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Public Theology since 1983
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The Dynamics of Moral Agency
We live in an era newly awash in moral language when it comes to the systemic and the social. Frameworks of white supremacy and systemic racism, illegitimate political authority and a corrupted elite dominate our mental maps, each charge vast yet pointed, weighty yet difficult to pin down. As many of us awaken to realities of history that seem to be demanding something new from our lives, the conscientious person is asking, Where is the way of wisdom? How do I avoid becoming paralyzed, or worse, reactive and destructive? What’s the call on persons when the stakes most discussed are not automatically accountable to a person? Is there a call?
We are living through times that often feel like one long commentary on Joni Mitchell’s line “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” From regular encounters on the street to public sacraments, hospitality in the flesh to basic truth-telling from our leaders, it is not the sophisticated accoutrements of an advanced civilization that have screamed in their absence, but rather the rudimentary things we ordinarily take for granted. And among these invisible “essentials” is something increasingly at risk: trust. Symptoms of the rot abound, and just in the nick of time, many cultural observers are starting to take notice. We commend the diagnostic literature to you, but what this winter issue of Comment does is brave the “what now?” question: What might it take to build some trust back in to our withered commons, and for those who have never tasted trust’s rewards, sow it reliably for the first time?
If 2020 is defined by one thing, it’s the ushering in of mass uncertainty. Uncertainty about how to behave in the face of a capricious virus, about the future, about whom to trust in the face of conflicting directives. What happens when a society that thought it was successful is shocked into realizing that it can no longer assume an infinitely upward path of progress? What happens to human character when we lose confidence in the same? This fall issue of Comment is an attempt to explore these questions with both honesty and tenderness. We are seeking wisdom from untapped sources—children, jazz, mathematics, cultures adept at thinking in the present tense, refugees, the materially poor. What can we learn from these ignored sages, and from the biblical narrative of exile itself?
A World Remade
Many are characterizing 2020 as a kairos year, the forces of a global pandemic and a long-simmering disease of the soul forging an opening for change. As everyone scrambles to make sense of a rapidly changing context, it is natural to revert to a survival mode characterized by reactive thinking, short-term analysis, and feel-good meaning-making. Comment neither condemns these instincts nor feels exempt from their temptations. Still, we sense a momentous opportunity for big questions to be considered. There is a new, pandemic-inspired social realization that we need a reset, one shaped by (1) a sober-minded, clear-eyed view of the present, (2) a discerning, rigorous study of the past, and (3) a pragmatic yet creative reimagining of the future as we face it together and build anew.
The Stories We Tell
In an age when the humanities are struggling to defend their utility, history tremors at the tip of the spear. It doesn’t seem to explain the way things are, it’s not, well, current, and it doesn’t tickle our endless fascination with ourselves. Yet this spring issue exists to demonstrate that a prismatic study of history may be among the most important disciplines we can undertake for the recovery of a healthier public discourse and the beginnings of mutual accountability. We’ve invited an array of contributors to tell some histories with fresh integrity, explore the role of memory, and discern how much weight to give the past in discerning the contours of our present.
The Tribes That Bind
It’s no secret that an “ism” has arisen to diagnose our suspicious moods one to another as group identities become primary and social isolation burrows in—tribalism. Most of us are increasingly living disaggregated lives, our sense of wholeness and belonging fragile as we peer out on a landscape that can appear chaotic at best, hostile at worst. Where is a people we can call our own? By what criteria is this people to be identified, and how then should our allegiance play out? This winter issue takes a pause before these questions, exploring the prismatic meanings and manifestations of tribe as both are shaping our horizons today.
Love and Fear
Noli timere. Be not afraid.
This command pervades the Scriptures, and yet many in Western societies are engulfed in a sense that doom is near and what was will no longer be. There is fracture and pain exploding out into the open—for some it’s long-rumbling, for others it’s a shock. Almost everyone feels besieged and misunderstood, reduced to a caricature and cut off without grace. But emerging from this morass is a call to a new kind of engagement with one another, one that Comment would like to answer with a long and unpredictable table that seats elite next to commoner, scholar next to practitioner, black next to white, able-bodied next to handicapped, young next to old, rich next to poor, privileged next to overlooked, immigrant next to indigenous. What does it require to be repairers of the breach? How can a magazine informed by 2,000 years of Christian social thought help us tend to the task? This print issue opens up these questions, inviting an exploration of the fears and loves that compete for eminence in a nation, a neighborhood, a society, a soul.
