While I was in the USA, I spoke at the American University in Washington DC. I was invited there by the CRU group, which is a student Christian group which used to be known as Campus Crusade for Christ.
They gave me the topic, “Does it matter what you believe?” The context is that the Christian students, are studying and living their Christian lives out on a very secular campus. They told me that they face a number of challenges there. One is that people say things like, “you can believe whatever you want – it doesn’t really matter.” However, the other challenge comes from the belief that ‘religious people’ are arrogant and intolerant.
They gave me half an hour to address both of those topics, to do two talks in one; which was something of a challenge! So the way I addressed it was to start with the idea that we can’t avoid the fact that some beliefs are mutually exclusive. That’s fairly easy to demonstrate, but the biggest problem we face in our society is how we can live together – despite those differences. So we discussed the idea of ‘tolerance’ – and the way in which tolerance as an ideology doesn’t actually work. “Tolerance” is actually a rather sneaky word, because it causes you to look down on the other person. I also pointed out that ‘religion’ is unfairly targeted in these debates – when people are equally divided about politics, and almost every other issue. Our society today is more divided than ever, and it seems that people have forgotten how to disagree agreeably. (For more about the use and abuse of the concept of tolerance, click here).
My conclusion was to argue that what we really need in order to deal with great divisions we face are two things; the first is a foundation for human dignity (recognising that other people, who are different from us are humans with inherent value, dignity and worth), and the second is a basis for humility. That is, while we must not under-estimate the value of others; we also must not over-estimate our own significance or think that the world rotates around any of us. The reason that that Christianity is important is because it is the only worldview that provides an adequate foundation for both those things. It provides a foundation for human dignity, it says that all human beings are made in the image of God – and therefore possess a inherent worth. However, it also provides a basis for humility – because Christianity is ‘the great humbler’, as it tells me that I am sinful enough that Jesus actually had to die to rescue me. So, if I am ever tempted to feel smug, arrogant or self-reliant, the Christian view of sin and redemption reminds me that I am a messed-up, broken sinner who needs Jesus. The good news of the gospel of course, is that Jesus was willing to die for people like us. It’s Tim Keller who so memorably put it like this in his book “the Reason for God”: “The Christian Gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time.”
As usual we concluded with a time of Q&A, which was very friendly. Maybe they liked my British accent! It is however, always a privilege to serve groups like this, in all the different places we go.
Editor’s Note. Since Andy got back from the USA, Andrew Powars from the Washington CRU group wrote to say:
Dr Andy Bannister is the Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity