Tag Archives: Genre: Church and Religion

Paganising Christianity

September 2016 Pulse

The unprecedented emergence of religious fundamentalism and fervour across the globe in the final decades of the last century has led to the demise of the so-called secularisation theory proposed by philosophers and sociologists in the 1960s. Instead of being made obsolete by the seemingly unstoppable advance of secularism, the religions are experiencing something of a revival.

This phenomenal “re-sacralisation” has brought to the surface spiritual sensibilities or predilections that are best described as “neo-pagan”. In her insightful book, New Age and Neo-pagan Religions in America, Sarah Pike helpfully characterised neo-pagan beliefs and practices as eclectic and inclusive, “traditional” and inventive, embracing both old and new.

This new religiosity is nourished and energised in different ways by a confluence of diverse (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) cultural forces that are at work in our world: postmodernism, consumerism, individualism, relativism, anti-authoritarianism, secularism, panpsychism (all things have consciousness) and many others.

Unfortunately, this new syncretism has infiltrated the Christian church, resulting in the creation of “bastard faiths”, a term coined by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. The poisonous commingling of neo-pagan occultism, secularism and Christianity has given birth to such profound and serious distortions that the Gospel of Christ itself is undermined, resulting in what the Apostle Paul has called “a different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4).

Examples of the miscegenation (or inter-breeding) of Christianity with neo-pagan elements are not difficult to find.

Take the so-called “Health and Wealth Gospel”. Unknown to many, this unorthodox teaching is in fact a toxic blend of Christianity and New Thought Metaphysics.

Kenneth Hagin – the father of the “movement” – was greatly influenced by the Pentecostal preacher E. W. Kenyon, who in turn drew heavily from Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), the alleged founder of New Thought.

Quimby taught that sickness and suffering originate from the mind, and that they are the result of incorrect thinking. He believed that we could eradicate suffering by creating a new reality through positive visualisation and positive confession.

Hagin and the health and prosperity teachers simply “baptised” this New Thought doctrine with their distorted concept of faith. Following Kenyon’s dictum, “What I confess, I possess”, they fused their understanding of faith with positive confession.

Another example of this deadly syncretism is found in the teachings and practices of the self-styled apostles and prophets of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). The most prominent leaders of this movement include Bill Johnson, Bill Hamon, Rick Joyner, Mike Bickle, Lou Engle, Patricia King and Che Ahn.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of NAR is their acquiescence to and legitimisation of neo-pagan and shamanistic practices such as contact with angels (or spirit guides), angel orbs, portals of glory, teleportation and ‘grave-sucking’ (the belief that one can obtain the anointing of the deceased servants of God by visiting their graves).

While some of these preachers introduce these teachings and practices covertly to their unsuspecting followers, others promote them quite openly.

For example, in his 2006 book Dreaming with God, Bill Johnson of Bethel Church, Redding, asserts that it is mistaken to think that New Age practices like clairaudience (the ability to perceive sounds or words from outside sources in the spirit world) are from the devil. According to Johnson, they are “tools that God has given us for success in life and ministry”.

In similar vein, Jonathan Welton argues in an essay in The Physics of Heaven (2012) that occult practices like auras and clairvoyance (gaining information through extrasensory perception) are actually God’s gifts to the Church that the practitioners of the New Age have stolen. The Church must therefore reclaim that which is rightfully hers.

Welton writes: “I have found throughout Scripture at least 75 examples of things that the New Age has counterfeited, such as having a spirit guide, trances, meditation, auras, power objects, clairvoyance, clairaudience, and more.”

“Every time a counterfeit shows up”, he continues, “take it as the Lord presenting you with an opportunity to reclaim … the Church’s stolen property.”

About two millennia ago, in a letter addressed to a Church besieged by heresy, the Apostle Paul warns: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8, ESV)

In the wake of this new religiosity, the Church of today must take this warning from Scripture with complete seriousness.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large

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

 

Interrogating Tolerance

September 2016 Pulse

In his study on the history of toleration, Alan Levine observes that ‘Toleration is one of the most attractive and widespread ideas of our day. It is a cornerstone of liberalism, a key protection for both individual citizens and minority groups, and in general is the predominant ethos of all moral civilizations in the modern world’.

There is little reason to question the veracity of Levine’s observation. But the ubiquity of the concept of tolerance in our time and the proliferation of its use in a variety of contexts has, ironically, obfuscated its meaning and resulted in serious confusions that may be detrimental to human sociality.

Academics and politicians who employ the language and rhetoric of tolerance to address different issues have sometimes presented tolerance as a moral virtue. This tendency is also found in the writings of some theologians and ethicists.

However, it is important to recognise the fact that toleration or tolerance has to do with politics, not so much with morality or religion. Both the genesis of this idea and its immediate and subsequent applications bear this out quite clearly.

The idea of toleration that arose in seventeenth century Europe – and famously expounded by John Locke in Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) – was purposed to solve to the problem of religious diversity and conflict that had become acute at the time. Toleration made possible the peaceful co-existence of the different religious groups within society.

Seen in this light, toleration has much to do with politics and very little to do with ethics and even less to do with religion. As Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, toleration is the answer to the question: How shall people with different faith convictions live together? Toleration’s concern is not truth but political order and civic peace.