To Build Is to Love
Our world is shaped by humanity's desire to build and create—a desire that mimics the original Creator’s act of pure love. But is creating limited to artists and architects? In this issue of Comment, loving acts of creation are visible in all kinds of settings, from Wall Street firms to Midwestern farms, and they take many different forms: a daily commitment to one’s local neighbourhood; a compassionate kind of persuasion; or even a private thought. We hope you’ll be inspired to recognize the creative work of everyone around you who is faithfully building—and loving—in their own humble way.
The Books Issue
Books. They fill our bookcases and threaten to overtake our nightstands. They pair just as well with a lazy weekend as they do a rush-hour commute. They bring us to new worlds and introduce us to new voices. The bookish life is a celebration of curiosity and a humble proclamation that there is always more to learn. So we have dedicated this issue to Comment's love affair with books. The pieces in this issue, in departure from the usual practice, won't be connected by a single theme, expect perhaps their common tribute to the appeal of miscellany. So settle into your favourite reading chair and join us, and guest editor John Wilson, in the noble pursuit of a literary life.
Minimalism is making its mark on society, one tiny succulent at a time. What does that mean for Christians? The North American church surely does overconsume. Perhaps embracing simplicity could be countercultural and lead us toward certain kinds of holiness and obedience that we’re lacking. Yet things are still at the centre of this new movement that is purportedly anti-consumerist, and might hospitality suffer when we decide that having “extra” is uniformly bad? Among the faith-motivated and others, some adopt minimalism to be on trend, but still others are embracing some really beautiful practices for beautiful reasons, even godly ones.
Living with Integrity
We typically understand integrity as living an authentic life—a life where one’s actions are consistent with one’s beliefs. But that is not enough. Indeed, understanding integrity in this purely individualist way leads to the social vision of coherence proffered by liberal individualism. If our sense of disintegration feels elusive, the possibility of living a whole life seems even more so. It is our hope that this issue of Comment will draw your attention to the possibility that that alienation which gnaws at us might not be eternal; that, perhaps, he who “holds all things together” might have the last, and lasting word.
In this issue of Comment, we gathered voices that do two things: (1) diagnose and describe the causes and effects of the social epidemic of loneliness and (2) share signs of hope, stories of communities and people who are piercing the buffer. People are hungering for some sign that they are known. In today's society we are not alone in being lonely—not that that makes us any less lonely. The culmination of history, as Christians confess it, is an unending feast, with a seat for everyone. Surely in the meantime, the body of Christ has something to say—something to show, something to do —for those who feel excluded, ostracized, forgotten.
Is the University Worth Saving?
How does the state of the university relate to the state of society? We believe in the university as a site for exploration, an incubator of advanced thinking, a training ground for future leaders, and a place where we learn how to disagree. But saving the university is not the same as preserving the status quo. It might require a reimagining of how and why the university serves the common good. After all, if this thread of our social fabric is torn out, what else becomes distorted?
This issue is dedicated to ancient friendships that can become the distant, orienting stars by which we navigate the roiling waves of twenty-four-hour news with all its upheavals and outrage. Think of this issue of Comment as your sextant (or, if you prefer to update the metaphor, a GPS device): we want to introduce you to a constellation of forgotten voices that have oriented thoughtful Christians across the centuries and who continue to offer wisdom to our age, if we’ll listen.
A Church for the World
This issue is all about the church: what it is, what it isn't, and why it matters. Our concern isn't just an apologetic for the public importance of the church. It raises important questions internal to the church—questions about reform and renewal. The health of society and the strength of social architecture depend on having churches that are centered on the supremacy of Christ, because to serve the Lord is to serve the world. It's not if church is for the world, but how.
Rethinking Civil Religion
In this issue we want to suggest there are expressions of civil religion that deserve serious consideration because, as implausible as it might seem, civil religion is an irreplaceable moral source of civil society. And conversely, the biblical vision of our human calling to tend the earth and love our neighbours—a calling that is renewed by the gospel, not superseded—propels us into social concern for the societies in which we find ourselves.
Trust: Reweaving Our Social Fabric
This issue of Comment is dedicated to analyzing the social dynamics of trust from different angles and constructively considering how to reweave the web. Generating a diagnosis is important, so woven throughout this issue are multidisciplinary accounts that give us insight into the sources of our cynicism—from fake news to ubiquitous surveillance to the broken realities of racism.
