Christianity

Technologizing the Good News

Not so long ago, I was enjoying a rather restful weekend on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Reading the daily newspaper one morning, I happened upon an advertisement for an upcoming business forum in Australia (I forget where exactly, but that isn’t important). One of the keynote speakers was Guy Kawasaki, an ex-Apple executive, who was dubbed a (former) “Chief Evangelist” for the tech-giant. The turn of phrase caught my eye, since I’d never come across it before. But it wasn’t simply the fact of the title’s unfamiliarity; what struck me in particular was the evocative use of a distinctly religious term: evangelist. It is, I think, quite instructive, and offers a window – unwittingly, perhaps – into the significance technology bears within modern (Western) societies. What I want to do here is reflect on what the title itself says about the kind of society we inhabit, and the values, priorities and constructs that dominate it.

Before moving on, however, it’s necessary to provide a brief summary of the concept of “Chief Evangelist” (hereafter, CE). The development of CEs marked an evolutionary shift in the way companies – particularly technology companies – market their products. Salesmen of previous generations would ply their trade during allotted hours, in order to sell discrete consumer items to potential buyers. By contrast, modern CEs style themselves, not as salespeople per se, but as heralds of personal and social transformation through the application and adoption of their favoured technology. This isn’t as a “snake-oil salesman” approach to marketing, where every kind of sales technique, no matter how crude or artificial, is used by the marketer to boost profits. Pioneers like Kawasaki urge CEs to live out the change they encourage consumers to pursue, to ensure their proselytization is genuine. Time-limited working hours are meaningless for a person who considers the product he commends to be a way of life. CEs seek more than just a burgeoning list of mindless consumers; their aim is the conversion of people to life-changing technology through the use of winsomeness, honesty and story-telling.

Why is this at all significant? Calling oneself an evangelist could simply be a rhetorical trick – an attempt to elevate the mundane activity of generating profits to a more rarefied, spiritual plane. But something more substantive than clever re-badging seems to be at work. Briefly, the word “evangelist” comes from the Greek evangelion, which simply means “gospel” or “good news”. The Christian evangel is the good news that in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God himself has come to inaugurate his kingdom, to bring about a new order of justice and peace, and to accomplish the comprehensive renewal of creation. An evangelist, then, is someone who spreads this message. For the chief salesperson at a technology company to adopt this as a title implies, at the very least, a belief in the fundamentally transformative power of technology. Drawing on a term with deep Christian roots is certainly suggestive; after all, CEs seek to win people, not merely to a new consumer item, but a new way of life. Customers are converted to a gospel-like narrative, which its proponents claim is guaranteed to bring about a dramatic change in the quality of one’s existence – a source of unmitigated good, in other words. The religious overtones are difficult to ignore.

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I’ll return to what a specifically Christian theological perspective might have to say about all this in a later post. At any rate, the phenomenon of technology firms draping their activities in religious language – to which CE is testimony – provides a particularly clear manifestation of the enveloping devotion the modern world has to technology, and the faith it places in such advancements to generate further progress. It simply makes explicit latent attitudes towards technology in societies saturated by it. Technology evangelism seems to represent a wider reality common to high- and post-industrial societies, the development of which certainly owes much to such advancements. Sociologists call it the fetishization of technology. “Fetishize” is an ugly word, but it aptly captures the enrapturing commitment the modern world has to technology. In its original context, a fetish was an object of extreme devotion. Often bearing religious significance, a fetish would be used in cultic and spiritual practices. But fetishes were also held to contain within them mystical or supernatural powers that could bring blessing and riches to devotees.

The concept of CE taps into both these streams: the constant allure of technology as something that gives substance to modern existence; and an almost mystical belief that the fashioning of technology can somehow bring about, not merely a more convenient or comfortable life, but a kind of salvation. It is, as I said, simply an overt example of a pervasive (if implicit) phenomenon, making itself felt in a variety of ways. At the same time, the message of technology evangelists fuels such fetishization by upholding and driving a narrative that casts technology in the role of saviour.

Fetishizing technology reflects the proclivity to accord great worth and value to the fruits of technical knowhow. Ours is truly a technocratic age, where technological accomplishments determine so much of modern life. We are soaked in technology, particularly those consumer products that have reached a point of complete ubiquity. Our lives, even our identities, are wrapped up with them. If this strikes some as an overstatement, just consider the extent to which we rely upon technology, even for the most mundane moments of our lives: the way we head home after work and fire up our gadgets has a faintly ritualistic quality, and reflects the deep value we unthinkingly place upon them. Certainly, it’s easy to ignore one’s own dependence on the luminous artifacts of our sophisticated age. However,  the centrality of technology in modern life, not to mention its pervasive – and invasive – presence in our lives, is palpable. This is true, not only in the case of technological expertise used for vital ends (e.g., medical technology), but for those instances where technology – and here, the role of CEs is especially germane – fills what may be called an existential “gap” with electronic amusements.

Even a cursory glace at contemporary data seems to bear out the claim that modern society is awash with, and drawn to, consumer technology. The Pew Research Centre, for example, has found that American teens, aged 13-17, are obsessive users of personal devices: 92% go online daily, with 24% reporting that they are “constant” users and 56% admitting they access the internet “several” times a day. Meanwhile, about three-quarters of adolescents have access to mobile technology, which means that are permanently “connected”. It certainly makes one wonder whether modern consumers of personal technology aren’t themselves consumed – filled with a need (unacknowledged, perhaps) to constantly curate their online selves, to view the world through a technological lens, and to allow their experience of reality to be constituted – shaped – by the complex electronic instruments they use.

Second, such fetishization also implies a near-religious veneration of technology and the allegedly transcendent power it possesses to secure dramatic, revolutionary – even redemptivechange for the human race. Again, we could point to a number of examples. Some contemporary advocates of development assume that simply imposing technical expertise upon an impoverished nation will ensure its entry into a new stage of  economic and social prosperity. Or what about neo-conservative advocates of military intervention and foreign nation-building? As political scientists Jonathan Clark and Stefan Halper have suggested in their book, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order, belief in America’s ability to reshape other parts of the world is driven partly by an overweening faith in the power of weaponized technology to not only win wars, but to secure a stable platform for the radical transformation of countries according to the model of Western liberal democracy. Despite their obvious differences,  both examples encapsulate the central  belief that the mere application of technology to problems will invariably and inexorably solve them.

* * *

The fetishization of technology – of which the evolution of CEs is but one manifestation – is problematic, failing to account for the ambiguities and imperfections inherent within every human endeavour. The issue is not so much to do with technology per se. Rather, it is a question of framing: how modern societies frame and construct technological progress, what it is and what it does. How we invest technology with certain meanings, and the uses to which we put it are, therefore, fundamental. Specifically, the issue concerns the inflated sense of confidence that flows from the presence and application of technology to modern life. Talking about the “good news” of technology’s unremitting blessings to people simply elevates its significance to a point that it cannot hope to reach in practice. Unfortunately, advocates subscribing to this kind of underlying philosophy may not be able to see this, so committed are they to the narrative of technological salvation.

Technology, for all its undoubted benefits (and let’s be clear: technological change has enriched our lives in manifold ways), cannot hope to do what some of its advocates think it can do. Or, to put it more precisely, technology cannot be the basic subject of an evangelist’s message for two, related reasons. First, it is but an instrument in human hands; it cannot function as the ultimate basis for change (redemptive or otherwise), since it is only a contingent tool used by the individuals who create it. Second, technology needs to be framed morally if it is to be of any use to humanity. That is, if technology is to create the kind of change its advocates promise, then it must first be embedded in a particular moral structure. Recall the earlier example of development advocates tacitly relying on technology’s power to transform impoverished and under-developed nations. As the economist William Easterly has pointed out, technical knowledge must be integrated with a particular set of moral values if it to be of use. He himself argues that it needs to be wedded to a philosophical-economic commitment to strong property rights and open markets if it is to succeed (something with which I happen to agree). At any rate, Easterly’s wider point is clear.

