The Wisdom of the Gospel in the Partisan Public Square
Richard Lints, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic Affairs,
Dean of the Hamilton Campus; Andrew Mutch Professor of Theology
It is not an exaggeration to say that diversity is part of the air we breathe today. Every time we step out our front doors, we feel the winds of diversity blowing. We are conscious of it in the political realms, in the worlds of art and education, in our sports loyalties, in our social and economic structures and surely not least in our religious habits. The sheer complexity of technology compounds the diversity which surrounds us. Consider how many diverse individuals fill our email address books or how many “friends” one has on Facebook. Consider how many television
channels fill diverse niches of interest today. The emergence of these deep diversities in our lives has the inevitable consequence of privileging diversity over unity in our public life together.
These differences exert enormous pressures towards fragmentation in our society as well. It seems more and more difficult to speak of a “common good,” when only “my good” and the need to protect it from the intrusion of outside forces prevail. A great irony of modern life is the ever-growing disparity between the diversity of contemporary culture and the actual homogeneity of the communities in which we experience day-to-day life. We have all become partisans in one way or another—of political parties, different sports teams, educational establishments, musical styles, radio talking heads and just about anything else that one can imagine. How do we as Christians relate not only to the overwhelming diversity in the public square but also to its increasingly partisan nature?
Our experience of diversity sometimes lends itself to thinking of differences as always large and irreconcilable. We frame our differences as “core disagreements” about which it is only possible to be a “winner” or a “loser” in a conflict. Families go through this dynamic frequently in our modern democratic culture. Different opinions within a family are too often interpreted as expressing core disagreements. Whether the matter is child-rearing, family budgets or time management, family disagreements quickly get interpreted as requiring a “winner” and a “loser.” The stalemates which emerge are especially difficult since harmony appears possible only when one side loses. Wisdom, by contrast, understands that there are different kinds of differences and different differences which differences make.
Wisdom sees through the complexity of circumstances not by virtue of a universal law, but by the simple nature of complexity. An example may help illustrate the point. Is it right or wrong to answer a fool? The writer of Proverbs supposes that sometimes it is important to answer fools (Proverbs 26:5) and sometimes it is important not to answer fools (Proverbs 26:4). Knowing when to answer and when not to answer is a matter of wisdom. If we are tempted by the foolishness of the fool, then wisdom suggests we refrain from answering. If, on the other hand, we discern that fools may understand the folly of their ways, wisdom suggests we provide a genuine response to them.
The loss of wisdom as a theological category in the public square has too often meant that our differences are always interpreted as fundamental conflicts, rather than as tactical differences that might be sorted out, or a disagreement about which reconciliation is actually possible. Historically, the public square in western democracies was guided by a common morality about virtue and vice. It may have been as simple as the need for virtue in our public leaders and a concern for justice among the citizenry. That common morality is what the Bible often refers to as wisdom. Thinking theologically about the public square requires this very sort of wisdom.
Wisdom as a category eroded under the pressure of mass consumer culture in the 20th century. The highly commercialized public square now seems driven by individual greed, largely kept in check, if at all, only by the intrinsic conflicts of diverse desires. Greed is too often rewarded and integrity too often ignored. All goods have become private and personal. Differences must then be about getting or not getting what we want. You can see why differences become very partisan very quickly in this context.
The Christian conviction that God creates all humans with an “inalienable human dignity” compels Christians to enter the public square and urge a wider cultural conversation about the common good. How Christians bring this deeply theological conviction to bear in a pluralistic society is a matter for discernment and wisdom. Wisdom is required to address the breadth of public issues in such a fashion that we hold in tension our differences as well as our convictions about the common good, without sacrificing the very public discourse required to talk about the common good. In the last half century, we have surely erred in holding too tightly to our differences, and too superficially to our convictions about inalienable human dignity—especially as it pertains to our opponents in the public square.
Dealing with diversity requires humility and wisdom. It requires vigilance against resentment and cynicism. Dealing with diversity also requires faith, hope and charity. Christians must learn to engage the social world of diversity on its own God-given terms rather than on the terms being dictated by our cultural elites or by the partisan voices of our social media. The mission of God as manifest in Christ did not seek the subversion of the public square, but rather the opportunity to speak into the public square honestly, prophetically and humbly.
The Gospel asks us to embrace the radically counter-intuitive claim that showing hospitality to those with whom we have deep disagreements is the best option in dealing with entrenched differences. We engage our disagreements neither by seeking to dominate nor by being merely tolerant. We invite the outsider into the common wisdom of our tradition. We take their ideas seriously, not primarily to overthrow their ideas, but rather with the expectation that wisdom is found in the strangest of places—even among those who disagree with us.
In our time, many cultural elites look askance at evangelicals in the public square, because evangelicals actually believe that some differences do make a difference.But evangelicals have also too often been guilty of partisan abuses in the public square. Changing this ethos with respect to evangelism may well require that we think of evangelism in the public square less in terms of defeating an enemy and more in terms of showing hospitality to the stranger. It also requires thinking not only of ideological disagreements, but of the people whose inalienable dignity is not to be impugned simply because we disagree with them. Wise persons seek the well-being of others in the ordinary affairs of life. Their character is kind and gracious and honest. These are the sort of persons Christians are called to be as citizens of this world. It is a wisdom applied to the ordinary spaces and places of our lives. It is the recognition that life is to be marked by a deep and abiding meaningfulness, anchored in beliefs and habits that promote reconciliation as a reflection of the Gospel. And like the Gospel, this theological wisdom takes corruption seriously and, in fact, privileges the recognition of corruption in our own hearts before we see it in the hearts of our opponents.
Peculiar to the Gospel is the embrace of diverse tribes, races and cultures, all because Christ is our peace who has “broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2). A distinctive dimension of the Gospel ought to be manifest in the reconciliation of those who are in conflict with each other. The Gospel is reflected not in the abolishing of diversity, but in the reconciliation of disagreements. Reconciliation is the goal because it reflects the work of God towards broken and sinful humanity. Christians in the public square engage in the work of reconciliation not as a substitute for the Gospel but as a reflection of it in all of life. This is to say, the Gospel itself contains a sacred wisdom in dealing with diversity. It is theological precisely in the sense that it arises from the reconciling work of God in the Gospel. By it, Christians express the conviction that human corruption is not as powerful as divine grace.
Dr. Richard Lints, Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Theology, joined the Gordon-Conwell faculty in 1986 after serving as lecturer in philosophical theology at Trinity College, Bristol, UK. He has also taught at several other colleges and theological schools, including Yale Divinity School, the University of Notre Dame and Westminster and Reformed Theological Seminaries. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, Dr. Lints is an accomplished church planter (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Concord, MA), has served in a variety of other pastoral positions and is a frequent preacher and conference speaker. He is on the board of the Gospel Culture Center and is its theologian in residence.