Monday 31 March 2008

Centre for Public Christianity

John Dickson and Greg Clarke recently launched the website for their new venture the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX).

CPX has been established as a non-denominational research and media organisation designed to foster public understanding of the Christian faith.

The website was launched over the Easter weekend and features a video library service and articles on a range of topics.

In commenting on the launch Dr Clarke indicated that they are "....developing a video way of commenting on the issues of the day from a Christian perspective."

For a new site it has a lot of excellent content on a variety of topics including atheism, US foreign policy, popular culture, the truth of the resurrection and so on. The video content includes a number of clips from the Christ Files program that aired on Good Friday as advertised in a previous post.

Thursday 27 March 2008

Personal responsibility: Can we mandate it?

Lisa Pryor on personal responsibility

I don’t read her column often but Lisa Pryor’s Sydney Morning Herald (22.3.08) “Cautionary tale about personal responsibility…” caught my attention. The piece got me thinking about the general topic. As the head of a large university residential community of 248 eighteen to twenty two year-olds I regularly find myself needing to encourage personal responsibility and wondering how there can be more of it in the lives of selected individuals. Motivated by recent statements by the Federal government (particularly about binge drinking) Lisa Pryor ponders what it is and moves step-wise through her ruminations. Is it:
  • “not acting like idiots”,
  • behaving “properly without the need for government intervention to control behaviour”,
  • “making individuals accept the consequences of their actions”.
Eventually she concludes that “personal responsibility is everything and nothing, a grab bag of not much at all, malleable enough to be totally meaningless”. Is this an adequate response?

What is personal responsibility?

To me, personal responsibility is very important and is just as much about being responsible to others as to one’s self. It seems to me that there are two elements to personal responsibility. When I see people acting in ways I think are irresponsible my thoughts are often based on what I think the consequences might be for them and for others. So its sort of, responsibility to self, and responsibility to others.

We seek to act in ways that avoid infringing the law, the punishment of parents, loss of respect from people we value, unintended consequences such as injury, loss of wealth, loss of health or injury, loss of job etc. This is about us losing something, about cost to self. But personal responsibility also includes acting in ways that consider the consequences of our actions for others (which might seem incompatible, but stay with me). Will I cause pain for those who I respect and love? Will I disrupt my team’s efforts, my family’s holiday, the group well being, a quiet night for the police? Will I endanger the rescue team sent to save me? Will my boss (wife, mother, teacher, captain etc) be hurt or affected by my actions?

Ultimately, the responsible person accepts that his/her actions have consequences for themselves and others.
The place of values and worldview in all of this is intriguing. If you’re a utilitarian (see my previous post on worldview) then you’ll be less worried about the 'rightness' and the law and more concerned about personal happiness and the impact on self. If you’re a liberal democrat you’ll be against just about any type of government action and regulation, full stop. If you’re a Buddhist you’ll seek to be responsible by acting well towards other sentient beings in the hope that you’ll gain some favour (Mike Wilson wrote a great piece on Tibetan Buddhism in Case 14). If you’re a believer in New Age philosophy you'll be seeking happiness and life fulfilment. I don't think that any of the worldviews that sit behind the above religions and philosophies adequately combine both sides of the equation, responsibility to self and responsibility to others.

The basis of 'right' and responsible action

Oliver O'Donovan's work on moral reasoning is helpful here. I want to suggest that Lisa Pryor misses the point that the foundation of personal responsibility is the ability to make right moral choices. In a series of lectures at New College in 2007 Professor O'Donovan reminded us that moral reasoning requires us to think more seriously about making right choices based on what is “good” and “right”. Moral thinking he said requires a journey from observation to obligation, from “goodness of the world” to the “rightness of some action”. He also talked about a right understanding of self and its place in how we make choices and act. He explained that our love of God and neighbour must be self-aware, not simply absent-minded.

Reflective self-love, the foundation of other loves, is the polar opposite of an unreflective pre-moral self-absorption, a self-complacence which consists in a failure to grasp the concreteness of the self, and so leaves us at the centre of our own universe without any bearings upon the reality of others.

You can read the full texts or download audio files of O'Donovan's lectures from the New College website.

As a Christian my desire to act responsibly is driven primarily by my faith (i.e. it should be). The teachings of the Bible, centred on God's plan of redemption for his people, hold these two things in perfect balance. Our most important act of responsibility is to first recognise that God is sovereign. We need to stand with David who prayed to God "But my eyes are fixed on you, O Sovereign LORD; in you I take refuge—do not give me over to death. Keep me from the snares they have laid for me, from the traps set by evildoers." (Psalm 141:8, 9). God made all things and controls my destiny. He is the ruler of the world including me. I am imperfect, indeed sinful like everyone else, a consequence of the first man and woman’s rebellion against God (Genesis 3:1-19). He demands my commitment to him and provides a way for the forgiveness of all my past, present and future sins. Jesus died as a punishment for my sin and God adopts into his family all who believe in him and who accept this free gift of grace and love (Ephesians 1:4-6).