Toleration, then, is about managing difference and the threat that it poses. Or, as Wendy Brown puts it toleration is a strategy for ‘regulating aversion’. It is the ‘mode of incorporating and regulating the presence of the threatening Other within’. But if Brown is right, if toleration is in essence just a way of negotiating the mean between rejection and assimilation, toleration is a political necessity rather than a virtue.

The seldom-explored relationship between tolerance and power is vital to our understanding of the true nature of tolerance. To tolerate is in some sense always to stand in the position of power and judgement over the tolerated. Tolerance points to the normative standing of the tolerant and the liminal standing of the tolerated.

As Wendy Brown explains: ‘It reconfirms, without reference to the orders of power that enable it, the higher civilizational standing of those who tolerate what they do not condone or share – their cosmopolitanism, forbearance, expansiveness, catholicity, remoteness from fundamentalism’.

The withholding of tolerance is similarly an expression of power. It suggests that that which cannot be tolerated is barbaric, but without in any way implicating the cultural and societal norms of the party that makes this judgement.

Tolerance has, at best, a tenuous relationship with morality. To be sure, weaved into the idea of tolerance is a basic moral impulse – a sense of right and wrong. Thus, tolerance must be distinguished from preference or taste because it requires that a moral judgement be made on the thing tolerated.

Put differently, I tolerate an action or a practice not because I think that it is morally neutral. Rather, I am certain that it is morally wrong, but I am willing to allow it. Tolerance therefore presupposes disagreement on something that is of moral significance.

But this leads to an interesting question: if an action or practice is morally reprehensible to me (e.g., abortion or euthanasia), why should I tolerate it?

It is here that the relationship between tolerance and morality becomes murky and dubious. Tolerance, which makes sense only when moral convictions are taken seriously, seems to insist that these very convictions must either be given up or relativised.

As Bernard Williams has perceptively pointed out, such is the paradox of tolerance: the very thing that makes tolerance necessary has also made it impossible.

But tolerance’s relationship with morality is also tenuous in another sense, especially in our postmodern climate where the truth upon which morality depends has become illusive. It is in such a cultural ethos that the rhetoric of tolerance can be truly at home.

As S. D. Gaede has wryly put it in his book, When Tolerance is No Virtue: ‘Tolerance is a value that conforms nicely to the world we live in. Having pretty much decided that truth is not attainable, we have made tolerance of a plurality of truths a virtue. Having no truths worth defending, we have made nondefensiveness a mark of distinction’.

This attempt to interrogate tolerance, to question its innocence, so to speak, does not suggest that we should reject tolerance or ignore its usefulness. Tolerance must of course be preferred to incivility and violence.

Such analyses however change the status of tolerance – from a transcendental virtue to a strategy of governance, a way of negotiating differences in order to achieve social peace and cohesion.

This is not an idle exercise. For only when the nature of tolerance and the role that it plays in our pluralistic society is properly understood can its abuses be prevented.


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

 

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.

 

Christian Spirituality in a Time of Resurgent Spirituality

August 2015 Feature Article

There was a season in world history when excessive confidence and trust was conferred on science, technology, and the place of the mind.  At the same time, suspicion and cynicism was directed at spirituality, subjectivity, and the place of the heart.

The mood of that season has since given way to a new season where the resurgence of spirituality is evidenced.  The age of globalization characterized by movement, change, disruption, and displacement has fueled spiritual thirst as well as increasing the number of options to satisfy deep spiritual longing.

In this article, I will present two growing stands of spirituality which have been observed.

The first strand which is readily discovered in popular secular culture affirms spirituality decoupled from God and religion.  The second strand found in growing numbers of churches is shaped by consumer oriented desire to be culturally relevant.  Both strands pose a challenge to historic Christian faith.

Finally, a third stand which focuses on the commitment to follow Christ is presented as the basis of authentic Christian spirituality and the aspiration which Christians should strive toward.

Spirituality decoupled from God and religion

The first strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form that is decoupled from God and religion.

Within this strand of spirituality is a yearning for spiritual experiences which exclude God and religious institutions.  Both the growing secularization of society as well as the loss of confidence in traditional religious institutions have contributed to the move toward this strand of spirituality.

A significant aspect of this stand of spirituality lies in its commitment to a particular understanding of transcendence.  The experience of transcendence is the sense of mystery and wonder when in union with something much larger that the human self.

While traditionally the experience of transcendence has been associated with union with God up there, this strand of spirituality gravitates toward union with the world down here.

Spirituality in this strand therefore celebrates without any reference to God, the exponential growth in understanding of the natural and supernatural world, the strength and tenacity of the human spirit, the breathtaking affordances and enablement of new technologies, the global diversity and multiplicity of human perspective, the awesome wonder at the universe’s mysteries, and even the angst of the world of complex human existence.

It presents a non-theistic vision of spiritual life and highlights the nature of the search for spiritual meaning in an increasingly secularized society.

