Does Society Need Faith?

Making blog posts have proved to be more difficult than anticipated – meaning they take up much more time than originally expected. Not surprisingly, it is easier (less timely) to do a post that is a travelogue or that is humorous (or at least one that I think is funny).  But, as enjoyable as this break is, I am studying some sophisticated topics and exploring some profound questions. I would like more of my posts to delve into some of those issues, but they do require a greater commitment of time.  While I don’t want anyone to think I’ve been locked in an ivory tower (and this city has a large number of such structures), I do want to reveal some of the depth of my study and, at the same time – perhaps, allow you to be challenged by some of the big questions of life and faith. 

This post will be one of those efforts.  Forgive me if it’s a bit sobering.  My aim may be to provoke, but only a consideration of the issues presented.  (Recalling Socrates – “The unexamined life is not worth living”.)

The following story came back to me during my “Road Trip” to London as a read an article in The Spectator – a British magazine of politics and culture.  It seems that a many years ago, Billy Graham was visiting with the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. In the middle of their conversation, Adenauer paused, changed the subject somewhat abruptly, and asked this question: “Mr.Graham, do you really believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead?” Apparently, somewhat taken aback by the question, Billy Graham responded, “Sir, if I did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I would have no gospel left to preach.” Graham then reported that Adenauer walked over to the end of the room, looked out of the window at the post-war ruins, and said, “Mr. Graham, outside of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I know of no other hope for mankind.”

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What did Adenauer mean by that?  Having witnessed the destruction and horror of World  War II and having experienced human nature at its worst, including the holocaust, Adenauer knew that if we relied on the “wisdom” or the “goodness” of man, there really was no hope for humanity. I couldn’t help but recall that story when we were looking at questions of good and evil and attempts by advocates of different worldviews to explain what we see in man and his behavior.

Without putting it in philosophical terms, Adenauer was saying that “humanism” as a worldview would never overcome the self-centeredness at the core of human nature.  He was, of course, correct.  We did not learn from World War I. Matters got worse, not better in a post-WWII with an official rejection of God.  Atheist regimes like China under Mao Zedong, the Soviet Union under Stalin and Cambodia under Pol Pot (and others) murdered tens if not hundreds of millions in the 20th century.

In The Spectator article, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Jonathan Sacks suggests in his subtitle:  The West is suffering for its loss of faith.  Unless we rediscover religion, our civilisation (not a misspelling in the UK) is in peril.”  Os Guinness showed us how our fundamental freedoms may be at risk when we discussed his book A Free People’s Suicide, which addresses whether freedom can last forever, the role that faith played in establishing freedom and the role faith needs to play in preserving freedom.

After suffering through the horrors of the 20th century, Sacks observes that “we have turned to more pacific forms of idolatry, among them the market, the liberal democratic state, and the consumer society, all of which are ways of saying that there is no morality beyond personal choice so long as you do no harm to others”.  About the younger generation, he notes that the average 18-to-35 year-old has 237 Facebook friends, but when asked how many they could rely upon in a crisis, the average said two, a quarter said one, and an eighth said none.

Sacks acknowledges that people can be moral without being religious, but (adopting the words of the historian Will Durant) “There is no significant example of in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.”  Sacks concludes his article by saying “I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other.  A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also.  That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.”

In a nutshell, the question is whether man is capable of devising a moral code by which society could live peaceably and flourish?  Conversely, using the title from a book by Ravi Zacharias, the question could be phrased: Can man live without God?

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While it is difficult, if not dangerous, to try to generalize (particularly in a blog) the secular humanist believes in the goodness and capacity of the human being to bring about, through reason and experience, a better society.  In essence, the secular humanist is saying, “We (man) can do it.  We can figure it all out ourselves”.  C.S. Lewis states the same choices this way:  “There are only two types of people.  Those that say to God – “thy will be done” and those to whom God says – “your will be done.”

I like to think I’m a student of history.  It’s what I studied in college and its remained a passion of mine.  I think the old, tired quip about those refusing to learn from history are doomed to repeat it is – actually, quite true.  My observation is that man (human nature) has not changed in the approximately 4000 years of recorded history.  When I look back into history I conclude that man cannot do it.   And the reason man is incapable was captured by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when he wrote:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.”

This then brings us back to Konrad Adenauer’s comment about the hope for mankind.  Adenauer had not read Solzhenitsyn, but he had reached the same conclusion after observing mankind for most of his life.

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