суббота, 2 декабря 2017 г.

Fighting a losing battle?

Image result for losing battleI need to begin by declaring an interest. I am a active minister of religion - Christian to be specific, Baptist to be precise.

I suppose I spend time most days pondering over the issue of being a beleagured minority and whether, in fact, we are fighting a losing battle.

I should actually say that the setting in which I am living and ministering is not secular in the normal sense of the word. While exhibiting other traits of secular societies, Russian society at the present time is increasingly ideological and that ideology is a modern-day manifestation of the age-old Russian 'Third Way', the notion that Russia has a special, spiritual mission and stands alone against its foes, in particular what might be termed the corrosive west, led by the United States of America and Europe. The average Russian today believes in God, professes Eastern Orthodoxy, upholds traditional family values and is patriotically committed to their country and its government.

Fly 4000 km west and one finds oneself in another world. This is the western European culture in which I grew up. Here any notion of religious faith is at best a personal matter and seen as archaic and marginal. Increasingly people have no connection with established religion. And increasingly this passive lack of interest is becoming an active impulse to 'neutralise' the potential influence of the 'foreign agent' which is religious faith. For example, the Republic of Ireland is in the throes of a debate on abortion, proscribed by the country's historic constitution - which is now perceived as being passé and out of touch with the reality of life in the 21st century. Issues of sexuality and gender have likewise become a battleground. However, by no means is the conflict restricted to these spheres. It would seem that as this new worldview evolves and becomes increasingly resurgent it has set its sights on toppling any notion of boundaries and authority, especially anything which comes under the category of 'patriarchal'. O, Brave New World.

So is this all a losing battle? Do the statistics of growing numbers of non-religious people spell the end of religion? Is there any hope for beleaguered, small communities of believers surrounded by hostile societies?

Over recent years I have had the opportunity of visiting Jewish museums, such as that in Moscow and in Vienna. These chronicle the survival of the Jewish people in hostile societies. They are a testimony to the ability of a community to resist what may appear to be an invincible onslaught and attempted assimilation.

Likewise Christian communities, at least so far, have been able to survive in increasingly hostile, non-religious societies. How do they do it?

Perhaps the strongest asset has been a deep-seated sense of identity. In the early centuries Christians would profess before the court, "Christianus sum." Jews know they are Jews. It is who they are. They are inseparable from this identity. If Christians are to survive, it must be the same. Being a Christian, a believer in Jesus, must become part of who I am, rather than something superficial and ultimately separable from me, given the right conditions.

A second, related strength is community. Just as Jews know they are Jews, so they are united to the community of the Synagogue and the Am, the people. Strong communities, one might even say counter-communities represent a real fortress against hostile intrusion. Attendance at weekly services, however well crafted, pales into significance when compared with the wall-to-wall influence of surrounding society 24/7. However, when Christians genuinely live in community, live as an extended family, involved in one another's lives, helping one another, sharing meaningful relationships, then they can survive and thrive.

A third aspect is a combination of what in post-modern parlance has been called meta-narrative and what in Christian jargon is called apologetics. This third aspect is about acquiring and holding a Christian view of the world rather than simply acquiescing to that imposed by the mass media - most often now the internet. It is also about having answers to prevailing, killer arguments of the surrounding culture. There are some great men such as William Lane Craig, John Lennox and Ravi Zacharias who have made it their life's work to publicly defend the Christian faith. And as they do intellectual battle with the heavyweights of New Atheism and secularism, they are well able to stand their ground. Often weak Christians and churches simply succumb to the prevailing narrative of their culture. Sometimes it is as banal as believing whatever they see on TV or read in tabloid newspapers.

Inseparable from all the above is lifestyle. It is precisely here that the church is weakest and most vulnerable. Most people do not leave church and become secular for philosophical reasons. They are far more likely to leave church by succumbing to the prevailing moral weakness of the society in which they live or by becoming like everyone else. Loose sexual mores or downright unfaithfulness, being sucked into the pursuit of possessions and lifestyle, serving Mammon not God with one's time, energy and attention, and an inability to stand and be counted rather than 'blending into the crowd' - these are the causes of falling away from the faith and the church. Likewise, as individuals and families live out the commandments and shape their lives Christianly the pull of the 'world' is much less appealing.

Finally, it is crucial for the church not only to 'defend the fort', but to offer a viable alternative to the surrounding culture. Prevailing churches don't just survive; they grow, as they make converts and see new people added to their number. This does happen. I have seen it happen in all the churches I have been part of - in Belgium, Germany, Britain, Italy, Russia - and in places where I haven't had the privilege of living across all continents and cultures. And I can personally testify to the baptism of Muslims, Buddhists and secularists - to name but a few of the 'unreachable'. 

So is it a losing battle? Well, it is certainly a battle. And many people are losing it. But by no means all people. And half the battle is being able to stand back and see how non-universal and controvertible the prevailing culture and narrative really are. One only needs to compare these with previous ages, when similar forces were being exerted on the church from other quarters. Where are the divine Caesars and the Communist Dawns today?

"His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation."

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