A Christian Spirituality of Public Life

I gave this lecture at the Ridley Institute, Saint Andrew’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC on March 15.

This subject, if I understand it correctly, is one of special significance to me. For whatever reason, God seems to have given me a particular burden for asking questions about how we as Christians and as the church are to be related to the rest of society, and these questions are rarely simple, and, not only are the questions not simple, but then actually the work that is entailed in doing that relating is also quite challenge. So I think it’s a tall order, and I’m hardly the expert or the authority on the matter, but I do hope that some of my reflection on this that I share with you will prove useful, and if nothing else, at least interesting.

And maybe it would be best to begin by simply clarifying what this topic of spirituality in public life is really about. Because at first it might seem like, when we say, “public life,” that what we’re talking about is, one the one hand, just what Rob presented on last week with regard to vocation — in the work place, in the home, as individuals — which is an important aspect of Christian spirituality, but still not quite what we’re talking about tonight.

Or, on the other hand, you could think that the spirituality of public life is about ethics, or more specifically social ethics. But that is its own distinct subject — Christian social ethics. And I suspect there might even be a time in the future when that is own whole separate class at the Ridley Institute — Christian social justice or social ethics. Because ethics is about the actions we take, and why, and spirituality, by comparison has more to do with the posture we assume. What is the our relationship with God as human beings such that it informs our public life?

And that’s what I want to focus on — what is the posture, the attitude, the nature, of our engagement with society, and in the public domain, as Christians, Because we have an identity as a community of faith, and our witness must shows itself as a group and not just individually. Our individual witness probably pertains somewhat more so to the topic last week, which asked about spirituality with respect our particular vocations, occupations, professions, etc. So what form must our public witness take as the people of God, as followers of Jesus? What kind of spiritual posture does it require? Ok, that’s where I’m headed.

And to try to answer that question, I want to discuss three things:

  1. First, revisiting the subject of sanctification a little bit, which I know was brought up last time — what does it do and how does it help us relate to the public in the way that God intends for us to. So sanctification.
  2. Secondly, what are the most dominant cultural forces today in our society that stand in the way of this sanctification
  3. And third, what spiritual dispositions should we take to respond to those dominant liturgies, scripts, stories, narratives?
  4. Alright — sanctification. I do think it is correct that our posture begins with the journey of sanctification. Ok, and so we are sanctified, made holy, set apart by our spiritual practices and the disciplines that are part of this great tradition we have inherited as Christians — a tradition that includes our commitment to Scripture, prayer, observing the sacraments, and so on.

I was recently at a clergy retreat for my Diocese, which is called Churches for the Sake of Others, part of the Anglican Church of North America, and our bishop is Todd Hunter, who spoke here last year, and a Christian philosopher named James K. A. Smith was there at the retreat as our keynote speaker. Some of you may be familar with his work. I think Rob took a class with him. Smith shared some of his insights from his forthcoming book called “You Are What you Love.” And it was good enough to justify my borrowing a good deal from it, so that’s what I’m going do for a moment as it relates to our thinking about sanctification — and sanctification as the mediating factor between us and our public life together.

With this title, “You Are What you Love,” Smith is drawing on Saint Augustine maybe more than anyone else, and he’s saying that, as human beings, made in the image of God, we are not first and foremost thinkers or even doers. Though of course our lives consist of much thinking and doing. We are above all, lovers.

Augustine famously asked, “What do I love when I love my God?” Which is similar to asking, “What do I worship when I worship my God?” What is ultimate for me, in other words? What do I seek above everything else? What is that thing that I believe will make me happy if I could just have it, achieve it, find it? The thing that could give me my heaven and help me escape this or that hell.

That was what Rob talked about with idolatry last week and he gave several examples of this — the thing that we seek might be the approval of a parent. It could be many other created or finite things: a romantic relationship, the accomplishments of one’s children. Wealth, power, status and so on.

So the question is not whether we love, but what do we love. Because we are lovers. St. Thomas Aquinas said that love is the virtue that order all other virtues.

So if our love is not directed Godward — true north — then the trajectory of our life is going to be off-course.

We are lovers and we are worshipers more so than what we knowers, thinkers, or believers. This means we are always desiring something and moving toward something. The question is where?

So much of what determines where we’re headed is not something we’re conscious of. The large majority of our life’s trajectory is determined by habit more so than choice. Only a very small percentage is affected at the level of decision. The example that Smith gives is learning how to drive. For us as adults, we can get in the car (explain).

 In the same way, and I’ll talk this a little bit more in a moment, take the problem in our society of consumerism — we do not decide to be consumers, necessarily. We don’t reason it out. We behave our way there. It’s the power of habit and we’re lead by our desires, our bodies, and our physical propensities, and so forth.

