Three weeks, three topical sermons about things I think we are all interested in. This week I’m talking about Bible in Schools, except that I won’t actually talk about Bible in Schools but the reason for the present attack on Bible in Schools.
I’ve been reading a book by Timothy Keller ‘The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism’ (2008) and I thought we could talk about three hot topics drawn from his book. Is there only one true religion? How can a good God allow suffering? And what about hell, does anyone believe in that anymore?
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). There is no way to avoid that this is an exclusive statement. Jesus teaches a way - a pattern for living; he teaches a truth – a way of understanding reality; and he claims that He is the life - life in this world and the only way to life in the next world. These are big claims. One thousand years ago people were used to religions making these sorts of claims. But now?
John begins his gospel claiming that Jesus is the one and only son of God, and that he was involved in forming the universe (John 1:1). Jesus himself claimed the power to forgive sins, something only God can do (Luke 7:48). Jesus claimed that he would one day judge the nations (Matthew 25:31) and in John 10:33 when he was accused of claiming to be God, he agreed with that and said “I am God’s Son” (vs 36). Jesus demonstrated through his miracles of turning water into wine, multiplying bread, and walking on water that he had power over nature. He demonstrated his moral authority - in the Sermon on the Mount he set out a matchless morality. And he proved that his death was the ultimate sacrifice giving him the power to dispense eternal life when he himself rose again from the dead. Jesus claims to understand the way the world is made, the way that we should live, and to have the power to give us eternal life. These claims clash with the claims of all other major religions and secular atheism. We must choose to believe Jesus, or someone else.
Are you a bit uncomfortable with how strongly I’ve put that? Good, because the truth is being blunted by two false teachings in our community. In Aotearoa we are being profoundly influenced by two ‘spirits of our age’. And today I’m going to unmask these two spiritual lies.
The first is Relativism – the notion that we are all products of our time and place and what is true for you, may not be true for me, that we should each be the arbiters of our own truth. This is actually a very slippery idea that undermines God’s truth.
The second is Secularism – the notion we should keep religion out of the public square and public policy, that when we are talking about society and government the religions should keep quiet, and we should just try to work with the ‘ideas’ that we should all agree on. The arrogance of saying that faith belongs only in the private sphere, as if secularism wasn’t a set of beliefs itself.
Relativism: You’ll often hear the claim that ‘all truth is relative’, that we all have part of the truth. Or we will hear that ‘we no longer trust meta-narratives that explain everything’. Or perhaps the clearest expression you might hear is‘there is no universal truth’; no truth that is the same for everyone, everywhere at all times. In other words, no truth is absolute. We all live in different places and times and what was true for you is not necessarily true for me today. The relativist student of religion will often describe the major religions using a metaphor of six blind men examining an elephant - they all see a different aspect of the truth and base their beliefs on that.
Relativism says ‘there is no universal truth’ or that all religions see a different aspect of God, and are essentially the same. The flaw with relativism is very simple. The relativists elevate themselves above all of us and claim about their view the same sort of claims that they are rejecting. All truth is relative (except the truth that all truth is relative). There’s a lovely phrase for that – self-referentially incoherent – or in other words nonsense.
The claim that ‘all truth is relative’ is itself an absolute claim, and makes nonsense of itself. We are left then with the question, ‘Who’s teaching will we base our search for truth on; Descarte, Gautama, Heidegger, Confucius, Rorty, Dawkins, Aristotle or Jesus Christ?’ The claim that ‘all religions have a part of the truth’ is another absolute claim. It is another ideology based on the combination of several religions. In fact, it’s the idea behind the Bahai faith. In the metaphor above, we have to ask - who says there’s an elephant? Who is pretending to be this ultra-wise, all seeing, independent observer, who scans other religions and judges them?
Traditional faiths are generally much easier to deal with, and much less slippery. When you are talking to a Muslim we can have a lot in common on the surface, and can work together in some areas; but at the most basic level we agree that either we are right or they are right. Either Jesus was the son of God or he was the prophet Isa. With a Jew, Jesus is the long awaited Messiah or he’s not. The conversation is more complicated with a Hindu or a Buddhist but we recognise that we have very different and irreconcilable worldviews.
The one thing that is very clear with a relativist approach to religion is that the absolute claim that there is no absolute truth is absolute nonsense.
Secularism: The claim that we shouldn’t bring religion into politics or into the public square, because it closes down discussion. The claim we shouldn’t consider morality when devising a welfare system, or talk about God when considering abortion or euthanasia. The secularist asks. ‘Why should one religion be favoured over another? Aren’t we a secular state and why are we allowing the bible to be taught in schools?’ The Americans have enshrined this principle in what they regard as the separation of church and state. You will often hear about New Zealand being a secular country and the Education Act 1877 guaranteeing a secular, free and compulsory education. Shouldn’t we churches just keep out of the way?
Have you ever heard that? Just think for a moment how you might answer that.
Well first of all, the word ‘secular’ has two meanings. I’m going to use Rowan Williams definition (Williams, R. 2012. p27.) Secular can mean ‘programmatic’ secularism, which is a worldview without God and where human beings are the accidental product of evolution and we get to make our own truth and meaning. You might think of these as evangelistic secularists, aggressively spreading their agenda. And they are trying to privilege themselves and their ideology by twisting the word ‘secular'.
