August 2021 Pulse
This article is a slightly revised version of an address I gave at an international conference on ‘The Future of Faith: Religious Values in a Plural World’ on 7 November 2018, organised by MUIS in celebration of its 50th anniversary.
Dr Mohamed Faris Bakaram (Mufti of Singapore), Mr Haji Abdul Razak bin Hassan (President of MUIS), distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
On behalf of the National Council of Churches of Singapore, I would like to congratulate the Maglis Ugama Islam Singapura on its 50th Anniversary. The National Council of Churches has the privilege of working with MUIS over the past twenty years or so, and we have been greatly enriched by your friendship.
I would also like to bring warm greetings from Trinity Theological College and the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. I would like to thank MUIS for the invitation to speak at this conference which – I understand – is the culmination of a series of events to mark its 50th Anniversary. I count it as my honour to be a part of this conference.
The topic that has been assigned to me is ‘Enhancing Religious Life in Modern Plural Societies’. I’ve been asked to speak from the standpoint of my own religious tradition, which is the Christian faith, and I have also been asked to give special attention to the Singapore context.
Within the very short time that I’ve been given, I would like to address the following issues. I begin with a broad sketch of our modern or postmodern society and identify two characteristics that in some ways pose a challenge not only to Christians but also to all people of faith. They are secularism, and pluralism.
Secondly, I ask the question: How can the Christian, faced with these challenges, keep true to his faith, the faith that was ‘once for all delivered to the saints’, as the Bible puts it (Jude 3:3)? My answer is the Church – the community created by God in Jesus Christ, which nurtures and guides God’s people.
Thirdly, I argue that it is only when Christians are truly grounded in their own faith tradition that they can contribute to society as responsible citizens in our religiously and culturally plural society.
And finally, in similar vein, I maintain that it is only when Christians are firmly established in their own tradition that they can work with people from other faith traditions and communities for the good of society.
SECULARISM AND PLURALISM
We turn our attention, firstly, to trace the contours of the cultural landscape of our late or post- modern society. Needless to say that ours is a very complex and plural world, where competing worldviews and ideologies jostle for space and attention. The old medieval order with its governing metaphysics that postulates that nature and history are ordered by a Supreme Being – God, the Creator – and therefore are subjected to his sovereign superintendence had collapsed. Enlightenment rationalism and postmodern iconoclasm have shattered all grand narratives and have given birth to a new vision of reality, one that celebrates plurality and jettisons any exclusive claim to truth.
Much can be said about these cultural sensibilities that have become more pervasive in our society and the challenges they present to people of faith, who wish to uphold their cherished traditions and the wisdom they embody. For the purposes of this presentation, however, I would like to focus my attention on two aspects of our culture, namely, secularism and pluralism, and bring to the surface some misleading fallacies associated with them. Left unaddressed, these fallacies can become serious impediments to the religious lives and freedoms of people of faith.
Let us first consider secularism. As many in this august audience would I’m sure know, in 1967 sociologists like Peter Berger presented the ‘Secularisation Theory’ which made the bold postulation that as modernity advances, the influence of religion will diminish and eventually disappear all together. This ‘prophecy’ obviously did not come to pass. Not only is religion still around, it continues to thrive in many parts of the world. This has led Berger to abandon his earlier hypothesis and to envision instead the re-sacralisation of the world, as the title of his 1999 book makes clear.
The demise of the secularization theory, however, does not mean that secularism is a spent force. It is at work even in multi-religious societies like Singapore. Secularism is shrouded in its own mythologies, one of which is its claim to neutrality. Secularists have sometimes presented secularism as objective and rational. Unlike religion, which is often divisive and sometimes even dangerous, secularism, they insist, is neutral and tolerant. Secularism is therefore valorized as the best guarantor of social peace.
This view of secularism must be demythologized. Secular neutrality is a fallacy because secularism is a philosophy of life, an ideology with its own exclusive truth-claims. For instance, secularism promotes a materialistic philosophy that excludes religious concepts of the divine. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it takes a lot of faith to be a secularist. Secularism also promotes a certain moral vision, shaped by various versions of utilitarian pragmatism. In order for faith to have a future and for religious voices to be given a fair hearing in the public square, ‘secular neutrality’ must be seen for what it is, namely, a myth.
