Religion is very personal. It is an expression of one’s understanding of reality and one’s relationship to that reality. Each of us is different, and therefore the way we understand this reality will be different. I am a Christian, and therefore, at least in theory, my view of the world is defined by Jesus -- who I understand to be God’s Word revealed in human life – whose teachings and whose life offers guidance as to how God views the world and wishes for me to be engaged in the world God has created. If I were Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist, my understanding of God and the world would reflect those teachings, and even with the Christian community there is great variety of thought. Yes, religion is deeply personal.
Although faith is deeply personal, is it therefore private? That is, should I keep my faith hidden in my house or place of worship? Although I do believe in the separation of church and state, I’m not sure we can truly separate the secular realm from the sacred realm without doing violence to both.
We live in a very diverse and pluralistic context, which in my mind necessitates my respect for these differences. It’s not just a matter of tolerance, it is a matter of trying to understand the other and welcome them into the conversation about the public good.
One of the problems with limiting religion and faith to the private realm is that it essentially eliminates God from my life. I realize that too often even people of deep faith live as if God does not exist, what some would call “practical atheists,” but is the way it should be? But if religion takes on a public face, how do we keep it from becoming merely a tool of the culture? A public expression of faith must not degenerate into using God to bless our agendas, as Constantine is said to have done when he had a Christian symbol painted on the shields of his troops as he went into battle.
So, if religion is to have a public face, what should that face look like? As we seek to find an answer to this question, we must start, as I noted earlier, with the recognition that this is a culturally, ethnically, politically, and religiously diverse nation (and local community). If I am to bring my faith into the public realm, as I often do, I must recognize and respect this diversity. I may not agree with everything my neighbor believes or practices, but unless those beliefs and practices are harmful to the people who live in this society, then I must respect their freedom to practice and believe as they please. That is, I believe, a constitutionally protected right of every American.
The problem that faces us, that faces us, is that too often those who seek to bring their faith into the public sphere do so self-righteously, as if they have the truth and the state should affirm and enact their understanding of the truth. There is, in essence, a rather triumphalist understanding of one’s faith, which leads to a rather coercive and oppressive expression of one’s faith. This reality has led some to advocate neutralizing the religious voice from the public square, but how does this occur without violence? The cure for coercion is not coercion, but in my mind, being more attuned to the teachings of one’s faith. As a Christian, I look to Jesus, who offered a non-coercive vision of public faith, one that is activist, but also humble and focused on serving others, guided by the principles of Love of God and love of neighbor.
If, as I believe, we cannot so easily separate secular and sacred spheres of life, and if religion is to participate in the conversation in a non-coercive and humble manner, what will this look like? That is the question I would love to consider with the community of Troy and beyond.