In Case You Missed It

1) Mark Liederbach, Professor of Theology, Ethics, and Culture and Dean of Students at Southeastern, writes at Canon and Culture about the truly biblical pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

2) Russ Moore describes how Christians can and should share and model the gospel with those impacted by the abortion culture in which we live.

3) The folks at First Things reprinted the famous pro-life speech by the late Richard John Neuhaus. Great call to prayer and action: “We shall not weary, we shall not rest until every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life.” 

4) Managing Editor of the Gospel Project and SEBTS PhD student, Trevin Wax, gives a good reminder to dads: accept your kids’ invitation into their lives.

5) This week SEBTS held its opening convocation for the spring semester. Danny Akin preached on Acts 10:1–48 and the gospel for all nations.


Briefly Noted: On Rowan Williams, Christianity, and the Public Square

Things have gone badly enough lately for Archbishop Rowan Williams that he might want to wear his mitre sideways (as a rally cap). Or so say the commentators, who blame Williams for the Church of England’s failure recently to approve female bishops.  During times like this, when the church’s stance on an issue conflicts with the broader society, television commentators and political pundits bloviate endlessly about how Christians should not bring their religious beliefs into public discussion.

Such bloviations are precisely the target of Rowan Williams’ recent book—Faith in the Public Square—which Roger Trigg reviews in a recent edition of The Times Literary Supplement (Nov 30, 2012). Williams’ book is an intriguing collection of lectures given to various audiences, some of which were religious, some of which were not. The thread tying those lectures together is the issue of religious faith and public discourse.

In the Western world, one set of voices say that religion is an entirely private endeavor. It should be kept in the closet and not brought out when company is present. “One solution to all this,” writes Trigg, “is that religion be seen as a private pursuit, and the result of individual choice. It should not attempt to engage in public, reasoned debate, let alone suggest it has any reason on its side.”

Williams, however, is not among those voices. Although Williams does envision a secular society, he envisions one in which religious adherents come to the public square with the full wealth of their religious conviction. “Williams,” writes Trigg, “distinguishes between what he terms a ‘procedural’ secularism, of which he seems to approve, and a ‘programmatic’ secularism of which he does not. Procedural secularism, he says, as a characteristic of the public domain, means that there is no legal privilege for any specific religious position, but does not imply that such positions are simply private convictions. He fervently argues for the right of ‘larger commitments and visions’ to contribute to the public debate and provide much-needed moral energy.” Williams’ ‘procedural secularism’ allows for a sort of interactive pluralism in which various communities of discourse (religious or non-religious) interact between themselves, and between them and the government. His secularism works precisely because it does not illegitimize religious voices in political debate.

By way of response, I’ll note that Williams’ book speaks to two discussions which are very significant for Christians living in the 21st century USA: (1) religious language and argumentation in the public square, and (2) the failure of a majority “Christian” nation to build a society that reflects their vision for the common good.

In relation to the first discussion, we should note three models for interaction in the public square. The first model is John Rawls’ naked public square. Rawls argues that we should decide political matters from behind a “veil of ignorance.” He argues against “thick” theories of the good, which would utilize religious, moral, and philosophical arguments in the public square. Rawls wants people to set aside their most deeply ingressed beliefs when arguing for the public good.

Rawls’ model fails, however, because (1) it is not possible to set aside our most deeply ingressed beliefs; (2) Rawls evidences this by holding deeply and religiously to his most ingressed belief, which is democratic liberalism. Indeed, no voice—especially not that of the atheist—is stripped naked of religious belief. All people, including atheists, have deeply held presuppositions or faith commitments and therefore all people, including atheists, are worshipers; (3) this model tends to muffle or stifle appeals to any authority other than the state; in so doing, it robs religious believers of the very religious convictions that allow them to hold the state in check when the state becomes tyrannical; and (4) this models “shuts up” the various religions and in so doing allows all of them—both good and bad—to lurk beneath the surface unchallenged by public discussion and debate.

A second model is provided by Richard John Neuhaus, who argued that “naked squares” are not possible. We are always and necessarily making arguments that are “thick” in nature. We come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing. We cannot sever our public selves from our private selves. For this reason, we should come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing, and work for the common good by working for public consensus. Christians have motivation to do so because we believe that Christianity, by its very nature, fosters the common good.

A third model is provided by Lesslie Newbigin, who is more similar to Neuhaus than to Rawls. Newbigin agrees with Neuhaus that naked squares are not possible, but unlike Neuhaus does not think that we should seek public consensus. He argues that we should endorse public pluralism. Newbigin’s context was different from Neuhaus’, in that he was primarily interested in situations in which Christianity is a minority belief, and in which the Christian’s role in society is clearly and obviously one of a “missionary.”

