Engagement with Culture

Postcards from the Marriage Wars – Part Two

It wouldn’t be long before same-sex marriage made its way to Australian shores. Slowly, inexorably, it has lumbered towards a point of mass acceptance. Of course, the issue, as something discussed and fought over, has been alight for a number of years now (providing much fodder for media outlets). What I am talking about, however, is changes to the institution of marriage itself. For a few fleeting moments, SSM was a reality in this country – gaining a foothold in that strange little enclave, the Australian Capital Territory, late last year. That it proved to be a temporary victory for proponents of SSM is, I believe, immaterial. A new threshold has been crossed, and I think the debate – at least for social conservatives, orthodox Christians, and others of their ilk – has already been lost. And although we might have reached a new phase, it seems to represent the culmination of forces that have been gathering pace for some time. That, however, is an essay for another time.

News outlets carried pieces on what took place in the ACT, as well as on the issue more generally. I have read a number of reports related to these developments, but in this article, I want to concentrate on a piece written by a journalist for The Age. It is not unique, of course; others have been offering these arguments for many years. But it is representative in its approach, and so I shall use it as a touchstone, so to speak, with which to engage current attitudes and mores.

I turn, then, to a series of articles written by Sam De Brito, whose writings appear in The Age and other Fairfax newspapers. A little while ago, he wrote an open letter to Fred Nile, the staunch Christian conservative and NSW state parliamentarian. In it, he chided Rev. Nile for “picking and choosing” when it came to interpreting and applying the various commands of Scripture – in particular, that part of the Bible Christians call the Old Testament. The implication was that the leader of the Christian Democrats was not taking his own holy book seriously – happy to deny certain “rights” to homosexual couples (which De Brito seemed to imply was the result of Rev. Nile’s own prejudices), whilst conveniently setting aside Scripture when it came to thornier questions that might cause some discomfort. In a follow-up article (“The Alternative Ten Commandments,” The Age, December 6th, 2013), De Brito wrote that his main “beef” was with Christians who, according to him, inconsistently apply the Bible’s injunctions. He went on to criticise – maybe “mock” is more appropriate – that most-vaunted of religious legal codes, the Ten Commandments.

One wonders how De Brito would have reacted had he encountered a Christian who accepted the Bible’s command to care for the poor and destitute (e.g. Exodus 22:21-22; 23:2-3; Proverbs 21:13, 15), whilst rejecting its prohibitions against homosexual practices. I for one suspect he would be less concerned about theological and interpretative inconsistency. In any case, there are a number of problems with De Brito’s views – as rendered in his second article – which all evince a desperate lack of biblical understanding, and a commitment to caricature over serious analysis. I will turn to those particular calumnies in a later article.

In recounting email exchanges with angry Christians, De Brito says that he was confronted with a number of emails that:

“…predictably descended into…arguments that without God’s word to follow on issues like who we can shag in the privacy of our own homes…”.

The characterisation of sex as a private activity is, as we shall see, relevant. Elsewhere in his writings on marriage, De Brito seems to recognize the public nature of that particular bond. Indeed, it is precisely the public dimension of the institution of marriage – and the consequent recognition couples are accorded by virtue of their participation in it – that so animates supporters of SSM like Sam De Brito. Now, it is perhaps the case that De Brito’s reference to “shagging” and the like was, in fact, a crude rendition of some of the arguments made by his interlocutors. His stated views regarding marriage would, as I said, suggest some kind of acknowledgment regarding its public dimensions. But what, then, of his views on sex? According to De Brito, sexual union is reduced to the act of “shagging” in one’s home. That he emphasises its private nature is evidence that he thinks of it as nobody else’s business. Moreover, in view of the fact that he includes the exhortation to be a “good shag” in his alternative Decalogue, as well as a pointed self-reference as a never-married father, it would seem that De Brito thinks of marriage and sex as being two, distinct realities. Indeed, he appears to think that sex and marriage can be decoupled and grounded in quite separate ways, with no essential connection between them. What ought one to make of this?

First, I should point out the obvious: sex, as a discrete act, is itself a private thing. That hardly needs saying, and I am not implicitly advocating voyeurism. But its representative and symbolic overtones possess a public-social dimension, and have public-social ramifications. Take heterosexual sex, for instance. A man and a woman may come together, either for a night or for a lifetime. What they do in the bedroom is, to the extent that it involves the two of them, private. However, what if that union results in the conception and birth of a child? And what if the temporary coupling took place between people who were otherwise unknown to each other – a “one night stand”, in other words? The sex act, in itself, was indeed private, cloistered. But its consequences, if they included the birth of a child (for example), would be anything but. This, of course, is a little different to the discussion at hand, but goes some way to showing that sexual union cannot be seen as private in an absolutist sense. Not only in its possible consequences, but also in its meaning – which is often shaped by broader social and cultural forces – is sexual intercourse a more-than-private reality. It is inevitably caught up in a whole raft of relationships, networks, social constructions, etc., whilst also having the potential to create new relationships, networks and social links through its inherent generative potential (not to mention the possible physiological and psychological consequences that may flow from the sex act). Marriage, in this respect, is not aberrant. It doesn’t artificially map an institutionalised framework upon an otherwise private relationship; rather, it seeks to recognize what is already an embedded, essential reality about (hetero)sexual unions.

It is this connection between marriage and sex that forms one of the major planks in traditionalists’ efforts to uphold the idea of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Such an understanding recognizes the complimentary nature of the heterosexual union, which is both comprehensive in itself and inherently geared towards reproduction. Of course, I realize that not all male-female couples choose to use their unions for the purposes of having children. Others, through no fault of their own, are unable to have children. However, aside from the intrinsically comprehensive nature of the heterosexual union (at a basic biological and systemic level, the bodies of males and females seem, for want of a better word, “designed” for each other), it alone amongst the various unions available to people is capable of generating children. It is an inescapably social bond, embracing the children that issue from it, as well as the social world that will one day be influenced by those children. Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, writes:

“Moreover, marriage (again unlike ordinary friendships) is a matter of public concern and not merely of the private interests of spouses. That is because marriage brings together a man and woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children born of their union.”

The institution of marriage simply codifies a unique biological reality, thereby providing a safe environment within which children may be reared and raised. Conservatives have every reason to preserve this institution, given its importance as a framework within which healthy, well-adjusted individuals may be socialised.

Now, back to Sam De Brito. His argument seems to involve a contradiction: on the one hand, he upholds the idea of marriage as, in some sense, a public institution – one that (presumably) should be available to all, regardless of the sexual permutations and combinations that compose individual unions; but, on the other hand, he seems to suggest that sex – which, historically, has been seen as an inescapable component of marriage as traditionally defined – is little more than a private transaction: “shagging” in one’s bedroom, as it were (of course, De Brito would likely say that it can be more than that, by arguing that it is often an expression of the love that exists between two [or more?] people. True; but if can be other than this, to which many a drunken one-night stand testifies, then it cannot be defined by it. Thus, the only relevant commonalities between the various incarnations of legitimate sex acts he envisages are physical union, consent and privacy). It seems that, based upon these incongruous conceptions of marriage and sexual union, he has castigated Christians for worrying endlessly about what gays and lesbians do in private. Maybe some have. But the nub of the issue is the essence of marriage, as a public institution and as an entity with certain properties. In other words: what is marriage in itself (if anything), and what are the (public, social) consequences of attempts to change it? De Brito, in trying to offer a critique of Christians’ views on the matter, seems to have parsed private sex acts and a legalised form of union that is anything but.

