If one were looking to hire a public theologian, it wouldn’t be hard to write the job description. A public theologian needs to be brilliant and charismatic, capable of comprehending the wisdom of the tradition on a wide range of topics and expressing the religious answer to society at large. While an ivory tower theologian can spout off polysyllabic words and untranslated Greek, a public theologian needs to condense complex ideas into palatable prose. Whenever you need the religious perspective on an issue, you can rely on a public theologian to represent their tradition faithfully and plainly. In short, a public theologian is for a religious tradition what Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye is for physics.
But is this really what it means to do public theology?
Of course, we can think of people qualified for the job as described. Alan Jacobs writes of Richard John Neuhaus, for example, “He appeared regularly on television, published widely, and was reported on and interviewed by every major periodical in America. Neuhaus was not a scholar, but he was certainly an intellectual, and was capable of reflecting learnedly on the ways in which Scripture and Christian tradition spoke to the crises of the time. (It is said that when they met, Reinhold Niebuhr remarked, ‘I’m told you’re the next Reinhold Niebuhr.’)”
Jacobs’s description accurately captures the traits we typically associate with public theology. A public theologian is: (1) featured in media aimed at all audiences, (2) capable of reflecting on the many different crises of the time, (3) able to represent the voice of a religious tradition, (4) skilled at bridging the gap between religion and culture, and (5) inheriting the mantle of prior public theologians.
While there may indeed be public theologians who match these five criteria, we find this understanding of public theology too narrow, particularly given the world we live in today. This narrowness can, to a fair degree, be mapped onto the criteria that Jacobs offers.
Not to the public, but from a public
In his collection of essays, Publics and Counterpublics, literary and queer theorist Michael Warner distinguishes between the public and a public. The public, he explains, is “a kind of social totality” that “is thought to include everyone within the field in question”—the nation, humanity, the church, and so on—“the people in general.” A public, on the other hand, is commonly used to refer to “a concrete audience, a crowd witnessing itself in visible space,” such as those attending a particular performance—an opera, a concert, or a sports event (66). Upon naming a number of limitations of these common definitions of the/a public, Warner focuses on a third sense of the term, on “the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation” (66).
Warner goes on to outline seven key features of publics in light of this sense of the term, but there are a few aspects of Warner’s reflections that we found to be particularly relevant to the public(s) we are seeking to speak to and engage with in this essay. Warner very quickly takes it as a given that there is not a singular public, but rather multiple publics, that “the publics among which we steer, or surf, are potentially infinite in number” (9). We are not all a part of the same singular community, one monolithic “public,” and most, if not all, of us belong to and participate in multiple publics. A person can simultaneously be a member of a Bible study, a racquetball league, and a World of Warcraft guild, of course, but a person is also a member of “the public of people who read Cosmopolitan” or “the public of people who watch true crime documentaries.” It is misleading to characterize any person as simply a member of “the public” since we each exist in the intersections of multiple publics, none of which can claim universality.
The image of “the” public theologian, then, leaves us wanting – the public theologian for which publics? On one level, we could say that in the twenty-first century, a Reinhold Niebuhr model of a public theologian does not quite fly. The internet has led to a more fractured culture, for good and ill—the different publics that the internet has fueled and fostered has led to more cultural division and polemics, but it has also engendered sites and spaces of belonging and community amongst marginalized and isolated folks. On another level, one could also argue that the Reinhold Niebuhr model of a public theologian didn’t even quite fit Reinhold Niebuhr himself. As James Cone illuminates in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “Niebuhr fail[ed] to connect Jesus’ cross to the most obvious cross-bearers in American society,” and “the problem of race was never one of his central theological or political concerns” (38, 41). Even the paradigmatic public theologian, in a pre-internet era that lent itself to the suppositions (whether actual or merely imagined, and for both good and ill) of a kind of cultural cohesion and sense of a shared sociality, failed profoundly in addressing and engaging with a matter that was theologically, socioculturally, politically, and interpersonally significant. Niebuhr’s “the public” was still “a public.”
This proliferation of publics doesn’t mean that public theology is impossible. Public theologians can reflectively occupy one public and think theologically within it, reflecting back to a community its own practices and commitments from a theological perspective. You don’t need to address all audiences to do public theology. This doesn’t, however, mean that the term “public theology” is redundant. We can still distinguish, as David Tracy did, between: (1) theological work addressed primarily to theologians and religious leaders, and (2) theological work addressed primarily to other audiences. Good theological work will always need to be done in the latter mode, which we can call “public theology.” Public theologians can give up on an illusory universality without retreating into an enclave.
