Talk 4: Multi-Faithism and the Future

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The basis for Christians as they face a multi-faith future has to be Acts 4.12 and what it says of Jesus Christ:

"… there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."

The reason is that Jesus is Lord not of some, but of "all" – all things and all people of whatever tribe or nation, and at all times. And his divine authority and rule is confirmed by "his uniqueness (he has no competitors) and his finality (he has no successors)" to quote John Stott's memorable phrase. But it is not the uniqueness of "Christianity" as a system that we are to defend, but the uniqueness of Christ. For he is unique in his incarnation (which is quite different from the ahistorical and plural "avatars" of Hinduism); in his atonement (dying once for all for our sins), in his resurrection (breaking the power of death); and in his gift of the Spirit (to indwell and transform us).

Down the centuries Christians have made this exclusive claim; and to make it has not been, and is not, easy; and Jesus Christ warns us against using coercive measures in spreading the good news of that claim. However, particularly in the West Christianity, being non-coercive and with a doctrine of final punishment that divinely endorses human freedom, has fostered a political organization that is pluralist and liberal, while remaining itself theologically exclusive. That in itself is unique. Also unique is the respect and toleration (as we understand it and essential for the resulting pluralism), that not so incidentally has come from the Christian Puritan tradition through free spirits like John Milton and John Locke.

But from a Christian perspective, two thirds of the way through the 20th century, to many (with war in Vietnam raging), things looked politically far from pluralist and liberal or theologically exclusive. Peter Berger, the sociologist could write in 1969:

"If commentators on the contemporary situation agree about anything it is that the supernatural has departed from the modern world. This departure may be stated in such dramatic formulations as "God is dead" or "the post Christian era". Thus the "radical theologian" Thomas Altizer tells us with the solemnity of a confessional pronouncement that "we must realise that the death of God is an historical event, that God has died in our cosmos, in our history, and in our Existenz." And Herman Khan and Anthony Wiener, of the Hudson Institute, in their fascinating attempt to project the course of the final third of the [20th] century, manage to do so with only minimal mention of religion and on the assumption that 20th century cultures will continue to be increasingly "sensate" - a term coined by the late Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, and defined by Kahn and Wiener as "empirical, this-worldly, secular, humanistic, pragmatic, utilitarian, contractual, epicurean or hedonistic, and the like."

So that is what seemed to be the case in 1969.

But since then and the 1970s it has been seen how wrong that theory was. For worldwide there has been an explosion of religious activity and growth (with the exception of Western and central Europe, parts of the US and a small global band of influential intelligentsia, often Western educated).

But secularization theory was correct over one thing. It did see that modernization undermined a significant amount of accepted beliefs. It was wrong, however, to assume that this loss of belief was due to secularization. It was not. It was due to pluralization.

Pluralization occurs with the erosion of traditional societies. Traditional societies by definition have enduring world views and morality. They are geographically separate and protected from other societies and so from any "cognitive contamination" (that we explored in the last session). But once there are human migrations coupled with urbanization people have to live together and interact. This means that worldviews and morality become less "taken for granted". For as communication through various media increases – first printing, then the telephone, after that radio, films, TV and now the internet – so does pluralism. People are so simply and so easily made aware of other people's beliefs and morals whether they like them or not.

And pluralism relativizes. You realize you believe what you believe, because of your home background; but so do people who believe differently. And you are aware of those different beliefs. The result then is an individual confronted with a range of choices from a new market place of beliefs and behaviours but with no "society with a tradition" to guide or help. For such traditional societies are being de-institutionalized. This occurs as the institutions within them disintegrate. For example and most important of all, institutions like "marriage" and "the family" that support individuals through legislation, social expectations and accepted norms of behavior, begin to break down, with "gay marriage" being the ultimate institutional corrosive. This forces the individual to rely simply on his or her own strengths and abilities for sexual morals and marital and family success without any social support. For many the challenge is too great and societies themselves start to disintegrate. As Peter Berger writes: "every functioning society requires a certain degree of normative consensus lest it fall apart". But when such a consensus is lost many advocate a return to the "old paths" and faiths as they used to be, hence the rise of "fundamentalist" movements in all the religions, but also the creation of new quasi-religious extremisms like environmentalism and its anti-human deep ecology movement and, indeed, atheistic secular extremism. However, this pluralizing and fundamentalizing process does not mean truth questions should be avoided. Rather respect for other people means we take truth questions seriously, so learning from them when right but correcting them when wrong.