Technology, then, can never function as the bedrock of positive, enriching, life-giving change without being married to a particular ethical and philosophical view which allows it to assume that role. By itself, it is morally inert, static – neutral. Humans are the ones who decide to develop and employ their technical expertise to harness the forces of nature so that suffering may be alleviated. Alternatively, it may be used to add to the sum total of human misery.  After all, nuclear energy can either power a city or destroy it; the technology itself remains the same. Nazi Germany produced a technological monster, pressing it into service as the instrument of a racist, genocidal ideology. As such, arguing for the inherently beneficent power of technological progress is simply reductionistic.

But aside from deeper moral structures, and the manner in which they influence the way we use technology, there is also the question of technology’s limits. This is not always readily acknowledged by advocates and evangelists for technological veneration. On the contrary, it can breed a certain kind of arrogance, which unjustifiably inflates the power of technology to produce desired results. Underlying such an attitude, it seems, is the human tendency to believe that the imposition of complete rational control over events is a possibility.

American neo-conservatives, who have been extreme in their zeal for war and regime change in the Middle East, are a case-in-point (Clark and Halper detail this in America Alone). Their faith in a relatively straightforward application of American power to achieve desired ends was buttressed by a deep belief in the power of sophisticated military technology to effect change – to bend reality, in other words, to the will of those who wielded it. It was the conviction of some, prior to the second Iraq War (2003-), that such power would allow the United States to accomplish a swift and comprehensive victory in that country, with very little cost. But that faith turned out to be tragically misplaced: the United States, for all its might, could not successfully fashion a functioning democratic state out of Iraq. Fourth-generation warplanes could identify and destroy enemy targets with impunity, but they could not seed an open, pluralistic culture – or even prevent the country from sliding precipitously into a sectarian bloodbath. The technology employed in that war could secure narrowly-defined aims, perhaps, but it was impotent in the face of a situation marked by diabolical complexity. Even if one couldn’t say that technological arrogance was the main reason for the disastrous forays the US has made in the Middle East in the last 15 years, it has certainly been a contributing factor. And, as if to underline the point, it is but one example of how technology – itself morally neutral, as we have seen – is viewed as the means by which man gives life to the delusion that he can exert mastery over the vagaries of objective reality.

* * *

The inability of mere technological advance to realize the utopian goals of technology evangelists is seen, too, in more mundane (though no less tragic) ways. The author and prison psychiatrist, Theodore Dalrymple, has written extensively about the plight of what he terms the “underclass”, or the lower reaches of Western societies. Having worked closely with many of those who languish in that environment – characterised, he says, by chronic relational instability, feeble family structures, domestic violence, resentment, enraged jealousy, child neglect, and so on – he argues that the problem faced by the benighted is not material indigence, “but poverty of soul”. In Life at the Bottom, Dalrymple  admits that he was forced to accept the “terrible conclusion” that what besets the denizens of the British underclass is “spiritual and emotional vacuity”, lives “emptied of meaning”. Its members are privy to the latest in personal forms of technological wizardry – smartphones, plasma TV screens (Dalrymple says that the modern Briton watches 27 hours of TV a week), tablets, games consoles, and the like – but seem to live lives that are bereft of anything that ennobles or enriches. Technology has not been able to prevent families from fraying, or arrested the moral enfeebling of wide swathes of society. Contrary to the beguiling message of the CE, the accumulated results of technological progress do not constitute a sufficient condition for human elevation.

Moreover, it seems that in the case of the lower classes of British society (and there’s no reason to think that the same hasn’t happened elsewhere) technology has actually contributed to the moral, spiritual and existential decline of certain sections of contemporary society. Again, I am not blaming technology as such; as I have said, its influence upon the state of human beings depends on the moral frameworks we have created for ourselves. It can be used to create networks and connections across vast tracts of land and sea where none existed previously. Equally, however, it can be used to wall people off, until their worlds have shrunk to the size of a glowing Android screen. Certainly, this is a phenomenon affecting all sections of modern society, even if the results amongst the lower classes are especially bleak. Such is the magnetic allure of digital TV (or the internet, or a smartphone app) that those whose lives lack the animating force of transcendent meaning may well be given over to that which only succeeds in further blunting one’s imagination and domesticating one’s ambition. If Dalrymple’s observations are anything to go by, products of this kind can, by themselves, only ever offer a superficial, yet ultimately empty, form of spiritual and psychological fulfilment. This is a far cry from the promise of technological salvation.

* * *

I have intimated already that the message technology evangelists seek to convey is simply a product of the world in which we live. It only has currency because of the present saturation we experience as members of the technological age. The original evangel was something entering the present world from outside, to change it, to heal it, and to renew it. By contrast, the gospel of technological salvation is a message that simply reflects the cultural and economic norms of contemporary Western society. Despite what its advocates may think, it is not a radically new word from above, for it simply articulates what is already a widespread (if mistaken) assumption. And, if what I have said is in any way true, then technology can never function as the basis for some kind of salvific “good news”. Rather, it seems to represent one more example of the tendency to try and realize one’s vision of utopia within the limits and chaos of the present world, simply through the application of human ingenuity. Ultimately, however, it is a Quixotic project that will dash the hopes of its adherents.

(Christian) Religion and Secularism: A Response to Brian Morris

Note: this article first appeared in the online newsletter Engage.mail, published by the Evangelical Alliance’s ethics think-tank, Ethos.

I am usually fairly sanguine about the place of Christianity within modern society. Claims that an aggressive secularism is systematically attempting to extirpate religion in general, and Christian faith in particular, from the public square can often seem exaggerated. Every so often, however, I find my insouciance disturbed by some honest pundit or commentator, who with unusual clarity reveals the intentions of a certain strand of secular thought. Aside from providing (some) warrant for those anxious about anti-Christian hostility, such candour does have the advantage of giving one a fairly clear target at which to aim.

The opinions of Brian Morris, which appeared in both print and online media outlets last year (see, for example “It’s Time: Make Politicians Wear Religion on their Sleeve,” New Matilda, 17th August, 2015), constitute one such example. Morris, a former journalist, has turned his hand to advocating for his particular conception of secularism. As part of this project, he called on MPs to openly declare their religious commitments, in much the same way that elected officials reveal any pecuniary interests that may conflict with their parliamentary duties. Morris contextualised his view by saying that ‘politicized religion’ has surreptitiously retarded progress on a number of fronts, including efforts to legalise same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia. For him, parliamentary debate around SSM ‘subverts any notion of a secular Australia’.

Targeting Christianity especially, Morris argued that in a multicultural and multi-religious country such as Australia, it made sense for Christian MPs to be more transparent about their views. He suggested that one way of ensuring greater openness was to have politicians’ beliefs – and their influence on whatever views they may happen to hold – placed on public record. Others, like Fiona Patten (head of the Australian Sex Party) appear to have gone even further, suggesting for example that some kind of register of religious affiliation might be appropriate.

But let’s stick with Morris for a moment. One might be tempted to agree with him, at least to some extent. Say an MP is both a staunch member of the Catholic Church and has parliamentary oversight for various social welfare organisations (many of which have roots in, and are connected with, institutional Catholicism). It’s fair and reasonable to think that such an individual would be completely transparent in revealing his or her religious links. If that’s what is meant by politicians’ religious commitments being registered or placed on public record, then one will hear no argument from me.

