Talking About God in Public

Talking About God in Public

Photograph by Charlie Peacock

I have spent a decade or more mostly keeping quiet about what people call spiritual things. And by spiritual things, they usually mean metaphysics, ontology, cosmology, epistemology, and theology — whether or not they name these. For me, my whole concept of spiritual things is rooted in that storied and ubiquitous, historical person named Jesus. I believe He is who He says He is. If you understand what I mean by this, then you know it’s an extraordinary thing to say and believe about reality. Nevertheless, I do believe and trust I have good reason for it.

Out of belief comes life and all its attending stories. I have, over the last ten years deliberately chosen to keep some of these stories quieter or even private. Other than a few interviews and the occasional post here and there, I’ve required of myself what I’ve so often hoped for from others —a little reserve, maybe even silence. And so, on the topics of God, People, and Place — interdependent topics I’m very passionate about — I had gone mostly quiet.

For a time, quiet was my protest. I think I was fatigued and embarrassed by the reality that the majority of people who write or speak in public (using language and terminology associated with Jesus and the phenomenon known as Christianity) are not the spokespeople the world would actually benefit hearing from. And I'm certainly not putting forth the idea that I am.

I can think of many people I know and love that I wish friends and neighbors could hear from, though — could spend even ten minutes with. The trajectory of my life has brought me in contact with people of remarkable artistic, philosophical, and theological vision. I want everyone to know them! But few of them are mainstreamed. And most who are vocal, using explicit language in winsome, thoughtful ways, are often speaking and writing only to those who are already committed to the conversation. As much as we like to view the Internet as the public square, not only is that a utopian notion, but truly naïve at this point. The Web is a web — less an information superhighway and more the streets of New York City — where you could live your whole life and miss that the best information about the most important things is found at the corner of Bank Street and Waverly Place. To maximize NYC you need a friend, a curator, a recommendation, a tip. Getting at God, People, and Place in a coherent, believable way may require the same.

It’s heartbreaking how divisive people can be when it comes to their opinions about God. There’s nothing so destructive as when the conversation is reduced to: You’re an idiot if you believe — you’re an idiot if you don’t. Like the late John Coltrane and Johnny Cash, and contemporaries Bono and Dylan, the great American songwriter Paul Simon keeps bringing his spiritual search into the public square. A few years ago, Paul got a tip to meet with one of the people I do trust to speak out loud, the late John Stott. Here’s a transparent, honest interview Paul did that recounts his meeting with Mr. Stott. In my opinion, this is how you talk about your spiritual life and quest in public without coming off as a lightweight, a bully, or a know-it-all. This is human, artistic process in full view where every sphere of life and curiosity finds its way into your art. The art informs the world but turns back to you, continuing to inform you, bring you pleasure, and inspiring your eyes to see and your ears to hear.

Because of the public behavior and language of people professing to be Christian, many authentic, clear-spoken people have quietly ceased having public conversations related to Jesus and His narrative. This is unfortunate. Understandable, but not sustainable. People and place need devoted voices expressing the third way between the noise of polarized discourse and the silence of the privately embarrassed, disillusioned follower of Jesus. It's neither generous, nor inclusive, when voices are silenced or shamed into silence.

So, despite lingering reservations I’m at it again. I’m a public person who holds to ideas about the existence of God, the mission, glory, and shame of humanity, and the earth as a remarkable place. 

Here’s a brief summary of my thoughts on re-entering the public square as a person and writer who prays to know the love of God, People, and Place seriously:

1. Writing in public, where anyone can read over your shoulders, is hard work! It takes time (and, for me, prayer) to choose words with care — to give thought and empathy to a variety of potential readers. I want to get better at it.

2. It’s a huge challenge to critique, compare, and contrast in public and not marginalize or dismember anyone. Negating/dismissing a person, institution, worldview etc. in order to put our own thoughts/agenda on offer comes too easily to all of us. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for us to see this when we’re in the middle of doing it — especially when it feels like such a winning tool for argument.

3. Wrestling with how to create loving and issue-explicit public speech/text in the post-Internet/information age is a challenge worth facing. Knowing and being known, hearing and being heard is neighbor love in action. And for our time in history, it’s bringing the already expansive neighborhood near — literally taking all people in all places seriously.

4. Writing in public (including reader blog comments) involves a varied and mixed bag of the related “ologies”such as theology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, epistemology, ontology, as well as politics, gender, and sexuality, and, of course communication and conflict resolution, manners and civility, hermeneutics, postmodernism, and literary deconstructionism . . . should I keep going? Even in a passionate blog entry or comment, it helps to be aware of the role all of this plays in setting the stage for a winsome public conversation, and writing with magnanimity so that anyone, anywhere might read and engage. Turning back to #1 — this is hard work, but worth it.

5. To live on the planet in our time is to live in a neighborhood composed of the most exaggerated hyphenate pluralism and syncretism the world has ever known. Because of this, to get particular about our love and language may mean re-imagining what it means to speak and write with integrity — old words and phrases may need to be replaced and thought through afresh. While in the midst of learning new ways, there is potential for confusion and anger. For example, taking great care with language for one person becomes evasion of confession or commitment for another. Refusing to clearly nail down what team you’re playing for can really anger some people! Contrary to how we sometimes bear witness, living with each other gracefully is not a competitive contact sport.

6. Sometimes words are simply worn out for overuse and collect associations that shut down communication. And to make things more complicated, words are no longer buttressed by etymology (I personally wish we’d all revisit this) but more often by perceived (if etymologically inaccurate) meaning and emotion. What matters more now is how people feel about the words they hear and read, not what the words actually mean etymologically.

Finally, I very much want all of life and language to be an explicit, holistic witness to God, People, and Place, seamless and interconnected, void of bifurcation. If you do as well, please keep listening, speaking, reading, and writing. I’ve been using the phrase humble explicitness to get at this hope. And, as I’ve already written above, I’ve also found it helpful to think in terms of writing in such a way that the whole world could read over my shoulder. Shared desire for good is a holy membership. All are welcome.

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