Tag Archives: worldview

Are we fully living up to our public responsibilities?

October 2016 Feature Article

This year marks the 50th anniversary of two landmark books in English by the provocative French Christian thinker Jacques Ellul. His profound analysis of the underlying social and spiritual forces shaping our age in The Technological Society and Propaganda were widely respected outside as well as inside religious circles.

            After becoming a Professor of Law and Institutions, he developed a wide-ranging critique of society and culture based on sociological and theological perspectives. Ellul’s insights into the way our preoccupation with technical solutions and new technologies would increasingly supplant other forms of problem-solving and relating, and of the extent the media and propaganda would increasingly influence all kinds of communication, were breathtakingly farsighted.

         During his life Ellul published over 50 books. These included a series of striking expositions of several biblical writings. In other works he was critical of the way churches and theology had been subverted by the forces shaping society. In The Presence of the Kingdom he outlined the way thoughtful Christians should approach their wider responsibilities in the world. He wrote:

“Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo”. As such “we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way   that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.”

        The problem is that we have lost our edge. More biblically inclined Christians have largely settled for a privatised faith based on the church and family. More liberally oriented Christians tend to conform too much to the issues and ideologies of the wider society. What is really needed is for us to develop a full-scale vision of life, encompassing every aspect of what we do, that springs out of our faith in Jesus Christ as revealed through the Scriptures.

Ellul argued that it is less important to have views about, or to take up a definite economic or political position, than to create a consistent and distinctive way of life. The early Christians developed this. So did believers during the Reformation. We need a similar movement today.

“The whole of life is concerned in this search. It includes the way we think about present political questions, as well as our way of practising hospitality. It also affects the way we dress and the food we eat … as     well as the way we manage our financial affairs. It includes being faithful to one’s wife as well as being accessible to one’s neighbour. It includes the position we ought to take on current social and political questions, as well as the decisions which relate to the personal employment of our time … Absolutely everything, the smallest details which we regard as indifferent, ought to be questioned, placed in the light of faith, examined from the point of view of the glory of God.”

How can this come about? According to Ellul, we must resolve to do three inter-related things:

(1) to wake up and become more sharply aware of what is really happening around and within us.

            This means looking beyond what is given to us trough the media and hand-held devices. The news and messages we receive through the day are mainly about secondary matters, coloured by the world’s illusions and values, and permeated by political or personal ‘spin’. The deeper forces shaping both ourselves and our times remain largely hidden. Discerning what is taking place below the surface will only come if attentive prayer and mediation is also part of the search.

            (2) to listen to our own and others’ inner selves to detect the personal effects of what is shaping our world.

            This reveals more specific and profound insight into the forces at work in our society than we get from the news, reports, polls or statistics. But it requires greater self-examination and deeper interaction with others than we are used to. This enables us to work out, for example, how much our technical devices – some of which we check two or three hundred times a day – are changing the way we think, speak, relate and behave. We cannot fully achieve this, however, without drawing on the Holy Spirit’s ability to search the deepest recesses of our minds and hearts.

            (3) to act locally even though we think globally, helping to transform that part of the world closest to us.

            It is Ellul who coined this popular phrase. Only through engaging in our work and play, community and civic life, where we live that most of us can have the greatest public influence. It is precisely there that we confront decisions affecting conscience, issues others find discomforting, opportunities to make a difference. It is there that we can most challenge the illusions that tend to bind people, inventions that seek to enslave human beings, and destructive or even demonic forces in our society

            Creating such a style of life is a corporate as well as individual work.

  • It must be a part of everyday family life. – a topic of conversation with children over meals, joint decisions between husband and wife, private as well as public behaviour.
  • It should also be a central part of what local churches are about. They need to create communities within them where members can explore life’s responsibilities and changes, pray and search the scriptures about these, encourage and support each other to live out this new style of life. In doing so they will learn how to relate, manage conflict, handle money, deal with political agendas, indeed develop a style of life that provides clues for the wider society.
  • It ought be at the heart of what christian groups based on the work place, sporting activities, and social action discuss and undertake. It also requires the help of Christian institutes, centres and think-tanks which contain special expertise in envisioning a distinctive whole-of-life vision of how faith can leaven and transform the world in which we live.

