Interpreting Faith in Public

A few years ago, I attended a conference of seminary presidents. At a workshop on crisis communications, we were advised to communicate with our publics regularly so that, in a crisis, constituents would recognize the seminary’s official “voice.”

That workshop persuaded me to blog weekly, a task I’ve done for three years now. However, my role as president of Phillips Theological Seminary ends at the close of the day on June 30. It is time for me to silence my president’s voice, to reflect back, and to let you know about my plans.

In creating a weekly blog, I had two intentions. In addition to becoming recognized as a public voice for the seminary, I intended to create a better known public Christian voice advocating for Phillips’ version of theological education.

All schools of graduate theological education would claim to promote intellectually sound, critical inquiry. But schools of graduate theological education occupy different places of alignment and affinity with modern science, liberative social sciences (those that help us define the gaps between “is” and “ought”), fostering mutually critical conversations with theological authorities, and the use of critical tools in relation to texts—including sacred texts. Phillips Theological Seminary has a high affinity with the above-named approaches.

Interpretation matters. I have emphasized and endeavored to demonstrate the importance of interpretation. We. All. Interpret. There is no such thing as uninterpreted scripture—OR an uninterpreted context.

We bring ourselves, our experiences, our assumptions, and our prejudices to the privilege and responsibility of interpretation. Those who claim they are only repeating what God said are, well, misinterpreting.

A major expression of interpretation is the story we tell ourselves or, better, the stories we tell ourselves. Who am I? Who are we? How do we define “we,” “us,” and “them”?

Which narratives within the Bible do we emphasize, e.g., the Exodus story that runs from Exodus through the resurrection of Jesus, the human story that begins in a Garden and ends in a Heavenly City, the creation of order from chaos that sometimes requires a reversion to chaos before forming a new order, substitutionary blood sacrifices, the anti-empire, the flirtations with empire?

All of these “salvation narratives” can be found in scripture, and each of these narratives changes how one sees the present moment.

The importance of the stories we tell ourselves has been acutely manifest in the polarization spike since the 2016 presidential election.

In my opinion, the U.S. has yet to tell ourselves a true story: a story that includes the suffering caused to indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans in birthing the nation and then becoming incredibly wealthy.

I still glimpse moments of hope, especially when I remember the words of Lincoln or King, that the U.S. might one day realize the promise of “all [persons] are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” But, in the present day, I invoke a prominent biblical theme: in a very significant way, the U.S. remains Egypt, not the land of Promise. The U.S. acts more like Rome than according to the love-and-justice ethic of the Reign of God. There is a gap between “is” and “ought,” and people of faith should work in that gap.

In this blog, I have tried to bring seminary conversations to a larger public than graduate theological education normally reaches. Theology is too important to be left to theologians.

How people of faith show up in public life—in schools, in the marketplace, at work, in the streets and the courts, at political rallies and in voting booths—matters a great deal. How Christian laity behave in public is the ultimate outcome measure of all the church’s educational efforts!

I do not want to see a Christian America. I do want to see Christians behaving according to the way of Jesus in America.

For me, that means—in homes, with neighbors, and in all the public places that people of faith live and move—learning and having the courage to show up on the side of more compassion, more seeking the common good with persons of other faith traditions, more restorative justice, more love, more truth, and more reconciliation (which is a fruit of all these “mores”).

From the way I see things, we religious-types can’t contribute to a richer public in the U.S. without much more robust conversations and arguments than the enfeebled, atrophied, perverted state of current discourse in both church and society.

People of faith ought to lead in bettering the way we—we Christians, we Christians in the U.S.—talk to and show up with each other. By means of this blog, besides offering a voice of Phillips Seminary, I hope I have contributed at least of little of bettering the way some of us talk and show up.

On July 1, I begin a yearlong sabbatical. The year after sabbatical, I’m charged to develop a center for religion in public life in Oklahoma. I previously wrote about that work here.

I won’t be blogging for several months after I leave office. The seminary needs to clear the president’s blog space for a new voice, a new president. However, when I resume the work of offering interpretations and perspectives on how Christians commit their faith in public, we’ll let you know.

Thank you for reading and thinking with me as I think aloud.