Jun 5, 2010

I've got nothing (he says, pulling out a few hundred [pre-written] words)

A bunch of half-formed blog posts sit in my computer, crouching in the depths somewhere. One day I shall fine-tune them and release them into the wild of the world wide web. For now, I give you this (as kind-of requested) - one of the essays I've submitted to a uni magazine recently. You may recognize some of the material. It's not pretty, as I wrote it exceptionally quickly (still took at least 90mins I think; idk how quick 'quick' is for others) at the request of the editor, but was, strangely enough, rejected. Below, in mini-green is another apologetic I've written. While it is likely I fail, I aim solely to please. Re-reading them I find various flaws, but if these are really that terrible, perhaps you'll be more impressed by a more subtle apologetic I handed in for my Phil of Science class, rather surprisingly gaining my highest essay mark yet. Maybe not quoting the Bible helped; though I thought Richard Swinburne would be close enough.. I'll post that in a while once I've worked out if it's allowed and if I am in fact that proud of it.

It’s widely held that NZ doesn’t have a state church and is pretty secular, unlike the unfortunate few non-religious Americans who constantly have to fight for their non-God-given right to the separation of Church and state. Further, it’s pretty obvious to many in Godzone that God is dead and the Church is following sharp on His tail. It’s less widely known that most of this is oh-so disputable.
New Zealand has more secular influence in its short history than many countries, perhaps particularly clear given the short nature of our history; but owes much to Christianity as well. Aside from the fact that modern secularism is so often a parody of Christianity and even Richard Dawkins, recent visitor to our shores, has described himself as a “cultural Christian” who “likes singing carols”, it seems NZ owes something to Jesus. More than one thing in fact. The gospel arrived in New Zealand in 1814 with the preaching and vineyard-growing of Samuel Marsden, in the Bay of Islands. Many Māori over the next few decades decided that this message was worth living by and churches have been hubs for communities of many cultures ever since. While for certain there have been horrendous mistakes made, missionaries played an important role in promoting good relations between settlers and Tāngata Whenua and organising the Treaty of Waitangi.
New Zealand’s head of state is the Queen. She happens to also be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but apparently these roles are separable such that NZ doesn’t technically have an established Church. Less easy to separate out is the fact that the head of state of England, and hence New Zealand, must by law be a protestant Christian. So, as it stands, there is a technical legal detail or two which gives recognition to Christianity. But more fundamentally, the legal tradition we have inherited has been based pretty squarely upon biblical concepts. The much-bashed puritans in England and Christians before and since generally attempted to make laws that accorded to God’s will as they saw it. Obviously modern lawmakers often feel no need to agree with Christian ethics, but perhaps this is something to mourn rather than celebrate.
An emphasis on protecting life and defending the weak is difficult to justify on non-religious grounds, but sure as hell it’s useful and when expressed in an abstract way such as this the morality of it is hard to deny. When this is actually applied and the rights and dignity of the weak are asserted in the face of injustice, things can get uncomfortable for those who’d rather they weren’t there. Similarly, sexual ethics may be tremendously funny to students for whom casual sex is so appealing, but some of the consequences of the breakdown of societal norms are also difficult to deny. It may be said here that you don’t have to believe in God to be good and anyway, look at all the ratbags who proudly wear the descriptor ‘Christian’! Yet, as true as this is and even if we accept that selfless sacrificial giving is just as likely regardless of what you believe, morality and newly-popular ‘human rights’ are at best difficult to ground sans God. If we are to leave Him behind, it would at least be honest to acknowledge any consequences.
Have we as a nation left God in our dust though, as we progress into a better scientific future, as some are fond to pontificate? Nominal religious belief has proven hard to shake, with around half still “Christian” of one kind or another in the 2006 census. And Christian practice continues day in, day out; churches are planted and revived; some die, but life continues. Education does not eliminate faith and in some cases such as my own, it strengthens it and undergirds it with more evidence and an increased awareness of the nature of the world and the God who made it and even, dare I say it, redeemed it from the mess we’ve so proudly caused. There are many ‘Weltanschauung’ options out there, fighting it out for our allegiance. Some come with better credentials and a brighter future than an irrational rationalism or Enlightenment devoid of luminescence.
The legal separation of Church and state has its uses for the Church and for truth, but the entire separation of religion and faith from reality and the public sphere would be rather unfortunate. A naive conception of faith is also unfortunate, given the long Christian tradition of careful reasoning and educational striving that we can claim a heritage to if we so wished. God continues to exist whatever our attitude and we as a country should be better informed than to make the popular assumption that God is just another created imaginary creature that we could dispose of along with the Pope’s hat.

“It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted, by many persons, that Christianity is not so much a subject of inquiry; but that it is, now at length, discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly they treat it as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained, but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals, for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world.” Anglican minister Joseph Butler.