The trouble is that Morris means more than this. Indeed, the suggestion that the airing of religiously-grounded views in parliament (say, in relation to the SSM debate) is itself evidence of the subversion of secularism indicates as much. So, too, does his interpretation of the Australian Constitution, which he argues was intended to ‘keep religion out of politics’. At base, it seems that Brian Morris wants to excise religion and opinions rooted in religious devotion from the public square. This is not merely advocacy for the institutional separation of church and state – something with which we can all agree – but for the rather radical idea, common among a more aggressive species of secularist, that religion’s presence in public-political life should be completely uprooted.

There are, however, several glaring problems with that kind of position. To begin, one must ask how it would even be possible, logistically-speaking, to achieve such an aim. How does Morris and others of his ilk propose to interrogate politicians on their religious commitments or to ensure those beliefs are publicly registered? Lying behind this is the very basic question of how one actually defines religion, which – notoriously – eludes all efforts at delimitation. What counts as a ‘religious’ commitment in the first place? Mere church membership? General theistic belief? A relatively doctrinal construction of religious convictions? What about the certainty that the cosmos is unified by a ‘higher’ meaning? In an age of spiritual pluralism, where all kinds of beliefs may fall under the umbrella of ‘religion’ (including those of politicians), arguing for some kind of public record comprising such beliefs is to engage in a project that defies precision by its very nature.

Similarly, how would Morris propose MPs corral their religious convictions in order to approach contentious issues in a manner that pleases him? He dismisses, for instance, Eric Abetz’s complaint that only the ‘intellectually bankrupt’ could expect a religious individual to ‘leave their religion at the doors of parliament’. But what’s to object to here? In my view, it reflects the common-sense view that religion – like any kind worldview (even atheistic ones) – is often embedded in the deepest strata of a person’s thinking and behaviour. Asking, say, a Christian to view policy issues without framing them through the lens of his or her worldview is akin to asking someone who wears glasses to remove them in order to ‘properly’ appreciate the lines and contours of a landscape painting.

This appears to be joined to Morris’ (unworkable) suggestion that religion in Australia should be ‘re-positioned’ as a wholly privatized phenomenon. However, short of barring religious individuals from entering public life, it would seem impossible to guarantee that religiously-inspired beliefs – which constitute a ‘framework of reality’ that enables many people to make sense of their world – seep into public discourse and parliamentary debate. Indeed, as social entities, religious individuals are themselves evidence that religion cannot be a purely private matter; their very presence suggests that the public and private dimensions of life can never be truly walled off from each other. Moreover, it seems that Morris has ‘solved’ the question of how one is to define religion only by conveniently opting for a narrow conception – driven, one thinks, by Enlightenment dualisms. Unfortunately, he has ignored the phenomenological diversity of religious expression, substituting for it a reductive characterisation that simply assumes (wrongly, I might say) its inherently privatized nature. Morris adopts a very ‘thin’ understanding of spirituality, which, apart from anything else, fails to reckon with both its ubiquity and its formative role in driving many individuals to work for the common good by way of public and political service.

In promoting his views, Morris evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. But he also fails to understand the nature of Australian secularism, and does so in two main ways. First, Morris’ view that the Australian Constitution was meant to banish religion from political discourse is quite misleading. It was not intended to purify the political process of the apparently baleful effects of religious thought. Rather, the Constitution’s provisions regarding religion prohibit the passage of laws that establish an official creed, hamper religious freedom or disqualify anyone from public office on the basis of their religious (or non-religious) convictions. Here is the relevant statement, from S.116:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

The text says nothing about individual politicians forming and articulating their opinions on a range of issues according to a religiously-grounded worldview, and to say that it does suggests adherence to a peculiarly aggressive form of secular absolutism. If anything, the Constitution ensures a kind of ideational pluralism, where a host of ideas, creeds, norms and principles – both religious and non-religious – can compete with each other on an equal footing. The infrastructure of the state may be free from formal religious control, certainly; but this in no way means what Morris thinks it means – namely, the public invisibility of religious or spiritual worldviews, or the people who embody them.

Second, in advocating a shift of religion’s place in contemporary Australian life, Morris seems to ignore the very deep roots it has sunk into the country’s political, legal and social landscape. As such, he has de-historicized the country’s institutions, divesting them of their religious-ethical content. I regard it as uncontroversial that Australia’s political culture, its laws and many of its normative principles (whether codified or not) owe a great debt to what might broadly be called its Judeo-Christian heritage. Of course, we are the beneficiaries of a number of intellectual streams, including that constellation of ideas known as the Enlightenment. But it is more than a little churlish to suggest that religion – in this case, Christianity – has no place in the very institutions it helps underpin. No one is suggesting, say, that Christian individuals should be given carte blanche simply because of the spiritual tradition they carry. But again, it would seem intrinsically impossible, given the origins of many of our political and ethical values, to completely leach the public square of religious influence. Calling for politicians to reveal their religious commitments (as they might their financial interests) frames the debate in terms of a basic conflict between one’s spirituality and a fully-orbed devotion to democratic processes. But if what I have said about the foundations of Australia’s political culture is correct, then there is no necessary conflict; quite the opposite, in fact.

* * *

Those like Brian Morris seem to be espousing a revolutionary kind of secularism, which seeks to effect a tectonic change in the conduct of Western politics, and religion’s place in modern society. Unfortunately, Morris badly misconceives both religiosity and secularism, even as he casts himself as the latter’s defender. Calling for elected officials to publicly declare their so-called religious interests – part of a wider attempt to ‘re-position’ religion as a purely private matter – is logistically impractical and intolerably intrusive. It fails to reckon with the ubiquitous reality of a dimension of life that can never be wholly privatized, whilst hollowing out a favoured concept in the interests of zealously prosecuting a particular agenda. Of course, this is not an implicit call for spiritual revanchism; I don’t think we should seek a return to the pre-secular past. That said, Christians ought to be confident as they step out into the public sphere, knowing that the cultural framework is not only not inimical to their values, but owes a great deal to them. The efforts of radical secularists notwithstanding, one’s attempt to influence public discourse or enter the political arena as (say) an avowed Christian is a legitimate enterprise.

On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.2)

The Word Made Flesh

In my last post, I spoke of God entering into time and space in a new way through the person of Jesus, which constituted his answer to the problem of evil. Here, I want to delve into that some more. Passages such as John 1:14, Philippians 2:7, Romans 8:3 and even Hebrews 2:14, 17, all speak of Jesus coming in the flesh. Christians often emphasize Christ’s deity. And so we should. But let us not forget the remarkable message that confronts us in these verses: that the Word, the divine logos, became flesh. And this was not just some divine experiment. No; it was instead the beginning of the process by which God would defeat evil.  The Creator entered the chaotic flow of creation and history to experience it for himself – not just its highs, but its lows, it joys, and its pain. From the simplest feelings of thirst to the most agonizing cries of distress in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus underwent the full range of human emotions and appetites and experiences. As F.F. Bruce once wrote, this was “no impassable visitant from another realm, untouched by our ordinary infirmities”. The passages that I have cited all claim that God has revealed himself most completely, most supremely – most uniquely – in a fully-rounded person: Jesus Christ. The book of Hebrews is especially clear. It speaks of Jesus sharing in our nature, “being made like his brothers” (2:17). He did not just “dip his toe into the water” of humanity, so to speak. He immersed himself in it fully. Incarnation meant inhabitation, and through the person of Jesus, God himself was dwelling fully within human nature.