Together with the secularization of society, the increasing lack of confidence in traditional religious institutions has also contributed toward the movement toward a spirituality which is decoupled from God and religion.  The unfortunate reality about traditional religious institutions is that they often grow powerful, exercise authoritarianism, are slow to address issues of abuse and injustice, remain inward looking, and are slow to adapt to changes in culture.

Kinnaman and Lyon’s study of outsider perceptions of Christianity revealed six points of skepticism and objections raised.  Christians were thought of as hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental (Kinnaman and Lyon 2007).  Likewise Kinnaman’s later study revealed reasons why Christian youth were leaving the church.  The reasons include the church being overprotective, shallow, antiscience, repressive, exclusive, and didn’t allow room for doubt (Kinnaman 2011).

While the studies were conducted in the United States, the sentiments are often echoed in many other parts of the world with deep implications for families, churches, schools, and Christians in the marketplace. 

Both the secularization of society and a lack of confidence in religious institutions have thus fueled the growth of this first strand of spirituality.  Faith, hope, trust, and wonder remain, but are arrived at without an appeal to God or religion.  While skepticism toward spirituality has not been lost, a new skepticism toward Christianity is evidenced and proliferated within institutions of higher learning, in the popular media, and by influential cultural elites.

Spirituality shaped by cultural relevance

The second strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form within churches that enthusiastically and unreservedly seek to move with the times.  In a fast changing world, the race toward relevance has resulted in significant changes not just of the external forms of church, but also in the inner nature and character of its accompanying spirituality.

A metaphor that aptly describes the church in a changing world is “a young person with white hair.” For the church to remain relevant in every generation, its external form needs to be renewed and adapted.

Equally, for the church to remain faithful to its roots, it cannot lose fundamental aspects of its character to the forces of change.  In their quests for relevance however, some adaptive churches have began to take on a character that is best described as “young person with colored hair.”

The slowness to recognize the extent to which cultural influences have become mixed in and rooted in the church today is paralleled in the way coffee is served and drunk today.  In its most basic and unadulterated form, coffee is served black.  In many popular coffee chains however, coffee is served as flavored Frappuccinos.

In the contemporary consciousness, coffee is an appealing beverage only because of the sweeten flavors of Frappuccino, and not because of the coffee per se.  Presented with the alternatives of a cup of black coffee and a Frappuccino containing only coffee essence, it would not be surprising if some insist that the Frappuccino was proper coffee while at the same time rejecting the real thing.

This muddle finds parallel in the church today and is observable in many successful, fast growing churches and their fan bases.  In David Wells’ words, these churches “appear to be succeeding, not because they are offering an alternative to our modern culture, but because they are speaking with its voice, mimicking its moves.”

Quite unlike the first strand of spirituality described which challenges the church from without, this second strand and its growing popularity challenges the church from within and is rooted in a consumer-driven posture of the heart.

Spirituality shaped by commitment to follow Christ

If the first strand of spirituality is decoupled from God and religion while the second an embodiment of trending socio-cultural influences, a third strand is marked by a deep commitment to know and follow Christ.  In a crowded, noisy world with a supermarket of spiritualities on offer, this strand stands apart and requires special attention and intentional cultivation.

The call to follow Christ is always issued amidst rival and competing voices.

In addition, when recognized, the call provokes differing degrees of receptivity.  The call invites all to recognize the identity of Christ as king of the universe and head of the church.  It bids all to enter into a discipleship relationship with the Master.

Finally, it summons all to appropriate the benefits of his sacrificial death on the cross, the power of his resurrection over sin and death, and the offer of hope both in this life and the next.

What animates a spirituality shaped by a commitment to Christ is the passionate desire to follow him and to imitate his ways.  This deep yearning and ambition is clearly exampled in the life of the apostle Paul who modeled his life after Christ and called others to follow in the same spirit (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; 2 Thess. 3:9).

Rodney Reeves comments on the core elements of this Christ-centered, life-altering spirituality embraced by Paul:

Since the gospel was more than a set of beliefs–it was a way of life–Paul believe his life revealed the gospel of Jesus Christ: he was crucified with Christ, he was buried with Christ and he was raised with Christ. Participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ was the template of Paul’s spirituality.

Spirituality shaped by commitment to Christ builds on the decision to follow him and grows toward maturity by pursuing the things Christ calls his disciples to become and live for.

Evidence of this strand of spirituality would include repentance from wrong doing, daily dying to self, embodying a spirit of service and sacrifice, demonstrating trust and dependence on God, and possessing a concern for the things that matter to the Master.  It upholds its integrity by resisting dilution and domestication of the gospel and by understanding that following Christ is not like bringing a puppy back home for personal amusement.

Bringing a puppy home requires some adjustment in personal lifestyle but still preserves a person’s status as the puppy’s master.  Following Christ however is better conceived as bringing a new master home.

That being the case, followers will need to note the adjustments in lifestyles, behaviors, and thinking that Christ demands of all aspects and arenas of life.  Having it any other way would be tantamount to preserving the rhetoric of following Christ while failing to uphold the reality in practice.  It would be to advance the great irony of following Christ on one’s own terms, not on His terms.

Concluding Words

The world we live in today is a world of global flows, shifting boundaries, and porous walls.  It is a world where our community, congregation members and children are exposed to different forms of spirituality.  It is also in the context of this world that Christians are called to develop authentic Christian spirituality.