De Brito, I submit, appears to be viewing sex and marriage as separate entities, in that either can be practiced without reference to the other (at least consistently; of course, people are free to have sex without marrying one another, whilst couples who have been joined together by a minister or celebrant are free not to consummate that union). However, the question is whether marriage, in particular, can be defined apart from sex. De Brito may want to say that sex need not be a part of the definition of marriage. If the latter is simply the legalised expression of love and commitment between people, and can rest on nothing more than those bonds of affection (however expressed), what else is needed? Similarly, De Brito seems to think that a person’s sexual proclivities can be enjoyed apart from the encumbrances of marriage. Indeed, most people these days would probably agree. As a simple statement of reality, this is uncontroversial. But, to then imply that sexual activity is not an essential component of marriage (which one would likely have to do in such circumstances), forces one into philosophically ambiguous territory. Once again, we are dragged back to what seems to be the centre of this debate, even if it is unacknowledged by many of its participants: what the institution of marriage actually, essentially is.

Indeed, one might legitimately ask: what is the institution of marriage for, if it does not include, as part of any such conception, the importance of sexual activity? What distinguishes marriage from other types of relationship, if not the significance of sex? And if it is connected to sex, then questions regarding the nature of those sex acts, and whether any and every form of sexual expression can provide a basis for marriage, become exceedingly relevant. I have suggested that marriage is inescapably heterosexual, precisely because of the uniqueness of the sexual bond that consummates it. It would seem that marriage, at least from De Brito’s recent writings, is a kind of public commitment, where participants enjoy the privilege of being able to seal their pledges of love and devotion in a legal, recognized fashion. Sex, apparently, is irrelevant – at least in terms of how marriage is defined. Ironically, however, it’s partly because of the sexual nature of homosexual relationships that calls for their recognition have arisen in the first place. I doubt very much whether they would be seen as anything more than particularly intense kinds of friendship if they weren’t expressed, at least in part, through sexual intercourse. Absent this factor, the grounds for recognizing such relationships as in any way different from friendship, generally conceived, would be very weak indeed. De Brito wants to keep sex away from prying eyes and moralistic busy-bodies, but seems not to notice the inescapable connection – wherever one sits – between sexual intercourse and the calls for public validation. To be sure, I do not think that marriage can be founded upon any and all kinds of sexual unions. As I have suggested, heterosexual union alone provides the basis for marriage, precisely because no other type of coupling is inherently capable of producing the next members of a community or social group. I merely point out the layers of incongruous thinking that seem to characterise De Brito’s position: yearning for homosexual couples to be given the right to marry, and yet implying that the very element which has helped generate such claims in the first place – i.e. sexual activity (generally conceived) – has only an accidental relationship to the institution.

Of course, the issues go beyond relatively recent calls for “marriage equality” (a term to which I object, for reasons I shall not go into). More specifically, they go beyond whatever Sam De Brito has written on the subject. His views simply seem to be the outgrowth of a particular cultural narrative, which, in the course of securing freedom of sexual expression, decoupled sexual activity from marriage. The current conception of marriage – which appears to screen out any reference to the creation of a suitable environment for the raising and socialisation of children – owes a great deal to the thoroughgoing romanticisation of love, as well as the deep individualism that prevails in our society. Love is seen as a profusion of emotions and romantic feelings for [an]other person[s]. Thus, on the one hand, sex (of whatever kind) is regarded as a private activity between consenting adults, completely severed from the overarching structures of the marital institution. On the other hand, marriage itself is defined as a kind of contract into which private individuals enter – now seen as a particularly intense form of (codified) companionship, one might say. It could still be argued – superficially – that marriage is public, in the sense that wedding ceremonies are performed before others, reflective of the socio-legal recognition bestowed upon such a relationship. But having severed the substantive elements from the institution, new conceptions of marriage are forced to rest upon the private intentions of those parties entering into such a relationship.

Once more, we witness the attempted fusion of incongruous ideas – the triumph of fashionable thinking over a coherent point of view. In this case, it’s the transformation of marriage into a special form of companionship that most rankles, as proponents of SSM like De Brito seek to dilute the institution. In trying to widen the scope of marriage in order to provide recognition to homosexual couples, views such as De Brito’s end up relying upon a privatised notion of contractual union. Marriage isn’t conceived of as the formation of a unique type of relationship, within which future generations of people may be created and socialised. At best, the sexual and generative features of marriage are subordinate to the (private) feelings of romantic love that exist, and only exist, between the individuals concerned. In other words, marriage has no reality external to the bonds of affection that happen to be exist between individuals; it is reduced to the presence, or actuality, of those feelings. In the absence of the objective reality of sexual complementarity and its inherently generative properties, such unions must be content to rest upon the current emotional states of their participants.

This isn’t merely a question of abstract definitions. If it were, then no more would need to be said. But ideas, as we know, have consequences – and the social consequences of views like De Brito’s, if enshrined in law, may well be disastrous. Nor is it about SSM per se. Rather, the burning issue relates to the deeper ideological and philosophical currents giving rise to calls for “marriage equality” in the first place. What I am referring to are the implications of contemporary views on marriage, particularly as they concern its privatization and underlying emotionality. SSM may be a product of such currents, but its ascendancy would, I think, codify them as the legal basis upon which marriage is founded. Gone would be the understanding of marriage as a bond that is uniquely and inherently capable of issuing in children (who will influence their communities, for good or for ill). In its place would sit a version of the institution that rests, almost entirely, on the normalisation of emotional and physical companionship. Its ongoing legitimacy would only be guaranteed by the bonds of emotion, whilst the objective dimension of marriage would be lost – devolved to the personal feelings of the individuals involved. But how robust a foundation does this provide? Emotions are, as we have all observed, notoriously unstable; they ebb and flow, emerge and recede. One minute, a person might be overwhelmed by feelings of love for another; the next, he might regard that person with relative indifference. How stable are marriages likely to be if they are based upon little more than the feelings of the coupling individuals? Once all external (philosophical) bases for marriage are removed – which seems inescapable if the conjugal conception of marriage is rejected – what else is left but the internal emotional processes that people possess? It hardly needs to be said how destructive divorce can be for all involved – especially children. Trying to root marriages in the transience of one’s private emotions, however, is surely asking for trouble in years to come. Those early feelings of infatuation can subside (sometimes quickly), to be replaced by something more dour, and less romantic. Marriage is, of course, difficult work, and defining it according to one’s emotional state is to turn it into something that is essentially, inherently unstable. If marriage is little more than the outgrowth of affection between two (or more) people – which seems to be all that’s left once traditional conceptions are rejected – what should we say about the reality of that union if such affection disappears? What should we say if and when such unions collapse, causing heartache and anguish for all involved? And what should we say if the children of such failed unions find themselves burdened in life by the fraying of those native bonds of affection?

To take just one example: the increased incidence of drug and alcohol abuse amongst young people from broken families. The conservative “Heritage Foundation” has documented the rates of alcohol, cigarette and illicit drug abuse amongst such youths. In a series of articles that draw from a wide variety of research, the think-tank found that children and adolescents from intact families all had significantly lower rates of alcohol, cigarette, marijuana and cocaine use than did their peers from families that had been fragmented through divorce (see, for example, Patrick F. Fagan and Robert Rector, “The Effects of Divorce on America,” June 5, 2000). Research, therefore, strongly suggests that children from homes sundered by divorce are more likely to engage in them. And yet, trying to corral marriage in the aforementioned way, so that it is forced to rest upon the (transient) emotional states of the participating individuals, is simply welcoming that destruction at some time in the future – perhaps not for every individual, or even for every marital union, but certainly for some. If marriage is grounded in nothing more than such states, and is normalised accordingly, it does not bode well for the survival of many such relationships. What is more, one cannot ignore the baleful ripple effects that ensue if such marriages break-down. However, the confused, contradictory view of marriage that De Brito (and others like him) propounds undermines a bond that is, in many ways, essential to human flourishing. Unfortunately, however, it appears little is able to prevent this view from now being enshrined.

