July 22, 1999
A Public Religion Snapshot
-- Martin E. Marty
The concept of public religion can seem abstract, remote, ethereal, and hard to grasp. However anyone who monitors its appearances, as we do, knows that public religion seen up close is concrete, material, and graspable. It appears when humans with names and personalities undertake projects that make differences, for better or for worse, in the human city.
In today's "Sightings," a snapshot illustrates the larger theme. While we highlight the highlighting done by the July 7 CHICAGO TRIBUNE, no doubt similar features are available in Philadelphia or Butte, Detroit, or Dover. In the profile "Woman of Vision: Bliss Browne Making a Difference with Imagine Chicago," Joni H. Blackman writes that "Bliss Browne had managed to be a debutante, the creator of an interracial Head Start program in Winnetka, a member of the first class of women graduating from Yale, one of the first group of women to be ordained as Episcopal priests, a corporate banker and a mother of three. So when she abruptly quit her job of 16 years and created a non-profit institution called Imagine Chicago, it was likely to be a pioneering adventure. And it has been."
Blackman summarizes Imagine Chicago as using "various programs to encourage individuals and organizations to focus on how they can make a difference in Chicago." She also notes the ways in which Browne as a leader, faithful in a particular religious tradition, serves the pluralist city and uses her theology. Examples:
"It was clear to me as a priest that God's image for the city of Chicago included everyone having a place at the table." While she obviously does not only work with Trinitarian believers, or believers at all, "she kept thinking of the Holy Trinity as the recycling symbol. 'This to me was a lively image of a city economy in which nothing was wasted, like in God's economy. How do we make the city economy reflect God's own imagination for the city? It was a vision." And it prompts one to ask, who says that belief, symbol, and even doctrine are irrelevant or impractical?
Public religion in the concrete: "To me, cities are a spiritual project," says Browne. "They echo creation, they are a living inventory of our power to imagine and create, and they are an inventory of human possibilities." And all the people said, Amen, and Hallelujah.