Tag Archives: atheist

Maker of Heaven and Earth

September 2017 Credo 

The Apostles’ Creed begins with the acclamation: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth.” To believe in God as Creator is to affirm that God is the Lord of the earth and not merely the tribal God of the Christians.

The belief that the Triune God created everything out of nothing (ex nihilo) by his word (ex verbum) has long been a key tenet of historic Christian teaching. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made … For he spoke, and it came to be” (Ps. 33:6 & 8; Ps. 104:30). All things were made through Jesus the Word, “without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3; cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Col 1:15-17).

The notion of creatio ex nihilo, though not explicitly stated in the Genesis creation account, is nevertheless consonant with it. “The universe,” we are told, “was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11:3). The Lord himself asserts “I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself” (Isa. 44:24; cf. Acts 17:24; Rev. 4:11).

That creation emerged “out of nothing” at the command of God means that there was no eternal pre-existent matter prior to God bringing forth everything that exists. As theologian Colin Gunton puts it, the Creator is not simply the Potter who works with clay but also the One who brought clay into existence in the first place.

Creation “out of nothing” is in sharp contrast to the ancient Greek belief that matter is eternal rather than created. This notion of the cosmos as self-generated and self-managing is one that surfaces as well in modern atheists like Richard Dawkins. According to them, the origins of the world lay not in the will of a personal transcendent Creator but in the random natural processes of the material world.

While claiming to be speaking scientifically, these atheists’ assertion of a self-caused world is at heart a strident philosophical naturalism that takes as an a priori the impossibility of the existence of God or the reality of the spiritual. Because God cannot exist, He does not exist, and the idea that God created all things is therefore impossible. Such is the tautological ‘logic’ of unbelief!

Christian theology maintains vigorously the distinction between the Creator and His creation without confusion. The world is not merely an extension of God; it has an objective existence distinct from the Creator, though not outside of His control.

This guards against any pantheistic conflation of the two, as in the various forms of religious or philosophical monism in which the world is seen as an emanation of God. Neither does it allow for any divinization of the cosmos, as in the modern green environmentalist veneration of Gaia. To deify the cosmos is to replace the worship of the Creator with reverence for the earth, which is idolatry.

The relationship of creation to the Creator is one of contingency and marked by total dependency. The world owes its origins to God, and it continues to exist only because God sovereignly upholds and sustains it by His Word and the Holy Spirit. In Christ, “all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17), which points to a Creator-God who is engaged and involved in the running of the universe.

This goes against the deistic notion that the Creator, after bringing the universe into being, maintains an essentially hands-off policy vis-à-vis the universe. Thankfully, God in His mercy sovereignly ensures that all the physical conditions necessary for human life are in place and in full functioning order for the sake of His creation.

In this sense, we may understand the universe not merely as a fait accompli, a once-for-all act, but as one that continues to come into being over time under the superintending hand of God. The early church theologians describe this as a creatio continua, a continuous creation. While creatio ex nihilo underscores God’s transcendent otherness, creatio continua points to God’s immanent presence and work within creation.

Through an act of divine deliberation, God created all things and then upholds and guides it to its intended end. God did not need to create the world. There was no external compulsion that made the creation of humankind and everything else in the universe necessary. He did so freely, as an act of love.

God keeps His own counsel as to why He lovingly and freely created the world in the first place. What we know from Scripture is that creation was meant to glorify God, to declare His power and display His attributes (Ps. 19:1; 33:6-9; Rm. 1:19-20). Creation is as such purposive, and, as shall see below, teleological in the sense of creation finding its destiny in Christ.

This coheres with what we know from the Genesis creation account, that the Creator “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31; cf. 1 Tim. 4:4-5). This strong affirmation of the goodness of the physical cosmos goes against all forms of Gnosticism and Manicheanism that elevate the spiritual at the expense of the bodily and physical.

Christians celebrate the creation goodness of the earth. For this reason, there is impetus for the scientific exploration of the wonders and mysteries of the natural world. At the same time, we acknowledge that humans are created as embodied beings who relate to God spiritually in and through the physicality of their bodily life.