This issue of Comment will explore how constraints—properly constituted—are integral to freedom and to a good society. In continuation of our anti-revolutionary approach, we're not keen to exchange one form of bondage for another just because it calls itself "freedom." In this edition of Comment we invite readers to take the time to step back and evaluate these cultural jigs and consider the ways they help us live, or hinder us from living, skilled lives.
Join the Anti-Revolutionary Party
In this issue of Comment, we critically consider the way this revolutionary zeitgeist has affected the family, business, art, politics, and more—and suggest a different way forward.
Our Built World: Some Assembly Required
Technology is as old as Eden. Tools for tilling the garden were anticipations of quill pens and steam engines and the smartphone in your pocket. The first "hack" was a needle that sewed together Adam and Eve's fig leaves. We are called to shape and form worlds. So it's not a question of whether we'll employ technology in our cultural labour; the only interesting question is how.
The Rule of Law, The Way of Love
Now is not the time to defend "law and order." Trust has been lost in Ferguson and Baltimore and Chicago. And yet, the mechanisms of law, policing, punishment, and (hopefully) rehabilitation are a crucial feature of human society. The animating conviction of this issue of Comment is that if we want to understand and prophetically critique how it is legislated, enforced, and administered, we need to see the law-like nature of creation itself.
Our devotion to the supposedly liberating powers of progress and technology has come to roost. We lopped off our memory, as if tradition was what was holding us back. But it turns out forgetting hobbles progress too.
Strung between novelty and nostalgia, a biblical imagination remembers forward. We explore faithful, honest, hopeful memory in this issue of Comment. Those Christians who want to be faithfully present in contemporary society do well to cultivate ancient friendships.
Health Beyond The Hospital
Health is not just the province of the hospital, or even just the health-care industry. Just as nurses and doctors and patients are dependent on the architect, engineers, and plant managers, so the health-care industry is dependent on homes, families, churches, and schools to cultivate a healthy citizenry and a healthy society.
This issue of Comment invites you to consider aspects of health and health care that don't always get our attention.
Let's not be simplistic, naïve, or self-congratulatory. This issue of Comment zooms in with a more granular understanding of the sources and causes of unjust inequalities, and makes a bold claim: There can be just inequalities, and with them often comes an unequal responsibility for the health of society.
The Work of Our Hands
We get excited about those who open local coffee shops or become journalists or start a non-profit or (fill in the blank). But what do our "faith and work" books have to say to people who work on the line at a Ford assembly plant, or to medical assistants who take care of the elderly?
This issue of Comment aims to acknowledge the sorts of work we don't often talk about.
Come, and find satisfaction in the creativity and the toil of the work of our hands.
The Winter 2014 issue of Comment is themed Redeeming Conservatism. Are we out of our minds?
If you can't imagine anything good coming out of conservatism, this issue is for you. Our hope is you'll discover, first, that conservatism is not what you thought it was. Second, we hope when you encounter this conservative disposition, you might have occasion to take stock and be surprised to find this names a sensibility you already share.
Cracks in the Secular
An injection of hope: the fall issue of Comment will seriously challenge and confront the attempt of some to reconfigure North American public life in a way that diminishes and excludes robust religious expression. But we'll also see an opportunity and invitation to hear in "the secular" an enduring longing for something more.
This issue of Commment includes a stunning interview with renowned philosopher Charles Taylor.
The Other Side of the City
This issue of Comment invites you to consider the renewal of North America's urban social architecture. First, the voices in this issue press us to look beyond the glitz and gleam of the city and ask sobering, uncomfortable, necessary questions about sides of the city we don't always consider. And second, this issue illuminates the unseen side of the city, the social infrastructure that undergirds it—human cultural creations, as critical as sewers, sanitation, and master plans.
Daniel is the poster boy of refusal to compromise. Except, of course, when he did.
Daniel was faithful amidst compromise. His expectations were cut to the measure of exile.
So this issue of Comment undertakes an audacious goal: to redeem compromise. We want to recover a sense in which compromise can actually be faithful, a good, tangible expression of our commitment to shalom.
Patronage: Why We All Need to Invest in Culture
All of us are patrons. We are patrons, even if we might be poor grad students or young married couples barely eking out an existence. We are patrons, not just in our "charitable" giving, but in our day-to-day lives.
By our decisions, we are saying "yes" to some version of the good life.
