A good deal of conversation about religion and public life has focused on the perennial matters of how religious discourse and reasoning can “enter the public sphere” and on what basis. Those questions, which are not insignificant concerns, nevertheless often become ensnarled in an unproductive parsing of “religious” vs. “secular.” Although it too begs a definition of “religion,” a conversation about religion and socio-cultural goods promises to be more productive. I’m grateful, then, for the opportunity to consider “the social cultural good of religion” and to explore “the forms that religious public goods” might take.
The religious vs. secular framework often simply recasts the old dual framework of “church and state” or of “church and world.” By contrast, there are multiple and intersecting dynamics to be explored among religion/s, dimensions of goods, and public life. A robust picture of socio-cultural goods and values both requires attention to diverse dimensions of goods and also resists pervasive cultural tendencies to attenuate consideration of goods to their measurement by economic worth or value alone. A similarly robust picture of religion can inform and be informed by attention to diverse basic, social (including political and economic), cultural, and reflexive goods. These more dynamic and complex pictures are necessary for making sense of the complex demands and possibilities of urban (indeed, global) life.
Three contexts give particular shape to how I have come to think about the socio-cultural goods of religion.
First, the graduate preparation of students for ministry. The MDiv program at the University of Chicago Divinity School is oriented to “public ministry” - that is, to ministry that addresses public goods and speaks to the wider public, and that connects the work of caring for souls and of fostering religious communities with broader socio-cultural contexts and the common good. It is an interdisciplinary and interfaith program in keeping with the Divinity School’s literal location in the center of the University of Chicago (a major research university where doctoral students outnumber undergraduate students). I regularly teach a graduate course titled, “Theology in the Public Square.” Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, remains consequential for thinking about religion and socio-political life. It is a mainstay of the course along with classic texts by Dorothy Day, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Thich Nhat Hanh. These texts still offer powerful insights for any consideration of religion and socio-cultural goods in contemporary cities. I will return to Niebuhr in a moment.
Second, I am one of thirty-five scholars who are involved in the “Enhancing Life Project” at the University of Chicago. It is directed by William Schweiker (University of Chicago) and Guenther Thomas (Ruhr-University Bochum). This 26-month-long project, funded by the Templeton Foundation, brings together scholars from religion, social sciences, and humanities. In thinking together about the enhancement of life, we are paying special attention to the range of human goods, how they are interpreted and “enhanced” (or endangered) in these times, and whether there are “spiritual laws” (over against too simple metrics) that can guide reflection and action towards enhancement. This very diverse group of scholars reflects the wide array of vantage points from which the socio-cultural goods of religion can and are being considered. It is important that questions of the nature, value, and impact of religion are part of serious research across disciplines and professional fields.
The third context, and perhaps the most powerful, is the city of Chicago itself where I live and carry out my work. Chicago is an imposing context for thinking about religion and public life, a city where diverse, vibrant religious communities do shape well-being and public life. As the stream of news from and about Chicago often suggests, it is also a city where moral and spiritual challenges are vividly illustrated. There are moral challenges that take the form of income inequality, the use and often abuse of power, and the limited access to basic goods of housing, safety, health care, and education for many of the poor in Chicago. There are also significant spiritual challenges that take the form of threats to hope, community, and dignity. Daily life can bring constant reminders of the harshness, beauty, and hope of a major U.S. city.
In light of these contexts and sources, let me make three sets of observations about what religion can contribute to the socio-cultural goods of the city.
1) Why Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society (MMIS) is still a useful starting point.
Reinhold Niebuhr argued that unselfish other-regard is rare enough among individuals, but it is pretty much impossible for groups; an approximation in the form of “enough justice” is about as good as it gets. However, “Any justice which is only justice soon degenerates into something less than justice. It must be saved by something which is more than justice.” (MMIS, 258). When thinking about cities, Niebuhr reminds us that justice is the goal, but that achieving any approximation of it will require reaching for a greater vision and reaching for it with unselfish other-regard. Both are necessary contributions of religion to the justice of cities and the flourishing of life.
For Niebuhr, religion opens the horizon of history and allows for interpretation and action that are more nuanced and, finally, more realistic, than provided by either a theory of the endless clash of will and power or some rationalized account of progress. That does not mean that religion itself will somehow redeem history. Rather, religion is always ambiguous within history because, for ill and for good, it is always intertwined with the ambiguities of reason and of will-to-power. According to Niebuhr, religion is “ultra-rational”; it is in his words, an “imagination” - or perhaps better, an “imaginary,” as Charles Taylor has explored - of the absolute in which absolute value and absolute power are united.
