The New Modern Public

The central move of Modernity was to separate facts and values. Facts, which we can all agree on because they are provable, measurable, and repeatable, are fair game for public conversation. Values, which we cannot prove, should be kept for private moments. With this turn, events like the Thirty Years War and the Hundred Years War found ends through renegotiating the grounds for conversation. From what I can ell of the Post-Modern turn, it seems that public conversation is no longer guided by this convention, but rather its reverse. Everything can now be seen or attacked as a value--and this has gotten us into quite a pickle. Check out this report, and sorry for the ads.

Public into Politics

I've previously referred to Parker Palmer's The Company of Strangers, and its ne of my "Books Worth Reading" suggestions. Palmer spends significant space in that book deconstructing the move from public space to private space in our cultural Post-Modern turn, with the result being that the only public conversations we can have are now political. He also suggests a way forward in reclaiming public space that is not political. Church leaders who are interested in solving the challenge of partisan politics and a partisan public need to read this book.

As science has become more and more arcane, with years of special training and expensive equipment necessary to articipate in the exciting conversations, the general public has been at a loss in figuring out what the fuss is all about, aided only by poor metaphors that create as many misunderstandings as they clarify ideas. Don't get me wrong, great technological advancements have come about, but ask the general public how a touch-screen tablet computer works and the reply is just as likely to be "magic" as anything else. Is it any wonder, then, that the Post-Modern turn is to values? Those we can at least all understand, even if you's are wrong.

But that's the point, isn't it? We can't even argue in public about our values because that will lead us back to the pre-Enlightenment era of death and destruction wreaked upon each other over our values. As a result, we've left the public conversation o the professionals--the politicians. But because they are professionals who want to stay employed--I mean elected--they also know "the game." Decisions and the politics of the country are done out of the public eye, while CSPAN provides the professionals the chance to show their constituents that they should re-elect their particular professional because she or he values the same things they do.

Arguing Together

Had I encountered Palmer's work while I was in seminary, I would have been more aware of what was happening in my first call. Part of my training was to be able to recognize power structures in systems, but I used that training to pull Nietzschean power moves rather than attend to what was happening through those structures. More the fool me. Had I attended to how the congregation already used the existing power structures, I would have seen Palmer's consensus-bulding at work.

Now, this might just be the reality of living in a small rural county, but the effect was that the congregation (despite the pastor) made time for conversations about church business outside of church meetings in an effort to make a unanimous decision. Not strictly speaking necessary, but as I reflect on it, they had a fantastic model for decision-making. The only down side is that I didn't usually know the outcome before the meeting to make the decision. Had I attended to this dynamic, however, I would have ad a healthier congregational approach for dealing with a schismatic issue in my second call.

This gain reveals Schmemann's insight that impersonal structures tend to demand subordination, which sets the grounds for revolution, while relational structures are necessarily personal so that loyalty is based on obedience to a shared mission rather than hierarchy (Church, World, Mission, Chapter 8, Section 4). In this instance, Schmemann was using obedience in a very particular way. A more comfortable word for today's readers may be faithfulness. The people of my first call showed a faithfulness to each other that was expressed in their consensus-building approach to decision-making, which drove them to deepen relationships with each other in the process of making decisions.


Palmer is right in this: since the faithfulness of Christ shows us the power of relationships, God calls congregations to be places of public gathering and discernment around topics that matter within the relationships of the community--and not just the community of the members of the congregation, but the community that surrounds the congregation as well.

The call to faithful public discourse is not about loyalty to a party or ideology. Faithful public discourse is not about taking the moment of public spotlight for bully-pulpit evangelization. Faithful public discourse is not about following every jot and tittle in Robert's Rules of Order.

Faithful public discourse is about calling the community back to the reality of the community and the shared concerns within the community. This was part of the message of the prophets and Jesus. Look to the concerns of the people of the community, not those who have twisted the law to their own ends. Faithfulness to God and to your neighbors needs a relationship with both God and your neighbors. When public discussion-making comes, we can then speak up for our neighbors as much as, if not more than, we speak up for ourselves.