This article considers the emergence, development and future of public theology in relation to its broader intellectual and social contexts, focusing primarily on the United States. Although some of the conditions that gave rise to the genre of public theology endure, developments and trends associated with a postsecular turn have created a strikingly different context, with new challenges and opportunities. In the article, it is argued that a primary task of public theology today consists in the critical engagement and reconfiguration of the reigning bipolar religion-secular model that fosters competing and mutually deficient religious and secular formations, and obscures forms of religiosity operating outside its conventional boundaries.
Martin E. Marty‘Reinhold Niebuhr: Public Theology and the American Experience’The Journal of Religion54:4 (1974) 332–59 as cited by E. Harold Breitenberg Jr. ‘To Tell the Truth: Will the Real Public Theology Please Stand Up’ Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 23:2 (2003) 55–96 at 56. See also Robert N. Bellah ‘Civil Religion in America’ Daedalus 96:1 (1967) 1–21.
Timothy FitzgeraldReligion and Politics in International Relations (New York: Continuum2011) pp. 1–17. This dynamic is powerfully illuminated in Leora Batnitzky’s recent case study of the invention of Judaism as a religion in the modern era. ‘Before Jews received the rights of citizenship’ she explains ‘Judaism was not a religion and Jewishness was not a matter of culture or nationality. Rather Judaism and Jewishness were all of these at once: religion culture and nationality’. This ‘preemancipation wholeness’ fractures with the emergence of the nation-state giving rise to the varied and contested efforts of Jewish thinkers to locate their tradition within the categories of religion culture or nationality all of which seem to ‘not quite fit’. She reads modern Jewish thought through the lens of this interpretive conundrum (Leora Batnitzky How Judaism Became a Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2011) p. 186).
See for example: Talal AsadFormations of the Secular (Stanford: Stanford University Press2003); William E. Connolly Why I am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press 1999); Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini Secularisms (Durham: Duke University Press 2008); Craig Calhoun Mark Juergensmeyer and Jonathan Van Antwerpen eds Rethinking Secularism (New York: Oxford University Press 2011).
NiebuhrChrist and Culture p. 32. For a more extended discussion of Niebuhr’s typology of theological politics see Linell E. Cady ‘Reading Secularism Through a Theological Lens’ in Cady and Hurd eds Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age pp. 247–64.
TaylorAfter God p. 153. This dynamic is sometimes captured through the idea of iconoclasm which has a distinctly religious edge. Frederic Spiegelberg writing in the mid-twentieth century suggests it is ‘a revolt against existing religious forms out of a much deeper religious feeling we may call it a Religion of No-Religion’ (Frederic Spiegelberg The Religion of No-Religion (Stanford: James Ladd Delkin 1948) pp. 18–19). I am grateful to Jeffrey Kripal for calling my attention to Spiegelberg’s work and idea of the ‘religion of no-religion’. Mark Johnston explores a similar dynamic arguing that the critique of idolatry belongs to the very dna of monotheism (see Mark Johnston Saving God: Religion After Idolatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2009) especially pp. 18–36).