Is Our Public Square Naked?

by Richard Magnus


Is our public square naked? If naked, with what ‘fig leaves’ do we clothe the nakedness? What is the Christian answer to this issue? Is Christianity a civilisational religion? What are the choices: a theocratic public square or a theonomous one, within the context of an heteronomous culture.



The public square is an ideological space, a marketplace of ideas, values and social and political policies. The Christian response is the biblical narrative to life, an overarching story by which all the particulars of the public square can be interpreted and is a centre to hold all things together.

We have chosen a social and political doctrine and practice that excludesReligion, religiously grounded values or any notion of transcendence from the conduct of public business. Our public square is avowedly secular.

Social analyst Os Guinness defines secularization as the “process by which religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations have lost their social significance.” A secularised world-view influences moral direction. Peter Berger, the renowned sociologist and director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University, defines secularization as the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.” He elaborates:

“When we speak of society and institutions in modern western history, of course, secularization manifests itself in the evacuation by the Christian churches of areas previously under their control or influence as in the separation of Church and State … or in the emancipation of education from ecclesiastical authority. When we speak of culture and symbols, however, we imply that secularization is more than a social-structural process. It affects the totality of cultural life and of ideation, and may be observed in the decline of religious content in the arts, in philosophy, in literature and, most important of all, in the rise of science as an autonomous, thoroughly secular perspective on the world.”


It is little wonder that wisdom cries out prophetically in the public squares. In Proverbs 1: 20-22, 29-33:

“20 Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares; [ notice the plural]

21 She cries out in the chief place of concourse, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech:

22 How long, will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?

29 Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the LORD,

30 since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke,

31they will eat of the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes,

32For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them;

33but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.”

The public square which was used to be the forum for the ethical and moral discourse of the entire community, is now empty and naked because there is no meaningful discussion taking place there. We do not need to use first-order theological language in the public square, but we must appeal to the

transcendence, as we see in this Proverbs passage. Wisdom is intimately linked to Yahwistic’s life and being. Wisdom is presented with as much more that Yahwistic “common sense”. Wisdom is a differentiated agent of force for life in the world.


Our safety and harm has been shakened to its core with recent events.

On 23 April 1995, a Japanese news crew filmed a murder in Tokyo. A young Korean assassin, hired by Japanese mobsters, murdered Murai Hideo,head of the science and technology division of a Buddhist-inspired movement centred on the teachings of the blind acupuncturist Asahara Shoko. Hideo had masterminded the atrocious sarin attacks which killed 12 and injured 4000 on the Tokyo subway in March 1995.

It seems quite bizarre that, in an environment characterised by universal education and freedom of choice, people can commit themselves to religious movements that perpetrate shocking acts at the command of charismatic leaders. What motivates these people, often educated middle-class to adopt obscure beliefs, to follow blindly even if it means losing their own lives or liberty and depriving others of them?

Take again the fatwa against Salam Rushdie, murdering in the name of peace, the events of September 11, the Madrid and the London bombings, the Russian massacre of school children, the persecutions of Christians, the attempted destruction of airlines, the JI arrests here, new-age religion, in vitro fertilization, the tsunamis, earthquakes, SARS, liberal social values, and liberal Christian practices. They hit us at a time when intellectual and moral responses to these tragic events and other social and ideological developments are weaker, more controversial and more confused than they have been for centuries.

To crystallize, the issue is this event: on that September 11, a journalist had asked Os Guinness on national public radio: “I saw a woman running through the acrid smoke crying, God are you here?” What should I have said to her?” That question is echoed in various cognate situations. The point of life for the questioner is the search for the point of life. The churches suddenly became full. People came expectantly, but somehow there was nothing there.

