January 23, 2018

Matthew Tan: Dumping Christ for the sake of the ‘crisis’

A protester shouts in front of a burning barricade on 30 October in a slum area of Nairobi, Kenya. PHOTO: CNS

Crises are useful gimmicks, whether it is economic meltdowns, climate change, immigration, cabinet reshuffles, sex scandals or wars. Political entrepreneurs will often make use of them or create them to try and force a surrender by the general populace of their right to communal discussion, reflection and critique.

The degree to which many Christians seem willing to play along with the games of the political classes is concerning. Whatever the event, many Christians would treat such crises as times that are so unusual that deeper civilisational questions, and the seemingly otherworldly and academic discourses of theology and philosophy which provide the vocabulary to address such questions, must be set aside in order to “deal with more urgent practical issues”, or that the Tradition be set aside because the situation we face is so novel that the Tradition must by necessity be made redundant.

The argument continues that once the crisis is over and stability restored, then these foundational questions can be asked and answered. When the crisis does pass, what usually transpires is a return to business as usual, and since these questions raised by the aforementioned disciplines were ignored before the crisis, they will continue to be ignored after the crisis. With crises, the person who wants to discuss the deeper questions almost never wins.

The presumption that underpins the attitudes described above – and a presumption that seems to be creeping into the mindsets of a growing number of Christians – is that theology and philosophy are nothing more than irrelevant and unnecessary frills to the business of living. It is presumed that both these disciplines are more interested in dealing with angels dancing on pins or ethereal forms than the seemingly ‘realer’ things of this world, especially during times when our political and media elites bombard us with the idea that this world is caving in.

As such, we now have self-styled progressive and conservative Christians, both of whom say with approval that people are not interested in theology or philosophy but in “dealing with the issues”, and usually dealing with them as progressives and conservatives rather than Christians. This then usually leads to discussions veering off into discussions on some variation of partisan political machination. One would think that the seemingly more practical political sciences might get a look in, though ultimately, even that will get cast aside as so much impractical fluffery.

A statement by Christians that denies the ability of their own tradition to contribute anything unique to the weal of this world, particularly in times of so-called crisis, should strike the reader as odd, particularly when one considers that thinkers of a more secular bent, such as the postmodern philosophers Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo at the beginning of their book entitled Religion, already acknowledge that to assume that there are no real theological and philosophical underpinnings to the way the world works is itself a theological and philosophical underpinning to the way the world works.

Furthermore, as hinted above, there does not seem to be anything particularly novel about crises. Writing in the Second World War, C S Lewis wrote a passage that just as easily responds to any contemporary Christian audience in crisis-mode. The War, Lewis wrote, creates nothing novel:

Rather … it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.

In other words, discipleship – and discipleship here includes an intentional reflection upon the theological and philosophical underpinnings of our contemporary surrounds and those who claim leadership within it – is not something that Christians do only when things are calm.

In times of crises both real and manufactured, when pressures is applied to Christians to put on the armour of partisan politics instead of the armour of Christ (Rom 13:14), such thoroughgoing discipleship becomes all the more urgently needed.

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