            Ellul’s own life provides a model of what he wrote. Though a layman he founded a small church in his locality alongside his denominational commitments. He initiated informal vacation classes for interested students as well as regular University courses. He worked among troubled youth in his neighbourhood and served as Deputy Mayor in the city of Bordeaux. He was a member of the local resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War and was the first to bring the plight of the persecuted Kurds to the attention of the Western world.

            A distinctive style of Christian life, he argued, alone has the innovative and explosive force to make a difference in the world today, potentially affecting every part of human life, society and culture. It was also the only way that Christianity today could once again have a compelling point of contact with the world from which to proclaim the Gospel.

Dr Robert Banks.revisedRobert Banks is a biblical and practical theologian, based in Australia but with teaching experience in universities and theological colleges in Europe, North America and Asia. He has written a number of books on such biblical themes as God the Worker, Jesus and the Law and  Paul’s Idea and Community, He has also written or co-authored others on The Tyranny of Time, Private Values and Public Policy, The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity and Re-envisioning Leadership. 

Niebuhr in Asia: Christianity and Culture

August 2016 Feature Article

When we speak of ‘culture’, what do we mean? It is a notoriously slippery term, especially so when an Australian is writing for an unseen global readership! Culture can be ‘your culture’, ‘my culture’ or ‘our culture’. It can be as broad or as specific as one wishes. But in order to discuss its relationship with Christianity, we will need a working definition. For its inherent value in this discussion, I consider T.S. Eliot’s definition as powerful: “culture is an incarnation of the religion of the people”.[1] By this, the great poet meant that culture arises from beliefs; it is the offspring of beliefs.

If Eliot is correct, then it is the spiritual capital of a race or nation that forms the backbone of its culture. This can be seen in very explicit ways (in religious architecture, for example). But it can also be extremely integrated and organic in its expression. For example, a culture that holds a high place for children will exhibit different characteristics to one that does not. The set of beliefs in operation in a society concerning an afterlife will be seen to have effects on a culture’s approach to war, environmental issues, health care, and disability.

This paper addresses the way any particular culture—Singaporean, Australian or otherwise—might relate to the Christian faith. This assumes that Christianity is more than a culture, a view that might be challenged by post-metaphysical thinkers. However, it is a widely held feature of almost all Christian traditions that its doctrine is transcendent, and cultural expressions of this faith and practice will vary. For all of its interspersions with the cultures it encounters, Christianity retains a metaphysical heart, proposing answers to worldview questions such as the nature of God, the nature of human beings, the meaning of the world, and the possibility of ultimate justice.

Since the late 18th century, there has been strong interest in connecting the Christian religion with modern culture. A range of philosophers, theologians and cultural theorists have explored how Christianity is, should be, or shouldn’t be, in relationship with a national culture, or a set of cultures. Whilst all of this work remains interesting and pertinent, I have chosen one particular author through whom to shape our discussion.

My point of reference is the well-known work by American theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr. In the 1950s, Niebuhr wrote a very influential short book called Christ and Culture.[2] In it, he posits a series of views concerning how Christianity (by which he means something like ‘the Christian Church in the West’ might relate to the world it found itself in after the second World War. Niebuhr offered a five-part paradigm of relations between the Christians and the culture. Although influenced strongly by existentialism, the post-war mood and Barthian theology, there is ongoing value in his distinctions.

I will use Niebuhr as my background to consider these various ways that Christians in China might consider their ‘stance’ towards the broader culture. I offer these thoughts humbly, as a visitor with a love for Asian culture, and a growing but ‘youthful’ understanding of its wonderful diversity.

