Saturday, 25 February 2012

Letter to Lynne Featherstone MP

Dear Ms Featherstone,
I have read your article This is not gay rights versus religious beliefs in today’s Daily Telegraph.

I can gladly agree with the main thrust of the title. The debate about the meaning of marriage is not to be fought on the narrow grounds of ‘gay rights’ versus ‘religious beliefs’ as you say. I hope in consequence that you will deprecate the kind of abuse that has been poured on men like John Sentamu, Archbishop of York and others who have been reviled as homophobes when they seek to protect the current definition of marriage.

The rest of your article is less easy to agree with. There seems to be a basic inconsistency in your case. You want to retain marriage, yet you do not want it to be exclusively between a man and a woman; but why do you want to tamper with marriage at all? Why not create, or continue (as in ‘civil partnership’) a legal relationship for same sex partnerships? Why the insistence on marriage?

Instead, you are taking what is arguably the most fundamental building block of society and changing its meaning and nature. Why not simply leave marriage alone and allow same sex couples to have something else? You seem to want to eat your cake and have it, but at cost both to those (the vast majority) who are quite happy with marriage as it is now defined, and also (the as yet unseen cost) to the fabric of society.

The government keeps talking about ‘commitment’ and ‘couples who love each other’. But one can be committed to things which are very wrong; commitment in itself does not make anything right; it all depends on what the commitment is to. And would same sex couples be any worse off for having their own form of legalised partnership?

It even looks sometimes as if there is a campaign against the traditional family; Stonewall are suggesting (and the government seems to be peculiarly susceptible to suggestions from this quarter) the deletion of references to husband and wife from legal documents. Is any account taken of the feelings and rights of millions for whom these terms are very precious?

A further misconception is your assertion that marriage, if it does not belong to the church or the state, belongs to the people. Are these the only options? Is there not a case for saying some things are ‘given’? My own conviction is that marriage is God-given; my religion is Christian, but I understand that adherents of some other religions would hold similar views on marriage. Is there not an ‘obviousness’ about marriage being for male and female? Is its widespread acceptance over centuries not strong evidence of its fitness for purpose, despite the many sad failures we witness daily?

If ‘the people’ take it into their heads to say that marriage should be between a man and up to three women, or a woman and a dog, or an adult and a twelve year old, would you be happy to legislate for that?

Finally, you make a mistake in saying that you are not ‘changing religious marriage’. Marriage is marriage, it is not ‘civil’ or ‘religious’ though it may be celebrated with any number of different rites. Marriage is for human beings as human beings; of its very essence is that it is for one male and one female. No government has the right to tamper with such a basic institution of the created order.

Yours sincerely,

Monday, 13 February 2012

No prayers in Bideford

The Christian Institute and the National Secular Society (NSS) are fighting a
running battle through the courts of our land at present, firing salvoes from behind whatever cover lies to hand, such as the Bideford Town Council or Peter and HazelMary Bull (the Cornwall hoteliers). At the moment, the Institute does not seem to be doing too well, decisions in both aforesaid cases having gone against it.

The Bideford case (probably because the other was an appeal) has at present elicited more attention. Mr Justice Ouseley held that s.111 of the Local Government Act 1972 did not give councils the power to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting. Even though a majority of the councillors had voted to retain prayers, this did not give them the authority to do what they had no power to do. So the councillors are suggesting holding prayers but not putting them on the agenda. The atheist councillor who brought the case, Clive Bone, has said that prayers sent out the wrong message - that councils were for a group of old people who liked church, (or words to that effect). However the court did not hold that this was a breach of his human rights, nor that it amounted to discrimination.

The Institute relied apparently on the established status of the C of E (is this out of the Institute's conviction and theology or simply the use of 'any legal argument that may work'?); invocation of a tradition going back to the sixteenth century; and the apparent desires of the majority of the people of Bideford.

Nothing therefore forbids the council or any other public body from beginning meetings with prayer provided they do not do it as part of their statutory duties, unless they can show such religious activity is statutorily empowered. It amounts to a fairly narrow point, and a narrow victory for the NSS (a bit like winning on penalties); its significance is more in the symbolism. Yet again, it appears, religious, and particularly Christian, activity has been banned (for whatever reason) from an area of public and political life.