As a consequence of this enormous gift, I seek to lead a life that is obedient to him and which seeks to bring honour and glory to his name (not mine!). This leads me to seek to live a life where I am the best husband, father, grandfather, brother, employee, neighbour, driver (ouch!), team member, church member, citizen, tax payer, mate etc. I live my life hopefully in such a way that I hold in perfect tension the need to be responsible for the specific consequences of my actions all the while trying to be responsible for the good of others based on an understanding that God has forgiven me through no good effort of mine. As Paul urged the church in Rome, I am to lead a different life.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Romans 12:1)

I can’t speak for Lisa Pryor's motivation for personal responsibility (which I’m sure as a good citizen she sees as important), but I see a huge challenge for any government that seeks to legislate for personal responsibility. Its motivation will of course be the good of society, but just how does it decide what this good is? Quite a challenge in a pluralist democratic society.

Thursday 20 March 2008

Jesus, the Son of God, died for me!

My first 'real' Easter

It seems a vain hope that this Easter people might reflect upon the true significance of Easter, but I believe in miracles so I wil pray that this might happen. As a 31 year old I can remember my first 'real' Easter quite vividly. I'd experienced 30 before, but prior to this particular Easter it had been all about chocolate eggs, Easter bunnies and having a holiday. This was to be my first 'real' Easter. It was a wonderful time of Christian fellowship - church on Friday and twice on Sunday, time with new Christian friends on Saturday and Monday. I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude to God for sending Jesus to die on that crude wooden cross for me; a deep sense of my unworthiness in the sight of God, and an amazing joy and hope in Christ who I now knew was my saviour.

A personal miracle

It was 1983 and just 5 months before I had snuck across the road from my car to enter a church for the first time as an adult (bar some weddings, funerals and christenings). I can recall thinking, "What if my friends see me going to church, what will I say?" I was a atheist, what was I doing going to church. My wife Carmen had tentatively said to me just 2 days before "I'd like to go to church on Sunday and I don't expect you to be happy about it, but if we're sending the girls to Sunday School (they were 5 and 3 at the time and we'd just sent them) I think I'd like to go to church." Miraculously, the confident atheist replied "what makes you think I wouldn't want to go to church?" She might have answered "Oh, the fact that you've never shown any interest in God as long as I've known you", but she was too gracious for that. She simply replied, "Okay, you can come to." The preaching of God's word that Sunday changed my life. A simple gospel message from Matthew 11 that cut to my heart and exposed my sinfulness to such an extent that I wanted to run and hide. I went home hid in the bathroom, cried out to God, and begged him to reveal the truth to me. "Help me God to understand what this is all about. Help me to believe in this person Jesus. Help me to understand just who he was. Change me." And miracle of miracles, he did. My hard heart was cracked open by the power of God's Holy Spirit and the truth was made clear to me that day.

In the weeks that followed I read God's word from front to back (well from the gospels to the back then back to Genesis to read the Old Testament). And when I'd finished I started again, and again. Carmen too accepted Christ some 2 weeks later as she read John's Gospel, we joined a Bible study, and set about leading a new life.

The need for more miracles this Easter

As a Christian I pray that God will perform many miracles this weekend. I pray that some members of my extended family, residents at New College, neighbours and strangers who don't believe in Jesus will consider his claims. I'm not sure how God might do this, but my prayer is that some might find themselves drawn to a church service, or might be led to ask a friend just the right question. And I pray that the person who preaches at the pulpit or the friend who answers the question will do so with the power of the Holy Spirit, and many will be convicted of their need to be rescued from sin and death.

Who knows, someone might stumble on this blog post. If so I hope that they'll read John's gospel account of Jesus life, death and resurrection. And if they want to read more they might read an address that Dominic Steele gave at the City Bible Forum this week on the significance of Easter. You might also visit the Two Ways to Live site. My prayer would be that any such visitors to this site might not reject Jesus without considering his claims for themselves.

It would also be good for Christians and non-Christians to watch the Christ Files that will be shown on Seven Network television across Australia. This will be shown today at 12.00 noon in most cities, and on Saturday and Sunday in a couple. See my previous post for full details and a preview.

"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God."
1 Peter 3:18a

Tuesday 18 March 2008

The Christ Files

Screening on the Seven Television Network this Easter in Australia is an exciting new documentary, The Christ Files. It has been produced by Anglican Media and is presented by John Dickson. It will be screened at Midday on Good Friday, Friday 21st March (EXCEPT in Melbourne where it will be at Midnight on Good Friday and in Tsamania where it screen at Midday Saturday 22nd).

