Friday, May 8, 2015


I spent several days this week with clergy colleagues at the Collegeville Institute on the St. John’s campus. This was part of a two-year fellowship I received in 2013, designed to teach a select group of early career ministers greater skills for doing “public theology.”

You may not be familiar with that term, public theology. If it sounds like professional clergy jargon, well, you’re not wrong. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable idea. The point is that churches don’t exist for themselves alone. We operate in a location, a public context whose needs and failures, triumphs and hopes we bear some responsibility for. Sometimes, broader social issues obviously impact many of our people; the high costs of health care in an aging nation, the possibilities of school success for our children and grandchildren. Other times, our immediate self-interest in, say, prison or criminal justice reform isn’t entirely clear. Still, we have neighbors who that fraught topic effects significantly. We’re riveted by news about conflict in Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement. Besides, we serve a God who splendidly called us all Beloved Children, and for that reason alone, whatever improves, diminishes or threatens the social fabric ought make a difference to our spiritual well-being.

What’s more, Christians have profound, millennia-tested insights for making that “public” space better; good ideas for the doing of justice and loving of kindness that Micah 6:8 recommends to those attempting to walk humbly with God. Hence the “theology” in “public theology.” That’s when Christians speak spiritually-derived wisdom about situations that impact world and church together.
Notice that’s different than attempting to convert people. It’s also distinct from the unabashedly partisan harangues that characterize too much current public religious speech. Rather, over the past two years, my colleagues and I explored how to think and speak about issues important to the common good (education, health care, criminal justice, business, poverty) with patience for complexity and comfort with nuance. And respect for disagreement.

Maybe that last lesson’s one we all need to honor better. Too many comments about public issues quickly turn political, then devolve into sarcasm, meanness and cynicism. By contrast, good public theology- whether done by a preacher in the pulpit, a co-worker around the watercooler, a neighbor at coffee with friends- values those the speaker disagrees with. It doesn’t mean s/he keeps silent about the truth our faith in Jesus helps reveal. But s/he should acknowledge the image of God in any potential adversary, and respond accordingly.

After all, the reason we speak anything about this stuff, again, is location. We are located- created!- in a particular place, with specific characteristics and people, and it’s that fullness to which we’re responsible. Not to some ideology or party, nor to a small group we feel most comfortable with or like best. It’s the entirety of our neighborhoods and society that Christians must care about, think about, pray about, act together to improve. For the God of us is the God of all, and nobody’s lacks an invitation to God’s heavenly banquet.

In other words, we’re called to engage the world as it is, not simply as we wish it could be. That includes perspectives we might not like, nor understand initially. Therefore, the counterintuitive first step of Christians attempting public theology is…listening. First, we listen for God’s wisdom in prayer and worship, scripture and Christian tradition. Then, we listen for holy insights in the dreams and convictions of neighbors. Ever “chatted” with someone so eager to speak you could tell they weren’t hearing at all? It’s absolutely obnoxious, amen?! Christians shouldn’t be like that, though we’ve done so before, myself most definitely included.

But now, I’m going to try to act different. The issues are too important, the wisdom we have too precious. And more importantly, the potential of anyone we encounter to shine God’s light to us and with us is always present. Perhaps if we modeled such ways of being and speaking more regularly- rather than blustering or staying silent- than the epidemic of snide, divisive speech that’s rending our social fabric would start healing. And with it, some of our world’s pain. A worthy dream, I’d say.

Grace and Peace,

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