Are Academic Theologians Useless? Part II

I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher last Friday night, as I am wont to do, and there broke out a more-heated-than-usual argument between how two interlocuters, Michael Eric Dyson (requisite liberal) and Andrew Breitbart (requisite conservative). Then, as so often happens on that show, the panelists on the left side of your screen at home ganged up on the host on the right side. The topic that caused this unexpected alliance? God.

Maher is a flamboyent atheist, and he went nose-to-nose with Dyson on whether science requires faith—Maher says it doesn’t, Dyson says it does. Maher rested easier when Dyson was replaced across the table from him with secular-Jew-ango-atheist Sarah Silverman for the balance of the show.

The Maher-Dyson debate got me to thinking of the last time that I watched someone on Real Time make a thoughtful, reasoned defense of a thoughtful, reasoned faith in the face of Maher’s anti-religious vituperations. That person? Andrew Sullivan, the conservative uber-blogger, HIV-positive, Roman Catholic.

And I couldn’t help but think that 40 or 50 years ago, Maher’s sparring partner might have been an older Reinhold Neibuhr, or a young Harvey Cox. No more. Now we who are theologians proper have been supplanted by political pundits who occasionally rise to the defense of religion.

Last week, Jonathan L. Walton blogged here on RD about a conference that he and I recently attended at Claremont School of Theology. He mentioned my charge, to the collection of two score “progressive” theologians, that they be more savvy about how they market themselves.

More specifically, I accused those theologians of falling asleep at the wheel, of giving up the populist agenda bequethed to them by William Jennings Bryan, and of caring more about tenure and academic guilds than about changing the minds of the people in the checkout line at Walmart.

Surprisingly, just as I was being outnumbered by the assembled professors (for using the dirty word “entrepreneurial”), an unlikely hero rushed to my defense: Jack Fitzmier, executive director of the American Academy of Religion.

“Who is reading your work?” he asked with a clear tone of agitation, “Seriously, who is buying your books? Who is asking you to speak?” He went on to say, in no uncertain terms, that the academic theological guild is quickly becoming irrelevant.

I don’t know if the Fitzmier-Jones tag team made much of a difference, but I was approached by John Cobb and Harvey Cox immediately after my screed, and they both said, in effect, “You’re right.” I was gratified to read that Jonathan had also taken my challenge to heart.

We’re at a turning point, right now, because of a confluence of two events: 1) the MSM has finally figured out that 3/4s of American’s are religious, and 2) the Religious Right has lost its monopoly in the public square.

It’s time for theologians, practical theologians, biblical scholars (I really don’t care in which department you teach) of the progressive and moderate stripes to step forward and engage the popular culture. Sure, writing an op-ed for the NYT counts. I’ll give you four points for that. Getting quoted in Newsweek is two points. Starting a blog earns you ten points, and if Andrew Sullivan links to you, you get 25 bonus points. Posting 3-4 tweets a day earns you 15 points. Just do something, dammit.

I’ll buy an iPod for the first person to 100.

*And, as a postcript, here’s a quote from Umberto Eco posted by a thoughtful commenter on my blog last week:

My answer was that this habit is common to all European intellectuals, in Germany, France, Spain, and, naturally, Italy: all countries where a scholar or scientist often feels required to speak out in the papers, to comment, if only from the point of view of his own interests and special field, on events that concern all citizens.

And I added, somewhat maliciously, that if there was any problem with this it was not my problem as a European intellectual; it was more a problem of American intellectuals, who live in a country where the division of labor between university professors and militant intellectuals is much more strict that in other countries. It is true that many American professors write for cultural reviews or for the book page of the daily papers. But many Italian scholars and literary critics also write columns where they take a stand on political questions, and they do this not only as a natural part of their work, but also as a duty.