This in itself ought to be a comfort to those suffering, for those who are Christ’s disciples follow a god who is not absent, or whose transcendence means that he is simply removed from this world. No; we pursue a god who knows what it is to suffer. It is easy for me, in the comfort of my study, to write about evil and suffering. I can argue for the existence of God in light of the terrible, unimaginable horrors that confront people every day from a position of safety. But God himself knows first-hand what it means to be crushed under the weight of evil. In responding to the power of sin in this world, God has so radically identified with the brokenness of his creation that he became a part of it. And thus, he is able to identify with all those who have been touched by the scourge of sin and evil. It is one thing for another to come alongside a person who is grieving; quite another for the Creator God, the One who has brought this world into being to then participate (voluntarily, no less) in its pain.

And of course, the most pristine image of that participation was the cross. It was there that the worst of sin’s power was drawn to one point – the body of Jesus (Romans 8:3), and he experienced the torment of pain – physical pain, distress, and the agony of abandonment. Thus, to the person who is battling with cancer, or who has lost his or her spouse in a flood, we can truly say that God, too, has experienced suffering. To those who weep over abandonment, we can honestly say that God knows of that intimately. Jesus’ cry when he was on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) – emerged from the depths of his being. He was not simply quoting Scripture; he was undergoing the consequences of divine abandonment, and thus enduring the loneliness of a broken world (about which I will say more). The triune God elected to experience that process, in part in order to identify with his suffering creation. Indeed, Isaiah 53 – that great prophetic ode to the suffering servant, sent to deal with his people’s sins, and who was revealed as the incarnate Son, Jesus – speaks of this:

“He was despised and rejected by others,

            a man of suffering, and familiar with 

                        pain…”

“Surely he took up our pain

            and bore our suffering…”

“He was oppressed and afflicted,

            yet he did not open his mouth;

he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,

            and as a sheep before its shearers is

                        silent,

so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:3,4,7).

Through the cross, God in Christ experienced sin’s consequences for himself, standing with the lowly and the burdened in the midst of the maelstrom. Indeed, the invisible God has become visible – concrete – in Jesus. His care for humanity has now become incarnate in the person of his Son. To those who, like Job, wonder where God is in the middle of their misery, we can say that he is truly there.

More must be said, but I shall leave that for the ultimate post in this series.

On Floods and Faith – Suffering, Evil and the Existence of God (Part Two)

In this particular post, I want to continue my exploration of the question of evil, suffering and God. A rebuttal of atheistic critiques is all well and good, but that in no way automatically validates a theistic position; what is also needed is a positive account of how God’s reality can be reconciled with the manifold suffering and evil that we witness in this world. For some, the question is not so great, since they may have embraced nothing more than some variation of deism (the notion that if there is a god, then he is nothing more than a “prime mover” or a “first cause”). Others may believe something else about the divine, including the notion that God may well in fact be evil and corrupt. If that is so, then the apparent tension between evil and God’s existent is, as it were, non-existent.

That may be the case for some, but the author of this blog is deeply committed to the god of Christianity. As such, I am not talking about a god who at one stage brought this world into being but now has nothing to do with it (deism). Neither am I talking about a god who is to be identified with the material world (pantheism). Instead, throughout this post, I will be implicitly referring to the god who is deeply involved in his creation, who willed it into being, who governs it, and who is still passionately interested in it. This god is good and loving, grieved by suffering and moved by evil. But if these claims about God be true, then how can he permit evil and suffering? Indeed, how can the presence of these tragic and (sometimes) destructive forces be reconciled with what Christians maintain about the One they worship and follow? Recent events – floods in Queensland and Brazil, deadly earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, the manifest corruption of governments in the Middle East – sharpens the question somewhat, and once more forces us to ask: just how can the persistence of so much suffering (and those events are just the tip of the iceberg) sit alongside the historic Christian claim of a good, loving and powerful god?

Before I go on, I must admit to the inadequacy of words for some who have experienced tragedy. Whether you have lost a loved one, been battling with depression, or been the hapless victim of nature’s fury, my defence of God’s existence in the face of such hardships may seem somewhat uncouth. I am of course aware that the question of suffering is not, in the final analysis, a philosophical problem to be solved; it is instead a sometimes-monstrous experience with which people wrestle on a daily basis. I cannot stress that enough, for it is not something that can be understood by writing a blog about it in the comfort of one’s living room, or inquired of in a university lecture hall. No; it can only be truly understood if it is first lived. That is why my essay may prove to be of shallow consolation to those who have experienced first hand the evil of other men, or the destruction of a ravenous disease. Nonetheless, I do pray that this post uplifts and encourages those who have been hit by the effects of evil in this world. What is more, I should point out that these arguments do not automatically bring one to full-orbed Christian faith. They do, I believe, show us that belief in God can sit alongside the presence of evil in the world, and that there is even room for belief in the Christian god. There is indeed a great deal of overlap between the more general philosophical and theistic claims made here and the specific claims made in Christian theology, despite the fact that this particular series has not argued for the reality of God as he has been revealed in Scripture and Christian theology. What I present here does not take into account what the god of Christianity is actually doing about evil and suffering, and how Christian theology interprets these tragic phenomena. To use the language of faith, what I present here may reflect a generalized theology of creation, but it does not embrace a theology of redemption. That will have to wait.

The above caveats notwithstanding, it is important that a response is forthcoming. To begin with, we need to make a distinction between human evil (that is, suffering caused by the immoral or imperfect actions of other human beings) and natural evil (suffering caused by natural calamities, such as the ones I have mentioned in this, and my last, post). Of course, the distinction is not nearly as neat as it may first appear, and it is important to bear that point in mind. In any case, if we concentrate for a moment on human evil, we cannot explore the possible tension between its presence in this world and the claim that God exists, without taking into account the wider purposes of the Creator. Many (perhaps speculative) reasons could be offered, but in this post I will focus on just one. Specifically, I am thinking of God’s desire to not only create a world, but to also have a relationship with it, including of course those created in his image – human beings. This is a cardinal Christian truth, helping to explain the theological rationale behind the creation of humanity. God did not create us – or this world, for that matter – simply in order to study us, or to keep us at arms length whilst he admired us from a distance. No, he created humanity, in part so that he could have a relationship with it, to bestow his goodness upon it, and to give it the privilege of being in communion with him. But in order to develop a true relationship with his image-bearing creatures, he first had to endow them with what we might call free will. Only with free will is it possible to respond, freely and genuinely, to the intimate proposal for a relationship by another. Anything else would be a sham. And so it was, and is, with God and humanity. The endowment of free will was a necessary requirement for the creation of a group of people who would be able to come to God of their own accord; people who would be no more than automatons – prisoners of the efforts of a totalitarian god. Love and devotion can only come about through the freely chosen acts of the one expressing them, necessitating the presence of free will in humanity.

Of course, God took a risk when he brought humanity into existence. Free will can be used for good, but can quite easily be used for its opposite, evil. If this were not the case, it would not truly be free will. Similarly, if humanity was not free to choose to spurn God’s offer of a relationship, then neither was it free to accept that same offer. This applies to our relationships with each other as much as it does to our relationship (potential or actual) with God. For God not only created humanity to act morally towards himself; he also created humanity with a view to them acting morally towards one another. Moral responsibility – reflected in, and manifested by, our ethical treatment of other people – is a necessary corollary to one’s relationship with God. To claim the latter without committing the former renders both non-existent. But just as one’s relationship with God must be freely chosen, if it is to be a true relationship (and not just a fait accompli), so our moral acts towards one another can only be truly moral (in the sense that such morality becomes an deeply interwoven part of our identity) if they are, to some extent at least, truly and freely chosen. For instance, if one is forced to commit a moral act, we may say that the act itself is moral. However, the person committing it is not; he is simply adhering to a predetermined path, the nature of which does not impinge upon him. Humans have been created to be moral agents, freely choosing to pursue the good. And that necessitates the possibility of choosing the alternative, of rejecting the moral choice. That is one basis for authentic moral responsibility, rather than the product of divine pre-programming.

