The William Stringfellow Project: A Private and Public Faith, Part 1
Posted on 7.09.2012

William Stringfellow published his first book--A Private and Public Faith--in 1962.

The dust jacket of my first edition of A Private and Public Faith is pictured here. The quote at the bottom reads:

The author hits hard at the manipulation of religion for personal, corporate and national self-interests; and sets forth the possibility and content of a relevant and honest witness to Christ in both private and public affairs.

The back cover of the dust jacket has a quote from Karl Barth describing Stringfellow as "the conscientious and thoughtful New York attorney who caught my attention more than any other person." As most fans of Stringfellow know, during Barth's visit to America Stringfellow and he interacted (with others) in a public discussion. Barth was so impressed with Stringfellow's questions and comments he looked at the American audience and said, "Listen to this man!"

In the Preface of A Private and Public Faith Stringfellow describes the goal of the book:

As I find it, religion in America is characteristically atheistic or agnostic. Religion has virtually nothing to do with God and has little to do with the practical lives of men and women in society. Religion seems, mainly, to have to do with religion. The churches--particularly of Protestantism--in the United States are, to a great extent, preoccupied with religion rather than with the gospel.

That, in brief, is the substance of the essays in this tract.

In the first edition the book runs 91 pages (most of Stringfellow's books are short) and is divided into fours chapters: The Folly of Religion, The Specter of Protestantism, The Simplicity of the Christian Life, and The Fear of God. In typical Stringfellow style at the start of each chapter a quote from the bible is given. In A Private and Public Faith Stringfellow works from Colossians, quoting a verse at the start of each chapter. For the four chapters we have Colossians 2.8, 2.20, 3.17, and 1.28.

In the next four posts I'll summarize and quote from each of the four chapters in A Private and Public Faith. We start with Chapter 1, The Folly of Religion.

Stringfellow begins the book with a distinction between religion and the gospel. Religion, according to Stringfellow, is mainly preoccupied with itself. But the gospel, by contrast, is preoccupied with life, every facet of life:
Christ bespeaks the care of God for everything to do with actual life, with life as it is lived by anybody and everybody day in and day out. Christ bespeaks my life: in all its detail and mistake and humor and fatigue and surprise and contradiction and freedom and ambiguity and quiet and wonder and sin and peace and vanity and variety and lust and triumph and defeat and rest and love and all the rest it is from time to time; and, cheer up, with your life, just as much, in as full intimacy, touching your whole biography, abiding every secret, with you, whoever, wherever your are, any time, any place.1

And if this is so, if Christ is involved in every aspect of life, then the gospel is going to escape the quarantine of the sanctuary and impact how we think about political arrangements and economics. This is controversial because, as Stringfellow notes: "Religion, it is insisted, is for the sanctuary, not the marketplace." But according to Stringfellow, such a belief is atheistic. True Christian belief is very much engaged with marketplaces and, thus, functions as a form of protest inviting antagonism and controversy:

So long as religion is quiet about society it upholds whatever is the prevailing status quo in society. But if one benefits, or is persuaded that he benefits, from the preservation of the status quo, then so long as religion remains aloof from society, it is not controversial. It is only when religion disrupts or threatens one's self-interest that it is condemned as controversial.

...The Christian is committed permanently to radical protest in society. The Christian is always dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs.

The problem, according to Stringfellow, is that the Christian church is not committed to this sort of radical protest. Rather, Christian churches are focused on two things: 1) Their own institutional well-being and 2) the moral piety of their members.

Regarding this latter--the focus on individual piety--Stringfellow makes an interesting critique. He argues that you can't be moral all by yourself. An individual is unable to discern, on their own, what is right from wrong. My morality can't be separated from the common lot of humanity:

...[R]eligion, too, grossly oversimplifies the reality of moral conflict in the world, including moral conflict within the private lives of individuals. Religion of this sort fails to apprehend the intense ambiguity of moral decision. This variety of religion contends that it is possible for an individual, in the sphere of his own immediate affairs, to discern what is right and wrong, and to implement a decision so informed with more or less discipline. But the truth is that the extent of any individual's insight into what is good or bad reaches only to that which is advantageous to ourselves. A person may, indeed, be able to figure out what is good, or bad, for him or his family. But that which is good for him, is bad for someone else, and, in principle, for everyone else in the world. The intensity and complexity of the moral conflict is the assertion and pursuit of each individual's own self-interest as over against that of every other person.

...It is the essence of human sin for us to boast of the power to discern what is good and what is evil, and thus be like God.

In short, religion can't be focused on piety as piety is self-interest dressed up in religion garb. Good and evil can only be discerned by looking at the whole of society.

Thus, the Christian moral witness is inherently political and economic, rather than pietistic, in nature.

1A problem with Stringfellow's early writings is his use of masculine pronouns. This can be off-putting. For all the posts in this series I follow the lead of Kellerman in editing Stringfellow's quotes to make them either gender neutral or to use feminine pronouns in a balanced way.


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