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Justice, Traditions

Futures for Public Theology

Part of our duty is to generate the publics that we want to inhabit, not simply to assent to the publics that are foisted upon us.


Anyone who asks about the prospects for psychologically, morally, and spiritually sane life in the contemporary world—anyone looking to public discourse for help on this matter, anyway—will hear multiple variations on two themes of complaint. Some complain that the structures of liberal polities have gathered too much difference under their canopies and, as a consequence, totter on the brink of anarchy. The moral, social, and cultural ties that used to bind people together have been frayed to breaking point; heterogeneity reigns supreme; incoherence looms. And, this complaint continues, absent any encompassing frameworks in which to live morally and spiritually cogent lives, we flit among shallow bespoke spiritualities or drift into lackluster nihilisms. To escape such a fate, we must return to time-honored social structures and religious outlooks. Only the recovery of established traditions, unfashionable though they may be, will restore real human life.

Others view late-modern capitalism, and the normative order which follows in its wake, as a radically homogenizing force. The complaint goes something like this: Once we believed that free trade, free movement, and freedom of expression would carry in their wake a heightened appreciation for diverse modes human existence and a deepened awareness of common values; but now we find ourselves locked in an iron cage, “normalized” and pacified to such a degree that we can barely raise a whimper of protest. Worse, as we resign ourselves to this condition, the better dimensions of the western liberal tradition—such as religious tolerance, democratic governance, and a commitment to expanding human rights and deepening equality—have fallen into abeyance. Meanwhile, the old demons of intolerance, corruption, racism, and nationalism rear their heads, and our ecological crisis deepens. To escape this fate, neither nostalgia nor mere meliorism will do. To survive, we must exorcise these old demons by developing a radical alternative to global capitalism. Beyond reform or reaction, we need revolution.

You, dear readers, will likely recognize each of these narratives. Overtly or covertly, they organize much intellectual life today. (That is not the same thing as “academic life,” by the way.) Crisscrossing and sometimes replacing the previously reliable pairing of “liberal” and “conservative” standpoints, these narratives are increasingly well-rehearsed scripts for critical thought. And we should admit that neither script is without merit. Whether we like it or not, much of the world is struggling to cope with the irreducible fact of religious, cultural, ethnic, racial, and sexual heterogeneity, albeit often at great cost for those who are already marginalized and minoritized. How, then, are we to coordinate our various differences to find ways to address challenges that we can only properly address as a genuine “we”? Equally, whether we like it or not, the condition of late-modern capitalism does encourage more “scripted,” disciplined lives, and these scripts are more effective at blunting protest than a Marx, a Gramsci, or even a Foucault could imagine. How are we to live lives we could truly call our own—lives truly emancipated and genuinely authentic—in an age of digital reproduction?

Hence neither is completely right, nor completely wrong. But simply combining them does not help us much either. For even as we recognize each narrative’s descriptive merits, we must acknowledge their prescriptions’ limits. Given the irreducible pluralism of our world, not to mention the obvious goods that are ingredient to this pluralism, a return to discarded social structures and narrowly “traditioned” religious modes of life is neither realistic nor desirable. And granted the vigor and promise of diverse liberative movements, those movements’ culminative force neither inaugurates the collapse of late-modern capitalism, nor exorcises the demons of the present. One might wish it were otherwise. But it is not otherwise. And we do ourselves no favors by pretending we do not know this.


What does this have to do with “public theology”? Well, we agree with Karen O’Donnell that any attempt to think through what it means to live a sane life will involve engaging, critically and constructively, “fundamental assumptions about what it means to be human, the possibilities and limits of cooperative and redemptive action, and the ends of human sociality.” And any attempt to engage these issues will produce “inevitably theological conversations,” at least insofar as different interlocutors seek to articulate, and critically to assess, their own fundamental assumptions on the matters mentioned just above. And any conversations of this sort will be, among other things, held in various publics. “Public theology” therefore finds a place in our most public conversations.

So located, public theology often means attending to the “deep norms,” the axiological apprehensions and commitments, that shape our deliberations about issues of import. Doing so means articulating typically unexamined assumptions and beliefs, in order to analyze, assess, debate, and possibly revise them. It means participating in the collective project of acquiring clarity about what we believe for ourselves, about what we believe is the right understanding of the issue at hand, and the right kind of action that that understanding entails.