At its best, religion does not defeat or diminish the goods of social cultural life. It can effect their transvaluation. Religion enables individuals and groups to reach beyond the “reasonable” to the “ultra-rational,” say, beyond the racial status quo and beyond mandated integration to a new comprehension of human dignity, and thus expanding the possible horizon of shared life and history. One might say that religion depends upon and can transform natural, socio-cultural, and reflexive goods rather than creating the goods. Similarly, religion may alter and elevate the drive to reason and the will-to-power that are no less deeply embedded in contemporary culture than they were in Niebuhr’s day.
Niebuhr also alerts us to the possibilities that religion’s “transformations” can, in fact, be destructive or deleterious. He refers to certain extreme forms of asceticism as the “overripe fruit” of religion, and views legalism, moralism, fanaticism as made more dangerous because of religious absolutism. By showing the susceptibility of religion, knowledge, and power to misappropriation and misdirection, and by accenting the ongoing challenge of envisioning and achieving some approximation of justice in societies, Niebuhr slammed the brakes on his day’s overconfidence in rationalized progress (including technological progress) as leading to the amelioration of the ills and injustice of social life. Even though today’s context has changed dramatically, Niebuhr’s cautions remain salient. His overarching theses can be especially instructive, namely that justice won’t evolve, it must be envisioned and sought, and that religion, ambiguous as it may be, is as basic and vital for shaping the justice and flourishing of cities and civilizations as are knowledge and power.
Although Niebuhr draws a sharp line between the kind of unselfish other-regard (“love”) that may be possible among individuals and the relative “immorality” of societies where justice is the highest good that can be attained, he does not view religion itself as a private matter. For Niebuhr, religion is not just a vision of the absolute beyond reason but a genuinely creative part of social life. This generative nature is often overlooked in contemporary caricatures of organized religion (and in caricatures of Niebuhr). Religion at its best transforms the goods of human life, tempering self-interest, making reason more compassionate, allowing power to be creative, and providing the “illusion” that drives politics and history towards redemption. In Abraham Heschel’s 1967 phrase, which is sympathetic to Niebuhr’s formulation, “Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering, [and] the love of peace” (What Ecumenism Is).
The creative, transformative work of religion addresses societies as well as individuals. It doesn’t add religious value to some sort of less valuable life. It cultivates and lifts shared human goods—for example, compassion in the face of suffering, or peace where there is violence. A good dose of Niebuhr and Heschel (not to mention of the traditions of Protestant Christianity and prophetic Judaism in which they stand) counters the contemporary cultural bias toward consuming religion as a personal choice and its practice as “merely” an interpersonal matter.
2) H. Richard Niebuhr’s work on a relational theory of value and an ethics of responsibility allows a next step.
Although Reinhold Niebuhr offers a useful starting point, he does not offer an account of how religious institutions or communities (vs. individuals) might enhance as well as endanger social goods. This is possibly an inconsistency in his thought. To explore the positive work of religion, and especially of religious communities, we can turn to his brother H. Richard Niebuhr, who spent a lifetime thinking about the relation of selves, communities, and God.
“The Church is not responsible for the judgment or destruction of any beings in the world of God,” H. Richard Niebuhr observed, “but for the conservation, redemption, and transfiguration of whatever creatures its action touches.” When he wrote this in 1946, he was reflecting on the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of cities in Europe in the aftermath of the war’s devastation. The situation and his comments offer an instructive parallel for our concerns. In light of the situation of contemporary cities, the violence and poverty that threaten human survival, the gross inequalities of access to housing, health care, safety, education, and also the complex intersections of life, work, communities, and histories, what do religious communities offer?
Neither judgment nor moral condemnation of any beings, in fact. Niebuhr assumes that even in devastated cities there are already a variety of goods there. Cities are not devoid of goods, although those goods may be inadequately recognized and may need to be transformed for the sake of the full glory of the beings who dwell there. Moreover, that transformation doesn’t necessarily first involve adding “religion.” Niebuhr says that the work of churches and of a Christian moral philosophy is to acknowledge, ensure, and transfigure whatever goods – natural, basic, socio-cultural, reflective goods – already exist. In European post-war cities, providing for the basic goods of food and shelter was a basic good by any valuation, human or religious. We can hear echoes of the gospel here: “Whoever offers a cup of cool water…”(Matthew 10:42).
