Theologies of Public Life: Public Space as Shared Space


Third in a series.

I’ve made the case that we lack an account of what makes a social space a “public” space, and that this lacuna in our thinking helps explain two persistent problems that the faith and work movement has long wrestled with: failure to theologize well the particular kinds of social spaces in which most people do most of their work (business, government, etc.), and vocation-related blind spots in our theologies of the home and church. As promised, in this post I’ll propose a definition of publicness. And I’ll suggest why I think we have lacked such a definition – it seems to me that once we see what publicness is, it becomes clear why we have lacked an account of it.

So far I have spoken of “public spaces” in contrast to the home and church, but I have also pointed out that we lack a satisfactory account of why those particular spaces would be considered non-public while others are public. My definition of publicness will hopefully be plausible because it explains the conventional distinction (home and church not public, other spaces public) without requiring us to make any other, potentially arbitrary distinctions.

I propose that the special intimacy of the family and the shared religious commitments of the church bond their members in uniquely strong ways not found in other forms of social organization. These bonds are both especially disruptive (even traumatic) to form, and especially powerful once formed. To become part of a family (by birth, marriage, adoption, etc.) or to convert to a new religion involves a fundamental change in identity that is not involved in joining oneself to any other social institution.

It is these especially powerful bonds that cause the home and church to be non-public. I can change schools, employers, cities, sports teams, etc. without anything like the same level of transformative action. Even where other organizations create powerful forms of intimacy among members (e.g. military units, fraternal societies or artistic communes) or create especially sharp divisions with non-members (e.g. political parties, activist organizations or economic interest groups), they do not create such a profound spiritual division between their members and the rest of society as is created by church and family bonds.

Yes, even changing political parties in this highly polarized atmosphere is not as traumatic as, say, getting married. Here I speak from experience; I have converted to Christ as an adult, gotten married, and quit my lifelong political party in pubic protest – and as big a deal as the third of these was, it was not on anything like the same plane as the first two.

Here I need to inflict upon you a paragraph of fussy methodological throat-clearing about what we mean by “the church.” First, it’s obvious that switching between local churches is not traumatic in the same way that converting to Christianity is. What makes “the church” non-public is the boundary between Christians and non-Christians. All local churches are on the same side of the boundary, so you can move from church to church without trauma; yet this same fact also means all local churches are non-public institutions. (That you cannot move from family to family in the same way illustrates how different the family and the church are despite their both being non-public.) Second, because what counts for purposes of classifying social spaces is the shared religious commitment, parachurch organizations are part of “the church” in this sense; they are sociologically “the church” even if they are not ecclesiologically “the church.” Indeed, any organization that is both formally and informally shaped by a shared religious commitment, such as a business explicitly run on Christian principles, would be part of the “sociological church” in this sense.

My definition of public space would therefore be a space that is shared, at least in principle, among people who have different family affiliations and religious commitments. Another way of putting this is to say that a public space is one whose formal and informal structures incorporate no assumption of a shared family or religion among its members. Thus a business or school where everyone happens to be Christian, but that does not operate on Christian assumptions, is still “public” – and, in fact, if atheists or Muslims suddenly join the organization, that will not produce much important change in its institutional life. Whereas a business or school that formally and informally operates on Christian assumptions will be significantly challenged if non-Christians want to join. (That is not to say there are no ways of handling that challenge, it is only to note the distinction between two types of organizations.)

Note that this definition implies a continuum rather than a hard binary. Some organizations are very intentionally shaped by shared familial or religious assumptions and some are not at all shaped by such assumptions, but there are also many intermediate states. So organizations are not just “public” and “non-public” but may also be more public or less public. Hobby Lobby under David Green is less public than ServiceMaster under Bill Pollard, given that Green’s business principles make the Christian assumption more explicit and distinctively formative of the business environment than Pollards’. Yet Green’s Hobby Lobby might still be considered more public than, say, Dan Cathy’s Chik-Fil-A; and all of them are certainly in the category “public,” as compared to a local church.

The most important counterexample to my definition that I can see is our membership in our nations. To be a member of a nation forms a bond whose role in our identity is comparable to that of family and religion. To join a nation is an act comparable to joining a family or converting to a new religion. However, I think it will be agreed that the word “public” is universally used in such a way that nations are “public.” Thus it would be a sort of arbitrary thimble-rigging if we defined publicness in such a way that nations were non-public in the way families and religions are. I think we can justify this because in practice what we call our public life takes place almost entirely within nations rather than among them, and the basic terms of public life are structured by each nation’s social order. (I almost included “ethnic groups” alongside “nations,” but I think ethnic groups can be considered as included under the category of family given that most people are born into them and to join one from the outside is something like being adopted into a family.)

At this point I think we can see why we have inherited an intellectual structure that lacks an account of publicness. Until very recently, what we now call our public life – life that takes place in economic, political, educational, artistic and analogous kinds of spaces – was in fact structured on the assumption of a shared religion! Often formally and always informally, the default assumption was that mainline Protestant Christianity had a privileged status in defining the structure of public life. I mentioned last time that it was only in the early modern era that public life was firmly detached from assumptions of shared family structure; well, it is only in more advanced modernity that public life has become firmly detached from shared religious structure.

The shocking conclusion is that we are actually living in the midst of the invention of the public, at least in the sense that term has for us now. All societies have always had political space. In the classical world, the public was simply and solely the political. In the Middle Ages the church emerged as a distinct space, but the church was still “public” because of its interdependence with the state and performance of public functions. Now, the institutional structure (non-familial) and pluralism (non-coreligionist) of the modern world is bringing forth a new thing: a public life shared among people of different religions.

Next time, I’ll compare this definition to an alternative approach that is often used in social science, and consider the theological importance of the difference.

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