Discussions of this sort will typically engage a wide spectrum of forms of human belief and disbelief. Yet learning how to handle such engagements, both as confessing speaker and as dialogical interlocutor, is urgently needed. This is a service that public theology can provide for anyone today—those who have established and more or less stable religious commitments, those who are resolutely skeptical, and those who are in a perpetual state of in-betweenness and hybridity.

We should no longer heed, then, the old adage that, in polite conversation, one ought never to bring up religion or politics. Those are precisely the topics most desperately in need of discussion today, precisely because too many people have followed that adage too well. Today, public discourse all-too readily fractures into multiple mutually incommunicative sub-cultures, and we need modes of conversation to reconnect them. Ironic detachment won’t help us, nor will the addition of another layer of sound-proofing to whatever echo-chamber we find ourselves trapped within. We must find ways to explainourselves to one another—to exhibit our deepest convictions, and to elucidate the rationales those convictions provide to us for shaping our actions and associations, anathemas and affirmations. “Public theology” is one of the most useful, and most developed, ways of doing that.


Let’s step back a bit and define public theology a bit more precisely. To begin with, we agree with Brandy Daniels and Russell Johnson that the language of “public” must be pluralized and fractured. There are multiple publics, and they possess different degrees of “publicity,” different forms of openness and availability, and different ways in which they can function as “spaces of encounter.” And there is no need for any policing of this pluralized and fractured public realm. It is the consequence of a polychromatic and multi-religious world.

Given that sense of “public,” then, we can say that “public theology” designates any attempt to use some particular religious perspective to interpret and make judgments about a common political or cultural situation, and simultaneously to communicate that interpretation and those judgments to an audience that reaches beyond one’s own religious community. It uses the symbols, categories, themes and narratives that are ingredient to and distinctive of a discrete perspective. It does so in the hope that it might elucidate our common situation for a community composed of people with a diversity of views, and also elucidates for those same people why and how one member of some religious tradition (or traditions) understands that situation as she or he does. This is theological reflection done in public that is also for the public. Three dimensions to this are relevant here.

First, public theology is therefore done “in” the public in a sense that should be quite clear. Public theologians do theological reflection not to convince others of the rightness of their commitments; they do it, rather, to explain how those commitments inform their interpretation of a matter of common concern. This amounts to a curiously “sideways-on” form of theological reflection: public theologians are self-conscious reporters of their views, rather than simply professors of them. For the audience, part of the value of public theology is therefore that it explains the theological commitments of their neighbors in ways that that audience would not otherwise understand.

Second, public theologians are not simply speaking as a way of explaining themselves to their public audience; more immediately, they are also trying to illuminate the topic at hand. Hence there is a very clear sense in which it is done “for” the public. Public theology directly takes as its object of attention some public concern that is widely shared, and attempts to illuminate that public concern; but it does so in the dual awareness that (a) many people do not share the public theologian’s particular religious convictions, and yet that (b) those very convictions may illuminate something about the concern that others, who do not share those convictions, may not clearly perceive. So while the “public theology” is not meant as any kind of altar-call for an individuals’ religious or metaphysical convictions, it is nonetheless a public articulation of an observation, intended as a genuine insight, that seems to the speaker to emerge from her or his particular commitments. There is some indeterminate, or at least unspecified, distance between one’s theology and the public contributions which it is being marshalled to make; and yet there is some relation between the two as well.

Third, public theology is also “for” the public in another, indirect sense. It models behavior. It attempts for all of us, whether religiously committed or not, to offer one example of how a reasonably self-conscious, self-critical, non-defensive individual and/or community might talk about matters of serious concern—how such a model citizen, idiosyncratically individual, inescapably particular, might, as it were, see things. In doing this, it hopes to have, as it were, knock-on effects. Perhaps an audience that hears such an attempt will be provoked to reflect, not only to think freshly about the issue at hand, and not only to see their fellow citizen and their citizens’ convictions in a new light; perhaps they will also be provoked to think more seriously about how all of our particular views are informing our assessments of and judgments about matters of common concern. And perhaps, just perhaps, the audience will be provoked to make a similarly dialogical articulation of their convictions in public.

When done well, public theology proceeds conversationally, with no expectation that readers or hearers will be converted to the public theologian’s overall point of view, but only with the hope that each of our views will be recognized to be coherent and worthy of consideration. Attempting to do public theology, that is to say, is a way of saying, “here’s how I see it, and I hope my remarks aid your understanding of the issue and help you better understand where I’m coming from.” This is no trivial matter. Our deepest commitments are better off being visible and legible to the world, for not to know about those commitments is not to know something civically important about us. In any pluralistic setting, fellow citizens, or fellow-members of some public, should apprehend not only one another’s conclusions, but also one another’s deliberations.

