Category Archives: Apologetics

A Call to Cultural Re-engagement – The 3 Chasms

Cultural Distance in the UK

When I had more spare time, I used to lead many Alpha and Christianity Explored courses. The first talk on the Alpha course is always: ”Christianity: Boring, Untrue & Irrelevant?” In order to engage we need to first understand where people are. This talk seeks to engage the pre-conceptions and misunderstandings that people have in order to re-engage them with Christianity.

I believe Alpha’s first talk was true to the questions people were asking a few years ago, but now, I believe, UK society has moved further away. Let me say that I’m a big fan of both Alpha and CE and I have used them both many times in the past. However, I believe we have underestimated both the size of the gap between us and society and the depth of the problem. 

As I watch UK culture, I believe that religion is no longer seen as something misguided but benign, but rather something that is actually harmful to an enlightened society. The case is being made by prominent secular humanists, parts of the media and some political figures that religion is actually a source of corruption and a dumbing down of our natural intellect. It is explained as a vestigial coping mechanism that might have had a use in giving us a misguided comfort before science removed our need for false hope in gods and superstitious fear of ghouls. It is now redundant and primitive.

As I was thinking about these things, I was studying Acts 26 for a message and it hit me the difference between Paul standing before Agrippa and us standing before our society today. Standing before Agrippa Paul could rely on three levels of common ground – general revelation (nature / creation), special revelation (biblical revelation) and shared cultural values (those of the Jewish nation).

My proposition was that all these three have been removed in our day, so I titled my talk: “A Reasonable Faith: Christianity: Unscientific, Corrupt & Intolerant?” I believe these three areas describe the areas where society is questioning the integrity of the Christian faith. I recognise that it is a spectrum of views – not everyone is thinking like this, but many are and they are asking questions that we, on the whole are not answering.

  • Unscientific? We now face a credibility gap where science is seen to have provided the answers and we are holding onto out-dated ideas. It has removed the shared ground of General Revelation – a common understanding in our origins.
  • Corrupt? With the increasing confidence of authors such as Dan Brown and the decreasing biblical literacy, false information and inaccurate historical claims can easily sway public opinion. We now face a reliability gap when the historical reliability of the New Testament is assumed to be a matter of personal opinion. The church is thought to have re-interpreted or even edited earlier versions to suit their own political purposes. This has removed any remaining Special Revelation common ground, so that biblical authority is an oxymoron.
  • Intolerant? As the faithful believers continue to hold onto biblical truth and society’s moral standards diverge from these truths, our stance is seen as being intolerant of other positions. We now face a compassion gap, where we are seen as intolerant bigots for not allowing everyone a right to have their views accepted. This has eroded our common ground of Shared Cultural Values so that we can no longer assume or expect others to share or even understand our ethical views.

Do you agree that this is a fair assessment of where our society is at, or perhaps at least, the direction it is heading? If so, then the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are bridging the chasms in our cultural engagement or throwing well-intentioned homilies into the abyss? If people really are thinking this way, how do we leap across the chasms to speak something meaningful to them?

Paul himself explained that God was the creator, sustainer and saviour of the world to the mainly Greek audience in Athens is a way that would engage their cultural antenna – referring to their poets and influential thinkers of the time (see Acts 17.22 and following). He explained the good news of Jesus using the language and concepts of the Athenians – sometimes seeking to build common ground, at other times directly challenging it. But the important thing is that he had clearly thought through the challenges and adapted his style to his different audiences. Have we thought through the challenges these chasms present and come to a position that we can articulate? Are we prepared to think the hard thoughts that possibly our current ways of communicating are simply lost across the chasm because we are assuming a common ground that no longer exists? These are the challenges that face us in engaging with our culture. Tools such as CE and Alpha are still vital as we live in a heterogeneous society with the remnants of a Christian heritage, but we cannot rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.

Or perhaps you are on the other side as you read this – an atheist, agnostic or you prefer not to label yourself. How do you see things from the other side of the chasm? Reach out and let me know. I’m listening.

Sometimes winning means you lose everything (part 1)

A review of Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (part 1)

In the hit TV series 24, Jack Bauer is a counter-terrorist agent seeking out threats to national security and doing whatever is necessary for the greater good of saving the American people. In his high-octane adventures, Jack is no stranger to taking the law in his own hands and facing impossible life and death decisions. His no-nonsense attitude considers no risk too great if only he can save his country from its deadliest enemies. His is a utilitarian philosophy of life – making decisions based on what he considers the greater good; reasoning that it is better for him to kill one criminal than for thousands of innocent people to die.

It’s switch-off, escapist telly that has no real bearing on normal life, certainly not for the Christian who would never be found in such extremely dangerous or complex situations. Or would they? How would a Christian behave if they, by some strange circumstance, find themselves in such situations? What if they were in a situation where to act could mean sinning, but not to act would certainly mean compromising your faith? Would it ever be right for a Christian to kill a tyrant to save thousands, or millions, of people’s lives? What if that tyrant was Hitler?

What would you do, when doing nothing was the most unacceptable alternative?

This was the very real dilemma for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and those around him during World War II. Bonhoeffer was a German Pastor who during the war was the key figure in leaking information about the Nazi atrocities to the West, and was part of the inner circle of conspirators seeking to assassinate Hitler. He was one of the people prepared to stand up to the Gestapo and was eventually killed for his part in the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

However, before we get to his dilemma, a bit about his background.  Bonheoffer had a warm and loving upbringing, full of music, the outdoor life and strong relationships. His family were among the most cultured and intelligent in Germany at that time; his father was an eminent scientist and his brother a famous lawyer. Dietrich was always an earnest young man, sincere, intense and thoughtful. His interest in Christianity was always very personal and real, and finally led to him studying theology and becoming a minister.

As a leader of the church in Germany, Bonhoeffer was a prominent and outspoken opponent of the emerging Nazi government. Until he was strong enough to crush it, Hitler first attempted to woo the established church and deceived many of its leader through flattery. Bonhoeffer was not one of these, he was far too perceptive to be taken in.

Bonhoeffer was ruthless in his search for truth, “he accorded theological ideas the same respect that his father accorded scientific ideas…questions about the Bible, and ethics and theology must be treated with the same rigorousness, and all cant “phraseology” must be identified, exposed as such and cut away and discarded. One wished to arrive at answers that could stand up to every scrutiny because one would have to live out those conclusions” (page 127).

But his clarity of thinking and confrontational views often brought him into conflict with the other more-moderate leaders and his piercing prophetic expressions led to him often being misunderstood. Ironically, it was with leaders outside his native country that he found most like-mindedness. His trips to the UK and USA established strong connections with other church leaders and brought him to the attention of the world scene.

