Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Faith in Public Life

For Public Theology last semester we had to write a script for a ten minute talk on 'Is faith in public life good for Britain?' to be given to a mixed audience of Christians, secularists and agnostic fence-sitters (you can read about the real event this assignment was based on here). Below is my attempt. Reading it now, I'd make a couple of changes (more eschatology for a start). What I was trying to do was briefly and winsomely argue that the Christian faith ought to be the basis for public life, and that until that's the case, Christians will still love and serve in the public sphere where they legitimately can.


There are two things that us Brits are not allowed to talk about - religion and politics. Today we’re breaking all the rules by talking about both.

I have only a short amount of time, so I’ll dive straight in. I have two things I’d like to contribute to the discussion.

1. Faith and Public Life are inseparable.

Now, I am taking ‘faith’ here in a broader sense than is often used, though one that I think is actually more accurate. Possession of a faith, a system of beliefs, a way of looking at the world, a set of values and presuppositions, is common to all people. In this sense secular humanism is a faith just as much as Christianity or Buddhism are. Everyone operates on the basis of a set of beliefs about the world. I think once we’ve acknowledged that then it becomes clear that faith and public life cannot be separated. No-one can operate without presuppositions, values, a worldview, in any area of life. Someone can be inconsistent, or can dip in and out of or amalgamate several all at once – but no-one can be worldview-neutral.

Therefore, the call for ‘faith’ to be kept out of public life is really a non-starter, and a rather paradoxical one at that. In calling for a secular state, secularists are simply doing what the advocates of other worldviews have been doing for a long time with varying degrees of forcefulness, arguing that their worldview/faith is the right one for basing national public life on. Now, those who are secularists are entirely welcome to that opinion in one sense. But it can’t be claimed that secularism offers some kind of neutrality for public life. What secularists want is for people of every persuasion to adopt the values, the principles of the secularist worldview by leaving their Christianity or their Hinduism at the doors to the houses of parliament or the school gate.

This poses specific issues for Christians of course, since Christians believe (when they’re being consistent) that it is the message of Jesus Christ that provides the best basis for public life. Christians, of all people, should have massive problems with living out their faith in the private sphere of the home or church but in the public arena.

Which actually leads to my second point.

2. The Christian Faith provides a great basis for public life.

My argument is that national public life can only really work where there is a common worldview, or faith. The dream of a pluralistic state runs into problems the moment someone tries to write the constitution. A pluralist constitution would either have to be blank, in which the authority of the state is groundless and therefore tyrannical by definition, or else it could say something about everyone being right or everyone being wrong, which hardly holds promise for coherent and workable legislation. Can any state really refuse to take an ideological stance?

But I’d want to argue not just that we need a basis for public life, but that in actual fact the Christian Faith as such a basis is extremely beneficial. Because Christians believe their God to be the Creator God, the outrageous claim is that life based on Christianity is life lived according to the Maker’s just and loving standards, and therefore the best way of living, in the public as well as the private sphere.

(Of course there are historical examples of abuses in Christianity’s name. I don’t think it’s my job to make excuses for these and I wouldn’t want to try. I do think overall Christianity has brought enough prosperity, freedom, justice, to outweigh the genuine pain and sometimes horror that has been caused by some of the distortions and mistakes of its followers.) Aside from any historical arguments that can be made I want to argue that Christianity itself provides us with principles that are truly good for public life. There are many that could be highlighted (some that we are so used to enjoying we often forget their origins in Christianity), I want to briefly mention two.

a. The value of human life

Christians believe that murder, rape, violent assault, theft of property is wrong as do most people in our society. The difference is that Christian faith bases these values not on biology, evolutionary theory or the gut ‘yuk’ instinct of how distasteful such actions may seem. According to Christianity, human life is valuable because it is valued by its Creator. Human life is valuable because God makes, sustains, and preserves his creatures. Human beings are valuable because the Creator values them enough to work transforming justice and forgiveness where they’ve gone way off course. Because it teaches that God so highly values humanity, Christianity provides the basis for a society that treasures life.

b. Servant Leadership

In Christianity, leaders are servants. Leadership is not so much a position to be lorded over others, but a service to be exercised for the interests of others. This other-person-centredness flows from the very source of the faith himself – Jesus – the very epitome of ‘servant leadership’. A society following Christian principles would be led by servants not despots. That’s also why much current Christian involvement in the public square is characterised by service and love of neighbour.

Of course, us Christians would love to see our whole society voluntarily committing itself to a public life ordered on the principles of Christianity. But where that’s not the world we live in we’ll still serve, love, debate, comment, help in the public sphere alongside those who disagree with us as far as we are able and for as long as we are allowed. We’ll keep suggesting ways that the principles of our faith can benefit everyone. That’s because it’s only Christianity that provides a basis for genuinely serving those who, from a worldview perspective, might be in direct opposition to you. Because it’s only the founder of the Christian faith who gave his life for the sake of even his enemies.


Ellen said...

Hello. My name is Ellen M. and I live in Maine, USA. For a lack of a better way to put it, I stumbled across your blog during a google search. After scanning the first post that opened through my google search, I have to admit that I scanned several others as well. I am a member of a reformed Presbyterian church here. -I just wanted to tell you that I both appreciated and enjoyed your posts. You have a refreshing take on things and it was exciting to see the Lord's working hand in a place far from my own home. (Sometimes it is hard for me to look past my own "community" and remember the many other faithful brothers and sisters around the globe working for the Lord...) Blessings to you and your wife as you pursue the ministry.

(If you or any of your classmates are interested, ... Northern New England is in dire need of more reformed churches... they are not as plentiful as they are in the South or in Canada. -- Just thought I'd put that plug in before I closed! LOL)

Pete said...

Thanks for your comments Ellen. Always great to hear from brothers and sisters from 'across the water'. May God bless you and your family, and multiply faithful ministries and churches in Northern New England.