Public Theologians

During the first five weeks of this class, “Theology in the Public Square,” we’re reading Martin Luther King Jr, Dorothy Day, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Professor Culp explained to us that she had attempted to update the syllabus to include more recent public theologians, but found none of the same caliber. ETA: At the very least, these theologians still permeate public discourse.

Is this really true? And if it is, why?

I’ve been puzzling over this for three and a half weeks now, to no avail. The most satisfying answer I have come up with is that the Religious Right has taken control of  the public discourse on religion. Their conversation revolves around individual morality as opposed to social change.

Or perhaps, the plurality of religious views in the country at this time is pushing us away from the use of religiously charged language in the public square.

I am curious to hear what others think: Why haven’t we seen a King or Day or Niebuhr or Heschel since the 1960s? Or have we? If so, who?


16 thoughts on “Public Theologians

  1. Olivia says:

    I have to disagree with Professor Culp that we haven’t seen public theologians of the same caliber as MLK, Day, Reinhold Niebuhr, or Heschel in America since the 60s. A short list of more recent American public theologians: Daniel Berrigan, an American Catholic priest and peace activist; Stanley Hauerwas, an outspoken critique of war in Iraq, was named “America’s best theologian” by TIME Magazine in 2001 and gave the Gifford lectures (the highest international honor a theologian can receive) in the same year; and Jim Wallis, an American evangelical political activist and founding editor of SOJOURNER’S, a magazine of the evangelical left.

    I wonder if Culp’s comment says more about the University of Chicago than it does about the face of public theology in America. The three thinkers I mentioned above share one thing in common that perhaps keeps them off U of C syllabi: where Reinhold Niebuhr is a pragmatist, they are radicals; where Reinhold Niebuhr’s public theology is characterized by accommodation, these three rail against an accommodated / assimilated church. For them, the church preserves its public prophetic power by preserving the special language of Christian ethics rather than secularizing its ethics. My sense is that Swift Hall is more Niebuhrian than MLK-ish. (But even MLK invokes secular logic as often as he invoke Christian logic.)

    Still, even if we wanted to look for Niebuhrian public theologians rather than (my favored) Christian radicals, we need look no further than Swift Hall itself: the political philosopher JEAN BETHKE ELSTHAIN is just as much a public theologian as Niebuhr was! Like Hauwerwas, she also received the honor of giving the Gifford lectures. She has twice sat on the Presidential Council on Bioethics. And her book *Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World* (2003) is sort of a work of public theology. Like Niebuhr, her theology is accommodationist: she wants to make sure that non-Christians can follow her logic at every step.

    • Olivia says:

      To clarify: JBE wants to make sure non-Xtians can ASSENT to her logic at every step *without becoming Xtian*, not just FOLLOW her logic. The same is not the case for a Xtian radical like Hauerwas. While his work is very public, and is aimed at changing the minds of the public (re: e.g. war), in order to assent to *every step of his logic*, one would need to participate in the Xtian story. I think this sort of sectarianism keeps him off the syllabi at Swift Hall and is responsible for his being overlooked as a public theologian. The same perhaps goes for someone like Daniel Berrigan, who says of his nonviolent protesting: “We want to test the Resurrection in our bones, to see if we might live by hope.”

    • Kathryn Ray says:

      I disagree with the application of the term accommodationist to Niebuhr. Liberal Protestants were accommodating the age of reason and humanism in their outlook, and he calls us to a more orthodox view of sin and redemption. Furthermore, he was extremely serious about applying Christian values to society in order to transform it, and wrote his work because Christians were doing a lousy job of transforming society. I freely agree with your assertion that Moral Man and Immoral Society is not a theological work per se, but I think Christians need more than theology to live out their values; they also need to be “wise as serpents.” Niebuhr shows us how to do that.

      I don’t think he uses historical analysis in order to appeal to a broader base, I think he uses it because he’s primarily concerned with assessing the implementation of values over the course of history. His theology is at the base of what he does, but fleshing that out is not the point of the book.

      • Olivia says:

        Nicely put. We need a third adjective in between “accommodationist” and “sectarian.” Suggestions?

      • Kathryn Ray says:

        It’s not an adjective, but I think you could say that Moral Man and Immoral Society is more “Things a Theologian Should Consider When Formulating Political Theology” than “Political Theology.” Which is, BTW, why I’m glad we’re reading it in this course.