Look at the issue of conscience first - though that was not central to the ruling, it is an important issue. Should an atheist or people of other religions have to take part in prayers? Apparently they were allowed not to attend if they did not want to, but only at the price of not being part of the whole meeting - so maybe holding the prayers outside the agenda would solve that. Nonetheless, Christians should not put people in the position of taking part in a Christian religious act against their conscience. We would not want it done to us; we should not impose it on others. That pioneer of religious freedom Roger Williams, said that such an imposition was 'rape of the soul'. How would an evangelical feel if such prayers contained prayers for the soul of a recently departed councillor? I am sure we have been in those situations and it is not comfortable.

Then there is the issue of what prayer is. Only prayer offered in faith through Jesus Christ is prayer which is promised to be answered, though we should not put limits on God's sovereign mercy as to what prayers he may or may not answer. But is prayer as a public, formal act, regardless of the personal spiritual standing of the persons praying, acceptable to God? Now every one of the Bideford councillors may be a sincere Christian; but the nature of the body of which they are a part is that people of any faith or none may be members. Surely prayers in such an environment is inappropriate. Unlike attenders at a church service, they do not 'consent' to it.

If people want to pray in such a setting, it should be open to them to vote to do so and the minority either put up with it or not attend; this presumably could be done at Bideford. But prayer should not be part of a the statutory public acts of a body such as a town council.

The Christian Institute's legal argument suggests that the Bideford practice is linked to the the establishment of the Christian religion in this nation. The court cases we are seeing now is witness to the fact that Christianity is on the retreat. One problem is how to maintain the beneficial influence of Christianity in public life; the bigger issue is how to strengthen the presence and witness of vital Christianity in our land. If we are going to use the arguments of establishment, tradition, legislation or 'the will of the majority' then we must carefully think through the theology of it.

A crucial issue which recurs in this battle is the confusion of 'church and state' (which should be kept separate) with 'religion and politics' (which cannot be separated because even secularism is, deep down, religious in its commitments). Let's do some careful thinking down that route. Certainly all the crass statements one reads to the effect that 'religion should be kept out of politics' should be challenged, while I (a non-conformist) would agree that church and state should be kept separate.

Of course the irony is that Mr Bone and his atheist and secularist friends obviously do not realise, or deliberately forget, that it is only Christianity that gave them the freedom to have local councils in the first place. The peculiar balance of form and freedom we enjoy in the West is the fruit of biblical influence in our culture. The freedom to pray comes from the same root as the freedom to assemble. The NSS is slowly, blindly, but surely lopping off the branch on which it sits.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Book That Made Your World - How The Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation

After the ‘Dark Ages’, writes Vishal Mangalwadi in 'The Book That Made Your World' (Thomas Nelson, 2011), ‘The Bible was the power that revived Europe…At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the West is again losing its soul. Will it relapse into a new dark age or humble itself before the Word of the Almighty God?’
This book by a native of India is about the Bible’s foundational influence on Western civilisation and therefore indirectly, through the West, on civilisations like his own. The author was spurred into action by the ill-informed but widely held views of Arun Shourie, a Hindu intellectual who reproached missions, attacked Jesus and ridiculed the Bible. Mangalwadi courteously responds, and dedicates the book to Shourie.
Anyone thinking it may be relevant only for ‘the West’ need not fear. It is much more about the Bible and its influence on human lives and societies than about the West in itself. In a way the West is a test case for seeing how the truth of God reveals itself to be truth for all people, always and everywhere (that is, absolute truth for all of life). A brief survey of its contents is the best way to review it.

