In this article, I will outline a way how Christianity might regain a public voice and function. While the proposed changes are very drastic, they are deeply rooted in the very incarnational theology that forms the bedrock of Christian theology.
Recently, I have been writing on the necessity of the Christian faith to be a public faith. This publicness pertains to both Christianity’s praxis and discourse. In my first article, “Faith, Atheism, and Beyond,” the argument was that Christian discourse, particularly Christian theology, needs to move beyond the faith vs atheism divide to regain its voice again. In my second article, “Christianity and Atheism: The Necessary Publicness Of Faith,” I argued for a further elaboration of the need for the publicness of Christian discourse. My argument was largely based on a brief analysis of both the history of Western thought and Christianity’s bad track record with regard to its calling throughout history.
Availability and relevance
When I say publicness, I mean the public availability and relevance of Christian discourse. In the first place, such discourse needs to be publicly available. That is to say, its language needs to be divested of esotericism. Instead of an arcane discipline as Bonhoeffer proposed in his rough sketch of a religionless Christianity, all secrecy or incomprehensibility needs to be discarded from Christian discourse. That with forms the core of Christianity needs to be publicly comprehensible and meaningful.
Indeed, despite being a Bonhoeffer scholar, I do not argue for a religionless Christianity but a public Christianity as the only appropriate answer to a secularized world. Religiosity is not the problem but the religious framing of the discourse that makes Christianity a religion over against a supposedly non-religious world.
Where Bonhoeffer was pondering the emergence of a secular world come of age, we are actually living in that secular world and are witnessing a surprising resurgence (even in Europe) of religious categories. These categories are, however, only meaningful inasmuch as they are understood metaphorically instead of literally (the metaphorical dimension providing us with a surplus of realness over against the ephemeral nature of literalist religious claims).
Hidden Versus Public
The true problem in our times is hidden versus public. Instead of a discourse wrapped in the incomprehensible cloak of a century-old religion and premodern as well as pre-scientific understandings of the world, Christianity should adopt a post-Christian discourse. I hasten to say that this discourse is still religiously motivated–as are all human thinking and writing. Current Christianity’s hiddenness is not due to our current age’s inability to be religious in a premodern way but in Christianity’s unwillingness to depart from its identity as religion.
Such discourse also needs to be publicly relevant. For today this means that such Christian public discourse touches on the subjects that matter, such as economy, politics, and justice without being reduced to them since Christian public discourse is rooted in the way of Jesus of Nazareth which encompasses the self, the meaning of world and history, as well as the call that addresses us from beyond as the task in this world.
The irony is that where many Christians, especially of the more liberal persuasion, would eschew such topics for the apparent unpopularity that is associated with taking a stance against the modern forms of exploitation and oppression, the position for the marginalized that is a corollary of breaching said subjects, actually makes it relevant and meaningful.
Two non-Christians Who Make Christian Discourse Public
Recently, I encountered two meaningful examples of how Christian discourse becomes publicly meaningful.
Žižek And His Hell
One is where Cornel West, one of the most important public theologians alive today, is in conversation with Slavoj Žižek and touches on Christ’s solidarity with the marginalized upon which Žižek blurts out: “Christ is where hell is!” This is remarkable because Žižek is an avowed atheist. However, Žižek completely gets what his conversation partner, Cornel West, who is a Christian, is trying to say and affirms the meaning of Christ.
Chomsky and Liberation Theology
The second instance is where Noam Chomsky gives a little introduction to liberation theology as an example of how truth and justice show up in unexpected places, even in Christianity. Because we don’t expect truth to turn up there, Chomsky warns against easily overlooking it or disregarding it. Radical leftist Chomsky understands and affirms the meaning of the gospel in its expression as liberation theology.
The Odiousness of A Public Christianity
These are two instances that clearly show Christian discourse can be both publicly available and relevant. Of course, a new problem emerges here and that is that this discourse is deeply odious to the establishment. If anything, we do not want a Christianity that identifies hell as a product of our own making in which Christ sides with those we try to ignore.
Or, with reference to Chomsky’s anecdote, we don’t like liberation theology because it is unbiblical (evangelicals), or because it is Marxist (Western capitalists). In both cases, Christianity as a publicly available and relevant discourse pops up as something that is extremely uncomfortable and disestablishes the status quo.
We know what happened to Christ when he did the same. So, it might well be that our insistence on the preservation of Christianity as a religion is little more than a smokescreen for our fear of being seen as traitors of the Western capitalist empires.
The Church As The Real Reason Why Christian Discourse Is Not Public
In a way, the tables are turned in this call for Christian discourse that is publicly available and relevant. It is not primarily the secular world that has marginalized Christian discourse and relegated it to that special place of irrelevance in our culture called religion. We, Christians, are the ones who are bent on keeping Christian discourse irrelevant.
Why? Because it is safe. It doesn’t touch on the call to be with Christ where hell is on earth (Žižek). It doesn’t require us to put our lives on the line in Latin America to address the tight connection between Church and political power (Chomsky).
Hiddenness As A Secret Christian Strategy
Of course, we mask this reluctance to be thrown into the limelight with various strategies. One is to live a quiet religious life in the shadow of the secular empire where we piously praise a God who has a lot to say about spiritual salvation and the world to come and rather little to the current power structures that produce ecological devastation and abject poverty as the inevitable by-product of “the normal capitalist way of doing things.”
Or worse, we take the public route of theocracy in full confidence that our version of God and God’s plan for the world will produce for us the best of all possible kingdoms of God. And to achieve that goal we march with Mars, the god of war, and Mammon, the god of money, and cry foul at the faintest hint of our narrow moral order not being applied to all “godlessness” in our nations.
But liberal, pietistic, and theocratic options sadly have little to offer when it comes to the public availability of Christian discourse and even less with regard to relevance. Both the escapism of pietism and the immanentism of theocracy (but also the acquiescing self-assuring public morality of liberalism) are horrendous distortions of the way of Christ.
The Way Of Christ As The Public Way
Yes, I’m talking about the way of Christ! My plea for a publicly available discourse is not grounded in a secular or worldly impoverishment of the gospel. Rather, I believe that the quest for a publicly available and relevant Christian discourse is rooted in the heart of the Christian message.
The way of Christ is a way from God to the world. The path of the incarnation is from Word to flesh, from heaven to world, from Spirit to body. That is essentially the way of God as we encounter it in Scripture. To be in, with, and of the world is the grand movement of the divine. If we want to identify with Jesus of Nazareth, we have to follow along with that movement and be absorbed by it. In a post-religious, post-Christian, world this means transforming this divine movement beyond religion.
Secondly, the way of Christ into the world is not just the way of embodiment. It is also the way of the cross. Because the coming of God in the world is not undisputed. Likewise, publicly available Christian discourse is at once understood and hated, at once relevant and banned, at once public and disputed. Why? Because it calls for a reversal of the system, the order, the status quo. It calls for justice.
In my next post, I hope to write more on this crucicentric incarnational path of the divine we are invited to trace into the world.