The Johannine Jesus and the “I am”


The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is an enigmatic figure, making tantalizing claims about his ultimate identity. His so-called “I am” statements, sprinkled throughout John, are no exception. Allusive and oblique, they are nonetheless freighted with cosmic significance. This essay will argue that the “I am” statements of John’s Gospel constitute an implicit, yet definite, claim to deity, and that this can be substantiated via an exploration of Old Testament ideas latent within the formula. Unfolding in three stages, it will first survey the two main ‘types’ of “I am” statements Jesus employs, demonstrating the formula’s verbal reliance upon key OT texts, and arguing for their fundamental reference to God’s unique covenantal character. The essay will then build upon those preliminary conclusions, offering a broader theological and salvation-historical account of Jesus’ claim, and highlighting several interlocking thematic links between the Johannine Jesus and previous instances of God’s redemptive-revelatory activity. Finally, it will attempt to properly nuance the “I am” formula, sketching out the distinctiveness of Jesus’ divine identification – particularly in light of its relationship to John’s overall Christological-theological presentation.

“I am” in Context

John’s Gospel uses “I am” on several occasions. Some are conventional forms of self-identification (e.g. 1:20). Others, however, carry weightier significance. I will identify two such categories of “I am” statements: those where Jesus used the “I am” formula absolutely; and those where he combined it with a predicate, or vivid image. One shouldn’t force the distinction: a common bed of theological meaning underlies any apparent division. Moreover, the latter unfurls what is latent in the former.

The Johannine Jesus uses the absolute “I am” statements in the Fourth Gospel without any qualifying predicate. John 8:58 is the classic example. In a steadily escalating debate over his identity and origin, Jesus boldly asserts that “before Abraham was born, I am!” His interlocutors understand this seemingly truncated turn of phrase: immediately, they attempt to kill him (v.59). Their hostility indicates an implicit interpretation of blasphemy. Jesus’ opponents, it seems, invested his pronouncement with the kind of meaning that would have led them to conclude he was, remarkably, claiming deity. John 8:24, 28 are also pertinent, as is 18:5-6. The latter passage, where Jesus confronts a detachment of arresting soldiers, is further indication of claimed deity. The party’s prostrating response – after the evangelist emphasises Jesus’ distinctive reply – certainly implies a theophanic experience.

These are inferences, of course. But why did Jesus’ statements arouse such reactions? What kinds of associations would his contemporaries have made? Here, overtones become echoes – deliberate allusions to a rich stream of OT thought, capturing foundational disclosures of God’s utter uniqueness and covenantal faithfulness. Jesus’ judicial and religious opponents, it seems (particularly in 8:58-9), understood this connection. Indeed, abundant evidence for antecedent OT usage exists, which reveals the burgeoning development of “I am” as a divine name.

Of the various OT texts that might be surveyed in this regard, Isaiah 40-55 is especially important, employing self-referential statements linguistically similar to Jesus’ “I am” formula. In the second major section of Isaiah, repeated promises of divine redemption and covenantal faithfulness appear amidst doubts about Yahweh’s willingness, or ability, to rescue his people (aroused by the calamity of exile, and the apparent triumph of pagan “gods” over Israel’s sovereign). The term, “I am [he],” and its cognates, are used to reveal, among other things, Yahweh’s absolute uniqueness – Israel’s sole guarantor of salvation. Isaiah 41:4 and 43:10-13 are prime examples in this regard. Chapters 44-46 are also apposite, where the “I am” formula is employed several times in a similar context, with similar import (cf. 44:6; 45:5-6, 18: 46:4, 9). In addition, Jesus’ “I am” utterances arguably rely upon Exodus 3:14, where Yahweh disclosed his character to Moses with the appellation, “I am who I am.” Like Isaiah 40-55, Exodus 3:14 is set within a larger, covenantal-redemptive context (which the Fourth Gospel echoes). Divine self-disclosure points again to Yahweh’s matchlessness and loyalty. Jesus’ “I am” statements reverberate with sounds of Yahweh’s titular declarations in Isaiah and Exodus. Recalling such expressions, Jesus deliberately appropriated the divine name, perpetuating a historical pattern characterised by Yahweh’s repeated self-revelation (cf. Jn. 17:11). Jesus’ opponents rightly interpreted these “I am” statements as references to a sacred-divine unveiling.

This OT verbal background applies equally well to the seven instances of the predicated “I am,” fleshing out the absolute form, and underpinning various facets of Jesus’ salvific relationship to humanity. For instance, Jesus claimed to be the “resurrection and the life,” prefacing that declaration with “I am” (Jn. 11:25). In so doing, he appropriated something that, ordinarily, belonged to God alone – and in the process, implicitly presented himself as the locus of resurrection life. Sometimes, Jesus clearly drew from OT images and threads. He claimed to be the “bread of life” (6:35), plainly alluding to the feeding of the Israelites after their flight from Egypt (Exodus 16) – and the source, the enfleshment, of true life. His declaration to be “light” (8:12), it seems, echoed the OT’s use of light as a metaphor, not just for illumination, but for salvation (e.g. Isa. 42:6, 49:6). Similarly, as the “true vine” (15:1), Jesus claimed to be the divine reality to which OT Israel – frequently depicted in these terms (e.g. Ps. 80:8-11; Isa. 5:7) – pointed.