Time allows us to take only a very cursory glance at pluralism. That we live in a society that is religiously, philosophically and ideologically plural is not a matter of dispute. In fact, cultural and religious diversity is not a modern phenomenon. The earliest Christians in the Greco-Roman world lived in a milieu that was profoundly plural, an emporium of different philosophical schools and religious sects.
However, while religious diversity is not a new phenomenon, what is new is pluralism, a philosophical theory that says that all the major world religions point to the same transcendent reality. Put differently, pluralism a priori rules out the possibility that any religion can be said to be normative or superior to the rest. As one theologian describes it, pluralism is ‘deeply suspicious of attempts to privilege one tradition or teaching as normative for all, and … skeptical of claims that any particular religious tradition has special access to God …’ Pluralism relativises all truth-claims except its own. It subjugates all religious traditions to its theory of religion, which alone is normative. In this way, pluralism is profoundly disrespectful of the different religions and their rich histories and heritages. It is a form of imperialism.
If religious life is to flourish and if faith is to have a future, the fallacies of these two ‘isms’ – secularism and pluralism – must be clearly understood and robustly addressed.
THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH
How can Christians remain faithful to their own theological and spiritual heritage in the midst of our secular and pluralistic culture, drenched with diverse and conflicting ideologies and truth-claims?
The answer from the Christian tradition is the Church, the community of believers gathered by God’s Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ, its Saviour and Lord. It was the great fifth century theologian, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who described the Church as ‘the mother of Christians’. Augustine stressed that it is through the Church that Christians found the Gospel of life, and it is through her that Christians are nourished by the Word of God and formed as disciples of Jesus Christ. Echoing Augustine, Pope Benedict XVI writes: ‘The Church’s faith precedes, engenders, supports and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers’.
Central to the Church’s ministry of teaching and catechesis is its bishops, pastors and leaders. In his epistle to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul says that God has raised leaders to equip Christians and build up the ecclesial community (Ephesians 4:11-14). These leaders, the apostle continues, are to help Christians attain maturity so that ‘we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles’ (4:14).
The churches in Singapore take a serious view on the training of its pastors and Christian workers. For example, Trinity Theological College, which just celebrated its 70th anniversary, is committed to training Christian workers in Singapore and the region by offering programmes that are academically rigorous and yet also firmly rooted in the rich spiritual tradition of the Church. Following in the footsteps of great theologians like Augustine in the fifth century and John Calvin in the sixteenth, who wedded intellectual rigour with spiritual insight, TTC is resolved to employ the best of Christian scholarship to teach the Faith. It is only when pastors and church leaders are firmly grounded in the Faith that they are able to guide and nurture their congregations.
In addition, together with the National Council of Churches and the Bible Society, TTC has established the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity, the first Christian think-tank in Singapore. The purpose of Ethos Institute is to help the general Christian public to reflect on today’s most pressing and perplexing issues. The Ethos website contains articles on a wide variety of issues from bioethical issues like mitochondrial replacement technology, euthanasia and social egg freezing to social issues like inter-faith relations, human sexuality and marriage. These resources not only enable Christians to think about these issues from the Christian perspective. They also demonstrate that this ancient Faith has the resources to address these contemporary questions with intellectual integrity, as well as with uncommon wisdom and spiritual depth.
In dealing with contemporary culture, which is always changing and in flux, TTC and the Ethos Institute have taken two complimentary approaches which the Catholic tradition has called ressourcement and aggiornamento. Ressourcement refers to the effort to return to the theological and spiritual traditions of the Church – to Scripture, the great ecumenical Creeds, the writings of theologians like Irenaeus, Augustine and Luther – in order to draw from their authentic witness insights and wisdom. Aggiornamento refers to the need to speak clearly and engagingly to the contemporary world, which means that we must first understand the issues that it presents.
These two components must work together. To be dependent on ressourcement alone would mean that the Church risks the condition of antiquarianism. However, to focus only on aggiornamento is to put the Church in danger of faddism, which will erode its distinct identity as the set-apart people of God, and make it an indistinguishable part of our modern culture. But together, they will ensure that the faith of Christians is both orthodox and relevant.
The great theological and spiritual traditions of the Church will not only produce faithful Christians, but also responsible citizens and contributing members of society. The Church teaches that Christians are to be fully involved in public life, and the influence they may exert in the public realm is tied to their dual capacity as believers and citizens. Writers as diverse as Jacques Maritain and Michael Sanders acknowledge the fact that a person’s citizenship in a political society and his membership in a faith community profoundly shape his self-understanding. Even secular states like Singapore recognize that it is impossible to separate religion from civic life all together, including political engagements, and that any such separation must be understood only as a matter of convention.