Back in Germany the war was about to start and Bonhoeffer was torn between returning to his homeland, where almost certain death awaited him, and staying in America where his increasing fame meant a secure lecturing position and a prosperous future. Ever the anti-celebrity, Bonhoeffer chose to go home and sailed back to Germany, not knowing what awaited him. He would say later on that “he had been “grasped” by God; that God was leading him, and sometimes where he would prefer not to go” (page 70).

However, once back on home soil Bonhoeffer faced a moral dilemma of either joining an army in a war he morally disagreed with, or to avoid conscription, become a conscientious objector and face the firing squad. In the midst of his dilemma, and seeking to retain a useful role within the church, he took a job as an informer with the German secret police reporting on church activities. In a typical Bonhoeffer move, he actually worked as a double agent, secretly helping the church while pretending to inform on them. Only those close to him knew his true motives and allegiance and his duplicitous role caused many in the church to become confused. But these were confusing times, when loyalties to the state, the church and the family that had been intertwined for centuries in German culture were being pulled apart.

The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands as a symbol of truth against an avalanche of lies. It is the story of the power of right to overcome wrong. In his fight against evil he held nothing back – neither his own desire for happiness or his fear of a painful death. In the end he lost everything he had, his family, his fiancee, his promising career and finally his life. Any yet, as we look back from our vantage point we can see that in the final analysis he won. With some Christian leaders you learn from them mostly through their teaching, others teach you through their lives. For Bonhoeffer his life and devotion add greater depth to his teaching for it cost him so much.

Finally, a word from Bonhoeffer about what drove him: “It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God. I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weakness but in strength, and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness” (page 467). God in the centre, God in life. This is what Bonhoeffer was passionate to see lived out, and this is his legacy for us who follow after him. May we found strength to be willing to lose everything in order to win Him who is worth more than life itself.

Part 2 of my review can be found here

It is good for the good to rule

Sub-title: Tim Tebow, Bubba Watson & Fabrice Muamba – does God help those who take a stand for him?

It seems that wherever you look these days there are sports stars confidently declaring their Christian faith. NFL star Tim Tebow puts “John 3.16” on his eyelids and 90 million people Googled the text, golfer Bubba Watson gives God the glory for his 2012 Masters victory and professional footballer Fabrice Muamba says God protected him after being dead for 78 minutes.

The success of these outspoken sportsmen has caused many to ask, “Is God helping them win? Does he tip the game in favour of those who claim his name? What happens when they lose?” It is an intriguing question and is essentially the same issue at the heart of Book 4 of the City of God. In this chapter Augustine seeks to address the underlying reasons for the growth of the Roman Empire. He argues that God actually promoted the growth of Rome because he endorsed the principals upon which it was founded – their passion for glory based upon merit, rather than deceit. He essentially sees the rule of Rome being a force for good in the world, establishing justice and promoting peace.  

While many at the time were blaming the Christians for the downfall of Rome, Augustine turns the argument on its head. He seeks to explain that the expansion and victory of Rome was actually due to God’s providence, rather than Pagan gods, or the fate of the (celestial) stars. Augustine saw God’s hand raising the Roman Empire to the heights of glory and success it achieved.

So the question remains, are those who make their faith explicit and wear their commitment to God on their sleeve supported by God in their actions? “He who honours me, I will honour” God said to Samuel and it was with this verse ringing in his ears that Eric Liddell won the 400m Olympics and set a new world record. Does God help his servants win? Whether that be in sports, in elections, or in battles – is God the critical unseen factor endorsing his celebrity athletes and military generals?  If he does, then what about at the national level, does God take sides for nations? On which side of the war on terror is he? Is he for flying the flag or burning it? Does he have favourite nations that he backs, or is all our divinely-soaked imperialism an assumed support too far?

This debate goes right back to David and Goliath – the little guy with the big heart, against the big guy with little respect for Israel’s God. There is no doubt that God fought alongside his people in the Old Testament. They were to be his nation and he would endorse their faithfulness by guaranteeing their success. Indeed, since Augustine, many have seen this religious imperialism as a natural consequence as God’s Sovereignty over all of life. Their reasoning went along the lines that, as there was no domain outside God’s rule, from the individual to the family to the church, to society each spehere should and could be under his rule. The assumption being that those who followed his rules, at each level of hierarchy, would receive his blessing.

However, the nature of the Kingdom of God dramatically changed with the coming of Jesus. It moved from being national and local, to personal and global, and ultimately, Augustine goes too far in this chapter. For in his confidence that God would restore the fortunes of Rome, he betrays an over-emphasis on nationalism. In effect, he soaks his national fervour in religious principles – a mistake too often made since the BC turned into AD.

If we are willing to listen to our Founder who said “my kingdom is not of this world”, we cannot extrapolate from the individual to the national. So, why is it that those who claim the name of Christ are often seen succeeding? I think there are a few principles that can guide our thinking about the connection between success and faithfulness:

  1. Christian principles all promote (but do not guarantee) success in whatever field they are applied (e.g. the old “Protestant work ethic”, good old fashioned values such as honesty, integrity and diligence).
  2. God may intervene directly on behalf of his people, or may not (e.g. the fiery furnace – Shadrach et al accepted and were resigned to whatever would happen).
  3. God does not take sides – he is no respecter of persons, there are no favourite nations, people or leaders (and he often disciplines his chosen leaders e.g. David and Moses)
  4. It is good for the good to rule – for the good of mankind in general God may raise up leaders who follow him for the benefit of all (e.g. Joseph sent by God to provide leadership in time of national disaster). Its important to note that this also applies to leaders of moral courage and principles that are not Christians (e.g. Churchill).
  5. Even the best role models will fail at some point – let’s not make the mistake of elevating anyone, no matter what their gifting, so that their fall brings us down. In the end we are all servants of the same master.
  6. God is in control of all of life – even refereeing decisions and the bounce of a ball are down to his decision (e.g. Proverbs 21.31).
  7. All success is ultimately short-lived – our bodies age, our glory fades and our name is remembered no more, what really matters is our relationship to God.

Sport-stars come and go, empires come and go, God uses people and they pass away into history. Yet through it all the purposes of God are fulfilled. We should not strive to be famous but focus on being people of merit. God may choose to use our faithfulness to promote his purposes in the public sphere, or he may not. But if we are focussed on integrity, devotion and a passion for his glory, then no matter what, our lives will have been worth living.