John 10:1-21 is a particularly good example of these realities. By declaring, “I am the good shepherd” (vv.11, 14), Jesus consciously alluded to Ezekiel 34 (cf. 37:24-28), boldly contrasting himself with Israel’s false leaders. In that passage, Israel’s “shepherds” are castigated for their predatory ways (vv.2-10); Yahweh vows that he himself will come and shepherd his people, whilst paradoxically promising the advent of a Davidic figure to reign over the nation (vv.11-24). Jesus re-applied Ezekiel’s promise to himself, asserting that he was that “shepherd,” and that he would provide security and comfort for God’s afflicted (albeit leaving the relationship between the Davidic ruler and Yahweh ambiguous). In so using the “I am” formula, Jesus identified himself with past instances of revelatory activity. Moreover, he frequently combined them with known scriptural images to substantiate his claim to be the consummating distillation of the salvific promises to which he alluded.

“I am” – Thematic Resonances

As the foregoing analysis implies, the “I am” statements signalled more than appropriation of the divine self-appellation. Indeed, they went beyond an abstract, metaphysical assertion. The “I am” formula’s OT grounding suggests that Jesus situated himself within a salvation-historical narrative, identifying (climactically) with a particular god, via particular acts – Yahweh, whose past revelations provided the boundaries for his own self-disclosure. The formula is pregnant with several interlocking theological themes and motifs, once more linking Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus to the Johannine Jesus. Three in particular stand out: the cosmic lawsuit; the revelatory-redemptive nexus; and the seminal significance of the image of exodus itself. They form a triadic relationship, having been woven together to inform a deeper understanding of the significance of the “I am” formula.

To begin, Jesus’ “I am” utterances are part of a scriptural-historical pattern of judicial contests between Yahweh and his adversaries. Both Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus feature what could be called the cosmic lawsuit motif, pitting God and false claimants to deity against each other in a supra-natural trial. Indeed, the question of knowledge of God’s identity hangs over both these portions of the OT. In Isaiah, Yahweh repeatedly reveals himself against a panoply of lifeless idols; in Exodus, he’s unveiled as the authentic Lord, over and against Pharaoh and his pantheon. The key link is the polemical unveiling of the true God in a judicial conflict, where his acts yield knowledge of his character (Exod. 6:2, 6-7, etc.). “I am [he]”, whether in Exodus 3:14, or Isaiah 40-55, hooks into this divine self-identification, and is achieved amidst controversy over who the true, universal sovereign is (cf. Exod. 5:2).

This trenchant disclosure does not, however, stand in isolation. As noted, these passages are part of a broader covenantal framework. In God’s effort to redeem Israel from slavery, or draw it out of exile, the cosmic lawsuit gives way to a deeper redemptive thrust. Yahweh’s exposure of false deities and his own, contrasting claims – by virtue of the evocative “I am” – are in the service of his desire to faithfully save his people. Thus, divine knowledge and divine redemption merge, and are twin components of the logic of Exodus and Isaiah 40-55. Finally, the exodus itself constitutes a seminal link: its founding reality becomes paradigmatic for future liberation by the time of Isaiah 40-55. Indeed, the references to the exodus in Isaiah are particularly vivid, establishing continuity between God’s salvation-historical acts.

The Johannine Jesus, by way of his “I am” pronouncements, relied upon this scriptural edifice, even as he presented himself as its capstone. “I am” is an allusion to a multi-faceted, redemptive narrative. The Fourth Gospel’s cosmic lawsuit, for example, is a well-known motif, reaching a crescendo in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Adversarial-legal passages, such as Jn. 5:16-47 or 8:12-59, offer glimpses, as do the frequency of words such as “testimony” and “witness,” references to judgment and divine verdicts (e.g. 3:19ff; 5:22, 28-30; 11:31; 16:8-11), and the Holy Spirit’s depiction as counsellor or advocate.