What we see around us, then, are the effects of the abuse of free will and the rejection of moral behaviour: murder, slander, corruption, exploitation, selfishness, greed. These are the inevitable consequences of the corruption of free will, which is itself the unavoidable concomitant of the creation of a group of beings that would be able to freely choose and freely love their Creator. This wider goal explains, in part at least, the persistence of evil in the world. The value God has placed on the free will of humanity is such that, even if is abused, as it has countless times throughout history, God does not necessarily remove it. In order to preserve part of the “essence” of humanity and its ability to freely come to the One who created it, the parallel preservation of free will, despite its corruption, is important.

Some may not like the above answer – that God apparently remains unmoved by the persistence of evil in this world. I shall respond to that objection in the next post in this series. Others may object that the presence of so much suffering does not make the preservation of free will worth it. To that, I would argue two things. On the one hand, I am quite sure that those who might be tempted to adopt this line of thinking would dispense of it once they could see its implications. If the history of the world has been consistently marked by human iniquity, then it has also been consistently marked by the struggle for human freedom. It is a prize to be upheld; not discarded because of the way it has been grievously abused. Of course, that is of no comfort to the one who has lost his spouse to the destructive behaviour of a drunk driver. In my effort to provide an explanation for the importance of human moral choice and free will, I do not wish to minimize such a tragedy. Nevertheless, I can only return to the answer I have supplied: that present free will is a necessary element in an authentic relationship with God, and an authentic moral existence. On the other hand, I would suggest that a freely chosen life with God – not to mention the choice to act morally towards others – is of such incomparable beauty that its reality cannot be jeopardised. If God is what traditional theism says he is – the great architect, who has not only created this world but continues to uphold and animate it – then some kind of relationship with him is a relationship with the foundation of life, truth and goodness. It takes us beyond our own finiteness, mortality and moral ineptitude since we have come into contact with a god who is beyond all three. What is more, according to a specific Christian theological account of the situation (which I will discuss in a future post), it is the very rejection of this reality that has led to the pervasive evil that we witness in the world. Once again, the creation of morally responsible, morally free individuals who possess the ability to choose the ultimate good – to choose God – could not proceed without the possibility that those individuals would end up choosing its opposite.

This important point may help to explain human evil, but it cannot necessarily be applied to the suffering caused by natural calamities, such as the ones we have witnessed in Australia and elsewhere recently. Climactic conditions and the earth’s convulsive movements cannot be explained via moral categories (at least, they cannot be held morally accountable for what occurs). There is (apparently) no intentionality, no moral responsibility – only causation. Of course, I have already made the point that the distinction between human evil and natural evil is blurred. An earthquake may shake buildings and structures, but the presence of a city on a known fault line, as well as the shoddy nature of building construction in the area, can lead to a high death toll. Similarly, floods may wreck havoc on a hapless village or town, but the creation of dams could have stopped such a tragic event from occurring. Moreover, one may suffer from a seemingly inexplicable form of cancer, but given the many risks posed by certain foods and environments, it is impossible to rule out human action in such an event. Thus, even when a natural disaster strikes, one cannot so easily discount the effects of human action, which may lead to or exacerbate human suffering.

Nevertheless, we face a problem, for in many cases, human activity cannot account for the destruction wrought by a natural calamity. God’s existence and human evil can be explained via the argument from free will, but how does one account for the presence of natural evil? Surely God has control over nature in a manner that is unlike his relationship to humanity? Indeed, this is the case, but not to the extent that one might first assume. I spoke earlier about the free will argument as an explanation for the presence of human evil in spite of the claim that there God who is loving and powerful. Much the same could be said of the natural world. Just as free will explains human evil – and its corollary, human suffering – so free process explains the sometimes destructive nature of, well, nature. At this point, I should acknowledge the influence of John Polkinghorne, the British physicist and priest, whose work in developing this concept has been significant. I don’t want to follow him too far down this road (he also apparently claims that the future is unknown to God, with which I disagree). However, the point is well made. Rather than controlling the world like a puppet-master pulling the strings of his lifeless minions, God has endowed the world with the ability to freely develop, much like he has endowed humanity with the capacity to freely choose. Creation is not static; it is instead dynamic. And although its development has sometimes been messy and chaotic, the metaphysical independence of the natural world (and by “metaphysical independence,” I am referring to the distinction between God and his creation) is preserved in this developmental freedom.

This does not mean that we follow the god of deism after all; just because God has given the natural world the ability to freely develop in its own way does not mean that he also does not have unfettered freedom to involve himself in its affairs. We should not think that because God has endowed his creation with this kind of dynamic quality, he is therefore bound to refrain from activity within it. I have already dealt with this point above, in my discussion of human evil. Suffice it to say, God has created a world with a freedom to develop in a distinctive manner, just as he has created humans with a moral freedom that enables them to choose good or reject it. Because of that freedom, the natural world sometimes heads in a direction that occasions pain and destruction, and that is deeply contrary to God’s purposes. That does not mean that the world is simply chaos; there is enough order and regularity to suggest otherwise. But there is also enough unpredictability and flexibility within the natural world to suggest that it is more than just an animated diorama. And with that flexibility comes the sometimes-painful reality that nature will cause human suffering.

Such is the complexity of this issue that I have not been able to touch upon all aspects of it. What’s more, I have obviously not touched upon the specific Christian claims regarding evil and suffering in any detail. Thus, this post does not take into account the relationship between human sin and the corruption of creation. Nor does it note the pernicious effects of sin on human beings themselves. Furthermore, many questions remain. For example, what role does God’s providence play in a discussion like this? I have argued that humans have free will, but how does that relate to God’s activity in the world? Human free will is not unfettered, but when – and how – does God actually intervene in the affairs of his creation? Why does he appear to stop evil in some cases, and not in others? Why might he rescue a drowning child, but not millions of people dying at the hands of corrupt governments? And even if free will does help explain the presence of human evil, why has God not put a stop to it already (given that Christians believe he will do so at some stage)? Why does God allow human free will to remain, even in cases where it means the suppression of another’s free will? It could be said that God simply giving ample opportunity for people to freely choose the good, even if they continue to indulge in immoral acts, but the tension still lingers. Also, when should suffering be construed as a consequence of divine judgment? This may have more to do with a Christian perspective on the question of evil, but it arises nonetheless whenever God is invoked. Finally, how does God remain sovereign over the natural world, whilst also giving it a freedom to develop in its own, sometimes-destructive, manner? These questions may never receive adequate answers (though in upcoming posts, I shall attempt to do so), for to know them properly is to know the mind of God. Hopefully, however, I have given some account of how a belief in God is not inconsistent with the presence of evil in this world.

 

  

On Floods and Faith (Part One)

Suffering is, unfortunately, a part of life. Whether it is the loss of a parent to cancer, or the break-up of a long marriage, people endure hardships with tragic consistency. Recent events this year have reinforced this truism, as the country has witnessed the desperate plight of many tens of thousands of people in the state of Queensland. Entire towns have, it seems, been swept away by the fury of nature. The ferocity of these floods has been breathtaking, as has the widespread destruction. As if that weren’t enough, the state has been battered by cyclonic storms that have devastated livelihoods with ease. These disasters are indeed reminders that suffering is an ever-present part of life, which for some undermines belief in God’s existence. It is to this issue that I want to speak, using the Queensland disasters as a springboard.

