Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Environmentalism – a religion?

November 3, 2009

An ex-employee at an Oxfordshire-based firm is planning to take his former employer to a tribunal because he feels he was unfairly dismissed from his job because of his views on climate change, which a judge has ruled comes under the category of “religion, religious belief or philosophical belief”. (BBC report here)

Surprising, isn’t it? I’m not sure that many climate change campaigners would be entirely happy to have their views described as a religion. I’m not entirely convinced myself that it is a religious or philosophical belief, though I think there are several points of similarity.

Michael Crichton gave a speech a few years ago where he addressed the question of whether (some) environmentalism was religious in character:

Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it’s a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.

There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.

There’s also the apocalypticism (using the word loosely!) of much climate change rhetoric. Jesus’ words in Luke 21 could, with slight modification, easily be used in an Al Gore video: “there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken

chicken_little

"The sky is falling!"

So there are a couple of similarities. Some environmentalism is obviously religious – I’m thinking of the James Lovelock Gaia-theory-esque stuff here. But I don’t think all of it necessarily is. Christians can obviously be involved in exercising responsible stewardship of the earth’s natural resources without thereby becoming syncretistic. But it does at least invite the question… how easy is it for Christians to be (unwittingly) syncretistic with the new religion of environmentalism when they make statements about climate change? Do we need to outline our theological position (God made the creation; humanity is to exercise stewardship; God is sovereign and is in control of whether and when and how the world will end… for a start) a bit more clearly so as to differentiate between Christian takes on climate change and ecology and competing religious positions?

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More than one kind of privatism

July 8, 2009

Most Western cultures view religion as belonging to a “private sphere” rather than the “public sphere”. I’m not convinced this is the right way to divide up the world into spheres of life anyway, but I’ll concede it forms part of our thinking as modern Westerners. There are dangers with privatism in Christianity, but the biggest danger is not that the Christian voice is not heard in political life, but that we shirk our evangelistic responsibility. John Piper, summarising Jonathan Edwards (no apologies at all for the Americanocentrisms; God has called Piper to pastor a church in Minnesota!):

If there is a problem today with privatistic religion, the worst form of it is not with pietistic evangelicals who don’t care about block clubs and social justice and structural sin. The worst form is with evangelicals who think they are publicly- and socially-minded when they have no passion for millions of perishing people without the gospel that alone can give them eternal life, and without a saving knowledge of the Light who can transform their culture.
So the first message of Jonathan Edwards to modern evangelicals about our public lives is: Don’t limit your passion for justice and peace to such a limitied concern as the church-saturated landscape of American culture. Lift up your eyes to the real crisis of our day: namely,
several thousand cultures still unpenetrated by the gospel, who can’t dream of the blessings we want to restore. That is his first message.
John Piper, God’s Passion For His Glory (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1998) pp.102-103.

William Penn, Conformity and the State

July 3, 2009

William Penn on why state-enforced Christianity is a bad idea, and the Civil and Ecclesiastical authorities ought to be separate:

There is not so ready a Way to Atheism, as this of extinguishing the Sense of Conscience for Worldly Ends; destroy that Internal Rule of Faith, Worship and Practice towards God, and the Reason of my Religion will be Civil Injunctions, and not Divine Convictions; consequently, I am to be of as many Religions as the Civil Authority shall impose, however untrue or contradictory; this Sacred Tye of Conscience thus broken, farewell to all heavenly Obligations in the Soul, Scripture-Authority and ancient Protestant Principles; Christ may at this Rate become what the Jews would have had him, and his Apostles be reputed Turners of the World upside down, as their Enemies represented them, and the godly Martyrs of all Ages so many Self-Murderers; for they might justly be esteemed Resisters of Worldly Authority, so far as that Authority concerns it self with the Imposition of Religion, because they refused the Conformity commanded, even to Death. And it may not be unworthy of Caesar’s Consideration, if from these Proceedings People are tempted to infer, there is nothing in Religion but Worldly Aims and Ends, because so much Power is abus’d under the Name of Religion, to vex and destroy Men for being of another Religion, that he hazards the best Hold and Obligation he hath to Obedience, which is Conscience; for where they are taught to obey for Interest, Duty and Conviction are out of Doors: By all Means let Conscience be sacred, and Virtue and Integrity (the under dissenting Principles) cherisht; Charity is more powerful then Severity, Perswasion then Penal Laws.