Easter is one man’s utter defiance of death

“You mean I’ll be able to dodge bullets?” “I mean when you’re ready, you won’t have to.” So Neo and Morpheus discuss the theoretical bending of the rules of the artificial reality: The Matrix. At its heart, the film is the story of one man’s journey of self-realisation. It is the realisation that The Matrix is not real, and that he is able to overcome the rules that it has imposed on his mind. He takes the most significant step when, after he has been shot and (“virtually”) died, his mind finally realises that the bullets and blood are not real, and he wakes back up. He stubbornly refuses to accept the reality of death and becomes the resurrected Neo.

It is this same utter defiance that is at the heart of Easter. However, it is not the story of a bending of the rules of nature, but of a divine overcoming. Not a rebellion against, but a submitting to, the will of the ruler of the universe. When Jesus stood at the grave of Lazarus the reality and pain of death was intense and it broke his heart. It reminded him that this was the reason he came into the world, to destroy the works of the evil one. This was the alien death that had been brought into the universe at the moment of the first human defiance.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus chose to defy death – to so completely and utterly reject the finality and fatality of death that he was willing to submit to its rules. By submitting to its power and penalty, he brought about a transformation of death through the resurrection of his unconquerable, immortal nature.

As I reflect on this truth I realise that there are a couple of deep running assumptions often mistaken for realities in the world I live in, and that I utterly reject:
1. The false dichotomy that has been set up between “fair, reasonable and logical” secular humanism on the one hand and “irrational, bigoted faith” on the other. I refuse to join in the polemic tit-for-tat that only reinforces the view that Christians are small minded. I read, appreciate and listen to the leading atheists and take their critique of faith seriously. Christianity cannot be reduced to a purely rationalistic worldview, but the mechanisms and framework for understanding and applying it are rational. It is not against rationality, but rather supersedes the limits and capability of rational experience – for it requires divine self-disclosure and this will always involve an element of mystery. It is our presuppositions where we differ, our foundation; after that we both seek to construct rational worldviews.

2. The silence and retreat of the Christian voice from the public sphere. I refuse to accept that Christians should be silent in public issues because we are somehow “biased” by our beliefs. All of us have a worldview with underlying presuppositions that colour (even guide) our ethics and morals. If God is God and this is his world, then not following his path will be detrimental to our society. Christians have an obligation to sensitively demonstrate this truth empirically when we can.

I have learnt that the way to challenge these assumptions is not head on. Only rarely will people change their assumptions through argument. Like Neo, they must be shown that their assumptions of how the world works do not match reality. Like the example of Jesus, who demonstrated a better way by submission to the imposed rules, a life like this must be modelled. It must be graciously, sensitively and compassionately lived out in front of a sceptical world.

The Matrix teaches us that our assumptions are powerful forces, guiding our interpretation of reality. Easter teaches us that reality itself was once shaken – one Sunday morning, the very fabric of reality was altered forever. We now have the opportunity to live in the light of a death defeated, a purpose restored and a hope renewed.

This post was an article on Easter for the Scottish Baptist Lay Preacher’s Association, click here for the link.

War and Peace and the judgements of God

It was during the final year of my MPhil life that I decided to read War and Peace. I was frustrated by how long it was taking to finish off my research and I wanted a book that I would keep me company until the end. It’s was an epic read, much of it was very enjoyable, other bits mundane. But through it all Tolstoy weaves the lives of a small group of people into the macro events of 19th century Russia as they alternate between times of war and peace.  

In Book 3 of City of God Augustine takes up a similar challenge. He has dealt with “the evils which affect the character and the mind” in Book 2 and now turns to the “only evils dreaded by fools, namely physical and external disasters”. Thus in this book Augustine traces the often violent history of Rome since its foundation to modern times.  His purpose throughout is to discredit the claim that the most recent disasters are due to the abandonment of the pagan gods in favour of Christianity. How could this be, he asks, when the entire history of Rome is peppered with civil and federal wars – all of which occurred while these same gods were worshipped?

Before examining the historical events, Augustine begins with a note of exasperation. He asks his reader why it is that “the only things which evil men count as evil are those which do not make men evil? (3.1)”. He ironically observes that men “are more disgusted by a bad house than by a bad life” – they are more concerned with their possessions than their characters. Nevertheless, Augustine takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the history of the Roman Empire to show how inconsistent their own gods have been in their protection.

So here’s a history of War and Peace in ancient Rome…

  1. War: The destruction of Troy. Augustine explains the founding of Rome through the destruction of Troy, but then he asks “why was it (ie Troy) defeated by the Greeks when it had the same gods as the Greeks?” The explanation according to his opponents, is that Priam, the king of Troy, paid the penalty for perjury of Laomedon, his father. Moreover, the gods were incensed at the adultery of Paris and abandoned Troy. But, Augustine argues, the gods do not punish adultery among the gods, or fratricide, upon which Rome was founded. Augustine asks “what benefit can they bring Rome when they failed to protect Troy?”
  2. Peace: The rule of Numa Pompilius. Numa succeeded Romulus, the founder of Rome and enjoyed a time of peace. However, this time of peace was not associated with worship of the gods as the sacred rites which required their worship were not established yet. Interestingly, Augustine asks whether wars are inherently necessary to prove Rome’s greatness or were they merely a result of aggressive neighbours?
  3. War: with Alba during the time of the kings of Rome.
  4. War: during the time of the consulship and the conflict between Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius, when Brutus killed his own wife and sons because of their conspiracy to restore Tarquin.
  5. War: the Punic Wars fought against Carthage, the other superpower of the day.
  6. War: the siege of Saguntum (219BC), initiating the Second Punic War, because of their affiliation with Rome and yet the Roman gods gave no assistance to this city that had trusted in them.
  7. War: the massacre of Romans by Mithridates, king of Asia.
  8. War: the Civil Wars (88-82 BC), initiated by well-meaning Gracchi who wanted to redistribute  the land wrongly possessed by the nobles but turned into a blood-bath by Marius and Sulla.
  9. War: the Servile War (73-71 BC), started by a handful of gladiators – notably led by Spartacus.

It is easy to see that there was more War than Peace, but both were equally dangerous for the opponents of those in power. For “Peace and War had a competition in cruelty; and Peace won the prize. For the men whom War cut down were bearing arms; Peace slaughtered the defenceless.”

Augustine’s opponents claimed that “the reason for the worship of these gods, the reason why their worship is demanded, is to safeguard men’s felicity in respect of things perishable and impermanent”‘. But if that is the case, and it is really true that Rome was protected by their gods – why were those who had pledged allegiance to Rome not protected? As he states emphatically “what folly to believe that Rome did not perish beneath a conquering Hannibal because of the protection of the gods who had no power to save Saguntum from perishing as a reward for its friendship with Rome”!