Niebuhr’s Five Positions

For Christians, there is an ongoing question about what it means to say “Jesus Christ is Lord” in the present day. Because this statement is both a dogmatic belief, and an expression of eschatological hope, its meaning is complex. Christians follow the theological, ethical and practical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but do they expect others, of different beliefs, to do so? And do they expect Christian views to gain a hearing in the arenas of politics, morality or business ethics? Furthermore, do Christians expect to participate freely in a culture, or do they expect that their beliefs will exclude them from participation at some (or many) points? Do they deliberately involved themselves in broader cultural pursuits, or do they withdraw to practise their religion as purely and unimpeded as possible?

These are the questions that spurred Niebuhr to construct his five views of how Christianity and culture can relate. Each view deserves brief mention.

First, it is possible to position Christ against culture. If a Christian sees the culture as actively or passively antagonistic to faith, he may see little or no connection between the church and the world outside it. This view is found in the statement from Tertullian, the second century Christian apologist: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, Tertullian suggests that the worldviews of Christianity and the cultures in which it finds itself, are bound to clash, to be vastly different and incompatible. One of them must move. Often in history, it has been the Christians who have withdrawn from the culture, setting up monastic communities or separate schooling systems. We see this stance today in some areas of bioethics or financial affairs, where Christians may feel a need to separate from the norms of the culture in order to be faithful to Christ.

The second position takes the other extreme, to subscribe to the Christ of culture. Christians holding this view do not feel any significant tensions between the Christian worldview and the culture they inhabit. In this view, Christianity might offer the highest forms of culture and Christians endeavour to blend Christ into culture as a gift of excellence. Christianity is the ‘best of humanity’, it is argued, and therefore to christianize the culture is to improve it; this is the spiritual goal. This position was held by a number of 19th Century liberal Protestants, who saw the task of the church as the civilizing of a culture too influenced by barbaric or pedestrian ideals.

The remaining three positions sit between the first two extremes. It is possible to think of Christ above culture, which is perhaps the most common position taken by the Church throughout Christian history. In this view, Christianity exists beyond any cultural expressions of it, but is a church for the world. Christians become involved in the culture, seeking roles of authority and influence. They have confidence in the Christian worldview as a means of rational and ethical governance of a society, all the while maintaining that there is a reality and a community beyond that of the world, and it is the church. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17; Matt 22:20-22) might be the catchcry of this standpoint.

It is also possible to conceive, rather awkwardly, of Christ and culture in paradox. This view recognizes that Christians are simul justus et peccator (“always just, always a sinner”, a quote from Martin Luther) and therefore are as much part of the culture as they are part of the Church. In this view the culture is corrupt, and Christians are part of that corrupt culture; but they are also forgiven in Christ, held by grace. They live a paradoxical life. They are therefore right to be immersed in the culture as ‘natural man’, but ought to be doing their work there as slaves of Christ, obeying God in the midst of a sinful environment.

Finally, there is a view of Christ transforming culture, held by the original Calvinists. Niebuhr emphasizes (perhaps over-emphasizes) the goodness of the world that God created, and the capacity to return it to the state in which it was created. Thus, Christians enact that journey back to Eden, the return to perfection, as they dwell in the world. So, to build ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Geneva’ or ‘America’ becomes the goal of Christian endeavour. This view is profoundly optimistic in its eschatology. It sees Christian actions in the world as eternally valuable. A less extreme version of this view would see Christians as “inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth”, even if that place will not finally come to be manifest until the return of Jesus Christ.

Contemporary Criticisms of Niebuhr

Niebuhr’s paradigm is extremely helpful as a tool for discussion of these various stances. However, it has come under constant criticism, especially for the nebulous nature of the terms used. North American Christian scholars such as George Marsden and Don Carson have criticized Niebuhr’s understanding of both ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’. Marsden argues that none of Niebuhr’s categories are specific enough to help today’s Christians map their relations with the 21st Century world. For instance, Marsden says there is little to be gained by a broad term such as ‘culture’ rather than specific enquiries into how disciplines and areas of public life such as art, politics, medicine or business might relate to the Christian worldview.