Not generalism, but dedication
Second, a public theologian is not obligated to have opinions on all of the issues and crises of the day. It is a common temptation for intellectuals to assume that simply because they have something valuable to say about one topic, their opinions on other topics will also be worth publishing. The result is what John Henry Newman derisively termed “viewiness.” Examples abound. Wittgenstein once said of Bertrand Russell that his “books should be bound in two colors: those dealing with mathematical logic in red—and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue—and no one should be allowed to read them.” Whether from this intellectual hubris, from a sort of commentator’s FOMO, or from the more legitimate concern to not be silent in the face of evil, writers and speakers with any public profile at all often feel pressure to comment on what Jacobs calls “the crises of the time.”
This intellectual versatility can be done well, and we by no means want to discourage authors from reaching outside their areas of specialization. We may all need to broaden our horizons and recognize that issues are always more related than we suspect (this point is put in terms of “intersectionality” on the left and “worldviews” on the right). But one can responsibly do public theology without needing to express opinions on all issues, even all important issues. When scholars think they can speak competently to all issues, sometimes they can be profoundly wrong. A scholar-practitioner who works with survivors of abuse and thinks theologically about trauma and recovery, for example, is no less a public theologian than the jack-of-all-trades editorialist cranking out hot takes. Public theology is not “the news according to God.” It demands dedication—both in the sense of hard, focused work and in the sense of personal commitment to the needs and concerns of a particular public.
Not speaking to or for, but with
Another aspect of Warner’s account that is particularly relevant for us, then, is the fifth key feature of a public that he proposes: that a “public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse” (90). The prevalent image of the public theologian is that of the charismatic figure who adeptly reads the culture, identifies what the public wants and/or needs, and can translate and/or apply theology to that want/need. Not only does Warner’s account, in its recognition of multiple publics, challenge that model, but his re-framing of publics around texts offers a different vision of the possibilities of and for public theology. Rather than a text meeting an already-established, readymade audience, Warner highlights how the relationship between text, author, discourse, and audience/public is more complex—more reflexive, more circular, more temporal. A text, in some sense, creates an audience, a community of people who find the question or topic valuable to think about. At the same time, Warner also points out that no text alone creates a public. A public, for Warner, is “an ongoing space of encounter for discourse,” between texts and people, across time (90).
Warner’s more reflexive, circular image offers a kind of contrast to Jacobs’ account of a public theologian as one who is able to represent the voice of a religious tradition, and skilled at bridging the gap between religion and culture. The public theologian in this alternate frame is not one who comes down from the mountain to address the crowd, or, alternately, one who goes up to the mountain to represent the crowd, but rather, one who engages in the messiness of the work amidst and from the sites of encounter, whether that encounter be on a mountain, in a valley, on a shoreline, or in the middle of an ocean. This counter-image of encounter is also more faithful to what scholars of religion, and some theologians for that matter, have pointed out many times over now, that religion is not always, or perhaps ever, its own easily identifiable sphere distinct from “secular’” culture; as, well, encounter, it is more murky and muddled than the vision of a mountain-top descent, or city on a hill.
We find this image of public as an ongoing space of encounter particularly enticing, and freeing, in light of some of the tendencies prevalent in our culture today. In her recent (fantastic) essay, “Nuance: A Love Affair,” Meghan Daum reflects on how “being a public intellectual — or what passes for such a thing today — requires viewpoints that can be represented by hashtags and squeezed snugly into 900-word op-eds or hot takes,” and laments the lack of space for nuance in the public spheres she finds herself in. Having recognized that “the more honest we are about what we think, the more we’re alone with our thoughts,” she concludes with something between a resigned and hopeful acceptance, proposing: “Maybe all I can do — maybe all anyone can do — is try to keep nuance as a private practice, a silent meditation, a personal vow to be renewed at least once every twenty-four-hour news cycle. Maybe all I can do is accept that this story is neither a romance nor a breakup story, but a love story in the truest sense. It’s the story of that rousing, fleeting moment when you hear someone say the thing that makes you feel less alone.” Perhaps public theology, in this Warnerian frame, could—or, dare we say, perhaps should—offer some sort of buffer to the isolation that Daum identifies. Perhaps, understood as a space and site of encounter rather than as a speaking to or for, a space is opened up, however slightly, for difference and multiplicity to be engaged and explored rather than as something that should be obscured or conformed into an already shared sameness.
In conclusion, it’s easy to think we already know what being a “public theologian” entails. Even for those of us who don’t aspire to be “the next Reinhold Niebuhr,” the job description of a public theologian seems to have been written long before we applied. But as we have argued, and as the other posts in this symposium maintain, 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.