However, we must be careful about the word, "fundamentalist". It is a pejorative term because in Protestantism it has been associated with obscurantism and a lack of rational thought. But the writers of the original "Fundamentals", early 20th century essays against the destructive theological liberalism of the 19th century, were often distinguished academics. Furthermore, some of today's Muslim "fundamentalists" are anything but obscurantist or irrational. In the preconference paper I quoted from a godfather among Islamic extremists, Sayyid Qutb. He was an Egyptian intellectual who has provided a rationale for contemporary Islamic radicalism. I shall not quote him at length again. But a key part of what he says in his book Milestones is summed up where he says, people are …

"… claiming that the right to create values, to legislate rules of collective behaviour, and to choose any way of life rests with men, without regard to what God has prescribed."

Qutb then says that Islam is "the only system which possesses [the] values and … the way of life" capable of resisting this wilful ignorance. And he is very persuasive in his analysis but not in his solution. So where do we go from here with regard to education in such a confused Western pluralistic country?

First, there must be parental choice as we thought in our first session.

Secondly, there must be a primary culture for each child. Each child needs Thiessen's "present and particular" in which they are nurtured and from which critical openness is possible.

Thirdly, therefore, we must hammer home the truth that for a society to function it needs a primary culture with a degree of normative consensus if it is not to fall apart. So what should that primary culture be or, as some would say, the canopy to the public square, for there is no possibility of complete neutrality?

Constitutionally Britain still has a monarch with Christian duties. And we cannot ignore national statistics.

The Office of National Statistics tells us that the latest figures, regarding population, are in England and Wales, 33.2 million who identify as Christian (59.3%); 14.1 million who identify as "no religion" (25.1%); 4 million who are "not stated" (7.2%); 2.7 million Muslims (4.8%); 800 thousand Hindus (1.5%); 400 thousand Sikhs (0.8%); 300 thousand Jews (0.5%); 200 thousand Buddhists (0.4%); and 200 thousand "other religions" (0.4%) – the latter include "agnostics" 30 thousand; "atheists" 30 thousand; and "humanists" 15 thousand (all these numbers are rounded up).

Those numbers are very interesting. For the committed agnostics, atheists and humanists are an infinitely small percentage of the population. So as with the issue of sexuality and sexual morals, where the number of actual homosexuals is only 1.1%, tiny numbers of positive secularists are holding to ransom the majority of the population with some of their demands like scrapping clear Christianity from the nation's classrooms – that would also seem to be the result of the so-called "Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life" of Dame Butler Sloss and her committee.

So obviously there must be a majority of schools where the primary faith culture is positively Christian.

But because of the 4 out of 10 who do not identify with Christianity, we need to recover that traditional British tradition not of an illusory absolute liberty but of ordered liberty that a primary Christian culture generates. That liberty has the Lockean restraints against violence, sedition, total sexual licence, and (yes) positive aggressive atheism (but allowing other beliefs and religions). Of course, what form those restraints take, has to be a political decision.

The debate, therefore, is not whether there are schools that satisfy believing Christian parents and that they can choose. They are a must. The debate is about how many and how we achieve this goal. And they are a must from the facts of our national statistics.

Of course, when 6 out of 10 identify as Christian we have no illusions about their personal commitment. But without doubt many of those will be like the thousands who come to Jesmond Parish Church's 10 Carols by Candlelight services. And those are thoroughly Christian occasions with many of the words of the traditional carols in themselves evangelistic, the Bible readings powerful and clear, and a twelve minute, one hopes, thoughtful, encouraging but also challenging, address.

