Laying the Foundation
The foundation for the square. How do you expose Christian world views to an audience that lacks biblical context? And what to do about other worldviews that infiltrate the public square by disguising as science or reason?
Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge the contribution to this project of my friend, musician and pastor Alex Fleming. When I told Alex I was planning to start a podcast, he generously gave me his time, advice and even some really cool hardware to help me to achieve a good sound. I haven’t yet learned everything Alex has taught me, but he definitely set me in a much better direction than what I had in mind, and I wanted to publicly thank him for that.
Big and Smal Public Squares
I want to take a few minutes to explain why I started this podcast, and it’s an issue I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. Increasingly, lay Christians are staying silent in their “small public squares”, unsure about how to expose their views to an audience that isn’t familiar with the Bible. Let me break that down for you. There was a time in the history of this country when Christianity permeated society. The Christian faith, the Bible and the basics of the gospel were generally well known, and our culture and our law were infused with knowledge of the Christian worldview.
And some of this is still present in our national symbols. As an example, consider the national anthem, which was adopted officially in 1980, about a century after it was first written. It contains explicit references to God, and not just an abstract god, but the God of the Bible. The anthem became official on Dominion Day 1980. This is July 1st, what today we know as Canada Day. Dominion Day references the name of the Dominion of Canada, or “dominion from sea to sea”, which itself is a reference to Psalm 72 (Ps 72:8).
However, as society has become predominantly secular, this Christian context has been lost. Among Christians, the Bible is our lingua franca to share ideas, to build principles, to discuss viewpoints. But as we address a non-Christian audience, increasingly it doesn’t resonate. And I don’t know if this cascaded from what I call the “big public square” into the “small public square”, or if it bubbled up.
What I mean by these terms is there are these large, influential centres of political, cultural and economic power. Places like Parliament Hill, Bay Street, Hollywood. It isn’t clear to me if these places reflected what was going on in society at large, or became secular first and imposed their viewpoint on the rest of us. Whichever way, this is now the reality not just in the big public square, but in our own “small squares”: the places where we live and work, the places where we study, our neighborhoods and community centers. The Christian faith is blessed to have great spiritual leaders like pastors and teachers and apologists, who continue to address the big public square from their Christian worldview. But lay Christians mostly remain silent, wondering how or even when to engage in their own small public squares.
Lay People – Laity Square
Before we go on any further, I guess I should define what I mean by lay Christian, and it’s literally the dictionary definition of the term “lay”: it’s a person who’s not part of church leadership in a formal way, and a person who’s not formally trained in a specific discipline.
I think I fit the definition of a lay Christian. I’ve been a practicing Protestant Christian for about 15 years now. I go to church regularly, I give, I serve… I pray and I read my Bible. I have studied my faith, although nowhere near seminary level. And I think the majority of us are in this situation where something comes up and if we don’t have clear guidance from leaders, or if it’s an impromptu conversation in our small squares, we don’t know what to say. We don’t even know what to ignore. Some of these things are cultural fads, and ignoring them is fine – it happens in every age of humanity. But some of these things are probably worth speaking up for; on some of these things, we’re expected to act.
My goal is to help you to break the silence by identifying and summarizing and bringing to your attention events that are morally or philosophically relevant to our Christian worldview, and by providing specific resources to engage in conversations around those topics in your spheres of influence at the lay level.
It may also help to clarify what this is not about. Here I’m not talking about witnessing or sharing the gospel, nor am I advocating for a theocracy. I think when it comes to witnessing and sharing the gospel, it’s a call that applies to every Christian. It’s the matter of the Great Commission. I think if you’re a Christian who regularly attends a healthy church, you will have sufficient instruction, tools and resources to share the gospel on a personal level with those with whom you have significant relationships. And if you have a calling to publicly share the gospel on a larger scale, I would also think there are pretty good resources out there as it stands. So this podcast won’t deal primarily with the idea of sharing the gospel in the public square.
It’s also not about advocating for a theocracy. I don’t think we’re going to go back to the old times I described at the beginning. I don’t think Christianity is going to acquire substantial influence over worldly powers like politics, culture, and economics. When I place myself in references like Revelation 21, I believe that the full manifestation of the kingdom of God and His absolute ruling over every aspect of our lives will only take place in a new earth, in a new place where his whole people will inhabit, where God himself will dwell and rule over every single detail. I don’t think we’re going to see that level of influence over politics and other manifestations of earthly power in this world. So this podcast won’t deal with that. Instead, the point will be how to articulate our worldview, our philosophy if you will, in our small public squares.
Now, recall that these are people and places that are no longer familiar with the Bible. They don’t know the text. They don’t know the basics of the gospel. They may not think of it as a sacred book, let alone as a source of authority. Because of that, I think preparing to address this audience will often imply, stemming from our biblical roots, preparing a message that stays true to the principles and the core tenets of the Bible, but potentially without having to explicitly quote it or reference it.
This makes some people uneasy. They think it diminishes the Bible’s value; that it devalues it. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think the Bible has such power and authority and truth that, born out of the supernatural, it breaks into the natural world and becomes true, ruling our environment. An imperfect example is found in the laws of physics. Ask a toddler, What is gravity? Or, what is heat transfer? And they probably won’t know. In fact, ask us grown-ups to articulate these things with scientific rigor and the right formulas, and we may not know. In any case, if any of us touches a hot stove, or trips while walking or running, or drops something off our hands, we’re gonna have a front row seat to the spectacle of heat transfer, a.k.a. “burns”, and gravity, a.k.a. “falling stuff”, irrespective of whether we know the right terms, how to articulate them properly, or even claim to believe them or not. Again, this is an imperfect example, but it’s similar to the way I see the Bible operating in today’s world.
