Last month, J. Aaron Simmons invited me to sit on a panel for the SECSOR conference in March. I am honored. Aaron asked me to speak somewhat informally about my experiences doing “public theology,” (which is good, because I do not have time to commit to another research paper).
Which brings me to some of the points I will likely raise in a few months (and mentioned in an earlier post).
Some challenges of doing public theology include:
- Lack of Nuance: When I write for academics, I can use specialized terminology and references to other thinkers to make my views clearer.
- Lack of Space: A good blog post should max out at 500 words, which never gives me time to fully develop an idea.
- Lack of Charity: When you do theology in bullet points, you leave yourself open for uncharitable critics to caricature your position. This is called a “straw man fallacy,” and it is rampant on the interwebs.
- Lack of Time: Writing, reading, and moderating take time. I constantly struggle with how to balance my public and academic commitments.
- Lack of Sanity: I welcome thoughtful criticism, but that’s hard to find online. I would be lying if I said harsh words never hurt my feelings.
But I also get a lot out of doing theology for a broader public:
- Lessons in Patience: I am not naturally patient, but I do get to practice observing my “24 Hour Rule” when I get upset: Walk away and cool off; the comment will still be there. (It rarely takes a full 24 hours to calm down.)
- Personal Affirmation: This is a double-edged sword. Positive feedback does stroke the ego (which I don’t need), but I sometimes receive messages of thanks, which are genuinely humbling.
- New Friendships: Sometimes occasional messages turn into regular correspondences, and even genuine friendships, which enrich my life.
- “Professional” Opportunities: I have received invitations to do academic work because of something I wrote online (SECSOR is one example).
- Reasons to be Relevant: There will always be a need for specialized research, but writing online helps me remember that academic theology should not separate itself from public life.
I wrote my dissertation under M. Douglas Meeks, who always said, “The best theologies are simple.” That does not mean “simplistic” but more like “prophetic.” Doug studied under Jürgen Moltmann, whose academic writings made a genuine difference in the lives of everyday people (especially through liberation theology). Despite my theological differences with Moltmann, he remains my vocational role model.
I think Moltmann was attuned to the political and social evils of his day, which is another way of saying, “He listened.” I will never be a Moltmann, but doing theology in the public square does force me to listen, which is helping me to remember that everything I produce – whether online, on-air, or in professional journals – should be an act of Christian service.