Inspired by Secret Faith in the Public Square by Jonathan Malesic
When something is made explicit, it can become a currency, but what is never made explicit isn’t known.
Money isn’t the only currency: fame, popularity, connections, beliefs, affiliations — humans can use much as a means to what they want. As Louis Dumont argued it was human nature to create hierarchies, it also seems to be in our nature to create “currencies” (to turn x into something that can be used in exchange for y). Money is paper on a desert island, inefficient material for fires, but power in America. Though perhaps “value” is more individual, currency is necessarily a “social contract,” for I can only use x in exchange for y if the person with y agrees that x is worth y (which suggests that there is something inherently “explicit” about currency, for only the explicit can be socially acknowledged, which suggests that what is “explicit” is in the condition to possibly be turned into currency). Where there is currency, there is society, which suggests that where there are currencies, there can also be social pressures to create and use currencies, perhaps for noble ends, though perhaps at too high a cost.
In his wonderful book, Secret Faith in the Public Square, Jonathan Malesic argues that ‘[r]eligious identity has long been a form of currency in American society.’¹ Americans have for centuries used their religious affiliations to help them access political office — ‘displaying a Christian identity is thought to win politicians votes’ — to earn communal support and prop up initiatives.² For Malesic, Christianity has lost a lot by becoming “a form of currency,” and warns that a ‘visible Christianity […] is bad for Christianity.’³
Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity
In this groundbreaking and provocative book, Jonathan Malesic argues that the best way for Christians to be caretakers…
‘Christian identity has become a brand’ in America, consequence of people displaying their Christianity for individual gain, noble ends, and what have you, but as I would argue, so is the risk for “displaying” virtually anything, rather it be support for “saving America,” social justice, beliefs, artistic passions, identity, love of family, and so on.⁴ This isn’t to say I disagree with Malesic, but to suggest that his thinking could be applied on a wider scale. Also, this doesn’t mean display is “bad,” but it is to say we should be cautious.
To display is to risk “currenization,” a term coined in this paper to mean “the making of an entity, belief, etc. into a currency.” For Malesic, a Christianity constantly on display is one that ‘stands to lose its distinctive self-conception and, ultimately, the force of its message,’ not only because its message becomes overheard and loses its impact, but also because inevitably people feel pressured to express their Christianity not for the sake of the Gospel, but for the sake of showing that they are part of the “in crowd” too, that they are someone you can vote for, and other agendas beyond Christ’s mission.⁵ This is the case for many things: we quickly salute the American flag because we want the people around us to think we are patriotic, display our position against injustice to be part of a crowd we want to accept us, and so on. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be patriotic or shouldn’t oppose injustice, only that we must constantly check our motives. The temptation to currenize is always with us, and when we give into that temptation, we risk turning patriotism into thoughtless allegiance, weakening the message of social justice, and the like.
Malesic argues that Christians have long been tempted to ‘overidentify.’⁶ In line with Christian theology, Malesic argues that Christians are self-interested and sinful, and that ‘[t]he human project of Christendom deserves suspicion. Theologians know how easy it is to deceive oneself about one’s true motivation for any apparently good action.’⁷ Malesic argues that his position isn’t cynical but a “justified skepticism” according to Christian theology itself: as Christians argue theology compels them to exhibit their beliefs, Malesic argues theology should likewise compel them to be suspicious of religious displays, striking a dialectical balance. Malesic’s views and “a hermeneutic of suspicion” are intrinsic to Christianity not extrinsic, suggesting that Christianity will suffer if it doesn’t ask questions, such as: ‘What neuroses does believing spare a person from having to confront? […] ‘[Is it the case that] both the church and democracy need Christians to make a highly public witness to the faith in their public lives[?]’⁸ And so on — though also dangerous, where suspicion is totally lacking, we will lack mechanisms of “checking and balancing” tendencies to use x, y, and z as “currency,” and as a result they likely will undergo “currenization” without anyone being able stop it.
