return to religion-online

From the Other Side of the Pulpit

by M. L. Brownsberger

Mr. Brownsberger, an ordained Presbyterian minister, was vice-president for finance of a pharmaceutical manufacturing company in Chicago at the time this article was written. This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 27-September 3, 1986, pp. 746-747. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


I have been on the other side of the pulpit for 16 years. I am still convinced of the gospel, intrigued with theology and ethics, and caught up in the allure of the church. But during the ten years that I have been in business, I have yet to hear a sermon or read a theologian that helps me affirm what I do as a Christian in the American political economy. There is no lack of sermons and books on social issues -- usually critical of the context in which I work -- but there is a silence when it comes to what I do eight to ten hours a day, five to six days a week. Why?

I once began a class on business ethics at a liberal, mainline congregation with three questions. The first was, "Do you find any conflict between Christian faith as you understand it and what you do 40-60 hours a week?" Some of the responses: "No. I compartmentalize." "If I had to worry about all that, I'd never get anything done." "There is a difference between family stuff and work. Church is family stuff." "No. What's there to be in conflict about? Preachers don't know anything about what I do and when they try to talk about it, they only convince me I'm right."

The second question was, "Recognizing that you are who you are because of things over which you had no control -- good parents, luck, opportunities, educational contacts, innate talent -- do you feel any twinges of guilt when you pick up your paycheck?" The responses: "Goodness no! I am who I am and work hard with all I've got and so can write larger checks to the church. I feel good about both." "Why should I? Because I get a paycheck means 30 other people are getting checks. And they get those checks because of all those things you listed and what I do with it. And that's OK."

The last question was, "Does the church -- in its preaching, teaching and theologizing -- provide you with support for what you do eight to ten hours a day?" "No! The church focuses on my personal life and on the various social issues I should think about. I don't want preachers telling me how to run my business. Besides, how many preachers do you know who know anything about economics?" "Heavens, no! Oh, I can talk to the pastor about general stuff, but about what I actually do? What can he say?"

It is rare for pastors to have experience in the economic workplace, and rare, too, for them to have a reasonable understanding of economics and the dynamics of American-style, regulated capitalism. When I was in the pulpit, I spoke only to what I thought I understood -- social, internal institutional, and personal issues. I had a trained incapacity to speak to the working days of people's lives. Now I wonder why I was so ignorant.

Gaylord Noyce provides a clue. After talking with two businesspeople about some issues troubling them, he reflects: Neither of these men had a rationale that could help him morally integrate his work, his faith and his idealism. . .Neither had an intellectual handle or a community of moral support and criticism to help him cope with his schizoid experience in a capitalist economy" ("The Dilemmas of Christians in Business," The Christian Century [August 12-19, 1981], p. 802 (emphasis mine).

If one of the functions of theology is not only to provide "handles" but to give good reasons ("rationales"), contemporary theology has failed the pulpit and those in the pew. For if one is not given good theological reasons to see, understand and celebrate the connections between work, faith and idealism, what is the point of seeking after "moral integration"? The compartmentalization of life which the class members all exercised is a rational, albeit forced, choice, given their understandings of Christian faith and their work. The apparent inability of both theology and the pulpit to give good reasons for connecting the two realms creates the impression that "my church really doesn't have the least interest in whether or not I minister in my daily work" (William Diehl; Christianity and Real Life [Fortress, 1976], p. v).

If, however, faith means regarding one's life as significant under any and all conditions ("neither death nor life nor angels and principalities. . .") and one's work as a public means of expressing and reinforcing that faith, then clearly connections must be made. Further, if how we know and understand those connections is a function of a larger social context which shapes our values and behavior, then a hermeneutic is needed for understanding this larger context.

For us, this larger context is the United States. To be adequate to this situation, we need to move beyond what Deane William Ferm calls "inner history" theologies (black, feminine, liberation, work) to "outer history" theologies, derived from experiences we all share (Contemporary American Theologies [Seabury, 1981], p. 135). The distinction is tricky (in a sense, all theology is based on "inner history") but it is useful. Without a focus on the "outer" context, we will not be able to make any "connections" between work and faith, and "moral integration" will remain a theological vacuity.