In later posts, I will provide a particular Christian interpretation of disaster and suffering, including what we have seen recently. Right now, however, I wish to interrogate the non-believer’s response to such suffering and hardship, perhaps creating intellectual room for a Christian perspective to take its place. Indeed, it is important to provide some sort of apologetic, albeit a partial one, since such a disaster may prove ripe for the spiritual sceptic (I should point out that when I speak of spiritual sceptics or non-believers, I am referring to people who are, at the very least, sceptical of God’s existence. I am not yet referring to non-Christians). Even in the face of such destruction and loss, the church does have something to say as it seeks to respond. That may be news to some, but the Christian story does supply meaning to an otherwise meaningless situation. Although non-believers may declare that the Queensland floods (or any other event, such as the Christchurch earthquake, that occasions pain and suffering) prove that God does not exist, or that the persistence of belief in God despite such a tragedy is absurd, I would ask people to consider the alternative for a moment.

Without God, these tragedies are nothing but the consequences of the blind, impersonal forces of nature. We may be able to offer immediate causes for what happened. We can, for example, talk about the heavy rains and the aberrant weather patterns that caused the floods in Queensland. We can talk about the persistent failure by state governments to build dams that would control and manage the flow of rivers in the region. We could even talk about the green ideology that has (perhaps) exerted some influence over the reluctance to build such structures. These are all viable reasons for what, in the instance of Queensland’s tragedy, occurred. And yet none of them can provide a deep – one might even say existential – reason for this or any other disaster. Like all natural calamities, the Queensland floods and storms have shown us that, in the final analysis, man is at the mercy of nature. What is more, whilst the non-believer might derive some sense of satisfaction from facing what they think is the cold, hard reality of the world, their perspective does little to offer meaning in the midst of human misery. To them, this simply happened; one can talk about why it happened, but that question cannot be pressed too far. At the end of the day, the atheist or non-believer can only admit that such things simply happen. Events are merely brute facts, without ultimate intelligibility. If the universe is the product of blind chance, then its various goings-on cannot thereby possess meaning. They simply are. According to the non-believer’s scheme, events (both good and ill) do nothing more than occur. They do not mean anything, for they happen within a purposeless universe that has come into being without reason.

This is all the atheist or non-believer can offer when a tragedy strikes. If they follow their philosophical presuppositions far enough, then they have to admit that disasters such as the ones we have witnessed recently do not bear meaning. The cosmos does not possess any overarching structure, or goal-oriented significance, whilst the occurrences contained therein cannot be explained in terms of anything greater – or deeper – than the brute fact of their existence. That has to be conceded. To be sure, this does not mean that the existence of God is thereby proved. But when the atheist or non-believer scoffs at the attempt to shore up belief in God during a time such as this, one has to ask whether the interpretation he (or she) offers is any more satisfactory. All they can say is that such a calamity has occurred; nothing more, nothing less (without over-anticipating what I want to say below, to even call an event a “calamity” would be stretching the interpretation of the event, since that implies an attempt to explain the inexplicable according to moral categories that have no place within a purposeless universe). Mere happenstance is all that remains.

Such reasoning flies in the face of the persistent human need to ascribe and construct meaning. Humans are driven by a need to interpret things according a certain purpose, to view events and happenings through an interpretive grid. This is no fleeting, transient whim; it is instead a deep-rooted yearning, leading us to bestow order upon chaos and to discover purpose for our lives and the world at large. The atheist’s assumption that the universe is “blind, pitiless and indifferent” (to paraphrase Richard Dawkins) jars horribly with this human need to find meaning. How does a purposeless universe give rise – without forethought or planning – to beings that are driven, enlivened and animated by purpose? That is a particularly vexatious question, and comes with even greater urgency when a disaster like the Queensland floods befalls a segment of humanity. The search for meaning at a time like this is particularly acute, and the atheist cannot offer anything substantial. He is forced to admit that there is no reason for what has happened, just as there is no reason for why anything happens. That can only darken the existential void in which people of calamity often find themselves.

At the same time, the non-believer cannot escape the other logical implications of his worldview. If there is no purpose to the cosmos; and if it is just the random movement of molecules and particles; then one cannot speak of good and evil, joy and suffering, in any meaningful sense. The reductionism of atheism – which necessarily embraces a materialist outlook on life – becomes obvious when its proponents assign cause to purely physical factors. The notion of transcendence is completely anathema to such a worldview. What this means is that any talk of morals, ethics, or events that either enrich or diminish life, is disingenuous from a materialist point of view. All is simply the random shifting of atoms. The death of a loved one – or, in this case, the devastation of floods and cyclones – cannot be ascribed any more meaning than one might ascribe to the particles under a microscope. Similarly, to speak of morals is specious, since the objective foundation upon which any robust conception of morality must rest does not exist. If the universe does not care, then why should we? Why should we care about the deaths of people swept away by a torrent of water? Why should we recoil in horror when we see the carnage wrought on a South Sudanese village by government-backed militia? These things, broken down to their constituent parts according to a materialist, atheistic worldview, are nothing more than the outward manifestations of inward physical occurrences. There is nothing beyond the biological, and the biological does not work according to a greater scheme – moral or otherwise. It simply is. So, if we take the Queensland floods as an example, the non-believing perspective cannot even discuss such a calamity using moral categories, since those moral categories cannot fit into the purely physicalist account of tragedy and suffering. The biological is ultimate, and moral discussion – which relies on some notion of objectivity or transcendent framework to maintain coherency – is without basis.

Again, I must remind people that all of this in no way automatically validates the Christian, or even merely theistic, worldview. But it does show up the atheistic view for what it is. Further – and this is closely aligned with my point just above – the non-believer’s case against God, which he bases upon the supposed contradiction between God’s goodness and the presence of evil, becomes incoherent once one follows that atheistic view through to its logical conclusion. How can one speak of the contradiction between the claimed goodness of God and the persistence of evil when one’s own worldview has no room for transcendent moral categories? Surely the worldview in question subverts the specific claims made against God whenever disaster or tragedy strikes, for one cannot squeeze out objective morality on the one hand and use it to score a philosophical (or atheological) point on the other. Of course, the atheist may claim that he does adhere to the notion of objective morality. But why? Why, if the cosmos that gave rise to humanity is actually blind and morally indifferent, should those very same beings be committed to such an outlook? I leave that question for readers to ponder.

None of this will be of comfort to people who have seen and experienced tragedy, pain, suffering and hardship. I don’t expect that to be the case. What will comfort them are wise pastoral counsel and the persistence of sacrificial love. However, my aim here is to engage with the various philosophical and ideological interpretations that use such events to deny God’s reality. I will continue to do so over the next few posts.

UPDATE

Recently, I took part in an online  discussion, where I used some of these arguments to critique the atheist’s position, including the rather unsatisfying account of morality (as I see it, anyway). Indeed, my argument there – that the biological reductionism and naturalistic conception of humanity that seems to be part-and-parcel of an atheistic worldview – was much the same as the one I have used here. Anyway, I was accused of attacking a straw man by offering this characterisation of atheists’ views on humanity. My inerlocutor told me that when it comes to humanity, morality and the rest, atheists’ views are as diverse as their fingerprints. That may be, but two things suggest that the strawman may have become a real one after all: the logical (and, I would say, inescapable) implications of a naturalistic conception of the world and humanity; and the fact that atheists have said exactly what I have said in my characterisation of humans as, at base, a collection of atomic particles. 