Carson wishes to suggest that the use of biblical theology modifies Niebuhr’s quadrants in a useful way. Whereas Niebuhr posits theoretical stances, Carson argues that the unfolding story of Scripture, with its “non-negotiables of biblical theology”, provides a clearer map of how Christians relate to the world. Through the acknowledgement of the development of God’s relationship with the world—from creation and then the fall into sin, to redemption in Christ and then the promise of a new heavens and new earth—Carson argues that we are given a stronger base on which to make decisions about Christian living.

Christians cannot long think about Christ and culture without reflecting on the fact that this is God’s world, but that this side of the fall this world is simultaneously resplendent with glory and awash with shame, and that every expression of human culture simultaneously discloses that we were made in God’s image and shows itself to be mis-shaped and corroded by human rebellion against God.[3]

Another author, Craig A. Carter, argues that implicit in Niebuhr’s thesis is the view that Christendom is the desirable state of culture, and one that should be restored. “The essence of the idea is the assertion that Western civilization is Christian”.[4] Niebuhr, in Carter’s view, is simply offering various methods by which that restoration might occur. A broader expression of this criticism might be that the West has laboured under the influence of Emperor Constantine’s success in integrating Christian structures and practices into the Roman Empire of the fourth Century. The contemporary Church is questioning whether ‘Constantinianism’ is a desirable project.

Social critics have suggested that Niebuhr’s conception of culture is already infected by modernist distinctions between high and low culture, between European high aesthetics and more grassroots cultural phenomena. In other words, culture is as much Madonna as Mahler, Lady Gaga as Lord Byron. It is football, dancing and gardening as much as it is fine art and classical music.

In summary, Niebuhr has provided an enduring but approximate way of describing the relationship between Christianity and culture. In reflecting on the nature of his thesis, it has struck me that there is no one category to which many Christians would happily subscribe. Most Christians see in each category something important about the way they do, or should, relate to their culture. There may be a way of understanding why this is the case.

A Christological Proposal regarding Christ and Culture

In Christian theology, Jesus plays a central role. In fact Christology is the study of the many and various understandings of him; from teacher (rabbi) to member of the Trinity, to co-Creator, to Son of Man, and so forth, Jesus is the centre of the faith. The Bible passage in Colossians 1:15-20 helps us to see the comprehensive role that is given to Jesus in Christian faith:

15The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (New International Version).

Such an all-encompassing vision of Christ’s importance leads me to consider the manner in which He may be central to understanding the relationship between Christians and culture. Could it be that each of the aspects of Niebuhr’s paradigm corresponds with different roles that Jesus Christ is given in the Bible?

Christ is against culture in his role as Judge, declaring what is righteous and shunning evil. Christ is of culture in his humanity, being fully human but bearing divinity at the same time. He is the perfect expression of Man. Christ is above culture in his Lordship, a doctrine that is both contemporary and eschatological for Christians (“now and not yet”), while we wait for his glory to be revealed. And Christ is transforming culture; he began as co-Creator (with the Father and Spirit), and continues as ‘new creator’, the one through whom peace and reconciliation is being achieved.

Where the Church is emulating Christ, it can take on each of these roles in relation to the culture, as is fitting in time and place: judge, full participant, ‘lord’ (or authority), and transforming servant. The only aspect of the Niebuhr paradigm for which such a christological focus doesn’t work is to see Christ and culture in paradox, for this involves the acknowledgement of sin and failure. Where Christians are ‘always just, always sinner’, Christ himself remained perfectly obedient to God. Perhaps this is addressed in a Bible passage such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, which speaks of Christ “becoming sin” for us. This difficult concept (a sinless man who becomes sin but remains perfect) is best understood in terms of substitutionary theory: the sinless Christ substituted for the sinful man, such that Christ is treated as if he were a sinner.

Nevertheless, this particular difficulty with Christ and culture in paradox does not detract from the overall value of analyzing one’s stance towards the culture in terms of whichever role of Christ is most significant for any given time or circumstance.