The key question that this chapter raises is: How do we relate the events of history to the judgement of God? Augustine is arguing against the wrong assumption that the gods (with a small g) were punishing Rome for abandoning them in preference for Christianity. He strongly argues that no clear parallel between war and peace and the object of a nation’s worship can be drawn. Switching Augustine’s argument round the other way and applying it to today – surely this means we need to be really careful about pronouncing doom and gloom from specific events of war and peace.

In many ways we in the West face a mirror situation to that of Rome. The West has turned its back on the Christian God, is God now punishing it for its unfaithfulness? The message from Augustine is to be careful ascribing specific events as a judgement from God. There have been many preachers willing to ascribe the rise of AIDS, the 2004 Asian tsunami, the global banking collapse and many other events to the judgement of God. These grab the media headlines for a few days but is there any real substance behind them, other than personal opinion?

The lesson for ancient Israel was that it should learn lessons from the defeats in battle. When Israel was faithful it could expect the help of the Lord in fighting against their enemies, when they were unfaithful they were quickly subdued. There was a clear relationship for ancient Israel in this area. In fact this was the error of Sennacherib (repeated by the New Atheists today), for in his taunting of Hezekiah he recognised no difference between the God of Israel and all the other gods of the nations he had defeated (2 Kings 18.33-35). There was no such God who could protect his people from such a powerful army. But he was wrong, and he was soon defeated because of his insolence against Jehovah.

So, does this pattern carry forward for the Christian? The crusades provide ample evidence that some have believed that they do. However, does scripture support the view that “God is on our side”? The key point that needs to be understood to have a correct view of what makes something a judgement of God is whether there is an interpretation of the event. In the passage above in 2 Kings 18, Hezekiah prays to God and receives the word of the prophet Isaiah (2 Kings 19.20-34). The prophetic word provides the context for the action of God. Thus, in verse 35 when the angel of God killed 185,000 soldiers overnight, Sennacherib leaves in defeat the next morning. Interestingly, the converse is also true (and more common) – the prophets provide the explanation for the defeat and exile of the people of Israel through the ministry of Isaiah, Jeremiah and many others.

As someone who believes in the sufficiency of scripture, this means that events in our day may or may not be judgements from God. But we can never be sure without the prophetic word which no longer comes infallibly.  The facts that we can be sure of is that there is a final Day of Judgement coming when the justice of God will break forth in a final, complete,  fair way. We already have the interpretation for this coming event in the book of Revelation, and this is the judgement that is to be prepared for. We should spend less time retrofitting disasters into convenient “told you so” straplines and more time lovingly, patiently, compassionately warning of the ultimate judgement to come, where every thought will be exposed, every motive weighed and every action repaid.

“For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying “Peace and safety” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” 1 Thessalonians 5.2-3

There is no wrong, there is no right

Moments after entering a darkened room you are disoriented and lose your bearings, particularly if it is an unfamiliar place. Slowly, your eyes become accustomed to the shadows and you begin to pick out the shades of grey. Eventually your eyes can see the frame of the room and you can walk around without falling over. This process is called adaptation and has been something of my experience in encountering Augustine’s City of God. It is a foreign world, an alien land. All of Augustine’s arguments in Book 2 make sense, logically. But there is a disconnect between his world and mine that jars and stops me in my tracks, waiting for my mind to become accustomed to his train of thought. In fact, as my theological eyes have become accustomed to the surroundings I see three disconnects in particular that separate our worlds:

  1. Augustine’s world assumes the existence and central importance of Truth, Morality and Virtue. 
  2. Augustine is able to appeal to a common foundation for, and understanding of morality.
  3. Augustine is able to appeal to his critics to use morality as a barometer of truth.

Each of these presuppositions has been destroyed during the last two millenia. The idea of absolute or ultimate truth has died, to be replaced by Travis’ anthem “there is no wrong, there is no right, the circle only has one side”. Thus, in the UK today there is no shared concept in public life of a virtuous or moral life.  It has been replaced by the utilitarian principle – whatever makes the most people happy most of the time. And so yesterday David Cameron appealed against the scandal of our booze culture that is epidemic in the UK. But what does he give as the motivation for us to change our behaviour? Is it because this is a shameful way to treat our own bodies? Is it because it opens us up to degrading acts against ourselves and other people? No, it’s because it’s costing the NHS too much money!! How ridiculous. There is no appeal to what is right or wrong, just what a vague sense of duty, which ultimately comes from what is helpful or harmful to others. He says in effect “all this drunkenness is wasting lots of taxpayers money on the NHS that could be used for treatment – please grow up and realise how irresponsible this is.”

So I am left to wonder how this parallel universe was created. When was the moment when Augustine’s world and ours detached? Or perhaps it is more like The Picture of Dorian Gray, where each small act of defiance left an indelible mark that over time created a beast.

The sad thing is that this type of change is ultimately futile for it tries to motivate change for the sake of other people. For real change to happen a person must seek to be virtuous for its own sake – because it is the right thing to do, not because it has a positive impact on other people. Although this sounds selfish (to be more concerned with our own behaviour), it is paradoxically self-effacing. No longer is everyone out to claim their rights, as happens in a utilitarian society where each voice is equally right or wrong and only the loudest voice get their views accepted. Instead, a powerful new centre of morality and virtue emanates from within an individual, independent of whether society at large requires such behaviour of them. Thus, individuals are able to rise above their surroundings and the moral milieu of their day to live as they themselves demand, not because of external laws or peer pressure.

This is what Augustine was arguing for in Book 2. That there is a source of all good in the world and truth and morality are objective realities. As a result he argues that those forces which lift us above our savage lusts and restrain our appetites are reflected beams from the source of all goodness. That those things which raise our character to new heights should be recognised as indicators of ultimate truth. These are his presuppositions that he doesn’t seek to defend – rather he argues from this standpoint that the disgusting religious rites of the pagan gods reflect the demonic nature of their origin. How can they be true when they require such behaviour from their followers and make men more depraved, not less? He sees Christianity as providing a moral standard to aspire to, lifting us above what we are by nature. While we may say there are alternative moral teachings from Buddha and Mohammed these days, the questions remain “Why should we be good? Where does morality come from? Can what is created be more virtuous that the creator? Where do honour, respect and virtue come from?”

