religion and sport

I was looking over the shoulder of my son as he completed a questionnaire the other day. It was for a study on New Zealand attitudes and values. It came from the department of a reputable university.

A statement caught my eye. Admittedly, some of the statements have the spark of inflammatory about them - quite deliberately. I understand that. But still this one is a shocker.
"Atheists and others who have rebelled against established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly."
Did you see it? Read it again - slowly...

The opening phrase identifies 'established religions' (plural!), but when it comes time to put the dagger in, the focus is exclusively on Christianity with its 'churches'. If this was the sort of objective and fair-minded survey we'd expect from a university, then the sentence should finish with "... those who attend church, mosque, temple or synagogue regularly."

A slip of the tongue? Needing to keep the word count under 25 words? Sloppy proof-reading?

I think not.

It is an example of the way our mind-moulding institutions (university, media, politics, marketing etc) have a bias against Christianity. It is in-credible that this happens in a society that celebrates a pluralist ideal in which all faiths have an equal claim to a place in the marketplace of religions. But because, I suspect, it is perceived that Christianity has had an unfair home-field advantage for too long, Christianity is often either excluded from that marketplace or, more commonly, it is included and singled-out for special critique, as in this survey. Either way, the lofty pluralist ideal disintegrates. Tolerance of every faith does not happen. In fact tolerance can become intolerant when it chooses to do so.

When in my car (or to create noise-equalisation when I nap), I tend to listen to Radio Sport. It is a talkback format, that great lubricant of the pluralist ideal in sports. The hosts preach their message of 'every opinion matters, especially yours.' We are urged to ring, to text and to facebook a message and express our viewpoint. But there is always one opinion that gets shut down quietly and quickly. If your opinion includes it, your opinion will be excluded. Try saying something critical about another talkback host on Radio Sport. In the face of such persecution of a colleague, the pluralist ideal dismantles. Tolerance of every viewpoint does not happen. In fact the tolerance can become decidedly intolerant when it chooses to do so.

Now we need to be careful with our words. I prefer plurality over pluralism. A space should be created for different faiths and viewpoints so that their truth claims can be weighed (plurality), without asserting that each faith and viewpoint has an equal claim to being true (pluralism). Follow that latter trail to its philosophical destination and you find yourself keeping the company of nonsense. A consistently-argued pluralism has no defense against nonsense. It can't. All roads do not lead to the top of the mountain.

My commitment to plurality would have me march down Queen St to protect the rights of a Muslim community to build its own mosque in New Zealand - but my rejection of pluralism is seen in the way that I don't believe that their road leads to the top of the mountain. My commitment to plurality means that I respect the importance of not creating caricatures of Mohammed - but my rejection of pluralism is linked to the way that in this society the name of my Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ, can be so often taken in vain and it bothers nobody. My commitment to plurality has me long for heaven when people 'from every nation, tribe, people and language' gather in worship of Jesus on the throne - but my rejection of pluralism means that I acknowledge that every religion will not be represented there. It is sad that some people will not be present.

That is a sadness that gets me out of bed every morning. That is a sadness that has me longing 'to serve others in the name of Jesus' (my dad) - praying that as I do so, I might be gradually filled with the grace and truth that so filled Jesus. Bearing witness to that truth will upset the talkback hosts of this world, but if I can do it graciously and warmly, with love in my eyes and my heart, then the Spirit of God will choose to 'wing my words into the hidden depths of many a heart' for his glory. Of that reality, I am convinced.

When all is said and done, it is good to remember that this bias against Christianity is but a taste of the suffering which so many of God's people endure around the world. For them the bias blossoms into something far more bold and broad and blunt.

nice chatting



Ali said…
Hi Paul,

A question (not a challenge).

You said, "My commitment to plurality would have me march down Queen St to protect the rights of a Muslim community to build its own mosque in New Zealand".

My question is: What biblical support do you point for this? I find it difficult to imagine Paul, who was grieved at the idols at Athens, marching down their main street to protect the rights of another group wanting to erect another idol.

I appreciate what you said here: "A space should be created for different faiths and viewpoints so that their truth claims can be weighed (plurality)" but again, where is the biblical support for this? I understand you are making a distinction between pluralism and plurality, but how far does religious plurality have biblical support?

My thinking at the moment is that the Bible encourages us to love people of other faiths (including Atheism), and in a pluralistic society to tolerate their choice of religion, but I don't see any championing of rights to establish religious faiths in our areas.