For example, in assessing an ethical issue, it may be appropriate for the Church to take a stance as ‘judge’ of the culture, critiquing an evil law or process. Or it may be appropriate for Christians to fully participate in a culture, as citizens—for example, as part of an Olympics or a public festival of unity. At times, it will be appropriate for Christians to express the authority of the Church; I would suggest this is the case if a central doctrine of Christianity is being declared illegal or inadmissible. And it is certainly important that Christians act as “salt and light” to transform a culture, offering the good blessings of the Christian worldview to a world in need. An area where this might apply is in contributing to social services.

Overall, it is valuable to reflect christologically on the connection between Christ and culture, to determine, situation by situation, what attitude or stance Christ himself might take to a particular cultural moment or event or issue. This is likely to result in any or all of Niebuhr’s positions being valid and appropriate as a summary of how the Church and the culture might relate.

Building culture

As all governments understand, culture is something that can be built. The construction of culture can take a long time, but it need not. Sometimes, events or decisions shape a culture decisively in a short time period: the events of September 11, 2001 in America changed the country’s culture overnight. Technology changes behaviour rapidly, bringing about new cultural expressions (for example, the iPod very quickly changed the way music was purchased and appreciated).

But, if T.S. Eliot is correct, the deepest changes to culture emerge from changed beliefs. When the Bible informs belief, cultures are affected. This effect can be for the good of the culture; in fact, in every part of the Niebuhr paradigm, the relationship between the Church and the culture is for the good of the culture. Even the ‘Christ against culture’ approach includes a desire that the culture ‘see the light’ so that integration and acceptance might be possible.

An example of the cultural impact of beliefs can be found in India. The caste system in India allows, indeed insists, that not all people are equal. Some are born into situations that label them for life as inferior, even as untouchable. Things that happen to you in life are a result of karma, and history cannot fight the forces of karma, fate, nature or even entrenched culture. Such beliefs flow over into how one treats the sick, whether babies have rights, and whether a person is more valuable than an animal. As Indian Christian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi writes in his book addressing the importance of the Bible for culture-shaping, “Notions of human dignity and rights came to India with Christian education”.[5]

The effects of Christianity on any particular culture will be unique in some elements, and general in others. Christianity contributes to many aspects of a culture, not just a narrow sector of it. The history of the impact of Christianity on a nation is always rich, complex and fascinating. As Christianity continues to grow and develop in Asia, I look forward to seeing how Asian Christians seek to relate to the culture through the wide lens of Christology, in all of its dimensions, and am very happy to be a small part of thinking about how best this can be done.


Dr. Greg Clarke

Dr Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia, the nation’s oldest continuously operating organisation. His doctorate is in literature, and he has published books on a range of topics including the life of Jesus, spirituality in The Da Vinci Code and the Bible’s teaching about the end of the world.


[1] T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Faber & Faber, London, 1948, p.33. See also his The Idea of a Christian Society, Faber & Faber, London, 1939.

[2]  H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, Harper & Row, New York, 1951.

[3]  D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2008, p.49.

[4]  Craig A. Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 2006, p.14.

[5] Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western CIvilisation, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2011, p.66.

The Myth of Secular Neutrality

December 2015 Pulse

Secularists have long ridiculed religion by portraying it as dangerous and divisive. Secularism, they insist, is not only objective since it is based on the natural sciences and empirical rationalism; it is also more tolerant and neutral, and therefore the best guarantor of social peace.

Secular neutrality has been brandished about as if secularism is the ultimate solution to maintaining equity and peace in a plural and diverse society where different religions, moralities and ideologies are competing for attention and assent. In the realm of politics, the secular state alone is said to be the best arbiter of conflicting commitments and visions.

According to them, the public square must be secular if the debates are to be fair and rational. Religious voices must be either excluded altogether or effectively muted if society is to achieve a ‘reasonable’ consensus on the most complex issues and challenges it faces.

But the secular neutrality championed by the most fervent evangelists of secularism is nothing but a myth. Secular neutrality does not exist because secularism is a philosophy of life, an ideology, and, as some would even argue, a religion of sorts.