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Religion in Schools? How Dare They! OR Is there Such Thing As Neutrality in Education? (Part Three)

In this third and final post, I shall discuss briefly the idea that Christian religious instruction should retain a place of primacy in schools, even as we acknowledge the importance of education regarding other religions.  

Everything I have said in the previous two posts may well be valid. But discussion regarding the true nature of secularism begs the question: should Christianity be given a privileged place in primary schools? If we accept that certain claims to truth, even though they may bear a religious hue, are still valid in a secular classroom, should there be room for more than one particular religious or spiritual worldview, especially since secularism was meant to be non-privileging in regards to religion? Some people are indeed arguing for a wider approach, and given our country’s increasing diversity, there’s something to be said for the teaching of other religions. And of course, some individuals who are challenging the exclusivity of Christian educators in schools are pressing for a more “inclusive approach,” rather than the complete erasure of religion from our educational institutions. Moreover, if a group of parents at a local school want the inclusion of another religion in the syllabus, they could be accommodated. Whilst I may not agree with the tenets of another religion, it is important in a religiously diverse world to possess at least a basic understanding of the much-cherished beliefs of people who may be your neighbours or your local doctor. It’s certainly not perfect, with a number of questions emerging (Which religions should be included? Which ignored? Is the value of a religion measured by its adherents? Should we include, say, witchcraft on the curriculum? Does this encourage a consumerist approach to religion?), but it may be an alternative.

In any case, there’s also something to be said for retaining an important place for the teaching of Christian truths in schools. Of course, I am a Christian, so some may accuse me of having a vested interest. But even on a purely socio-cultural level, the justification for maintaining this approach is present. To begin with, raw demographic data suggests that Christianity remains the major religion in Australia, by quite a wide margin. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives website, as of 2010, approximately 74% of the population identified as Christian. The next-largest religion, on a proportional basis, was Buddhism, which claimed 2.1% of the population.  The figures the Australian Bureau of Statistics cites are lower – 68% of the population described themselves as Christian in the last census, in 2001 (ABS Year Book, 2006). Of course, we have to take into account the fact that things are a little murky, since it is quite possible that less people in Australia now describe themselves as Christian. Further, the figures cited do not measure the level or depth of belief. How many, of the 68% of Australians who claimed to be Christian in 2001, were no more than nominal in their faith, or labelled themselves as such because they had been christened at birth? We’ll never know, but despite the problems inherent in these figures, they do point to the enduring openness to Christianity within Australian society. Indeed, they suggest that a large proportion of the country is amenable to the teachings of Christianity. Granted the permissibility of teaching religion in schools, it could be argued that the primacy of CRE reflects the demographic primacy of Christianity in society-at-large.

More salient than raw numbers, however, is the pervasive influence of Judeo-Christian thought and ethics on Australia’s social norms, legal tradition and political culture. As a Western country, Australia is the beneficiary of historical developments in Western culture that owe much to Judeo-Christian principles. Take the notion of human dignity – something that is taken for granted in contemporary society. Catholic philosopher Edward Feser argues that this notion is explicitly grounded in the Judeo-Christian understanding of humans as created in the image of God (“Godless Morality? Why Judeo-Christianity is Necessary for Human Rights,” Crisis, July/August, 2006). This idea, woven into the cultural, political and social fabric of the West, transformed all human individuals into beings with surpassing worth and inherent dignity. The metaphysical foundations of this view, originating in Judaism and developed by Christianity, “elevated human dignity to the greatest conceivable limit” (Feser, 2006). Judeo-Christian thought also bequeathed to Western culture the understanding that there is an objective moral order by which individuals – and entire societies – must live. Far from being an authoritarian imposition, this idea, when combined with insistence that all people are bearers of divinely-authored dignity, safeguarded the rights of the poor, the weak and the voiceless. Now, people may not assent to the metaphysical or theological foundations of these ideas, but it is hard to deny the practical outcomes. These include the development of human rights, governments constrained by law, political institutions oriented towards human flourishing and not personal gain – in short, many of the features of the Western world (Australia included) that people take for granted. If this is the case, there is little reason why Christian religious instruction, as a form of ethical tuition, should not have a place of primacy in schools. Like it or not, Judeo-Christian values are deeply woven into our culture, and to forcibly remove its primacy and its presence from educational establishments is to deprive children of the very ideas and values we cherish most.

This debate is not likely to subside any time soon. But I hope that I have offered a coherent view that upholds the legitimacy of (Christian) religious instruction in our schools.

Religion in Schools? How Dare They! OR Is there Such Thing As Neutrality in Education? (Part Two)

In Part Two, I will be looking at the assumptions that lie beneath arguments against religious instruction. I believe that these assumptions are not impregnable, and can be critiqued.

Many of those who suggest (kindly or unkindly) that CRE has no place in our secular schools implicitly base that view on the assumption that one can make a clear distinction between the purely fact-based nature of secular education, and the evangelistic musings of religious folk who possess nothing more than faith to support their assertions about reality, human nature and their conception of the “good life”. The Herald Sun’s Susie O’Brien exemplified this assumption when she labelled CRE “indoctrination” (“Expel God from Classrooms,” 15th February, 2011). Or take this comment, left on a discussion page on the FIRIS (Fairness In Religion In Schools) website in response to an individual defending CRE:

“…CRE volunteers are unqualified, more likely to indoctrinate rather than educate, and confirms my strong belief that children should not be exposed to such biased influences.” (“Parents’ Stories” discussion page, May 20th, 2011, emphasis mine).

The use of the word “indoctrinate” and its cognates to describe religious education suggests that both individuals believe that religious instruction, by definition, is an attempt to brain wash young, malleable minds with a dogmatic and ideological belief system – in contrast to the simple teaching of reality and truth that sits at the heart of our education system.

But this is wrong, for couple of reasons. First, as I noted above, this view incorrectly assumes that secular education is a value-free enterprise, whilst religious instruction is nothing more than an effort to manipulate impressionable children with fanciful nonsense. This view needs to be challenged. The Enlightenment ideal of value-free knowledge has so far failed to materialize – largely because it does not exist; the ugly great ditch that once separated “cold hard facts” with unsubstantiated values has been found to be not so great after all. We have moved on from the naïve belief that an objective reality can be readily grasped, and that the facts are simply “there” to be uncovered. Don’t get me wrong; I believe in an objective reality, and I believe in the reality of “facts”. Moreover, I am not suggesting that because a claim to truth is often influenced by the pre-existing perspective of the claimant, we cannot rest on the well-founded belief that “truth” exists. But if post-modernism has shown us anything (and, despite its flaws and excesses, it can alert us to certain truths), pure, pristine knowledge is actually hard to come by. All truth claims – save for pure mathematics, perhaps – are shot through with bias and value judgments, and no one approaches reality from a neutral standpoint. Facts exist, but at some point, they need to be strung together into some kind of narrative.  And because all of us use interpretive grids – “narratives,” so to speak – to make sense of the discrete facts we receive, the question of value-free knowledge becomes significant.