I'd be interested in your thoughts.
Paul said…
Thanks for this, Ali. It is good stuff. I can only agree with you. I see exactly what you are saying.

The problem is that I still agree with me (!) - maybe a little less boldly, which will do me no harm - as I still think there is something in what I have written that I want to affirm.

So my slow-burning brain is currently trying to negotiate a path forward - but it may end up being a turn back in repentance :)

Stay tuned - I will comment again very soon. In the meantime maybe there is someone else who can jump in helpfully?

Thanks again


Unknown said…
Hi Ali and Paul, :-)

my tupence

Surely the biblical basis for Paul W's version of the great liberal mantra of "I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it" is not to be found in the example of the other Paul establishing a minority religion in the context of a pagan empire but in the command of Jesus to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

It is common sense to ensure the rights of other religions as that also ensures our right not to be persecuted and to worship in freedom, the baptist and brethren version of Christianity desires a secular state in which to operate in which freedom of religion is given to citizens. PW is not marching down the street to establish the mosque, he is marching down the street to preserve religious freedom, the same religious freedom he wants extended to his own faith.

Is it loving for Christians to allow other religions to operate when those religions are leading people astray if Christians have the power to do otherwise? I know some would argue that it is more loving to refuse planning consent so as to avoid sending mixed messages but I think they are wrong. In Christianity there should be no coercion or manipulation, we only extend the gracious free invitation of a loving God, how gracious is that invitation if we feel the need to make sure the competition is suffocated? We cannot welcome them to our country and then say But now change religion. We welcome them to our country as they are, we allow them to be who they are, we accept and love them as they are and only then does our invitation to join God's kingdom have any true grace, because only then are we loving them without pre-condition and only then are we loving them as we would want to be loved.

So I say build the mosque, it is better than another mall, at least a mosque acknowledges there is more to life than shopping!
Paul said…
Hi Ali (and Unknown) - again
(you certainly got me thinking - thank-you!)

A few comments

1. Part of what feeds this post is the concern that Christianity does not function well when it lays claim to some sort of home-court advantage. When we are official we tend to cease being influential. Is that not what Christendom taught us? We don't function well as the body of Christ when we claim to have some sort of priority, or preference. Our influence should come from the sheer quality of our lives as we get on with being salt and light here there and everywhere. I am not afraid of the truth - but nor am I afraid for the truth. And these are the sort of convictions that I bring to living in a multi-religion context. It doesn't make me panic. I don't wring my hands with worry. It doesn't make me push my Christian weight around, or lay claim to preferential treatment because we got here first - or some such logic. I want to be hospitable to these faiths - to protect their rights for freedom of worship ... and then welcome what opportunities that come to introduce people to the Jesus who is the way, the truth, the life - and the only road that leads road to the top of the mountain.

2. You ask 'how far does religious plurality have biblical support?' I struggle to know how to respond to this. I am into 'biblical support' in a big way! But religious plurality has been around since Babel - it is a fact of life in the societies in which we live. I think Unknown has given some basic biblical support. But I am genuinely interested in how you might suggest we handle the unavoidable reality of religious plurality. Because the option that comes to mind (not necessarily to your mind, I hasten to add) is one that starts feeling like Christendom - where Christianity has the power, claims the power and quietly suppresses/subverts other belief systems and keeps them without power.

3. I wasn't sure what you meant by '...I don't see any championing of rights to establish religious faiths in our areas'. To whom are you referring with the word 'our'?

4. Acts 17 is a powerful passage and the word for Paul's grief is something akin to an epileptic fit of some kind. And maybe Unknown is related to the Unknown God in that passage?! So I still hear your concern - but I am more concerned about what the alternatives might look like ... like the obvious one where Christianity pushes its weight around.

But please feel free to enlighten me further :)


Ali said…
Hi Paul and Unknown,

I had decided to write a quick response to Unknown's comment before heading off to work, and I arrive at your blog, Paul, to find more to respond to! :) It's a good thing.

I certainly don't have all the answers to these questions, though I do have suspicions, both strong and slight, but I can see many reasons why Unknown's answer won't hold without a lot more work. Right now, having read and written this, however, I don't have time to do anything other than to throw out that teaser. In fact, I am now a couple of minutes late for work!

I appreciate your responses. I'll be back to continue the conversation today or tomorrow. :)
Ali said…
Hi Unknown,

Thanks for your input.

