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 This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Brownsberger addresses the compartmentalization between faith and works in American churches, and suggests that if we are to morally integrate the two, theologians need to develop a hermeneutic that understands the moral foundations of American experience and incorporates contradictions, institutionalized disharmony, and ongoing debate that only occasionally and episodically reaches consensus.

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


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:


Planning/Individual interest

Minority rights/Majority rights



Universal Religious Claims/Religious Freedom

Higher Law/Popular Sovereignty








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.