Mark Douglas is a professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian (USA) institution in Atlanta, Georgia. A scholar of religion in the public square, he accepted a 2006 invitation to “put my pen where my mouth was” – by writing editorials for The Sunday Paper, a now-defunct weekly tabloid.
After his run as an editorialist ended in 2008, Douglas decided to examine the bigger issue it raised: how does Christian faith relate to public engagement? The resulting book, Believing Aloud: Reflections on Being Religious in the Public Square, appeared in 2010. It mixes reprints of Douglas’s editorials with his reflections on writing them. The process, Douglas writes, both reflected and shaped his faith.
The Public Theology class at the Earlham School of Religion read Believing Aloud, then interviewed Douglas by Skype. The following are excerpts from that interview, which took place on February 21, 2014.
Ben Brazil: You talk in your book about why you chose to write newspaper columns. I’m also curious why was writing this book particularly important to you, and what impact did you hope it would have?
Mark Douglas: … The real simple, practical, professional [reason] is … it was an easy way to take some of the work I’d been doing and some of the reflections I’d been having and turning it into something that would function for me (in the scholarly guild). So that’s easy and self-absorbed.
The bigger thing, though, is … although I’ve been teaching on religion in the public sphere … I just hadn’t found anybody who had brought together action/ reflection, and done kind of a book that was praxis-oriented like this. So I thought maybe there is this space out there where somebody can reflect on what they’ve actually been doing instead of just holding forth about what we ought to do. So that put me into kind of a more rarified space, in the sense that not only did I have a background to be thinking about it theoretically, which quite a few of us have, but I also had a fair amount of practice at doing it.
Tracy Davis: You said “all religions are relational.” My question is about relating to people of other faiths in interfaith dialogue. It seems to be easy to talk about commonalities, but it also seems important to wrestle with the differences. Do you have some advice for how to discuss fundamental differences with people of other faith traditions in the public forum?
Douglas: Welcome to some of my passions here! . . . I’ll start with what I think of as one of the most significant failings of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century which was this starting conviction that we will begin by figuring out what we share, and then go from there. What I think that we discover in those contexts is that everything that is interesting about us gets drained away. We don’t want to talk with the generic individual. We want to talk with particular individuals. So, to start at the point of commonality is to loose all of the interesting stuff that is in the particular of individuals and faiths.
So, rather than do that kind of common denominator form of inter-religious conversation or ecumenical conversation, I’m way more interested in saying, okay, here is how I understand myself in all of its thickness, and here is how, therefore, I engage this particular issue. Now share with me about how you, in all of your thickness, describe to me how you in all of your thickness, how you understand that issue. And we’re just going to see what happens as a result of that.
Ultimately, the best inter-religious discussions are ad-hoc; they are discovered along the way instead of having the rules lined out ahead of time. Not only do I think that they are the best because they are more interesting, [they are] the most honest along the way, and I would go as far as to say … the most moral, or [have] the potential to be the most moral.
For an example of that, [consider] the Society for Scriptural Reasoning and the Scriptural Reasoning Project — which is Jews, Muslims and Christians starting in their particularity and reading texts together because that is what the three traditions share is they are all three, people of text.
The old way of doing ecumenism — it functionally turns us all into consumers. You tell me about you and I will absorb it. There is the part of me I am not going to share myself — as if we are protecting the other from ourselves along the way.
[After describing the influence of Michael Walzer on his work, Douglas suggested rules for “thick” conversations:
1) Don’t demonize the other person
2) Describe the other person in his or her position in ways that they would say, “Yes, that is what I think, that is who I am.”
3) Follow your arguments through to their own conclusions and if you don’t like it go back and fix it.
Any tradition, Douglas says, has the resources for coming up with these ground rules.]
Dawn Daniels: Writing for me is a lot about trying to make sense of my own faith. Could you expand more on your assertion that refusing to speak and write in public is a “kind of bad faith?” People have varying gifts may have different ways of expressing their faith . . .
Douglas: Sure…I want to expand on it in two ways. … The first, I think that all faiths are, in one way or another, relational. Not all are relational in the same way – the way you think about relationship in Hinduism is just fundamentally different from the way you think about it in Judaism, is fundamentally different than the way you think about it in Islam, is fundamentally different than the way you think about it in Christianity. … But they’re all relational. They all necessarily catch you up into relationships, are shaped by relationships, and recognize the formative power of relationships.
