My weekend was not very relaxing. I got home from work Friday to prepare to teach my SAVY students on Saturday morning (where I sometimes stand on chairs). On Saturday afternoon, I was in a rental car, driving to the annual conference for the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR). I was invited to present on the topic “Theology 2.0,” which was about the role of public theology in the age of social media. After filling up on some Indian food on Main Street in Greenville, SC, I drove back home again. I got in at about 9:00 last night. I am both tired from the trip and energized at the great conversation with other scholars trying to figure out how to be theologians in this new digital landscape.
Oddly enough, actually brings me to the topic of my paper itself, which was titled, “#Doctrine: Theology in 140 Characters or Less.” Rather than tell you what I said, I think I’d rather just say it. So over the next few posts, I will break up the manuscript of my talk, which I hope will help generate some discussion about what public theology actually is, why it matters, and how to do it in a way that is both effective and faithfully Christian. The first part of my presentation dealt with “Why #Doctrine?”
First off, I want to thank Dr. Simmons for his hospitality and for inviting me to participate in this important topic. I was asked to relate some of my own experiences doing theology not only on the internet but also for its audience. Reflecting upon those challenges led me to update my title. “#Doctrine: Theology in 140 Characters or Less.”
I think the best way to relate those experiences is not to deliver a standard, jargon-laden, academic paper. Rather, I am going to write it a bit more like a blog post, keeping my language plain, my format interesting, and hopefully short enough to allow for some discussion. Thus though my prowess as a poet goes no further than poorly written haikus, this paper is going to be a bit like a poem insofar as the presentation of the words is at least as important as the words themselves.
I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian with a PhD from Vanderbilt University. When I talk about public theology, I mean doing my work beyond an academic audience, and making non-specialists my conversation partners. I began blogging for the Huffington Post and through my own website (davidjdunn.com) back in 2011. Since then, I have appeared on Ancient Faith Radio (an online, Eastern Orthodox radio station with a large conservative demographic). I became the Political Affairs Producer for Things Not Seen Radio, and have been a guest on HuffPost Live, an online video news program. My dissertation was about the way we should understand church and culture to interact and influence each other, and I have applied that topic to “hot-button” sociopolitical issues, such as gay marriage, gun control, and Occupy WallStreet.
I also continue to produce for the academy. I am behind schedule on turning my dissertation into a marketable book, but I have been talking with publishers and hope to have a proposal in hand by May. I just published an essay criticizing Milbank’s reading of Bulgakov. I have invited chapters in the works, one on Jonathan Edwards and Bulgakov edited by Kyle Strobel. I am coauthoring another with Joshua Davis on Bulgakov and Barth on socialism. If all goes well, that will come out with Oxford and appear alongside chapters by Paul Valliere, Rowan Williams, and Metr. Kallistos Ware of Diokleia. My point is not to brag. That would guarantee something terrible would happen to these opportunities. My point is only to highlight that I have been busy, and happy…and busy.
I got started doing public theology for two reasons. One involves a genuine change in life circumstances owing to the fact that the birth control pill is, in fact, only 99.9% effective. But that happy accident only forced me to prioritize some scholarly and vocational prejudices that drove me to the academy in the first place. I do public theology because I believe that…
1. Doctrine is not the property of universities. One of my prejudices – and this is just where I am – is that theology is the work of the church. Thus the academic theology must struggle to do her work not for the church or at the church, but with the church.
2. Theology happens in the narthex. The narthex in Eastern Orthodox Church architecture is a kind of boundary between church and world that is at the same time a space they share. It is a good metaphor for the way church and secular culture interact within the psyche of believers – a way of thinking about the anxieties and behaviors that interaction produces. But many of us who have lots of letters behind our names can forget about those anxieties, frankly, because we are a bit abnormal. I think autistic people are a gift from God, so I mean no disrespect when I say that many of us (who are not actually autistic) are like autistic individuals. But instead of being obsessed with marching bands or chess masters, I start getting really excited about the influence of theosophy on the development of Vladimir Solovyov’s early sophiology. My point is: If we care about helping the church, then we have to do more than talk about the things we love to talk about. We have to think harder about what the things we study mean for those who have never heard of Solovyov or theosophy.
3. Theology in the narthex makes us better scholars. This is a purely selfish reason to do public theology. Studies show that researchers who teach are more successful than those who don’t. This is because learning to speak on multiple levels, and having our ideas challenged by lots of different (dare I say, “less educated”) perspectives forces us out of the rut that we can so easily fall into. Doing public theology gives us the same opportunities.
To be continued later this week with “The Challenges of #Doctrine.”