The Johannine concept of truth takes on a decidedly judicial “hue” in this context, seen most clearly in the repeated disclosures of authentic deity. Jesus’ “I am” pronouncement in 8:58 (and 8:24, 28) is rooted in this environment, and is a particularly clear reflection of the wider cosmic contest, built into the Fourth Gospel’s narrative, between the true God and his opponents (cf. 1:4-5; cf. 19:15c). Controversy over Yahweh’s rightful status as universal Lord is transmuted into a trial over Jesus’ kingly identity (e.g. 19:15). Echoing those crucial portions of Exodus and Isaiah, Jesus offered himself, polemically, as true deity – Yahweh’s unique representative. The “I am” formula, so allusive in its brevity, encapsulates this fundamental (and exclusively authentic) unveiling (8:28). But, also like those OT passages under examination, such revelation was indissolubly linked with salvation: Jesus adopted the “exclusive soteriological function” claimed of Yahweh, where acknowledgement of the “I am” meant life (8:24, 51, 58; esp. 11:25-26; cf. 17:3). Conceiving of truth as revelation, John’s Gospel uses the “I am” statements to encapsulate the authentic character of God, as revealed in Jesus. It is in this regard that John’s frequent use of glory as a metaphor for divine light/truth, explicating Jesus’ identity as its ultimate channel, is relevant: “I am” reflects an understanding of redemptive enlightenment – the already-surveyed conjunction of divine knowledge, communion and salvation. The culmination of that nexus, of course, occurred at Calvary, the paradoxical site of Jesus’ ultimate unveiling as Israel’s true saviour-king (8:28). “I am,” as used by Jesus, is the functional, verbal equivalent of the image of Yahweh’s radiance.

The Fourth Gospel also employs the key motif of exodus as an overarching framework, using its seminal influence to flesh out the nature of Jesus’ salvific ministry. Features include: echoes of the tabernacle’s establishment, a key plank in Yahweh’s salvific-covenantal project (1:14); the corresponding use of divine glory to communicate a key dimension of Jesus person and ministry (e.g. 1:14; cf. 40:34-38); various Mosaic comparisons (1:15; 3:14); the wider import of Isaiah 40:1-3 in John 1:23 (trading, as the former passage does, on exodus imagery); allusive references to the paschal lamb (1:29); imagistic overtones of the exodus in Jesus’ “born again” declaration (esp. 3:5); typological use of the Israelites’ feeding in the wilderness (John 6); salvation as freedom from slavery (8:31, 34); Jesus’ crucifixion at Passover, consummating that event’s anticipatory significance; and, of course, the “I am” formula itself (given its already-noted provenance). Passing the exodus through an Isaianic prism, Jesus obliquely claimed to be the same “I am” who had already achieved redemption for his people, and vowed to do so again. He deployed the formula to identify himself intimately with the God of the exodus – signalling the inauguration of a new exodus, as promised in the Isaianic literature. Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus 3:14, then, should be combined as part of a layered backdrop to Jesus’ own claim – which his “I am” statements reflect – to be the salvific God’s climactic self-revelation.

“I am” God?

One shouldn’t conclude from the above account that Jesus was baldly claiming to be Yahweh/God, without remainder. His pronouncements were, it must be said, far more subtle. Whilst he appropriated uniquely divine prerogatives (bestowal of life, judgment, etc.), and implied unity with God (10:30), Jesus paradoxically distinguished himself from the Father, explicitly referring to this difference at several points (e.g. 4:34; 5:19). It’s important, in this final section, to nuance his solemn assertion of deity found in the “I am” formula.

Importantly, Jesus’ “I am” statements can be viewed in light of John’s unique Christological-theological presentation, particularly as it is found in the prologue (1:1-18). The notion of the divine logos (or Word/wisdom/mind) is pertinent, underpinning the distinctiveness of Jesus’ “I am” utterances. John 8:12 (bookending Chapter 8 with v.58) recalls the prologue’s characterisation of the Word as light, and coheres with allusive references to Jesus-as-Temple, the “site” of Yahweh’s resplendence (= glory, above p.5; see 1:14; 2:12-25; cf. Exod. 40:34-38). Tapping into a rich vein of Jewish theology about the transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence, John’s Gospel depicts Jesus as God’s embodied wisdom, identified with his nature, yet distinct (cf. Isa. 55:11; Prov. 8:22ff). The “I am” statements link Jesus with Yahweh’s activity and being, echoing the prologue’s portrayal of the divine Word as supervening agent in creation. Yahweh’s kingship, to which this essay has already referred, is of a piece with the Johannine picture of God’s presiding over creation: he is the universal sovereign, to which authorship of creation attests. Furthermore, this identity is “concretized,” so to speak, in Jesus and his “I am” claims. John 8:58 is especially apposite, strongly implying Jesus’ pre-existence, and contrasting it with creation’s contingency and finitude (represented, in this case, by Abraham’s qualified existence [cf. 1:1-3]). Functions attributed to Jesus are attributed to the logos, and these connections reflect the Gospel’s conviction regarding his co-inherence, his ontological identification, with Israel’s – and the world’s – God (14:10). Jesus is seen as, and declared himself to be, God’s mediating presence in the creation (1:9-10), witnessing to humanity as the climactic bearer of the divine name (cf. Heb. 1:1-3).

