Public Christians?!

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Monday, July 19th, 2010

If asked whether you viewed yourself as a public or a private person, many Christians would probably prefer the latter designation–if they thought they understood the question. Christianity, as a religion, may be seen as a public entity, but the same does not count for Christians. To use the metaphor used by the apostle Paul, we are all members of the body of Christ–and most of us prefer not to be in the public eye. My concern is not so much that we privatize our faith, although this is a significant issue.  Rather, the issue is more fundamentally a failure among Christians to understand themselves as public in the first place.

Publics are not well defined. In the most simple way, a public is constituted by publicity, the disseminating of information and attracting of interest among others. Let me put it this way, only a dead person issues no publicity. Among the living, we engage different publics throughout each day; our family, children, spouse, colleagues, friends, neighbors, the bank teller, people in the grocery store, at school, in traffic, at work, and at church. We speak, sing, yell and write our information, often using signs and gestures understood only in a particular public. The problem is not that we are public, the problem is that we prefer a certain public, that we are comfortable with “our” public and engage only rarely the strange and unfamiliar territory of another.

This separation of publics is a critical component of the Christian life and its segregation. Most apparent is the separation of society from church and academy: three publics that have little to say to one another. The information disseminated by the academy is virtually ignored by the church and society, if it is understood at all. The concerns of society overlap only marginally with the concerns of the churches. And the same can be said for the encounter of church and academy. At a conference I attended, a presenter put it this way: Christians in the academy are nouns, in the church they are verbs, and the general public prefers chocolate covered peanuts!

The presentation concluded by advising nouns not to behave like verbs, and certainly not like chocolate covered peanuts. Nouns are nouns, verbs are verbs, and … well, you get the rest. But here is where I beg to differ. The academy may prefer substantive theological dialogue (nouns), and the churches may prefer action rather than words (verbs), and perhaps the general society has little interest in anything other than light conversation (the peanuts), but any conversation should contain elements from all three. Just try to engage others with no nouns or verbs or invite others to a sustained dialogue on the gospel without nourishment. The question is not whether Christians are public, or to which public they belong. The question is how Christians can better engage one another across different publics. The academy needs to learn to talk to the church and the world. The churches need to learn to engage the academy and serve the world. The general public needs to learn from the academy and become involved in the churches. Christians are public … they just don’t know it.

How can we start reconciling our different publics? How can we learn to talk to one another, to recognize each others signs, symbols, and gestures? What are the implications these questions have on the idea of public ministry, public theology, and the distinction of public and private faith? I am following these questions in a new course, called “Practicing Theology.” I wonder how many different publics my students will represent. Will they be aware of the public to which they belong? Will they have any interest in transcending publics? At times, I even wonder if it is not an oxymoron to have an academic course on overcoming the isolation of the academy. But then again, we have to start somewhere. Where do you stand?

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Wolfgang Vondey
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