Tuesday 29 January 2008

Liberalism: Freedom to choose

My first post for 2008 was a review of the book A Spectator’s Guide to World Views. As I indicated in that post the book presents ten different worldviews and invites the reader to consider “Why do I think the way I do?” I thought it might be helpful to review some of the worldviews presented in the book. In each post I will do just three things. I will present a brief summary of the worldview, outline some of the points of departure from Christianity, and suggest some places where we see this worldview impacting on us. This is similar to the structure of the chapters in the book. I won’t attempt to go any further than the book but will suggest other resources along the way that will allow further exploration. I will also offer a few personal reflections as appropriate.

I thought I’d start with some of the worldviews that have received less focus in recent times, beginning with Liberalism. The chapter on Liberalism has been written by David Koyzis.

What David Koyzis says

While most of the influential writers on Liberalism can be traced to the 17th century, the foundations of this worldview can be traced to the Epicurean concept of Individualism some 2,000 years earlier. Individualism claims that “all relationships are basically contractual, like purchasing an item or joining a football club.” Hence, if every obligation can be seen as part of a contract, then “I cannot be made to fulfil an obligation I have not freely and willingly taken on.”

Liberalism emerged in the 17th century in response to the absolute power of European monarchs. The writings of Hobbes (1588-1679) and later Locke (1632-1704) became influential. Hobbes was an individualist and argued that political authority is established by a contract amongst subjects (a social contract). “

This worldview sees the world as belonging to us, and that it is for our purposes. Humans are autonomous and as far as is practicable, should have the right to live their lives as they wish. Liberals place high value on personal freedom and liberty. Noone, especially governments should tell us how to live our lives.

A personal aside

I was confronted with this view of the world when discussing with some residents of my college how they handled alcohol. While the college is ‘dry’ (alcohol is banned inside the building) residents go elsewhere to drink and occasionally some of the non-Christian residents drink too much. On one occasion a resident had been injured on the way home and in discussing this incident with the student executive I had made the comment that my hope is always that if residents drink outside college that they do so responsibly and that if one of them doesn’t that others look out for them. I suggested that this should extend to encouraging others not to drink too much and in the event that they did, making sure that they got home safely. While there was general agreement, one young man turned to me and said: “Trevor we’re all adults in this place – pretty much everyone is over 18 – we can be responsible for our own actions. I see myself as responsible for what I do, not what everyone else does.” I responded by saying, “X, I don’t share your views. When you are offered membership of New College you become part of a rich community. With this membership are rights and responsibilities. One of them is that you will contribute positively to the lives of others. In my view this includes looking out for the interests of others not just your own. If you don’t see it that way you don’t understand what collegial life is all about, and would be better off living in a flat down the road.” At the end of the year he exercised his right to do this and left. Here we see a clash of worldviews in action. One places greater priority on freedom and rights, while the other places greater emphasis on responsibility and community.

How David Koyzis sees points of contact and departure

Liberalism has properly empowered individuals and in many countries has freed them from oppressive rulers and regimes. But while the pursuit of individual freedom in the face of oppressive rulers, employers and varied forms of social injustice may have led to many areas of social reform, liberalism has been unable to maximise individual freedom to benefit society. As well, talk of individual rights is often disconnected from responsibility to others.

At the core of liberalism is the belief that humans are autonomous and have control over their world. Christianity, on the other hand, is based on the key understanding that God ultimately controls the world and every life in it.

Liberalism places great weight on the individual’s right to freedom. This is essentially freedom from external constraints. What people do with this freedom is seen as the individual’s business, others (especially the state and institutions like the church) are to refrain from telling members of a society what to do with their freedom.

However, the Bible teaches that true freedom is that which frees you to live an obedient life. While the Bible also talks about being freed from poverty and unjust oppression by others, the primary focus is on becoming free from the power of sin and death.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1)

Christianity is based on the belief that faith in Jesus and adoption into God’s family - the consequence of surrendering one’s life to Christ – is all about a different kind of freedom. It is freedom to live a life obedient to God, rather than freedom from rules and authority.

Where do we see Liberalism in action?