Perhaps the invitation to develop authentic Christian spirituality in such as world can be compared to how fish we eat is served to us.  If developing Christian spirituality in an era past can be compared to being served fish with bones removed, developing Christian spirituality in the present age can only be compared to being served fish with bones on.

Eating becomes an exercise of wisdom and good judgment.  Under such conditions, it is necessary to discern what is beneficial, to distinguish from what needs to be spit out, and to know how to aid casualties along the way.



Dr Calvin Chong
is Associate Professor, Educational Ministries at the Singapore Bible College. His teaching and research interests include orality studies, hermeneutics, new educational technologies, designing learning experiences, the impact of narratives on worldview and values, conflict resolution/reconciliation, and contemporary urban missions and youth issues.

 

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. 

Interfaith Dialogue and Democratic Virtues

April 2015 Feature Article

Democratic governments assert the moral legitimacy to exercise power over their citizens on the ground that they command the support of the majority of the electorate. Consent from the electorate is secured with the assurance that there is less likelihood of abuse of power in democracy compared to ancient aristocracy and modern totalitarianism.

However, modern democracy exacts a price from religious communities. There is an unwritten rule that religion must be kept out of the public arena. Presumably, public debate of these sensitive matters is not only divisive; it can degenerate into violent conflict. Demagogues may exploit religious sentiments to gain political power, and in turn look after the sectarian interest of their religious power base. Democracy is effectively undermined when it becomes a tool for the tyranny of the majority community.

Censorship as a Tolerated Evil

Understandably, some democratic governments impose censorship of religious dialogue and debate in public. But one wonders if censorship may not end up depriving the electorate of the very tool that could help overcome ignorance and prejudice between religious communities. Perhaps it is time to examine the rationale and rules for censorship so that genuine dialogue may be encouraged to promote mutual understanding through clarification of wrongly perceived religious belief and practice.

Social constraint like censorship can be justified only if it results in an evident increase of democratic freedom in other aspects of social life. As social freedoms may be likened to a seamless cloth of interlocking rights, social constraint and state intervention should be minimal and legal restriction must be justified by the imperative of moral concerns shared across different communities. Religious censorship should be limited and applied in a principled manner and only if it clearly works for the common good.

However, enforcement of censorship is inevitably subjective and arbitrary, as evident from anomalies in censorship laws. Censors and would-be censors believe they are immune to corruption arising from arbitrary use of power, but experience often proves otherwise.  As such, censorship laws, if any, should be regarded as a tolerated evil best kept to the barest minimum.

What could be the main provisions within this framework of limited and principled censorship?

1) Every voluntary society (and the word voluntary should be stressed here) has the right to define the terms of belief and practice of its membership. The moral and religious education of its members is a matter of internal affairs of the society. By this token, censorship laws may not control the substantive beliefs of religious communities.

2) In a plural society no single group (whether majority or otherwise) has the right to demand that government imposes a general censorship affecting all citizens upon any medium of communication just because the group considers certain matters undesirable according to the distinctive standards held by that group.

3) All social groups should be given unrestricted participation in forging shared public morality by means of peaceful and rational persuasion.

4) Conversely, no single group may impose its own religious or moral views onto other groups through use of force and intimidation.

5) Censorship may ensure proper procedures for interfaith relations. For example, censorship should ensure that there is no misrepresentation or derogation of any religious beliefs and religious discourse should be conducted in a respectful manner.

Dialogue Positively Encouraged

There is wisdom in the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” When the freedom and limits of dialogue are appropriately defined, interfaith dialogue should be encouraged to build bridges across community divides.

First, democracy assures people that there are checks and balance as power is distributed to various institutions with non-discriminatory policies and procedures. However, public officials can ignore these procedures and choose instead to promote the ideological interests of the dominant community. The ability to refrain from such abuse presupposes officials are imbibed with democratic virtues that respect the wishes of the majority without sacrificing the vital interests of minority communities. Such an inclusive mindset is nurtured through habits of social interaction and dialogue with people from other communities.

Second, dialogue is the foundation of social relations and the democratic way of life. As the famous Catholic social thinker John Courtney Murray writes, “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.” The expectation is that men of good-will in rational discourse are capable of discovering valid principles about the common good and shared moral values.

Johannes Althusius observes in his book Politica that “Politics is the art of associating (consociandi) men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them…The subject matter of politics is therefore association (consociatio), in which the symbiotes [those who live together] pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life.” In this regard, genuine interfaith dialogue nurtures good virtues of social tolerance, mutual respect and regard for the welfare of people of other faiths. That is to say, the democratic virtues cultivated through interfaith dialogue are fundamental for building social consensus.

Third, nation building is a historical project shared by all communities in a plural society. The success and prosperity of the nation is ensured when citizens of diverse communities and faiths are rallied and held together by common values and mutual interests. Cicero eloquently declared that a true commonwealth is not just any association but a people juris consensus et utilitatis communion sociatus – a people united by agreement about law and rights and by a desire for mutual (not just selfish) interests.

