An Appeal to Those Who Prize Tolerance
It has occurred to me as a Christian that, in some ways, secular people don’t really “get” us. When I refer to “secular” people I include both those who have no use for religion at all as well as those who may have private religious beliefs, but who feel that such beliefs have no place in the public forum. To the secular mindset, God and religion are often seen as irrelevant to the routines of everyday life and inappropriate for public discourse. With such an outlook, it is no surprise that these folks don’t understand those of us whose lives are focused on God and his will as we understand these things.
I have often heard people say words to this effect: “You Christians are totally free to believe and practice your faith as you please, just keep it to yourselves.” They are uncomfortable when followers of Jesus speak out on social issues or apply their faith in the arena of politics. They bristle at the least hint that religion as practiced and acted on by others, might infringe on their lives in the slightest way. Their attitude toward Christians who bring their faith with them into the public sphere ranges from puzzlement to outrage.
Secular people may be confused when Christians make an issue out of something which seems to them to have already been decided through some legal ruling or political maneuvering in the past. They are puzzled when we don’t just “lighten up” and go with the flow of our times. They cannot visualize why anyone would care about ideas and values which come from an ancient book, representing the teachings of a religion which they consider to be fit only as an item in a museum or a topic for historical discussion.
When these religious ideas become the motivation for actions which actually affect business decisions, political choices or personal relationships, the confusion can turn to anger on the part of secularists. The question is often asked, “Why should your religious views affect the rest of us?”. On the surface this sounds like a valid concern. After all, why should religious people be allowed to make choices which affect others? A little further thinking will show the fallacy of this objection. The public sphere of life is, by definition, the very place where decisions are made by all sorts of people, impacting all sorts of other people.
In the public arena, a decision might be made to expand or close down a business. As a consequence, jobs are created or lost and people’s lives are affected. Laws can be made by elected officials who may clearly have a particular agenda in mind affecting religious people and secular people alike. Such laws will inevitably determine whether people are free to make one choice or another. The opportunity for any group of people to exert influence over others is what makes a pluralistic society what it is. It is part of the give-and-take which, when accompanied by a sense of fairness and mutual respect, ensures that all groups may live out their beliefs with a certain reasonable measure of freedom.
It is disappointing and counter-productive when a lack of understanding toward religious points of view is followed by demands that a certain segment of the citizenry be excluded from the debate and blocked from any opportunities to affect society. It is even worse when it degenerates into mere name-calling. In my own involvements where my religious views have been expressed in public, I have occasionally been called “bigot”, “dinosaur”, “naïve”, “narrow-minded” (and a few worse things) by offended secularists. I understand that sometimes it has been Christians who have hurled the insults. That is regrettable. Our job is to confidently and graciously speak the truth as we see it, not insult people out of fear and hatred. Insulting people only reveals the smallness of the one making the comments.
But this is also true for the secularist who may claim to have a more enlightened point of view just as much as for the Christian who is supposedly stuck in the confines of an outmoded superstition. Surely an angry secularist who accuses Christian believers of all sorts of preposterous motives and attitudes, shows that they are bigoted, narrow-minded and backward as well, since they disdain us without bothering to really understand us. Given the current social climate, it is a wonder that people who slur followers of Jesus so frequently are not held legally accountable. No other racial or religious group in the country would stand for such slander.
So what is it that really motivates Christians? It is simply our faith in Jesus and our commitment to the Bible as God’s revelation. We believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God himself. We believe the New Testament when it says that the purpose for God taking on humanity was to suffer on the behalf of those who have offended him. We believe that the gospels are recording true happenings when they assert Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead. We look forward to the time when he will return to judge and rule the earth. Because of these things, we owe him our very beings. Life now is lived differently because of him. Jesus for us and in us, means new eyes to see reality and new power to live as we may have always wished to. It means new values, new attitudes, new loyalties and new relationships.
It is very simply, Jesus. Not conservative politics; not the traditional values of our society; not religious experiences, spiritual encounters or strong feelings. It is just Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son, who has come into the world to save us and make us new. It is his almost unbelievable love which compels us to live differently and to invite others to a new and better life. It is Jesus we live to honor and whose pleasure we look for when the end of all things comes. Perhaps these insights into the motivation behind the bulk of those who call themselves Christians will enlighten those who put such emphasis on enlightenment, empathy and tolerance.
During the second half of the Twentieth Century, society and culture in North America and Europe made a dramatic ideological shift in the direction from which it considered religion and religious expression. This shift involved a movement away from a Christian consensus to make room for a spectrum of religious practices and viewpoints. This change in perspective developed out of a growing religious tolerance, which began with the skeptical and often anti-religious Eighteenth Century Enlightenment. The trend resulted in a culture-wide suspicion of religious devotion and a desire to make equalize the religious playing field so that all religions could compete for followers without society showing favoritism. This concept would come to be known as religious pluralism.
As time went on, the commitment to pluralism raised a very practical question: How can society allow for a wide variety of competing religions without becoming fragmented or degenerating into religious warfare? Western Culture answered that question by using a combination of the following approaches:
Secularization of Society. This is the idea that religion should remain a private and individualistic affair within a non-religious culture. Secularism is the position that public life must be as free as possible from dominance (or even significant input) by religious ideologies or groups. In a secular society, people may practice religion as long as it does not significantly impact others or the culture as a whole. A secular culture, therefore, will be driven by humanistic ideals as defined by whatever group happens to gain power.
Celebration of Diversity. All religions are seen as more or less equal in essence and value, differing only in points of theology and philosophy. The thinking goes that since the main value of religion lies, not in providing eternal truth, but in keeping citizens moral and cooperative, religion can be used by the reigning culture to achieve its greater purposes of progress and order. The diverse elements within the various religious traditions are celebrated much as ethnic cultural differences are celebrated within the larger culture.
Enculturalization of Religion. Traditional religious beliefs and practices are modified or discarded in an effort to conform to and harmonize with the overall values of society. Whereas religion has often taken a prophetic role in critiquing culture, enculturated religion tends to affirm and offer spiritual explanations for the values of society. Much of the “modernizing” movement in religion during the past century has taken this position.
Using a combination of these approaches, Western culture has been able to replace the influence of traditional Christianity in society and accommodate religious pluralism. The challenge for the traditional element of the Christian Church is to remain distinctively Christian and biblical, while engaging culture in meaningful dialog and relevant ministry.
Given this position, two obvious errors present themselves.
The first is to remain so committed to tradition (sometimes under the guise of biblical truth) that any possibility of meaningful interaction with society is forfeited. Some would argue that the Amish have taken this road. The second possible error is to attempt to stay relevant to the evolving culture and slowly (and perhaps with the intention of gaining a hearing within the culture) to sacrifice vital truths and compromise on key issues. One could cite numerous examples of this fallacy.
Perhaps this is the key issue of the Christian Church of our age (or any age): To remain faithful to Jesus Christ and his gospel of grace, while at the same time being relevantly prophetic. May God grant us wisdom to see the opportunities he sends our way and the courage to face our times!