The world today on this side of Eden is not what it is supposed to be. Yet despite the distortive effects of sin, God has not allowed His good intentions for creation to be derailed. In Christ, God has begun the process of reversing the effects of sin on creation and redeeming disobedient humanity. A true doctrine of creation is thus irreducibly Christological. In Christ, fallen creation will be restored and creation’s destiny finally realised.


 

Rev Dr Mark Chan is Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia (CSCA) at Trinity Theological College (TTC). He teaches hermeneutics, homiletics and other theological subjects at TTC.

Secularism and its Discontents

August 2015 Pulse

The American sociologist Peter Berger is perhaps one of the most interesting scholars of secularism and religion. In his book The Sacred Canopy published in 1967, Berger presented the famous secularisation thesis which postulates that as modernity advances, the influence of religion will diminish and eventually disappear altogether.

Thirty years later, however, Berger changed his mind. In The De- secularisation of the World published in 1999, Berger and his colleagues abandoned their earlier hypothesis because “the theory seemed less and less capable of making sense of the empirical evidence from different parts of the world”. Berger, who now could speak of the “myth of secularisation”, argues that modernisation and secularisation are not synonymous.

Secular philosophers and scholars are also beginning to acknowledge the limits of secularism. For example, the eminent atheist German philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues emphatically that secularists must take religion seriously because of the enormous contributions it has made to civilisation. He adds that the philosophy and values that the Judeo- Christian tradition has inspired are still important in modern moral and scientific life.

This is not surprising. Theologians have long maintained that it is secularism – not religion – that is an anomaly and must offer compelling justifications for its own outlook.

Can secularism do this? Can it present a substantial and comprehensive rationale and ethic for the moral and social life?

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

Let us begin with the myth of secular neutrality. Far from being philosophically and ideologically neutral, secularism is a way of understanding and constructing reality. It is a worldview.

To be a secular humanist, one needs to embrace certain commitments like “God does not exist” (atheism) and “the physical world is all that there is” (scientific materialism), none of which can be established on scientific grounds. It takes a lot of faith to be a secularist.

On its own secularism is unable to offer a moral vision that is indispensable for human societies to flourish. Irving Kristol writes perceptively that “The philosophical rationalism of secular humanism can, at best, provide us with a statement of the necessary assumptions of a moral code, but it cannot deliver such a code itself.”

That Western secular humanists can speak eloquently of values like dignity, freedom and rights is largely because secularism is parasitic on the Judeo-Christian tradition it denounces. But it is precisely because it has rejected the tradition that provides the philosophical and theological foundations for these values, that secular ethics will willy-nilly drown in the sea of relativism.

Secularism often appeals to the Enlightenment myth of the triumph of reason. But experience has repeatedly shown that reason alone is unable to forge a universal consensus, especially when the issue in question is complex and contentious.

Nietzsche is exactly right when he says that no man of reason would rejoice in the death of God. For if God is truly dead, reason’s demise will soon follow.

For if God is really dead, truth itself would dissipate. What is left is an ocean of conflicting and clashing opinions, preferences, and assertions. As the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak has pointed out: “If all is chance, random and inherently meaningless, reason has no North Star and its needle spins mindlessly”.

Because secularism fails to offer a substantial vision for the moral and social life, it is also unable to articulate the meaning of human existence. And in a meaningless world, the purpose of human action becomes frustratingly murky.

On its own, secularism must remain silent in the face of suffering because it simply does not have the resources to respond to human tragedy. What has secularism to say to the weak and the vulnerable, asks Novak, “that it does not borrow directly from Judaism and Christianity?”

The great 20th century theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg perceptively notes that “Secular culture itself produces a deep need for meaning in life and therefore also for religion”. Secularism raises a bitter protest, but offers no answers.