Modern societies are made up of diverse communities (reality of plurality). It is unavoidable that different communities have different conceptions of the sacred order that underpins both religious and social life (reality of pluralism). It is granted that historically, human society has never arrived at a final resolution in the debate of pluralism (a question of epistemology rather than ontology). It is possible that the dominant religion may be tempted to impose its beliefs onto others. As such, the public goals of interfaith dialogue should not be a contest of supremacy but a mutual appreciation of different “articles of faith”. Such mutual appreciation allows religious interlocutors to define “articles of peace”, that is, rules for social relations that enable people of different faiths to live and work together for the common good. For this purpose, it is the challenge for different communities to demonstrate and make available the ethical resources from their respective religious traditions to nurture a moral citizenry that values mutual respect and acceptance amidst diversity.

The government may provide a supportive but not the defining role in interfaith relations. It cannot be stressed too strongly that the government should not arrogate for itself the responsibility of taking care of the sacred order of religious life. Instead, the duty of the government is to limit its care to ensure freedom of religion. We are mindful that often times, the government, by virtue of its overwhelming power, is tempted to control the life and practices of religious communities. Indeed, one of the paramount goals of interfaith dialogue is to define how the existence of transcendent reality, however differently conceived within each religious tradition, legitimizes but limits to the power of government.

In the final analysis, genuine inter-faith dialogue promotes a culture of openness and cooperation. The awesome task of working for the common good demands great courage and vision from all religious leaders and the ability to transcend the limited interests of their respective communities and work together to build a just and harmonious democracy.


Dr Ng Kam Weng
Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.

Post-Secularity

March 2015 Pulse

It is quite fashionable to label the period in which we inhabit by the use of the prefix ‘post’: post-liberal, post-colonial, post-modern and even post-human.

While the prefix annoyingly tells us very little, it does suggest that ours is an age riddled with ambiguities. The prefix points to a culture that is still somewhat dependent on the status quo it has revolted against.

Writers as diverse as Jurgen Habermas and Graham Ward have argued quite persuasively that we are beginning to see the emergence of a post-secular age. Post-secularism of course does not signal the end of secularism. It points to the novel miscegenation of the secular and the religious in a way that is both amorphous and treacherous.

The Roman Catholic aesthetic theologian, Richard Viladesu, has said that one way of discerning the evolution of culture is to study its artefacts. Since film continues to be one of the primary mediums in modern culture, in what follows I will briefly reflect on two films to track this shift in sensibility.

On December 26, 1973, Warner Bros. theatrically released The Exorcist in the United States. The film grossed over US$441 million worldwide and earned 10 Academy Award nominations. It starred Ellen Burstyn (as Chris MacNeil), Jason Miller (as Father Karrass, the exorcist) and Linda Blair (as Regan Teresa MacNeil, the demon-possessed adolescent girl).

In many different ways, The Exorcist portrays modern secularism with its stark (one might even say, overwrought) dualisms that pervades almost every aspect of the film. It accentuates a characteristic trademark of secularism, namely its neat compartmentalisation of reality, especially its dogmatic division between the sacred and secular.

Thus in The Exorcist there can be found not just the dualities of good and evil, but also the sacred and profane, church and society. But what is critical is that The Exorcist seems rather determined to ensure that these divisions are never blurred, and the boundaries strictly enforced.

The church, which is always in the background in the film, is called upon only when there is a crisis that science is unable to resolve. But after the successful exorcism, the religious symbols are returned to Father Karrass the exorcist as if to say that now that the crisis is over, church and religion are no longer needed.

The family returns to the usual dualities, and life reverts to the prepossession secular norm. The Church recedes once again into the background, and religion is once again relegated to the periphery of secular society.

In Rupert Wainwright’s 1999 film, Stigmata, the dualities and dichotomies that The Exorcist has carefully defined and guarded appear to have collapsed. Reality is presented as seamless where the distinct categories of sacred and secular no longer apply. In the post-secular age, we see a decisive shift away from the barren materialism of the scientific worldview to a world that is re-enchanted and re-sacralised.

Stigmata underscores the disappearance of dualities in very striking ways. In Roman Catholic piety, the stigmata are granted only to those who are wholly devoted to God, like Francis of Assisi. In the movie, the marks appear on the hairdresser Frankie (played by Patricia Arquette) who is not only an unbeliever but also a promiscuous hedonist. In the post-secular age, the dissolution of the secular and the sacred has led to the democratisation of spiritual experiences.

The removal of these boundaries is also powerfully portrayed by the rosary, which Frankie’s mother bought for her while vacationing in Brazil. Not knowing its significance, Frankie wore it as a necklace, thereby treating a religious object as a mere fashion accessory. Yet it is through the trivialised rosary that Frankie received the supernatural stigmata.

Although post-secularism wants to re-sacralise the world, it is important to note that it has no desire whatsoever to return to traditional religions like Christianity. Some writers have pointed out that God has made a comeback in the post-secular world. However, the God that has appeared on the scene is not the God of the Bible, but a nebulous spiritual force that permeates all of reality.

