I can’t say I know many Christians who treat their faith as a private thing (although I’m told it used to be a pretty common thing to do). But I know a few Secularists who’d be quite happy if it was!
And I can understand why. My Secularist friends are alert to the danger of anything more than a private faith tripping over into imposing its narrow, partisan vision upon others.
Yet I’ve been battered again and again by the impossibility of viewing the Jesus who meets us in the Sermon on the Mount as simply an enlightened teacher dispensing a recipe for a personal, private piety that makes next to no visible splash in the world.
Jesus’ programmatic statement about being salt and light gets the ball rolling on this. But for me it’s in the Lord’s Prayer that this leaps off the page (Matthew 6.9-13):
‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
Now, Jesus provides this framework for prayer in the midst of emphasising the secretness or hiddenness of true piety — although his point is to counteract our tendency to put on a show, trying to impress God and each other by how religious we look. Such ‘religion’ orbits around me.
In contrast, religion that orbits around the Father — putting his goodness, glory, kingdom and will at its heart — knows it doesn’t have to impress God. It trusts that magnifying him won’t mean that we miss out on what we need. For the God whose presence we thirst for, is the one who can be relied upon to sustain, forgive, protect, and rescue us.
So here at the heart of the prayer that’s come to characterise Christian faith, we see three things:
- Christianity is an inescapably public faith — it enthrones a longing to see the beauty and order that characterises heaven become a reality here on earth.
- Christianity is about human flourishing and the good of all, not a narrow vision for the power and dominance of one particular group.
- Christianity isn’t about imposing this on others, but prayerfully trusting and bearing witness to the God it calls upon to act decisively in this way.
And that is anything but a private faith!