Many people nowadays aren’t too sure what Christianity is, but they’re pretty sure that it’s wrong. I’m curious about this. Maybe you’re just a little curious too about what Christianity, the world’s biggest religion, is actually about. How could this gigantic old-fashioned network of institutions be of relevance, interest or use at New Zealand’s most prestigious university? Since tertiary education is meant to involve thinking about things that students won’t necessarily instinctively agree with, the question at least might deserve a place here.

Christianity is about Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth, is, it is claimed, the Messiah, the saviour, spoken about by the Hebrew prophets and awaited by the Jewish people. There are many bells and whistles and finer points of ecclesiastical order and doctrine which differ between Christians, but one thing all can say together is “Jesus Christ is Lord.” But, why would anyone want to say such a thing? Well, maybe Jesus actually is Lord! Likely enough you think that’s just impossible and that I must suffer from intellectual deficiency, but I think whether the Jesus stuff is true has a lot to do with what Jesus said about himself; who and what he claimed to be, as well as what Christians through the ages have experienced of this extraordinary person. In other words, many Christians can say He is Lord because they really believe that this man Jesus is in charge of the universe and have seen this backed up in their own lives. What a claim!

We may disagree on many things, but if we accept that Jesus Christ walked and talked through the land of Palestine early in the first century we’ll have reason to pause when examining his character, his teachings and the miracles attributed to him. It is instructive to consider as well the nature of his followers and the early church; the people who, after all, wrote the accounts that we have today. These were often relative losers in the game of life – or so it seemed. You can read about the different apostles and others on Wikipedia, I’d just like to comment on Paul of Tarsus as one example. He was a conservative Jew, a Pharisee, and higher up the social and educational scale than most of the people Jesus chose to associate with. Ceteris Paribus, eternal life was in the bag, along with a decent life as a respected member of the God-fearing community; perhaps he could even be a Rabbi (he was, after all, a pupil of the famous teacher Gamaliel.) What more could a guy want? After coming across a rebellious blasphemous new sect later to be called Christians, he did what any self-and-God-respecting leader would – he chased them around the country and helped to stone some. The New Atheists may be a slight nuisance to the religious, but Saul knew how to really turn up the heat.

But then, on his way to persecute some more Jesus freaks, he met Jesus. To cut a long story short, he changed his name to Paul, founded a few churches, wrote much of the New Testament and in the end got thanked by the government for his work, Church history indicates, by being beheaded. The apostle Peter was crucified upside down. If nothing else, that indicates commitment. If these people didn’t have the experiences they said they did, their actions could be described as a little unusual. There are stronger terms available too, as *** [publication name replaced by 3 asterisks - I'm not quite sure why, but don't question my motives] readers will be aware. Similar end-of-life situations apply for most of Jesus’ 12 disciples – the ones who continued to claim the Lordship of Jesus in the face of reasonably unpleasant situations. Why put up with this stuff, why sign up in the first place unless they’d seen what they claimed? The Christian message has never been easy to accept. This Lord that we talk about died a shameful death on a cross, with criminals on either side. Yet in dying a shameful death, He took the shame of our failings away and replaced this with a different quality of life. We are vindicated as a result of his death and subsequently He was vindicated, being raised by God from the dead. That sounds implausible perhaps; dead men don’t generally rise again. I guess that’s why the people who saw it decided it was a miracle.

There are many competing views of the world out there. In fact it’s like an illegal fighting league crossed with a playground boasting contest. Each of the competitors makes spectacular claims; they talk after all about the nature of the universe, meaning and existence; but not all are well corroborated by historical evidence or our experience of human nature. Naturalism, for instance, (a number of the cool kids reading this article hold this view) faces some pretty serious philosophical challenges, aside even from the historical arguments hinted at. The origin of the universe is a bit of a blank area and the origin of life is also pretty tricky. Consciousness remains a problem for a strict naturalism and objective morality is a bit of a joke without God, which all bring up some interesting questions I suppose. Key to the whole debate it seems is the realisation that Christians are not atheists with one extra god chucked in – in fact, God makes a world of difference in all kinds of fields and without Him, any naturalistic programme will lack some pretty important solid foundations.

Maybe you’re a practical kind of person. Philosophy is nice for religious people with nothing better to do, but what use is Jesus really? In my own life, the answer is simply “much.” Jesus offers the kind of forgiveness and love that turns people, situations and from there I believe societies, around. It’s intriguing that one of his central messages was “turn around and hear the good news” – for, the good news available can turn your life around; if you’ll let it. One person who found this was William Wilberforce, famous for leading a campaign against slavery and less famous for starting something that would turn into the RSPCA. Believing in Jesus has consequences. Perhaps these aren’t what the ‘New Atheists’ have cracked up over them supposedly being.

Oh and that quote I started with? That was from 1736, well before various intellectual challenges to the church currently in vogue turned up, before archaeological investigation allowed biblical narratives to be checked for accuracy, as well as before the huge evangelical revivals which have, directly and indirectly, had such an impact on so many countries. This impact continues.

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