While The Exorcist presents an ever enlarging secular space where religion is pushed to the margins, summoned only when science is unable to solve a problem (the old ‘God-of-the-gaps’ idea), Stigmata insists that everything is spiritual. Yet, in emphasising spirituality, Stigmata roundly rejects religion as it is traditionally understood and practiced.

Stigmata is truly post-secular in the sense that it abandons both the rationalism and scientism of secularism and traditional religion. In one sense, post-secularism is intrinsically postmodern because it subverts both scientific and religious authorities and abandons their respective metanarratives.

Both films diminish the role of religion and the church in society, but in their own ways. The secularism of The Exorcist says that religion is mostly irrelevant, while the post-secularism of Stigmata says that traditional religion is no longer necessary since spiritual experiences are available everywhere to everyone.


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.

Contending with Gaia

Feb 2015 Pulse

In the past five decades, debates on the environment have seen a notable shift from anthropocentric to biocentric thinking. Theologians, philosophers and ethicists generally acknowledge that the traditional human-centric approach cannot adequately address concerns about the welfare of animals and the environment. This shift is further precipitated by the current concerns about climate change.

In his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life, James Lovelock, an independent scientist and futurist proposed a theory that provided the basis for philosophers and scientists to think about humans and their environment. ‘The Gaia Hypothesis’, Lovelock writes, ‘states that Earth’s surface conditions are regulated by the activities of life … This environmental maintenance is effected by the growth and metabolic activities of the sum of organisms, i.e., the biota’.

Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is based on a number of assumptions, not every one of which can be said to be in agreement with current scientific understanding.

The first assumption is that every living organism in the planet in some ways influences the external environment. Gaia works on a grand vision of organic harmony, where the myriads of different species that populate the earth act in concert to produce and maintain the necessary conditions for life.

In other words, according to Lovelock, the biosphere is self-regulating and is therefore capable of preserving the conditions conducive for life. The Gaian earth is a single organism that has evolved precisely in the way that it has to ensure the preservation of life.

Most scientists are critical of Lovelock’s hypothesis, and some have even called it a pseudoscience. They maintain that Lovelock’s understanding of evolution is antithetical to the Darwinian theory. While Darwin postulates the competitive model with his idea of ‘survival of the fittest’, Lovelock advocates the cooperation model.

Be that as it may, many people are attracted to the sheer elegance of Lovelock’s hypothesis because it presents a geo-physiological way of understanding our planet and the life it supports. The hypothesis urges us to look beyond the purpose or telos of individual organisms, and to consider their collective contribution to the survival of the planet.

When we evaluate the Gaia hypothesis in light of the Christian understanding of God, the creation and human beings several serious problems present themselves.

At the outset, it is important to note that Gaia is a hypothesis about the nature of living organisms and how they relate to one another. Although it is in part based on current scientific knowledge, it is by-and-large a philosophical construct. In fact, Gaia hypothesis can be even said to be a kind of myth, quite similar to the myth of evolutionism.

One fundamental problem with Gaia is that it fails to make the distinction between organisms. There appears to be no ontological difference between human beings and algae. Every living organism is blended into what proponents of ‘deep ecology’ call ‘a single life force’. The distinction between self and non-self is obliterated: human and bacteria share the same ‘consciousness’.

Although Gaia wishes to address the stubborn anthropocentrism that continues to lurk in the way we think of nature, it has swung to the other extreme. In failing to acknowledge the ontological distinction between human beings and other creatures, it has also failed to give an account of human uniqueness.

This is at odds with the Christian understanding of human beings as bearers of the divine image, that are at once continuous and discontinuous with the rest of God’s creation. And in failing to recognise human uniqueness, Gaia is unable to conceive of the proper relationship between man and the natural order.

Theologians rightly saw that the peculiar naturalism of Gaia has subjected human behaviour to its own brand of biological determinism. The atheist Richard Dawkins has famously asserted that ‘We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’.

Although Lovelace would not put it in quite the same way, he would have no quarrels with Dawkin’s general intuition. Such a view, if taken seriously, would spell the end of any meaningful way of thinking about human freedom and morality.

As it stands Gaia does not in principle encourage responsible human behaviour towards the natural order. For if nature has an intrinsic ability to adjust and achieve equilibrium, why is there a real need for human beings to take care of the natural environment?

In fact, Lovelock explicitly rejects the idea of ‘resource management’ because it implies that human beings have the ability to somehow ‘manage’ the earth. Lovelock believes that human beings do not have this ability, despite the great achievements of science and technology.

Stewardship, for Lovelock, bespeaks of a certain kind of arrogance. It is perhaps another instantiation of anthropocentrism.

Both Christian and secular conservationists, who stress the importance of responsible stewardship, have great difficulties with the implications of Gaian theory on environmental ethics.

Finally, Gaia postulates that nature is the fundamental reality. In fact, according to the hypothesis, the biosphere is what is ultimately real.

One on level, then, we could say that Gaia presents a new version of naturalism. But in its attempt to sacralise reality by portraying the earth as one living and conscious organism, Gaia may also be accused of promoting a form of pantheism. And with its allusions to teleology or purpose, Gaia may also be said to be implicitly reviving a version of the anima mundi, the mothering earth.