The book
Mangalwadi takes the suicide and writings of rock start Kurt Cobain as an entry point, to highlight the emptiness of modern culture. This expands to a discussion of: the development and place of music in Christian culture (from Augustine, through Luther, to Bach); the importance of a Creator God; of the knowledge of God and of ourselves made in his image; and of the fact that once we lose touch with who God is we lose touch with what we are. Modern man, he says, ‘can make good robots but cannot even define a good man’. As to the Bible and those who criticise it, ‘ It transformed me as an individual and I soon learned that, contrary to what my university taught, the Bible was the force that had created modern India.’
After this introductory chapter he gives an insight into his own conversion and his attempts to help the poor in India. He discusses the poverty, the inability of Hinduism to deal with it, and the corruption and intimidation he had to contend with.
Moving more positively to the impact of Scripture, he reminds us of the old story of five blind men trying to identify an elephant, confused because they are all holding different parts. The only answer, which Mangalwadi gives, is of course that we only know it is an elephant because someone comes in from the ‘outside’. We need revelation to make sense of life. Reason alone cannot bring us to Truth. He discusses the ‘self’ as a ‘creative creature’ and the implications of that. Under the heading ‘The Seeds of Western Civilisation’ he discusses (a) humanity, (b) rationality and (c ) technology. (a) We need to see the dignity of humanity from Genesis and the Incarnation. Through the story of the death of a child in an Indian village he recounts how he realised he was dealing with a clash of worldviews, of attitudes to the value of life and human beings, not merely a clash of ethical principles. (b) As to rationality, what saved it after the Greeks gave it up? ‘It was the Bible’s teaching that eternal life was to know God and Jesus Christ’. The fact that God communicated his word motivated people to learn reading and writing. (c ) The Bible meanwhile stimulated technological development because Biblical spirituality is ‘this worldly’ and activist as opposed to say Buddhism which is contemplative. For the Christian, work is virtuous but unnecessary drudgery is not. Technology is a good thing; illustrations are given of particular developments.
Our author then turns his mind to the revolution in thinking introduced by the Reformation. Heroism now took on more the pattern of Christ. Meanwhile translators (Wycliffe, Luther, Erasmus, Tyndale) became ‘world-changers’; the Bible was elevated above men. There then followed an intellectual revolution and this introduces the longest part of the book. First in languages, the Bible paved the way. To read the Bible, people needed languages. Bible translation has been calculated to have created seventy three modern literary languages in India alone including Hindi, Urdu and Bengali. There was a worldview behind this. Buddhism taught people to empty their minds and seek absolute silence through meditation techniques. The Bible taught that a loving God communicated because he is love; people need to read his Word.
Mangalwadi traces something of the impact of the Bible on literature in the West, and then looks at its influence on education. The Bible teaches us to be content with a partial and finite knowledge that grows bit by bit. It is God-like to develop the intellect, not wait for some mystical experience whereby knowledge comes ‘all at once’. Men like Charles Grant, Wilberforce, Carey and Lord Macaulay pushed for education of Indians from Christian motivations. Transformed religious presuppositions lead via education to a transformed economy.
Science developed because of the Bible. Man is supposed to have dominion over the earth; we are not merely part of nature, nor are we to worship nature, but to be stewards of it. Even those who wrongly condemn the Bible for supposedly authorising exploitation of the earth, at least implicitly admit the power of the Bible to influence history. But crucial to the development of science was the literal reading of the Bible as opposed to allegorical reading, or seeing Genesis 1 as a source of spiritual symbols. Alfred North Whitehead famously said that the origin of modern science was ‘the medieval insistence on the rationality of God’. China had scientific brilliance but did not develop science because it had no conviction of an almighty Creator and law-giver. Further, Bacon and Galileo gave empirical observation its honoured place. Islam did not develop science either, as it was never able to critique the Greek thought that permeated it and the inherent pantheism which seeped in from the Greeks. Christian ideas such as God being separate from the world, and redemption being not absorption into God but restoration into his likeness, provided the distance from the world and the perspective on the world that modern science needed.
‘What made the West the Best?’ is the provocative title of part VI. Morality is first examined, especially the ability to trust people in business. ‘God watches us’ is a basic conviction – we might call it the fear of God. There is personal freedom, but also freedom from the kind of corruption that cripples many nations. Wesley’s social concern is discussed, but not before the impact of his gospel is emphasised. Mangalwadi insists that it is the gospel that liberates, not Christianity as merely some philosophy; at the same time the impact it makes is not dependent on every person in the culture being a Christian.
The family in its Western form is a Biblical institution and has been a huge source of strength in Western society. Monogamy and its empowerment of women is specifically Christian. Marriage, not the monastery, was for Luther the school for character. Compassion is a fruit of the Spirit. Medicine developed in Christian, not in Arabian, countries, despite their great advances, because they did not have a caring culture such as the Bible creates. The biblical work ethic and true wealth are examined. ‘How did Japan and China become so successful then?’ the sceptic may ask. Well, they imitated and improved – particularly the Japanese. We cannot understand Japan without understanding Holland, asserts the author, because in the eighteenth century Japan made a study of Holland’s methods and applied them.
Liberty and the rule of law are the hallmarks of our democracy, whereas the Greeks only developed a form of mob rule. Biblical eldership led to forms of ‘checks and balances’ in government; the ‘separation of powers’ also came from the Bible. The transforming effect of mission is seen through the gripping story of how the Hmar head-hunters of northern India came to receive the Bible, Christ and then education and advancement at every level. Was it wrong or imperialistic to change their dead-end culture? asks Mangalwadi. Of course not.
The future? The sun need not set on the west. Sadly relativism is our only virtue now. Ease of divorce and abortion are merely forms of resignation and fatalism. We need a return to the psychology of Edwards’ The Religious Affections. The Great Awakenings of the eighteenth century shaped America and Great Britain. ‘The Bible is not merely a handbook of private piety. It is the very foundation of Western civilisation’.