Although not directly addressing it, in his assumptions Augustine demonstrates his belief in the relationship between truth, goodness and morality. The source of all truth is also the most moral being in the universe. The highest truth should lead to the highest good. Virtue and Enlightenment together – truth is the ultimate virtue. We are far too inclined to see truth as an abstract 2-D binary quality that is independent of any moral component e.g. “Is it true that you were there that night?” Whereas Augustine wants us to consider truth in three dimensions, with a moral quality. Jesus himself does this in John 8.32 – “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Truth brings the freedom to live as we were made to live. To live a life pleasing to God. This dynamic was ultimately revealed in the one who is “the way, the truth and the life” – beautifully uniting the source of truth and the pattern for living in one person. For the Christian this means that the more we get to know the source of truth, the more our lives will reflect this pattern. There is no debate, if our lives don’t reflect this pattern then we don’t know the truth (1 John 2.9).

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4.8

Looking for Wilberforce and finding Hitchens

After watching Amazing Grace a couple of weeks ago, I decided that my next book would be the biography of William Wilberforce written by William Hague. So one day last month I walked into a bookstore to see if this was the biography I was going to buy on the great abolitioner. I had had my fingers burnt before by buying a biography of Churchill, also written by a politician and with a nice cover – only to realise how dull and prosaic it was once I started reading it… I would not make the same mistake twice!

So I walked into the bookshop and looked for the biography section, once there I looked under “W” – no Wilberforce biographies to speak of. “Perhaps they are listed by author?” I thought, so proceeded to “H”. As I glanced along the various H biographies, there he was staring back at me, not William Wilberforce but Christopher Hitchens, and his memoirs, Hitch-22. This would be interesting I thought as I picked it up – flicking through the pages I became transfixed by his younger pictures and those of his family. “What happened to this guy to make him hate religion so much?” I asked myself and decided in that instant to read it.

Hitchens introduces his memoirs from his sickbed – ill with the throat cancer that is hastening his advance towards the final chapter of his life. My copy is a re-edition, with a new foreword, as he now reflects that the first part of the book was unknowingly written with “a strong preoccupation with impending death”. This awareness gives him a heightened sense of irony as he begins his work by reminiscing on the day his erroneous obituary appeared in a magazine. He then moves to his family and childhood upbringing, moving chronologically up until his graduation, after which the book skips through different themes rather than a strict chronology.

Without giving too much away, his chapter on his mother provides a clear motivation for his feelings towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. After reading the things he had to deal with as a young man I can honestly understand why he sees such vice in religion. Indeed, I would have probably felt the same had I gone through such experiences. As always with anyone who has an aggressive anti-Christian philosophy, the roots of this begin in broken relationships, facile explanations and hypocritical believers.

But through it all I found myself warming to the man and finding in him a literary kinship that I wasn’t expecting after reading his God Is Not Great. So to summarise, here are the things I really like about Christopher Hitchens:

  1. His love of literature – he has read more books, poets and plays than I could ever hope to and he can quote from hundreds of authors to colour his prose. I too love literature, but come from it from the perspective of someone who studied the sciences at school and only discovered the classics in my 20s when I decided I needed to improve my vocabulary. I didn’t have the privilege of education that he had, but share his love for it, in fact if I could do my time again I would do my best to get on the PPE degree – Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
  2. His concern for the oppressed – reading his memoirs its easy to see what motivates him. He identifies with the down-trodden, the voiceless minorities of militant dictators, the political enemies of the state – all these draw out his love. He champions the cause of those without political power and he is willing to put his name on the line in the cause of creating a more civilised and just society.
  3. His desire to make a difference – he has made it his aim in life to spend time travelling and living in conflict zones. During the 70s, 80s and 90s he sought to ride the crest of the political wave across the world’s most troubled countries. He seeks to create a more liberal, open-minded society by raising awareness and uncovering injustice in some of the most forgotten places on earth.
  4. His pursuit of perfection in writing – as someone who has spent most of their career sharpening their ability to craft an argument and present a case, his relentless pursuit of the perfect adjective and striking analogy leaves me in awe. His power is in his prose, and he refines and refines it until it is as sharp as his wit and as penetrating as his intellect.
  5. His intellectual rigour – strange as it may seem, I actually appreciate the robustness of his thinking and the challenge he presents to his opponents. On the whole, he doesn’t allow his loyalty to friends or his political allegiances to bias his views. He seeks to think things through from first principles – a character trait I admire and seek to emulate. Although often he is more forgiving of himself than his enemies.

Interestingly, he describes at one point his loves and hates “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual and the defence of free expression.” I share many of these values and find in Hitchens a like-minded thinker, someone who ruthlessly examines his own beliefs and the world around him to understand the times we live in, but who also identifies with the rights of the individual to live their lives free of interference and superstition.

Yet through it all I found an undercurrent of sadness – the failure, within Hitchens own lifetime, of the socialist system to produce the just and fair society in practice that it promised in theory; the impact the excesses of his bohemian lifestyle had on his own family and finally and the utter hopelessness of his secular atheism. As he closes the book he gets to the root of this dilemma – how to be so sure of his materialistic secularism? Towards the end of the final chapter he states that “It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties”. How can someone so obviously intelligent and penetratingly logical come up with such a statement? “The only certainty in life is that I am right” is what he says in effect. He teaches his followers that there is nothing certain in life, just the certainty of hopelessness. 

In an ironic twist he even celebrates his open-mindedness as he closes the book: “To be an unbeliever is not merely to be “open-minded”. It is rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.” But this open-mindedness applies only to those things his pre-assumptions tell him are correct – that there is no God, no spiritual aspect to life, no greater being than humans, nothing beyond the physical. Based upon these assumptions he is happy to entertain any question, but challenge these assumptions and you are either a naive imbecile or a power-wielding megalomanic.

For what Hitchens is missing is humility, the admission that we don’t know it all – we cannot say for certain that what we cannot see is not there. His pride and bitterness blinds him to the possibility of a greater purpose in life. If there really is no certainty or hope then I’m all on for an honest facing of the facts and stoic acceptance of our fate. But if there is even a glimmer of hope, then surely those who search their own assumptions and allow what they experience in their lives and what they know deep in their hearts to challenge their assumptions deserve some respect?

There is a middle way – experiential faith. There is an element of knowing God that requires our obedience, as Calvin says “all correct knowledge of God, originates in obedience”. It begins by participating in the process of faith by assessing the historical evidence, refusing to accept blinkered explanations and challenging our pre-suppositions. The first step is one of reason and logic, the second one of trust. First Jesus says to us – “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7.17 and also see John 14.21), then he says “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20.29).

