C. S. Lewis was once asked if he followed Christ because it made him happy. He responded that he did not become a Christian because it made him happy, he always knew a bottle of Port could do that, but he followed Christ because he believed it was true! If Lewis was around today, he’d be immersed in the debates of our time, especially the issues of truth and relevance.
Stephen Hawking announces that science can explain the universe without any need for a creator. The press bursts to life and adds further layers onto the supposed triumph (yet again) of science over “blind belief” or “faith”. The New Atheists of course have been writing books of this type for some time (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Sam Harris, etc) and going on the offensive to remove God, belief, the Bible or any other such detritus from an earlier age, from the minds of a generation and from respectable discussion.
It may surprise our revered writers, that despite all the urgency and polemic to the contrary, many today find Christ, the gospel and His message compelling. As a constant traveler, I meet many people from all walks of life, from diverse ethnicities, educational backgrounds, and professional experience who claim not only to know, but to follow the God of the Bible as the “Living God” – not as an abstract idea, or projection of psychological need, or as a moral philosophy. They claim (as do I) to have met this God, to know Him in a real sense, and to follow Him in their daily life and experience.
From Jakarta to London, from New York to Hong Kong, from Delhi to Damascus and much more, I can identify people and faces, who I believe are credible in their witness. There are some common features in their beliefs. They accept, and act upon the Bible as authoritative. Really? In 2011? In a pluralistic world such as ours? You can’t be serious! I am. The Bible serves as a guide, as information, wisdom, poetry, instruction and light….on life. Its architecture is sound, its historicity well documented, but it is a message that packs the punch.
The Bible opens a complex take or view on reality. A world that is both physical and spiritual. A world in which ideas and actions have consequences. A world in which seen and unseen powers and forces have bearing on life. It shows men and women at their best and at their worst. It addresses the deepest questions of human existence and it unveils to us the workings of the mysterious God. It deals with some questions that some modern men and women struggle to accept, yet which are validated by any serous reflection on the human condition. The Bible speaks today, as it is a vehicle for the living God to continue to surprise, touch, and change lives by the unusual quality we are told is grace.
This grace is not a mere word, it really is an existing “thing”, given to us by God through the gift (of grace) of His son. It is a power, a force, an energy that comes from God and achieves His ends in life, in people, and across history.
Now, lest you think I believe Christians have all the answers to every question or that we know all there is to know about things, this is not true. As a Christian, as a believer, I do know many things (much less than I’d like), but I know that I don’t know in an exhaustive way, rather in a sufficient one. What do I mean? I believe that I know God really and truly. I believe I know some things about the world, life, suffering, evil, and making choices. I don’t know any of them exhaustively – nor could I – but I do know them in a real, and in a practical sense.
Christian thought across the centuries has wrestled with the issues, thought, and philosophies of its time. On any of the major questions of existence, the questions that lie at the core of existence, we find Christian contributors fully engaged. We may not like what they say, we may not agree with what they say, but we should recognize that they are there, and that they have mounted credible responses to serious objections, as well as laying out the framework of serious Christian thought.
Men like Alvin Plantinga contribute to serious discussions on philosophy, John Polkinghorne on physics, Jay Budisiewksi on moral philosophy, N.T. Wright on history, Alister McGrath on theology and many more. Peter Berger at Boston University, MA has spent many years studying “evangelicals” and documenting their contribution in Asia, Africa, and more recently in North America. He shows, contrary to popular caricatures, that many evangelicals, inspired by a robust biblical faith, go on to pursue higher degrees in education and to excel in many life spheres. Their faith is not only not outdated, but gives them the inspiration, focus, impulse and assistance to navigate the complexities of a globalising world.
But what about religion and violence? This is indeed an issue and a concern. However, it need hardly be pointed out that violence is not the unique privilege of the religious. The 20th Century surely teaches us that ideologies and fanatical belief systems, secular and religious, can (and have) led to violence. It is my deep conviction that the Way of Christ, the power of His Spirit and the teachings of His word, serve to renew and reorient the heart, and to tame and domesticate the worst in humanity. I don’t deny that many ills and wrongs have been committed by some who use the name of Christ, but I do deny they are central to this faith, or the norm, or are practiced by those who truly follow Him and His way.
If atheism as an applied philosophy is the answer, how do we explain the experience of the former Soviet Union? How do we explain Pol Pot’s actions in Kampuchea? What do we do with North Korea? I realize these are extreme examples, but they are nevertheless “real” examples. I believe there are many good atheists – and I do not believe that atheism necessarily entails these outcomes – but I cite them both as a caution for any yet-to-be-realized utopias, and as a memory that history must be weighed carefully.
The Christian faith is a view that leads to hope. What do I mean? In biblical terms, I root myself in the following assertions:
- The world that is, is not the world that was. We are in a creation, yet something additional, detrimental, and damaging is part of “reality” now. Things are not as they are supposed to be and there is brokenness, a flaw, a disruption at the heart of existence. It is a fallen world.
- The world that is, is not the world that must be. God has acted, and His actions have unleashed the power of change, of renewal, of new life into the system. We are not fatalists, nor do we think that things must remain as they are. We believe change is possible, necessary and commanded, by our Lord.
- The world that is, is not the world that will be. The biblical drama points towards a renewal, a final restoration, the summing up of all things. It is a decisive act on the part of God, which completes the story and brings about the “good end” that scripture promises and all hope for.
- The God who creates, redeems, sustains, and brings in His end, is the great relational God who calls us to Himself to be known and to know, to be loved and to love, to experience grace in order that we may share it. This God moves in the real world. In the world of commerce, the city and busy daily life. In the world of the academy and of lectures and learning. In the world of governance and decisions, as well as decision making.
- Christianity calls me to recognize and surrender to the great God, in and through Christ. It invites me to lay down my selfish ambitions and self-centered ways and embrace His truth, His way, and His life. It calls me to “love my neighbor as myself”, and to go and share the good news of His life-giving kingdom and way. It encourages me to pursue truth, to desire goodness and to appreciate beauty, wherever it is found. It calls me; it calls all, to a life of reverential awe and practical service.
So my conclusion? The Christian message is a hard call in a pleasure obsessed time, and it is a demanding faith to follow, but is it outdated and irrelevant? I don’t think so, and as long as it meets humanity where we live, I suspect it never will be!