New Frontiers in Public Theology

Below is the text of my recent talk as part of a panel on the future of public theology at the New Frontiers in Theology conference.  The conference was hosted by the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology, and I was thrilled to be a part of it!


I’m always frustrated by academics who only want to quarrel with the topic as presented or with the questions prompting them…and here I am about to do that very thing.  I wonder if one of the things to which we need to say goodbye is the post-Enlightenment, modernist assumption that there exists a neat separation between public and private spheres (or that any such spheres exist at all).  In recent years a number of thinkers have challenged this public/private binary, including Jeffrey Robbins and Clayton Crockett, as well as process-influenced thinkers like Rosi Braidotti and Judith Butler.  In not so recent years, I’d argue that Alfred North Whitehead and Theodor Adorno had already demonstrated the distinction between public and private to be a product of Enlightenment thinking that favored the world of public fact and objectivity over the messy subjectivity of private life.  Religion, of course, was relegated to the private sphere with the assumption that one’s inner religious convictions either wouldn’t or needn’t play out in the “rationally ordered” public sphere.  However, as many of us have learned from process metaphysics, and as other postmodern counterparts have affirmed, such a neatly cordoned off inner subjectivity is a farce.  Indeed, the separation between subjects and objects is much more fluid than our Enlightened predecessors once thought.  In a Whiteheadian world, in a postmodern world, even in the world of quantum physics, this separation of subjects from each other or of subjects from objects just doesn’t make sense.  Rather, entities and occasions are inextricably linked, bound together, in more ways than we can fathom—and our theology ought to reflect this interconnection.

So after the death of this binary distinction, how are we to describe “public theologies” and what are the new frontiers of public theologies?

Oddly enough, I want to begin talking about the future by first retreating to the past, to the older origin of this term ‘public,’ which is the Latin root ‘poplicus,’ meaning ‘of the people.’  If we imagine trajectories of public theology as stemming from this root, then I’d suggest that public theology is theology of the people—theology that both addresses people and in which people find their needs addressed.  We certainly can (and probably should) discuss who we mean by ‘people’ or who we see as our ‘public/s’, but I’ll just say that, unlike the current US government, I’m in favor of erring on the side of inclusivity.

I want to give three possibilities for how theology of the people might look.  None of these are stand-alone proposals for a public theology, but rather are overlapping aspects that correspond in various ways to produce theologies of the people, theologies that are tied to occasions and events as they constitute our becoming.

First, doing or constructing public theologies means getting messy.  Theology has to encounter, confront, and respond to increasingly messy realities. The present moments in which we do our theologizing find us mired in crises whose past, present, and future intersect and collide in multiple ways.  Climate change, economics, racism, nationalism, and classism coincide to compound their effects and cannot be disentangled from each other.  As a result, people (including our publics) are suffering.

To return briefly to the collapse of the public/private distinction I mentioned at the beginning, though Theodor Adorno lived and wrote in a time prior to the postsecular turn, he had already argued for the erasure of the imaginary line between the two, suggesting that religion needs to re-engage with the world by “secularizing” itself, rather than remaining “isolated and inflated.”  He wrote that “Nothing of theological content will persist without being transformed; every content will have to put itself to the test of migrating into the realm of the secular, the profane,” by which he meant not a process of securalization, but rather a movement of religion back into the public realm—the erasure of the line between public and private.  If theological content is to survive, then it must address the concerns and the suffering present in the world instead of merely maintaining an interior orientation and focusing solely on transcendence.

To follow Adorno’s lead, today we might talk about the migration of theological content into the messiness of our intertwined 21st century crises.  This content must address the crises not from above or as something that is itself removed or outside of the crises, but as equally intertwined and implicated within the crises.  Public theologians recognize the degree to which they too are effected by the compound complications of the 21st century and they write/theologize from within this web and to this complicated entanglement.  The public theologian’s voice must truly be “of the people” and not above or beyond the people.

This probably means that public theologies spend less time on doctrinal disputes, unless those disputes have a bearing on how a person interacts with the world and with those around her or him on a daily basis. Additionally, while public theologies name the truth of an event and call for responses to events, they are uninterested in zero-sum truth games or exclusivist claims.  The goal is not to proclaim that one has found the Truth, but to focus on the real needs of the publics this theology serves.

The second point I want to make about how public theologies might look is that addressing the multiple and interrelated crises facing our world inevitably means also sticking one’s theological toe into the pool of politics.  Since this is the case, we might question to what degree public theology also includes political theology.  Does a theology of the people at least mean having a theologically informed sense for why and how we should structure and lead our societies?  I think yes, in part.  Public theology, as I’m describing it, is more than political theology, but political theology is certainly a component, and an increasingly important one, of public theologies.  After the death of the binary, when we realize how intertwined and inseparable our supposed public and private lives really are, it seems as though our private convictions can’t but assert themselves in public matters.  In other words, our theological views certainly ought to inform our political choices and the way in which we fashion our lives together.  The difficult part is figuring out exactly how to do so with integrity, inclusivity, and conviviality in a pluralistic world.

Political theology has, perhaps rightfully, gotten a bad wrap after Carl Schmitt’s authoritarian structures and state of exception became the only memory associated with the term.  However, I suggest that there are ways of describing and enacting public political theologies that move us away from fascist authoritarianism and nationalism rather than toward it.  Instead of formulating a political theology out of conceptions of the divine as authoritative, perhaps we can re-conceive political theology as based upon a conception of God as lovingly persuasive.  As so frequently happens when I read Catherine Keller’s books, I discovered that these thoughts in my head where not in fact original, but had already been thought by others—several others.  Ochoa Espejo, taking her cue from John Cobb’s Process Theology as Political Theology, describes precisely this move as a correction to Schmitt’s secularization of omnipotent and omniscient sovereignty.  And Keller adds that building a theological political theology using Whiteheadian panentheism in fact leads us away from the sovereign as exception and toward the idea of political leaders as chief exemplifications of the societies they help to oversee.

At present it’s safe to say that this new way of conceiving political theology based on an understanding of God as lovingly persuasive will likely only serve a critical function.  The current political machine and presidential administration still operate in terms of powerful sovereigns and states of emergency, and turning this tide is unlikely to happen quickly.  Yet this critical function of public political theologies is still vital, particularly today.  In the name of national security, our political leaders place us in seemingly permanent states of emergency in order to wield wild abuses of power.  We absolutely need public political theologies that are critical of this ideology and able to offer a viable alternative.

The final thought I want to offer is that public theologies are interdisciplinary and multivalent—they make use of art, poetry, film, music, and pop culture to both criticize and construct.  Public theologies employ these media and cultural components in a reflective manner by considering how our publics synthesize experience into art and then allow that art in turn to form new experiences.  Public theologians can work alongside artists, filmmakers, and musicians to call attention to their expressions, to form criticisms of social oppressions, and to reflect on the public’s engagement with their work.

By working across disciplines, and especially with the arts, public theologies can conjure up events that somehow dislodge us from our ingrained patterns, from stasis, toward something novel.  When we’re brought out of what Whitehead calls outworn perfection, then concrete action tends to follow.  I think that public theologies ought to take seriously how this interdisciplinary approach might look among various publics and what sort of ideas or patterns need to be dislodged and critiqued through engagement with the arts.

I see these three trajectories as marking interesting and fruitful modes of public theology as we move into the future.  An ability to engage the multifaceted and complex crises of the 21st century, a willingness to confront the political in a critical mode, and the capability of cross-disciplinary collaboration will enable public theologies to dislodge outworn perfection and produce the novel becomings for a better future together.

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