The term “public theology” was first coined by Martin Marty in 1974 to describe the work of prominent Protestant social ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. Now nearly half a century later, the term has launched a thousand ships: hundreds of articles, dozens of books, and a few journals. Yet, the ground has shifted significantly since Marty’s poignant turn of phrase.
This symposium aims to reconsider public theology in light of recent changes in our political moment. Is it a worthy aim politically? Is public theology necessarily political? Is “the public” of public theology a unitary entity? Who are some paradigms of the public theologian? Can public theology speak in a milieu of deep pluralism? What are the publics of political theology?
A cohort of young scholars responds to these questions by drawing on an interdisciplinary set of sources. These scholars were first convened by the Religion and Its Publics Symposium at the University of Virginia. While these essays were drafted after the fact, this digital conversation is one representation of the fruit of the summer workshop.
Brandy Daniels and Russell Johnson kick off the symposium with an essay that proposes a new job description for the public theologian. Rather than lifting up Reinhold Niebuhr as the paradigm and looking for the next, Daniels and Johnson propose a public theology that speaks “from the particular to the universal” and dwells “within multiple, overlapping particularities and finding theological meaning there.” Karen O’Donnell’s essay follows and takes up the question of how public theology is theological. With reference to Archbishop Justin Welby’s recent advocacy of Universal Credit, O’Donnell argues that public theology must be a humble exercise that nevertheless promotes just mercy. Next, Méadhbh McIvor draws on a quite different case from the UK to point toward the process by which speech becomes legible as public theology. Attending to these processes pulls back the curtain, as it were, on the production of publics themselves. Finally, Janna Hunter-Bowman argues for a more contentious public theology. Based in her extensive work in Colombia, Hunter-Bowman proposes a kind of agonistic public theology as the antidote to the universalizing tendencies of Christian discourses. Finally Charles Mathewes and Paul Jones conclude the symposium with a response that synthesizes and extends these insights.
Each of these essays, in their own ways, pushes back on a unitary and universalizing account of the public to which public theology purports to speak. Whether it was a myth to think that Niebuhr could speak to a unitary ecclesial or national public is itself a matter beyond the scope of these essays (though Traci West has persuasively argued that Niebuhr should not have thought of himself as doing s0). But for these authors, no such unitary public is available today. Rather, they conceptualize publics (importantly plural) as overlapping and contested. The task of those interested in public theology, this symposium suggests, is to enter the fray.