At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Human Flourishing and the Moral Complexity of the Public Square

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Many of us might regard the church at Corinth as the most dysfunctional of all those we encounter in Paul’s letters.

Yet early in 1 Corinthians 1:2 we find Paul identifying the church as “sanctified” people, and a community given the task to live up to such a lofty label.

To put it differently, they are “saints,” even though the book goes on to show us a number of problems in their community.  If nothing else, the church at Corinth shines a light on moral complexity. This church had great gifts and great problems.

They are not alone. Moral complexity remains all around us, presenting us with challenges and opportunities.

Moral Complexity in the Public Square

One of the great challenges presented by public discourse is giving equal attention to our passion for the issue at hand as well as the moral dimensions of all persons involved (including ourselves).

It is hard to have civil discourse where thorny and difficult questions can be discussed. It is much easier to quickly express our opinions in a blog or forum instead of taking the time to consider the complexities that may lay beneath the surface.

This comes to mind for me when equally passionate advocates of theories of human flourishing attempt to claim intellectual high ground while not always giving consideration to the moral complexities that are always present.

I have to keep reminding myself that any position I take about Christian attempts to engage public life involves more than arguments I can make about why Christians have an opportunity (or even an obligation) to pursue transformation in society.

While I am very passionate about showing how the Christian doctrines of creation and the Holy Spirit prompt us to engage every area of life, I have to reckon with a wild card: the actual people who put this into practice every day.

For instance, even if I make the argument for the theoretical superiority of free markets as part of the path to human flourishing, I have to take into account that those who participate in the marketplace face moral challenges and that some, even many, fail to steward well their moral agency.

In our information age it does not take much time to discover people around the world who are only looking for personal advantage and who seem unfamiliar with words like service or human flourishing.  And sometimes these people are sitting in the pews each Sunday.

Politics is another example. Political systems like ours in the United States are imperfect, yet have the potential to promote and enable justice and human flourishing.

But we are often reminded that this possibility is linked to moral hazards, like the seductive nature of power and influence. There are, sadly, numerous examples of politicians who dashed the hopes of voters when their name became attached with scandal.

The Promise and Peril of Participating in the Cultural Mandate

We should be increasingly vigilant about making the best arguments for how human life can flourish, but how do we give attention to the moral complications that are always present?

The stewardship of life in God’s world is difficult work. There is promise and peril with each opportunity to participate in the cultural mandate.

Our opportunities to engage the world require more than the recognition of the potential to make something of creation. We have to look inside ourselves as much as we look at the possibilities in the world before us.

Put another way, when it comes to Christians, what is the place of sanctification in our public practice?

From the way we address others in public discourse to our willingness to be completely truthful about ourselves and others, to our own day by day participation in all the areas of life, are we willing to live a morally examined life?

Dare we consider what it means to take the call to holiness as central to our pursuit of life with God in his world?

What Can We Do?

How do we make this call to holiness central in our lives?

First, it is important that we are vigilant about the pursuit of the life of discipleship. This means participation in the church community and a commitment to having deep and sometimes difficult conversations with God and others about our stewardship of life.

Second, we can also begin asking ourselves how we approach the issues about which we have the most passion. Sometimes our passion or love for something keeps us from recognizing the moral complexities involved. It is vital for us to end the romance and see where difficulties are present along with promise.

Finally, sanctification orients us to the work of God’s Spirit. We cannot seriously consider moral complexity without turning to the Holy Spirit who gives us life and transforms us. The serious pursuit of sanctification unveils moral complexity within and all around us.

May God prompt us to search our hearts and take this more challenging path.

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