The second definition of secular is ‘procedural’ secularismwhere secular doesn’t privilege any religion or ideology but tries to be neutral and fair. This is secularism in India, where a secular state tries to referee between the different religions.
England was and is an Anglican country where the Church of England has precedence. In New Zealand we didn’t want an established church where one denomination dominates, so New Zealand was secular – but that’s with that second and older meaning of the word secular. There is a lobby group in New Zealand trying to twist the meaning of the word, to give themselves power. In the 1877 Education Act the word ‘secular’ did not mean an atheistic education. What it meant was neutral education, not a Baptist education, nor a Presbyterian education, nor a Catholic education. In the Act, secular meant non-sectarian. The second problem with secularism is that for many people today, secular acts like a religion. It is an ideology with all the hallmarks of a religion, as it aims to describe truth and prescribe values. We are faced with the question, ‘When we make moral judgements, what do we base them on?’
The following slogan is an oxymoron: ‘Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right.’
This is nonsense because religion and secularism are both trying to answer the question, ‘What is right?’ Does an unborn child have rights? Should a woman have the right to control what is going on in her own body? Do I have the right to defend myself? Do I have the right to private property? If my land was unjustly taken five generations ago what right do I have to its return? Why should humans be privileged above other animals? Why not eradicate people with a low IQ? What beliefs do we base our ethics on? Some secularists like to talk about pragmatic laws that “work for us”. But what does work mean?
Timothy Keller gives a good example. “Let’s take marriage and divorce laws as a case study. … Your views of what is right will be based on what you think the purpose of marriage is. If you think marriage is mainly for the rearing of children to benefit the whole of society, then you will make divorce very difficult. If you think the purpose of marriage is more for the happiness and emotional fulfilment of the adults who enter it, you will make divorce much easier. The former view is grounded in a view of human flourishing and well being in which the family is more important than the individual as is seen in the moral tradition of Confucianism, Judaism and Christianity. The latter approach is a more individualistic view of human nature based on the Enlightenment’s understanding of things. The divorce laws you think will ‘work’ will depend on prior beliefs about what it means to be happy and fully human. There is no objective, universal consensus about what that is.” (Keller, 17-18).
However, both relativism and secularism can redeemed within a Christian worldview.
Relativism can be reframed as ‘critical realism’. There is a God and he has a moral purpose in the universe but we, as broken human beings, aren’t perfect arbiters of it. So let’s be cautious about how we make claims. Jesus can say “I am the way the truth and the life” but let’s not say that our church has a monopoly on the truth. As a Presbyterian, I believe we should be always going back to the bible as our plumb line, to check what we believe. And I believe that when we read the bible with an open heart, God can correct us. So my theology is always tentative; the bible is authoritative, and the person and work of Jesus is essential. We all know that Christians supported the horrific industry of slavery, BUT within biblical faith there was more than enough material for those who regularly read the bible and reflected upon it to be brought around. The bible makes Christianity self-corrective. So for Christians, relativism can remind us that while Jesus is the truth, as imperfect saints we shouldn’t claim to perfectly understand his truth. One of the most fruitful things we can do is listen to people of other religions as they study Jesus, because they can see things about Jesus that we miss.
Secularism can be redeemed as well. Procedural secularism, as it is understood in India, is a biblical value. Jesus gives us freedom to reject him as well as to receive him. You see, Jesus assumes a mixed religious background. In the Sermon on the Mount he talks about non Christians seeing the good deeds that the believers do and praising God (Matthew 5:16). Peter picks this up in 1 Peter 2:12 “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of wrong doing, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits.” Jesus never speaks of forced conversion (unlike Islam and unlike many atheists). Jesus desires to preserve the right to choose. This idea of procedural secularism is very close to the impartiality of God. God is fair and just and good. 1 Peter 1:17 “If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth.” Roman 2:11“For there is no partiality with God.” For Christians, a secular state is no problem as long as it is procedural secularism.
In John 14:7 Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the father except through me.” I just want to finish with this idea. There is only one way to God - that is through Jesus. But I believe that Jesus comes to us in many ways. I don’t mean through other religions, but I do mean despite other religions. I believe that someone can be living as a Buddhist but actually following Christ without fully recognising him. I don’t mean this at a surface level, and I don’t mean salvation by works. But I do believe that Christ comes to everyone, and invites us to follow him. I believe that the church is the visible expression of this, but Jesus is not limited to the church. I do not believe the old Catholic doctrine ‘extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ a Latin phrase which translates ‘outside the (Roman Catholic) church there is no salvation’. That was just about power and control, more Roman than Christian. You hear sometimes of people in other cultures saying when they come to Christ, “I have been following him all my life. I did not know his name.” When I see someone living in a way that reflects the values and love of Jesus, when I see the signature of Jesus on someone’s life, I suspect Jesus is at work in that person whether they have yet named him or not. Just like Peter recognised in Cornelius (Acts 10). And our job is to welcome them into God’s whanau. Amen.
Kellor, T. 2008. The Reason for God, Belief in an age of scepticism. London. Hodder.
Williams, R. 2012. Faith in the Public Square. London. Bloomsbury.