Jeff Haanen

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Six Tragedies of Modern Public Life

It can be rather easy to lose one’s way. This afternoon I was working on the “shape” of our vocation groups for Denver Institute, and I almost got completely lost in the details. Tonight, I sat down at my desk, opened my notebook, and read some personal notes from 2012. I found notes on “six tragedies of modern public life” that led to the advent of this new organization.

Six Tragedies of Modern Public Life

  1. Work is isolating. Long hours, artificial online relationships, and high demands are not the only reasons for isolation. Many are caught spending their days in a deeply dualistic mindset, serving God on Sunday and other gods Monday-Saturday. Isolated from other co-sojourners and even isolated from some kind of overarching reason for work apart from mere survival, it’s no wonder Thoreau said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”
  2. Cities are almost wholly organized on secular assumptions. The Enlightenment notion that what can be proven scientifically belongs in public, and morals and religion belong in private, still prevails. To bring your Christian faith to bear on just understanding your field alone is often seen as inappropriate. Just flip on the evening news or read the newspaper, and you’ll see how desperately true this is.O Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone’s an atheist. Far from it. The gods are everywhere; some are just less accepted than others.
  3. Faith has been systematically privatized. Francis Schaeffer saw it when he explained the “upper story” of facts (science, public) and the lower story of values (religion & humanities, private). Bonhoeffer saw it from a prison cell and lamented “God is being pushed further and further out of our life, losing ground.” Lesslie Newbigin saw it when he returned from India in the late 1970s, and saw a civilization in Britain that had lost all sense of public purpose. Today, social analysts like Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart, can even see the widespread loss of traditional values among the working class. “Religion” is an ever narrowing category.
  4. Public witness to the Christian faith has been almost completely dominated by politics in the past 50 years. James Davison Hunter saw this with adroit clarity in To Change the World; I personally keep my distance from both the Christian Right and Left, both whom I believe have been co-opted by worldly ideologies on some issues, and align with God’s purposes on others. Nonetheless, the notion that seeking political power can change culture has worn itself out, yet those in the public world who hear the word “evangelical” cannot think of us as anything other than a voting bloc.
  5. Many churches have willingly retreated into the private sphere. We indeed should care about personal morality – what we do in the home and in private. But so many can see no systemic powers at work that shape human life. If Jesus is Lord of the universe, and his gospel is public truth for all to see, then should it not be brought to bear on all areas of life? Perhaps, as David Van Drunen points out, this job belongs to the organic church (the church scattered throughout the week), and not the institutional church (the place you go on Sundays). But nonetheless, do systems, structures and institutions not matter for living faithfully for Christ today? If they do matter, then who is intentionally equipping those to make public witness to the gospel through where they actually live “in public” each day – at work?
  6. There’s no genuine pluralism. Most would disagree with me on this. After all, we live in a highly pluralistic society made up from people of every religion and ethnic background. But religious reasons for taking certain actions have been nearly eradicated from our shared vocabulary. Just imagine the blow back a politician would get today (in most districts) if she quoted a Bible verse as justification for voting for a bill? Just imagine what would happen if a Christian teacher in a public school taught that just as there are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom in every water molecule, so, as verifiable history, Jesus has been resurrected from the dead? Those are grounds for a pink slip…and evidence that some views are accepted in public, and some systematically condemned.

As I was jotting notes in late 2012, I did not stop with just these tragedies. I also wrote five overarching goals for an organization that could address these problems. These five goals are the topic of my next blog post.

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