John Dickson comments that ‘Often at Easter time, TV specials on Jesus try to create controversy instead of clarity....the Christ Files, I hope, will be a breath of fresh air to believers and critics alike. It invites us to take front row seats to the historical facts about the man at the centre of our faith.’

For more information and some video previews click here.

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Little Boxes, little boxes: Life imitates art

I saw an article recently about student accommodation made from recycled shipping containers my first my response was to be blown away by the ingenuity (I run a college and we are constructing a new postgrad building). I've written about the idea from a construction perspective on my blog devoted to the our new development. But as I looked at the concept I was reminded of the song "Little Boxes" and started to sing it (good thing you weren't there!).

Little Boxes

Malvina Reynolds' song "Little Boxes" (1962) was a big hit when I was growing up (you can listen to it here). Apparently, Malvina and her husband were on their way from Berkeley (where they lived) to San Francisco when Malvina handed the wheel to her husband when inspired by the scenes out the window to write the song. As I looked at the shipping container building I thought to myself, is life imitating art? Here are the words.

Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers, And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business And marry and raise a family,
In boxes made of ticky tacky And they all look just the same.
There's a green one and a pink one And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky And they all look just the same.

Of course Malvina was making a point that went much further than my superficial connection. She was struck by the superficiality and seeming sameness of suburban life that seems to mirror the sameness of streets and houses. This provided her with the metaphor for her song about life's conformity and shallowness in the USA. People following the same paths, driven by the same values, priorities and life goals. A tread mill of conformity that affects where people live, what they study, the jobs they seek, the way they shape their children's lives and so on. Lives of 'ticky tacky'; words now with a dictionary meaning inspired by the song - "unimaginative and, often, tasteless or shoddy uniformity".

Vanity of vanities

This reminded me of The Teacher (or the Preacher) in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible who offers a commentary on the foolishness of a life driven by shallow and limited motives. The writer's constant cry is "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (Eccl 1:2). Ecclesiastes was written for people just like Malvina Reynolds who look at the world and question its lack of real and significant purpose. Where can meaning be found in the monotony of life? The Preacher begins by looking at life's seeming futility (Eccl 1:3-11).

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.

Where can one find meaning in this seeming world of 'ticky tacky'? On the treadmill of life (Eccl 1:3-11), how can satisfaction be gained? The Preacher talks of seeking wisdom and meaning but finding more vanity. He looks to pleasure, the satisfaction of toil and hard work - more vanity (Eccl 1:12-2:11)! But as if that isn't enough, there is time that slips away (Eccl 3:1-15) and then, the realisation that there is evil as tyrannical as the death that awaits us all (Eccl 3:16-4:16). But "there is nothing new under the sun" (Eccl 1:9b).

It's as if the Preacher dismantles any hope that we might find meaning and purpose in life before he finally begins to reveal his ultimate truth. As he reaches chapters 11 and 12 he fully reveals his hand, and the point of his message is made clear. We are to remember God in the days of our youth (Eccl 12:1), to be bold (Eccl 11:1-6), to rejoice in God's goodness (Eccl 11:7-10), to be godly (Eccl 12:1-8), and finally, the end of the matter - to fear God!

"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).

If life's ultimate satisfaction is sought in houses, possessions, toil, pleasure, education or knowledge - in fact anything other than dependence on God - then all will be just ticky tacky. God's ultimate purpose for his people is to know him, to fear him and to follow him. Why chase after the wind when you can have a relationship with the living God through his Son (Galatians 3:26).

Thursday 6 March 2008

The intolerance of tolerance

When Phillip Jensen gave his inaugural sermon as Dean of St Andrews Cathedral (Sydney) in March 2003 his sermon was big news in the media the next day. Why? Because he suggested that religious beliefs can be right or wrong. In this post, my third in a series on worldview, I want to discuss relativism and its relationship to tolerance.

I was at the Cathedral when Phillip Jensen spoke and can attest that he spoke respectfully of other religions. The issue that caused most media response was that he suggested that if two religious belief systems make incompatible truth claims that at least one (or both) could be wrong, but he suggested that they couldn’t both be right. For example, if Islam says Jesus was a great man and prophet and Christianity claims that Jesus was and is the Son of God who rose from the dead, then either both views are wrong or one is wrong. Both can’t be right.

Phillip Jensen went on to say that to allow people of different beliefs to practice them in harmony without coercion or persecution is tolerance. But to deny that such differences exist or to assume that all views are right is “irrational relativism”.

Relativism is a philosophical “theory of knowledge or ethics which holds that the criteria of judgement are relative, varying with the individual, time and circumstance” (Macquarie Dictionary). In Simon Smart’s book A spectator’s guide to worldviews: Ten ways of understanding life (see my previous review of the book and my post on Liberalism), John Dickson provides a useful introduction to Relativism. He points out that as an increasingly dominant worldview over the last 250 years, it has had a significant impact on a range of human experiences, including morality, culture, religion, philosophy, science and the idea of human existence. Its origins are traced primarily to thinkers of the Enlightenment like Hume, Kant, Rousseau and others, but can be traced right back to a Greek philosopher named Protagoras (490-421 BC) who also developed the doctrines of Orthoepeia, the study of the correct use of words, and Agnosticism, the claim that we cannot know anything about the gods.

