My recent work on my dissertation has taken me into unexpected territories. Last week it was a conundrum about what is private and what is public. The psychotherapists I am studying are, in some ways, at the cross roads of many of the confusing recent advances in communication technology. They wonder if they can keep the boundaries they are used to keeping. I think we are all wondering whether the cherished privileges of privacy that United States laws started codifying in the 1970’s make sense any more.
Some therapists I have met report that their clients (more than one!) have asked whether their sessions can be filmed as part of the reality TV show they are on! They have to decide whether to have a Facebook page and let their clients spy on them. They have to navigate how to work with confidentiality when divorce lawyers want evidence from their sessions. It is a new world.
People want more privacy at the same time that the society is allowing for less of it. We can hardly walk out of our homes without being documented by some unknown camera! As I personally found out this year, newspapers no longer research the truth of what they print; any letter to the editor will be printed as factual and added to the Google’s eternal repository of items that mention my name. What is private and what is public? Does anything need to stay private any more until it qualifies to be public?
As Jesus-followers, we have some interesting things to consider when we think about the public vs. private divide. When the PM Team Leaders were discussing Sunday meeting plans last Saturday we got off on an important tangent about “spirituality” versus “religion.” For many people these days, personal spirituality doesn’t have a lot to do with religion. “Religious” people still attend “rituals” of the institution that used to have the corner on the spirituality market: the church. But these days people feel more righteous having a private set of beliefs that don’t include public expression. During the meeting, I noted that the government has successfully sold people the “freedom” from every institution but itself, including church, family and tribe — but that’s another discussion.
When people worship, they are in a conundrum of sorts. Many feel that only their private experience is valid. The public add-on we perform kind of seems superfluous. They feel like they should attend the meeting out of some honor to their spiritual ancestors, but it feels kind of awkward and they avoid telling people they do it. I think they feel like they are kind of out-of-date when they worship, an uncool throwback, like a hippy or a Civil War re-enactor who is a little too into their hobby.
Like so many contributions of the modern era that are coming to their logical extreme these days, the arbitrary dichotomy between private and public is another one of those things we need to deal with for some reason, like whether we are labeled black or white, gay or straight, single or married or some other this or that which probably wouldn’t make much difference it we weren’t labeled by the nation, legalized and crammed into a niche market.
We might be better off if we let go of the technology of singularity altogether. A thought made the rounds of Facebook last week that talked about how much longer it takes restaurant patrons to eat dinner because they spend so much time alone on their phones together not paying attention to who they are with or to their waiter! When we come to worship we struggle to find a way to be together when we are so condemned to being alone. We know a little bit about private worship and our own sense of spirituality, but it doesn’t always seem to fit in to what we are doing together. We spend more time comparing and contrasting our private sense with our public experience than we do having the public experience!
I think I have more practical things to say about this. But I just wanted to offer one generality today. How about giving up the strict sense of private vs. public as an either/or and return to what most people in world history have already done and see it as a both/and? Circle of Hope has a proverb that reflects this sense of both/and: Life in Christ is one whole cloth. As we participate in and love “the world,” we bring redemption from the Kingdom of God to our society. Jesus is Lord of all, so we have repented of separating “sacred” and “secular.” Other modern dichotomies do not make much sense to us either, like private (which is where “sacred usually lives) and public (which is dominated by the secular). We are one person in relationship with the one true God. We are in that same relationship whether we are at home or at work, on the beach or on the bus. We don’t change our ways because of our context because our context is the Kingdom of God. So whether worship is private or public is not a big deal. The worship may be different in character, which is nice, but the relationship with God and his people is the same. The public is part of the private and the private is part of the public. I am with you, in Christ, when I am alone, too.
Last Saturday we had a great example of how private faith lives in public and public faith feeds the private. At our love feast we had people revealing personal, private stories about their relationships with God that led them to their communal, public baptism or their public entry into their out-of-the-closet commitment to the body of Christ formed as Circle of Hope. In an age when people long for community so much, in which they are so alone, one would think everyone would be piling in to the togetherness of covenant love. But as we heard, there were many obstacles in the way of our friends’ commitment. Like my therapist friends, we will probably face more challenges that make us wonder what is private and what is public and whether the distinctions matter. Maybe a reality show will be asking to commodify our covenant relationships when they are done with all the other stuff they broadcast (Extreme Religious Makeover?). More likely, there is going to be some habit of the heart that needs to change so we can stay out of merely private and appreciate the public, too, like when we are having dinner together, maybe.