It is called faith, not because there is no evidence, but because the evidence leads me to believe in something my eyes cannot see. Faith is not inconsistent with reason and logic, but rather on their own they are not sufficient to experience a relationship with God. Hitchens already knows everything he needs to about God, he doesn’t need more evidence or proofs – the question is will he humble himself before this God or demand more from him? That is his Hitch-22 and it is the question we all face.

25 Things I’m Learning About Ministry of the Word within the Mundanity of Work

As I stumble out of bed for another early morning commute to work I wonder, again, why God has put me on this never-ending treadmill. For many years now I have struggled to balance two compelling, and sometimes conflicting, visions – the one is a calling to the ministry of the word, the other is a strong conviction to be rooted in secular employment. As I struggle through how these two visions work themselves out in the daily grind of work I have learnt many important lessons:

1. The mundanity and struggle of work reflects the consequences of the fall (Genesis 3.17). Shouldering the burden of this is never going to be easy.

2. It is good to provide for your family and not to be a burden on others, it also gives you the privilege of being able to give to others.

3. Many types of work can be beneficial to society (even if sometimes the connection can be a bit intangible). Most of my career has been spent helping well off senior managers make better decisions…but eventually wealth creation filters down through society.

4. Secular work grounds us in the reality of the daily grind that 99.9% of the world are engaged in. The working world has changed drastically in the last 10 years – being part of this world helps us engage with others and ensures we feel their pain before we open our mouths.

5. Work can be satisfying and fulfilling when you are doing something you enjoy – but often you won’t be, so see #8.

6. Work stops you from becoming lazy and having opportunity to sin. Not having any free time and being constantly tired means you never have the opportunity to waste time or have idle hands. Doesn’t feel like much of a blessing, but worth noting.

7. Working in the professional services industry teaches you how to keep your promises, develop strong relationships, deal with conflict and go above and beyond others’ expectations. All these are vital skills needed to build a health church and can only help in ministering to others in a broken world.

8. The daily grind of work teaches us how to be obedient to the one whose servant we are. When we stay where we are only because we believe that is what we have been told to do, against all our desires, then we learn what it means to say “I am the Lord’s servant, let him do with me as he wishes.”

9. Being a professional person gives us credibility with some people who would not give a minister two seconds. Unfortunately, today the role of the church minister has become ostracised from society. 50 years ago the church was at the centre of the community and life revolved around the church, now it is seen as a forgotten relic of a past time. Ministers struggle with overcoming this barrier to reach people, Christians in secular work have no such barrier and can gain a hearing (provided they have something to say!).

10. Holidays are necessary. Trying to prepare sermons during your holiday is not a good idea. Often in lay preaching opportunities to preach only come during the pastor’s holidays – resist the temptation to burn the candle at both ends as it inevitably has a serious impact on family life and health.

11. God sees your desires, time is not running out, God is in control, He will guide you. Although sometimes everything inside of you says the opposite, trust God to open doors in his timing. Be the best where you are right now. Work hard and be content, as well as you are able. The burning passion for ministry can lead to discontent and frustration, instead use it to lead to greater submission and yielding. Learn that “it is good for a young man to bear the yoke…to bury his face in the dust” (Lamentations 3.27).

12. Preach every sermon as if it really is your last, you don’t know when the next opportunity will come and if he will call you home before.

13. Don’t be afraid to repeat a sermon in a different church, the emotional drain of preaching is hard enough to recover from on the Monday morning, let alone preparing a new sermon every time. Make sure you give yourself enough time to prepare so that you do not burn yourself out – find what level of ministry you can cope with and recognise that the changing demands of a young family will impact this too.

14. You are not indispensable to the work of the Kingdom. Elijah, Moses, Joseph and even Jesus spent years in the wilderness as God prepared them for ministry. It is not wasted time – see #7, 8, 11

15. Do not get comfortable. Live as though one day you will take a 50% pay cut, manage your family with that perspective in the front of your mind. Pray for an open door for bivocational ministry.

16. Your children are your most important mission field, even after a long day and a long commute, don’t give in to exhaustion when its bed time. Give each of them one to one time with you and the Lord every night, whenever you are around.

17. Take opportunities to develop your gifting wherever you can. Write, read, study. Use your commute – if you are on a train study theological texts and if you are in the car listen to iTunes podcasts such as The Daily Audio Bible, or theological courses from Reformed Theological Seminary (see iTunes U). The longer the commute the more time you have to study every day.

18. Be a person of integrity in all aspects of your working life. Build a reputation for integrity and honesty despite the challenges.

19. Recognise that changing jobs and churches will happen from time to time, and that each time it does happen you are back to square one. Make sure your motivations for career progression are subjected to the test of the Spirit. Ask yourself: Is this job the right move for me, my family, my church? However, recognise that the logical or sensible decision is not always the right one – remember Abraham was called out of Ur, leaving all his wealth and career prospects behind, a decision contrary to all human wisdom, but obedient to his God.

20. Put down roots. Moving churches, houses & jobs every 1-2 years (as is often the case these days) can make you a spiritual nomad. Pray for God to help you put down roots so that you can have the opportunity for ministry in the local church and develop relationships at work that go beyond the superficial.

21. Find an outlet for your ministry of the word – for me it has been writing and preaching, for others it will be any number of things. Find a way to serve others in your community, sometimes this will be at work in the business world, as that is where we spend most of our time. Do something constructive to encourage you that in some tiny little way you are contributing to the progress of the kingdom of God.

22. Don’t forget how important exercise and physical activity is to having a healthy mind. Being involved in ministry while also working doesn’t leave much time for anything else, if you are also gradually becoming less fit then this is a recipe for a mid-life breakdown. Work on having a healthy body so that you have enough energy and drive for everything else you do.

23. Serve in the church as much as you can, while recognising your limitations. Don’t constantly feel guilty for not making the evening service or the prayer meeting. Give what you can cheerfully, liberally, graciously and then recognise the limitations on your service. Allow God to give you the joy of being a cheerful giver of your time, money and gifting.

24. Preach the gospel free of charge. Don’t allow anyone to take away your boast of preaching the gospel for no other motivation than for the love of God and desire to help others. Do not accept a preaching fee while you are in full-time employment (this is my philosophy of ministry, I recognise there are other passages to balance (e.g. “the worker is worthy of his wages”) and I wouldn’t want to be dogmatic on this).

25. Look for others to encourage in the ministry. Next to entering the ministry yourself, the greatest privilege you can have is to encourage and prepare others for being a full-time minister of the word. Look for other Christians in the secular world who have never had the opportunity to develop their gifting and, where possible, mentor and guide them in their development.

I’m sure there are many more – that’s 25 to get us going, anyone want to suggest number 26?

Anyone think I need a holiday? 😉

You asked: how can I know I am elect?