The impact of Liberalism as a worldview can be seen everywhere. It is seen in the cries of pro-choice groups to be able to choose what they do with their bodies and the unborn children within them. It is seen in the opposition of my young resident who did not want rules about responsible use of alcohol, and certainly didn’t want to accept responsibility for others. It is seen in liberal approaches to education and child rearing that remove all rules and structure and value the child’s freedom to explore above all else. Approaches like Montessori (especially its emphasis on individuality and the ability of children to control and master their world) and alternative schools like A.S. Neill’s Summerhill are based at least in part on liberalism. Liberalism as a worldview is also seen in unquestioning belief in the free market and the assumption that self-seeking individuals will produce a type of natural order that governments should leave alone. It is seen in calls even from within the church for greater freedom to choose alternative forms of sexuality and sexual freedom outside traditional marriage.

What A Spectator’s guide to Worldviews does is increase our awareness of varied worldviews and in the process help us to sharpen our understanding of what the Bible teaches and why each of us thinks the way we do. This in turn helps us to look to the truths of the Bible centred on Christ to build a sound base for life. For those interested in further reading you might like to look at another recent book (Re)Thinking Worldview by J. Mark Bertrand reviewed by Erik Raymond.

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Belief in an Age of Reason

Tim Keller has a new book ready for release on the 14th February that should be of interest to readers of this Blog. The book is titled The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Justin Taylor recently interviewed Tim about the book on the Between Two Worlds Blog. For more information on the book and its availability you can check out Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Tim Keller is Senior Pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. In talking about his book he comments:

I've been working for some time on a book for the ordinary (which means very sharp) spiritually skeptical New Yorker. Ever since I got to New York nearly two decades ago I've wished I had a volume to give people that not only answered objections to Christianity (what has been called 'apologetics') but also positively presented the basics of the gospel in an accessible yet substantial way. I had some books that did the one and some that did the other, but only one did both—Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. As you know, I think Lewis' book is peerless, and foolish would be the author who tried to replace him! However, the issues in the public discourse around Christianity have become much more complex than they were in the mid and late 20th century. The questions are now not just philosophical (e.g. Is there evidence for God's existence?). They are also now cultural (Doesn't strong faith make a multicultural society impossible?), political (Doesn't orthodox religion undermine freedom?) and personal. Also fifty years ago, when C.S. Lewis was writing, there was general agreement that rational argument and empirical method were the best ways to discover truth. That consensus has vanished. Today there are deep disagreements over how we know things and how certain we can be about anything. Most of the older books presenting Christianity now are only persuasive and even comprehensible to a very narrow range of people. All this means that there is a great need for new literature that speaks to our time and says, 'Christianity makes sense.'

Additional author comments on the book can be found on the Redeemer Presbyterian website.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Wisdom under the lino: Making sense of life

I had the joy of demolishing an old bathroom recently in a 110 year-old house (seriously). As I removed the fixtures, peeled layers of masonite and wood from the walls, dismantled built-in cupboards and lifted several generations of linoleum (vinyl) from the wooden floor, the room revealed its secrets. The remains of two earlier internal doorways dating from the 1890s, buckled paint from an over-stoked wood chip water heater (a chip-heater) from the early 1900s, the original paintwork long covered by a second layer of wood panelling. But best of all were some fragments of newspaper; remnants of the ‘underlay’ for perhaps the 2nd or 3rd floor covering dating from the 1950s. A half dozen pages still hidden under the 1950s linen press.

I leafed through the fragments of the old Sydney Morning Herald dated 15th November 1950. I read with fascination of an estimated 200,000 people flocking to Sydney’s beaches to escape the warm weather. The finance section reported record profits for G.J. Coles and encouraging figures for the new Luna Park. Sydney Ferries was in a spot of bother with reduced profits, a capital reduction strategy and plans to hold onto ferries for 8-10 years longer, and (of course) disappointed investors. General MacArthur in his second report on the war in Korea had been appealing to the UN Security Council members to send more ground forces. Column Eight started with a piece about some “New Australians” who had taken an Aussie phrase from their new language too literally and so on.

By the time I had picked up the top third of page 4 (all that remained of it), I started to wonder if this really was a 1950s edition of the SMH. The three stories on this fragment of a page featured:
  • The rising road toll and the calls from the Superintendent of traffic for “a greater number of police if we are going to bring to heel those road users who are behaving like lunatics”; and expert comment from Professor Elkin of the technical research committee.
  • A Victorian rail strike planned for that day.
  • The urgent need to “end the housing nightmare” by rapidly increasing the number of public houses available.

As I bashed away with hammer and chisel I mused over the minimal change in the issues concerning people and the daily life being experienced in Sydney. I was reminded of Ecclesiastes (1:2-11) when the Preacher (or Teacher) opens his book with the words:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,

and there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"?