The implications for education are plain. It is not the value-free project it is sometimes assumed to be, since current curriculums and syllabuses stem from a certain set of presuppositions about truth and the way that truth should be conveyed. Indeed, modern education is pregnant with certain assumptions regarding what is good for the individual and what knowledge is deemed to be valuable, which are every bit as value-laden as religious claims on these, and other, matters. Even something as simple and apparently straightforward as the teaching of reading can become the site for an ideological battle. Indeed, in the past few years, there has been a philosophical conflict between two methods of developing literacy in young children, which the columnist, Miranda Devine, has written about at length (for example, “Fox Versus Phonics,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 11th, 2005). The debate is largely one about method (the goal is not in dispute), but even here, we find at work certain assumptions about the mind, the process by which learning takes place, and even the apparent naturalness of language acquisition.

Thus, the way knowledge is grasped and understood has to reckon with issues of perspective, context and the sometimes-unnoticed effects of one’s own presuppositions. This is certainly true for the education system, and to suggest that it adheres to a strictly value-free process of teaching children, whilst religious educators are engaging in sheer indoctrination, motivated only by rigid dogma, misses this crucial truth. One might even argue that the very exclusion of religion from the classroom rests upon certain assumptions about what is good for a person: that spiritual values are irrelevant to one’s development and maturation; that a purely materialistic education (practically, at least) is all that is needed for the production of well-rounded human beings. These are no more demonstrable than the claim, made by Christianity, that the spiritual dimension of life is a crucial aspect of an individual’s makeup. Of course, the hard work has to be done to present Christian theology as an academically robust, intellectually stimulating field of endeavour [1]. But there is no reason that Christianity should be ruled out a priori by those who argue that it is, by definition, hopelessly compromised as a claim to truth. Nor is there any reason to make such a rigid distinction between the supposedly value-free nature of secular education and the inherently biased nature of Christian religious instruction.

In any case, even without the influence of religion in classrooms, children are still shaped by a certain set of values embedded within education – developed by experts, sanctioned by governments, and mediated through the work of teachers. This leads me to my second point, which concerns the very act of education, whether religious or secular. Education, of whatever stripe, is much more than simply relaying information, shorn of all context, to young minds. It is about shaping and socialising those minds so that they will be able to “fit” into prevailing cultural frameworks and adhere to those social norms deemed to be acceptable. Some might like to think that education is an exercise in the free exchange of information and knowledge, but the opposite is the case. Take these words from John Stuart Mill, a political philosopher from the 19th century, quoted in a recent report by the Centre for Independent Studies, a think-tank (“The Rise of Independent Schools”):

“General state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in government…in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind.”

We may quibble with some of the language (“despotism” may seem a trifle overblown), but the point is made. What is taught, what is not taught, and how the act of teaching takes place, all occur within a certain framework about how students should be shaped and moulded. Education is not a neutral activity; it aims to socialise children into the structures of a given society; and it seeks to develop personalities based on what those who have devised it believe is right and proper for human flourishing. Indeed, secular education aims to influence as much as any kind of religious instruction. Without the belief that this particular curriculum, or that particular educational narrative, is beneficial to the child, it’s hard to see why a teacher would enter the profession in the first place.

To be sure, it might be easy to find a base set of universal values to which everyone holds, and this is important for social harmony. But the range of truths to which all agree is, I suspect, rather narrow. Further, the reasons for holding to similar ethical views may be very different, which means that worldviews and presuppositions cannot be completely ignored. Thus, it becomes necessary to “flesh out” an educational curriculum, which inevitably stems from the values and opinions “espoused by the educational establishment, the school and its teachers” (Salomone, quoted in “The Rise in Independent Schools,” CIS). Now, it needs to be said that in suggesting all education is about influencing and intellectual moulding, I am not thereby encouraging Christian religious educators to go around trying to actively convert students, to which they have access through religious instruction classes. My point is to challenge the assumption that secular education (in apparent contrast with any mention of religiously-inspired beliefs) has nothing at all to do with trying to influence, persuade and shape. Rigid distinctions between religious instruction and secular education on this particular basis are therefore unwarranted.

Third, this kind of argument misreads the notion of secularism. Some who speak about the place of Christian religious instruction do so with the assumption that secularism means the complete banishment of religion from the public sphere. But, philosophically, historically and practically, this is incorrect. Secularism does not mean the erasure of religion from public life; that would in fact be inimical to the heart of true secularity. As I noted at the commencement of this essay, anyone advocating this position exposes an anti-religious authoritarianism. Our free and democratic society safeguards the public presence of religion, and allows for the public expression of religiosity. Now, I am not proposing that people who are concerned about religion’s presence in schools simply silence themselves. However, to base one’s concerns on threats to secularism is to misinterpret the nature of the concept. Secularism never meant religion’s invisibility. Rather, it meant that no one religion should be privileged by the state. Some may argue that this is precisely what is happening. I shall attempt to deal with that objection below. But, suffice it to say, the historical definition of secularism never embraced the notion that religiously inspired positions should be excluded from the marketplace of ideas. In any event, such attempt is fraught with practical difficulties, given that we all bring with us our own views of the world into public life. How is a person – a teacher, say – meant to ignore what is likely to be a deeply-felt set of beliefs when they go to work, all in an effort to ensure that religion has no effect on anything beyond that person’s inner life? And yet, this is the logical consequence for people who wish to lock religion away in the prayer closet. Those who have challenged CRE in schools based on this erroneous notion would do well to think through the far-reaching implications.

In the next (and final) post, I will offer some preliminary arguments regarding the continued primacy of Christian religious instruction.

[1] Those who argue against the presence – in any form – of Christianity in schools would do well to look at those figures, both past and present, who have provided intellectually robust accounts of Christian belief that can take their places in the public square. Philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, or New Testament scholars such as N.T. Wright, James Dunn and Richard Bauckham provide compelling arguments for the existence of God and the reliability of the New Testament, respectively. Moreover, some of the West’s intellectual giants were believers in God: Augustine, whose works influenced not just Christian theology, but also various aspects of Western political discourse; St. Thomas Aquinas, philosopher and theologian, and possibly the greatest Aristotelian after Aristotle himself; and Isaac Newton, one of the most influential figures in the history of Western science. To equate religion with unfounded, unreflective dogma is to ignore embodied evidence to the contrary.

Religion in Schools? How Dare They! OR Is there Such a Thing as Neutrality in Schools (Part One)

In Part One, I shall look briefly at some of the arguments that are employed when some raise concerns about the place of religious instruction (particularly Christian religious instruction) in schools. In Parts Two and Three, I shall interrogate some the deeper assumptions and issues that often remain hidden in this kind of debate.

The past few months have seen a rising furore over the place of religion (especially Christianity, given its primacy) in schools, both in Victoria and elsewhere across Australia. First, it was school chaplaincy; now, religious education has become a target. I am not that old, so I don’t know if this kind of controversy has erupted in the past. That’s immaterial, since we are faced with a campaign that is, in some quarters at least, systematic and orchestrated. I am usually loath to suggest such a thing, but it’s difficult to conclude otherwise when reading particular newspapers (especially a certain Melbourne broadsheet that has moved ever-leftward over the past few years). How is a Christian meant to respond?