As can be seen, then, this isn’t merely a matter of later theologizing. In the aforementioned use of Ezekiel 34, Jesus himself fused the paradoxical combination of a divine-human shepherd in his own person. John 14:6, where Jesus claims, “I am the way…”, touches upon the enigma of his twin-status as the supreme revelation of Yahweh and the distinct channel, mediator – even enfleshment – of divine truth; indeed, to know Jesus is to know the Father (Jn. 14:9-10), and Yahweh’s singular reality is “devolved,” in a sense, to his uniquely qualified representative. “I am” functions as a subtle reference to Jesus’ divine status, whilst discouraging facile attempts to baldly equate him with Yahweh. Therefore, although he claimed deity, Jesus did so in a way that didn’t exhaust the Godhead. “I am” isn’t a totalizing declaration of godhood, but points to Jesus’ status as God’s true “image” – the incarnation of Yahweh’s wisdom. The Johannine picture of God’s manifold nature calibrates the import of Jesus’ statements, holding in tension his dual identity as Yahweh’s manifest presence and a discrete personage. “I am,” in this environment, successfully preserves the Son’s essential deity, but without collapsing it into the being of the Father.


It is apparent that the Johannine Jesus, according to his “I am” statements, sought to (obliquely) claim divinity. The formula bears clear linguistic parallels with OT instances of God’s self-identification – found, above all, in places such as Isaiah and Exodus – encompassing his uniqueness and covenantal loyalty. Moreover, Jesus’ declarations captured a complex web of fundamental salvation-historical themes and motifs, building upon those striking verbal similarities. The cosmic lawsuit, the coalescence of revelation and salvation, and the use of exodus as a defining image for that process, form a coherent backdrop to Jesus’ “I am” statements. More than an inert, metaphysical assertion, his declaration signalled the climax of God/Yahweh’s redemptive-revelatory activity, to which the surveyed background pointed. Past acts of self-disclosure converged in Jesus, crystallized – in abbreviated form – in the “I am” formula. Importantly, Jesus remained within the confines of monotheism, utilising Jewish categories to explicate his own, distinctive claims to deity. Rather than offering up an exhaustive declaration of godhood, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel presented himself as God’s supreme self-expression: participating eternally in divine life, embodying divine truth, but retaining a distinct identity. Properly contextualised, Jesus’ “I am” statements buttress this paradoxical portrayal.


Romans and Worship

(Caveat: this post is largely for a Christian audience. Nevertheless, I hope that those who are not Christians may still profit from it).

My past few blog posts have sought to engage with some ideas current at the moment – medical ethics, domestic politics and the effects (good or otherwise) of social networking. In this post, however, I wish to explore a topic that may appear to be more personal, perhaps more devotional, in character and complexion. Nonetheless, it is still a vitally important topic, especially for Christians who seek to found their lives upon godly truth. It could even be said that the topic to which I refer is actually a very public thing. Though it most certainly is personal, it is not thereby private. Indeed, as I hope to show, what I want to look at in this post stands over-against everything else that Christians do as disciples and pilgrims in this world, framing every dimension of our lives.

I am here talking about worship, for worship forms a central part of the Christian’s life. We should never doubt this, since to worship is to express, enact, dramatize and reflect the truth of God. But why is this important? Why should God want to be worshiped? Moreover, what is the connection between worship and truth anyway? These questions have been rattling around my mind for a little while, and in order to provide a semblance of an answer, I shall turn to the book of Romans.

It’s strange that I should look to this particular part of Scripture to shed light on these questions. Paul’s letter to the Romans reads more like an elaborate theological treatise than it does a missive to a particular congregation dealing with particular issues. Nor is it the first book one thinks of if one wants to develop some kind of biblical understanding of worship. Psalms, for example, might seem to be a more appropriate contender. That said, behind and beneath the lofty themes of universal sin, the achievement of the cross, justification, sanctification, glorification, resurrection and God’s sovereignty, one will uncover another strand in Romans – less overt, to be sure – dealing with the theological importance and rationale of (proper) worship. Now, I shall spend a bit of time following the thread, so please bear with me. Hopefully, it will be worth it!

The strand begins in the very first chapter of Paul’s epistle. After a preamble, where he outlines the purposes of his letter, the apostle goes on to survey the dreadful, and universal, condition of humanity. Romans 1:18-32 is a broad-brush diagnosis and description of the problem of human sin. At the end of this section, after having offered us his theological analysis of the origin and evolution of human depravity (to which I shall return), Paul lists a number of sins that characterise the human condition: greed, malice, gossip, slander, ruthlessness, and the like (vv.28-32). Not that every person has been guilty of all these sins; but Paul’s point is to suggest that their very presence in humanity is evidence that it has gone awry.

As I said, Paul does offer an explanation of sorts. The sin we witness around us, the unrighteous acts – whether earth-shattering, or more “trivial” in nature (though sin is never really trivial in nature) – find their ultimate source in the rejection of truth. Specifically, it is the rejection of the truth of God that has led to the corrupt human landscape that Paul surveys. The notion of truth and related concepts are important for Paul in these early sections of his letter. In verse 18, as a way of commencing his diagnosis, Paul speaks of men (read: humanity) actively suppressing the truth (of God). Then, over the next couple of verses, Paul develops his point, by suggesting that the knowledge of the true God, though it has been apparent (vv.19-20), has been spurned by humanity; people have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie”, worshiping instead “created things” (v.25). Despite the pretence of wisdom, those who have engaged in such acts (which means all of us) have in fact departed from ultimate reality – namely, God. And with that departure has come a darkening of thoughts, of hearts and of feelings (cf. v.21). Estrangement from God has also meant estrangement from his truth, with both mind and will mutually corrupted and mutually corrupting.