As word users, as people for whom our primary tools are linguistic, we can’t help but think that those relationships are going to be shaped by words and how we use them. As people who write, as a way of extending those relationships or reshaping those relationships, then that’s going to be the case as well. …
I don’t mean to be dismissive of those who don’t write when I say that…refusing to write or speak in public is a kind of bad faith. What I don’t mean by bad faith is morally deficient necessarily. I do mean kind of ontically deficient; a cloistered faith, turns out to be… not so interesting a faith. Cloistered is a really bad word in that context because there’s people that would defend the faith of cloisters. A restricted faith…refusing to engage is just a way of hiding yourself, of concealing yourself…you don’t have to share everything, but if you’re going to be a self out there in the world – that self is a communicating self, and this is the way you communicate.
So that’s kind of the start of the answer. I have trouble making sense out of people who say they don’t share their faith. … I think the “my faith is private” argument is itself a kind of faith commitment that is public. So it’s just a different one than the one that I have.
And you’re probably getting a little bit of…how reformed I am in terms of sensibility, right? Reformed tradition, springing out of Calvin and Geneva just has this huge emphasis on engagement in the public…Calvin thinks that the greatest calling is not to ministry; it’s to be the civil magistrate – the mayor, if you will, the person who is doing public work for the good of the public. So that’s part of the answer.
I think the other part of the answer that may be a little more internal and motivating comes from the back half of that chapter, because writing, especially, I think those of you who have this writing as an emphasis would recognize – writing isn’t just about expressing what you think, it’s about discovering what you think, or thinking different because of your writing. And one of my great learnings in writing the articles was the degree to which if I just relied on the faith I started with and then tried to explicate it, I would have run out of things to say fairly fast. But the project of writing actually asked me to think anew and to grow in faith differently, in ways that I was not entirely anticipating.
So…regardless of external obligations to share of yourself and how much of yourself to share, there is I think, for those who write, an internal motivation to discover something, to create something that wasn’t there. Faith that isn’t changing, isn’t growing, isn’t being transformed turns out not to be much of a faith at all.
Christie Walkuski: About the Religious Right – why do I want to use their language and engage with them? If I think that Christian language has been hijacked by the religious right and a theology that I think is harmful and racist and sexist and colonialist, am I being spiritually apathetic if I donʼt engage with that?
Douglas: I totally get where youʼre coming from; they make me crazy. In the middle of that there are some things I try to remind myself. The first thing is, even though I donʼt agree with them, theyʼre still my brothers and sisters. The church has always been in deep arguments with itself.
Walkuski: But that doesnʼt mean that I have to engage politically with them or have debates with them.
Douglas: It depends on what you think about politics. If youʼve engaged at all, youʼve engaged politically with them – thatʼs just part of it. The second part of it to say is [that] the kinds of faith that are sometimes expressed by the religious right are the kinds of faith that will not last. They are passing, and the reason for that is that the world is simply more complex than the answers the religious right sometimes leans into. Theyʼll discover that.
Walkuski: [Whenʼs that going to happen?]
Douglas: Theyʼre either going to change or theyʼre going to die. Those are the two available options for fundamentalisms. Theyʼre going to change or theyʼre going to die. In the long run thatʼs what will happen because that type of thinking is not sustainable over a long term.
If theyʼre my brothers and sisters, then part of my job is to figure out how to engage them [so] I can be part of their change. Thatʼs an act of enormous charity. I have trouble reading the gospels and finding out that I have to be charitable to such people. Charity extends to wherever the neighbor is, whoever it is.
When you engage them politically, then often part of what you want to do is not bog down so that youʼre doing the same thing they are. Part of what I was trying to do, I mean, I think of that essay about Christmas and the war on Christmas — I didnʼt want to argue against them. I wanted to take their language and suggest that actually Christianity doesnʼt think this way – that you shouldnʼt want to think this way, you’re undermining your own claims when you get into defending Christmas against the secularists, because itʼs not really an interesting battle and you’re…kind of doing it poorly.
How much influence do I have? I donʼt know, but at least maybe some of them saw that and thought a little bit differently, and at least some other folks who thought, well, the religious right thinks thereʼs a war on Christmas and so I have to agree with the secularists because I donʼt like the religious right. That binary quality is unhelpful.
I donʼt know that I have an easy answer for you, or a satisfying one, in the middle of that except, well – thatʼs what we Christians do: we argue with each other because thatʼs what we’ve been doing since Peter and Paul. We refuse to give up on each other because thatʼs what Jesus said about us. We figure out how to love each other because thatʼs what Jesus commanded us to do. I know thatʼs kind of a bunch of aphorisms that donʼt feel especially helpful but I donʼt know how to avoid the implications of them.
Walkuski: But I think love can be seen in a lot of different ways; we can love in a lot of different ways; love doesnʼt mean we agree.
Douglas: No, we donʼt.
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