Theologies of Public Life

First in a series.

The Holy Grail of the faith and work movement is to figure out how to bridge the gap between having the insight (God cares about work) and actually giving it the central place it ought to have in the church’s doctrine and discipleship. Mark Greene was right at Lausanne in 2010 when he said that the good news is Jesus redeems everything in our lives, but the bad news is “although the church has identified this problem in every generation of the last century, we have not yet found a way to put this whole-life disciple-making gospel back where it belongs: at the heart of our thinking and practice.”

We have a problem. We have wide agreement about what the problem is. We have wide agreement about what is needed to solve it. And changes do happen – in particular, I think we have made unprecedented progress since Mark spoke these words in 2010. Yet the changes we have seen have been slow and painfully won, and have not yet reached a tipping point that would establish them securely. They are in danger of being lost if we allow the new interest and initiatives of the last ten years to fade out like just one more church fad.

The slow pace and painful process of change, in the face of a wide agreement about the problem, call for an explanation. Such an explanation might be the key to unlocking much faster progress, getting us to the critical tipping point we have not yet reached.

I don’t have a single, magic-bullet explanation (well, okay, actually I totally do, but I’m holding out for a better book deal before I reveal it). In this series of posts, I want to explore what I think is one key factor in slowing down the progress of the movement.

I expect there are a lot of takers for the proposition that theology matters a lot. There will be fewer takers, although still a substantial number, for the proposition that academic theology matters a lot. And among them, even fewer want to sit still for a disquisition on the meta-structure of academic theology.

To the three or four people still reading this post, I want to propose that our theology of work is malformed because we have inadequately theologized the social spaces within which the majority of work takes place. One piece of evidence for this, as I think this series will show, is that our theologies on parallel topics like ethics and spiritual formation are also malformed by their inadequate theologization of the same social spaces.

It would be no new argument to assert that we lack a good theology of business, government, and etc. Those in our movement who offer theologies of business, government, and etc. typically begin by complaining how few people have a good theology of those social spaces. Rather than duplicate those contributions, which are often excellent, I want to explore why we have inadequate theologies of these social spaces, and think about what we can do to make people more receptive to the theologies we offer them.

What does this have to do with Mark Greene’s “bad news”? I think the underlying theological deficiency that causes us to lack good theologies of social spaces like business and government is also at least one factor in the difficulty we have in reaching the tipping point for the faith and work movement.

People typically, I think, have at least a rudimentary theology of the church (which includes not just the local church proper, but things like denominational bodies and parachurch organizations) as well as a theology of the home (i.e. of the family). With great respect for those who do the majority of their work in the church or in the home, the majority of people do not do the majority of their work in those places. And other social spaces are not generally well theologized.

Although most people are either employed by businesses or have a spouse or parent who is, and all people do business with businesses on a routine daily basis, few have devoted even basic attention to a theology of business. Meanwhile, theologies of government are mostly captive to the agendas of one or the other side of the partisan and ideological divide; those that protest most loudly they are not thus captive are often the most captive. And so on.

Why do we have at least reasonable theologies of the church and home, but not of other social spaces? Good theologies of business, government and other kinds of social spaces are not lacking. If you want them, you can get them without herculean effort. And the fact that people do have at least basic theologies of the church and home shows that the effort can be made successfully. The difficulty must be that most people don’t want to invest the effort in these other cases.

So what causes the lack of interest in theologizing these social spaces? I don’t think it’s mainly selfishness, materialism or other moral defects. It is easy to come up with plausible stories explaining how moral defects are behind the lack of interest in having a theology of business, or government. But one can easily come up with equally plausible stories for the church and family. And such a widespread darkening of the conscience in these other cases would itself only demand a further explanation.

I propose the difference arises from something in what I called earlier the “meta-structure” of academic theology. We have inherited a model of what theology is and how it does its job that prompts people to think that they need a theology of church and home, but does not prompt people to think that they need a theology of public social spaces.

That’s the fussy throat-clearing post, announcing what I’m going to do. Next time, I will begin actually to do it. We will consider what is the core difference between a “public” space and a space that is within the church or family, and why our model of theology prompts people to think theologically about the latter but not the former.

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