That moment was squandered. It is undeniable that the numbers of people attending churches in Europe and the United States are generally falling. Nevertheless, it is also very clear that beliefs and religious activities are still thriving, often by assuming new forms – both dangerous and benign. These beliefs and activities are emerging and adapting in ways that are often felt to be relevant to the modern public square. From peculiar cults to New Age spirituality to fundamentalism, it is very clear that religious views remain a very active force. However much the public squares may change outwardly, the Divine Idea just won’t die.

Needless to say, these issues and questions are far older and have far wider application. These events lay naked in our public square the two deepest issues of human life: the raw evil of the inhumanity of humanity and the agonizing place and reality of God. These two life issues raise piercing questions which are placed before us. Darkness came into the light and those in the light had not understood how to respond to it. Is it moral arrogance and a false assumption that one can recreate the world in one’s image? Should Christians assume the task of forming the ethos of modern societies? Philip Yancey however observes ( 5 Feb 2001, Christianity Today): “ As I travel, I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God “moving” geographically from the Middle East, to Europe to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where He’s wanted.”


Let me now continue our conversation with two fables: both educative to the point of life. The first is Hans Christian Henderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and the other is Frederich Nietzche’s “The Madman.” The latter impacts the public square of ideas; while the former concerns a fundamental value or “wisdom” in an ordinary public square. In both fables are lone voices, one of truth, one of deception and lies. Which is our voice?

I would, for our own discussion, re-title it “The Emperor’s New Clothes for the Public Square”. There lived an emperor, whose ambition was to dress his public square well. The great city where he resided was vibrant; every day many talents from all parts of the globe arrived. One day two purported experts came to this city. They made people believe that they were experts in dressing up the public square, and declared they could think of the finest plans for the city. They said their ideas were so unique and ahead of its time with an almost eternal quality that it was only discernible to those who was fit for his office.

The emperor thought it would be wonderful to have a city which last for generations and also be able to find out which men in the city were unfit for their places. So he gave a large sum of money to the swindlers, in advance, that they should set to work without any loss of time.

The emperor wanted to know how they are getting on and sent two persons- his honest old and intelligent minister, and later, an honest courtier to check on what the experts were doing. Both could see nothing, for there was nothing to be seen. Yet, both told the emperor that the plans were excellent. Everybody in the whole town talked about the plans.

The big day came. The emperor and all his statesmen then came to the hall. The swindlers held their arms up as if they held the models in their hands and said: “These are the plans! They must be seen with a discerning eye. “Indeed!” said all the statesmen; but they could not see anything, for there was nothing to be seen.

The public officials who were to carry the models, stretched their hands to the ground as if they lifted up a model, and pretended to hold something in their hands; they did not like people to know that they could not see anything.

“But there is nothing on at all,” said a little voice at last. Listen to that truthful voice,” said another, and one whispered to the other what the little voice had said. “But he has no plans at all,” cried the whole people at last.

That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought that he must bear up to the end. And the Public Officers walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the models which did not exist.

Man’s knowledge is incomplete. It is not that his science is unimportant – indeed, it is the most essential tool he has. But he must remember that it is limited. To forget those limits is dangerous. Science will never quite explain his personal existence. His search for the point of life must continue.

That point of life for Frederich Nietzshe was expressed in The Madman and resonated with Hitler, Stalin and Pol- pot; and bequeathed the polarization of the death of God movement. The idea of God’s nonexistence now either explicity or implicity permeating almost every major discipline in the public square and in secular universities. Several universities envisioned as missionary schools are now testimonies of atheism.

A madman, who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the public square and cried incessantly, “I’m looking for God!” Many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there and laughed at him. They asked whether God got lost or is he hiding or has he gone on a voyage? The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Whither is God?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him –you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? God is dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all

murderers, comfort ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Here the madman fell silent and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke and went out.

On the same day, the madman entered diverse churches and there sang his requiem. Led out and called to account, he is said to have replied each time, “What are these churches not if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?

Nietszhe made popular the death of God movement, which shifted the ideological public square everywhere. More than we like to admit, we are, by and large, listeners and bystanders now. We often know enough to know that is better not to know more.

