Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The debate about faith in America today represents a critical juncture in the nation’s story. The outcome may determine whether America will go down the route of secular humanism that Europe has long since tread, or keep religion a vibrant element in the public square and in the life of citizens.

There are a range of faith issues alive in America today: the role of Christian values in the presidential election, President Bush’s important faith-based initiative, public use of religious symbols, the identity of the Christmas season, the role of the Ten Commandments in our understanding of justice, and our response to the rise of popular Islam. These are a few of the faith issues that the Europeans just don’t get.

In Europe, professing faith in public seems to cause an embarrassing shuffling of feet or a sneering response that we have moved beyond doctrinal matters, in the same way that adults do not believe in Santa Claus.

In this spirit, Europe has ensured God is left out of the new constitution, only churches that preach a social gospel are listened to, scandals in the church are the only high-profile stories, and minority religious groups are either listened to out of fear or met with complete incomprehension.

In Britain this contrast is made clear by attempts being made to pass a law banning incitement to religious hatred, which has caused English comedian Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr. Bean, to lead the defense of the right to freedom of speech, which includes the right to insult religion. The new laws would pave the way to repealing the law of blasphemy, so you can be as insulting as you like about Jesus, and introduce a law defending religious groups against attacks on them, as long as it’s not Christian, presumably.

The philosophical basis to this European rejection of faith is the resounding confidence in the faith of secular humanism, which seeks to keep religion in its place as a sociological phenomenon. The beliefs of religious groups are seen as essentially marked by the same cultural blight, and can be treated as boiling down to the same ethical injunctions to be nice people. Religion is perceived at best as a means by which all roads lead to the same God, or at worse is a delusion and a denial of humanity.

Let us test this by looking at Jesus, the birth of whom many of us are preparing to celebrate. To secular humanism he was the Gandhi of his day. To Judaism he was a heretic. To Muslims he was a prophet in the line of prophets leading to the seal of the prophet Mohammed. To Christians he is the revealed Son of God. These are mutually different ways of understanding Jesus, and ultimately they cannot be reconciled.

The importance in faith matters is not to try and gloss over these differences, but to recognize that the way in which believers understand the world through the prism of their faith is very much at odds with other faiths, including the faith of secular humanism. The art is not to deny the differences, or culturally seek to sanitize them, but to strive to live with our differences.

Religious difference has a long and bloody history, which is an indictment on humanity’s grasp of God rather than a reason to reject God. We need to recognize that it is our weakness that leads us to condemn the beliefs of others. One nation under God is a way to keep both God and differences as part of a tolerant America, and leave God to do the condemning.

The Reformer Martin Luther loved to tell the fable of the dog running along a stream with a bone in its mouth. Caught by the surprise of seeing its own reflection in the water, the dog dropped the bone into the water, thus losing both the bone and the reflection. This is a fable that resonates with the current debate in America, and we ought not to lose the reflection of faith in our society.

What the faith debate in America should determine is whether the nation will continue to recognize that it is one under God, not a purely secular humanist construct. Perhaps we need to take a step back and, like the great Oxford don C.S. Lewis, realize that it is not God who should be in the dock in this faith debate, but humanity. Now, there’s a thought for Christmas.

David Cowan holds two degrees in theology from Oxford University, and was a Lutheran chaplain to students in Cambridge, England.

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