‘The suspicious interpreter acknowledges that layers of rationalization and repression often allow us to convince ourselves and others that we are perfectly virtuous.’⁹ We may convince ourselves that when we put our Christianity on public display we are doing it for the glory of God, when really we are doing it so people around us think we are holy; we may convince ourselves that we are marching in the streets to stop Anti-Americanism, but really we’re afraid that if we’re not seen protesting, people will be angry at us; we may believe we tell people we’re Conservative because we believe it’s best for the country, but really we don’t want to disappoint our parents. Labels can become statuses, and what starts off as a genuine effort to spread the message of Jesus quickly becomes self-interested (as is the case with ethics, patriotism, and the like). We live in a ‘time that sees piety as pointless unless it results in benefits in public life’; likewise, convictions against injustice are pointless unless there is active and visible resistance against it, love of country is empty if we don’t standing during the national anthem, and so on.¹⁰ But this creates a deep and difficult tension: when we act, we flirt with “currenization,” but if we don’t act, we may fail to stand up for our country, to oppose injustice, and the like.
In his book, Malesic focuses on the work of St. Cyril, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer to make his argument, and notes that ‘[Kierkegaard] advocate[d] withdrawing the specific things that make one a Christian from the world, lest Christians allow them to be corrupted’.¹¹ Secrecy can help protect Christianity from corruption, as it can help patriotism, social justice, etc. ‘For Cyril, the claim that the church held secrets, despite the fact that Christianity was becoming a fixture in public life, was an act of resistance against both the empire and a crowd of opportunists eager to be baptized into the church and thereby to improve their social standing.’¹² Resisting display and secrecy, Cyril understood, helped keep Christianity from becoming the Christendom which concerned Kierkegaard, and furthermore, funny enough, secrets keep people interested: secrets attract. But when attracted by secrets, people must step into the church, and thus be willing to be changed to know those secrets; when the secrets are put on display, Christians go out of the church into the world, and thus risk being changed by that world. When people must come into church to know Christianity, it is the hearers that have to open their ears; when Christianity must step out of the church, it is the messengers that have to change how they deliver their message. But if Christianity never leaves the church, how would anyone know there was a secret inside the church worth knowing? A secret that’s too secret is virtually nonexistent. Indeed — this is a conundrum, one that applies far outside religion.
For Malesic’s argument, St. Cyril is a fascinating case study. Cyril wanted to assure that people become Christian for the right reasons, but to accomplish this, he required some degree of power over those who were interested in converting, and ‘[s]ecrecy means power.’¹³ Malesic points out that ‘Cyril’s promise to give [his] candidates secrets ma[d]e them a captive audience; from there he ha[d] a measure of power over them he [could] use to form their faith and morals, giving them the ‘right’ reasons to convert.’¹⁴ Furthermore, ‘[i]n making these promises, Cyril invite[d] the candidates to trust him’; rather than going into the world begging it to listen to him and risking corruption, Cyril used secrecy to bring the world to him (and on his terms).¹⁵ Through this control, Cyril was better able to keep Christianity from becoming a means to personal gain and losing the power of its message; he was able to see to it ‘that their experience [was] all the more awe-inspiring.’¹⁶
Similar to St. Cyril, Kierkegaard was deeply concerned about ‘the God-relationship [being] reduced to social relationships.’¹⁷ Kierkegaard understood how public life threatened the life of faith: easily and swiftly, following Christ could become conflated with ‘being a good citizen and a good participant in the economy.’¹⁸ Kierkegaard was concerned that ‘faith ha[d] become so easy to acquire that it [wa]s no longer a sign of distinction,’ and Kierkegaard described “Christians” in his day as people dying of starvation because their mouths were so full of food they couldn’t eat.¹⁹ There was to Kierkegaard a widespread ‘collapse [of] the all-important distinction between the inner and the outer,’ and people were ‘treating something inward and unsayable as if it were public and sayable,’ risking faith’s ‘corruption [in] being equated with worldly ideas.’²⁰ Consequently, people were forgetting that though ‘you [could] confess your faith […] confession [wasn’t] the same as faith.’²¹