With Neuhaus and Newbigin, we agree that the naked square option is an illusion and a failure. Instead, of coming to the public square “naked,” we may come fully clothed. In relation to Neuhaus’ and Newbigin’s disagreement concerning pluralism and consensus, I say that we should work for political consensus when possible, but recognize that we increasingly live in a post-Christian context where consensus will not be possible on many issues (in spite of the fact of a law written on the heart). Further, we should practice wisdom in deciding when to draw primarily upon general revelation to provide a compelling case on some matter of public significance (“thin” discourse), and when to draw more explicitly upon Christian Scripture and doctrine (“thick” discourse).

One more note: when God’s people buy into a “naked public square” model, in which they lay aside their distinctive beliefs during public discussion, they sometimes never pick back up those very beliefs. Political liberalism of the “naked square” sort often leads to theological liberalism  of the “naked sanctuary” sort. A Christian who goes to the public square naked tends to go the sanctuary naked also. When this happens, God’s church becomes little more than a useful weathervane, slavishly following in swan step the dominant social and cultural trends of the time, loyally echoing what society is saying rather than critiquing it.

Instead of forsaking her prophetic calling, therefore, God’s people need to come to the public square “fully clothed,” drawing upon the full wealth of conviction in order to contribute to the common good.

Briefly Noted: On Jacques Barzun, Western Culture, and Public Theology

I will not easily forget the first time I encountered Jacques Barzun. During the very first seminar of my PhD program, I took a seminar on Christianity and Western culture. Dr. L. Russ Bush required a cornucopia of books, the fattest and most intriguing of which was From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, which Barzun published when he was 93-years-old. I’ve got the book in my hands right now. We were given two weeks to read it. It is 877 pages long and, accordingly, I took care not to read it in the evenings lest I fall asleep, drop it and crush myself to death. And, although the book had some wonderful moments, I thought it had some some dreadful quarters of an hour.

In a recent edition of The New Criterion, editor Roger Kimball reflects upon Barzun’s role as a public intellectual.[1] Barzun (1907-2012) was a presence on the American intellectual scene from the 1950s till his death this year. In his role as a professor at Columbia University, he was known as a teacher whose influence on his students was deep and pervasive. Also, to the point of this post, he “was a public intellectual before that role had been hollowed out by celebrity and the demotic faddishness of the 1960s” (p. 1). Barzun was the author of more than thirty books.

Kimball notes that Barzun’s earlier works established his public significance. Best-sellers such as Teacher in America (1945) and The House of Intellect (1959) “were part of an intellectual conversation that bridged the gap between academic and general culture in a way that fewer and fewer writers seem to manage” (p. 1). Yet, this is not code for “popular writer.” As the essay states, “Barzun was an academic expert who spoke the language of everyday life” (p. 1). What does this mean? “Barzun seems never to have succumbed to the intellectual’s chief occupational temptation of mistaking abstractions for the realities they adumbrate” (p. 2).

Barzun’s magnum opus is a case study in communicating across the often-growing gap between academia and broader culture. To provide one small example of his attempts to bridge the gap: In From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun argues that decadence had triumphed in numerous aspects of contemporary (21st century) life. Western nations spend billions of dollars on public education, motivated by a generic desire for social betterment, or maybe, personal excellence. All the while,

 “ . . . society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism. The same nations deplore violence and sexual promiscuity among the young, but pornography and violence in films and books, shops and clubs, on television and the Internet, and in the lyrics of pop music cannot be suppressed, in the interests of ‘the free market of ideas.’” (p. 2)

This decadence pervades not only popular culture, but also “the realms of social relations and politics” (p. 3). Though Barzun was quite negative in his diagnosis of modern culture, his prognosis was less negative. As the essay remarks, “decadence is no more inevitable than progress . . . One never knows what reparations await the touch of fresh energies” (p. 3). Thus the essay concludes with the note that Barzun’s very life is evidence of this.

My response is limited to two points. First, in relation to Barzun’s fine point that Western culture is in a state of decadence, the Western church must begin to recognize the need for faithful presence in every sector of American culture (the arts, the sciences, politics, economics, business, sports and entertainment). We must not devalue these sectors (by, for example, implying that the jobs that “really” matter to God are professional vocational ministry jobs). To do so implies that Christ is not Lord over those sectors, and that biblical Christianity does not speak to those areas of life. I am afraid that our evangelical churches have built such privatized and experiential theologies that we have little idea how to relate biblical truth to the pressing public issues of the day. Second, in relation to Barzun’s role as a “public intellectual,” we must hope and pray that our churches and seminaries will produce “public theologians,” who can speak with propriety and prescience to our current context, and lead our churches well in thinking about public issues. Just as Lewis, Chesterton, Schaeffer, and Neuhaus did in their day, so we must in ours.

[1] Roger Kimball, “Notes & Comments” in The New Criterion (Dec. 2012): 1–3.


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