It’s a rather heavy way of beginning a letter, but it is the necessary ground for what Paul wants to say later about the majesty of God’s salvific plan. What ought to concern us at the moment are a couple of points that emerge from Paul’s polemical opening, the relevance of which will become apparent as I proceed. First, truth (and its loss) stands at the heart of the human problem, as Paul sees it. He refers to this predicament in a variety of ways: the exchange and suppression of truth; the futility of thinking apart from, and in opposition to, God; “foolishness”; the acceptance of lies; the false claims of wisdom made on the part of sinful humanity; and the loss of divine knowledge. This constellation of words and concepts, all found in Romans 1:18-32, constitutes a theological package that Paul uses to explain the problem of human depravity and spiritual need. In effect, the truth of God has been rejected, spurned, arrogantly dismissed. Humans have arrogated for themselves the position that God rightfully occupies, and have attempted to claim for themselves the wisdom that belongs to him. Rather than perceiving themselves and their position in God’s creation correctly, people have turned from him – the source of all truth – and have followed tantalising, yet spurious, substitutes. Indeed, Paul says as much in verse 21, linking the refusal to give God his due as God with the degradation of thought, heart and will alike. This is no mere refusal to accept an intellectual proposition. Rather, Paul correctly declares that a loss of truth has degraded humanity on a multiplicity of levels. Depraved thinking leads inexorably to depraved behaviour – which is exactly the link the Apostle makes in v.28 (…”he [God] gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done”).

Second, Paul implicitly suggests that the rejection of God as the proper object of worship did not thereby mean that humans worshiped nothing. Not at all. On the contrary, Paul is canny enough to see that once God is displaced from that proper position, other things – “images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (v.23) – ended up filling the gap. A person’s pattern of thinking, and thus the actions linked to it, never occurs in a void. It can either be framed by God’s truth or it can be framed by veneration of something else. In the society in which Paul wrote, physical idols would have been most dominant. Greco-Roman culture was replete with an entire galaxy of gods that were honoured and worshiped. In our own day, there are many such “idols” that vie for our attention. They may not be made of gold or wood or stone, but they exert a similar influence over people, dragging them away from the true God who created them. Paul is perceptive enough to realize this fact – that rejection of God’s truth does not entail the birth of a new kind of humanity, or the elevation of people to a new moral or sapiential plane. It simply means the replacement of one god with another. Similarly, Paul knows that this idolatry is indissolubly linked with the loss of true knowledge that I spoke about a moment ago. What is witnessed externally is invariably a reflection of what occurs internally, within a person. As thinking is transformed, so too is belief and action. These dimensions, concurrent within a person, go hand-in-hand.

So, what are we left with? Paul offers us a diagnosis for the universal condition of sinful humanity. He will spend the next few chapters unpacking both the problem and the solution, ending with the climax of his high theological drama in Chapter 8. Strange as it may sound, I want to skip over Chapters 2-7, in order to focus on what Paul says in the eighth Chapter of his epistle. The intervening sections outline the process by which God responded to humanity’s predicament, but for my purposes here, I want to concentrate on the telos, the end-point of that process. For it becomes clear that the grave problems the apostle outlined in the first chapter find their ultimate resolution in this particular section of Paul’s missive. Chapter 8 is the counter-point and the answer to Chapter 1, helping to frame what lies in-between. Indeed, it almost reads like a deliberate reversal – more than that, a redemptive elevation of God’s creation to something beyond that which it was prior to sin’s baleful effects.

In Chapter 1, for example, the apostle referred to humanity being able to perceive God’s reality through the material, created order (vv.19-20). In Chapter 8, he writes that creation itself eagerly awaits the revelation of God’s newly created people (v.19). Rather than worshiping it, God’s redeemed will lead creation into a new era of freedom, so that it, too, may experience the liberation God’s renewed image-bearers will experience. That renewal takes place within the wider context of the advent, the bursting forth, of God’s new creation. Further on in Chapter 8, Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that those saved by God will be conformed to the likeness of his Son (Jesus)” as a part of their salvation (v.29). This seems to be a deliberate, counter-posing allusion to his earlier description of humans giving up their worship of the true God for created “images” (v.23). Those saved by God will no longer worship created things, thereby being conformed to them. Instead, they will be shaped according to the image and likeness of Christ, thereby attaining the glory that humanity has always sought (albeit through rebellious autonomy from God). In other words, humanity exchanged God’s glory for the idolatry of the created world, which included “mortal man”; through the coming of Christ, the true man – who is simultaneously the image of the immortal God – God’s image-bearers may take possession of the glory that they had lost (v.30; cf. 1:21, 23).

