Monday, 20 September 2010

Promoting doubt

Richard Nixon is hardly someone you would think might be able to provide us with some good advice about how the church should face the challenges of what the Pope on his recent visit to Britain referred to as aggressive secularism . Forever tarnished because of Watergate, he's an unlikely inspiration for a post on a Christian blog.

Nixon wrote a book in the mid-80's called No More Vietnams. Although Nixon tried to justify the way he handled the Vietnam conflict, he came to see that the future demanded a different approach. If Western values were to triumph in the developing world, Western nations needed to use their prosperity to feed the poor rather than simply trying to gain the upper hand militarily.

Although much of his analysis applies to the Cold War and is perhaps rendered obsolete by recent history, he makes an important point: ideological battles are not won by the strength of arguments or even by military superiority. Ideology is worth squat if it doesn't actually change people's lives for the better.

Which brings me back to the Pope's statement about aggressive secularism. In the last decade or so I have heard the cry go up for a more aggressive Christian response to secularism. The subtext is that there is an ideological battle going on and we are not winning it because we are not shouting loud enough and condemning stridently enough those who oppose us. The cry is usually for more protest and utlimately points in the direction of Christian intolerance. However, there is a danger that if we meet those who oppose our faith in the same spirit we will become more like them and less like Jesus.

Fortunately, there are many capable and able Christian apologists - for example, John Lennox , Alister McGrath, to name a couple - out there who, in my opinion, are putting together robust answers to Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. It is good to have people who can clearly and publicly articulate the Christian faith.

It is important that Christians are able to give a reason for the hope within them, however, I have the feeling that the impact of Christian apologetics on secular society will be minimal. I say that not because of the quality of the apologists or their work, but because there is in general an unwillingness to even consider the possibility of an alternative to the secular worldview. Having said that, if any apologist is reading, please keep up the good work - we still need to be able to answer our opponents!

Which is where Nixon can help us. We might not be able to win the ideological battles in the ways in which ideological battles in the past have been won, but I think we can operate in ways that disarm those who want to marginalise the Christian faith. We can invest in our communities. We can spend ourselves and our money on behalf of those in need. Our era is one in which people expect both little and much from the church. It sometimes feels as if society expects the church to do nothing of practical relevance but at the same time expects the church to do much. We must act in a way that causes our communities to doubt their prejudices against the church. We might find that promoting this kind of doubt is necessary if we are to effectively promote faith.

Please don't think I'm suggesting that this will result in mass conversions. It might and it might not. That isn't really the important thing. What's important is whether or not the church is seen to be acting in a way that faithfully reflects the heart of Christ for this world. Is the Christian community functioning in a way that is consistent with it's identity as Christian? That's the question.