I hope this issue of Comment will prompt you to ask questions you haven't considered before, so that you might see your daily life anew.
—James K.A. Smith
We Believe in Institutions
In this issue of Comment we proudly profess that we believe in institutions. Institutions will sometimes be scaffolds to support the weak; sometimes fences to protect the vulnerable; sometimes springboards to pursue new innovation. But in a cynical age that tends to celebrate anti-institutional suspicion, you should resist it—because institutions are ways to love our neighbours.
In a fragmented world, we get posturing, pronouncements, and political ultimatums. In other words, we get just the sort of public discourse we deserve: emotive appeals that shame our opponents, coupled with sabre-rattling denouncements that rally our troops. What's important is that we preach loud enough to be sure everyone in our choir hears us.
Well, we're not willing to play by these rules. So this issue of Comment is devoted to recovering a lost art: persuasion.
The Word of God and the City of Man
The Bible is not a compendium of doctrines, ideas, or rules. Scripture teaches, but teaches through stories, poetry, exhortation, visions, letters. It's done its proper work when it produces a certain kind of person—someone moulded by the Word of God who not only brings the Word to the city of man, but in union with the eternal Word is the Word of God in the city of man.
Our culture does not know how to deal with legacies. We either treat the dead with some combination of awe and fear, or we think of our forebears as unworthy of remembrance, to be cast behind our own pursuits and discoveries.
In this issue of Comment, we reject both our tendencies to ignore and to idolize the past. Instead, we seek to draw the good out of legacies, as we acknowledge that all legacies east of Eden will always be, at best, mixed.
The good society
Peace, as St. Augustine says, is more than simply the absence of war. It is the tranquility of order—when all of the spheres of society function in such a way as to create wonderful music. This is a radical, prophetic notion.
"The good society." To dare to speak this way is to hope. It presumes that there is an order for our families, schools, governments, magazines, poets, employers, even our protesters to harken back to.
Letters to the Young
This Comment crystallizes a sensibility that might seem countercultural: that the young have something to learn, and that their elders are a source of wisdom.
Central to Comment's vision is an appreciation that God calls us to a range of vocations and cultural tasks. So here you will find letters not just to a young pastor and parents, but also letters to a young farmer, architect, and philosopher, and many more.
In this issue of Comment—coming, as it does, in a season when we gather indoors with friends and family to find comfort together in the stuff of both God and man's creative acts—may our celebration of the true things come together in one magnificent jubilee in honour of the true God.
Making the most of college (fifth annual)
Making the most of grad school, of trade school, of law school, of seminary or art studio—begins when you realize where you stand: in the presence of the God who made and patterned all things slowly, according to a mysterious and often frightening design, who in Jesus Christ wrought justice upon the evil we drag around in the world, who by the Spirit offers us comfort as we work towards and await the time when "this too shall be made right."
Comment readers and writers are seeking practical answers to the big questions of life with requisite fear and trembling. We need to answer in ways that are more than merely relevant, that are prophetic—not simply enough for today, but enough for what tomorrow may bring.
The story of God's great deeds—creation of all things; judgment of vicious human rebellion; redemption of all things—told in the Bible is the context within which we at Comment understand and approach everything. In this issue, we have asked our contributors to recount the episodes of that story, and we publish an editorial manifesto, broadcasting our most deeply-held convictions.
Making the most of college (fourth annual)
As we put together this fourth Making the Most of College issue of Comment, I was aware that we are addressing it to my own children and their friends. And so I dedicate this issue to them, and begin it with a prayer.
Jim Cotter writes his paraphrase—or "unfolding," as he prefers to call it—of Psalm 136 "in solidarity with research scientists; and with those who help others handle change and resolve conflicts; and in gratitude for a marvellous universe..."
In this summer issue of Comment our writers explore a wide range of topics in the arts and the academy, business and technology, culture and politics. But quietly underneath all of these explorations whispers the question: what is it to be human, to be responsible, in these various settings? And while the concrete answers vary along with the settings, the deepest answer that brings coherence to all our diverse concrete responses to circumstance remains that same one word.
Every square inch
When we are called to give attention to every square inch of the world as it truly is, we notice the signs of meaning and of promise, even as we stare our own evil and the evil of our neighbours in the face. With this issue of Comment, we hope that all of us, as we read and ponder the Jubilee words gathered for us in these pages, will be emboldened to live our ordinary lives with extraordinary delight.