That secularism is a philosophy of life, a worldview, is evident in the fact that one has to embrace a number of metaphysical ideas to be a secularist.

An orthodox secularist must believe that the material world is all that there is, and that all talk about God and the afterlife is, in the final analysis, irrational. He must believe that human beings are the source of all meaning and value. And if like most secularists he is also one who believes in physicalism, he must believe that we are hardwired (neurologically and genetically) by evolution to make sense of our world in this way.

Secularism also promotes a certain moral vision. Many secularists favour the way of understanding moral responsibility that philosophers call utilitarianism. That is why the philosopher Robert C. Solomon could describe secularist morality as a form of “naturalised spirituality”.

If worldview is defined as a set of life-regulating beliefs, secularism certainly satisfies this definition. But secularism is also a religion of sorts because its key beliefs are embraced by faith, despite its claims that they are grounded in science and reason.

Furthermore, secularism also has its rituals and its priests like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who promote its worldview. Secularism therefore has a missionary thrust; it is a proselytising ‘religion’.

If what I’ve argued thus far is sound, if secularism is a worldview or a philosophy of life, then it cannot be neutral. Thus, by privileging secularism we are in fact saying that this worldview, this way of looking at reality, is superior to other accounts.

The myth of secular neutrality therefore allows a certain metanarrative to hold sway. And this has given rise to a new hegemony, a kind of ideological and cultural imperialism.

The myth subtly but powerfully presents secularism as the default position of rational people of goodwill by portraying secularism to be what it is not. And once secularism achieves its hegemonic aspirations, it accords itself with the power to define the role of religion in politics and in the public square.

The myth of secular neutrality is therefore democracy’s worse enemy. By pretending to be a friend of democracy, the myth in fact renders modern secular societies undemocratic by shutting down alternative voices.

As Hunter Baker has perceptively argued, “Secularism acts politically against its competitors and defines them as what it is not”. The myth of secular neutrality is therefore chiefly responsible for the tyranny of secularism.

By portraying secularism to be what it is not, the myth presents religion as the problem and secularism as the impeccable solution. The refrain that many secularists often sing is “religion is dangerous and divisive, but secularism is tolerant, fair and neutral”.

This assertion is either naïve, delusional or deceptive because any belief system can be said to be dangerous if its advocates are prepared to coerce others by law or by force to practice that belief. Insofar as secularism is a philosophy of life (and I have established that it is), it also can be dangerous.

Are secularists guilty of such coercion? Secularism, asserts Robert Kraynak, “is highly intrusive in the imposition of secular liberal values”.

It is not difficult to find evidence for this, especially in the West. We see it in how schools systematically indoctrinate young people in secular humanism, free expression of religion is prohibited, and sexuality and the family are redefined.

Secular neutrality is a dangerous myth. It promotes intolerance and disrespect.


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 July 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Discipleship of the Mind

Many Christians are familiar with the Great Commandment recorded in Luke 10:27: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your entire mind. Love your neighbour as yourself’. This Commandment urges believers to love God with their whole being. Believers are commanded to love God not only with their hearts and souls; they must do so also with their minds. As James Sire has pointed out in his provocative book, Habits of the Mind, this means that ‘thinking is integral to our call to be what God wants us to be’. As Christians we are called to think, and to do so as well as we can with our God-given intelligence. When we apply our intellect in this way, we express our love for God and we glorify him.

Some Christians, however, fail to see this. They have adopted an anti-intellectualism, which, at first blush, may even sound pious. After all, was it not the Apostle Paul who wrote, ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength’ (1 Cor 1:18, 25)? Such piety, however, is fallacious. The message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing because they approach it with distorted perspectives and from erroneous vantage points. Thus, when Paul speaks of the gospel as ‘folly’, he is being ironic. As Os Guinness has put it so eloquently, ‘Only in relation to a genuine folly foolish enough to pretend it is wise does true wisdom come to be seen and treated as folly’. The gospel, for Paul, is not folly but true wisdom!

