Religion in the public square: optimism, reflection, prophetic challenge

By Betsy Shirley ’15 M.Div.

"When I talk about religion in the public square, I find that the church is really in crisis," said Dwight Andrews '77 M.Div. during the Convocation and Reunions 2012 panel discussion organized by the 35th Reunion Cluster. Before an audience that packed Niebuhr Hall to capacity, Andrews and the other panelists delivered remarks on the current state of faith and social action, offering a mix of optimism, reflection, and prophetic challenge. "I think there is a real challenge—not only for the church, but also for our seminaries and public forums," explained Andrews, "to really carefully go back to our sense of collective purpose as religious communities."

HardgrovePanelists included members of the classes of '75,'76, and '77, as well as Margaret Farley, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics, who taught at YDS for 36 years. Author, activist, and blogger Chris Glaser '77 M.Div. moderated the discussion, introducing the panelists not only as activists but also "a bunch of contemplatives" because of the "deep inner resource that has fueled their engagement in the public square."

For Kim White '77 M.Div., the history of religion in the public square is marked by ongoing tension. Citing the rise of fundamentalism in all faith traditions as "religion's greatest plague on the world," White stressed that social action needs "less religion and more spirituality," especially a sense of spirituality marked by radical interfaith inclusivity. "For us to be settling now for interfaith dinners is simply not enough," said White. "Every ethical religious believer has to have in his or her credo the belief that ‘My path is not the only path to God.'"

"The gospel that Jesus taught is part of the solution—a bountiful resource not only for healing and restoration of body and soul but also for justice and prevention." Marie Fortune '76 M.Div.

Robert Brashear '75 M.Div. felt similarly. Proclaiming the end of "mainline denominations as we have known them," Brashear called for "a new way of doing church and new way of being faithful people," a way of church that recognizes "interfaith as a way of life." Brashear also saw hints of this new church in the spirit of the Occupiers, a hundred of whom were hosted for seven months in Westpark Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, where he is pastor. "I admired the courage and audacity of the group to say, ‘We can create a community in which all are welcome, all are accepted, and every voice counts,'" observed Brashear. "Those ideas were familiar to me—it's what the church is supposed to be all about."

Though Lee Hardgrove '76 M.Div. has spent 30 years as a United Methodist minister in local congregations, he firmly believes that "those who serve in the parish" are "not called to stay inside the walls of our church." Hardgrove's own engagement with the public square has included working with local school boards and serving as a military base chaplain in Afghanistan. Remembering that military chaplaincy "was not really too in vogue here in the 1970's," Hardgrove hopes that a new generation of YDS students will reconsider chaplaincy as a way to minister outside the church: "We're proud of what we do not necessarily because we wave the flag, but because these people need spiritual guidance as well."

For Paige Smith '76 M.Div., ministering in the public square has meant a lifetime advocating for women's reproductive rights. Arriving at YDS eight months after Roe v. Wade, Smith completed a work-study at New Facts abortion clinic as a student and has been working in crisis and addiction counseling ever since. "Let me/ rise by bending over/ to pick another/ sister/ fallen," read Smith, quoting Zimbabwean poet Batsirai E. Chigama's "I am my sister's keeper." For Smith, it's a poem calling the church to advocate for women's reproductive rights. "The churches need to be doing something about this," said Smith, "You are your sister's keeper."

Audience"Religion is the subtext of many of the issues women are facing today," echoed Marie Fortune '76 M.Div., who is founder and senior analyst at Faith Trust Institute, an organization addressing the religious issues related to domestic and sexual abuse. Yet, as a person of faith, Fortune is hopeful; progress can continue, she explained, both by working to "name" and "deconstruct" the ways the Christian faith has contributed to this violence, and by "lifting up and affirming" the ways "the gospel that Jesus taught is part of the solution—a bountiful resource not only for healing and restoration of body and soul but also for justice and prevention."

Closing the panel was Margaret Farley, whom many of the panelists thanked for her tremendous influence on the direction of their life's work.  Earlier this year Farley was caught up in a maelstrom of global scrutiny sparked by the Vatican's strident criticism of her book about human sexuality, "Just Love." While Farley confessed that she typically thinks of herself more as an academic than an activist, she reflected that the study of ethics naturally leads to "crossing into the public square" as an "accidental activist." After all, "ideas do not simply swirl around in cyberspace," said Farley. "They have to do with real human and cosmic needs. The personal becomes political; the political touches the lives of real persons."

In this work of engaging the public square—accidental or otherwise—Farley reminded the audience of the need both for "epistemic humility" and a recognition of our own limitations. "Ultimately, the fruits of our labors are in the hands of God," concluded Farley. "We are called to do what we can, not expecting to see the world change drastically because of our actions but trusting that the call we received to help mend the world is no joke to God."

Though many of the alumni panelists admitted that the changes they anticipated in the 1970's had not been realized fully, they agreed with Farley that social change is an ongoing process. "A sailboat never moves straight ahead," offered Fortune, "but eventually it gets there; that's how social change works." Fortune and the rest of the panel appeared eager to see their work continue. "Those of us who have been fortunate enough to sail some of these boats in recent years are preparing to pass the tillers along to the next generation," said Fortune.  And, in a comment apparently directed to current YDS students, she added, "We hope you're up for it."

Click here to view a video of the presentation.


Date Posted: Saturday, November 3, 2012 - 9:51am