17-20 May, 2012 (Ascension Weekend)
Keynote speaker: Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher
Seventy-seven educators, representing seventeen countries across Europe, attended the conference to consider their position “Between Fundamentalism and Secularism”. While on the one hand Christians do not want to be viewed as fundamentalists, they are sure of their belief and know of their responsibility to share the gospel. On the other hand, there is secularism that tries to push out all religion from the public arena. Our keynote speaker Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher* helped us to get a better grasp of our stance between those two positions and made us aware of our responsibility as Christians educators to ensure religious freedom for all. We wrestled with the question of how to stand unshakably for the truth of the gospel , without overstepping the boundaries of religious freedom.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, two of our original planned speakers had to withdraw from the conference and Dr. Schirrmacher had to cut short his time with us due to family illness. To accommodate these changes, the six teaching sessions started on Thursday evening and finished by Friday evening. For Dr. Schirrmacher, that was not a problem, as he has such a wealth of knowledge and enjoys teaching; but for many of the participants it was a challenge to take in all of the content over such a short period Nevertheless, we all gained valuable new insights on the topic and returned home encouraged to live out our Christian faith and to be a witnesses in our places of work.
The following are summaries of the talks by Dr. Schirrmacher.
(By right clicking on the titles you can listen to the talks)
In his first lecture on Friday evening Dr Schirrmacher helped us to understand the meaning of these two terms and to recognize the positive and negative aspects of both positions. He began the lecture with a quote from Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, who wrote that the devil always sends sins in twins: two opposing twins; meaning the devil always lurks on both sides of the right way. Leaning to one or other extreme point of view, often leads to falling off the horse on either side. The right way is to maintain a balance between two seemingly opposing views. Because we often choose one view over the other, Christians constantly fight with one biblical “truth” against another. However, often there is truth on both sides. For example, one could say that God is sovereign and does not need us to fulfill His purpose. On the other hand, we might maintain that God can only do things through us. The answer is that both are right, even if one point of view seems to exclude the other. This kind of thinking is called COMPLEMENTARITY in quantum mechanics and needs to be applied to our topic as well.
As Christians, we don't want to be called “fundamentalists” because the term sounds so negative. Neither do we wish to be known as “secularists” because they are the ones who fight evangelicals! Christians often think secularism is purely bad. It need not be. For example, secularism took away the belief that there are evil spirits lurking everywhere. Thus, when Boniface felled the Donar Oak people converted to Christianity when they saw that there was no god in the tree. This kind of ‘secularism’ opened the way for scientific research, as nature was no longer spiritualized but seen as God’s creation.
Secularism was also a factor that played a major role at the foundation of the Evangelical Alliance in 1846, because evangelicals were against state religion. Up to that time, many people had been killed in religious wars and people who wanted to belong to a denomination other than that of their state were persecuted. Thus, we have to distinguish between secularism that takes religion out of everything (negative/loss of freedom of religion) and secularism that takes organized religion out of organized politics (positive/freedom of religion).
The origin of the term fundamentalism stems from the writing of the book, The Fundamentals: a Testimony to the Truth, which contains an essay addressing 90 fundamental issues of Christian faith, designed to affirm orthodox Protestant beliefs. This in itself was not a bad thing for, as Christians, we are fully convinced of the truth of the gospel and need to be extremely clear about the issues on which we cannot compromise. However, evangelical Christians are also convinced that we cannot force others to believe in the gospel. Fundamentalism presses others into believing, as is the case in Muslim countries and sadly also with some extreme Christian groups. In the 60s, atheist philosophers began to call anyone who was searching for truth a fundamentalist because, according to their belief, there is no such thing as truth.
As evangelical Christians we are both 100% convinced that what we believe is the truth, and that it is our duty to share this truth with others. We are also convinced that no one can be forced into believing and that it is our duty to defend religious freedom.
Religious freedom at first sight sounds very simple: it is the right to live out the deep longings of the heart and mind. Dr. Schirrmacher helped us to understand how complicated aspects of religious freedom for teachers are in reality, by teaching us about the different spheres of authority that God has installed. They are – ‘I’ (our authority over ourselves, our self-control); family (also under God), church (has its own sphere of authority, I and family are not under the church, church does not have the authority to nurture children as a parent has), state, work/economy. Religious freedom is so complicated because it runs through all the areas of authority. Likewise, teachers touch these areas of authority by educating their students to participate in all them. However, educational institutions do not have a God-given sphere of authority of their own.
The church tells teachers that they should proclaim the gospel in their educational institution, and school authorities might tell teachers that religion has no place in the school. Religious freedom means we have the right to follow our own conscience, our deepest convictions, but not to destroy the human rights of others. Educators need to live like Daniel, Joseph, or Mordechai. They lived in a culture where they did not want to be and became deeply engaged in their society, yet they stayed true to their beliefs. Only at points of deep conflict, were they willing to lose their job and life. As teachers, our task is to find out where we can be flexible and which points are non-negotiable.
The religious freedom of our students is sacred to us as evangelicals. We should help our schools to provide religious freedom for all our students, be it in a Christian school or in a secular school.