What excites me about picking up this task is that today’s society has a renewed interest in philosophical issues. Our conversations are increasingly gravitating towards – Where do we come from? Why are we here? What are we supposed to do, especially for those that come after us? How are we supposed to treat each other? What is morally correct and what is reprehensible?
As one example, just look at our last federal campaign a little over a year ago. In addition to the usual debates around the economy or immigration or national defense, topics such as racism, diversity, the place of religious symbols in a secular society, and climate change had a prominent place. It’s good that we’re tackling certain topics. In fact, you could argue we’re not talking enough about some of them, and you’ve seen that with the topic of race throughout 2020.
The other thing that’s true of our current state, though, is that there’s a narrow view on what constitutes acceptable philosophy or worldview. Going back to the 2019 federal campaign, it became clear that an attempt to revisit the current state of topics like abortion or same-sex unions was not acceptable.
I think one reason why some philosophies are openly discussed in our public squares and some others are disallowed is that there are philosophies, viewpoints, ideas, that masquerade as something else. They masquerade as science, or objectiveness, or inclusiveness, and in doing so they can be talked about in the public square under the guise of having a discussion that is more objective and unambiguous; whereas other viewpoints, like religious ones, are disallowed. And I think to the extent that we’re able to identify that, to the extent that we are able to recognize that and make it explicit in our conversations, it allows us to maybe shift that balance a little bit. I am a lay Christian; maybe you are too, so we are not full-time professional apologists, but we can learn to uncover these patterns in our circles and to address them.
Let me give you an example. Imagine that you are in an informal conversation, and someone volunteers some kind of philosophical opinion, something that’s deemed philosophical or religious in nature. In response, someone else may say, “There is no absolute truth,” or “no one holds the absolute truth.” Which on the surface sounds very inclusive. It sounds unbiased. This person is asking us not to rush to take any side, so it sounds reasonable.
In reality, though, this statement is self-defeating. The statement, “There is no absolute truth” pretty much begs the question, “Is that absolutely true?” If someone says, “no one can have the absolute truth,” it kind of begs the response, “Do you own absolute truth through what you’re saying?” So the statement doesn’t sustain itself. It’s not objective and dispassionate and unbiased, it’s really stating a viewpoint, an opinion, a philosophy, a belief system even. It’s formally known as post-modernism, which essentially claims that objective reality either doesn’t exist or can’t be perceived in the same way by a group of people, because everyone will alter it or redefine it to some extent based on what they perceive.
Here’s another example. Same conversation. Someone brings up something that’s philosophical or religious in nature, and someone says, “Only scientific facts are absolutely true.” That sounds pretty powerful. I mean, after all, who’s going to stand up against science? This person is seeming to say, “let’s go back to our common denominator – let’s go back to things that we can question or challenge because they’re not opinions, they’re not beliefs, they’re facts.”
The reality, though, is that this statement is about science, but it’s not science itself. Go to Wikipedia or an English dictionary, and you will find a definition of science that goes more or less like this: The identification of causes for natural phenomena, that have predictive power, and can be verified empirically. In other words, science is trying to explain natural phenomena and come up with laws and principles. Those laws and principles have predictive power, which means they can tell you what’s going to happen under certain circumstances, because they seek to explain the way things work; and they can be verified empirically – you can set up experiments to confirm these laws and principles using your senses, or extensions to your senses like thermometers, microscopes and other instruments.
So let’s go back to the statement, “Only scientific facts are absolutely true.” The first thing is I can come up with a couple examples where that’s not the case. The first one is math. Two plus two equals four. Absolutely true, and absolutely independent from the natural world. There is no need for an experiment to confirm the realities of math. Math is a construct of the mind. Math does not depend on science. It’s the opposite: science depends on math. Another example is logical reasoning. Let’s take a syllogism as an example: if I say all humans are mortal, and I am a human, therefore I am mortal. If the origin clauses are true, and they are, the conclusion has to be true as well, and it is. I can apply that line of thinking to things that are not exclusively related to natural phenomena, and again, I don’t need to run any experiments to confirm the truth of these statements. Science presupposes the existence of logical reasoning; it doesn’t sustain it.
And even the statement itself, “only scientific facts are absolutely true.” What kind of experiment could I come up with to confirm that that’s the case? So a person making such a claim is in fact exposing a philosophy, an opinion a viewpoint; dare I say it, a belief system. They’re essentially saying, “I only consider something to be absolutely true if it is of a scientific nature,” which is great as a point of view. We’re all entitled to our own unique, different points of view – so long as that person doesn’t believe that their point of view is somehow superior to others, or intellectually sounder because it talks about science.
What I find fascinating about people who take this viewpoint is that they’re saying two things, whether they know it or not, that are very important. The first one is that absolute truth exists, and the second one is that it is possible to know it. Interestingly enough, Christianity upholds the same facts. We believe there is an absolute truth, and we believe not only that it is possible to experience it, and that everyone would agree to the same truth, we believe it’s vital to do so. Which is interesting, because a lot of times, science is cast as an enemy to religion and vice versa. But the question becomes, are we talking about science, pure and objective, or are we talking about a philosophy or a worldview masquerading as science? And as we realise that in the conversations around us, it gives us an entry point to choose to steer the conversation into an explicit debate about world views and philosophies, and we can convey ours in that space just like everybody else.
I hope you have liked this so far. This is going to be the type of topic that I will be fleshing out over the next few episodes. I appreciate your time today, and I’ll talk to you soon.