go public.

By investing in the public good, theologians take on some of the collective social risk. Conversely, the theologian asks others to share their risk—as mutual investors in the public sphere. Theologians, if they’re like me, can’t offer much cash—but they have something important to give: rich, though flawed, resources from their tradition: Scripture and other religious texts, including a history of intellectual thought—ideas, suggestions, and critiques—and a wealth of diverse spiritual and ecclesial practices (including prayer, confession, repentance, suffering, and thanksgiving).

Theology is a precarious vocation. We are increasingly self-conscious about the extent to which we are not in demand. We join the ranks of other forgotten professions: philosophers, historians, artists, and poets.

However, there is reason to be hopeful about the extent to which theologians are needed to contribute to civil, cultural discourse. It turns out that the much-celebrated “secularization thesis,” in which thinkers like Freud, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim posited that, as modernization spreads across the globe and as societies become more culturally and politically sophisticated, the need for religion would decrease and its influence would wane, such that religion would be a by-product of a fore-gone day; a relic of the past, when people needed religion to get along in a world filled with so many existential challenges. But, as Martin Marty and others have pointed out, while atheism is certainly on the rise in the modern, industrial west, religious belief and commitment is not going away. The “secularization thesis” has proven false so far.

Now we observe religion as a major force—both for good and for ill (tragically, we see it for ill in horrific ways now, almost daily—through the protective mediation of our impersonal screens). But even as horrific be-headings have become an abnormal normality, we ought not single out religion (in any of its major traditions) as the source of the world’s problems. However, for religion to function as a positive force, we need public theologians to speak up within and from our respective religious traditions into these situations of crisis, violence, and alienation. Public theologians must be willing to speak critically into the public sphere of religion itself—and to critique our own theologies—our own ideologies–when necessary.

Elizabeth Phillips suggests that in the first generation of Christian public theology (David Tracy, Duncan Forrester, Max Stackhouse, etc.), theologians were anxious to have their voices recognized in the public sphere. They felt responsible to translate theological concepts (the particular and specific elements of the Christian religion) into universally understandable, shared language, so as to have a greater impact on the common good. Through translation and generalization (straining toward a common denominator), Christian theology could be transmuted into public theology. In second generation (current) public theology, we are seeing a different attitude. These theologians are mining deep into the particularities of the Christian traditions, in order to offer up items of interest with constructive potential (see Phillips, Political Theology, 2012).

Even the very idea of “the secular” is being re-framed; for philosopher Charles Taylor, the “secular” does not mean the singling out religion for contempt and marginalizing its role in society. This new advocacy of the secular society is not one in which people must discard their religious convictions or one in which theology must be banned from public discourse. Instead, to be “secular” means to be keenly cognizant of diversity and deeply tolerant of differences, including religious differences—even when those differences create challenging intercultural, inter-religious, and social conflicts (see Taylor’s contribution to The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed., Butler). Furthermore, it is recognized that, when it comes down to it, pretty much everything that significantly factors into questions of social interest has theological element to it. The political, the social, the technological, the cultural, are all–at some level–theological. Christian public theologians today can be responsible pluralists and yet critically retrieve, like forgotten treasure, the depths and riches of Christian—and other religious—thought (past and present) for the sake of a brighter world, in prayerful anticipation of God’s healing touch.

If theology and theologians are going to have any relevance today; if we have any shot at persuading others of our need to exist, then we need to “go public.” We will not get much cash flow from it, but our voices are needed. We need to share the risk and spread the risk—for the sake of the gospel on behalf of the world.


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