Five Challenges and Benefits of Theology for the Public Square



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.

5 thoughts on “Five Challenges and Benefits of Theology for the Public Square”

  1. Perhaps I’m missing something here, David, but it’s your blog – why impose artificial restraints on the character and direction of what you are moved to share?

    I generally have a topic in mind, and frequently this involves some preparation of texts, notes, citations, etc. prior to writing, and I generally organized in my mind a “map” of the direction in which I wish to proceed. I begin writing with prayer, put on a headset (surprisingly, Dragon Dictate is significantly more accurate than my dyslexic committing of words to screen – even with highly technical documents), and dictate. If I find myself in a technical framework, I generally will tone down the density and reserve the specifics for notes and citations. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting your point, but it strikes me as particularly burdensome to be making distinctions with a specific audience in mind on my personal blog. This is to say, the regardless of content or the “appraised reading level” of the writing and content, some will stick it out, some will move on. When I set out to teach, I teach. But when I set out the blog, I blog. As in legacy.

    I must say that in my mind, I am my own worst critic. I try as best I can to edit according to my “peculiarities” – misspellings, missing words, doubling of words – but once I hit “publish,” unless there’s something particularly egregious, I don’t look back. When I first started writing I nearly drove myself crazy returning to the “scene of the crime,” wishing to reedit, re-phrase, re-express, “re-articulate” every nuance of the argument I had made. Now, not so much. I would like to believe that if I am satisfied, you will be satisfied. And that, after all, is why we take comments. In the end, I would like to believe that blogging is writing to myself. And my expectations are high enough.

    1. I guess I just think it is important to teach myself to write (and thus to speak) on multiple levels. I believe a good writer should keep her or his audience in mind at all times. But I’ve been wrong before.

  2. This reminds me that I was listening to a very interesting podcast the other day and wondered if you’ve heard it:

    Gender as Icon and Vocation is the title and it is long, but I found it helpful. Usually I avoid anything with “Gender” in the title like the plague, but I’d listed to all the other podcasts in the series of the last few weeks and thought “I can always turn it off” but really, it’s helpful. And so is this blog post of yours, David, helpful to me as I read your writings in public theology, thanks!


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