The views of Protagoras weren’t well received at first. Plato provided a strong critique of his work, particularly the idea that “man is the measure of all things”. He suggested that if everything is relative to man’s own perspective, then that must apply to Protagoras’s own view that truth is relative. That is, his view is just one view among many. But Plato went further, because if Protagoras did believe that truth was only true according to one’s perspective, then his idea must be false, because he had conceded that at least one truth (Protagora’s truth) would not be relative. Most accepted Plato’s argument and largely ignored relativism for over 2,000 years.

But by the 17th to 18th centuries philosophers like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) began to argue that the true nature of reality was beyond our human senses. The deeper things of life like God and morality are inaccessible to our senses. While Kant wasn’t a relativist, his theory led many who did not believe in God to argue that only the things you can observe in the natural world can be claimed to be objectively real. All the rest was seen as subjective speculation.

It didn’t take long for other philosophers (e.g. Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900) to argue that the ‘truths’ of spirituality, ethics and culture, were simply relative truths – true only within the framework of the society in which they believed.

When the stories began to appear about Phillip Jensen’s first sermon at the Cathedral one view probably summed up where most of his opponents sat. The Sydney Morning Herald reporter Chris McGillion penned these words:

"To say that my religion is the one true religion can only ever be a claim based on faith. It can’t be proved or disproved because there are no criteria by which to test the claim apart from propositions that are internal to the thing being claimed in the first place."

McGillion went on to suggest that we should never confuse religious truth with knowledge. It is faith, not knowledge. He was suggesting that truth claims about God cannot be debated in normal terms. You have to hold a specific faith position that is not the same as knowledge.

As Tony Payne suggested in an insightful Briefing article on the media response to Phillip Jensen’s sermon (Briefing, 296, May 2003), McGillion had bought the post enlightenment view that truth is relative and that matters of faith and matters of knowledge are separate. That is, one’s faith, and the worldview that might be shaped by it CANNOT inform and have relevance to one’s physical world. This view assumes that what one believes about God CANNOT give meaning and value to the way we view and interpret the world of nature.

But as Tony Payne points out, Christians have at the very centre of their truth claims that God himself acted in human history in the person of his Son (Jesus Christ). Christianity asserts that Jesus lived, died and rose from the dead as a matter of history. This is contrary to enlightenment philosophers' claims (and 21st century journalists) that Christian truth claims cannot be tested at the point where they interact with human history.

To this Payne adds an additional criterion by which religious claims can be tested – their intersection with reality – the reality of lived human experience. If religions assert things to be true about the world (about life and people), these claims can be assessed as to their general accuracy.

In Dickson’s discussion of relativism he suggests that perhaps the most attractive thing about relativism is the seeming close connection it has with tolerance. If we insist that moral, cultural and religious ‘truths’ are simply relative (no-one is right or wrong), then this is likely to inspire tolerance towards the views of others. But “true tolerance does not involve accepting every viewpoint as true and valid; it involves treating with love and humility someone whose opinions you believe to be untrue and invalid….tolerance is the noble ability to treat with grace those with whom you disagree” (p.184).

This longing for tolerance is one that Christians share, and it is certainly part of the Christian foundations of New College and the reasons for the formation of CASE. It is a Centre that attempts to apply Christian understanding to all of life and asserts that matters of faith and matters of knowledge are NOT separate. That one’s faith, and the worldview that might be shaped by it CAN inform and have relevance to one’s physical world. What one believes about God CAN give meaning and value to the way we view and interpret the world in general. Was Phillip Jensen right in asserting that some religious views are right and wrong? Of course! Was he being intolerant? No! True tolerance is not accepting that all views are equal but accepting the right of all to express different views that are received with respect and hopefully informed response. Anything less than this is mere relativism.

Of course, there is a postscript that needs to be added to this, particularly for people who hold a particular faith position. The understanding that truth is not relative will raise tough issues within communities like the Christian church, for the Bible not only teaches that it is the truth, it also teaches that within the church of God this truth must be protected and that to allow relativistic thinking to permeate the church will have disastrous consequences. In Jesus’ revelations to the Apostle John he speaks to the seven churches of their strengths and weaknesses. To the Churches in Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17) and Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) he warns of the consequences of allowing false teaching to enter into the church of God. We must never use the idea of tolerance as an excuse not to address error within the church. Christians might want to listen to a recent message (download MP3 here) from John Smuts at Petersham Baptist Church in Sydney on this theme.