Public Theology and the Postsecular Turn

in International Journal of Public Theology
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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.

Public Theology and the Postsecular Turn

in International Journal of Public Theology




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.


Martin MartyThe Public Church (New York: Crossroad1981) p. 16.


David TracyThe Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad1981) p. 31.


H. Richard NiebuhrChrist and Culture (New York: Harper and Row1951).


See José CasanovaPublic Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press1994) p. 3.


David A. HollingerAfter Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press2013) p. 202.


CasanovaPublic Religions in the Modern World p. 5.


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).


Olivier RoyHoly Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways (New York: Columbia University Press2010) p. 5.


Ibid. p. 2.


Sam HarrisThe End of Faith (New York: Norton2004) pp. 11–49.


Ibid. p. 243.


Ibid. p. 2 (original italics).


See Catherine AlbaneseA Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press2007).


Jeffrey J. KripalEsalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press2007) p. 11 (original italics).


Ibid. p. 9.


Michael S. Hogue‘After the Secular: Toward a Pragmatic Public Theology’Journal of the American Academy of Religion78:2 (2010) 346–74 at 356.


James CarseThe Religious Case Against Belief (New York: Penguin Press2008) pp. 3–4.


Ibid. p. 357.


See Stephen ProtheroReligious Literacy (New York: Harper Collins2008).


Ibid. p. 59.


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).


Manav RattiThe Postsecular Imagination: Postcolonialism Religion and Literature (New York and London: Routledge2013) p. xxvi.


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.


Mark TaylorAfter God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press2007) p. 12.


Ibid. p. 133.


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).


John DeweyA Common Faith (New Haven and London: Yale University Press1934) p. 33.


Ibid. p. 9.


Ibid. p. 83.


Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. SullivanPolitical Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press2006) p. 9.


KimTheology in the Public Sphere p. 14.


See James Davidson HunterTo Change the World: The Irony Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press2010).


RattiThe Postsecular Imagination p. xx.


Saba Mahmood‘Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent’Cultural Anthropology16:2 (2001) 202–36 at 225 as cited by Ratti The Postsecular Imagination p. xxii.


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