Troubled is perhaps one way to describe it. Not so much because of the debate itself, but because of what seems to lie behind it. There appears to be a concerted campaign in some quarters to remove any trace of Christianity – and in some cases, religion generally – from Australian schools, which is part of a wider effort to completely privatise religion. Some are more measured in their conclusions, arguing that if religion is to be taught, then each one should have equal “air-time”. Thus, challengers to Christian Religious Education (CRE) do not form a monolithic group. Nevertheless, an aggressive kind of secularism is at work, which is as narrow and as authoritarian as the most fundamentalist of religions (note that I said a “kind” of secularism. Secularism per se is not the culprit).

What I want to do here is concentrate on special religious education in schools, and in particular Christian education, whilst leaving the issue of school chaplains to one side for a moment. I may return to that particular bone of contention in a future article, and some of the points raised here may well be relevant there. But for now, I shall focus on CRE and the flack its main provider, Access Ministries, has been copping of late. Much has been said about the apparent indoctrination of children at the hands of theocratic predators (alright, so no one I know of has used the term “theocratic predators”, but you get my drift). Some worry that children are being fed a steady diet of fairy tales, shot through with a particular religious bias that is inimical to the standards of a good, secular education. Others are concerned that the teaching of religion in schools is inherently divisive, since those children who may not share the majority faith are often removed from class – thereby highlighting the differences already present.

As to the former concern, I should note that there are strict guidelines as to what is taught by Christian educators working through Access Ministries. In fact, I was speaking to one particular religious instructor recently, and he informed me that there are clear, government-enforced guidelines surrounding the exact nature and scope of the religious curriculum. Moreover, when instructors teach for their allotted thirty minutes (hardly a sign that our cherished goal of secular education is in mortal danger), the classroom teacher is present at all times. Thus, we have frameworks of accountability present at more than one level, which ensures that religious instructors do not cross the boundary between informing and proselytizing.

As to the latter worry, it’s difficult to judge just how valid it really is. I am sure there are some parents who are worried that their children are the targets of bullying or teasing because their absence from CRE classes has exposed them as different. There may well be such cases; I don’t know. I can only speak from experience – that of my own, and that of others. The danger of division, as far as I can remember from my primary school days, was somewhat remote. In fact, my closest friend was a Jehovah’s Witness, and each week, he would leave class whenever the local Anglican or Uniting minister would come down to teach us about Jesus. This was never a cause for division between he and I – one a member of the Watchtower Society, the other a member of the local Baptist church. Speaking to other people involved in CRE has confirmed to me that this concern – valid, perhaps, in a number of individual cases – has been overstated. Another person who has taught Christian religion at school said to me that many of the children would come up to her after the lesson and thank her for her time. Indeed, she developed quite a rapport with some of them. And even if some kind of division does occur, it often does so in such a way that favours the removed children – seen as fortunate to be missing class by their peers.

These are important aspects of an important debate. But they also lie at the surface of an issue that really focuses squarely on much deeper questions and implicit assumptions: the philosophical underpinnings of our education system; the nature of knowledge; the meaning of secularism; and the role of Christianity in the public square. Without wanting to denigrate the importance of the things I have already discussed, I prefer to get to the heart of the matter. So stay tuned.



Social Networking: False Promises? (Part One)

In the space of less than a decade, Facebook and other social networking sites have become an indelible, ubiquitous – and, according to some, indispensible – part of contemporary culture. This is not only so in the prosperous west; indeed, much of the rest of the world has become enamoured with this relatively new development in communication. From humble beginnings, some of these sites have risen to places of great social and cultural influence (Facebook, which started at Harvard University in 2004, now boasts several hundred million users worldwide, and its inception has been turned into an Oscar-winning film), that influence has shaped, and is shaping, our relationships, our interactions with the world, and even the way in which we view reality.

But can it be said that these changes have had an unambiguously beneficial effect on the way we live? Has that amorphous concept known as “society” been changed for the better? Some point to the increased capacity for network-building and the development of wider friendship groups, and this cannot be denied. Links between previously disparate individuals are certainly created and strengthened, which can only be a good thing in an often disconnected world. At the same time, however, many have concerns over some of the less desirable effects that social networks seem to have wrought on people. What I want to do in this part of my look at social networking is focus on the social and relational implications of sites such as Facebook, and the kinds of negative effects they have had. I mean, for every person who has had the fortune of being able to strengthen existing relationships through Facebook, Myspace or Twitter, there is someone else for whom these online environments only deepen and reinforce the sense of loneliness they may have already felt. For every person who can claim to use these sites to successfully network with others, there is someone else who not only cannot do this, but who feels even more socially distant than before.

It might be argued that this is simply a reflection of life: people in the real world are often divided into social butterflies and lone wolves; a site such as Facebook simply mirrors this reality. This may well be true, but when a site implicitly claims to transcend barriers to friendship and social connection, one has to ask whether this is indeed the case. For example, it is easy to see how this might be played out within the Facebook environment. You’re happy with your 23 friends. Content, you might say. But then you see that one of your friends has 487 of his own. It may induce petty jealousy – a niggling emotion, but nothing to worry about. However, it may also induce something far more serious and far more emotionally damaging. It’s not the fault of Facebook, of course; nor can one say that such social networking sites have actually created these conditions (not directly, anyway). But again, this is hardly the perfect advertisement for a site whose raison d’etre is to bring people together. Moreover, it could be suggested that although a site like Facebook may reflect (as opposed to create) the socially stratified world in which we live, that sense of disconnect and alienated anonymity may only be deepened with the immediacy and constancy of others’ popularity within the cyber community.

This is no mere speculation; nor is it nothing more than a hypothetical situation. I know of people who have entered into the world of Facebook (or some other social networking site) with the ultimately forlorn hope that such technology will help break down the social and geographical barriers that previously hindered their ability to foster strong and enriching relationships. Those hopes were dashed. Their sense of disconnectedness and loneliness was hardly ameliorated; quite the opposite, in fact, as they struggled to garner attention in the same way that others do. And given the constant reminders of other users’ popularity (due to the ease with which one can view another’s Facebook page), that sense of their own social inadequacy is only reinforced. Social networking sites may have the potential to break down social and geographical barriers (and we shouldn’t deny this fact). But it also seems that the kind of social disconnection that people feel in the “real” world can now be brought right into their living rooms. Add to that the now notorious ability of Facebook to create social addicts of us all, and the tension between the desperate need to be accepted on something that represents the cultural zeitgeist of our age, and the often-felt reality of digital alienation that lies behind the promise, becomes unbearable for some.

The problem is one among many. Even if, say, Facebook is unequivocally able to create an environment that is conducive to networking and friendship, one needs to ask just how strong those networks and so-called friendships really are. Everyone on Facebook is called a “friend” when another user invites him or her. In many cases, a friend in the Facebook world is a friend in the real world. But how often is this the case? How many of a person’s 673 Facebook friends (to use a purely hypothetical number) are actually true companions? Now, simply having this number of people on one’s Facebook page is not a problem in and of itself. But when the word “friend” is used in such a loose and cavalier manner, it is stretched beyond breaking point. In other words, the word (and, one might say, the concept) is trivialised by the all-encompassing use of what ought to be a special and selective term. Friendship is far too precious to be undercut by the way it is applied to even the most distant of acquaintances and the most shallow of relationships. The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that “friendship is one soul in two bodies”. Looking past any literal interpretation of that quote, we can see how friendship is elevated to the status of something that possesses almost unique intimacy, bringing two separate lives together in such a way that they become deeply interdependent. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus himself spoke of friendship in glowing terms, describing both the sacrificial love and the relational intimacy that characterises its true expression (John 15:13, 15). These poetic descriptions of platonic unions stand in stark contrast to the shallow and trivialised notion of friendship that one sometimes witnesses on social networking sites.

