‘Induction over the history of science suggests that the best theories we have today will prove more or less untrue at the latest by tomorrow afternoon.’ Fodor, J. ‘Why Pigs don’t have wings,’ London Review of Books, 18th Oct 2007

Monday, 14 March 2011

Response to Simon Barrow of Ekklesia

Simon Barrow has responded to my article on legal matters and human rights Discriminating Christian Confusion. There is a sense I think in Barrow’s writing that suggests he has failed to understand the nuances of a Christian understanding of grace. I would like here then to offer my approach to these matters and to offer some further thoughts that might help to unlock his mind.

My own background is non-conformist and charismatic. I am socially conservative it is true, but some would say more left wing than right wing. I believe in social morality as much as personal morality. I share for instance a frustration at what I see as right wing fundamentalism in the church because it fails to display the love of God and tends to be very fearful of the world, which can lead to wrong thinking and action. One example is over such strong support for the State of Israel that it leads to lack of concern for Palestinians, and I have written a book Zion’s New Name to try and redress the balance. I share Jim Wallis' sentiment about some Christian approaches to politics that the ’right gets it wrong and the left doesn’t get it’. For instance, one irony is that although many evangelical Christians are opposed to Darwinism in America, they are willing to uphold a sort of belief in economic social Darwinism through support of weak social legislation. It is also too easy to think that being strong on law and order is a Christian ideal, but fail to see that mercy has triumphed over judgement (James 2:13). I don’t really support the idea of Christians going to court to force legal judgments because it is a hiding to nothing and it risks legal judgments that may restrict freedoms further, as has happened with the various American creationist court cases.

However, I can’t help thinking that Ekklesia are throwing the baby out with the bath-water in their work. They say they want a more humble Christian church that has a servant heart, and I share that ideal. A bottom up Christian faith that serves and loves instead of overbears. But I can’t help thinking that there is a tendency towards an undermining, evolutionary-socialist mindset in the work of Ekklesia, especially when they side with the British Humanist Association that perhaps reflects an approach similar to Daniel Dennett's observation that evolution as really a ‘universal acid.’ This approach risks undermining the good in the church as well as questioning the abuses of power. Yes by all means question abuses of power, but to undermine all forms of Christian authority and power will render the church power-less to work for social justice. I am not an Anglican, but do not for instance wish to remove Anglican Bishops from the House of Lords on the basis that Christians shouldn’t have any elevated positions in society. We need to regain an understanding of meekness; to be guardians of power, but to exercise it lovingly and responsibly – as we are told the meek shall inherit the earth.

Secondly, the argument that the New Testament interpretation of the Law of Moses provides a sound basis for law is not to claim ascendancy of my beliefs over others for the sake of pride or prejudice. It is instead I believe Christian values that most respect the lives and freedoms of others who are not Christian, and historically has informed British laws and values, at least in part. People of other faiths have rights in the West; but such rights are often not reciprocated where those other faith systems are dominant. Secular humanism offers subjectivity based on human sentiment, and this risks leading to relativism in ethics, a relativism that can lead to the rise of nationalism or fascism where the state or race is idolised. Secular humanism risks creating a vacuum that may be filled by those who have a much more legalistic or dictatorial mindset, whether it is militant Islamists seeking to impose Sharia Law, or secularists who idolise the law. It is noteworthy that the last Labour government, that didn’t ‘do God,’ imposed an increasing number of laws to control social behaviour and allowed economic inequality to increase. If you otherthrow the Christian basis for law and values you will find that you are on a road to greater legalism and less equality.

Barrow though questions whether I am committed to equality and justice. Yes I am, but on a rational basis that seeks to understand the real nature of humanity. Today what we call human rights is really based on utilitarian philosophy and is different from historical forms of human rights. It is an Epicurean and Hume’an based approach to rights and not classical deontological human rights. The ideals of utilitarianism can tend towards hedonism and selfishness where we want our rights to ‘do-as-we-like’ protected without considering our duties towards others. We need to be able to discuss this honestly. It is not deontological, i.e. based upon the logic of duties as well as rights, an approach Aquinas saw in terms of teleology and natural law. Today pressure groups of various forms often campaign for their rights without consideration of duties and have no comprehension of duties towards God and others. Of course a society can emphasise duties to the exclusion of rights, but we have swung a long way the other way in our post-modern society where pressure groups campaign for rights that go beyond an understanding of humanity's instrinsic nature. Post modernism is the unwanted child of modernism. Secular humanists don’t really want it, but it is their offspring nonetheless because secular humanism leads to a rootless, purposeless existence for many, and this risks a loss of respect for others.

If human beings are created in the image of God, as I believe, then that includes the rational, the relational, the emotional and the volitional (as Selwyn Hughes noted). I fear though that some of the modern thinking about rights seeks to deny the volitional, especially in sexual ethics. Modern society has taken something that is really I believe a lifestyle choice, and then seeks to deny the capacity for choice by asserting that it is an intrinsic part of who people are. Then modern society seeks to protect it through human rights legislation and use it as a wedge to discriminate against those who hold to a more traditional Christian understanding of rights and values. Of course it may be claimed that Christian belief is also a choice, but is it appropriate to elevate one set of choices above another in human rights legislation? I don't think it is. This denial of the volitional capacity I believe leads to a loss of freedom for many individuals because there is loss of clarity towards understanding the true human nature and a disjunction between physical reality and emotions and mental thoughts. It is this confusion and loss of freedom for an individual that needs to be questioned in a loving Christian society. It is the truth about who we really are as human beings in an intrinsic sense that will enable people to recover an understanding of the volitional capacity and allow freedom to be regained. This is not at all an unloving approach; many of those Christians taken to court for their beliefs in this area have demonstrated a life time of service towards others irrespective of lifestyle choices. So there is nothing unloving in seeking to recapture a deontological approach to human rights where we develop a true understanding of humanity including the volitional capacity, even in sexual ethics. However, such understanding also needs to be held within a doctrine of grace where Christ comes and indwells the new believer, and then heals the eyes of the heart of the person so that they are able to see their true Christ-like humanity more clearly.

Socially conservative Christianity offers a vision for society as the City of God, based upon love, equality and justice, where power is exercised in humility, and on the basis of understanding the intrinsic nature of human beings in terms of belief that we are created in God’s image; that is volitionally, relationally, emotionally and rationally created. At the same time a Christian vision for society is one that gives freedom and liberty in areas where activities do no harm to others, and I am opposed to the type of Dominionist thinking that seeks exclusivity and control in these matters. A socially conservative Christian vision upholds the family, not as perfect units with 2.4 children, but as the best foundation for society even in brokenness, remembering also that Christ established a bigger family that is the Church community. Alternatives for society, for instance Plato’s city republic of Polis, are much more class-based, where a few Philosophers-Kings rule over the masses. Family ties are broken and people reduced to mere economic units, kept in place by a higher-class military or Polis force. Sadly, aspects of the politics of Plato often have a superficial appeal from both the left and right and have influenced Marxism, socialism and economic social Darwinism and even some forms of Christian fundamentalism that strongly support unregulated capitalism or over-emphasise law and order and control in a legalistic sense. But which vision does Ekklesia share for society, one based upon the rigid, legalistic class-based worldly city of Polis, or freedom, equality, grace and love that comes through Jesus Christ in the Civitas Dei?
Andrew Sibley 

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