What has all this to do with worship? It might sound like a powerful statement of God’s gracious and redemptive activity in this world, which culminates with the sacrificial work of Christ. But at what point does this story link up with the notion of proper worship? The answer lies in the first couple of verses of Chapter 12. After digressing to make some (important) remarks on the implications of the gospel for unbelieving Israel, Paul turns his attention to the practical and ethical implications, for believers, of what he has written. There, he writes:

“Therefore, I urge you…in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…” (Romans 12:1-2b).

Many of the themes I have already canvassed have been compressed into these few short sentences by the apostle. Worship, conformation to external conditions (whether good or ill, degrading or redemptive), right thinking, and so on, are all present. If Chapter 1 was the outline of the problem, and Chapter 8 the final, climactic outline of the solution, then the commencement of Chapter 12 is the first step in the practical, ethical consequences for believers. No longer are they to participate in the idolatry Paul railed against at the beginning of Romans; no longer are they to be shaped by the world (as it exists in rebellion against God) or created things; no longer are they to allow the effects thereof degrade thinking and corrupt action (a la Rom. 1:28-32). Using the language of sacrifice, Paul urges his readers to devote themselves to God as an act of worship and to allow him to renew their minds (note the passive “…be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, which indicates an activity initiated by God). His readers are to offer themselves wholeheartedly to Him. All of this stands in stark, and deliberate, contrast with what Paul spoke of in Chapter 1, and is the direct consequence of what he declared in Chapter 8.

As Christians, then, our worship is to be directed to God. That much is obvious. Also obvious (though no less important) is the conviction that worship is an act of gratitude, to be sure. Paul says that we ought to do this “in view of God’s mercy…” (12:1), which implies a thankful attitude. But my point is to suggest that worship is a more layered, more multifaceted, phenomenon than some might assume. Firstly, it is a way of standing against the universal (human) reality of sin and untruth, as Paul so clearly intimates. Secondly, it is a marker, a sign, that we are renewed people, led by the Spirit and not by the flesh. Our worshipful acts not only oppose and challenge the overt and latent forms of idolatry by which sinful estrangement from God is manifested; they also constitute declarative acts, by which we say that we are redeemed and being redeemed daily. Everything Paul wrote about humanity in Chapter 1 is to be deliberately counter-posed by Christians worshiping the true God and being conformed – nay, transformed – to God’s true image, Jesus Christ, who is simultaneously the pattern of true humanity. It is a prophetic witness, flowing out of the work that God has performed to undo the universal effects of the situation Paul has already discussed. Through it, we too participate in the undoing of the primal sin of idolatry, directing ourselves, our lives, our bodies, to the One who created us. As renewed people, who will take their places in God’s new world, our worship is a revelatory act, which springs from the revelation that we have received. Not that we possess it in its totality. Nonetheless, we rest our hopes upon Him, for we trust in his promise to complete the work that he has started. As we Christians give ourselves to God, we do so in an anticipatory sense: through worshipful acts, we enact and experience a foretaste of the liberating truth of God, which will inhabit and envelop his creation with the consummation of his salvific plan.

Finally, then, our worship of God – which flows out of, and is a response to, the initiating steps he took to rescue us from our sin and idolatry – further enables us to escape the corruption of thought and will that has characterised idolatrous humanity. It is, in itself, a means of change. Having been brought from the realm of sin and death into the realm of holiness and life, we can now take our proper places as God’s true image-bearers, offering our entire lives in service to him (rather than the world as it now stands). That is why Paul can so readily link worship with the renewal of mind and thought. It is also why transformation is to be seen against the backdrop of human depravity. If the original human problem was characterised by the spurning of God’s reality for idols, and the resultant loss of divine knowledge, then its opposite is characterised by worship of the One who is actually God, leading to the reclamation of truth, the vanquishing of sin, the purification of the will, the redemption of bodies and the ennobling of a sanctified mind (contrast Rom. 12:1-2 with Paul’s earlier talk of a “depraved mind” in 1:28). And if some suggest that worshiping God, regardless of its apparently beneficial effects, is simply an exercise in divine ego-stroking, then one can point them back to the comment I have already made: that worship occurs universally, whether God is the object or not. If we are meant to be framing our lives around God, and have been created for that express purpose, then to do otherwise is a denial of our nature (apart from a denial of who God is).

So, worship is not simply something in which we engage on a Sunday morning because it has been determined by tradition (though corporate praise is a vital part of the life and witness of the church). Let us not forget that Paul exhorted believers to offer their whole bodies – not just their voices – to God. Indeed, worship is inescapably ethical in character. Still less has the practice of worship been instituted by an insecure god who needs to be glorified. Rather, worship – for Christians, that is – constitutes an all-encompassing embrace of God’s reality and truth, in conformity to our true natures, and against the backdrop of the rejection of divine truth. In this scheme, we allow ourselves to be moulded by the wisdom that was always meant to shape humanity. At the same time, we also offer a prophetic critique to, and of, a world that pursues a multiplicity of false gods and deities in much the same way that the subjects of Romans 1 did. I can think of many, even in the city of Melbourne: aside from religions that deny the reality of God (as he truly is) and the revelation of his truth, people are enraptured with consumerism, materialism, post-modernism, sport, success (however defined), hedonistic living, and so on. They are ultimately futile, for they do not lead to the God with whom we have been created to have a relationship. They certainly cannot lead us into his new world, for they cannot erase – and in fact, reinforce – the very problems that have alienated us from him in the first place.

