November 6, 2017

Faith, Diversity, and Interacting with Secularism

On October 24, Baylor University gathered representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths on Capitol Hill to present a depiction of unity in the middle of an increasingly secular society that threatens to skew the image of religion altogether. Moderator Timothy Shaw sat down with Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks, distinguished Catholic scholar Robert P. George, and President of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college, Shakh Hamza Yusuf to discuss how each faith interacts with its surrounding progressive culture.

To set the tone for the conversation, Shaw first asked, “What are the main challenges facing faith communities in an era where secularism seems to be gaining ground?”

George, who is a board member (emeritus) of the Institute on Religion and Democracy,  began by recalling a German law court that forbid male infant circumcision and deemed it a punishable offense. Because of George’s fight to reverse this ruling, he was “accused of condoning child abuse.” Upon reflection on the matter, George boiled it down to the competing worldviews of secular and religious perspectives.

“There are secular progressives who believe the human person is simply a chooser. They believe such serious choices should not be made for a child,” George said. “The Jewish man looks at the baby and sees simply a Jewish infant and already as a member of that community, and thinks this child needs to be circumcised.”

In an attempt to stress the nature of these different perspectives, George said, “secularism does not represent some neutral playing field. Secularism is a worldview; it is a competitor.”

From his British perspective, Rabbi Sacks offered insight into the secular ideology in Europe. After the Christian Union was banned from having a booth at a university event on the grounds that it would be “an invasion of safe space.”

Sacks challenged the university’s reasoning during a testimony to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. In his testimony, Sacks shared he made it a point to remind the British government about why the United States was created in the first place: for individuals to escape religious persecution and restriction. He quoted to the audience his own statement to the House of Commons, reciting, “if you carry on the way you’re going, we’ll all need to book our place on the next Mayflower.”

Sacks acknowledged that he believes the single greatest threat to Christianity is individualism and that “no institution has ever bound people together such as religion.”

Yusuf weighed in on the role both religious and secular people have played. “I think the greatest challenge for religion is the stupidity of so many religious people,” Yusuf said. He expressed that secularism is in response to this stupidity and ignorance.

Continuing on, Yusuf claimed that “the two things that most threaten the church today are sex and technology.” With the firm belief that family cannot be sustained without religion, Yusuf addressed that many people in society today do not desire the “emotional entanglement” of being apart from the hookup culture and that this detachment is being enabled by technology.

One of Shaw’s most interesting questions came when he asked the three men what their respective faiths could learn from each other.

Immediately, George spoke up about the strength of the Jews. “The first thing that any faith tradition that is attentive can learn from Judaism is survival,” George said. “Of all the ancient peoples, who has survived? The Jews.”

Expanding on his point, George explained that he believes this survival came from the Jews’ refusal to give in to being a part of the corruptness around them and their refusal “to yield to the intimidation and bullying of power.”

Yusuf said that he thinks “Muslims could learn from the Catholic experience.” In his opinion, very few people understand the difficulty the Irish Catholics faced in trying to be accepted.

“I think that for me, it was the grit that Irish Catholics showed,” Yusuf said. “I think the aspect of education and also the determination that the Catholics have had can be learned.”

Addressing the question with probably the broadest lens, Sacks spoke on the various things he believes can be learned from various religions:

From Christianity, I learn what it is to create the most successful, transformative movement in history and what it is to really care for the poor. From Islam, I learn what it is to be successful in sustaining faith in the midst of a highly secular world. From Hinduism, I learn graciousness and tolerance. From Buddhists, I learn the most un-Jewish thing: calm. In all of these things, there is incredible beauty. If you are confident in your own faith, you are never threatened by other faiths.

Sacks continued on to say that he believes there are three questions to be answered in life. “Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? Science, technology, the market, and the liberal democratic state cannot answer these questions that every person asks. Therefore, religion will return,” he explained.

A conversation as candid and civil as this one is a rare occurrence in our world today where differences are all it seems anyone wants to talk about. In such a trialogue, Christians can bear witness to Jesus Christ while being respectful and appreciative of our pluralistic society.


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