That is why Gaia is so popular among New Age enthusiasts. It inspires what has been described as eco-paganism. Modern theosophists like Alice Bailey and David Spangler have associated Gaia with the theosophical Earth Logos. And New Age leaders like Otter and Morning Glory G’Zell of the Church of All Worlds have described themselves as priest and priestess of Gaia.

How did Gaia, which started life as a unifying theory about living organisms, become a religious symbol? Gaia has inspired the imagination of a culture that is at once dissatisfied with a stifling individualism and a suffocating secularism. It has provided our postmodern culture with a sense of community and inter-connectedness as well as a re-enchanted nature.

Gaia is therefore more than simply a hypothesis about biota or organic life on this planet. It provides with an insight into the restlessness that characterises a culture that is on a quest for a more profound vision of reality than the one science and technology are able to offer.


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 Methodist Message.

There are some similarities between the Christian and Islamic concepts of God, but we can’t conclude that Christians and Muslims worship the same God

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

THIS question has become pressing in some circles, especially after 9/11 and in the wake of strenuous attempts in the West not to demonise Islam.

An affirmative answer to this question is well supported by some of the most powerful political and religious voices in the world.

In an exclusive 2004 interview of ABC News’ correspondent Charles Gibson, President George W. Bush asserted that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In a 2004 lecture at the al-Azhar al-Sharif Institute in Cairo, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made the same assertion, although in a more sophisticated and nuanced manner. This view is supported by Vatican II, the authoritativeCatechism of the Catholic Church, and in a number of speeches and writings of John Paul II.

Those who are of the view that Christians and Muslims worship the same God often offer the following reasons for their position. Both Christians and Muslims believe in one personal and transcendent God. That is to say, both Christianity and Islam are monotheistic religions. Both believe that God sent his prophets in the world, and inspired the writers of their scriptures. Furthermore, both believe that Jesus was a prophet sent by God, and that he was sinless and born of a virgin. For some, the broad similarities between the two religions are reasons enough to conclude that they are, to quote Mr Bush, “different ways of getting to the Almighty”.

But in order for us to reflect on this issue seriously, we must ask deeper questions. Doctrinal and theological issues should not be generalised, and difficulties and differences should never be avoided or sugared over for the sake of broad agreements.

Let us begin by looking at the claim that both Christianity and Islam belong to what has been described as the “Abrahamic tradition”. It is important to note at the outset that Christians and Muslims share no common scriptures. Indeed when we read accounts of the Muslims’ attitudes to the Christian scriptures in the Qu’ran, we find a spectrum which ranges from respect to the charge that large parts of the Christian Bible (Old Testament included) are rank forgeries.

That is why even though the two sets of scripture speak of the same figure – Abraham (Qur’an: Ibrahim) – they develop very different narratives and draw very different lessons. In the Qur’an, Ibrahim is an important link in a chain of Muslim prophets that culminates with Muhammad. This makes the claim that both Christianity and Islam belong to the “Abrahamic tradition” problematic, if not incredulous.

Even the argument that Christians and Muslims worship the same God because they are monotheists is untenable. While it is true that both sets of scriptures affirm that God is one (Sura 112:1; Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:29), they fail to agree on what this unity entails.

Both traditions maintain that God is transcendent over his creation (Sura 42:11; Isa 6:1). But they do not agree on how this transcendent God may be also said to be immanent. The Qur’an describes divine immanence by insisting that although Allah is “the Lord of the heavens and the earth” (19:65) he is closer to his people than their jugular vein (50:16). Furthermore, Muslim thinkers such as the late Isma’il al-Fariqi have long argued that God does not wish to reveal himself, only his will.

The Christian account of divine transcendence and immanence is profoundly different. The transcendent Creator of the heavens and the earth is so profoundly intimately involved with his creatures. The doctrine of the incarnation teaches that the second Person of the Trinity took up human flesh and became a creature. The incarnation also shows that God does not simply wish to reveal his will, but his very person. In the incarnate Son we know that God is Emmanuel, “God with us”. And not only did God disclose himself to his creation, he gave himself in sacrificial love for his creatures, a concept alien to Islam.

But the most profound difference between the monotheism of Christianity and Islam is that in Christianity the one God is triune. The one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Islam rejects the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: “People of the Book (i.e., Christians), do not transgress the bounds of your religion. Speak nothing but the truth about God … So believe in God and his apostles and do not say “Three” … God is but one God.” (Sura 41:171).

Islam consequently rejects the claim that Jesus is the Son of God: “God forbids that He Himself should beget a son!” (Sura 19:35). And although Islam can say that Jesus lived a sinless life, it ultimately rejects the deity of Christ: “The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was no more than God’s apostle.” (Sura 4:171).

We are confronted here with the problematic nature of appealing to a generic monotheism that both Christianity and Islam are said to embrace. It is not enough to deal only with abstractions and simply allow concepts like the one God or Supreme Being to dictate our reflection on Christianity and Islam. We must look at what these traditions have to say specifically about the God they worship. And when we do so, we will discover differences between the two traditions that are so fundamental, sharp and irreconcilable that to say that their adherents worship the same God is simplistic, if not entirely mistaken.