Two final points. First, I have not yet offered a portrait of what God’s truth actually is. It’s all well and fine to critique the false claims to truth that abound in this world. But what is the truth around which we are meant to revolve our lives? I’ve already hinted at it, but it bears repeating in a more explicit way. God’s truth is embodied in the One to whose image we are being conformed – Jesus Christ. Of course, truth, whether divine or secular, is intellectual, cognitive, conceptual. Paul’s references to the mind and to thought would be meaningless without this basic understanding. Belief in the nature of God, and in how he has revealed himself, is a vitally important aspect of worship. But truth, in a biblical scheme, is also deeply personal. Jesus Christ is God’s personal truth enfleshed. In him, we see what God is like and how we are to live. In him, we witness the pristine revelation of God and the abiding image of true humanity, co-mingling and co-existing. And, as the Jesus of John’s Gospel declares, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6). Earlier in that book, Jesus counselled a Samaritan woman to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (cf. John 4:24). Bring these two verses together, and what do we have? A call to worship God, to devote oneself to him, through and in the truth made incarnate in Jesus. When we read the Scriptures, which proclaim Christ hidden and revealed, we begin to see what God’s truth – and hence, the truth about who we are to be – actually looks like.

Second, we do not come to God of our own volition; neither can we worship God merely as we are. It requires the abiding presence of God’s Spirit to reveal, enliven, encourage and inflame. Paul speaks of the importance of being led by the Spirit in the eighth chapter of Romans. Before talking about Christian disciples as God’s redeemed, liberated people, the apostle offers his readers two ways: the way of the flesh; and the way of the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:4-12). It is the way of the Spirit that leads one into the truth of God (which is to say, the very character and presence of God himself). And when we arrive at Paul’s statement about worship at the beginning of Chapter 12, he says explicitly that it is a spiritual act. Such a declaration dovetails nicely with John 4:24, which I surveyed above. The fact is that true worship of the true God can only be accomplished in the Spirit. It can only be achieved when a person’s life is saturated in Him. Not only so, but it requires the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about receptivity in sinful people. Word and Spirit – God’s wisdom and intimate presence – work in unity to bring about a newly created people, who are saturated in his truth and worshiping in it.

* * *

We rightly celebrate, and dutifully declare, God’s truth to a sinful and broken world. However, let us not forget (those of us who are Christ’s followers) that the reason we have access to the Father, and have been empowered to imitate Christ, is the fact of his (Christ’s) own sacrifice. Indeed, his sacrifice makes possible our own acts of devotion before God (which is part of Paul’s point in Rom. 12:1-2). I have referred several times to Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans in connection with the redemption of God’s people. But what I said there is only possible because of the act of oblation that Christ himself performed on our behalf. Sure, Paul speaks about being set free from the corruption of this present world. He speaks about being led by the Spirit as the mark of truly redeemed people. Yet that has only come about because of the epochal work of Christ on the cross, who allowed God’s condemnation of sin to fall upon his own person (8:3). Given the reality of this great act of divine mercy, which is simultaneously the revelation of the truth of the triune God; and given that our goal as Christians is to be conformed to the likeness of the Christ who embodies that truth, in life and in death, there is only one question: why would we not worshipfully participate in this redemptive process?

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.

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.

Drifting Youths and the Death of the Metanarrative.

I was one half of a radio duo this morning, and my on-air partner and I were discussing the relatively recent phenomenon of “emerging adulthood”. This is something that has emerged (pardon the pun) over the past twenty years or so, but has only garnered scholarly attention and comment from cultural observers in the last few years. This scrutiny focuses upon a growing segment of social development within western societies, lying between adolescence and full-blown adulthood. The members of this segment are known as “emerging adults”, and are marked by several things: a lack of financial stability or independence; impermanent romantic and sexual relationships; and a similar lack of permanence when it comes to careers or vocations. There is probably much more to say about this, but it seems that these characteristics do a good job of distilling the essence of emerging adulthood. Such individuals have entered into what one would normally call adulthood, but are still carrying with them the angst, uncertainty and transient longings of teens and adolescents.

My radio partner and I were talking about this phenomenon, and he asked me why I thought this was the case. The answer I gave there forms the bulk of my blog entry here. The basic premise of my answer rested upon the fact that our world is increasingly characterised by a post-modern narrative. Now, post-modernism is many things – some necessary, some gratuitous – but one thing that it most certainly rejects is the notion of the metanarrative. Irony notwithstanding (I mean, postmodernism, in the very act of rejecting modernism, has simply swapped one metanarrative for another), post-modernism has cast a powerful spell upon contemporary youth culture, especially when it comes to the repudiation of any kind of metanarrative. Now, before some of you run for the hills because you fear that this blog entry has now gone the way of esoteric philosophy, let me assure you that a metanarrative is very easy to understand. It simply refers to a broad way of looking at the world, a conceptual framework or worldview. It shapes our understanding, and allows us to place ourselves within a kind of story that provides us with direction, purpose and meaning. Above all, it is a story that suggests order and directionality in the world.