These concerns have already been raised in the public sphere. An article in The New York Times detailed the explosion of so-called “weak ties” as a result of sites such as Facebook, and the problems that follow (Clive Thompson, “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy”, 5th September, 2008). Before the advent of such technology, distant acquaintances, such as an old high-school friend or a business colleague, may not have been so important. They were present in the background of a person’s social landscape, but did not elicit much energy or attention. Now, however, things are much different. The proliferation of relationships and social ties that are more distant and less intimate than a person’s inner circle – aided and abetted by social networks’ capacity to transcend time and space at will – has had, according to some psychologists at least, a burdensome effect on individuals’ emotional energy. If everyone on, say, Facebook is clamouring for your attention; and if everyone is worthy of the appellation “friend”; and if such technology has the effect of making social ties appear stronger than they really are; then it becomes easy to see how a person can be stretched socially and emotionally by the obligation to respond to the false appearance of friendship. Although a site such as Facebook can put one in touch with others who have similar interests and tastes, it can also sustain weak social ties that may in fact undermine one’s more close and intimate relationships.

Indeed, certain questions arise as a result. To what extent are people robbing themselves of the chance of true, substantive relationships with other flesh-and-blood individuals for the online attraction of cyber-relationships? How far does the notion of “Facebook friend” undercut the notion of actual friendship? And is all this changing the way we look at the concept of friendship, leading us to devalue the hard work and effort it takes to build and maintain them? One may expend emotional energy maintaining the constant existence of weak social ties out of nothing more than devotion to digital norms and customary obligations, but is that simultaneously trivialising the notion of authentic friendship, and all that that entails? Does a social networking site such as Facebook (or Myspace, or Twitter) give us an illusory picture of intimacy and relational knowledge? We may know what another “friend” did over the weekend faster and more easily than we were able to just ten years ago with a flesh-and-blood companion, but that is a far cry from true knowledge of another person. As Danah Boyd, a Harvard academic studying the phenomenon, said, others can “observe you, but it’s not the same as knowing you”.

The concept of reality – personal reality – is also a question without a concrete answer. We now have the unprecedented ability to construct certain portraits of ourselves on sites such as Facebook, but how much do these portraits reflect our true selves? It must be said that such sanitized versions of people’s lives are not only inimical to the requirements of true friendship, but they may induce a false (or at least, severely truncated) representation of personal reality. What we take to be reflections of people’s lives are, in actual fact, mere slices of social reality that only bear an oblique resemblance to a person’s true self. How does the seemingly happy and care-free triviality of Facebook play with someone who is in the deepest throes of depression or social anxiety? I suspect that it doesn’t play so well, which may not be a direct cause of such sites (Facebook doesn’t actually cause depression), but has been increased by their ubiquity and pervasiveness. Indeed, therein lies part of the problem, for although we may enjoy connections with a whole host of different people, those connections betray a fundamental distance (the “weak ties” phenomenon) that is only reinforced by the kind of culture that has developed on social networking sites. As the quote above suggests, mere observation of an individual’s daily routine is not the same as actually knowing them as a whole person. Of course, I can’t claim to have expert knowledge in these areas; nor can I claim to have concrete answers for the questions I have just posed. But we must be aware of the potential of Facebook, et. al., to undermine, or at least transform, the very truth of friendship – a truth that is sometimes difficult, often demanding, but nearly always rewarding.

It’s not just the concept of friendship that seems to have been transformed by social networking sites. Triviality, for instance, seems to be something of a core value on these sites (before going on, I have to put all cards on the table, and admit that I, too, engage in this online banality from time to time). But that can only have a deleterious effect on one’s efforts, thinking and perspective on life. If a site such as Facebook continues to exert such wide – and deep – cultural influence over young people (and some older people, too), it is not unreasonable to suggest that the trivial take on life that seems to have sprung up as a result may end up defining the way in which the world is viewed. Given the ubiquity of Facebook and other sites that I have already mentioned, there is little doubt that minds saturated in this kind of environment can only become infantilized. The truly great things of this world that should occupy our thoughts and our time have taken a back seat to the immediate and transient pleasures of knowing who-did-what last weekend, or who-had-what for lunch. The vacuous and the banal now occupy an over-sized place in people’s minds, squeezing out far more substantial concerns. Even a cursory look at the Facebook “news feed” Wall will put to rest any claims to the contrary. And if one’s attention or thinking is narrowed and truncated in such a way, what does that say about our culture as a whole? I don’t want to press these arguments too far, but it seems that sites such as Facebook, for all their promise (and let’s be frank; they can – and do – deliver on such promise), can actually have a detrimental effect on a person’s ability to think, to critique, and to engage with this world in a mature manner. To be sure, we cannot assume that this is simply the fault of Facebook or some other such site. Facebook, for example, is as much a reflection of common cultural pursuits as it is a driver of them. It both creates and imitates cultural mores in a dialectical relationship. What is more, not every user of such sites is in fact worse off as a result. Nevertheless, the pervasive presence of such sites at least raises the issue of whether or not they are feeding into an infantilized society, which jars horribly with efforts to build people who are well-rounded and critically engaged individuals.

I might sound like a prophet of doom with all of these grave concerns about something that seems to be so innocuous. But let it never be said that the things we create exert no power over us as individuals or us as a society (if we let them). That much is true. And, within the Western world at least, the concerns that I have detailed above are fairly close to the mark. Now, it might sound like I am completely opposed to Facebook and its ilk, but that it’s not actually the case. For as in most things, so in this: ambiguity reigns. As I have already noted in this article, social connectedness is often enhanced (and one might even say enriched) by social networking sites. How often is a matter for debate, but one must concede that fact. Indeed, relationships in the real world are, in some cases, deepened as a result of social networking that occurs online, at a much faster rate than previously. In addition, the ubiquitous triviality that is constantly witnessed on such sites is very different from the more substantial uses towards which, say, Facebook, is put, especially in other parts of the world. However, I don’t want to anticipate too much what I want to say in my next post. Those points – and a Christian perspective on the whole phenomenon – will have to wait for Part Two of this series.

UPDATE: I’ve just found out that the manager of my blog has just posted this entry on Facebook. Hmmm…using the very medium that I critique on my blog in order to publicize it. I am aware of the irony.

The Possibility of Challenging and Transforming Culture with Christian Truth

In a previous post, I spoke of some of the inadequate approaches to Christian witness in the world. If you remember, I defended the permissibility of a wider approach to engagement with the surrounding culture, beyond the (utterly essential) task of proclaiming the heart of the gospel. Indeed, our mandate is transformation in this world, and not simply the salvation of souls for a life of disembodied bliss in the hereafter. Without wanting to minimize the absolute importance of proclaiming the gospel – from which all our other activities flow – there is a need for cultural, philosophical and social engagement with the world. Our call is to be salt and light, which necessarily entails all kinds of witness, and all types of ministry. This is so, whether one is speaking about evangelism, outreach to the poor, advocacy on behalf of certain causes, philosophical engagement with other beliefs or worldviews, or an apologetic defence of Christian truth and wisdom. (A quick note on terminology: when I speak of “Christian truth” or “Christian wisdom”, I am not simply referring to the gospel – though this is certainly included. What I am referring to is that sphere of ethical knowledge that flows out of a Christian perspective, and that provides people with a framework for living. This is what I have in mind when I talk about the transformation of culture).