Thus, although we may perhaps say that there are some similarities between the Christian and Islamic concepts of God, we cannot conclude that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

QUOTE:

DIFFERENT SCRIPTURES
‘It is important to note at the outset that Christians and Muslims share no common scriptures … That is why even though the two sets of scripture speak of the same figure – Abraham (Qur’an: Ibrahim) – they develop very different narratives and draw very different lessons.’


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 Methodist Message.

 

Atheism will never succeed in undermining the Christian Faith

Who are the “New Atheists”? Do their proposals threaten to undermine the Christian Faith?

IN RECENT years there has been a rash of books challenging Christianity in particular and religion in general. The authors of these books are sometimes referred to as the “New Atheists” and they are a motley crew of scientists, philosophers and freelance writers.

Some of them write with the fervour of an evangelist, eager to preach the “good news” that God is dead, and that religion is not only unnecessary but that it is in fact harmful. Their books have flown off the bookshelves in Singapore as well as elsewhere. Most of them try to sell a form of scientism that dogmatically asserts that the hard sciences are able to unlock the mysteries of the world and even solve its problems. All of them are materialistic or naturalistic in that they insist that the physical world is the only reality there is, and that everything about reality is observable, either with the naked eye or with the microscope or telescope.

The titles of these books are certainly carefully crafted to ensure that they create the greatest sensation and perhaps generate the best sales. For instance, Richard Dawkins’ newest book is entitled, The God Delusion. Christopher Hitchens’ book bears an even more provocative title, God is Not Great, and it has a sub-title to match: How Religion Poisons Everything. No less provocative is Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith.

As the titles indicate, these authors are not only interested in rubbishing religion. Their mission is to convince readers that religion is evil, and that society would do well to be rid of it. But in their attempt to eradicate the traditional religions, these authors have also introduced new ones, namely, secularism and scientism.

When one peruses the pages of these books, one finds much heat but very little substance.  Often, these writers play reason against faith, as if faith is totally irrational. Writing about the traditional proofs for the existence of God, Richard Dawkins asserts that these proofs fail because they avoid the question. “Who made God?” Dawkins insists that “Faith is a cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate the evidence … Faith, being belief isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice in any religion.”

Compelled by his uncritical scientism Dawkins speaks of the “fatuousness of the religiously indoctrinated mind”, and concludes that religion “is now completely superseded by science”. These assertions betray either that Dawkins is totally unfamiliar with what the Christian tradition has to say about faith and reason, or that he has simply chosen to ignore it.

As a scientist who lauds reason, Dawkins often gives the impression that he writes with great objectivity. But when writing against religions his assertions are broad and often unfounded generalisations (some would say “pontifications”, making him and others like him dogmatic atheistic fundamentalists!).

Let’s take an example outside Christianity – Dawkins’ comments about Muslim suicide bombers. He categorically blames religious schools for nurturing such extremists when he writes, “If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior value of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers. Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools.”

Dawkins asserts this with such certainty that to the undiscerning reader what he says seems plausible. But he offers no evidence, no sociological backing for his thesis. He may be unaware of the solid study by Robert Pape, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, on this issue. Based on detailed studies of every suicide attack since 1980, this study, entitled, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2006), convincingly shows that religious zealotry in itself is not sufficient to produce suicide bombers.

Such imprecision is endemic in Christopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great. In his review in Christianity Today, Preston Jones observes that under the broad umbrella of religion, Hitchens groups

Mother Teresa, voodoo, the pope, “fear-ridden peasants of antiquity”, Muslim suicide bombers, animists, “arid monotheism”, the Archbishop of Canterbury, séances, Thomas Aquinas, an evangelical huckster “dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit”, Muhammad, the “tawdry myths of Bethlehem”, the “vapid and annoying holiday known as ‘Hanukah’”, Mormons, “hysterical Jewish congregations”, the “sordid” theology of Pascal, Martin Luther King, rednecks, “cobbled-together ancient Jewish books” (i.e., the Bible), WWII-era Japanese emperor worship, and male circumcision (which Hitchens describes as “mutilation of a powerless infant with the aim of ruining its future sex life”).

The claims of atheism could be shown to be false even without appealing to the revelation of God. For example, the atheist claims that since there is no evidence to prove that God exists, we must conclude that He does not exist.

Theoretical physics, however, has taught us that the absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. In theoretical physics, certain entities are postulated for which there is (as yet) no evidence. But the absence of evidence does not mean that one is therefore justified in thinking that these entities do not exist.

Atheists often present Christians with the burden of proving that God exists since Christians claim to know that He does. But the assertion “God does not exist” is also a claim to knowledge. Atheists are saying that they know that God does not exist. But they have not to date provided theists with convincing justification for their claim to know this to be true.

Atheism will never succeed in undermining the Christian Faith. Still, writers like Dawkins and Hitchens may create doubts in the minds of believers who are not sufficiently grounded in Scripture and Tradition. Their presence therefore challenges the Church to take seriously the theological illiteracy of some of its members, and to diligently teach the Faith it received from the Apostles.

QUOTE:

‘The Church should take seriously the theological illiteracy of some of its members, and to diligently teach the Faith it received from the Apostles.’


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 Methodist Message.