Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Demise of the Public Square. . .

Richard John Neuhaus, of sainted memory, often spoke of the public square as the great meeting place of people, ideas, politics, and values.  It was the primary location of the public conversation in which we engage one another for the good of all.  He also spoke prophetically of the "Catholic Moment" in which the Roman Catholic Church was poised to enter and have great impact upon that public conversation.  You can read him in his own words.  But it occurs to me that the public square has become more a thing of romance, myth, and memory and less a reality in our fractured world.

With the advent and power of political correctness, speech, ideas, and even access to the conversation has become strictly limited.  What we can say and how we say it are no longer freely flowing from the sources but more and more narrowed by the litmus test of the accepted language and showing the proper respect to the deities who govern what can and cannot be said.

With the introduction and expansion of the social media, the conversation has become a multitude of conversations which are not public in the old sense of that term but private -- access is limited to friends and comments read more of likes and dislikes than the free exchange of ideas and values.  This conversation is also somewhat trivial in its content and parochial in its extent.

With the mobility of a people on the move from location to location and whose home time is more a retreat away from people than the welcome place of friends, family, and neighbors, the public conversation is increasingly anonymous and less face to face than mediated.  We do not know who our neighbors are, we do not talk to them or with them, and so the places where this public exchange may take place are fewer and fewer.

Pastor Peter Speckhard, I believe a nephew of Fr. Neuhaus, has illustrated this lack of a public square by directing us to what has, for all intents and purposes, become the new American meeting place.
I have nothing against Walmart. In fact, I find it to be the only place here in Green Bay where I might truly bump into anyone. There are no (or very few) restaurants, stores, clubs, or even public parks where the mayor, a Packer player, a recently released prisoner, an illegal immigrant, a soccer mom, etc. might all be in the same room on the same day. Except Walmart (and perhaps McDonald’s). The cultured despisers of these places despise the only things that unify our culture. Walmart is the secular equivalent of a large Catholic parish.

His point is well taken.  We have fewer and fewer public meeting places where folks of all kinds and from all sorts of perspectives can meet together as one.  As much as I dislike Wal-Mart as an institution, he is exactly right.  Like him, I too run into people of all ages and stations, members and non-members, co-workers and neighbors, every Sunday folk and the absent brethren -- they are all at Wal-Mart.  Perhaps the genius of Sam Walton was less in the retail end of things than judging the approaching American future and capitalizing upon the need to have a public meeting place where everyone is welcome, where there is something for everyone, and where the public conversation can begin again.  Because of Pastor Speckhard's words I find myself having to grudgingly admit that Wal-Mart may have purpose and use beyond its retail identity.

I believe that this may also be one of the things that growing churches have made their focus -- a public meeting house where any and all find welcome and a place.  While this is not the primary intent of the Church, who could deny that this is one of the fruits of the community established by the Spirit where the Word and Meal are central focus and bind the scattered who gather at His call?  The fellowship hall cannot be a substitute for the community and fellowship of the Spirit working through Word and Sacrament, but it is surely one of the fruits of this community and fellowship taken seriously.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters,

Your article was a beautiful summary explaining why the non-denominational churches have been thriving. Too bad community trumps doctrine in those churches. Where else can community be recreated, but in a church?

What will members of non-denom churches do when they realize that community alone is "not enough" and they start to complain?


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