What I want to do here is defend the likelihood of challenging and transforming the culture with Christian truth, which necessarily includes the work of evangelism and explicit Christian witness, but is not limited to those tasks. Of course, the ultimate goal of our witness is to create disciples who are devoted to Jesus. But as God’s people, living in his world, we are called – even commanded – to preserve his truth and righteousness, both private and public, wherever we find ourselves. What I am talking about here is public Christianity: the kind of Christianity that, at some level, influences and enriches the surrounding cultural, social, political and philosophical environments. At this point, I should pre-empt some questions, for my thesis may be a contentious one. If, as some would argue, Christian truth can only be received by those who are already believers and disciples, what is the point in trying to persuade others to our point of view? If, for example, we try and uphold the sanctity of the marriage covenant between a man and a woman (I choose this particular example, since it represents one of the flashpoints between two groups that possess widely differing worldviews), then how can we possibly do so in such a way without being told that our view – rooted as it is in Christian metaphysics, theology and ethics – has no relevance or resonance outside the faith? How can we, as God’s transformed and transforming people, possibly hope to submit an account of our ethical and metaphysical positions that have currency beyond the already-devoted? Is Christian truth for Christians only, or is there some way that it can resonate with people beyond the church?

These questions notwithstanding, I think we can argue that engaging in this sort of enterprise is not only warranted, it is possible. It is possible to conceive of a kind of Christianity that can take its place in the marketplace of ideas, doing the work of social and cultural transformation. It is possible that moral and ethical truths gleaned from Christianity can have epistemological credibility in the public square. What is more, I am persuaded that these things are so precisely because of the wisdom of Scripture. Let me explain what I mean. In the course of reading and studying the Bible’s wisdom literature on and off over the past couple of months, I have become convinced that not only are we called to effect wide transformation within whatever environment(s) we find ourselves, but that we can also believe in the broad efficacy of a Christian perspective or worldview, which resonates with society-at-large. In particular, the book of Proverbs gives us a new perspective on the possibility of successfully offering Christian truth to a world that is often starved of it.

The first nine chapters of the book, which together form the foundation for the rest of the sage’s work, give us some insight into the all-encompassing nature of wisdom. After spending several chapters warning his young charge of the dangers of folly and commending “lady wisdom” to him, the author reaches his great, poetical account of wisdom’s origins and her role in God’s world. He speaks of wisdom being the first of God’s works, “appointed before eternity” (8:22-23). In personifying wisdom, such words introduce us to the paradox of the divine nature: on the one hand, the author can speak of God’s wisdom as a distinct quality, something that he has, if you like, brought into being; but on the other hand, he waxes lyrical about the eternal nature of wisdom, existing with God before time’s commencement. A paradox indeed, but one that makes sense within a thoroughly Jewish framework. If we understand that the Jewish people grappled with the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of Yahweh, then we may come to recognize just what we read here. The sage is declaring the divine origins of the wisdom he commends to his readers, rooting it in the sovereign God whom he worships. God may be above all, unbound by time, space, and our limited earthen categories, but he is also intimately involved in his creation, which the writer of Proverbs lyrically describes in terms of wisdom. He then goes on to speak of wisdom’s formative and superintending role in the creation of the world: “she” was there when God set the heavens in place (v.27); “she” was present at the marking of the seas and the foundations of the earth (v.29); and “she” celebrated in the formation of humanity itself (v.30). In short, God’s world and the wisdom with which he created it are deeply intertwined. I am not suggesting that we follow the pantheist’s god. Heaven forbid! But what is abundantly clear, from this and other passages (one only needs to go to the opening chapters of the Bible – Genesis 1 and 2), is that this world – God’s creation – has been formed out of, and is laced with, wisdom and moral order. The creation itself, in its own way, declares the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), since it is, if you like, an incarnation of divine knowledge and insight.

How does this kind of creation theology relate to what I am talking about? Several points flow from such a positive account of God’s world. Firstly, this is still God’s good world. The writer of Proverbs knew all about the pernicious presence of sin and folly. And yet, he didn’t consign creation to the rubbish heap; he elevated it to the status of a divinely-ordained medium through which God’s image might in some way be reflected. Secondly, the sage clearly intends to connect the wisdom of daily living with the wisdom displayed in creation. The latter gives life to the former, since if the world itself was created through wisdom, then a life characterised by such a quality can be no bad thing! It will by nature be creative, enriching – life-giving. Such a life will be both ordered and dynamic, framed by purpose but filled with enriching freedom. What is more, if we read such passages within the overall context of God’s redemptive covenant with his people, then it becomes possible to see a life of wisdom, with its grounding in creation theology, as the “highest expression of God’s purposes: to redeem creation and culture to himself through his transformed and transforming people” (Mark J. Boda). Wisdom, since it touches every part of this world (including God’s image-bearers) is a noble and laudable goal.

Lastly, the fact that this world has been lovingly created through the wisdom of the one true God means that humanity, as an inescapable part of his creation, is infused with that same wisdom. We ourselves (and by “we”, I mean all people) have been fashioned out of God’s wisdom, and we ourselves exhibit the power of that wisdom to create and to fashion, to think and to reason, to order and to frame. And because divine knowledge touches every part of God’s creation, we are by nature privy to it, whether Christian or not. As inhabitants of God’s creation, we embody – albeit it in corrupted form – his knowledge and truth. There is a deep relationship between God and his creation, a relationship that is made incarnate, if you like, in those who have been made in his image. By nature, we are able to comprehend something of God’s wisdom; by nature, we are able to positively respond to it; and by nature, we are able to recognize what is right and good, since we contain within us the seeds of God’s own truth.

A theology of creation means that even prior to the reception of the gospel, people are intrinsically able (to an extent, at least) to discern something of God’s truth. Whether Christian or not, all of God’s image-bearers are by nature carriers and vessels of divine wisdom. I don’t want to press this too far, but Proverbs itself gives us a warrant for believing that at some level, and because of our own origins, divine truth can resonate with all people. Let us return to Chapter 8. There, it speaks of kings and princes making judgments and rulings according to the dictates of wisdom (8:15-16). They reign, whether they know it or not, according to the divinely-ordained order that envelops God’s creation. These verses are deeply significant, since the anonymous kings and princes mentioned are obviously not members of God’s people; they do not necessarily believe in him. And yet, the author of Proverbs can speak of them reigning with the same wisdom that God used to bring his world into being. Thus, we see the all-embracing nature of divine knowledge and truth, by which all are touched, and to which all have access.

Manifold implications flow from this kind of theological construction. Aside from reinforcing a positive conception of God’s creation – which I attempted to outline in my last post in this series – we may start to see how our public witness can actually bear fruit amongst all people. The foundational chapters of Proverbs – especially Chapter 8 – strongly suggest that the wisely-ordered nature of God’s creation can resonate with, and is reflected by, all people. The wisdom and truth that inheres in this world is, in theory, open to people of all stripes. What one might call natural law, public wisdom or even general revelation can indeed transform the surrounding culture, for it is open to people prior to their reception of God’s special revelation in Christ and the gospel (I don’t want to create too-artificial a distinction between general revelation and special revelation, but it will do for my current purposes). And that means that we as God’s people, who are called to bring his truth to bear upon all arenas of life, can hope to see people persuaded by the very same wisdom which has brought them into being and sustains this world. It means that despite the marring effects of sin, which can numb the mind and deceive the heart, the truth that we follow and obey can have an enriching effect upon society-at-large. This is the kind of thing that goes beyond the church and beyond the faithful, for it is something that is creational in nature as it reaches out to all those it has created. Divine wisdom, as a quality of the Creator God, is not bound by culture or time; it is not even bound by Christianity (and therefore privy only to Christians). On some level, divine truth invites universal access.

