Book Journal #3: Public Theology

This is the class we’ve all been waiting for, or so most of the MDivs are saying. In this course, we discuss theology and religious action in the public sphere. We’re reading King, Day, Neibur, and Heschel. I’m going to be brief with my recollections because that is, probably, the only way I can convince myself to do said recollections, as we are in the midst of midterms and I am procrastinating to the bitter end.

A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We all know a lot about Dr. Martin Luther King. He is perhaps the closest thing that our era has to a prophet–and by the closest thing, I mean, he is our modern day prophet. He and Gandhi, I would say, bone-fide men of God. There are countless others from this century, I am sure, but our cultures have not latched on to others quite like King and Gandhi. Like those who wrote down the texts of the sayings of the prophets, or the sayings of Jesus, we recognize that spark in them and disseminate their lives throughout our culture–that process, perhaps, somewhat godly as well.

The book is straightforward. It is the speeches of MLK with introductions by other prominent people, recollections from the speeches, recollections from that time. I appreciated it because of how simple it was, and yet how little I truly knew about it. I had never read these speeches before, and so it was a good feeling to finally know the whole context. Of course, I cried through most of them. I highly suggest that anyone interested in these topics–modern day prophets, civil rights, social change–any of it, I think that just reading these speeches in this straightforward manner can be extremely helpful.

The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day, 1952

This book was a shockingly good one. I had not heard good things about it, but as I started to read I became absorbed. I was absorbed in her writing style, her strength, her descriptions of the world around her. Everything that she wrote, every detail in her descriptions, seemed alive to me. It is simultaneously beautiful, inspirational, gracious, and educational. She puts into this book how she walks in humility, love, and gratitude, and it inspired me, and I hope any other reader, to do the same. Each detail of her picturesque world shows me how sincere she is in her love of the world and of others. It really inspired me to start journalling more, to start describing the world around me, to foster in me again that sense of wonder when looking at the ordinary, the ugly, the decrepit.

Certainly nothing is perfect about the book–she is an author, perhaps not a theologian, but interwoven with her story is the points left unsaid: all people can be loved for what is worthy about them, all things can be beloved for what is beautiful in them, and we can be thankful for all truths. I absorbed this book in a matter of a few days, since I had skipped most of my reading for the first day of class. I was so glad that I had the time to finish reading it, because it really pushed me to remember how to look at the world. It also got me writing in my journal, and on my novel with new vigor.

In the book she is quiet but sure: gratitude and love, sincerity and totality of being. It may not always go right, but it keeps the long loneliness from becoming hell, and turns it instead to one’s brother, one’s sister–yet another thing to be accepted and loved. For someone who has struggled with loneliness and depression and alienation most of her life, that admission of loneliness, and that it may perhaps be a godly one… that was quite powerful and sincere.

Moral Man and Immoral Society: Reinhold Neibur

Not really my bag, this book, and honestly I suddenly got swamped and couldn’t focus on this one. After the delight I felt at reading Day, I didn’t want to rush into another book with abandon (quite like a relationship, I think) so I hung back on Niebur. He has some powerful insights to how politics and morality and society and the individual work together. One of our discussions in class was whether or not this work was actually theology rather than political science or ethics. I’m inclined to agree with those who said it is not theology. This is mostly on the point of words–God simply doesn’t come up in this book. Niebur is assessing how religion functions without truly discussing how a God might wish religion to function in a society, rather he is telling us how it does, regardless of a power that inspires it.  Others may not feel this way, but I think this goes into the realm of politics and ethics. Another student in the class made an important point, though, which helped me to see the other point of view: that the lack of god language moved this work from just plain theology, to PUBLIC theology, because it was capable of including many styles and beliefs of religion, as it was not dealing with “what God wanted”. I’m excited to move on to Heschel because I think he will be fun to read.

2 thoughts on “Book Journal #3: Public Theology”

  1. I appreciated your comments re Dorothy Day’s autobiography. It remains a gem. I knew her well and can say that there is no gap between the Dorothy you meet in the book and herself as a person.

    Jim Forest
    (I’m a writer. one of my books is a biography of Dorothy: All Is Grace)

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