Reader Question: From a Reformed perspective (I am relatively new to this thinking in many ways), assuming the Doctrine of Election is true (I believe this to be true myself), what is the role of parenting? Knowing that there is no way to know whether or not your children are “elect”, how can a loving parent subject his children to Biblical teaching – assuming that teaching could some day be held against them on judgement day? (wouldn’t it be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than those who know the Gospel and don’t respond?). If they are elect anyway, perhaps telling them once and seeing how they respond is better than consistent training?

Again, I am not being facetious or devious- but really struggling through this. I grew up in a church and always assumed I was a Christian. Lately, I have doubted that as I have not seen the Spirit’s activity in my life, nor fully reflect the fruit of the Spirit, nor am I sure that I have fully repented from my sin. You may say to just repent and believe, but I am finding it more difficult than that and wondering whether or not I could possibly not be “elect”. Having sat through countless sermons and podcasts and books, am I more accountable?

Then, I take that to my children and wonder if I teach them the Gospel and they don’t respond, are they destined for a much more difficult eternity? Wouldn’t love for them wish for them to find Christ, yet not subject them to countless hours of instruction knowing that they may not choose that?

I am really confused, discouraged and honestly disheartened. I feel like my efforts to find God or grow closer to Christ or even to repent are “works” of my own and can’t any longer separate the true work of the Spirit from my own efforts.

I guess I am not looking for a counselling session, rather perhaps a perspective on what my responsibility is as a parent from the Reformed perspective. Thanks for your time and consideration on this (you can pray for me as well if you desire- I would not pass on that!).

Dear reader,

Many thanks for your questions, these are real heart-felt issues that we all sometimes struggle with as we seek to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I will try and provide some help on the issue of election before then turning to how this impacts our parenting.

As an opening comment I would say that election can be a very controversial subject and, not rightly handled, thinking deeply about it over a prolonged time can get us tied in knots. In some ways I would compare it to a person’s life assurance policy – it needs to be understood and applied, but then put in the back drawer and not obsessed over. Similarly with election, if not rightly understood and applied, rather than confirming and assuring our faith, it can actually have the opposite effect and undermine and make us doubt our faith. But once, in God’s mercy, we are granted a true understanding of the doctrine, we should allow it to support our devotion and growth, without being the test of it.

It might help to think of election as God’s side of the salvation story. Our side is the call to repent and believe and live a life of obedience in thankful response. From God’s side there are the eternal decrees determining each day of his children’s lives, from our side it is the moment by moment experience of living in this world and responding to his word. From God’s side there is ultimate and supreme sovereignty and freedom of will, from our side there is the wrestling with the sinful nature and the secret work of the Spirit in the inner life. No one can understand both sides of these things. We can see our side, and God has revealed some of his side through the scriptures. But much remains hidden and we must eventually reach a place of trust and submission if we would ever achieve assurance of our faith and peace of conscience.

It’s also important to realise that an assurance of our own faith is something that must be nurtured. Like a flower that will eventually bloom under the right conditions of soil, water and sun, so too our faith will be confirmed if we nurture the means to grow that faith. We will come to hear his Spirit confirming with our spirit that we are the children of God (Romans 8.16). At the moment of first confession we may have been told that we are saved, and some may feel assurance based on this their entire lives, but most of us will question it at some point in our lives. You certainly are at the moment, and this is a healthy thing if done for a season.

I’m sure you have heard and read many sermons and books on assurance of faith, so I’ll not go into that in detail. I just want to outline a few practical thoughts that I have found helpful:

1. The danger of relying on our feelings (and ignoring them completely) – do we feel elect when times are good and doubt our election when times are hard and we sin? The question we need to ask is what do we really believe to be true? Do we really truly believe that Jesus died for my sin – and if we do believe have we honestly asked him to forgive us. If so then we have planted the seed of the word in our hearts – we must then examine ourselves to see if the word is bearing fruit. But what is the fruit that we look for? If we seek perfection then we will be disappointed, if we seek love, joy, peace etc, then we will only see partial fruit, for we all are a pale reflection when it comes to these attributes. Perhaps a better indicator is how our desires, motivations, even feelings are being renewed. Do we grieve for sin when once we could have sinned without a second thought? Do we wish we were a better disciple and become frustrated when we fail? Good – so we should, for our desires are sometimes a better indicators than our characters, for character takes years to cultivate and while desires come and go, the fact that they do come sometimes should encourage us that God is at work.

2. The danger of self-deception – the false disciples of Matthew 7 thought they knew Christ when they only knew about him. Many people in churches will realise on the last day that this is true of them. The key question here is – have I personally appropriated the salvation which is freely given? I preached on this topic last year (click here).

3. The danger of despair – we should recognise that our minds are not infallible and are a battle ground for spiritual warfare – the helmet of salvation as Paul describes it, protects our minds. We should guard against entertaining every doubt, and emulate David in preaching God’s truth to ourselves. Don’t let our insecurities trump the truths of God’s word – for example, God has said “Never will I leave you never will I forsake you” – if we have addressed the first two items above then even though we might not feel in our experience the presence of the Lord, if doesn’t mean it is not true. The same can be said about forgiveness of sin – 1 John 1.9 promises complete and utter forgiveness of confessed sin – even if we don’t feel guiltless, or like we have been forgiven.

4. Sin, doubt or fear does not mean you are unelect – each of us face periods of failure and darkness, but like a life jacket that is pressed under the water, we are inevitably brought back to the surface again by the inner workings of the Spirit. The time to worry is when this no longer happens are we are content to wallow in our sin – then we are in danger of having our consciences seared and proving our profession to be false. If we have (as honestly as we are consciously able to) repented of our sins and confessed Jesus as our Lord, then it comes down to trusting in the promises that God has made to us – not the other way around. The promise is clear – “if you repent in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved” (Romans 10.10). If we do this and then doubt it, it doesn’t render the promise void – “for if we are faith-less, God will remain faithful” (2 Timothy 2.13).

5. The doctrine of election does not necessarily lead to complacency – unfortunately some who have misunderstood election have thought that this gives them a carte blanche to behave how they want. Like those objectors in Romans 6.1 who, after hearing that where sin abounds, grace abounds more said “well lets keep on sinning so that God’s forgiveness looks even better.” Election should be viewed holistically – not just in relation to salvation, but also sanctification and glorification (Romans 8.30). God has elected that we will be those who not only begin the Christian walk, but finish it and we will surely finish it more like Christ than when we began. Moreover, he has elected us to one day be glorified in his presence. God has not only ordained (or elected) the end (Christ-likeness in his presence), but also the means (life by the Spirit through our active obediance Galatians 5.16ff).

