As a ministry student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, I was bombarded with the idea that theology should be public. What exactly that meant was part of the great debate, which is still ongoing. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a church in Michigan, (the Christ Community Church of Spring Lake) is actively part of the debate. I just read this morning about their decision to take down the cross from their steeple because they felt it was an inadequate public symbol of their faith. The ensuing conversations were deeply in the vein of public theology. I must say that as a member of a church that has no cross on its steeple, it strikes me as a reasonable thing to do. By taking down that public symbol of capital punishment the church was indicating that it wanted to engage the community in a civil and open debate that would not be limited to the people of the cross, to a people comfortable with the doctrine of the church. (I will also say that just because something is uncomfortable, does not mean that it should be banished. In fact, the cross as a piece of historical fact, does not require suspension of disbelief in order to understand it. It may, however, and this is why it may not be a good public symbol, be too closely associated with mythology that is no longer appropriate or credible.)
A public theology is a conversation about the most important matters of our humanity that is civil and open to reason and that wants to both affirm and redeem comprehensive claims within the context of modern secularity.
Because I laud the dismantling of that cross, does not mean that I reject our history or Jesus or God. I can say that I am a Christian and that the claims I make as a Christian can be affirmed and redeemed within the context of modern secularity because I do not believe that the ancient metaphysics of a good deal of the church is the only option out there for us. I believe instead that metaphysics may be reasonable, that the truth claims I make as a Christian, should be validated through conversation and not simply assertion.
Many, however, think it unwise to be speaking of the character of God from the position of reason. There is a hymn in our hymnal which implies as much. (We’ve never sung it!) Again, I’m not going to argue why I don’t think we should sing that hymn. Instead, I want to suggest that one of the many reasons we have difficulty with the medieval metaphysics is that it implies certainty in knowing. I think that one of the most common theological conversations I have is the one that goes, “I just don’t get it. I’ve never been absolutely sure.” Doubt is good, but that kind of questioning arises out of a metaphysics that seeks absolute foundations, that suggests that “The answer to what it means to be human or good is out there,” leads to unreasonable claims and shuts off the possibility for theology to be public, and for the church, ultimately, to move constructively into the future.
The metaphysics I suggest must lie at the root of our thinking about God, at the root of our worship, is one that is always in conversation, one that is always ready to change, one that is always narrowing in on first principles, but never getting there.
On this July 4th, I want to focus on this point about a conversational humility. For not only is it key to the future of theology and the church, it is key to the future of our democracy.
Two giants in our union’s history stand out in this regard, both of whom where public theologians in the sense I’ve been talking about: President Abraham Lincoln and Judge Learned Hand.
First this brief story about President Lincoln.
Sometime in the midst of the civil war, one story has it, a delegation of northern clergymen came to President Lincoln in order to assure him that God was on the Union’s Side. “That does not so much worry me,” Lincoln is said to have replied, “although I am concerned to know whether the Union is on God’s side.”
Not only did Lincoln embrace the notion of religious civility, he implied a metaphysics that would not shrink from debate, that would not retreat into mysticism or revelation, but would openly seek to debate whether the union is on God’s side. Implied in such debate is the supremely important notion of humility in knowing. While we may seek to explain God’s character, we do so with the words of Judge Learned Hand ringing in ears:
“I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken. I should like to have that written over the portals of every church, every school, and every courthouse, and, may I say, of every legislative body in the United States. I should like to have every court begin, “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, I think we may be mistaken.”
I want to conclude this July Fourth Sermon by reading a very brief address that Judge Hand offered to a crowd gathered in Central Park for an “I Am an American Day celebration in 1944.
We have gathered here to affirm a faith, a faith in a common purpose, a common conviction, a common devotion. Some of us have chosen America as the land of our adoption; the rest have come from those who did the same. For this reason we have some right to consider ourselves a picked group, a group of those who had the courage to break from the past and brave the dangers and the loneliness of a strange land. What was the object that nerved us, or those who went before us, to this choice? We sought liberty; freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves. This we then sought; this we now believe that we are by way of winning. What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.
“What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest. And now in that spirit, that spirit of an America which has never been, and which may never be; nay, which never will be except as the conscience and courage of Americans create it; yet in the spirit of that America which lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all; in the spirit of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in that spirit of liberty and of America I ask you to rise and with me pledge our faith in the glorious destiny of our beloved country.”
We’re not going to say the pledge of allegiance, but I do invite you to stand and sing along with the choir, in our State’s anthem — “These Green Mountains.”