Developing this focus will not be easy. American theologians seem to persist in looking outside American experience for their theological agendas and models. During my seminary years, Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Brunner et al. determined not only the game but the rules. Bonhoeffer, after his brief visit here, admitted as much: The only "real" theologians, he said, are those who speak in a "reformed way" -- that is, those who follow the theological agendas, methods and constructs of "the Churches of the Reformation," our European mentors (No Rusty Swords [Harper, 1967], p. 117).

On Bonhoeffer's own terms, however, continental Reformed theology fails to provide a hermeneutic adequate for the American experience. First, since Bonhoeffer sees the "immense multiplicity of Christian communities" in America as a "fact of disintegration," a fact based on the notion that "none can dare to make for itself the claim of being the one church" (p. 97), it would seem that to be "reformed" is to reject the pluralistic consequences of religious freedom in the name of institutional uniformity and creedal purity. Second. his model cannot accommodate itself to one of our culture's fundamental assumptions concerning moral agency:

Since the time of Occam nominalism has been deeply rooted in Anglo-Saxon thought. For in nominalism the individual precedes the whole, in that the individual and empirically given thing is what is real, while totality is only a concept, a nomen. The individual stands at the beginning, unity at the end. On the other hand, the German-continental philosophical tradition is governed by realism and idealism, for which the whole is the original reality and the individual entity only a derivative [p. 97].

And finally, when the political consequences of these continental models are spelled out, they seem to reiterate Tillich's comment that socialism "is the only possible economic system from the Christian point of view" (quoted in J. Philip Wogaman, The Great Economic Debate [Westminster, 1977], p. 133).

Today it is not German reformed theology but Latin American liberation theology that seems to set the theological agenda in the U.S., as if the experience of a particular class of people under particular political conditions can somehow provide a normative interpretation of our situation. Having found a hermeneutic in Latin America, American theologians can measure our experience against it. The "character" of American life is exposed as being "really" composed of alienation, greed, avarice, inequality, creedal chaos, exploitation, injustice, selfishness, economic (if not nakedly political) colonialism. That there are manifestations of evil in American economic, political and religious life is obvious. What is questionable is whether language appropriate in one context can be uncritically transferred into another without the language itself becoming bastardized (consider the use of the word "oppression"). Liberation theology is obviously important for the people of Latin America, but its major motifs clearly are not appropriate to North American experience. Who we are and have been is the result of entirely different circumstances, and our unique experience warrants an equally unique approach to theology.

If we are to deal adequately with the experience we share as Americans, we need to develop what David Tracy calls a "hermeneutic of retrieval" by which the moral foundations of American experience can be theologically understood (The Analogical Imagination [Crossroad, 1981]). In this manner good reasons can be developed for finding the connections between one's work and faith.

As a prolegomenon to such an effort, we need to discover biblical, theological and ethical constructs appropriate to the moral experience that has formed us as Americans. At least four realities of the public life we all share require theological reflection: first, our willingness and ability to live with contradictions; second, the reality of institutionalized disharmony; third, the belief that lived truth is a function of debate; and fourth, the belief that consensus is only occasional, serial and episodic, and is the basis for subsequent disagreement.

Living with contradictions. Consider these contrasting values:

Equality/Liberty
Planning/Individual interest
Minority rights/Majority rights
Power/Citizenship
Individualism/Constitutionalism
Universal Religious Claims/Religious Freedom
Higher Law/Popular Sovereignty
Leadership/Participation
Individualism/Democracy
Efficiency/Autonomy
Conformity/Freedom
Federalism/Centralization
Democracy/Meritocracy
Representation/Participation

Clearly, one cannot logically hold any of these pairs together and act on both values at the same time. If we were logical, at worst we would dissolve one term into another (equality into liberty, e.g.) or, at best, seek some accommodation between the two (e.g., equality with these reservations and liberty with those). But this we refuse to do. "We have tended instead to hold the two ideas in suspension and have largely ignored the logical difficulties inherent in such doublethink" (Robert G. McCloskey, "The American Ideology," in The Continuing Crisis in American Politics, edited by Marian D. Irish [Prentice-Hall, 1963], p. 14). Alasdair Maclntyre is correct: our moral arguments are "interminable" (After Virtue [University of Notre Dame Press, 1984], p. 6). Such is to be expected when discussion begins with contradictions.


Viewed 7840 times.