Where Have All the Theological “Public Intellectuals” Gone? (An Invitation to Participate)

Where Have All the Theological “Public Intellectuals” Gone? (An Invitation to Participate) March 27, 2013

Where Have All the Theological “Public Intellectuals” Gone? (An Invitation to Participate)

Recently I have been lecturing and writing (again) about some of the “giants” of modern theology: Schleiermacher, Bushnell, Hodge, Ritschl, Rauschenbusch, Machen, Troeltsch, Fosdick, Barth, Brunner, Niebuhr, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, John Courtney Murray, Carl Henry, Hartshorne, et al. Some of them, perhaps all of them, spoke not only to the churches but also to society at large. Several of them graced covers of Time magazine: Fosdick (twice), Barth, Niebuhr, Tillich. Niebuhr was interviewed on a 1958 version of “60 Minutes” by Mike Wallace. Tillich was on the platform (honored guests only!) at Kennedy’s presidential inauguration. Even Henry was the subject of an article in Time. What made these (and perhaps other theologians) “public theologians” was that they gained a hearing from even non-Christians as respected voices of reason in the “public square.” People turned to them for commentary on public policy—not just as representatives of a perceived lunatic fringe but as spokespersons for religious perspectives that deserve a hearing from everyone.

Let me illustrate what I’m talking about. When I moved to Germany in 1981 I timidly turned on German television to explore what might be there. The very first thing I saw was a national broadcast on one of the German networks featuring theologian Jürgen Moltmann delivering a lecture on God and disability to a convention of disabled persons. It wasn’t just a ten second clip on a news program; it was an hour long broadcast during prime time. In Germany Moltmann and some other Christian theologians are considered public intellectuals, not just church theologians.

Ironically, the only theologians I can recognize as having the status of a public intellectual in American society today (2013) are Stanley Hauerwas and Cornel West. I say “ironically” because they eschew the kind of role Niebuhr and many other public intellectuals played—friend and advisor to power. They’re iconoclasts. But even they are not likely to be the subjects of “60 Minutes” segments or grace the cover of Time magazine. However, both have been subjects of article in Time.

In my estimation, as important as Hauerwas and West are, their public voices are whispers compared with, say, Niebuhr’s or Tillich’s or even John Courtney Murray’s. That’s not because what they have to say is unworthy of wide public attention but because the media have generally turned away from theologians—except those shrill voices on the extreme ends of the social and political spectrums the media use to boost ratings.

I once conducted a study of Time magazine covers from its inception up until the time I conducted the study (around 1990). I’ve tried to pay attention to Time covers since then as well. I may have missed a few. Until the 1966 “Is God Dead?” infamous cover Time frequently put theologians and noted religious leaders on its covers (which always also meant feature articles about them inside). After that no theologians (unless you consider evangelists and popes theologians) were featured on Time covers. I once found myself on a hotel elevator with the publisher of Time (Henry Luce III) and asked him about that. He said he hadn’t noticed it.

My theory is that once real theologians came out publicly denying the reality of God many people decided theology isn’t worth paying attention to. It would be as if some medical researchers declared themselves devoted Christian Scientists (i.e., members of the Church of Christ, Scientist). If nothing happened to them, if they were applauded for their courage by their peers, what would people think of medical researchers? Beginning in the 1960s (but with older roots) Christian theology became a joke. Without anyone to yank theologians’ credentials, theologians get by with saying anything. The ethos of the theological (and religious studies) academy is to reward the craziest notions. I realize this is not unique to theology or religious studies, but that’s my area of scholarship, so it’s the one I’m most concerned about.

Yet there are still voices of reason among theologians that deserve a broader and deeper public hearing. They’re unlikely to get it. Instead of naming candidates here, I want to invite you to name one and give a brief explanation why you think he or she should be on Time’s cover or featured in a “60 Minutes” segment.

Now what do I mean by “voices of reason among theologians?” I mean people who express themselves calmly and reasonably—with messages that could be heard and understood and even heeded by the public at large. I’m not assuming a “view from nowhere” kind of Enlightenment rationality. I am assuming that perhaps, hopefully, a confessionally committed theologian might nevertheless be able to express himself or herself to public issues in a way that is persuasive—at least causing people who are not so confessionally committed to stop and think and consider.

Please post your nominations here and give a brief (two or three sentences) explanation.

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