Let me write just a couple of thoughts about Jesus' command to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" as a support for advocating for the right of Muslim's to build a mosque/religious freedom.

First, I don't think this command is a great support for religious freedom because we do not apply Jesus' command across the board. I trust I am right when I say that you, Paul and I would not support rights for men who believe that it is their religious responsibility to physically discipline their wives. Or support the right to practice polygamy or honour killings or the burning of widows. We may not be saying "Change religions" but we do say, "Modify your religion".

So let's apply Jesus' command here. When we talk about freedom to practice religion there are unspoken limits on what we allow others to practice and yet I doubt we would like to experience any restrictions our exercise of religion. Jesus' command to "do unto to others as you would have them do to you" does not support religious freedom, and can not without serious caveats.

Second, to use Jesus' command as a support for the kind of freedom of religion you are talking about, we need to privilege temporal concerns over eternal ones. You touched on this when you said Paul was wanting to extend the same freedoms to other religions as he wants for his own. But is that not privileging Paul's comfortable exercise of religion over the negative effects of strengthening a religion that is leading people astray? Can that not be compared to advocating for the right of even greater pornographic media in the name of freedom of speech in order that freedom of speech is extended to us? I am wondering whether in our efforts to avoid discomfort and persecution we have unwittingly become allies to enemies of Christ. Just a thought.

If, on the other hand, we consider eternal concerns more important, doing to others as we would have them do to us would involve not providing support for the building of a mosque. But let me be clear. I am not suggesting the opposite, i.e. campaigning against the building of a mosque. My understanding is that love is gracious, not permissive. In other words, as in the case of the apostle Paul's context where religious pluralism was a reality, we are to be gracious to those who believe differently from us, but not support them in the exercise of their error. Isn't that what God does with us?

So, I don't see Jesus' command as supporting religious freedom in the way you suggest. I don't see Jesus or Paul doing so either. In fact, if Jesus' command supports anything, I'd argue it supports being gracious in the way you treat people of other religions, but not encouraging them in their religion, because that is how I'd like them to treat me if they sincerely believed I was on my way to hell.
Ali said…
Paul, I'll try to "enlighten you further" soon (ha!). What I can do very quickly is clarify "our".

"Our" is generic. It means Christians.

What I was trying to say (poorly, obviously) was that I don't see any examples or teaching in the Bible that would support Christians championing the rights of other religions to worship in the societies they live in.

But I think I need to share some the questions I have about our cultural assumptions to really explain that well.
hi Ali and Paul, sorry for the confusion i thought i was properly logged in, but my comment was marked as unknown!

Ali, you make a mockery of the golden rule to suggest that if "applied across the board" it would allow polygamy, wife burning and pornography. Shock horror, women are people too, and so they get to be included in the rule - thus ruling out such practices. Of course there is no NT proof text telling us to allow the building of mosques, Islam hadn't been invented yet and neither had council building regulations.

Ali said…
So, you agree that the golden rule does not support freedom of religion without modifying the practice of religion. Whether we understand it being applied to the rights of people to practice religion, or we extend the rule, as you are suggesting, to "don't let others do to others what you what you would not want done to you" (or maybe "do for others as you would have them do for you"), people are only free to practice their religion as long as their practice conforms to an outside standard.

This is an important point, because I think Christianity, by hitching itself to the "religious freedom" wagon has itself seen its practices modified.

But more when I have time later.
yes the whole point of the sermon on the mount was to modify the practice of religion and politics (not separate categories in those days), to one of compassion, integrity and humility against the ethic of control, hypocrisy and violence.

to not allow others the same rights you expect is hypocrisy. i do not want or expect the right to beat my wife and so see no reason to extend it to others. i do want to have freedom of worship, so i extend that to others.

this is not the same as promoting a false religion, what i am promoting is an environment in which everyone can come to faith in Christ free of coercion or social pressure. where sharia law undermines such freedom then it should be resisted, but if Islam is practised with respect for other faiths and the laws of the land, then we should not seek to discriminate.

i suspect at issue here is the classic conundrum of how Christianity is to relate to culture, and whether power and control of society is a desirable thing for Christians. that essential mindset will determine everything else.
Ali said…
Jonathan and Paul,

I really want to reflect on Paul's comments above, but perhaps it might be useful to respond to Jonathan's last comment as a lead in. My problem is that I find it difficult to write succinctly without taking a couple of hours to edit, and I just don't have that time. I will attempt brevity, but...