First, if one is going to commit oneself to a naturalistic worlview (which goes hand-in-hand with atheism) then it becomes exceedingly difficult to suggest that humanity is, in the final analysis, anything more than an amalgamation of physical parts. My interlocutor that day said he was much more than a “collection of atoms” (yes, I know, a rather pithy line on my part). He said that he was that, but that he was also a thinking, feeling individual with loves, desires, hopes and dreams. But if humans are to be reduced to their constituent parts – which means one’s atomic “kit” – then I am not sure how those parts can end up constituting, not just a physcial entity (eg. a human being), but one that is able to think, feel, love and apply meaning to his/her existence. I mean, how did my online discussion partner become the thinking, feeling empatheitc indvidual he believes himself to be? Mere physicality (which is what we are reduced to in a naturalistic view of the world) is not enough. Random mutation, natural selection and deep time alone could not have produced atomic structures that go beyond their physical paramaters in this way. In other words, if (according to naturalism), our “essence” is really no different to that of other, even non-sentient, physcial structures, I wonder how those physical structures could make the transition from things that merely “existed” to sentient beings that are able to confer upon the world meaning and significance. As much as atheists try to claim otherwise, I can’t see how one can escape this reductionist thinking, or the problems associated with it. 

The philosopher John F. Haught, in talking about critical intelliegence as a problem for naturalism, poses a question along similar lines (Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in an Age of Science):

“…is the essentially mindless, purposeless, self-originating, self-enclosed universe of scientific naturalism large enough to house your own critical intelligence?”       

As far as I can see, this is an inescapable question for the atheist (and therefore, naturalist), based on the indissoluble connection between atheism and a naturalistic conception of humanity. We could take this further, and suggest that the very mindlessness posited by a naturalistic account of the universe (where all is the product of the essential purposelessness of natural selection) should make one quite suspicious of one’s own thinking. If one’s thoughts are the result of random atomic occurrences (and nothing more), should one place supreme confidence in one’s capacity to understand the world and interpret it coherently? The fact that we do, and are able to provide some account of the world that is commensurate with reality suggests that there is more going on in our minds than just the product of mindless evolutionary processes. Further, efforts to develop a moral account of human behaviour – indeed, a moral “grid”, if you like – seem to suggest that humans are more than the accidental products of an ultimately mindless, amoral universe. In any case, this reductionsim seems to be inherent within naturalism, and protests to the contrary will not do.

Second, a number of atheist academic, both past and present, have expressed their views on humanity in terms that are quite close to my own (admittedly pithy) characterisation. Here’s Betrand Russell, the now deceased British atheist, describing human beings:

“…the result of accidental collocations of atoms” (Russell, Why I am not a Christian).

Or Stephen Jay Gould:

“If the history of life teaches us any lesson, it is that human beings arose as…a kind of glorious cosmic accident resulting from the catenation of thousands of improbable events” (quote taken from John Blanchard’s Does God Believe in Atheists?).

Or what about Richard Dawkins, writing in his book, The Selfish Gene?:

“[Genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots…they are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.”

As far as I can see, the “strawman,” of which my interlocutor spoke, is very much alive. 

This all has implications for moral reasoning. If the universe is essentially purposeless, and we are inextricably bound up with the universe and its ultimate nature, then on what shall we base an account of morality? More than that, why should we even speak about morality as if it had something to do with an objective standard of the good? And it’s not just believers in God who are aksing these questions. A recent article in The Guardian newspaper spoke about Peter Singer, the Australian atheist philosopher, and his struggles with providing a robust foundation for moral decisions. In it, he said that his previous confidence in utilitarian thinking has now been shaken, and he is more and more inclined towards a moral objectivity (Mark Vernon, “Without Beflief in Moral Truths, How Can We Care About Climate Change?”, May 25th, 2011). He’s no closer to God, but as the article says, “Only faith in a good God finally secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.” A bold claim, but I think that God provides a strong foundation for confidence in an objective moral ontology.

Religious Truth and Tolerance in Contemporary Society.

In late November 2010, the British newspaper, The Economist, ran a story in its weekly opinion page for its American bureau. “Lexington”, as the pundit is known, wrote about the contemporary religious and social landscape in the Land of the Free (“One Nation, with Aunt Susan”, November 27th, 2010, p.46). Although the research he used as a springboard for his piece is an interesting addition to the study of religion in society, I want to focus on the article itself. In isolation, the piece is nothing unique: it represents the prevailing spiritual and theological wisdom in the contemporary west. But the fact that it is representative means that it is noteworthy, for it both reflects and reinforces our society’s understanding of religious truth, presenting a challenge to those who (like me) beg to differ. Since this blog is in turn attempting to challenge prevailing views where they depart from Christian truth, the article in question (and the issue that lies behind it) is fertile ground for discursive engagement.

The premise of Lexington’s piece is a recent sociological study conducted by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, who argued that religion is a unifying force in contemporary American society. As our pundit quotes, they argue that religion is like, “civic glue, uniting rather than dividing”. Although that unifying effect has strict limits (it seems that tolerance for people of other faiths does not always extend to Muslims or Buddhists), the article approvingly suggests that acquaintance with people from other religious traditions has beneficial social implications. So far so good. The fact is, knowing people from other faith traditions and religious beliefs is good for social harmony. Of course, there are debates over the balance between individual diversity and the integrity of social and communal norms. But, as Christians, we can agree with the potential benefits (I say “potential”, since they are not always actual) of social interaction between diverse people. Knowing people personally, rather than as ciphers or as faceless representatives of an alien belief system, affords us the opportunity to witness the image of God embodied in others. That is something that all of us – regardless of colour, faith or creed – share, and our getting to know others will help us to realize that. In this, at least, Lexington is on the money (even without the injection of Christian wisdom).

However, things take a decidedly worrying turn when our author conflates social tolerance (“Even though we are of different faiths, and I may disagree with you, I will treat you with respect and dignity”) with epistemological and spiritual equality (“Even though we are of different faiths, we are all on our own journeys towards God, and all of us will enter Heaven”). Indeed, at one point, he says that if one was a Jew, but was well-acquainted with the hypothetical “Aunt Susan”, a Methodist, one would nonetheless “know that Aunt Susan deserves a place in Heaven”. Our sagacious pundit later states things slightly differently, by citing statistics that indicate 9 out of 10 Americans believe that people of other faiths can get into Heaven. Something is amiss.

Such statements of belief are widespread in the contemporary west, and they are as philosophically inaccurate as they are tediously common. There is no reason why tolerance of another’s beliefs should give rise to the belief that they, too, are on the way to Heaven. It’s one thing to suggest that people of different faiths get along and tolerate each other in a social setting – vitally important in any cosmopolitan environment. It’s quite another to then go and suggest, as Lexington does, that tolerance of another’s views extends into the realm of epistemology and truth claims. This is simply not so, and there is nothing compelling us to accept such a claim (Christian or otherwise). In the final analysis, it is a confusion of categories. To use an analogy, my acceptance of another’s Marxist beliefs does not thereby compel me to accept their epistemic equality – relative to my own political beliefs – or that Marxists have a roughly equal chance of building a prosperous society, with a good standard of living, as advocates of free market capitalism do. To suggest otherwise is folly, since once we do that, we throw the whole notion of truth-seeking and discursive engagement out the window. If one belief is as good as any other, then what is the point of civil discourse? What use is there in discussing such matters? I imagine that Lexington would not be so quick to suggest such things if he were referring to political disagreements; why, then, does he accept the provisional equality of religious beliefs? Our pundit may not go so far as to say it, but by merging these two types of tolerance, he effectively inhibits religious disagreement. I mean, if tolerance means accepting the epistemic equality of (in this case) all religious truth claims, then there is very little point in debating their respective merits or whether any of them is commensurate with reality.

I can offer several explanations, but I will save that for the end of this article. In any case, tolerance of another’s views plainly does not mean that one has to agree with them. In fact, tolerance points in the other direction; you don’t have to tolerate someone whose beliefs elicit nothing more than passivity or blind acceptance. Similarly, just because I disagree with the Muslim down the road, and believe that he will not “get into Heaven” if he persists in his beliefs, does not mean that I will not treat him with dignity and civility. Indeed, my openly disagreeing with his beliefs is a mark of the utmost respect and, one might say, love. It’s respectful, since I am treating my Muslim neighbour as a real person who is capable of handling differing views in a mature manner; and it’s loving, since, from a Christian point of view, there is nothing more compassionate than telling another of the way in which God has revealed himself exclusively and uniquely in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Be that as it may, Lexington, in his rush to commend the kind of religious tolerance that flattens out all theological differences, fails to perceive just how real and deep those differences are. Even when it comes to the notion of ultimate hope, he is painfully naïve (and, ironically, comes across as rather “religio-centric”, in his use of the Judeo-Christian term, “Heaven”). Although he may approve of the person who says that people of other faiths can get into Heaven anyway, he seems unaware of just how different various conceptions of ultimate hope actually are. Christians believe that only those in Christ Jesus will take their places in a renewed creation. The Buddhist conception of Nirvana, however, is vastly different. Even if God were not so worried about various religious differences, and only concerned about letting everyone into the great Heavenly rave party, why should we expect Buddhists to fit themselves into that particular notion of “the end”?

It’s not just eschatology that Lexington seems to ignore. He also ignores the very, very different truth claims the various religions make regarding the past and the present; about the current state of humanity, and the remedy for it. Each religion contains within it a distinct narrative. Again, only someone who is able to completely ignore such distinctions, or who believes that religious truth is merely a matter of myth, could suggest that religious tolerance means accepting that all people have an equal shot at Heaven (and are, therefore, all on the right track). Christians believe that Jesus was God “in the flesh”. Muslims, on the other hand, strenuously resist this theological claim as a lapse into idolatry. Similarly, Christians believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, which signified God’s complete triumph over sin and death, and the commencement of new creation. Again, Muslims deny this claim outright. These are not minor differences on the minutia of religious truth; they are fundamentally at odds in their conception of reality, and the respective solutions they offer to a world in need. With beliefs of such wide variance being propagated (and this is only amongst the so-called Abrahamic, monotheistic religions), it is strange that Lexington should then nonchalantly claim that all will end up seeing God anyway.

Lexington may claim that he did not actually say that all religions are equal. He may argue that he simply suggested that people, of whatever religious stripe, have a chance of entering Heaven, regardless of the very real differences that exist between religions. But this seems unlikely, for as I have stated, only a person who does not think religious and theological differences are important could argue what Lexington has argued in his piece. In any case, his easy acceptance of all beliefs jars horribly with the Christian belief that God is deeply interested in truth – chiefly, in truth about himself and his interaction with the world. For Christians, there is no easy acceptance of other religious beliefs, even as we treat the adherents of said beliefs with the utmost dignity. Of course, our pundit rules exclusivity out of court: “strong and inflexible” is how he describes these kinds of believers. But, given the profusion of contradictory religious beliefs (to which I have already referred), it is difficult to be anything other than exclusive, at least philosophically and theologically. To do otherwise commits one to an insurmountable logical flaw.

There are a couple of other noteworthy points, both of which speak volumes about Lexington’s – and, increasingly, the west’s – perspective on religion and religious truth. First, our author speaks of people “deserv[ing] a place in Heaven…” This claim runs into trouble when one considers the cardinal Christian belief that salvation is by grace. No one deserves a place in Heaven, for as the Apostle Paul puts it, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); it is only via the mercy of God that any of us will escape the pernicious effects of sin and the holy opposition that accompanies it. Proof-texts notwithstanding, that biblical quote teaches an important point: our alienation from God is the inevitable consequence of sin’s hold over humanity. Our only way out of it is, as I have just said, God’s grace and mercy. Lexington’s approval of some sort of inherent right for all to a place in the hereafter reflects the widespread belief in the undifferentiated tolerance of the liberal God. Our pundit may not think that religious truth matters enough to conduct debates over it, but in suggesting that all people deserve a spot in the big bash in the sky means that he has (ironically, it turns out) already bought into specific truth claims regarding God and his nature. Aside from advocating an utterly anaemic view of God, our author seems to have adopted a self-contradictory stance: on the one hand, he seems to think that differences between religions are of no importance; on the other, however, he himself seems to approve of a very specific claim about the divine.

Second, he also approves of the increase in inter-faith marriages as a sign that American society is becoming more tolerant. That may well sound fine for someone who is enamoured with a religious and spiritual potpourri (which, again, leads that person to accept a false notion of tolerance as naïve acceptance), but the sociological literature tells a very different tale. Naomi Schaefer Riley, writing in The Washington Post (“Interfaith Marriages are Rising Fast, but they’re Failing Fast, too”, June 6th, 2010), argued from the literature that inter-faith marriages fail at much higher rates than same-faith ones. Inter-faith marriages may be a sign that people from different traditions are mixing more, but their failure – aside from the grievous harm it does to estranged spouses and their children – reflects the deep-seated nature of religious belief. Some may decry this persistent fact, but in dealing with beliefs of such deep existential import, it seems inevitable that marriages conducted under the auspices of religious pluralism should run into trouble. The only way out of that trouble, whilst still maintaining some commitment to religious pluralism – that is, ignoring religious differences and their impact on every arena of life – would mean divorcing oneself from deeply-held convictions (in some cases), or committing oneself to a philosophical fallacy (in all cases).

The reasons for Lexington’s views, reflecting as they do the views held by many in the western world, are manifold. One might suggest the increasingly pervasive influence post-modernism has within contemporary society, reducing truth claims to personal opinion and reality to an individual construct. Or one might go further back in time, and cite the influence of the Enlightenment project, which relegated religious truths to the status of unverifiable values in a scientific, empiricist age. That split meant that theological truth claims could never be seen as true knowledge; thus, all truth claims in that field had to be treated with equal openness (and scepticism). Lastly, it’s possible that a particularly American brand of civic religion – nice, pleasant, socially acceptable, and founded upon civility and good works – has been woven into the fabric of contemporary thinking in that country, and has found its way into our pundit’s article. All of these explanations are possible, perhaps simultaneously. One thing is for certain, however: as Christians, we can never buy into such claims, no matter how “inflexible” we may appear to be.

The Tragedy of Queensland’s Floods

Over the past days and weeks, I have watched with dismay and horror as Queensland has been lashed by nature’s fury. So, I thought it necessary to offer some remarks over the coming days and weeks regarding this calamity. For now, I can only say that I will pray for God’s protection and ask that he would move during this time. Although it may be of scant comfort to those who have lost so much, I want to assure people that the Creator God is also the Redeemer God. He is the one who has triumphed over every manifestation of brokenness and sin, of corruption and decay. He is the one who has paved the way for a world where pain and suffering are not known, and in this we may be encouraged. Floods may have inundated parts of Queensland recently – causing great harm and anguish – but for those who place their faith in what God has accomplished through Jesus, there will eventually come a time where such hardships, of whatever kind, will vanish completely.  

We may not see that triumph in the present, but we know that God has achieved it through the death of his own Son, Jesus – verily God and verily man, the perfect human and the embodiment of divine wisdom. However, through Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection, God has not only made a way for sin’s defeat (and with it, the redemption of the world); he has also experienced humanity in the most intimate of ways, even to the point of giving up his own life. Thus, to those who may be wondering why this has happened, all I can say (at this point, anyway) is that we Christians follow a god who is not distant or aloof, nor impassable or unmoved by the suffering of his creation. He actually knows what it is to suffer, because he himself has experienced it as one of us. That, too, is a comfort.

Stay tuned for further posts on the question of evil, suffering and God.