So the essential thing for Christian spirituality is that we must attend to our loves, look at what we’re worshiping — because we’re all worshiping something — and begin to develop, both corporately and individually, a re-appreciation for the power of habit and how those habits are either producing virtues or vices. Ok, this is why the practices and the disciplines that we follow in church in our daily devotional lives in the home, at work and at play, are so important. We’re all loving and worshipping something, and so as Christians we submit ourselves to a process by which God and the Spirit can re-calibrate and re-habilitate, rehabituate, our hearts and our bodies — not just our minds.

From there though, we must also recognize, however, that not only are we lovers, formed by our habits and by what we seek, but we’re also all being spiritually formed by the cultural liturgies that are all around us and that we’re immersed in.

So the journey of sanctification and spiritual formation is also a journey of unlearning what we’ve already absorbed from our cultural surroundings. Just as all of us are lovers and worshipers going somewhere, so too we should say that every group, every culture, even every subgroup and subculture, every society and every nation, has its own liturgy. And unless we recognize and identify what these liturgies are, they’re likely to have more power over us than we’d like.

And just to clarify, when I say liturgy, I know some of you know what that means, but sometimes it’s a new idea even for folks who have grown up in church that isn’t as traditional or sacramental. What I mean by liturgy is broader than the prayer we pray, and lyrics — though it is that — like a prayer of confession, the Lord’s prayer, the Nicene Creed, hymns and so on — but I’m talking about any set of stories, images, symbols and songs that serve to give meaning and purpose to life for people. We all carry some governing story that guides us, even if again, it’s not conscious to us.

Families have liturgies, corporations, universities have liturgies, nations, even a city like Charleston South Carolina probably. And of course in this crazy season of electoral politics, everybody’s fighting about who’s gonna get to say what the true liturgy really is for this nation. Smith gives examples of other liturgies that are more spatial, physical, architectural. Churches certainly have a liturgy based on how they’re designed, but so do football stadiums, and malls — government — there’s a liturgy to the use of our smart phones. Swiping, swiping, clicking, enlarging, watching — this is at least a ritual of the larger liturgy of consumerism.

Acknowledging of course that not everything you do with your phone is consumeristic — you know what I mean.

The point is, there are these competing and rival liturgies, and there are competing and rival exemplars — Jesus vs. Taylor Swift, I don’t know — but there are rival exemplars for how we as human beings and citizens should live our lives.

  1. Now though I think we have to ask more specifically about what some of these dominant cultural liturgies actually are — what are their hidden values and messages that are shaping us our desires and disciplining our habits?

We could also call these dominant liturgies, scripts, because they tell a story! What are the dominant scripts that inform behavior in our society today?

I’ll just name three: the first one I’ve already mentioned: Consumerism. Secondly, Individualism, and, third, Militarism. I’ll very briefly say something about each one, but really only insofar as they relate to each other. These are huge topics, and I’m barely going to scratch the surface, but the main point is that I hope we see their interconnectedness and the way they reinforce each other.

So I’m going to try to describe the core impulse or assumption behind each one, and I think that will still be worthwhile:

2. Consumerism – We live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us. It assumes, of course, that more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.”

Two descriptive words that go with the value of consumerism, and I’m getting some of this from the work of the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann — our consumerism is technological and it’s therapeutic. I’ll explain those as well.

The technological side is that the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved. The enemy of technological consumerism is inconvenience.

On the therapeutic side, if you have a desire or a discomfort that needs alleviation, there’s something to alleviate, and it’s only a credit card purchase away. Whether it’s medicine, media, a shiny new object, clothing, gadgets, whatever. Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.” For therapeutic consumerism, the cardinal sin that must be resisted at all costs is discomfort.

You know, in many cases — not all — the technology of “safe abortions” is one of the most damaging consequences of this. Of course, on the flip side of that, in many cases — not all — the technology of “safe sex” is also morally devastating.

2. Individualism – Individualism is a very complex and sophisticated phenomenon, and there’s been great work done on interpreting what it really means in our society in the West. One scholar who comes to mind for this is Charles Taylor in his book, “The Secular Age.”

This is because the reference point for concern about one’s interest in an individualistic society is no longer one’s tribe, group, religion, or nation, but simply one’s self. And there are many facets of individualism, but for the sake of simplicity I just want to name one — and that is its relationship to consumerism.

Ok, if consumerism says the whole earth and all its resources are available to us, then individualism says yes, these are available to us and they’re available to us without regard for what effect that availability has on our neighbors. So implicit in individualism is disconnection from and disregard for the consequences of consumerism for our neighbors — locally and globally. It isn’t malicious though — this is the trick. It really doesn’t know any better, because the habit of individualism has been disciplined to not have to worry about my neighbor!