(The Continued Cry of the Oppressed for Justice…, 1675, pp.21-22)

Whether or not the American Revolution, commemorated tomorrow, was justifiable for North American Christians (John MacArthur famously teaches that it was a violation of Paul’s commands in Romans 13; David Barton defends the revolution as justified), I’ve found the discussions from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century nonconformists about the Christian’s relation to Government really interesting. They lived in an age where the State, while looking remarkably modern (in comparison to earlier conceptions of the State in the Christian era) retained the Constantinian role of adjudicating in religious matters by the establishment of a national church and the requirement that subjects attend Sunday services at an “official” church. Penn here objects that this is a path to Atheism, since religious observance will no longer be founded on the work of faith of God’s word in a person’s heart, but on civil injunctions. Legislating that all must have faith leads in fact to the loss of that faith, because it becomes founded on the will of man rather than the will of God. It also can foster a cynical attitude to that religion, since it becomes possible to make the claim that it only exists to legitimate the state and its excesses.

Penn also objects that “Christ may at this rate become what the Jews would have had him” – I think he alludes to the concept of the Messiah as a political liberator and ruler, which many of Jesus’ disciples clearly expected him to fulfil. In a sense, perhaps linking the Church to political power does this – it certainly undermines the claim of Christ that his Kingdom is “not of this world” and obscures the true nature of his Messiahship.

Obedience to Government in Romans 13 cannot be unconditional, nor does a Christian have an obligation to adhere to the official religion of the State, even if it should be compulsory. If such an obligation did exist, then, as Penn writes, persecution of the Apostles by the authorities would be justified, and the martyrs of Christian history would become suicides, since they died as a result of disobeying the State’s commands to conform to an established religion.

Lunchbar: Don’t all religions lead to God?

May 2, 2009

Lunchbar yesterday was on the question of “Don’t all religions lead to God?” – certainly a topical question raised by the discussion I went to on Wednesday. I thought the speaker dealt with the topic well – making several points that I think bring a lot of clarity to this discussion:

The Elephant is not silent

If you’ve read or heard anything about whether all religions lead to God or not, chances are you’ve heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The moral of the story is that all religions have a bit of the truth, and none of them can pretend to have the whole truth. Religious teachers are like blind men describing the bit of the elephant they are in contact with, but none of them realise the whole truth about God. The problem with this parable is that it is told from the point of view of someone who can see, and realises that the elephant is an elephant and not a wall, rope or tree. The moral relies on the assumption that it is we who are in the position of true knowledge and can see that which the adherents of any one religion cannot see – that they are really all describing the same God, despite their protestations to the contrary. But how are we in this position? How can we have our eyes opened to see what the elephant is? To be in this position of knowledge, we actually need God to reveal himself – while he has done decisively and definitively in Jesus Christ.

The Mountain can’t be climbed

Another common parable is that where the various religions are like many paths all going to the summit of the same mountain. Again, the problem is – how can we know this? To someone on any of the paths, they are in no position of vantage to see whether any of the other paths are going the same way that they are going; it is only visible to someone in a helicopter hovering over the mountain and looking at the different people walking along different paths. These kinds of parables are often thought to typify a humble approach to religious truth by saying that we are all really going towards the same God. But are we really being humble to claim that we have such a position of wisdom and knowledge that none of the adherents of various religions have?

Much more damagingly, this parable implies that it isn’t really that hard to get to know God – it’s just a mountain we can climb up by our own efforts, oin whatever way we like. But this isn’t the case. We often treat the idea of knowing God like it’s paying a visit to our grandparents – we can just turn up whenever and they aren’t going to turn us away. In fact, it is more like going to visit the Queen: we can’t just rock up at Buckingham Palace whenever we feel like it, but it can only happen on her terms, at the time and place she has appointed. In the same way, we can only approach God on his terms.

The trouble is that none of us are good enough for God to accept us – he is holy and we are not. Even if we consider ourselves to be very good – we don’t really realise how we stand before God. Our good deeds don’t outweigh the bad – it’s as if a husband were to say to his wife on their first anniversary “Honey, I’ve been such a good husband; I’ve been faithful to you 364 days this year.” Does that make up for the one day he was unfaithful? No! And with us and God, it’s more like we’ve been faithful one day a year and unfaithful the other 364. We can’t be accepted by God by ourselves; the mountain can’t be climbed. Which is why we need God’s rescue provided in Jesus Christ.

Tolerance

One of the questions which was asked by the audience was whether a Christian society would be a tolerant one. The speaker’s answer highlighted an important point about the nature of tolerance. There are essentially two types of tolerance – the classical kind where we defend the right of people to hold beliefs with which we disagree, and the pluralist kind where we feel unable to disagree with any beliefs, and hold them all to be equally valid. The second definition of tolerance is ultimately self-defeating, as we must hold all beliefs to be equally valid, except the belief that all beliefs are not equally valid. Hoever, a view of tolerance compatible with Christianity is the classical view, and commends coexistence with other religions without condoning those other faiths’ beliefs or practises. It is in this way that a Christian society is tolerant.