That may well seem somewhat abstract, but it is worth remembering that we, as followers of Jesus, live according to the Christian metanarrative. We believe that this world is God’s good world; that it has been marred by humanity’s sin; that God has graciously provided the means for salvation for his creation, including the salvation of his image-bearing creatures; that this plan began with the calling of Abraham, on through the chequered fortunes of Israel, and climaxing with the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus; and will be consummated with the coming of God’s Kingdom, when this world – and those who have accepted Jesus – will enjoy redemption from sin and death.

That is the Christian metanarrative in a nutshell. We live in it, and it gives us an overarching sense of meaning and purpose. Otherwise, our lives as Christians would be a chaotic and meaningless patchwork of events, decisions and uncertainties without any discernible thread. Of course, we do not embrace the Christian gospel simply because it affords us a convenient source of significance or existential coherency. We embrace it because we believe it to be true. But one of the off-shoots of that embrace is the entry into a conceptual and narratival framework that bestows upon us purpose and meaning that extends far beyond any meaning inherent in our own lives. I should point out that Christians are not the only people to embrace a metanarrative. Many people, quite unconsciously, have embraced the Enlightenment metanarrative, which places trust in autonomous human reason, scientific prowess and secularisation as the means by which society can progress and reach utopia (however that is defined). Marxism is a particularly obvious example of the way in which one metanarrative can grow up in place of the diminishing power of another metanarrative (in this case, the Christian story). Nevertheless, it is largely clear that people of whatever religious, ethical or philosophical stripe, have embraced some kind of worldview – however consciously or systematically defined – in order to make sense of their world and experiences.

This is what post-modernism has rejected, since metanarratives are seen as oppressive forces, used by the powerful to shape, and even quash, the autonomy of the individual. “Truth”, according to the post-modernist, is no longer an objective concept to be discovered; it is instead something that is created in order to exercise power over others. Even the Enlightenment project, which upheld – and still upholds – the primacy of the autonomous rational subject, constitutes a philosophical and narrative framework that shapes the individual. To be sure, this kind of characterisation is to some degree correct. Think for a moment of the brutality of the socialist ideology, built upon the metanarrative of the economic base of historical change and the eventual triumph of the proletariat. However, whether or not the post-modern rejection of this way of organising knowledge and human lives is correct is a moot point. My intention is neither to suggest that post-modernism is wholly accurate, nor that any kind of overarching story in which one might place oneself is wholly bad. How could I, since I myself adhere to the Christian story? But what is clear is that post-modernism, for all its excesses, has had a profound – though often unacknowledged – effect on young people today, which is having demonstrable effects.

Indeed, if it is true that post-modernism rejects all metanarratives; and if it is true that many young people today are members of the “emerging adult” generation that seems to have imbibed the tenets of this philosophical stream; then it becomes clear why many in this social cohort are living such impermanent, transient, and seemingly purposeless lives. This is how I answered the question put to me on the radio, and it is what I see quite clearly now. Because a complete rejection of overarching stories – whether Christian or secular – is a central plank in the post-modernist agenda, those who have embraced it have nothing beyond themselves to which they might cling. Any sense of meaning or significance beyond oneself is lost, and the incentive to work and labour for a project or a goal that extends beyond the quotidian pleasures that seem to characterise so many young people vanishes. I am not arguing that all those who live this way, do so because of a conscious acceptance of post-modernism’s claims. If asked, I am sure that many would not even be able to identify or describe this strain of philosophy. But that has not prevented it from filtering down from the institutions to general culture, permeating thought and deed alike.

Thus, we ought to acknowledge the reality for those who have swallowed the ostensibly liberating notions touted by post-modernism. And it is no coincidence that the current generation, which, more than any other, seems to have embraced the tenets of post-modernism without critique, is also the generation that has lost its way and seems to be suffering from a perpetual state of drift. When one rejects the notion of an overarching purpose according to which one works, and an overarching goal towards which one labours, then one only has the morass of the present, the dominance of pleasure, or the journal of so-called self-discovery (for there is nothing beyond the self). The lone individual, shorn of all purpose and context, is all that stands. But it appears that such an individual suffers from an acute case of myopia when it comes to the things of life.

I think the writer of Proverbs had it right: “when there is no vision, the people perish…” (Proverbs 29:18). Of course, he was speaking about supernatural visions, but the point holds. An ability to see beyond one’s immediate future, one’s immediate cravings, and one’s own life is a crucial skill if one is to leave behind the purposelessness that characterises emerging adults. And yet, the collapse of all-embracing narratives, and the ascendancy of post-modernism’s reification of the “hyper-individual”, makes this a rather far-off prospect.