3. Militarism – Thirdly and finally, with militarism, once more I’ll just say one way it’s connected to consumerism and individualism as well.

And when I say militarism, I should clarify, I’m not saying that as Christians I believe we should necessarily be anti-military. We should love the people who have served and are serving in the armed forces, certainly respect them, just like we love and respect everybody else. And I suspect we have veterans and men and women in uniform even in this room. But that doesn’t mean we get to uncritically support what the military is commanded to do.

The word militar-ism, means is the worship or love of what the military does or can offer us. It’s the absolutization or idolization of the military — making it a kind of ultimate. And the same should be said about consumerism and indivdidualism — there’s nothing wrong with consumption, as such, or individuality. In fact, with a political ideology like communism, one of its greatest shortcomings is its failure to celebrate and protect individuality, as a form of social organization and government.

Ok, so with that disclaimer in mind, though, again, if consumerism says, the earth’s resources and the products we can make are available to me, and individualism ignores the impact on my neighbors.

And militarism, finally, as it relates consumerism and individualism, just says, those resources, that are available without regard for my global or local neighbor, must be guaranteed. My way of life. It must be secured by force, if necessary, and by violent force, if necessary. Militarism is not defense, it’s offensive.

So militarism is intimately connected to the desires for security and safety,  meaning, to have my life protected from harm, disruption and so on, which is of course a desirable thing, but at what cost to others?

In sum, concerning all three of these forces and values, or liturgies, stories: to quote Brueggemann, “It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of these script; they are everywhere reiterated and legitimated.”

III. Now turning finally to the question of how sanctification and how our spiritual life aids us on toward resisting these dominant scripts and liturgies:

One of the things at the heart of all three of these dominant cultural values is clearly a kind of collective self-interest and fear-based outlook on life that just wants to preserve itself, self-medicate and keep things away that are threatening, right? something like that.

And, sanctification, publically speaking, is about getting free from this self-interest — this dominant script and these cultural liturgies. It’s how we discipline ourselves into reliance on mercy beyond judgment. And get freed instead to live in the Kingdom of God. By turning to the liturgies of the Kingdom of God.

So how does this work? What is our alternative story in many ways? This is the most constructive question I’m asking, I hope, as the third and final part of the talk. To answer it, I want to look at just some high points in the biblical narrative.

In the reformed tradition, especially, a common answer of “why sanctification,” might be that we do it for God’s glory, and that’s true, or maybe we would say, it because it’s what God has commanded and we are to be obedient, which is true as well. But there’s another reason.

And we find it first in the Hebrew Scriptures. Starting with the Creation story in Genesis was a counter-cultural claim in many respects. The Babylonian creation story, by contrast, has the earth arises as a result of the god Marduk conquering and killing another god, Tiamet, and then the earth arose from Tiamet’s remains. The Genesis account of creation has no such violent content in order for God to create. In fact, violence is introduced by human beings, not God, when Cain kills Abel.

In addition to that, in Genesis, God says that creation is fundamentally good! The material and physical world is sacred, and so is our work in it. God dwells in creation, especially in the Garden of Eden, where God is imagined as walking and talking with Adam and Eve.

In Augustine great work, The City of God, he recognizes that the movement throughout the Scriptures, the dramatic direction that the whole Bible is taking, is towards, as the title suggests, “The City of God.” Unlike most earthly cities, nations and empires, God’s calling of Israel is for the expressed purpose of building a “city,” “nation,” or “house,” where God dwells with people and people with God.

We see this in an important juxtaposition of Genesis 11 and 12. In Genesis 11, which is the tower of Babel story, it represents humanity’s effort to use their common language and agenda to build a city that reaches to the heavens — in other words, to build a city that rivals God rather than honors and worships God. And as a result, God’s judgment comes on them in the story by dispersing them and giving them different languages and nationalities.

So Genesis 12 serves as the correction and alternative to Babel, when God calls Abraham and makes the following promise:

1 “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

We learn that Israel’s call is essentially this:

They are to be different from other nations for the sake of other nations. They’re blessed to be a blessing! This is what sanctification is all about.

Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God in this way in several of his parables.

Matthew 13

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

The great 20th Century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s explains this parable of the unleavened bread in this way:

“The dough to be made into bread is a lifeless lump of dull, inedible matter; but the yeast, too, it by itself completely inedible [as well], despite the fact that it is the [means by which] the lump is to be turned into bread . . . The yeast must be plunged into the dough; it must sink into it and disappear, in order that its energy may be released and the dough transformed into bread. Alone, it is nothing; buried in the dough it is quite the opposite. But, note, separateness, and indeed a strict separateness, is . . . preliminary to the unity that is being attempted and that alone will result in something palatable . . .”