The same is true for contemporary cities. Basic goods and socio-cultural goods don’t become better by being supplanted by some sort of “higher” religious goods. Niebuhr’s relational theory of value develops this perspective. For our purposes, let this example suffice: A cup of cool water that answers thirst and need is already in some sense a testimony of goodness and value at the heart of life. However, if thirst is quenched in a way that also upbuilds the dignity of a person, allows sympathy and understanding, strengthens social life, contributes to the flourishing of generations, and opens to interpretations about the meaning of life, then several dimensions of goods are engaged at the same time. As Reinhold Niebuhr’s work also suggests, the transfiguration of values isn’t a matter of substituting “religious” goods for some sort of “lesser” goods, but of cultivating and enhancing the intersection of diverse goods. Or in the more recent formulation of my colleague William Schweiker, the responsibility is “to respect and enhance the integrity of life.” This is not a simple process. Neither respect nor integrity are fixed formulae but involve processes of ongoing “approximation,” to return to Reinhold Niebuhr’s term. Moreover, there are deep conflicts within and among us concerning how goods relate to each other.
Mediating institutions are crucial sites for such work, more often than we perhaps recognize. I am thinking especially of religious congregations, educational institutions, and service agencies, but without excluding a variety of not necessarily religious organizations such as parent-teacher associations, community organizations, local bookstores and cafes, labor unions, service clubs, and so forth. Congregations and other mediating organizations at their best are neighbor-making, hope-creating places of regular interaction (and therefore of the creation of value). We have taken them for granted more than we ought, and to the extent that they are diminishing, we as persons, societies, and cultures are likely soon to be diminished.
Congregations mediate “religion” by mediating diverse other goods through food pantries, worship services, preschools and religious schools, networks of service and care, or apart from places that support and symbolize these sacred processes of respecting and enhancing life. They are also one of the increasingly rare places in our culture where goods are mediated across the generations, and at their best, across other social and cultural divides. Congregations offer and hold together basic, socio-cultural, and reflexive goods and, in doing so, can “conserve, redeem, and transfigure” innumerable fellow creatures in mundane but powerful ways.
3) The Role of Vulnerability and Glory in Religion
Finally, my own work has been focused on the themes of vulnerability and glory. I’ve argued for interpreting vulnerability as the susceptibility to be changed – for good or for ill – and for interpreting vulnerability as a basic feature of creaturely life. Humans are earth creatures, “clay jars,” as the book of Genesis and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians portray us, and yet capable of bearing glory, the aliveness of life.
Strategies that attempt to protect creatures by somehow ensuring invulnerability to damaging change (say, closing borders to the flow of ideas or people, policing focused on containment, a safety culture that insulates children from learning) may also close off possibilities of positive transformation. I have paired vulnerability with “glory” instead of “resilience”, which is the counterpart to vulnerability in contemporary risk management literature.
I’m haunted by the everydayness of violence in some city neighborhoods, by the lack of investment in education, by the rise of addictions, by the collapse of “good jobs,” by the diversion of consumption and facile “connections,” and also by how easy it is for ostensibly unaffected segments of the population to see few connections among the harshness of some lives and the ease of their own. These seem to me to be symptoms of dehumanization, a loss of the aliveness of life, of hope and of meaning.
To be sure, fostering resilience to damage (e.g., adolescents with “grit” in the face of adversity) is certainly critical in situations where devastation seems to be an ever present threat. Moreover, the picture of seemingly inevitable damage and of resilience at best may capture the tenor of these times, but it does not yet offer a capacious enough horizon for the complexity and full ambiguity of life. What religion must also do is to broaden the bandwidth of creaturely life, as it were, to offer vision and action that focuses attention, expands imagination, and fosters enactments of creaturely life in its integrity and glory.
Religion at its best offers a broader horizon for life that allows us to grasp the vulnerability and glory – the aliveness – of life. Religion doesn’t do this in the abstract. It does so primarily through communities of faith that are also communities of interpretation and action. Religious communities offer both imaginaries and spaces where this recognition is fostered and though which its vision and action can circulate among and enhance persons, neighborhoods, and cities.
What kinds of interventions are needed? We need leadership formation to strengthen these mediating institutions. We need to recognize what already exists so we can better support them and “conserve” the values that they are already adding to neighborhoods and cities. Where they are lacking or becoming diminished, we need to help facilitate neighbor-making, hope-creating institutions. There are some very creative and unselfish other-regarding leaders and institutions out there. I wonder also about the merit of MacArthur Foundation-like recognition for their genius and “aliveness.”
These observations are incomplete. They offer some provisional perspectives that are still somewhat removed from the concrete demands of cities and current social contexts. However, there is significant scope for direct connection to the practicalities of our cities. We need to continue to reflect on these questions as we identify salient points for “advancing the understanding of the social-cultural goods in relation to religion,” and for identifying dangers as they appear among and around us.
Religion in the Streets of New York City