For instance, we know that far more people in the world suffer today under the heel of grinding evils that are numbingly ordinary and will never make the newspaper headlines or the television news. Few of us, for example, give serious thought to the millions of young girls forced into prostitution, to the women abused by their husbands, or to the millions of families kept for a lifetime in bonded slavery.

We must be observant of God’s sovereign intervention in history.

When tsunamis and earthquakes and September 11 struck, and the list of events goes on, the whole world was hearing with their eyes. Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda, beset by atrocities said: “Do not be afraid. I see God’s hand in this.”


Each of us is responsible for our part. In the global public square, we are our neighbour’s neighbour. In a bureaucracy, we are never helpless pawns but responsible agents who will have to give an account of ourselves to one who is higher than any boss. As Soren Kierkegaard wrote, the significance of the Christian faith for society “ought to be to do everything to make every man eternally responsible for every hour he lives, even for the least thing he undertakes.”

Those with more – wider social influence, higher intelligence, better health, fatter bank balances, stronger friendships and family ties or greater energy – are responsible for more. To be sure we are only responsible for what is ours to give and say and do. None of us is without responsibility.

There was one voice , a one-man dissident whose works from the heart of Gulag helped blew away the might of Soviet tyranny. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Laureate knew a truth both deeper and more liberating. In the Gulag Archipelago he writes: “It was only when I lay there on the rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

We must acknowledge the evil in our own hearts and take full responsibility for the evil we find there and its consequences; a response which is characteristic realism and responsibility.

In his 1970 Nobel address, Alexander Solzhenitsyn pins this view as follows:

“Let us not forget that violence does not and cannot flourish by itself; it is inevitably intertwined with lying…Whoever has announced violence as his method must inevitably choose lies as his principle…The simple act of an ordinary courageous man is not to take part, not to support lies! Let the lie come into the world, even dominate the world, but not through me.”

Albert Einsten wrote: “The world is too dangerous to live in – not because of people who do evil, but because of people who sit and let it happen.” We may well be a minority. In this regard Paul is inspirational. Acts 17: 16-32 tells the story: “…he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the [public square] day by day with those who happened to be there…Paul…said: ”Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you”…Some of them sneered, but others said “We want to hear you again on this subject” …A few…believed.”

How naked is the public square? When the Times of London once asked several of Britain’s leading intellectuals what they thought was the problem with the world, the celebrated Catholic journalist G.K. Chesterton sent back a postcard response : “I am.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in the social context he was in : “Be nice to whites, they need you to rediscover their humanity.”


Against the secular public square is the following narratives. Gen 3: 7-10 brings our attention to a foundational nakedness in the public square of humanity:

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed [ideologies] together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD GOD…in the [the public square of humankind], and they hid from the LORD GOD among [their worldview].

But the LORD GOD called to [every man] “Where are you?” [The man] answered “I heard you in [my public square] and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked?” Have you eaten from the [secular] tree [of knowledge]?

In another public square of history two pivotal events took place. There was a different darkness and a distinct nakedness: of evident sin, and evil; overcome by a naked man nailed crucified for all humanity: “darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. Jesus cried out in a loud voice “Eloi. Eloi, lama sabachthani?” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and later “It is finished.”

Another critical event- before Jesus was taken out to heaven, He left us with an inheritance: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the world.” (Matt 28:18)

We can recover the mythos of Jesus’ kenosis; because of his emptying, God had raised Him up. In our public square “ to find one’ self, one must lose one’s self. Whether we look backward or forward in history, we can see that time and again, Christianity demonstrates a breathtaking ability to transform weakness into strength. The nakedness of the public square is the nakedness of our heart. In the beginning was not a public square, much less a secular or a sectarian one. In the beginning was the WORD who pitched his tent in the public square. “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev 7:9).

This talk was given at the GRADUATES' CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP

Thanksgiving Dinner on 15 September 2006 at The Pines