6. Works are not all bad – at one point Jesus was asked “what are the works that God requires” and he answered “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6.28-29). So we see belief is a work of God. Not all works are to be despised, spiritual disciplines are works that can greatly help us in our daily obedience. The works that are condemned are the reliance on these things for acceptance with God. We should, we must, be a people of (godly) works – abundant in our labour of love, but these are in response to the mercy and grace of God, not a way to gain that favour, or even as a means to confirm our election.

Consider this illustration – election is like the engines of a plane, in the same way that the engines power the uplift and flight of the plane and enable it to make progress towards its destination, so our election is the secret working that enables us to believe, preserve and overcome. But if during the flight the pilot decided to stop the engines while he inspected whether they were really working as efficiently as possible, or if they were needing a service, the result would be disastrous. So too with election – our object and goal in life should be a close walk with the Lord Jesus, filled with His Spirit and obeying his commands, not always scrutinising the reality of our faith.

Once we get diverted off this focus, we risk becoming introspective and our focus shifts to ourselves rather than away from ourselves. Yes, there is a time for examination and personal reflection, but constant examination and persistent introspection is more likely to lead to you coming to a complete stop. The Spirit will guide you as you seek God’s face what is required of you at this point in your spiritual journey.

Finally, all this plays itself out in our parenting. In the same way that we cannot fully see God’s side of the salvation story for ourselves, so we cannot see it for our children. We must allow only God to know his ultimate decrees for their lives. We do not have any guarantees for them. Rather we must see that we are seeking to follow our side of the story – doing the things that we have been commanded by God to do – instruct them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord (Deut 6.7-9, Proverbs 22.6, Matthew 19.4). We must use the means God has given us, if we would have the ends that we desire for them. Again I say that I cannot see any guarantee that God has given Christian parents, and as a father of three beautiful, precious children this scares me. But I believe that God is a good God and that as he used the means of Grace in my life to save my at 9 years old, so he is able to bring my children to himself.

But we must seek to move beyond simply indoctrinating them with abstract truths, to demonstrating the reality of our own faith in the life that we live. We must open our hearts to them that they would see our vulnerability and honest struggles. They must see that it is more than a tradition or a culture for us – that it is our lifeblood. We must exhibit the graces and character that we want them to grow towards, to make room for their questions and doubts, to have spontaneous times of prayer and thanksgiving. Oh that God would grant us the immeasurable blessing of believing children and the grace to love them (and him) no matter what happens.

I hope this is of some help for you in your struggles. I pray that the God of all compassion would make himself known to you in such a powerful and real way that your faith is confirmed, your hope renewed and love deepened. In His name, Martyn

PS You can read my four posts on Calvin’s chapters on election and predestination here:

Caution: Religion can be hazardous to your health

Review of Chapter 4 “God Is Not Great” by C. Hitchens

Blazened across every packet of cigerettes is a warning: smoking can be harazardous to your health, smoking kills or smoking causes lung cancer. It’s as if the powers-that-be think that if only we realised the consequences of smoking we would stop doing it. But as every nicotine addict can tell you, the warnings are put there for everyone else. In this chapter of God Is Not Great Hitchens wants to slap a similar banner across the entrance to every church, synagogue and mosque.

He goes full out to illustrate the danger that religion poses to our physical and mental health through a series of stinging anecdotes. He highlights how religious leaders have responded to medical advances in areas such as polio, AIDS and cervical cancer. In one example he cites religious leaders in Africa promoting ignorance and mistrust regarding AIDS treatment in order to maintain their position of power. He powerfully argues that when it comes to prophylactic (i.e. preventative) treatment of medical conditions, religion has not covered itself in glory.

As I read this chapter there is little one can say to argue against the black picture painted by Hitchens. It is too true that many heinous crimes have been committed and promoted by the church in an attempt to enforce moral obedience. I am left reflecting that the church is not good in dealing with those who reject its teachings to embark on their own. Too often we have absolved ourselves of our responsibilities of care for even the most rebellious child. Nevertheless, it remains true that the choices we make have consequences we cannot escape. It is the church’s desire to save others from these consequences that motivates its moral stance.

It seems to me that over the years our improved understanding of biological systems has enabled science to increasingly mitigate the consequences of our moral choice. For example, it used to be the case that sexual promiscuity would inevitably lead to unwanted pregnancy, and that in some cases the fear of this would be enough of a deterrent to prevent the activity. However, science has, perhaps inadvertently, steadily removed the natural consequences of this action. Hitchens wants the church to celebrate in this freedom and join in the promotion of sexual liberty. He wants a God who will allow us to live as we please and still bless us in whatever we do.

But are our actions now free from all consequences? What about the trail of broken relationships, loneliness, betrayal, and emotional damage caused by one night stands? What pill do we take to take away the pain of a broken heart? How do we remove the present consequences of our past actions? We cannot. And we cannot expect the church to only be concerned about a person’s health, when their lifestyle has greater consequences. We are not a hospital, where treatment is free at the point of care, no questions asked. Our concern for our fellow person is holistic – mind, body and soul.

So, we are left wondering, how should the church treat those who choose not to follow its teaching? What responsibility does it have towards those who reject its core beliefs? At the heart of the issue is this question – what is more important people or doctrine? People, I can hear you cry. But not so fast, sometimes even enlightened, educated, civilised people need protecting from themselves. Which parent would allow their child to experiment with power tools? Which father would allow his 6 year old daughter to walk the dark streets at night? So too with God, from his vantage point he sees where our choices are taking us, and wants to protect us from our own decisions. What is our sexual liberation producing in our land? Are we really freer, satisfied and fulfilled? Or rather are we more isolated, shallow, fragmented and detached? The pervasive inability of young men to commit to one woman for life gives the answer.

I agree with Hitchens that the church is not good at being pragmatic. We are best at dealing with black and white, truth and error, right and wrong. By leaving specific but relatively broad moral principles to live by, God has delegated to each individual a certain degree of responsibility to use our understanding alongside his eternal truths to build a biblical framework for life. Unfortunately the church has sometimes not had the same confidence in delegating responsibility for matters of conscience and this has often resorted in it erring on the side of caution rather than give room for individual freedom.

I think it was Stephen Covey who said: “While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions”. Like any smoker will tell you – we are completely free to leave the cigerette pack on the counter and walk away, but sometimes the promise of guaranteed immediate pleasure outweighs a potential risk of severe penalty. May we choose the way of wisdom and the better path, leading to the healthiest of all possible life – eternal life for evermore.