‘Christian theology holds that God saves not those who exhibit Christian identity, but those who have faith’ — that it is ‘possible to claim the identity without having the ground’ — and that exhibiting Christian identity can erode faith, considering how exhibition gradually leads to people caring more about the benefits of Christian display over Christ himself.²² Malesic claims that ‘[t]he genuine selflessness of Christian good works can be guaranteed only by Christians’ becoming unconscious of their being Christian.’²³ ‘The fruits must be deeds, not feelings,’ and secrecy and resisting expression can help Christians keep focus on Christ.²⁴ ‘Even the work of bringing new Christians into the fold […] is most authentically done secretly, to avoid the ostentatious status-seeking that is always a temptation in American public life.’²⁵ Christianity today is arguably being corrupted for political and public ends, and for Malesic ‘[i]f secrecy concerning Christian identity were normative instead, these corruptions likely would not occur.’²⁶
There is an ‘assumption [today] that Christian identity is only real if it is publicly displayed,’ and I would argue this is the case about most things: efforts against bigotry, family values, patriotism, etc.²⁷ If I don’t post on Facebook about how I had a good time at the event, it is assumed I didn’t have a good time; if I don’t publicly and explicitly support Trump, it is assumed I don’t care about America; and so on. And as this can lead to the corruption, inflation, and hallowing out of Christianity, so too is it the case that privileging expression may negatively impact most movements and initiatives. As discussed in “Sensualization” by O.G. Rose, humans have a bias toward what can be sensed and toward making the intangible tangible; this being the case, humans naturally express things more than not, and hence naturally risk currenization even when that risk isn’t necessary. Aware of this, hopefully we would become better at avoiding unnecessary risk, but it’s hard to say: everyone would be responsible for their own hearts, which can be a struggle to handle.
Why is there a natural bias for display? There is growing literature regarding society’s bias for extroversion over introversion (consider Quiet by Susan Cain, for example), and perhaps one of the reasons is because expression seems to provide certainty: if a person says, “I’m Christian,” even if a lie, the person provides a sense of what he or she believes. Of course, this sense of certainty is mostly an illusion, because what it means to “be Christian” is person-relative, but if someone tells us, “I’m a Christian,” we can at least (think we can) bracket out wondering if they think like a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jainist, etc. Because there is some degree of “bracketing out” possibilities, we feel more certain about the person than had we been told nothing, but it should be noted that total certainty is impossible (though something feels better than nothing — a temptation, perhaps). In this way, expression reduces existential anxiety.
If I say, “I’m going to the movies,” this statement and the faith you must put in me about this is not as tangible as you actually seeing me stroll to the movies (and feels more like a possibility than an actuality). Yet you believing that I “like the movies” feels even less real than hearing me say, “I like to go to the movies” — there are different levels of expression and certainty. Where there is absolute silence and no action, x feels less certain than where there is speaking but no action, and even less certain than where there isn’t speaking but action about x, and even less certain than where there is speaking and action about x. Not all expressions are equal, and multiple forms of expression can be at work simultaneously. And while one person can rank speaking as “more reliable” than seeing, another may feel action is more important than words: certainty is person-relative. But regardless, there seems to be a natural desire for the certainty that some expression can provide (though that isn’t to say people cannot come to resist this temptation).
Not all expression is currenization, but the bias to “express” causes humans to have a natural tendency to risk currenization and moralize expression. Unaware of this natural bias, the likelihood people will express too much and slip into currenization is all the greater.
All ideologies have something to learn from Malesic’s thinking. Today, secrecy and concealment may help ideologies from becoming “just another option” in Pluralism; furthermore, it could be good for democracy, helping us combat tribalism. If “being Christian” is necessary for a person to win a seat in government, then Christianity has exclusive access to State power, blurring Christianity and Christendom. This can happen with any belief system when it becomes a currency, reducing beliefs to means versus ends in themselves. Not only does this result in a group having monopolistic power over the State, threatening freedom and privileging themselves unfairly, but it also risks emptying out the meaning of beliefs, just like Kierkegaard, St. Cyril, and Bonhoeffer admonished.