Jonathan, the way you are suggesting the golden rule is applied can and does result in coercion and social pressure. Unqualified, the golden rule is far too subjective to be used as a foundational principle.

Firstly, the golden rule can allow or disallow anything depending on how you phrase it. One person says, "I wouldn't want anyone to restrict my practice of religion, so I won't restrict theirs." The next says, "But I wouldn't want someone to allow religious practice that would abuse or oppress me, so I won't allow other people to practice parts of their religion that abuse or oppress people." And then a third says, "But I wouldn't want anyone to impose their values and morality onto me, so I won't impose my values and morality on others." The most recent example of the golden rule used in our societies has been, "I wouldn't want anyone to tell me who to marry, so I won't tell anyone else who they should marry." Do you see how flexible the golden rule is?

Secondly, we all tend to assume that what we wouldn't want "done unto us" is what God wouldn't want us to do to others. But is that really true? While there are many situations where that is true, especially considering we live in a society strongly shaped by Judeo-Christian values, I would contend that our preferences do not always reflect God's will. Instead, we get our understanding of what God's will is from God's Law in the Bible. And that is the context in which the sermon on the mount places the golden rule. Matthew 5:17-20 speaks of making sure the law is not ignored. Then throughout the sermon on the mount Jesus does not encourage any modification to the Law, but rather an intensification of it by moving into the motives of the heart. Lastly, if that were not enough, Jesus equates the golden rule with the Law and the Prophets.

Since this is the case, it seems that we are to apply the golden rule from the perspective of God's Law. The Law forbids sexual immorality. Just because I would like people to fight for my right to live how I want doesn't mean we should fight for the rights of others to set up a swingers club. The Law forbids worshiping other gods in the strongest terms. Just because I would want someone to fight for my rights to worship Jesus doesn't mean God would like us to fight for the rights of others to worship false gods. I think perhaps we are guilty of emphasising the horror of sin in some areas and minimising them in others.

[Comment too long. Continued below.]
Ali said…
That is why, I believe, we see Jesus showing much grace to the Samaritan woman, but not affirming the mistaken notions she has about God and religion. And that is also why I return to Paul and see that, while he was gracious to those who practiced false religions, nowhere did he encourage or affirm them in the practice of those religions. To do so would be violate the principle of the first commandment. Wouldn't marching for the rights of a religious community to set up and establish their false religion in your community be the same thing?

Your laudable desire to promote an environment in which everyone can come to faith in Christ free of coercion and social pressure is actually an impossibility. First, because the very type of environment you are promoting is one in which secular values are imposed on those from other religions, and second, because it is impossible to create an environment in which there is no coercion or social pressure. Isn't the whole idea of excommunication at least partly an attempt to exert pressure on the sinning Christian to come to his senses and return to Christ? Is it not a good thing to give our children a home advantage to Christianity in the hope that they will embrace Christ?

Instead of this middle-man tactic, I believe we Christians need to engage other religions and worldviews directly. I'll try and cover what I think that might mean when I manage to get another block of time to write a few thoughts about Paul's comments above.
Ali said…
Paul and Jonathan,

I'm afraid I won't get back to this until next week at least. I am still very interested in the discussion and will try to respond when I can.
Ali said…
Paul, I've already written too much here. Still, if you have any interest in this conversation I'm more than happy to get pushback.

…I am genuinely interested in how you might suggest we handle the unavoidable reality of religious plurality.

If I understand you correctly, Paul, your main concern is how to deal with religious plurality without returning to Christendom, i.e. using power to oppress non-Christian people, making them powerless and denying them the right to worship as they wish.
Well, here are my thoughts for what they are worth.

In my thinking about this, I keep returning to the refrain, “Love is gracious, not permissive.” God is gracious towards us, but in light of his Son’s death God’s grace cannot be seen as permissive. And it is that same death that is the basis for the grace we show toward others who sinfully practice other religions that God condemns in his word.

There is so much to reflect on here. If we relate to other religions in terms of their rights, we give them a legitimacy the Bible does not give them. And if we relate to them based on what they deserve (i.e. what is their right), we cannot be gracious to them because grace is by definition undeserved. So, when the Bible teaches that there is only one God and only one revelation of him and that all people who adhere to other religions and non-religions are sinning, it is not only speaking the truth, it has set up an understanding that all of God’s dealings with us is grace, and we, being recipients of grace are obligated to be gracious to others.

