Public Theology in the Post-Secular?

Martin Marty in full regalia.
Martin Marty in full regalia.

I recently read/pillaged an article by Linell Cady which calls for a re-evaluation of the role and methods of public theology in light of our post-secular context (brill.com/ijpt).

The term “public theology” appears to have been coined by Martin Marty. It was a liberal Christian response to a growing religio-political fundamentalism. Of course, religio-political fundamentalism (i.e. the religious right) was itself responding to secularization. So, in a way, public theology attempted to be a better, more “right” kind of response. Think of it as the “B” side of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, but with a smaller PR budget.

The story of the secular goes something like this: Once upon a time, religion was mixed up in all sorts of things like art, science, and politics. Then the Enlightenment came, and people started to realize that religion should be a matter of private belief. When that happened, the things that religion once held back began to flourish. Democracy spread, scientific discoveries accelerated, there were fewer paintings of Jesus, etc. New Atheists continue to advance this narrative, arguing that peace and harmony would reign if only we could get rid of the last vestiges of religion and superstitious thinking (think of it as secularism with “roid rage”).

The author points out that anyone who has been paying attention to the news knows that there is a problem with this narrative. The distinction between the secular and religious is not nearly so clear. True, more are ignorant about religion, but they are also very interested in being “spiritual.” Furthermore, (speaking of religious ignorance) we are also witnessing the rise of various forms of religious radicalism. Basically, religion has not continued to retreat into private life. Religion is very public.

Thus we need to think of this as a post-secular age. Of course, as Cady points out, “The proliferating references to the postsecular have not brought any consensus in what it actually means.” But it has something to do with the strange menage a trois of religious radicalism, pluralism, and ignorance. Public theology needs also to become post-secular. Part of that means that we must keep in mind the concern for human wellbeing that gave rise to public theology in the first place, it also means that we need to begin to think beyond our sectarian divides. Cady seems to be calling for a public theology that is more pluralistic.

Meh.
Meh.

I am partly compelled. I do not know the work of Cady very well, so I am not clear to what extent she is an advocate of Christian pluralism (i.e. the belief that other religions are equivalent to Christianity, for lack of a better way of putting it). If that is where she is going, I have my doubts. I have yet to see a religion that is truly pluralistic in the sense that it values all religions equally. Exclusion is inherent to any religion, even those that claim not to exclude. It is simply impossible to say yes to every belief at the same time. My favorite example of this comes from the time I was speaking to a woman at the local Hindu temple (class field trip). When it came to Jesus, she said, Hindus will agree that he is an incarnation of God. They just will not say he is the incarnation of God. Hinduism is probably the most diverse religion in the world. Multiple beliefs are practiced. A Hindu will say that one can be a Hindu and a Christian, or a Hindu and a Muslim, at the same time, just so long as one is willing to give up the central tenets of those faiths. In other words, one can be a Christian and a Hindu so long as one is a Christian as a Hindu. The same goes for the kind of general spirituality that permeates the post-secular. As much as it wants to say “yes” to a multitude of religious practices, it has to say “no” to something. You just can’t draw a square circle.

I am not quite sure I buy the idea that we live in a post secular age. Cady says secularism is primarily about the privatization of religion. I disagree. I think secularism is about what Charles Taylor calls “disenchantment.” During the Middle Ages, belief in God was something a person took for granted. In other words, one had to justify rejecting the supernatural. Today it is the opposite. I am inclined to see post-secularism in the same way that I see post-modernism, i.e. its natural evolution. If secularization is fundamentally about the privatization of religion, I think what we have today is religion that is more private than ever. It is so private, in fact, that it is basically something one gets to take on and take off, like a pair of underwear. We can assume that religion is somehow “there” in a general sort of way (like underwear most of the time), but what exactly those beliefs are come down to consumer preferences. We talk about religion, but the exact nature of “my” religious beliefs are impossible to know because they vary from person to person.

Post-secularism = "Huggable Jesus." Just shoot me now.
Post-secularism = “Huggable Jesus.” Just shoot me now.

Pluralism exists as a sociological fact. That is, we encounter lots of different religions in the world today, but I think it fails as a theological response. The irony of its own contradiction cannot be avoided. Religion makes some kind of absolute demand on those who practice it. Public theology needs to take pluralism into account, but if it tries to be pluralistic, it ends up becoming a snake eating its own tail. (Which part of the snake is the tail, by the way?)

I think the best way for public theology to deal with the post-secular is for those who do public theology to root themselves in their religious traditions. I am an Orthodox Christian, and I do not know how not to be an Orthodox Christian. Then again, I do not really know how to be an Orthodox Christian either. I am not sure how much different religions have in common. It depends. But I think one common thread that is hard to deny is an appreciation for divine mystery. The fathers and mothers of my faith teach that to know God is to unknow God. The journey into the divine is, as St. Gregory of Nyssa put it, a journey into the dark cloud of Sinai. Learning to live the tenets of one’s faith eventually teaches a person how much she will never understand. I do not know how to do public theology as a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist. I am a Christian. In my tradition, that means the more Christian I try to be, the more loving and humble I should become (as you can probably figure out, I am not doing a very good job of it).

Public theology in a post-secular age need not mean trying to speak to the vague religiosity of the masses. That vague religiosity is too individualistic. One can never speak to it because it varies from person to person. I think post-secular public theology means speaking about religion — even one’s “sectarian” claims — to the public. Just don’t be an asshat.

Question: Are we living in a post-secular age, and what does that even mean? 

4 thoughts on “Public Theology in the Post-Secular?”

    1. Gah! How did those pronouns get there? Thank you for the correction. I actually figured she was a she, but I intended to avoid gendered references altogether. I added those two sentences at the last minute when I was distracted. Next time I’ll just Google.

  1. thank you David for sharing your observations. It use to be we bickered over one denomination verses another. Thank God most of us have moved on from that conflict. This issue of “coexistence” however is a greater struggle, and few even recognize that there is a problem.

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