So understood, “public theology” is form of civic participation that combines contemplation, prudence, and a hopeful democratic sensibility.


But if it is to be genuinely public theology, this discourse must remain significantly theological. Hence, even as it tenders determinative civic exhortations, public theology is likely to be steeped in the language of a particular religious tradition. In Christian terms, it may well be unapologetic in its adoption of an “in-house” idiom. The particularistic formulations employed about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the economy of salvation, the nature of sin, the shape of human destiny, etc., will be employed, albeit with a rueful awareness that these formulations have been, and will be, misconstrued and misused by others. But such abuse will not deter the public theologian’s use of them. A public theologian cannot truly make herself intelligible to others if she demurs when it comes to her basic convictions. She must have something to say, and she must say it.

Expertise is exhibited not only in positive exposition, but in regulative proscription as well. Sometimes, that is, as Karen O’Donnell suggests, public theology will sometimes act as a kind of traffic cop, exercising “a responsibility to engage in [some] conversations as a corrective to some of the erroneous ways in which theological conversation is being steered publicly.” Sometimes such a corrective will be more aggressive, a referee’s red card, an almighty Nein or a blunt “stop!” when danger looms. (This has been the case, with varying degrees of success, with respect to the Trump administration in the United States, and its supposedly “evangelical” theological defenders.) Sometimes, the corrective will be gentler and more educational, aimed at slowing things down, asking different questions, offering some qualifications—calming the traffic, nudging it in different directions. And sometimes it will be a matter of keeping traffic moving, perhaps by affirming that a that a diversity of opinions needn’t cause a snarl, but is a result of people going about their business.

Of course, it is not just others who threaten to misapprehend the commitments out of which the public theologian purports to speak; the speaker herself or himself can readily fail as well. After all, speaking in this way involves employing, more or less adroitly, particular and concrete bits of some tradition’s distinctive doctrines and beliefs to speak to multiple audiences whose various auditory capabilities are, as it were, tuned to different frequencies. The risk of misunderstanding therefore looms large. The public theologian might, then, come to misrepresent her or his religious convictions purchasing easy accessibility and facile intelligibility at the price of fidelity to one’s tradition and/or precision, even veracity, of one’s insight. (This is the grain of truth in the accusation, muttered by many skeptics of public theology, that public theology is dangerously collaborative, that it sacrifices itself on the altar of relevance by casually subjecting itself to a “secular” framework that can dilute or distort the theological meanings of the message conveyed.)


Who counts as a public theologian? What is the entry fee? And who has the authority to undertake such projects?

Certainly different traditions understand “authority” differently. At the same time, it is the case that democratic cultures—or, at least, cultures that aspire to function democratically—have a fairly inclusive sense of who has a right to state their case. So from the side of most of the “publics” that people might inhabit today, the question of authority might be seen as a matter of individual voice. Yet there must also be some sort of community to recognize someone as trying to “do” public theology. Just like charisma, public theology is not only about individual gifts; it ultimately a relational affair. Recognition requires that one be recognized.

Thus, as Méadhbh McIvor notes, who counts as a public theologian is a contested matter, and is likely to remain so. For some, Reinhold Niebuhr was the major public theologian in the middle of the twentieth century; today, others who might count include Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama. Still others suppose that prominent religious figures—say, a Joel Osteen or a Franklin Graham—operate at such a vulgar level that they have gained the “public” only at the cost of losing rights to the term “theologian.” And always, voices from more marginalized groups are typically resisted or outright dismissed by “publics” who are already busy denigrating or dismissing the standpoints from which those voices speak. The bare struggle to be recognized as a “public theologian,” that is to say, may itself be a significant effort of “public theology,” and the achievement of an audience able and willing to hear one’s words—and the words of those who follow after you, using the same idioms or speaking from a similar standpoint—can be a most consequential form of the genre.


But it is still worth asking: Is public theology finally a fundamentally and inescapably Christian enterprise? Undoubtedly, in the United States it has been mostly a Christian project. But it needn’t be so; the field is opening up, quickly.