And it is perhaps the very impotence of secularism that has led to what G.K. Chesterton has memorably described as the “revolt into orthodoxy”. It has caused atheists like Francis Collins and many others to put their faith in God.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

 

Secularism and Social Peace

June 2015 Pulse

It seems that it is quite impossible to read the papers or watch the news on television without encountering stories of unconscionable atrocities committed in the name of religion, whether by ISIS in the Middle East or by Boko Haram in Nigeria. These instantiations of religious violence seem to lend credence to the view, advanced by a good number of prominent atheist writers, that religion is the cause of much of the violence we see in our world.

Sam Harris, for instance, has insisted relentlessly that ‘most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith’. Harris feels compelled to arrive at the extremely vexed conclusion that ‘religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut’. This chorus of voices blaming religion for violence is of course directed by Richard Dawkins, who in The God Delusion declares quite categorically that ‘only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people’.

The proponents of this theory – that religion causes violence – often point to the Thirty Years War as perhaps the example par excellence of the kind of chaos and carnage that religiously motivated violence can unleash. The senseless war that caused millions of deaths and the outbreak of diseases and plagues was brought to an end by the Treaties of Westphalia (1648), which these theorists see not only as the genesis of modern state but also as a triumph of secularism.

This is an astonishingly simplistic reading of both the complex confluence of factors and ambitions that fuelled the Thirty Years War and the accomplishments of Westphalia. It is, however, repeatedly used as the undisputable example of the serious disruption to social peace that religion can cause. It promotes the unexamined secularist mantra that asserts that religion produces violence because it is divisive. Which leads to the corollary that in a religiously diverse world, secularism is the only guarantor of social peace.

Such rhetoric often directs attention away from the violence and atrocities for which secular and atheist regimes and governments are responsible in recent memory.

For example, according to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the Mao Zedong regime is responsible for the deaths of seventy million. In his classic, The Rise and Fall of Communism, Archie Brown estimated that Mao’s mass mobilisation programme called The Great Leap Forward alone had caused thirty million deaths.

In Stalin’s Russia, millions of people were either killed or starved to death as the result of the industrialisation programme of their new autocrat. The historian J. M. Roberts reports starkly that seven years after the programme for the ‘collectivization’ of land and the development of heavy industries began in 1928, ‘5 million families disappeared from European Russia’.

To this list, we must add Pol Pot, the secretary general of the Cambodian communist party in 1963 and leader of the ‘Khmer Rouge’ faction. According to Roberts, Pol Pot ‘presided over the killing of as many as 2 million (out of 7 million) of his countrymen and countrywomen in the name of radical Maoist and fanatically xenophobic (anti-Vietnamese) ideology’.

The list could easily be expanded to include Hitler, Fidel Castro, Lenin, Nicolae Ceausescu and Kim Jong-il. In fact, the deaths caused by Christian emperors and rulers in the five hundred period of the history of the Church which encompasses the Crusades and the Inquisition amounted to only 1 percent of the deaths caused by Hitler, Stalin and Mao in just a few decades.

What makes the crimes of Mao and Stalin more horrific than the deaths caused by the Thirty Years War, argues Dinesh D’Souza, is that the atrocities of these atheist regimes were committed in peacetime and against their own countrymen and countrywomen.

Now, of course statistics alone cannot settle the matter. It would be quite ludicrous to argue that religion is superior to secularism because the statistics show that it has been responsible for lesser deaths. In supplying this data, I merely wish to show that secularism also has a history of violence.

These historical facts dispel the smoke screen generated by the rhetoric of religious violence. They expose as false the myth that secularism is more tolerant and peaceful and that it alone is the reasonable arbiter and guarantor of social peace.

As Hunter Baker has perceptively put it: ‘Secularism tells a story about its differences with religion that are not necessarily true. For instance, one frequently hears about Christian failures such as the Inquisition, but we are led to believe that secularism represents cooler heads, rationality and common ground. What often goes unacknowledged is that secularism has itself often been associated with the coercive, the unjust, the violent, and the undemocratic’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.