Many people believe that Christians should not think. However, if you are a Christian, you should think. If you do not want to think, you should change your religion. Schirrmacher explained that the view that thinking is not welcomed in Christianity comes from a wrong understanding of the word “heart.” During the time of Romanticism, “heart” became viewed as the place of emotions. However, whenever heart is mentioned in the Bible it stands for brain, argument, decision, etc., thus it means thinking and understanding. Heart is the centre of our being. God has a heart with which he thinks and out of his thoughts we were created.
Our thinking was corrupted by the Fall and as Christians we are asked to renew our thinking/mind (Romans 12: 2), we have to learn how to think according to God's way. This does not happen overnight; it is a process. One has to study the Word of God, learn HIS thoughts concerning the different issues and problems of a fallen world. Just to say “The Bible says...” is not enough. Thus, a Christian doing the will of God is one who is constantly thinking and checking the concepts of the world.
To raise children and tell them to do something just because the Bible says so is not enough. We cannot raise real Christians by telling our youth to accept everything without questioning and thinking. The world is much too complicated and issues are not just black and white. Our youth need to be allowed to think and ask difficult questions.
While this session was changed into a question and answering session, Dr. Schirrmacher did try to give a few thoughts about the neutrality of schools. As in most of the other issues, complementarity played a role there. Many Christians think neutral is bad, but Schirrmacher helped us to see the positive aspects of a neutral school by reminding us of the history of neutral schools. For example, in one German state all schools were Catholic until WWI, so the Protestants had a problem. Then the state took over the schools, which led to a fair treatment of all religion. In this way, neutral schools have been a blessing, a protection for minorities.
Our problem today is that the state has come to see a non-religious worldview as being neutral, and religious worldviews as non-neutral. (When Christians propagate their worldview, they call it mission; if atheists propagate their worldview, they call it science.)
Three aspects of evangelical ethics: commandment, wisdom, heart
Evangelicals often avoid ethics as theory, because they think the Bible is enough. However, evangelicals don't agree on many subjects, so how can we say the Bible is enough in order for us to understand God’s will for all of society?
What is biblical ethics? Biblical ethics can be drawn from three biblical aspects: commandment, wisdom, heart
On the one hand, ethics come from the commandments, which have one goal: the protection of love.
Commandments don’t really tell us how to live; they set boundaries that should not be crossed. Commandments do not provide clear instructions on how to live life. Take as an example one of the negative commandments, “do not murder”. We know that we should not murder, but we are not told how to express love to that person in a positive way. Likewise, positive commandments don’t tell us, for example, exactly how to love someone; all they tell us is that we should love our neighbour.
Wisdom literature provides us with more detail on how to live our life. It is often complementary, thus the heart (thinking) is asked when it comes to the answers on how to live. Commandments can be learned by heart even by small children, but gaining wisdom is a lifelong process.
Ethics requires that we use our heart (thinking and understanding) in order to think through what the commandments, together with wisdom, teach us about how to live our life. Laws we can know ahead of time. Wisdom we can only learn by experience. Our heart tells us about decisions by listening to God.
In conclusion, Dr. Schirrmacher encouraged us to be aware that, as Christians, we can and should influence society by the renewing our minds and by living according to God’s moral standard and ethics. It is true that the major powers of the world want to get rid of the church. However, all powers who have ever opposed Christianity have disappeared. The Bible says that the enemies of the church will turn against each other and only God's kingdom – not a political power – will survive in the end. We should not blame society. Society is not the problem. The problem is that the church has lost its authority. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” ( 2 Chronicles 7:14). Revival is surely our hope!
Conference participants during a break
On Saturday morning the conference participants had time to talk through the issues raised by Dr. Schirrmacher. There were workshops for those who work in Christian schools and for those who work in state schools. There were also two other workshops, one led by Marek Kaniewski from Poland about the Holocaust in Poland; another on Worldview integration was held by Robert Doornenbal.
After sitting and listening for such a long time all the conference participants were happy to have a free afternoon to relax and have time for activities. There was Zumba dancing and climbing opportunities on the campus. Several participants went on a short walk to St. Giles Church, which was build at the turn of the eleventh century. Others went to visit a former Jewish Synagogue and a nearby Jewish graveyard.
In the final worship service on Sunday morning, we were encouraged by John Muir to forget the things behind us and to stretch out towards the goal before us (Philippians 3:13). We live in a lost and confused world; many have lost their way, just as Paul did before his conversion. We cannot change the past, we can only work in the present, but we can change the future with the things we do here and now: Touch the future teach!
Then it was time to say good-bye. Most went on their way by bus to the airport, others with their own car.
Next Year we will meet in Holland – with John Lennox and the theme "Answering Atheism". (www.eureca-online.org)
*Prof. Dr. Theology Dr. Philosophy, Thomas Schirrmacher, is a speaker for Human Rights and Executive Chair of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance. He is also Director of its International Institute for Religious Freedom (Bonn, Cape Town, Colombo). He is a member of the board of the International Society for Human Rights. He teaches Sociology of Religion at the State University of the West in Timisoara (Romania) and is Distinguished Professor of Global Ethics and International Development in Meghalaya (India). He is also President of ‘Martin Bucer European Theological Seminary and Research Institutes’ with small campuses in Berlin, Bielefeld, Bonn, Pforzheim, Hamburg, Innsbruck, Linz, Zurich, Prague and Istanbul, where he teaches Ethics and Comparative Religions.