Christians thus hold a dual citizenship: on the one hand, they are the citizens of the heavenly kingdom (Philippians 3:20-21), and on the other, they are citizens of their own countries. As citizens of the divine kingdom, Christians must conduct themselves in a way that conforms to the will of God. And as citizens of their own countries, they are to participate in political and social life as God’s witnesses, declaring as well as embodying God’s love, mercy and justice. In both cases, the supreme concern of Christians is to glorify the God they worship.
It must be pointed out that Christianity’s emphasis on God’s eschatological kingdom does not mean that engagement in this world is of less importance. As Charles Mathewes has pointed out, for Christians ‘[p]ublic life is not just a pallid rehearsal for heaven … or a hollow simulacra of real life …’ Rather public life is the avenue through which Christians serve God by serving their fellowmen. It is ‘in and through our loving public engagement’, Mathewes adds, that ‘we find ourselves called to serve in the choir of God’s glorifying chorus’.
The Christian ethic for civic life is not tolerance, but love, that is, a genuine respect and sense of responsibility towards the other. This love cannot be reduced to sentimentalism. Nor can it be instrumentalised or used as a means to some other end. Christian love is always also a discipline – that is why it can be commanded. It is shaped by immersion into the theological, spiritual and liturgical traditions of the Christian faith, and cultivated through participation in that community of believers called the Church. This is the love that Jesus commanded his disciples to show to their neighbors (Mark 12:30-31), a love that may be described as an attentive orientation towards the other.
Christian love always seeks the good of its object. But it is also a humble love that allows the one loved to transform the one who loves. As Mathewes explains:
Love orients us towards others by teaching us how we are properly affected by those others – how we properly apprehend their value and how that apprehension helps us come to a better, less self-aggrandizing, assessment of our relative significance.
This love, which makes a Christian a better disciple of Christ, also makes him a more faithful and responsible citizen.
FOR THE COMMON GOOD
It is this ethic of love that would compel Christians to serve the common good in deliberate, constructive and imaginative ways. I have already alluded to the command that Jesus gave to his disciples to love their neighbours found in the synoptic Gospels. Elsewhere, the New Testament exhorts Christians to pray ‘for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions’, so that all may lead ‘a quiet and peaceable life’ (1 Timothy 2:1-2). But there is a particular passage from the Old Testament that speaks directly to the theme we are now considering. Writing to God’s people in exile, the prophet Jeremiah gave this remarkable injunction that they should ‘seek the welfare of the city … and pray to the LORD on their behalf’ (Jeremiah 29:7).
In his insightful and challenging book entitled The Home that We Build Together, Jonathan Sacks offers a stirring paraphrase of this powerful passage from Jeremiah that every Christian can and should affirm: ‘Take the city’s welfare as your own. Work for it, pray for it, contribute to it, and don’t see yourselves in opposition to it. Keep your faith. Preserve your identity. Stay true to yourself but be a blessing to those among whom you live’. In other words, as people of faith (as Christians) we are to seek to serve the common good and the peace and wellbeing (shalom) of all our neighbours, regardless of race, language and religion.
Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have always tried to do this wherever they are with varying degrees of success and visibility. They have established schools and hospitals, orphanages and hospices. Christians in Singapore have also played a significant role in serving the common good of our society, both in the past and in the present.
The common good is a web of tacit agreements on how human sociality should be organised based on a shared moral framework or vision. As such there is a profound sense in which the common good cannot be legislated or brought into being by government fiat. In multi-religious Singapore, religious people and their faith communities – especially Christians, churches and Christian organisations – are important creators of ‘social capital’ that can engender relationships of trust and goodwill based on shared moral commitments and a profound sense of mutual responsibility. The role of religion in serving the common good should therefore never be trivialized or ignored.
The modern pluralist society must therefore allow the various faith communities to flourish and its members to participate in public life for the common good, for that is the only way in which society can build itself and mature. As Jonathan Sacks has again so eloquently and perceptively put it:
Society is where we come together to achieve collectively what none of us can do alone. It is our common property. We inhabit it, make it, breathe it. It is the realm in which all of us is more important than any of us. It is our shared project, and it exists to the extent that we work for it and contribute to it.
 Ibid., 5.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.