Standing Firm in the Secular West image

Standing Firm in the Secular West

Tim Farron’s decision to stand down as leader of Liberal-Democrats because he was “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader” demonstrated in stark terms the challenges faced by Christians in entering the public sphere. Farron’s resignation came in the same week that Bernie Sanders declared to a senate confirmation hearing that Russell Vought “is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about,” because of his belief in the exclusive claims of Christ.

How should Christians who want to remain faithful to Christ respond to this growing secularism? Perhaps the Jews provide us with a model.

In an article in The Spectator (15th April 2017), Rod Dreher quotes former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks on “how to be a creative minority in the contemporary world.”

You can be a minority, living in a country whose religion, culture, and legal system are not your own, and yet sustain your identity, live your faith and contribute to the common good.

The success of this strategy has been very evident in the case of the Jewish community in Britain. Could we Christians do the same?

Perhaps, but there are some factors that might make this more difficult:

1. The distinction between a religion of exterior symbols & one of inner transformation
Having clear practices to hold on to gives something to hold on to, and Judaism supplies these in spades. The practices of Sabbath, food regulations, dress codes, and so on provide many hooks for religious Jews to tie their sense of identity and distinction. Christianity, too, has its symbols but is fundamentally different from Judaism in that it is about inner transformation rather than ethnic belonging. One becomes a Christian not by being born into a Christian family but by being born again. This makes Christianity both more vital and more vulnerable than Judaism: more vital because it is a matter of the Spirit, not the law; vulnerable because a faith that is about ‘personal decision’ might slip more quickly. This is especially the case in contemporary evangelicalism with its emphasis on ‘I feel’ over ‘I do’.

2. Reliance on cultural norms for our moral framework
Because western society was shaped by Christianity for centuries the moral framework of the west has been largely ‘Christian’. This means that Christians have been used to their moral framework chiming with that of society generally. But when that framework is dismantled, will we remain faithful?

The great contemporary example of this is same-sex marriage. Up until recently pretty much everyone in the west would have assumed that marriage was primarily about its social utility, especially in relation to the legitimate conception and raising of children – a moral framework grounded in Christian values. In recent decades this framework has been almost entirely replaced by the assumption that marriage is contracted solely on the basis of romantic love. And if love is what it is all about, why should it matter what sex the couple in love are? The scary thing in recent debates is how many Christians clearly rely on the cultural framework for their understanding of marriage rather than a Christian one.

Without distinctively Christian moral frameworks Christianity itself soon crumbles.

3. Indifference morphing into hostility
It is one thing to, “live your faith and contribute to the common good” when the wider society supports you in that, but a very different thing when society describes aspects of your faith and contribution as unacceptable – as Tim Farron and Russell Vought discovered. Of course, the Jews have experienced that repeatedly throughout their history: it was a very different experience living as a Jew in London in 2003 to doing so in Berlin in 1933. The remarkable thing about the Jews is how they have survived such outrages – will Christians show similar fortitude under the much less significant pressures we face in the secular west?

In my lifetime we evangelicals have been able, relatively easily, to live like faithful Jews but the more secular the culture becomes the more challenging this is. As we have observed at Think previously, we are living not in Athens, but Babylon. Will we find ourselves up for the challenge?


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