  2. Bob Goffeney says:

    I think one answer is found in the combination of two of your theses: the Religious Right has indeed taken over public discourse, and by their sheer volume and tone have pushed other voices away. I hate to admit, I have a hard time self-identifying as a Christian any more, simply because the judgmental Right has so thoroughly hijacked the public perception of Christianity.

    I can’t speak to the caliber or the novelty of his thought, but as a undisciplined, eclectic reader I find myself coming back to Marcus Borg quite a lot. I’m not sure if he is as rigorously scholarly as the theologians you’re reading, but that’s part of his appeal to me – he’s accessible, and he makes a layman like me think, and wonder.

  3. Josh Pikka says:

    Theologians are considered great, in part, because of the impact they have made. It is easier to look at the impact that a person from history has made, then to assess a person that is currently doing his/her work.

    It is a lot easier to call someone a “great theologian” if you are looking through a historical lens. This is because you can see their entire career, you are more focused on this one person, and you are less knowledgeable of the issues of the day. I’m sure Martin Luther King Jr. was called worse names in his time, than some people of the current day are. MLK was not always looked at as a great person as he is now, I heard a story of how people at a Northern Michigan University hockey game cheered the news of his death. So you can see how the lens of history changes the opinion of people. I’m sure in 50 years our posterity will be having the same debate.

  4. Maggie Nancarrow says:

    I definitely agree that we need about 50 years to assess our historical happenings. However, I think people during Martin Luther King’s time knew he was a prophet, or prophet-like. He is quite different from the other figures we’re studying, but when we try to access why there aren’t strong public theologians these days, I would consider this point:

    Christianity in our culture has ceased to be a unifying force. I certainly think that Christian language in some forums these days is more divisive than it is unifying. This is for two reasons. First, because the religious right are hoping to use Christian language to convince the government that some people and some actions should be kept out of society. They appear in public as Christians for the sole purpose of dividing particular groups of people from the whole. This makes people on the left people uncomfortable and angry so that they find any kind of Christian language inherently exclusive. I have noticed that a large number of self-professed liberals associate Christianity with everything backward, divisive, and dominating. Their voices, unfortunately, add to this polarization just as much as the religious right does.

    Say, perhaps, that a powerful leader in an environmentalist movement emerged. Could that person use God and Biblical language today in order to unite people?

  5. bobcornwallB says:

    As you consider America’s public theologians you might add to the list — Parker Palmer and Miroslav Volf. Although a historian and not a theologian, Mark Toulouse, a graduate of the UofChicago and a student of Martin Marty, wrote an important book called God in Public: Four Ways American Christianity and Public Life Relate (WJK, 2006). That said, Niebuhr continues to leave an important mark on our public life to this day.

  6. Leah B says:

    Is it important to consider the definition of “public theologian”?

    Public: of or concerning people as a whole.
    Theology: study of God (in dictionaries it is an uppercase G with a Christo-centric implication; but is the actual root, the Greek theos, Christo-centric?).

    Is a public theologian one who studies g/God publicly or studies the G/god of the public?

    Other questions to consider: Who is the public, really? People with power to make decisions? Are they public because they are influential? Is their influence on the public square one of ideas or action or both?

    • Hey Leah,

      Thanks for your questions. I don’t have any answers at the moment.


      I would love a post about creating a working definitely of public theology and/or public theologians. Would you like to create it? It doesn’t have to be long or elaborate. If not, I can throw something simple together, but I’d really like a multiplicity of voices!

  7. Olivia says:

    Also, a couple of very influential Muslim public theologians:

    (1) Eboo Patel, who has done a lot of work right here in Chicago.

    (2) Irshad Manji,

    I *really* wish Irshad Manji had made it onto our syllabus, but then we’d have to broaden our geographical scope (she’s Canadian).

    Great questions, Leah. “Public theology” is not at all a self-evident term! I like the working definition offered here, by the Centre for Public Theology at the University of Western Ontario. What do other folks think?

  8. Kathryn Ray says:

    Maybe it’s cliche, but can I throw Stephen Colbert out there as a part-time public theologian?

    Also, what about fiction authors as public theologians? Stephanie Meyer, Philip Pullman, and the various authors of the Left Behind series? The Shack by William P. Young?

  9. Olivia says:

    Here are some extremely important critical theorists who are doing public theology AS ATHEISTS:

    Slavoj Zizek
    Alan Badiou
    Simon Critchley (wish we were reading him!)

    I also think the New Atheists are doing public theology: Sam Harris, Cristopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins.

    Kathryn, I like your question above. It makes me think that our discussion would benefit from an apophatic turn: What do you all think *doesn’t* count as public theology?

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