For much of the twentieth century, public theological projects enjoyed the (mixed) blessing of an audience primed to hear their admonitions. That audience could be assumed to have some acquaintance with the symbols and theological, metaphysical, and moral formulations that it employed. In such settings, talk of America as a “Christian nation” was descriptively plausible, and not a political bludgeon, and public theologians could assume a much richer and deeper, if also fairly narrow, set of images and idioms that were shared by audience and speaker. Yet even then, a speaker could not presume complete harmony of theological commitments. There was a nascent awareness of religious diversity, and there were also forms of “civil religion” that emptied religious traditions of their particularity. As such, “public theology” might sometimes imply a sanding off of the especially spiky bits of a proposal’s particularity, so as to make a generic message digestible to multiple audiences. Public theologians would try not to talk too determinately, but instead be content to pronounce claims at the level of general ethical injunctions to love the neighbor and do justice and be humble; or with vague metaphysical affirmations of the depth dimension of human life, or the way that the cosmos is fundamentally oriented, albeit with tragic partiality, to the general flourishing of the creatures existing within it.

Any attempt at public theology today will be differently placed, and will face two sorts of new challenges. These might be described as the challenges of “audience” and “ambience.” On one level, the audiences that can “hear” public theology are far more pluralistic than ever before—both in the polychromatic diversity of religious traditions, and in the multiple ways in which it has become increasingly acceptable to relate, and not relate, to multiple religious traditions, or to no such traditions at all. In the United States, in particular, some are second- and third-generation non-religious, and largely unacquainted with the fundamental building blocks of any theological idiom, Christian or otherwise. Others are trying to make sense of life after various forms of fundamentalism. Others are simply keeping time with whatever religious tradition that their parents endorsed. And alongside these exist many more radically other religious traditions who know not Joseph, as it were, at all. Once public culture was largely occupied by Mainline Protestants and Fundamentalist Protestants; then, after World War Two, there were Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Now the spectrum has expanded massively. From Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, from zealots to “apatheists” and “Nones,” the diversity of publicly recognized forms of religious belief is unfathomable, as is the range of publicly acceptable degrees of religious intensity. Both the lack of a common religious idiom and the plurality of the religious idioms that do exist, are different sorts of problems that need addressing, and challenges that invite participation.

On another level, what the anthropologist Matthew Engelke calls the “ambience” of public culture is, when not frankly and blankly secular, often deeply distortive of religious concepts, Christian and otherwise. Contemporary public conceptions of God are often far less radically other and far less transcendent than in the past, and conceptions of providence, agency, conversion, sin and grace, justice and mercy and forgiveness have all been drained of a great deal of their theological resonance. Furthermore, the contemporary public civic discourse that does exist is increasingly captive to technocratic modes of speech, idioms which have purchased precision of address at the cost (we think) of scope and depth of vision. The thinning secularization and increasing quantification of public discourse has meant that languages of meaning are increasingly marginalized, when they are employed at all. So whatever we think of the “secularism” and pluralism of the culture as a whole—and even the grumpiest theocon could, we think, be brought to see some value in secularism and pluralism—as a technical matter for thinking about any possible public theology, it presents a distinct set of difficulties for public theology.


There is another kind of challenge that public theology faces today. This challenge has analogues in the past, but its scope is so broad as to make it effectively unprecedented.

Consider this: Any compelling understanding of contemporary life, we think, will acknowledge the fundamental fact of pluralism in our world, and the consequent paradox of contingency and rightness that many of us experience as basic to our lives. This paradox is most visible for those of us who understood ourselves as in some way confessionally “religious.” It resides in two impressions, equally deep, that many of us, perhaps almost all of us, share. One impression is that our own way of life is but one way of being human, and that we encounter among our peers, across the world and through history, other ways of being human which regularly appear to be relevantly satisfactory for those who inhabit them—and which occasionally provide exemplars whom many of us find admirable. In our best moments, then, we know these other ways of being human to be cogent, honorable, dignified, and fulfilling. In face of them, we might even feel a degree of what Lee Yearley has called “spiritual regret.”

And yet, simultaneously—and this is the “rightness” side of the equation—we have another impression: we experience our own way of living, in some fundamental way, to be right, fitting, and correct. The faith or tradition (or, perhaps, faiths and traditions) that we hold dear amount to the most “natural” and most true way of living that we know. Moments of doubt, phases of ironic detachment, or spells of spiritual dryness don’t overwhelm our commitment; we suppose ourselves to be rightly disposed in this way, and no other.

