Theologies of Public Life: What Is Public?

Second in a series.

I have proposed that the faith and work movement is hindered by the church’s failure to theologize public spaces in the same way we theologize the church and the home. To flesh that out, let’s begin by defining our terms – in part because the Philosopher’s Guild will take my card away if I don’t.

What is public? It seems like an easy question, but it isn’t. Consider a few questions designed to surface the difficulty of thinking about public-ness:

I have already suggested a contrast between the church and public spaces, but is the local church actually a “public” institution? Its attendance is not limited to church members, to the regenerate or even to professing believers. On the contrary, we want anybody and everybody to come in! The church does get its commission to exist from God, but so do the state (Romans 13) and all other human authorities (I Peter 2:13) so that doesn’t help us differentiate the church. The church exists regardless of whether the state wants it to or not, but the same can also be said in reverse, so again we don’t have a principle of differentiation. The gospel is preached in church, but also on street corners. The church is to be formed by the principles of life implied in the sacraments, but the sacraments are also vocational, pointing toward transformation of the whole world. We can, of course, fall back on the church’s institutional authority (however you understand this in your tradition) to resolve doctrinal disputes, control access to the sacraments and administer discipline – but why are these not “public” functions? And even this hardly tells us much about the church as a social space.

What is it about the family and the household, as social spaces, that makes them not “public”? Cheeky as this question may sound, for most of the long history of human social organization, the family and the household were not treated as inherently private. On the contrary, the king’s household was public; it was only the households of private people that were private. (Even today, when a commoner marries into a royal family, the commoner is understood to be surrendering an intangible “private” status that even a celebrity or a tycoon could still plausibly claim to have.) Economic and political power was organized and held almost entirely in terms of households, from the furthest reaches of antiquity to the early modern world. Political communities were ruled by hereditary dynasties – public households. The first banks and commercial firms in the High Middle Ages were just wealthy households figuring out how to manage their wealth. It is only in the modern era that we view the household as inherently private – but can we still articulate why?

Is “private” the only alternative to “public”? If not, what other kinds of social spaces are there – and why do we seem to lack a language and conceptual structure for those spaces? But if so, what is the relationship between “public” social space and politics? Does “public” mean “governed by the state” – as opposed to zones of privacy, which the state may not control? Would this give the state unlimited control over whatever is public, since limits on government authority are to protect the private rather than the public?

I hope I’ve made two things clear at this point:

  1. We don’t currently possess much of an account of what public social space is, what makes it public or why public-ness matters.
  2. Our lack of a theology of public social space causes blind spots in our theologies of other spaces, like the church and the home.

Now I hope my reasons for focusing on this topic in a series of posts for a faith and work blog can become a little clearer. As I pointed out last time, it is not obvious why it continues to be such a hard struggle to put the faith and work, whole-life discipleship idea at the center of the church’s life – and, in particular, it is not obvious why it continues to be a struggle to get the church to theologize social spaces like business and government the way it theologizes the church and the home.

One answer to this puzzle is that we have unconsciously divided social spaces into public (business/government) and non-public (church/home) – but, being unaware that we were drawing this distinction, we have not really understood the distinction we were drawing. Hence the persistent blind spots in our theology of the church and the home, which allow the church to disconnect from work and reinforce faith/work dualism in the home. Hence the frustrating difficulty of getting the church to theologize business the way it theologizes the church.

This implies that the church will not seriously theologize social spaces like business and government, or fix the blind spots in its theology of the church and the home, until it becomes aware of the public/non-public distinction and theologizes that. To do faith and work with people who work in businesses, we need a theology of business; but in order to have a theology of business, we need a theology of what makes a business a public institution in a way that a church or a home is not. The public-ness of business as a social space is what summons the church to think in new and more difficult ways about how to theologize it, and the importance of theologizing it.

Next time I will propose a definition of “public” social space that I think will set us up to make progress in doing exactly these things.

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