Why Theology Must Be Public
Writing as Public Theology (Wr. 240)
Money can’t buy happiness, so they say. In the US, we live drowning in affluence but still we hunger. We possess all the material comforts of life yet we thirst. We do good works to help our fellow humans. We pursue social, economic and environmental justice but still a psychological malaise fogs the beauty of the world. Pessimism clouds life as if we were looking through a dirty window. What could the trouble be?
In his book “Secret Faith in the Public Square,” Jonathan Malesic argues against public witness for Christianity. In a review of the book, Dan Clendenin notes that Malesic is “against those who ‘enjoy and strive for social privileges by wearing their faith on their sleeves.’” A bit further down in the review, he says “Malesic sees secrecy as the way to save the Church from the opportunistic impulse to exploit the Gospel for social gain.” On the other side of the debate, the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) crowd is quick to denounce organized religion for the evils committed in its name through the ages. Perhaps the trouble is the corruption or cooption of the Church.
Malesic is right that in society today, religion often serves as social currency. That it does is antithetical to Christ’s teachings, as are cheap grace and the “prosperity Gospel.” To conflate religion with the errors (evils?) committed in its name is a logical fallacy. As the Country song says, “there’s your trouble.” Malesic would retreat to interiority. The SBNR crowd would say “see, we were right. God is a human creation. All we need to solve the world’s problems is intellect and reasonable discussion.” Are either of these approaches the answer? Spirituality without God is hollow. Not the answer. Malesic is wrong that keeping our faith secret is the solution. That’s not the answer, either. So what might be? Why? What are the benefits of public theology? What might be the way forward?
Why do I say Malesic is wrong? Humans and their institutions are subject to error. History is strewn with the debris of misinterpretation. Sometimes the attempt to maintain “purity” has resulted in tragic events such as burning people at the stake, or the Inquisition- -carried out by Monks! We are certainly prone to “looking out for #1.” Isn’t that sort of behavior that religion calls us away from? Isn’t the goal of loving your brother (or sister) to live a life that points toward God? To escape narcissism, we have to learn to look past ourselves. It is in losing ourselves that we find ourselves.
To say that faith should be kept secret so that it is not corrupted by our tendencies to seek the approval of others is to pretend that the only outcome of religion is self-indulgence, misinterpretation, or heading in some direction that is actually away from God.
Once in Meeting for Worship, a friend stood and said that because of the atrocities committed in the name of the Bible, she was unable to accept it as a book of Wisdom. Shortly afterward, I spoke to the effect that we must ask what the Bible says to us, not what it said to someone else. Be careful, I warned, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
This antipathy towards religion actively denies that tradition matters, that we have something to say, or that others have something to say to us. It denies the (Quaker) tenet that we each have that of God in us, and that by extension we have an obligation (no choice but?) to let that of God speak. Rather than outright rejecting the garbage heap we call history, perhaps we should be combing it to find the jewels of wisdom earlier seekers uncovered. Tradition provides grounding. Maybe it is the bathwater with the baby still in it.
What ever happened to not hiding your light under a bushel? If we hide our faith, we have no feedback mechanism to know when we’re straying. Is not sharing our experience of God through the expression of our faith, our hope, our love, at least as great a sin as perverting them into self-aggrandizement? Malesic is right that the glory should not be ours. But when we do experience that Glory, we cannot keep it in.
A second consideration in the “why” department is this: retreat inward ignores the great commission to spread the faith. The Quakers tried quietism as a way to preserve the purity of their faith and witness. The result was a dramatic decline in the number of Quakers. The Shakers, with whom the Quakers are often confused (I thought you guys were extinct), not only declined to evangelize, they decided procreation was unscriptural. They did go extinct. That’s it for why keeping faith secret is wrong.
And where did the SBNR folks get off track? As an old hippie myself, a relic of the 1960s, I have an inherent distrust of authority, structure, and organizations. But as with the statements about the Bible (above), we have to ask where the trouble lies: is it with the traditions, structures and organizations themselves, or with the way people have used them for their own purposes? On the one hand, we have an obligation to try to correct misuse- -in whatever form it exists- -and on the other, we must realize that the religion of individuality leaves us vulnerable, but not in a good way. As social animals, we live in community. Matters of spiritual health are not different.
Think of a fire. If it is made of a single log, it smolders or even goes out. Wherever three or more are gathered, the fire burns hot and bright.
The great commission is about more than spreading the faith. It is about witnessing to the awesomeness and goodness of God. It is about God working to heal the world through us. It is about reconciliation of human and divine ways. It is about admitting we’re not in control. This brings us to the benefits of public theology.
Theology asks questions. What is God doing? How am I to respond? It is true that I can hide in my hole. That is a response, though hardly the most faithful. There is a long-running debate about how a loving God can allow evil to exist in Her world. In the words of George Thorogood, “that don’t confront me.” What does “confront” us is our response.
We are called to love. Love the “other:” the tax collector, the least of these. And what are the effects of love? Healing. Nurture. Safety (in a cared-for sense, not the insulated-from-risk sense). To bring others to that place where peace passes understanding. Who, if they found a place of beauty, would not show it to their friends (and since we’re all neighbors here, we’re all friends, right?)? That is the essence of evangelism.
Healing. Nurture. The world is a broken, needy place. This deep need calls us to act. Faith allows us to do what we otherwise could not. I have experienced this repeatedly, whether it’s climbing trees or rocks or kayaking. My physical strength allows me to move maybe as much as a couple of hundred pounds. When I am rightly aligned with Spirit, I can move mountains.
We cannot let evils and imperfections paralyze us. We must become as children: when we’re learning to ride a bike and we wreck, we have to get back up and try again. We pray. We listen. We’re redirected if we’re humble.
Faith shows in the way we live our lives. As I wrote in a journal entry:
I see faith as a very real motivator which can and should be used as a way for others to understand what leads me to behave the way I do. I certainly understand that a host of sins have been committed in the name of Christ. I also understand that people will use any means at their disposal to attain status & power. What canst thou say?
It is surprising how often my faith comes up in conversations with customers. They note the way I work, how I relate to employees, the ease with which I climb, my understanding of trees and wood, accuracy in felling. These things come from beyond me. Whether it is because this faith-centered way of living is unusual today, or some other reason, they sense something different about me. The glory is God’s, not mine. Even if I say nothing, the witness is evident.
By allowing God to guide us, we release control. That’s scary. It opens us to solutions that wouldn’t occur to us, something the Quakers call the “third way.” When we focus on faith, hope and love, we are forced to see beyond ourselves. The result is magical or transformative or a miracle. Our works take on a simplicity and beauty we are unable to infuse them with. Our lives speak of spirit or love or light- -whatever name you choose for God. When our lives are grounded in love, it cannot help but show. Just as there is no way to keep from speaking in Meeting for Worship when the Spirit is upon you, just as the very rocks and stones would start to sing if He was silenced, there is no way not to practice public theology.
 Miriam Webster dictionary online defines religion as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.”
 From the song “House Rent Blues”