It has been already in the ages before us.

There is no remembrance of former things,

nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said in my heart, "I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge." And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

For in much wisdom is much vexation,

and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Ecclesiastes is a much misunderstood book, some see the words of the writer as negative, cynical and depressing, but nothing could be further from the central truth of this short work. While it is disjointed, a bit obscure in language and confusing at first reading, there is wisdom in it that would take many Blog posts to discuss. This is a major apologetic work, as relevant today as it was over 2,000 years ago. The opening verses address my reflections on the newspaper clippings.

The Preacher opens his book by inviting the reader to reflect on the ‘Ground Hog Day’ repetitiveness of life; the sense that all of us can have at times, that our life has the same patterns of work-sleep, happiness-sorrow, birth-death and so on. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity”. The writer is conscious of the vanity and corruption to which creation is subject (Rom 8:20ff) and begins his book by emphasising the curse on creation that is a consequence of sin and the Fall in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:17-19).

While some readers find Ecclesiastes too negative, this is the writer’s device to bring one’s attention back from seeing this world and our life in it as ends in themselves. The alternative, the key, he hides from the reader for much of the book, but he provides hints alomg the way, almost teasing the reader as he works towards what he sees as the key. The Preacher doesn’t deny that the world can have its own happiness (see for example Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:12; 3:22; 5:18; 9:7; 11:9); but the ‘real’ significance he suggests, is that in this at times confusing world God’s goodness, wisdom and righteousness is revealed. It is in this life that God’s plan of salvation in Christ is made known.

So while a bunch of old newspaper clippings might have lead me to reflect on the unchanging patterns of life and the world, there is a way to make sense of the seeming vanity and meaninglessness of life. While there is “nothing new under the sun” (1:9b), the world must be understood as being from the hand of God (2:24; 5:18-20). This is a message about faith when confronted by the confusion and sometimes pain, of life. He suggests that our life is to be led by faith not in our own strength, cunning, skill and hard work - a lesson I continue to learn!

By human wisdom we cannot hope to fathom the work of God (Eccl. 3:11), despite all our efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its full meaning (Eccl. 8:17). Instead we are to look to God. To revere him (3:14b), to stand in awe of him, for “it will be well with those who fear God” (Eccl 8:12).

The Preacher reminds us that life is brief and is to be lived in humility and trust in God.

“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, "I have no pleasure in them” (Eccl. 12:1).

The Preacher ends with:

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14).

There will be judgment one day, but all will be well with those who trust God, and who seek the forgiveness, for as Peter outlined in his first letter to the exiles scattered across the world:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).

Wednesday 9 January 2008

The purpose of Corporate Worship - Part 2

In a recent post provocatively titled "Preaching the Word, Not Presenting Entertainment" I pointed readers to an interview with R.C. Sproul about the problems with 'seeker services'. Sproul suggests that such services are based on a wrong understanding of the purposes of corporate worship, as well as the motives of unbelievers in coming to church. In commenting on this I suggested that:

Church services are events where believers come together corporately as part of their all of life worship of God. These events will include instruction from God's word, edification of God, the Lord's Supper, sharing our lives, confessing our sins, praising God, prayer, singing etc. The core and foundation of this worship together will be the preaching of the word! The hope is that, as 'strangers' share in this, they will be convicted by the Holy Spirit and place their faith in Christ.

I want to follow up this topic as one post hardly does it justice. In the process I also want to point to some other resources that people might find helpful in thinking through the topic, including one that a reader of this Blog suggested in response to the last post.

In a helpful article on Evangelistic Worship Tim Keller (Senior Pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan) suggests that while there are at least 9 models of corporate worship in Protestantism alone, most fall into two dominant categories - historic (HW) and contemporary (CW). He suggests that advocates of CW are guided by the Bible and contemporary culture, while advocates of HW advocates look to the Bible and historic tradition. Instead, he suggests we would do better if we gave consideration to the Bible, the cultural context of our community and the historic tradition of our church.

What Keller seems to be suggesting (although not explicitly), is that in arguing about the best way for churches to engage in corporate worship, it is just as easy for HW advocates to be driven by tradition as it is for CW advocates to be driven by contemporary culture. In each case, corporate worship is impoverished.

Keller argues that church evangelism relies on believers seeking to encourage unbelievers with whom they have a relationship to attend church activities, including services. Our hope is obviously that we will see unbelievers commit to Christ either during the services through varied forms of invitation and response (e.g. as part of the Lord’s Supper) or after the service through other meetings, small groups and follow-up of various forms.