So, when we defend the biblical conception of marriage (for example), we ought to be encouraged that God’s conception of marriage flows out of his wise ordering of the world and its relationships, and the truth claims that we make regarding it can indeed resonate with all people. When we argue for the coherency of sexual complimentarity inherent within marriage, we should be encouraged that this is not simply a Christian view of things, but a creational reality that transcends cultural and social mores. That, once more, is the nature of God’s wisdom. When we make truth claims about how to live, or about ethics, or even about the nature of truth itself, we should be persuaded by the fact that because we speak with people who have been fashioned in God’s image and created according to his wisdom, we offer something that in some measure can have epistemological currency and transformative power. It is the kind of truth that has public (as opposed to merely private, Christian) value. Of course, we should be humble about the effects of sin and human misdeeds, and not neglect the opposing fact that various philosophical and ethical frameworks, which people have constructed around themselves, are often deeply entrenched and difficult to shift. However, at the same time, we should also be uplifted by the fact that the divine knowledge that has brought all of us into existence (again, I go back Genesis 1 and 2) is the same “stuff” that allows us to reflect our Creator in our own lives (consciously or not) and to discern the good (consciously or not). It is a boon to our efforts to transform our world, because it acknowledges the potential influence of godly truth, beyond the church. God’s wisdom has brought this world into being; as we witness to his ways, we call his image-bearers back to it.

A final note. Complete wisdom, it must be said, is always to be found in the context of a covenantal relationship with God. Thus, whilst we may commend the ethical and moral implications of a Christian worldview to a waiting – and sometimes sceptical – audience (encouraged by its potential ability to persuade those who, by nature, possess an ability to discern the truth of God) this kind of public engagement alone is unable to actually save people. It may enrich and preserve the moral character of a given society; it may help to ameliorate some of the excesses of a sinful world; it may even persuade those outside the faith of the efficacy and integrity of Christian moral positions, bringing them several steps closer to the gospel. But it can never, by itself, help people to cross the existential and spiritual chasm that lies between God and man. That is God’s business; and only then, when such a chasm is crossed, will one possess true wisdom – the wisdom of God – in all his fullness.

The Inadequacy of Certain Christian Approaches to Witness and Mission

In this post, I want to offer some preliminary remarks about one of the prevailing views regarding Christian mission and witness, and why I think it is inadequate. I then want to discuss – in very general terms at this point – about the way in which a comprehensive biblical picture of God’s creation and its destiny can actually broaden the scope of our witness in this world. It is an introductory post, and sets my view within a broad creational context that takes account of the prophetic and eschatological significance of what we are called to do, as well as the way in which our work fits into the God’s redemptive “big picture”. But let’s move on.

First of all, I want to critique the narrow view I have characterized – with the important caveat that in no way do I want to diminish the centrality of evangelism. In any case, I would argue that an exclusive commitment to evangelism (which rules out other forms of witness and engagement with this world) rests on a faulty assumption. Of course, there are many reasons for adopting any view in life, whether it’s one’s political persuasion or one’s choice of spouse. This view is no different, and I shall perhaps engage with other reasons for its persistence in later posts. For now, I want to concentrate on the poor theology that undergirds this narrow approach to Christian witness. Those who adhere to such a view adopt what I want to call a “sinking ship” mentality when they think about the world and its destiny. According to such a view, the world – much like the Titanic – is sinking slowly into the miry depths; it is only a matter of time before it disappears completely. All we can hope to do is to rescue a few souls from the doomed vessel, so that they may enjoy salvation in a place far from here; anything else – helping the poor, engaging in the political arena, taking part in public debates from a robustly Christian position – is akin to re-arranging the deck chairs after the great ship struck the iceberg.

Unfortunately, this is a deeply dualistic mentality that sees salvation in purely escapist terms. Quite where it comes from is still unclear (though I would hazard a guess and say that the Enlightenment split between the sacred and the secular probably has something to do with it), but what is clear is that it shifts attention away from this world. Moreover, it is unbiblical. The fact is, this world is corrupt; it is mired in sin. That much is true. But it is also true to say that God, far from destroying it, will in fact redeem it. His world is not irrevocably lost; neither is it inherently evil (despite being corrupted by sin), and therefore to be repudiated. One cannot read passages such as Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15, which speak about redemption in creational and personal terms, respectively, and not be struck by the way in which God is actually for this world. This does not exclude the necessity of judgment, but it certainly does include the notion that God is in the business of doing something redemptive in this world. Indeed, we should not be surprised by such a commitment, for even the Incarnation, where the Creator entered into the flow of his creation in the most radical of ways (see John 1:14 for example), points to God’s overarching faithfulness to his creation. And if that is true, then I think it also true to say that we are meant to act as agents of redemption – as agents of new creation – in the world in the present. In doing so, we anticipate and reveal (at least in a measure) the fuller redemption that will occur when God’s Kingdom comes in all its fullness.

The space created by the aforementioned attitude allows for the kind of witness about which I am talking. If we are acting and living in a prophetic manner, then it seems good and proper to effect change in the present as a way of anticipating, to some extent at least, the universal application of God’s redemptive rule throughout the entirety of his creation. This can include the influence of governments, ministry to the poor and the exploited, and engagement with the ideas of this world in order to transform the thinking of individuals and to challenge the intellectual and philosophical structures of, hopefully, entire societies. None of this can replace what God is going to do to consummate history and creation; he alone will completely erase the effects of sin from this world. But what we do in the present, whether it’s evangelism or challenging governments or ministering to the poor, ought to be set in a creational, rather than an escapist, context. It manifests the judging, saving, redemptive work of God in this world, rather than wooing people away from it.

Such a context applies to individuals as much as it does to societies and institutions. Just as God is going to actually redeem – as opposed to destroy – this world, so too is he in the business of redeeming the whole person. Again, we may point to 1 Corinthians 15 (not to mention Romans 8:23) as a warrant for this approach. When we read those portions of scripture, we ought to recognize the fact that our ultimate destiny is not some disembodied state, but resurrection – renewed, transformed, bodily life, of which Jesus is the firstfruits and the template (1 Cor. 15:23). Both his incarnation and his resurrection give us a powerful warrant for believing that our ultimate hope pertains to renewed bodily life. And given that our final hope is a new kind of bodily life, it makes sense to minister to the whole person. We have been created as people – physical and spiritual unities – and we will be redeemed as people. Christian witness needs to reflect this truer understanding of a person’s nature. To be sure, evangelism is vital, for no one can enter into God’s new world without first having received the gospel. Only the reception of the gospel will see someone receive eternal life. But, as noted, we are not attempting to save disembodied souls; we are attempting to save people. Anything less is a denial of the biblical witness, which defines personhood in a comprehensive physical-spiritual sense. That is why our witness needs to be manifold in nature, integrating evangelism, spiritual renewal, intellectual challenge, physical service and faithful ministry to the various manifestations of unrighteousness and brokenness – both spiritual and material – that we witness in our societies and our communities.

Despite the criticisms I have made, my hope is that this essay will be read in the conciliatory manner in which it has been written. In that spirit, I want to offer an encouragement to all who “labour in the Lord” – regardless of what that labour looks like. Read Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:58, which come at the end of his lengthy exposition of the meaning and significance of resurrection. Interestingly, Paul connects the present work of the Corinthians with the resurrection of Christ in the past, and the guarantee of the general resurrection in the future: “Therefore my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

And so it is with us. Amen.