Saturday, January 17, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, R.I.P.

After returning from the break, it's sad that the first post I wanted to write is about the death of Richard John Neuhaus. There are tons of memorials to him across the web, and the only think I can add is that reading First Things has been a source of knowledge and inspiration to me for years.

Neuhaus, together with people such as Peter Berger, Os Guinness, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and my former pastor Brad Hansen, have caused me to consider the many sides of the arguments about ideas such as "the Sacred Canopy" and the "public square." Christians must navigate between the dangers of having their civil government co-opt their religion for Caesar's purposes (hence the famous Barmen Declarartion against the German Christian movement) and a religion so privatized that, if Christianity became a crime, no one in our social circle would know we are guilty.

I tend to be someone that is pulled on both sides of this argument. I don't believe that Christian churches should display national flags, for example. On the other hand, I abhor the court rulings that have led us to drop prayers at the beginning of college graduations. Obviously, I attend a lot of these, and I am much more disturbed by their court mandated secularism than I would ever be by having clergy of different faiths offer prayers for their graduates.

One interesting example of how the proponents of the sacred canopy changed my opinion is in church architecture. I don't think there's any Biblically mandated about church steeples. Several churches I have attended have not had them, and I used to think along the lines of "couldn't the money have been better spent on the poor?" My opinions changed by the simple accident of traveling through an Appalachian town and seeing it's small skyline dominated by the steeples of its numerous churches. I realized suddenly that our religion is not a private, sheltered attribute and that the earlier Christians who had settled this wild valley had created a space which said (whether they were Methodist or Baptist or Presbyterian or Catholic) "God is watching over this public space."

This is a challenge for those like Doug and me who teach in the secularized public square. How do we become a part of the "sacred canopy" while satisfying the job expectations of our employer. I felt pretty good during the past semester when one of my most politically active students came to me after class and said "I still can't figure out who you voted for." I'm not sure about the best path regarding religion, but I believe it would be wrong if none of my students ever could figure out that I was a Christian.

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