Signs of hope
In this issue of Comment we have asked several of our contributors to explore various aspects of hope—to write about movements of hope in Protestant and Catholic Christianity; to explore possibilities for hope in China and in the relationship of North American political communities to their Muslim citizens; and, in our symposium, to tell us of signs of hope they are noticing.
Making the most of college (third annual)
Drawing on their own experiences as students and mentors, our authors ask what kinds of practices and habits will open up the undergraduate years—as a time of learning to understand the world from the perspective of the wisdom of the Bible, as a time to make friends and find wise teachers, as a time to ask big questions and begin to discern a vocation, as a time of reflection and action.
The desires of the heart
We seem to be living in a moment of renewed interest in Augustine of Hippo, and much of that interest concerns his teaching on love. In this issue of Comment we illuminate that interest, directly in "In search of the happy life," by David Naugle, and "The erotics of truth, and other scandalous lessons from Augustine of Hippo," by James K.A. Smith, and also by virtue of Augustine's subtle, subterranean influence in several short articles on things people love.
All things new
While we impatiently follow in the wake of the work of the Spirit of God, waiting for the complete re-booting of heaven and earth, we need more communities like L'Abri and more little jubilees. This issue of Comment celebrates the promise of the future reign of God, partly by being the house journal for one such event: the annual Jubilee student conference in Pittsburgh.
Finding our way to great work
The vocational counsel in this issue of Comment is not all imbued with the dark wisdom of these Three Bad Psalms. Nor is it all glitter and no gold. We hope you will find our authors' servings to be savoury, and their guidance light.
Making the most of college (second annual)
This is our second annual issue of Comment with the theme "Making the most of college" (or university). Our September issue focuses on the cultivation of community: making and learning alongside the friends who will shape us. We hope you will also learn how to cultivate your convictions, how to lead, and how to seek the shalom of the city in which you live. And don’t forget delights like cheering on sports teams or dressing well!
In this Comment, we ask you to read along with others, to consider the big questions others have asked, and to open yourself to reshaping and to life-sustaining coherence.
Things we love
Authors in this issue of Comment consider the things they love. And we hope that you will be drawn to consider the things you love, and that as you think about these things you will join us in asking the big questions about love and our selves. We also hope—and here I wax Augustinian—that as we consider the things we do love, that we will become more deeply aware of the things that we ought to love.
This issue of Comment contains advice to students who plan to make a life in the world of business&mdash. In addition to the valuable advice offered by our authors, I want to suggest that future business people read widely and think hard about the three questions I’ve asked, and engage in serious conversations with mentors and friends in an effort to come to the kind of answers that will help guide a lifetime of good stewardship and leadership in the marketplace.
Making the most of college (first annual)
This issue of Comment explores the possibilities and challenges of college life, with an emphasis on the big questions of life. Comment is committed to cultivating the next generation of cultural leaders. It is, indeed, in the college years that most people make the decisions that will guide them as they provide leadership throughout their adult years.
Reading the Bible
In this issue of Comment, we offer two series: Reading the Bible and Neocalvinism… yes, no, maybe? We hope that you, too, find at least a spark—if not a lightning bolt—and some insight—if not a revelation, and your place in the grand narrative of redemption as it unfolds.
City & country
In this issue, Comment explores the meaning of the city: its social and architectural design, its politics, its provision of a space for the arts, and its relation to the church. We look forward to the conversations that this exploration will provoke, and hope that the dialogue will help us understand better the proper place of both city and country in human lives lived well.
What is to be done?
What we are offering in this print issue of Comment are notes toward a Christian social manifesto. We are not pretending here to provide a comprehensive prescription for Christian cultural engagement. This is not a marxist-leninist tract, replete with misguided utopian hubris. It is, however, a collection of serious efforts to determine what our responsibilities are in this time, given our deepest commitments and the spirit of the times.
The best of Comment
Every few decades a magazine emerges that reinvigorates the North American public intellectual scene, and eventually reshapes the political and cultural landscape.
This issue of Comment is special in the sense that the scope of issues addressed and the points of view articulated have been selected to represent the mission and character of the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus).
Most Popular Articles See All
Tracing the disappearance of the thing we need most.
The ineffable becomes intelligible in Israel.
(Of course, the bookish life needs no rules.)
Linking our prayers and our purchases, our art and our labour.
We all want to know and be known, but nobody today knows how.
In church, our children are not our children. They're brothers and sisters in Christ.
We must redeem entire cultures, not only personal souls.