And so for us as Christians, our sanctification, is what gives us the power to be like leaven in the world.

And this forces us to remember something crucial. We don’t have anything to give to the world on our own. What makes us Christian is something that is first utterly gifted to us — it’s something we possess. The gift of Jesus’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection. And this gift of course is grace.

Christ is the yeast, in our dough, and we are the yeast, as Christians and as the church, we are extending his incarnation into the dough of the world.

So must be very careful not to run ourselves ragged just trying to do good in the world all the time. We will fail miserably and just end up hurting ourselves and others.

Rather, there is rhythm outline for us for public life, and Jesus is the exemplar of this rhythm. In his public ministry, Jesus exhibits models the ebb and flow of contemplation and action! Into the city, back to the mountain or the garden to pray. Into the city with the people, away with his disciples for a little while. Early in the morning while it was still dark, he goes to pray. From Solitude and stillness. To action and engagement. Solitude, retreat and stillness, and then, go do something.

So as a closing line of thought — practically, our spirituality needs countermeasures along these lines that resist and outlast — subvert — the dominant liturgies and scripts of consumerism, individualism and militarism, which I want to suggest can show themselves in three different postures, each of which is a response to those three dominant values.

And to get back to the dominant liturgies and narratives, the dominant scripts of our time that I mentioned for a moment — consumerism, individualism/tribalism, militarism — I believe that an effective Christian countermeasure to these cultural forces, will show itself through three spiritual postures, all of which are understood to be produced by a church that both recognizes itself as having been blessed to be a blessing — ok — called to be different from the world for the sake of the world, and to extend the incarnation of Christ, the yeast of Christ that’s in us, into the dough of the world, the essence of which is grace. These three spiritual postures are:

  1. The first one is just to repeat what Rob said last time: a commitment to be inconvenienced by our neighbors. And I mean, in order to do this well, we of course have to exhibit all of the fruits of the spirit: peace, patience, kindness and so on. It also requires hospitality and generosity. It means a willingness to suffer and to sacrifice.
  1. Secondly, combating individualism, is the formation of community and genuine shared life in which we make the problems of our neighbors, our own problems. Of course this entails actually getting to know our neighbors as well — locally, and globally — especially our most vulnerable and victimized neighbors.
  1. And I’ll just go ahead and say the third is also like the other two: The courage to take risks. To risk ourselves for something good! Something that looks like the Kingdom of God advancing in, breaking into our midst. And this isn’t always some big grandiose vision. It’s oftentimes more like sowing mustard seeds, you know, little community gardens that call attention to our interdependence, our simple, local life and need for companionship and caring relationship. But there is risk involved, and sometimes that risk is big. It could mean living in a neighborhood that isn’t quite as safe, if God calls you to it — putting our kids in a school system isn’t necessary the best in town. It’s going to cost us something.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote about how without risk, there is no faith. Faith is a leap, it is a risk taken, in response to a subjective, inward assurance and passion — one that ultimately demands love. And as such, it is then willing and able to face any uncertainty that life throws at us. All of the external and material unknowns.

I’ve thought for a while now that one of the things that makes Christians different, and makes us like yeast, is if we truly live into this hope and this confidence that even that even if things don’t turn out ok, that’s still ok! It’s a gospel assurance, that moves us to try anything. Because we’re coming from a place of total trust.

And again, because we’re not worried about the outcome, necessarily. Not ultimately. So our politics, for example, will be much less anxious. We’ll have hopes and goals, and we’ll even strive for them with deep resolution, but without fear and with a peace that frees us from having our hope tied to the temporal results. Because we know the “already and not yet” nature of the manifestation of the kingdom of God in history.

Dorothee said that a Christian is one who noticeably lives in such a way that would only make sense if the gospel and the resurrection were true. It goes back to the “different from the world” part of Israel’s calling. And then it might become appealing. But it will be appealing because people will see a beauty to it. Because of the positive difference, not the negative difference, primarily, the Christians make. In other word, because we’re known for what we’re for and what we do, more so than what we’re against. There’s a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that I want to read as a kind of closing theological statement:

 “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures of history as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involve himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings], saving them from having, in their freedom, come in conflict with what God intends.

So this is our assurance, for spirituality in public life. That God’s own self-investment in Christ and through the Spirit never leaves or forsakes us, but rescue us, set us apart — make us different from the world for the sake of the world.