I am sure a majority of those 6 people out of 10 in England and Wales would be among potential Carols by Candlelight attendees plus, we know, some of the others. And all those are among the people queuing up to go to Christian schools in our country rather than secular schools. They are like that mother we heard about in our first session whose child at school had no Christian instruction at all. And she would have identified as "no religion" in the 2011 census.

So something has to be done. We, at JPC, tried to do something in 2012. We applied for a school to be called "Clayton Academy" - a Christian Free School; but it was unsuccessful.

Many parents both at our own church and outside in the wider community, including, yes, articulate Muslims, we know had concerns for their children to be able to have a truly Christian liberal education. And they would want to come to a school with our philosophy of education, where 50 percent of the places would have been for children from poorer parts of Tyneside, 50 percent would have been for Church people generally. It would have been truly liberal, with all modern subjects and sciences taught, of course, but also Latin, Greek and Mandarin, and all within a Christian framework.

So in February 2012 we applied to establish such a faith based Free School. In the event we were turned down. In a July 2012 letter the Department for Education said they were unwilling to "take our application further". They had (I quote) "significant concerns" relating to,

"… section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 that places a duty of care on the Secretary of State for Education to promote equality of opportunity with regard to the elimination of discrimination, advancement of equal opportunity and the fostering of good relations."

From a subsequent telephone conversation that my colleague, Jonathan Pryke, the chairman of our group, had with the interviewing panel chairman, he was clear that their issue particularly related to Christian sexual ethics. The amendments to our application that the DfE would want if we reapplied (as we would like to have done) "would require us", Jonathan Pryke said, "to compromise our teaching on sexual ethics. Anything short of that would not satisfy the DfE."

It needs to be noted that at the same time as we were being rejected, the DfE had approved Free Schools for a Muslim group whose Articles of Association specify that (I quote)

"on matters of a religious nature the Charity should be guided by the teachings of the Deobandi, Hanafi denomination of the Islamic faith."

We did not object to this approval as we were assuming this group were found to be moderate on contentious issues. However, we have recently been informed that (regarding homosexual sex) (I quote) ...

"in the Hanafi school of thought, the homosexual is first punished through harsh beating, and if he/she repeats the act, the death penalty is to be applied."

If that is true, there seems, therefore, discrimination against us as Christians with our mainstream views of sexual morality which are, of course, in the middle between modern secularists, on the libertarian side, and some Muslims on the Draconian side. It is the DfE that looks like having infringed Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010.

But, finally, how in this present multi-faith environment and whatever its cause, should Christians think and relate to people with other beliefs and ethics?

In simple terms Christians surely should start with the twofold Christian doctrine of revelation. On the one hand, this teaches that much of God's truth is accessible to all through the created order and through the human conscience. This "general revelation", as it is called, means that Christians should believe there is truth in other religions and philosophies. Indeed, much of the "content" of any education will relate to this dimension of truth which has been discovered by people of all beliefs and all persuasions.

On the other hand, the Christian doctrine of revelation teaches about "special revelation". That is where God has especially revealed himself in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit; and the Bible witnesses to this and so requires us not only to believe in Jesus Christ, but share with others, reasonably and courteously, our beliefs about him. So truth values cannot forever be ignored. For in modern society we must engage with those of other faiths and none.

So what, if any are the rules of engagement whether in an educational setting or elsewhere? Surely, there are four and with these I must close.

First, we must be aware of this common knowledge accessible to all.

So, secondly, we must be humble and realise that none of us has all the truth.

Thirdly, we must remember our great duty is to show Christian neighbour-love to the person or group of people whom we are with and conversing.

But, fourthly, because we respect that person or that group, we must be honest and, as graciously and as appropriately as possible, let them know that we do believe "there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" – with salvation meaning in so many ways the common good both for now and for eternity.

Obviously prayer and action are needed.

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