Little Candles in a Darkening World

We appear to live in times that seem to be harder for those of us who wish to live out our Christian faith in public. Although as I reflect back across my over sixty years, the marginalisation started for me in the late 1960’s. The early sixties were fine because in my local government primary school, it was taken for granted that our moral code was based on Biblical principles. It was like we lived by the ‘second tablet’ of the Ten Commandments (about ethical life together) even if not everyone held to the ‘first tablet’ (about putting the Creator God in His rightful place).

But then came high school. I and a friend were the two shortest in a cohort of over 240 students. But I was the only one who would ask ‘God questions’ (now known to me as ‘deep’ or ‘philosophical enquiry’). That was enough to see me picked on in some way, including being hit (normally by a group – bullies need that reassurance to act).

What followed was university. That was in 1974. My first year was a blur because I had no idea what I was doing (being the first one in my family to have that opportunity). By second year, the questions started coming back to me, and I looked forward to asking them in a place of ‘higher learning’. But if I asked in Psychology or Sociology something like, “So professor X, can you please explain what you think are the ‘parts’ that make us humans who we are?”, the response was always the same: “We are not here to discuss that.” Or if I asked in Industrial Relations (in an honour group no less), “So what do you Marxists or Capitalists think drives people deep down, so that your theories will work?”, I got the same answer.

So by the mid-1970s, if my experience is anything to go by, the academic world in Australia had let go of thinking and discussing deeper philosophical aspects of human life – personal and social.

But in discussing this recently with a friend, who has been involved in higher education for a significant time, I came to understand that this tactic of ‘ignoring the question’ had shifted for many of our young people. These days, asking these kinds of questions is more likely to result in them being harassed, or if asked via social media, cancelled. Their teachers are more likely to face the same consequences.

We know of examples where people’s faith in the public square has caused grief for them and their families – think Israel Falou, or Margaret Court, or Andrew Thorburn. Much has been written of many parts of the West being ‘post-Christian’ as a reason for this deeper marginalisation, although some authors, like Tom Holland, believe many are ‘more Christian than they think’ because so much of Western liberal democracy is based on Judeo-Christian heritage.

However, even in times when it seems that the cultural landscape may be getting darker, history tells us that when Christians live with a commitment to service as an outworking of their faith, in their seven-day-a-week lives (and not just in their one-day-a-week church lives), things change in their society.

One social historian summarised it this way:

Christianity served as a revitalisation movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear, and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world…. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope…. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family…. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.[1]

This is what Jesus meant by His followers being salt and light.[2] So, when societies have God-honouring people within them, they literally become more humane. But what of the claims that Christianity has killed many people in the name of the Crusades, the Inquisitions and other such heinous crimes? 

Social analyst Os Guinness concluded the following when he researched this claim:

…there have been egregious religious massacres and persecutions in history, each one as vile as it was real. [However] more people were killed by secularist regimes in the twentieth century than in all the religious persecutions in Western history… [3]

More recently, the brother of the well-known anti-theist Christopher Hitchens (Peter Hitchens) compared the beliefs and out-workings of secular societies to those where Christians were present in significant numbers.  Christopher Hitchens and his friend Richard Dawkins believe that to teach children anything religious is child abuse.  What did Christopher’s brother Peter find when he researched the two theories?

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13).  The huge differences that can be observed between Christian societies and all others, even in the twilight afterglow of Christianity, originate in this specific injunction…. In [any] society where the absolute code has been jettisoned and we have all become adept at making excuses for shirking such duties, selflessness of this kind will become less common…. There is far more love offered for those who honestly attempt to follow the law, and unbounded forgiveness for all who seek it…. And that is why, while it is perfectly possible for convinced atheists to do absolutely good deeds at great costs to themselves – not least because God so very much wishes them to – it is rather more likely that believing Christians will do such things.  And when it comes to the millions of small and tedious good deeds that are needed for a society to function with charity, honesty, and kindness, a shortage of believing Christians will lead to that society’s decay.[4]

This is the Biblical basis of relating to others with a Christ-like character.[5] So regardless of how dark it seems around us, our calling is to live differently. It does not have to be out loud, trying to drown out the cacophony of sound in the political space – but we thank God for those who are there! But if we all pay attention to the ‘millions of small and tedious good deeds’ every day, so that those around us can see charity in action, it will make a difference. That is our job, in which we can celebrate with joy. It is also why God chose a ‘peculiar people’– to show how we are made to live.[6]

[1] Rodney Stark (1997) The Rise of Christianity Harper Collins p. 160

[2] Matthew 5:21

[3] Os Guinness (2006) Unspeakable: Facing up to the challenge of evil, Harper Collins

[4] Peter Hitchens (2010) The Rage Against God – How atheism led me to faith Zondervan pp. 143-145

[5] Philippians 2:5-11

[6] We can read about it in Deuteronomy 4