For this to happen, Keller argues that we need to make corporate worship comprehensible to unbelievers while not losing sight of the ultimate purpose of our coming together. The purpose of the church service he argues from the Scriptures is NOT to make the unbeliever "comfortable"; in fact, in I Cor. 14:24-25 or Acts 2:12 and 37 we see that they are cut to the heart! As I argued in my last post, services are primarily opportunities for the corporate worship of Christians; but as Christians we should expect (and want strangers) to attend. Hence church services need to be intelligible to unbelieving hearts (1 Cor 14:25). Keller suggests that we can achieve this in a number of ways. His points follow with a number of qualifiers from me.

a) Worshiping and preaching in the "vernacular" – avoiding “ghetto-ized” language that can shut unbelievers out. Avoiding sub-cultural jargon and showing respect and sympathy for unbelievers.

b) Explaining the service as you go along - while not wanting a running commentary Keller suggests that it is helpful to give 1 or 2 sentence, non-jargon filled explanations of each new part of the service. This he suggests is how we instruct newcomers to corporate worship.

c) Directly addressing and welcoming unbelievers – Keller suggests we should talk directly at times to unbelievers, for example "those of you who aren't sure you believe this, or who aren't sure just what you believe."

d) Considering quality aesthetics – While the ‘art’ must never be the focus, Keller suggests that the power of art draws people to behold it. He argues that the quality of music and speech in worship will have a major impact on its evangelistic power.

e) Celebrating deeds of mercy and justice – Keller suggests that effective churches will be so involved in deeds of mercy and justice that outsiders will say, "we cannot do without churches like this” and hence they will want to be involved. Again, social justice is not the focus of church, but for many unbelievers, this is their focus. So to make them aware that the church is concerned with justice, and that the Bible teaches about a God of justice who expects justice from and for his people, is important.

f) Presenting the sacraments so as to make the gospel clear – Keller believes that baptism, especially adult baptism, should be made a much more significant event if worship is to be evangelistic. As well the Lord’s Supper should confront every person with the question "are you right with God today? Now?"

g) Preaching grace - the message that both believers and unbelievers need to hear is that salvation and adoption are by grace alone. The teaching of God’s word must always come back to this central message centred on Christ.

There are many other helpful places to go if you'd like to explore this topic further. Tony Payne conducted a helpful interview with Don Carson for the Briefing some seven years ago in which Carson shares his perspective of the way he sees corporate worship. Some of Carson's thoughts in this interview as well as those of Tim Keller, Mark Ashton and Kent Hughes were subsequently published in a book titled Worship by the Book. The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship also has a number of helpful practical pieces on various topics and aspects of corporate worship. While I'm not prepared to recommend all the material on these links there is some very good and practical material for people who lead church services, for example:

hospitality as part of worship;
justice and worship;
evangelism and worship.

As the Westminster Shorter Catechism prompts - What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever - our corporate meeting together at church, like our worship in all parts of our life, needs to glorify God and demonstrate our thankfulness and praise of him. As in the rest of life, the focus is on glorifying God, not the wooing of seekers or our own needs. Such meetings together should be inspired by, shaped and based on God's truth taught in the Scriptures, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and centred on the possibility of salvation through faith in Christ and by God's grace.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." Ephesians 2:7-9

Such grace, mercy and love should inspire believers to be lost in wonder, love and praise. Our hope is that as strangers gather with us, that through the power of the Holy Spirit they might be convicted of their need of salvation as they share in Christian corporate worship.


See other posts on worship and Christian assembly here and here

Tuesday 1 January 2008

What’s your view of the world in 2008?

It’s New Year, which is not my favourite time of year, but I must NOT do a post on the problems with New Year’s Eve indulgences. I want to start the year with a post that is positive. One thing I do like about the New Year is the ritual people go through of making New Year’s resolutions. Yes, I know this is rolled up in superstition and people’s good intentions often lead nowhere. And I know that Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers make a stack of money in January each year. But I always like to start the year with prayer and reflection on where my life is heading, and where I have been in the last year. I also like to express thankfulness to God for his grace and mercy in my life, not just for the last year but also for every undeserved moment for which he has given me breath.

My most memorable New Year’s Eve was at midnight atop a freezing craggy hill west of Gerringong (in NSW) with my entire Beach Mission team leading them in prayer as the year 2000 began. I’m not sure what the team thought, but I bet it was memorable even if only because we were frozen within a whisker of hypothermia.

