Theologies of Public Life: Shared Space or Secular Space?


Fourth in a series.

To quote G.K. Chesterton, “the following propositions have been urged”:

  • That we lack an account of what makes a social space a “public” space
  • That this gap helps explain our failure to theologize well the particular kinds of social spaces in which most people do most of their work (business, government, etc.)
  • That it also helps explain vocation-related blind spots in our theologies of the home and church
  • That all this is one important reason why the whole faith-and-work insight has struggled so badly to gain traction at the center of church life, where it belongs – so it’s pretty important to start thinking theologically about “publicness”
  • That we should understand “public” space as social space that is shared, at least in principle, among people who have different family affiliations and religious commitments – that is, one whose formal and informal structures incorporate no assumption of a shared family or religion among its members.
  • That in the modern world we have been, and are still, living through the first invention of “public” space in this sense at any kind of large scale – that until the modern world there were no social spaces at large scale where at least some religious overlap was not assumed.
  • That the church has inherited a theological knowledge tradition whose meta-structures were shaped in a world without any “public” space in this sense, whereas most of us do most of our work in public spaces.
  • That this disconnect between the meta-structures of our inherited theological knowledge tradition and the social space in which most of us do most of our work explains both the gap in our thinking (our lack of an account of publicness) and the difficulty we have in remedying that gap.

To quote C.S. Lewis, “with this my case, as the lawyers say, is complete. But I have just four points to add.”

1) I have advocated that we understand public space as “shared.” I first developed this idea in reaction against Peter Berger’s insistence (in his otherwise outstanding work The Many Altars of Modernity, which I recommend unreservedly to everyone who wants to understand these issues) that public spaces are secular – or, in his even more blunt language, that they are functionally atheist: public spaces are spaces where we must behave “as if God did not exist,” even if we believe he does.

This matters because Berger’s view is by far the dominant view among the social sciences and in quite a few powerful political and social movements, and exerts enormous informal social influence far beyond even those centers of power where it is formally advocated. I will not say that what Berger articulates is “the” dominant view of our culture, but it is certainly “a” dominant view in our culture.

So if we want to approach social spaces as shared spaces, we must understand that in doing so we raise a terrifying challenge to those who have been trained to think of those spaces as secular spaces rather than shared spaces. Our neighbors believe we are trying to bring back the wars of religion in part because some of our coreligionists really do want to bring them back, but also in part (and I think in larger part) because they think managing pluralism requires secular spaces rather than shared ones.

2) The secular view of public space has exposable weaknesses. It understands the challenge of managing social pluralism that led us to invent publicness – in fact, my own account of publicness is deeply indebted to Berger’s – but it misunderstands the solution by which we actually did invent publicness.

We did not learn to cope with pluralism by creating space where we would pretend we didn’t believe what we do believe, but by creating space we could share. In fact, it is impossible to be a “functional” atheist – that is the only kind of atheist you can never be, because in order to function you must make assumptions that entail the existence of the soul, and ultimately of the divine.

As I put it in my rave review of Many Altars:

Berger gives the game away when he says that even a 16th-century Spanish nun was behaving “as if God did not exist” when she reformed the convent’s accounting to bring it into line with sound principles of financial management. If she read Berger’s book, she could easily reply that she was behaving as if God did exist—and was going to hold her responsible to manage the convent’s finances well! Berger argues that the same accounting principles work just as well for atheists. But the financially savvy nun could reply that it is really the atheists who are double-minded; they say there is no God, but they manage their finances as if they lived in a stable, logical universe, which the human mind is capable of understanding and within which the human will is capable of acting meaningfully.

3) Nonetheless, we cannot cultivate social spaces as shared spaces if we charge into them with weapons drawn, intent on fighting off the secularists and making the spaces shared by force. We must instead go into the social spaces, declare them to be shared, remain there in the teeth of secular opposition and continue to declare that the spaces are shared, and give ourselves up to be crucified rather than compromise on the sharedness of public space.

Because the proposition that public space is shared is identical with the proposition that people without family or religious ties nonetheless share a common humanity, and owe something to one another. A proposition well worth being crucified for.

4) And if the faith and work movement sent people out with that kind of mission, I think we would find ourselves developing adequate theologies of public workplaces, mapping the unmapped blind spots in our theologies of church and home, and in the long run, putting the whole-life, disciple-making gospel where Mark Greene said it belongs: at the heart of the church’s thinking and practice.

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