Society’s Mistrust of Religion
Recently I read a great article in Leadership Journal. In it, John Dickson, co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity in Australia, recounts a recent TV talk show in his native country. The discussion revolved around the problem of drugs in the culture, yet one of the hosts declared:
“Let’s put this in perspective. Drugs have not killed anywhere near as many people as religion. Religion is far more damaging to society than our drug problem.”
Wow! That is some hostile view of religion — and if you have read Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris (or others) you recognize that when “religion” is portrayed as an evil influence in society, the examples given for the claim are often from Christianity. Before we write this off as merely unfair criticism from the radical fringe (or just Australians, atheists, the intelligentsia etc.), we would do well to ask how widespread this sentiment is, how it came about, and what our response as Christians (especially as EFCCers) ought to be.
First, I am going to simply state that this sentiment is more widely spread (among ordinary Canadians too) than we care to admit. I do not have space to justify this assertion – I simply urge you to conduct a little survey among your neighbours (especially those between the ages of 18-30). Our children seem to have learned to distrust those who exercise power (of all sorts) and are suspicious of people who claim to know the truth (and want others to believe and live by it). Unfortunately historical examples of crusades, inquisitions and the like don’t help Christians here.
The End of Modernism
How did this come about? To answer this, go back with me to the dark ages…20-25 years ago. In 1988-89 I was a Christian learning history and philosophy in secular universities. It was a time when Marxists ruled — at least in terms of the interpretation of history. Marxists ruled because their theory passed itself off as science – and in the “modern world” (influenced by the Enlightenment as it was) scientists were the only people who could discover truth. All other disciplines either framed their work in scientific terms (ie. historians wanted to be social scientists) or risked being viewed as merely speculators in opinion. Hence, respected historians viewed people in Marxist terms — as agents whose ideas and actions were primarily determined and/or motivated by their socio-economic status. Likewise, Feminists borrowed Marxist language and just changed the categories from economic class to gender. So for instance, historians such as Christopher Hill viewed Puritans as folks whose religious ideas were simply a function of their middle class, bourgeois economic class. They were attracted to ideas that justified their economic goals and attitudes. Then in 1989, the Berlin wall fell, followed by the entire “iron curtain”. Communism (and by implication, Marxism) was viewed as unworkable — as merely a “system” used to oppress people. Coincidently, scientists were also viewed as one more group who could use their “dogma” (truth) to oppress people and 20th century history was full of examples of how that could happen.
The Ascent of Postmodernism
And so, “postmodernism” matured in the early 1990s…in some ways this was good for us as Christians since people were open to the reality of spiritual ideas and beings. However, relativism, hostility to dogma and the elevation of a new definition of “tolerance” was ushered in and seems to be here to stay. So what should our response in the EFCC be? In a phrase:
“Unity, Charity, Jesus Christ”.
While we are still people who believe in truth, there needs to be a new humility that accompanies how we speak of and live out that truth. Our culture is inherently suspicious of those who claim to be the only ones who know truth (they fear we will impose that truth on others) and so our old style “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” apologetic often answers questions that nobody is asking or, worse yet, comes across as an arrogant desire to control the beliefs and actions of others. This is not always a fair take on Christians by our culture, but as we know, perception is 90% of reality. And so, my recommendation is this: in the same way that Jesus came to this world as the One “full of grace and truth”, so we too must humbly approach our culture with grace and truth. I believe that the EFCC ethos which encourages a certain hermeneutical humility (which says that there are essential truths we must all hold to if we are to be part of the EFCC family but also that there are other very important issues that we can not only tolerate, but encourage charitable disagreement/debate over) is well suited to communicate with our culture. Additionally, our emphasis on the centrality of the person of Jesus is so important: we ask our neighbours to embrace the One who is the Way, Truth and Life — not our dogma!
How We Proceed from Here
We will likely have to answer a new set of questions — our neighbours’ questions are different now than they were back in 1988. They will probably be even more impressed by how we live out the truth we say we believe than in how well we explain it. This is good news, because I believe it is easier and more effective to imitate the humility our Saviour manifested (Philippians 2) than it is to memorize countless answers to hypothetical questions. May we in the EFCC be known as those who are full of “grace and truth”!