All worldviews and value systems can suffer “currenization,” just like Christianity arguably has in American. “Believing in equality” can become a currency, group identity, and means for political advancement, just as much as can “believing in Jesus.” If Malesic is correct, then against natural biases to express (“the tyranny of display”), those who “believe in equality” should learn like Christians to conceal their beliefs in the public square in order to protect them.²⁸ ²⁹ But as in Christianity there is pressure against concealment in favor of expression, so it is the case in nearly all belief systems, not only because humans seem to naturally favor expression and (senses of ) certainty, but also because the values of beliefs tend to make concealment “immoral” and/or “part of the problem” (“evil wins when good people do nothing” is a generality constantly hovering in the air). Christians feel as if they are disappointing God and failing to spread the Gospel if they don’t tell everyone that they are believers; those passionate about ending racism feel as if they are part of the problem if they don’t explicitly combat what they believe is evidence of racism; patriots demand that everyone stand up for the National Anthem — and all this pressure is worsened by the internet and Facebook).³⁰ Everyone feels confronted to express, meaning everyone feels pressure to risk currenization, which means everyone is at risk of emptying their beliefs.
But this brings us to a paradox: to express is to risk currenization, but to not express is to risk meaninglessness. If I believe racism is wrong but never say so, what I believe doesn’t matter much beyond my head (there are no practical consequences); I might as well believe racism is good. Where there is a lack of expression, there is little difference between “those who believe x” and “those who don’t,” and yet where there is too much expression, the power of belief in x also collapses. Additionally, where there is secrecy and a lack of transparency, doesn’t there also tend to be corruption? Can’t secrecy be used to control and manipulate just as much as can currenization? Indeed, it can.
Malesic believes that ‘Christians today, as caretakers of a tradition, have an obligation to keep their faith hidden when they live out their public lives’: it’s the only way to save the faith.³¹ Malesic’s argument is the exact opposite of what most people today think is needed: the fall of church attendance has prompted people to frantically try to be more intentional and expressive about their Christianity, which, if Malesic is correct, may further accelerate the decline of Christianity. If I am correct that Malesic’s thinking can be applied on a wider scale, so it could also be the case with social justice, patriotism, etc.: the passion to stop social injustice could cause greater expressions of efforts to end social injustice, which could negatively impact their effectiveness; the passion to stop terrorism could cause great expressions of patriotism, which could contribute to nationalism; and so on.
But to see a problem and to stay silent before it — isn’t this “The Bystander Effect,” the failure of good people to do something and let injustice prevail? So it seems, and of such we will likely be accused if we take Malesic’s advice. And indeed, if we never express or “sensualize” our beliefs, they will be meaningless — a balance must be struck. But given the social pressures to express, our natural bias to do so, and the truth that we mustn’t always stay silent, it seems improbable that the majority will strike this balance, and hence probable that many of the mistakes of history will be repeated. Perhaps awareness that a balance needs to be struck will change things, but that balance will be difficult to put into words, and even if we could, should we?
¹Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 13.
²Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 14.
³Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 24.
⁴Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 15.
⁵Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 15.
⁶Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 15.
⁷Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 20.
⁸Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 20.
⁹Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 20.
¹⁰Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 29.
¹¹Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 78.
¹²Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 40.
¹³Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 53.
¹⁴Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 60.
¹⁵Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 61.
¹⁶Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 69.
¹⁷Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 98.
¹⁸Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 77.
¹⁹Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 81.
²⁰Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 87.
²¹Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 98.
²²Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 167.
²³Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 147.
²⁴Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 153.
²⁵Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 182.
²⁶Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 207.
²⁷Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 244.
²⁸It should be noted that expression not only risks currenization, but also the “scripting” of beliefs, actions, etc. (as discussed in “Scripted” by O.G. Rose).
²⁹It could be argue that there is more imperative to conceal Christian beliefs because “the authority of God” is backing them, making them more prone to be abused, “held over” people, and so on, but behind social justice is the authoritative and moral value of “justice,” which can also function as an absolute. Likewise, behind American patriotism is the value of “freedom”; behind diversity, “identity”; behind equality, “ending hate”; and so on. Arguably behind most if not all beliefs are “absolute values,” and hence all beliefs can be abused “absolutely,” especially if not balanced with practices of concealment.
³⁰Perhaps much of our modern political woes can be tied to the over-expression of our political positions?
³¹Malesic, Jonathan. Secret Faith in the Public Square. Grand Rapids, MI. Brazos Press, 2009: 51.
For more, please visit O.G. Rose.com. Also, please subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow us on Instagram, Anchor, Facebook, and Twitter.