I shall deal with one weakness of the book and then its strengths. The weakness is that despite the weight of reading and personal experience behind it and the wealth of careful argument and facts within it, there is still a rather journalistic and anecdotal character to some of the writing. While scholarly research is referred to, and other arguments are a matter of logical deduction, more research needs to be done. Examining the spiritual roots of a civilisation, however, and what moved the people involved, is difficult.
The strengths of this book are many. (i) The author is not only a first class intellectual with a profound grasp of philosophy and history, but he has personal experience of the different fruit born by different religions. This gives the book a ring of truth which is invaluable. (ii) It tells an important story that is actively suppressed or ignored by the world and not sufficiently appreciated by Christians: the story of the fruit of the Word of God in human society. Evangelicals particularly rightly insist on personal transformation; they less frequently hold out the hope of cultural transformation. This is partly understandable in that the New Testament does not emphasize it, and evangelicals fear sliding towards some sort of ‘social gospel’ that has lost its roots in personal redemption and spiritual experience. Nonetheless, if God’s Word is Truth, you would expect it to release men not only from their bondage to sin, death and Satan, but from all manner of the effects of sin in the world. No-one expects such liberation or transformation to be perfect in this life, nor that the effects of the gospel in society will always be spectacular, but it would be dishonouring to God and his Word to expect less than some – even substantial - transformation. After the gospel of justification by grace through faith, the dominant ‘transforming truths’ are the revelation of the nature of God; the identity of human beings as created in his image; the goodness of Creation; and the reality of the Fall. Creation is not part of God nor identical with him (as pantheism supposes), nor is man merely one with the rest of creation but stands in a unique relation to God as a ‘creative creature’ and image bearer to exercise dominion over the earth. From these fundamental truths flow the kind of blessings to humanity that the world, but particularly the West, has seen in the last half millennium. (iii) Mangalwadi is not afraid to state in his book the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, nor to insist on the importance of the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth century in shaping culture. In other words, he recognises implicitly that the Bible’s teachings are not enough in themselves, true as they may be; the Holy Spirit must regenerate men and women and if there is to be a cultural shift this must be in sufficiently large numbers. The Word and Spirit together are the key in the lock of fallen human nature that releases both human potential, individual and corporate, and also the potential of creation as redeemed people, or those influenced by them, serve God in the world. One interesting point Mangalwadi makes is that when Holland (for example) became Protestant, churches which had been open seven days a week, now only opened on Sundays, not because people had become less religious, but because they had become more so. Their religion was now the ‘worldly spirituality ‘ of the gospel, engaging them in the world of work six days, and in God’s house on the first day. Medieval Christianity could achieve only so much; it needed the Reformation and all that followed truly to release the transforming power of the Bible. (iv) It should inspire Christians to remember their responsibility in public life. They are standing in a long line of evangelicals who have seen such responsibility as a logical application of their faith; they are also doing no more than obeying the command to love their neighbour. (v) This is therefore an immensely encouraging book which helps Christians to see more clearly, with solid argument and facts, what we all sense and know in our hearts – that really the Bible is ‘the book that made our world’ and can transform cultures as well as individual lives.

In conclusion, this is a great work. Rarely does one come across a book that is at the same time wide-ranging, clearly argued and, in an age when the Christian faith and the Bible are under attack, highly relevant. It would do you good, intellectually and spiritually, to read it. It will remind you of the tragedy of the intellect darkened by sin and of the poverty of false religions and human philosophies. It will encourage you by showing you what great things the gospel and the Bible, under God, have accomplished in the past and may accomplish again.