In the interests of healthy self-reflection, I have a suggestion for this New Year. Why not make 2008 the year in which you consider your view of the world. I’ve been reviewing Simon Smart’s book A spectator’s guide to worldviews: Ten ways of understanding life for Case magazine. The book has been published by Blue Bottle Books and is available from Anglican Youthworks (in Sydney) and Christian bookshops for $AUS24.95. Just how many of us have carefully considered the very foundations of our beliefs? I want to recommend that you read this very useful book. For at least two reasons:

  • First, to make sure that we understand the set of beliefs through which we view the world. Do we understand why we hold the beliefs that we do and know what guides our actions?
  • Second, to help us understand the views and positions that others hold. On what foundations might my friends, colleagues and family base their lives?

Reading this book with each of these frames in mind will also strengthen the apologetic skills for those readers who see themselves as Christians. When we attempt to share our beliefs with others it is helpful to know from which worldview framework they are coming.

The book has ten chapters, written by a variety of well-known Christian authors. Each chapter deals with a different worldview – Christian, modernism, postmodernism, utilitarianism, humanism, liberalism, feminism, relativism, new age spirituality and consumerism. Each chapter of the book has a common framework that consists of a summary of the worldview, a section that deals with points of agreement and departures from Christianity and a discussion section with questions for individual or group study. The book also includes a series of narratives or interviews with people that attempt to ground the various worldviews in people’s personal stories.

You might be sceptical and ask, is this just an academic topic for academics and theological students to offer fodder for discussion and debate? Well, yes, and no! Worldview is a great topic that can stimulate deep academic and theological discussions, but it is also foundational for anyone who wants to discuss ideas and ponder life with others. It is helpful to be sure of why we believe the things we do, and why others confuse and frustrate us by not being able to see the world just the way we do.

For example, Andrew Cameron’s excellent chapter on Utilitarianism will help you to understand (in part) why some people you know don’t want to debate at length Christian opposition to topics like abortion. Why some people’s eyes glaze over when we speak of the rights of the unborn child. You will see how the utilitarian belief, that we should do all that we can to create more happiness (or more accurately utility), has influenced their view of the world and the way they make decisions. Why they seem to place more emphasis on the consequences of their actions (rather the 'rightness') when making a decision – what impact will this action have for others and me? Why they might be reluctant to discuss whether an action is right or wrong. It will also help you to see understand the Achilles heal of a worldview like Utilitarianism – why Christians believe that Peter Singer is so wrong on so many things including euthanasia, infanticide and abortion. The belief that an action is only right or wrong because of its results fails to accept that we frequently face decisions that require us to decide whether our action is right or wrong. It will also point to the foundational beliefs of a Christian worldview that leads Christians to reject utilitarianism and utilitarian thinking and argument.

In contrast to utilitarianism, a Christian worldview assumes that humanity owes its origins to God as creator who’s very character is reflected in his creation; that this life is not all that there is; that all people were created in God’s image and have value; that each life is ‘inviolable, unrepeatable and irreplaceable’ (to Quote Pope John Paul II); that true happiness is not founded on the utility of our actions but on an understanding that God seeks to have a personal relationship with us through Christ.

Of course, worldviews are complex and internally diverse (i.e. there are many versions of utilitarianism, postmodernism etc). As well, it is likely that the average person has a worldview influenced by many (if not all) of those discussed in this book. For example, in trying to understand why someone is indifferent to your arguments on abortion, it is likely you’ll need to understand how your view of truth differs from their view of truth (see the chapter on Relativism), why their views on common good and choice are different from your’s (see the chapter on Liberalism), why your view on humanity is different from their view (see the chapter on Humanism) etc. This highlights one of the strengths of this book, ten major worldviews are presented in parallel for consideration and discussion.

This is very much an introductory book. If you have already studied some of these topics the book probably won’t offer any new knowledge. But it does offer a good overview of the topic packaged in a very readable format. It would be excellent for individual reading and reflection or for reading with a group of people. It’s an easy read that many people will find helpful in unpacking the beliefs that are foundational to who they are and perhaps some of the unhelpful baggage from various worldviews that they might have picked up along life’s way. Think about this idea for 2008.

On this New Year’s day I want to wish readers of this Blog God’s richest blessings, I pray that he will bless and use each of your lives for good, bringing honour and glory to his name.