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To be sure, recovering a centrifugal faith won’t happen by magic, for there are contrary pressures today that would still caricature faithful people as strident, stupid or silent. A more public church must therefore call upon a ‘public theology’ capable of grounding an authentic, respectful witness.

No wonder that generations later, reflecting on something as potently personal as communion, Martin Luther also gestured to the public dimensions of faith: “When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship. … You must feel with sorrow all the dishonor done to Christ in his holy Word, all the misery of Christendom, all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray, and—if you cannot do more—have heartfelt sympathy” (“The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ,” 1519, section 9).

Notice that the “sacrament of love” (as Luther called it in this treatise) not only impels our own tangible acts of love, but also that these happen in the overlapping publics of the assembled church and the society where it makes witness. It seems quite clear, therefore, that the notion of “public church” is deeply rooted in our faith.

Private faith to engaged witness Then why is being public so difficult for us or the concept so unfamiliar? In short, the centuries after the Reformation led to a privatized faith that still impedes us. The religious wars decimating Europe in the 17th century showed that the destructive conflict of differing beliefs had to be contained.

In turn, Enlightenment progress relied upon emphasizing individual identity rather than traditional community bonds, including religious ones.

Finally, faced with seemingly dry Protestant orthodoxies, pietistic movements arose to restore a more personal, emotional faith, which also contributed to its privatization. The ironic result of these factors was that Christian faith was trans- ferred into an interior or domestic reality, with the church atrophied about engaging any but its own like-minded members.

This background explains why seminarians (and others) wonder if our church is ready for a wider horizon in ministry. That they even raise this question shows that a new wind is blowing—the Spirit’s breath that we can welcome and trust. To be sure, recovering a centrifugal faith won’t happen by magic, for there are contrary pressures

today that would still caricature faithful people as strident, stupid or silent. A more public church must therefore call upon a “public theology” capable of grounding an authentic, respectful witness. What would such a theology include? Let me offer two suggestions.

First, it builds on an ancient admonition: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

Public theology would offer such an “account.” The Greek term is apologia, sometimes rendered “defense,” like an argumentative reply. What’s really meant, though, is making an open case for our views, a plausible claim that will stand up under public scrutiny. Such theology need not conquer other ideas but seeks to engage helpfully the many discourses found in public life, like commerce, law, medicine, entertainment, science and other religious traditions. A public church needs the theological basis to utter our particular Christian witness and constructively interact with other words and ways.

But public theology needs something more: “A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actu- ally is” (“Heidelberg Disputation,” 1518, thesis 21).

Luther’s assertion about theologia crucis (theology of the cross) is also sound guidance for public the- ology today. Such theology must also be genuine, engaged truth-telling, critiquing whatever leads to suffering, violence and death—which also includes declaring the gracious love we know through Christ Jesus.

Guided by an honest public theology, our wit- ness as a public church will be neither simple nor sedate. Sin and evil resist being called out. Stay- ing mute about our hope is easier. Since I’m asked every year by new students if our church is ready to be as public as their lives have already become, what do you think I should say?

Nieman is president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.


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