Anti-intellectualism is the spiritual corrosion that will cripple the Church and compromise her witness in society. Writing primarily about the subtle but alarming changes in American evangelicalism that took place from the 1970s, theologian David Wells observes the disturbing shifts in emphasis from doctrine to life and from theology to spirituality. Wells laments that evangelical Christians in America have generally ‘lost interest … in what the doctrines of creation, common grace, and providence once meant for Christian believers’. He adds, somewhat despairingly, that ‘it is enough for them simply to know that Christ somehow died for people’. It would be a mistake to think that this observation has little to do with Christians in Singapore. A simple survey of the titles on display at some of our Christian bookshops would give a rough but not inaccurate indication of the theological literacy of Christians here. The displacement of theology in the life of the Church brought about by anti-intellectualism will severely weaken the Church.

Anti-intellectualism will also severely compromise Christian witness in society. The Church is commissioned to proclaim the Gospel to the world and part of this has to do with the Church’s prophetic engagement with society. Christians believe that the Gospel is public truth and as such it is not just relevant to a select group of people. The Christian faith therefore refuses to be privatized and shut off from the public square. A public Gospel therefore requires a public theology. Anti-intellectualism in the Church, however, can prevent Christians from engaging faithfully and meaningfully in public discourse. In fact, anti-intellectualism will severely cripple the Church’s confidence in participating in such engagements. And this will in turn seriously compromise the witness and influence of Christians in the public square.

On the basis of the first of Jesus’ commandments, we must say, quite simply and directly that anti-intellectualism is a sin. In refusing to use the minds that God has given to us as part of our praise to him, we have disobeyed this commandment. We have simply failed to love God fully, with our whole being. Beyond all excuses, evasions and rationalizations, Christians must recognize anti-intellectualism for what it truly is. Only then will Christians be able to address the problem. But even here, an important qualification must be made. In rejecting anti-intellectualism our goal is not academic or intellectual respectability, but faithfulness to the commands of Jesus. The discipleship of the mind is not about intellectualism (the sin on the other extreme end of the spectrum!) or intellectual snobbery. It is about loving God with our minds by allowing God’s Word to govern our thinking.

The command to love God with our minds, then, presents a two-fold challenge for Christians. In the first place, it emphasizes the importance of the intellect. Put differently and quite simply, the command challenges Christians to think. But more importantly, this command challenges Christians to think Christianly, that is to think theologically, to allow Scripture and the tradition of the Church to inform and shape their thinking. This is what the discipleship of the mind is all about! It is about being so immersed in the worship, life and doctrines of the Church that our perspectives, our worldviews and our values are entirely molded by the Gospel. It is about not conforming to the ‘pattern of this world’ but being transformed through the renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2). It is about developing a habit of mind that sees the world through the lens of the Gospel.

To think Christianly therefore requires the Christian to be grounded in Scripture and in the doctrines of the church. But thinking Christianly does not only mean thinking about Christian topics. It has to do with allowing the Word of God to govern our thoughts on every possible aspect of life – education, career, raising children, politics, medicine, science, the arts, entertainment, leisure. Thinking Christianly therefore engages the whole person in the whole of life. As such, it is more than just an intellectual activity.

In addition, to think Christianly is to conduct our lives in obedience to God. The Christian doctor who knows that the Bible teaches the sanctity of human life would refuse to perform an abortion or euthanize his patient. The Christian politician who understands the biblical demand for justice would oppose policies that would marginalize certain sectors of society. There is a profound relationship between thought and life, thinking and doing, worldview and ethics. The challenge for Christians to think Christianly is therefore always a challenge to radical discipleship. This is because thinking Christianly is always premised on the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.


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 Trumpet (TTC).

The Postmodern Turn

May 2015 Pulse

‘Postmodern’ is a word that seems to appear very frequently in both print and conversation these days. This dreadful coinage can be traced to the 1930s, but it was probably not until the 1970s that it began to receive wide and serious attention in academia and popular culture.

