PLTS Faculty on Public Sphere
Imagine a student venturing the following: “When I take the PLTS liturgy course, ‘Ministry of Word and Sacrament,’ I am going to learn to do liturgy right?” Now imagine that student’s surprise when I reply, “Not at all!” What students begin learning in “Ministry of Word and Sacrament” is that the church’s worship is a public act with consequences for our lives as believers in the public sphere—that hurly, burly of day-to-day struggles and engagements with economic, political, and social issues.
The promises of God by which we live and which gather us into our common worship in Word and Sacrament are certainly related to Jesus’ promise to be with us. But another set of promises are related to the presence of Christ among the poor and the needy and the marginalized. In fact, in the early centuries of the Christian movement, if you had asked a believer what worship was about, the answer you would have received was: “our gatherings are about caring for the poor.”
So, our worship is a great deal more than ceremonial precision and contemporary music. It is about our very vocation as believers. We recognize as much before departing the gathering for public worship: “We give you thanks, almighty God, that you have refreshed us through the healing power of this gift of life; and we pray that in your mercy you would strengthen us through this gift, in faith toward you and in fervent love toward one another, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” We are nourished by Word and Sacrament so that we can live in love and faithfulness, participating in that “liturgy after the liturgy” which is nothing less than engagement in the public sphere.
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The ancient Greeks had a word for a person who showed no interest or engagement in the life of the city (polis). Such a person—withdrawn from public life to the tranquility of his or her private garden—was called an idiotis, an “idiot.” Aristotle described human beings as “political animals.” He meant that humans are social, communal beings. They are “political” because they share the common life of the polis. For Aristotle, to live only for oneself, i.e., to be private, is contrary to nature. You are idiotic if you live a life like that.
Modern society tends toward just such an “unnatural” life. This individualism reduces religious faith to a private matter. Religion is something between me and my God, something that occurs only in the deepest recesses of my heart and soul, something that is a trifle gauche to ask about or talk about publicly. Individualism discretely removes religion from the life of the polis. In similar fashion, modern individualism makes politics a private affair. From the perspective of individualism, the two topics to avoid mentioning at dinner are religion and politics.
But Christianity is not primarily about “saving” souls or assuring my individual place in a heaven beyond death. Jesus’ life story and his ultimate resurrection out of death represent a bursting into human history of a revolutionary tidal wave that sweeps aside old slaveries and opens the path to human justice and freedom. Far from a retreat from the world and public life, the Christian movement confronts entrenched powers of privilege, prestige, patronage, and patriarchy with the subversive freedom of the gospel.
Christians are not idiots. Neither the Church nor its members should withdraw from the common life of the society. The trick for Christians in the United States is to find the means to unleash the gospel into the life of the polis—the public life of a modern, democratic, advanced post-industrial state.
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We find ourselves today in a new cultural situation. The public square wants to hear what thoughtful religious voices have to say. The public arena no longer allows religious authority, to be sure; it eschews dogmatic rigidity. Yet, the wider society welcomes religious wisdom into debates over public policy. I believe thoughtful Lutheran leaders should take advantage of this opportunity by providing insightful analyses of the issues of the day and offering wise counsel to the society at large.
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On the first day of a preaching course, I frequently ask students this question: “What is the purpose of preaching?” Over the years, I have heard many, many different answers.
While there is no single correct answer, I have found one answer that generates a great deal of classroom discussion and significantly influences how students actually preach, in the course and beyond.
This answer triggers further questions. (Good answers usually do.)
Q: “Is preaching the Good News of resurrection hope a private message intended to get a person ready for his or her own death?” “That is, is it about me in the future?”
Q: “Is the resurrection that takes place in preaching a response to the various kinds of death people carry inside them—things that keep people from living fully?” “Is it about me now?” “Is it not also about others—about us?”
Q: “In fact, is not preaching that ’raises the dead,’ quite directly about others? Is not death changed to life when as baptized Christians we defend human dignity, stand with poor and powerless, advocate justice, and work for peace?” “That is, is resurrection not a blatantly public issue?”
Q: “While preaching that ’raises the dead’ is always personal, is it possible for it ever to be exclusively—or even primarily—a private matter?”
Q: “Is not the life giving power and hope of authentic Christian preaching, by its very nature, always a public act?”
There are many different ways in which these questions get answered by preachers. And while again there is no one correct answer, I would suggest that preaching which does not in some manner embody public as well as private aims has not yet itself been fully been raised from the dead.
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Two crucial questions inform the work we do at PLTS: 1) How do Christians consider the most pressing issues of our time in ways that are both critical and creative? 2) How can we reframe these issues, so that they do not get interpreted in terms of fundamentalisms of left and right, but receive the gracious scrutiny of our deepest religious convictions?
These questions affect our work both inside and outside the classroom. My teaching portfolio includes introductory courses in Christian ethics. Ethics is a natural arena for discussing questions of public life and citizenship. In addition to reading the required texts for the course, I encourage students to stay critically aware of current events. Scheduled lectures then address whatever issues emerge in the public sphere: e.g., the sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church and in our own, the proper role of church leaders in public life, how congregations discuss issues that divide us (sexuality, war, abortion, the death penalty).
As citizens we participate in the public sphere by knowing the facts and speaking up. As Christian citizens, however, we are called to interrogate the way the facts are framed. Does this framing capture the depth of our convictions? Might there be other ways to look at a given issue, ways not immediately apparent in the midst of the fray?
PLTS faculty addresses these questions outside the classroom as well. On September 11th, 2001 the community gathered for prayer, initiating a pattern of worship and intercession that would be replayed again and again in the life of this community. We staged several community forums on the war in Iraq, examining just war theory, the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, and strategies for pastoral response. Finally, all of us teach and learn in congregations around the country, as we meet with church leaders and laity to discuss some of the most intractable issues of our day.
Our commitment to public discourse and deliberation reminds me that for Lutherans theology matters—and it matters in public.
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In the fourth year class on Public Ministry II: Congregation and Beyond for M.Div. candidates, students reflect on the public dimension of the many and diverse demands of pastoral leadership. In class we recall that Martin Luther was an extraordinary public figure. We observe how in various times and places Lutheranism both converged with and diverged from Luther’s model of public engagement. We identify contextual issues that call Lutheran Christians to witness to this world, this country, and the communities in which we live, move, and have our being today. We recognize that even while we may be mixed up with and even tainted by the privileges derived from unjust economic, political, and social conditions, we are also free to boldly question these “erred human contracts,” as Luther called them. We discuss the difference between power and authority in our approach to public mission. We mark the various ways in which the church is engaged in the public sphere: e.g., in prophetic and liberating ministries, in faith-based community organizing, and in advocacy and direct social services. Finally, we ask how the church, as a body of people who are both saints and sinners, might further its public witness so that justice, as Amos 5:24 puts it, can “roll down like waters….”
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