This understanding is the only way I can reconcile Paul’s reaction in Acts 17:16. Only grace can allow us to completely hate the sin (Romans 12:9) and still treat the people with love. (I’m also thinking of Eph 6:12). Is it possible to hate what we give legitimacy to through its “right” to exist?

So Paul is my main model for how to handle religious plurality. He doesn’t argue for their right to exist or march for their establishment, but neither does he go on a political witchhunt. His weapons are “not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds”. He takes the gospel and preaches and applies it.

That doesn’t really answer your concern that anything other than a secular space for different faiths and views will lead to an abuse of power. But I actually think your concern is framed within secular categories that do not serve the Biblical story. The secularist lives in a world of rights and tolerance; the Christian is to live in a world of love and grace toward sinners who have no right to sin. What secularists see as an oppressive imposition of foreign values, the Bible presents as loving directives for the flourishing of believer and unbeliever. When a person says that pornographers should not have power but idolaters should, they are saying idolatry is a right, pornography is not. I don’t see the Bible making that distinction. Grace is shown to both, but neither is permitted.

(Fuller version here.)
Paul said…
Hi Ali (by the way, have we met?)

I appreciate your persistence and the issues you are raising. I find them stretching in different ways - but, a bit like you, just at the moment I can only return to them intermittently.

One thing I'd like to say is that defending the freedom to worship for adherents of other faiths is not the only thing I'd affirm as a Christian living in a pluralist society. In fact it is a relatively minor part. In my very first year of blogging I wrote a little piece which picks up other convictions: I might just point you in that direction as it captures a few other relevant points in this discussion. [On my blog there is a label named 'pluralism', as I write about it every now and then. You've probably noticed that already].

Overall I am still struggling to see how your view avoids something akin to Christendom. You write ... "But I actually think your concern is framed within secular categories that do not serve the Biblical story" ... I do not yet see/understand this comment.

Let me lay another card on the table that is in the back of my mind in this discussion. I work a lot in M-majority countries where basic reasonable freedoms for Christians can be so restricted. What annoys me is that when Ms immigrate from their home countries to 'the West' they can demand/claim a freedom for the practice and propagation of their faith (now as a minority) which they deny to Christians, the minority community back home. I don't want to be like that. Not so much for theological conviction reasons - but being a good citizen. More to the point, such is my confidence in the truth of the gospel that I do not fear for its future in the marketplace of religious ideas which identifies a pluralist society.

enuf for now

Ali said…
Hi Paul,

I looked up your other post and I love it. I think our discussion here fits perfectly into Day Two.

I said, "But I actually think your concern is framed within secular categories that do not serve the Biblical story". You didn’t understand. Let me state again it far too simply:

- The secular worldview deals in rights and power and centres on what it mistakenly says the other deserves (in this case the right to worship false gods and political power).

- The biblical worldview deals in love and grace and centres on giving grace to the undeserving because we, also undeserving, have been given grace.

I see these two as mutually exclusive. In fact it seems to me that your view champions two saviours - Jesus for the person and secular democracy for society.

I am not afraid for the truth in “the marketplace of religious ideas" either. As long as such a marketplace exists, Christians do well to sell their wares. However the marketplace itself is a worldview alien to Christianity.

Of course, if I were a Christian in a M-majority country, the religious plurality of secular democracy would be very attractive. But that doesn’t make it biblical. Not being in that situation, however, makes me hesitant to say much more in such a small space.

Re. Christendom. I don't see Christendom as monolothic whole akin to sharia law, but as a sprawling civilisation that was the source of much evil but also incredible blessings (as is any human society). And the Church of Christendom was:
- ineffective and effective,
- dead and alive (how many revivals were there?),
- in need of reform and reforming,
- preserving and expanding.
This was because Christendom was continually challenged and called to righteousness from within from the Bible. Even the concerns you and Jonathan raise were considered from a Biblical worldview. I just don’t think Christendom can be written off as easily as your statements indicate.

Yes, we've met a couple of times. I was doing a BTheol through Auck Uni from 2001-2003

This stilted dialogue has helped me. Thanks. This is an ongoing topic for me (see for e.g. my small attempt to think biblically about Christian entitlement in politics) and I appreciate your time. If you've any further thoughts or corrections, I'll continue thinking this through over at my blog.

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