Postmodernism is a complex idea because it refers not only to cultural sensibilities but also to the way we have come to look at reality itself. It points to a sentiment as well as to a philosophy. Postmodernism in fact signifies a monumental shift in outlook that has affected every aspect of contemporary culture, including science and the arts.

In addition, the prefix does not indicate a peaceful and quiet departure from modernity. Rather it is iconoclastic: it points to the radical demolition and rubbishing of everything that modernity purports to cherish. As David Harvey puts it, postmodernism represents ‘for the most part … a wilful and rather chaotic movement to overcome all the supposed ills of modernism’.

However, this view of postmodernism – as a virulent crusader against modernism – sometimes obscures the fact that despite its loud protestations the former is in some profound ways parasitic to the latter. As Ihab Hassan has so perceptively pointed out in The Dismemberment of Orpheus, ‘The postmodern spirit lies coiled within the great corpus of modernism … It is not really a matter of chronology: Sade, Jarry, Breton, Kafka acknowledge that spirit’.

Christian theologians have in some measure welcomed the postmodern critique of what may be broadly described as the ‘Enlightenment Project’. For example, theologians concur with postmodernism’s rejection of the reductive rationalism of the Enlightenment that has excluded important human experiences such as religion. In similar vein, theologians have also endorsed postmodernism’s critique of scientism, the exaggerated estimate of the competence of science that is so pervasive in western cultures.

These important agreements notwithstanding, there is also much in postmodernism that Christians must not only criticise but also roundly reject.

According to Jean-François Lyotard of the Institute Polytechnique de Philosophie of the Universite de Paris in Vicennes, France, postmodernism can be chiefly characterised as the incredulity toward metanarratives. By metanarratives, Lyotard refers to ‘any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectic of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working spirit, or the creation of wealth’.

In rejecting metanarratives, postmodern thinkers insist that no single worldview, ideology or vision of reality can claim universal assent. We find in postmodernism a kind of naïve egalitarianism, a ‘democratisation’ of worldviews that prohibits the privileging of one over the other.

According to postmodernism, Christians cannot insist on the universal significance of the Gospel because the narrative of the salvation of fallen humanity in Jesus Christ must be seen as just one religious account of reality among many others.

Closely related to the rejection of metanarratives is the postmodern aversion to the notion of objective truth. Just as there is no grand scheme within which reality must be understood, so there is also no objective truth, no truth-claim that can command universal allegiance.

Truth is relativised and inextricably tied to communities, ethnic groups, and other contingent factors. There is no such thing as Truth, only truths. There is no absolute dogma, but only a plurality of disparate, incommensurable and conflicting truth-claims.

Postmodern relativism extends beyond philosophy and epistemology to include morality as well. Walter Stace defines moral relativism thus: ‘Any ethical position which denies that there is a single moral standard which is applicable to all men at all times may be called a species of ethical relativism. There is not, the relativist asserts, merely one moral law, one code, one standard’. Underscoring the implications of this, Richard Brandt describes the moral relativist as someone for whom conflicting ethical opinions are all valid.

The postmodern rejection of objective truth also has implications in hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation. According to some postmodern philosophers, there is no inherent meaning in a text. Others would argue that even if there is one it cannot be gleaned by the reader, especially one that is historically removed from the text. Consequently, meaning is not supplied by the text but by its reader whose reading of the text is profoundly influenced by his own historical and cultural locations and existential questions from which he cannot extricate himself.

All this has profound implications for the Christian church – its gospel, Scriptures and doctrine.

Needless to say, Christians could neither affirm the postmodern rejection of objective truth nor its moral relativism. The Christian doctrine of revelation asserts that the Church’s truth-claims concerning God is objectively grounded in the divine self-disclosure. And while Christians concur that certain metanarratives like that of hegemonic secularism stemming from Enlightenment rationalism must be challenged, God’s plan for the world as disclosed in Scripture cannot be subjected to postmodern incredulity.


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.