We do not think that our experience is radically idiosyncratic to us. We suspect that many people feel a similar tension—a tension that is, between the experience of their lives “from the inside,” as it were, and “from the outside,” as one way of living alongside many others. To identify this tension does not betray a shrugging relativism. It simply affirms both contingency and rightness as important features of life today. It is a step towards developing what is urgently needed: a kind of “bifocal” capacity, wherein people see themselves truly in both registers, and then decide how to relate (not combine) those registers. “Public theology” is, in a way, one space in which this conflict gets worked out. So understood, its contributions to life today may be far broader than its immediate civic insights.


All this means that “public theology” is intrinsically dialectical. Consider: On the one hand, public theology must remain theology, with something distinctively theological to say. While it aims not at conversion but at conversation, it still possesses real and meaningful theological content. (Otherwise, the conversation would be pretty empty.) It is not only valuable for the illumination it casts on our current situation, but also for the way it amplifies its audiences’ apprehension of the world, enriches their lexicon, enables them to appreciate particular theological categories in new ways. Janna Hunter-Bowman gestures towards this point when, following Chantal Mouffe and others, she connects democratic agonism to the Christian imperative to “love your enemies.” At this moment, a manifestly “secular” resource connects with theological ethics and practical theology in a vital way. One can imagine “enemies” being loved in such a way that they are no longer demonized, but instead become “adversaries” that reside in the body of Christ.

On the other hand, it is the mark of public theology not only to speak but to listen as well. Public theologians should not conceive their work as a one-way street, speaking to a particular public, in a particular destination, from an antecedently fixed point of origin. They ought to accept that their own thinking can change as well, that the conclusions they reach, and the conversations they provoke, can reflexively inflect the axioms from which they begin. The “theology” can learn from the “public,” acquiring positive content from non-theological resources, not just correction or validation. The process of articulating what one believes in public and having that articulation praised, ignored, challenged, condemned—all this will invariably bear back upon, and sometimes alter, the beliefs that one holds.


Understood in these ways, “public theology” is not simply a niche bougie interest, like artisanal pickling or hot yoga. Something like it will increasingly be necessary to all people in our world today, as the “public” is increasingly a part of our lives. More and more, our workplaces, our friendships, even our families require good-faith encounters with difference, with the un-familiar, with what is not-family; and those interactions are usefully characterized as “political” and “public.” Furthermore, the space of “private” life that is publicly viewed—in novels, memoirs, art, film, television, and the like—will continue to grow. Does this mean that Hannah Arendt’s worry about the rise of “the social” as a degraded version of the public has been proven right? Not quite. Genuine privacy may still be secured, and the truly public space of politics may also remain. But such things will have to be fought for, and they will have to be fought for not just individually, but also collectively. Our world is riddled with simulacra of the public (think of Facebook and Twitter and other “social media”), but their popularity only highlights our need and hunger for true connection, genuine recognition, being truly seen, truly acknowledged, even—dare we say?—loved. As a small (and irresponsibly suggestive) bit of public theology, let us say: our despair of the current “publics” on offer bespeaks a larger longing for a different kind of public altogether. Theological idioms, with ready access to eschatological languages, may be better equipped than many others to talk about that longing in analytically accurate and pragmatically effective ways.

Part of public theology’s task, then, may be not simply to be “public” in the sense of the explicitly political, but also to be “public” in this broader sense as well, and in so doing to remind all of us that that broader public is out there. To generatethe publics that we want to inhabit, not simply to assent to the publics that are foisted upon us. We will not be able to do that without talking about our most deep convictions, without, that is, talking theologically; and so we will need in fact to be public theologians to render this space visible, apprehensible, and at least partly, provisionally, potentially intelligible.

It’s Not for Everybody

To be a public theologian does not mean to do theology for everybody. It is not a matter of speaking from the particular to the universal, but of dwelling within multiple, overlapping particularities and finding theological meaning there.

What Is Theological about Public Theology?

The vocation of the public theologian is to testify to their faith and in doing so to further the good news of Jesus in all our publics. At the same time, the aim of this public theological discourse ought not be to colonize other publics for Christianity.

Good Publicity? Public Theology in an Age of Public Shame

It seems that only a certain kind of public theologian, touting a certain kind of theology, is recognizable to the religiously unaffiliated as being, well, religious.

Toward Agonistic Practice as Public Theology

Agonistic practices of lively contestation constitute a practical way to love enemies and thereby to do public theology.

Futures for Public Theology

Part of our duty is to generate the publics that we want to inhabit, not simply to assent to the publics that are foisted upon us.

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