Students, Humanists and Muslims in Edmonton

I worked for six years in Canada before I came to Scotland, and was back there recently to do two university missions in the ‘frozen North’! If you think it’s cold here in the UK, try going to Canada and experiencing -30’!
I started my time in Canada at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, at a big student mission week. It was great to see the students really engaged, the lunch-bars full; and people coming to Christ – all the things we get really excited about.
My first talk was on “Jesus and the Failures of the Church”. Many people are disillusioned with the Christian faith because of bad experiences with the Church. That’s either at a personal level, or when the Church has tried to seize power and change society from the top-down, and made a mess of things. This, of course, is in contrast to the message of Jesus, which is still hugely attractive today. My talk drew heavily on the CPX film from Australia, For the Love of God. That documentary takes a very honest look at both the successes and failures of the church through history; and doesn’t shy away from the times the Church has betrayed Christ. However, there have also been some critical moments in history when the Church has reflected something of the beauty of Christ. The point is that Jesus is the measure of everything, and that he offers forgiveness and salvation when we fail to live up to his standards.
The highlights from Edmonton were the two public-dialogue events that I increasingly specialise in. On the first night of the mission I did one with Imam Sherif Ayoup a very well-known local Muslim leader. It was a ‘moderated-dialogue’, so the moderator put questions to both of us and the result was a conversation that really brought out the huge differences between Christianity and Islam, not least, on the issue of “sin and salvation”. In Islam, sin is quite a mild thing: God gives you commandments, and if you break them, you keep a few more to balance the equation. It’s basically an economic relationship. However, in Christianity we understand that sin is a fundamental rupture in our relationship with God which is so drastic that we can’t fix ourselves and thus we need a saviour. That profound difference between Islam and Christianity came out time and time again in the dialogue. It was really, really exciting to be able to share Christ with the many Muslims who came along.

Nathan Betts said, “Andy’s dialogue with an Imam was the highlight of the week for me. The audience that evening was engaged from beginning to end. When each speaker spoke, there was pin drop silence. The beauty and credibility of the Christian faith shone through Andy’s presentation that evening, and in his interaction with the Imam.”

I also had a dialogue with Karen Lumley Kerr, the head of the local humanist association, around the question, “Do human rights make sense without God?” She tried to answer, “yes they do because…..” and drew on our shared evolutionary history. In other words because we all have a shared genetic history, and have DNA in common, we should therefore respect one another. That is a lovely idea but doesn’t really work. After all, I share carbon atoms with a table and I share some genetic history with lettuces, but that doesn’t really mean that I owe lettuces or tables anything! I think we need something deeper than shared genetic heritage on which to ground human rights and dignity.
Interestingly, the language the Universal Declaration of Human Rights uses, speaking of ‘human rights, dignity and value’, is profoundly Christian. So I developed the idea that it’s only the Christian story, which says that we are ‘made in the image of God’, which genuinely confers value on human beings; irrespective of race, gender, ability or so forth. The other thing I brought out in the dialogue is that it isn’t just a question of human rights and dignity, there’s also the question of accounting for the way human beings repeatedly go wrong. Again, if you try and ground your ethics in evolution, the problem is that evolution has thrown up wildly violent behaviour as well as wildly compassionate behaviour. So how do we determine between them? From a Christian perspective, the gospel doesn’t just give us value (in that we are made in the image of God and Christ died for us); it also addresses our brokenness, which is what causes us to flout the rights and dignity of one another in the first place.
All in all, we had a fascinating dialogue. Karen was very friendly, we had a really good evening, and then what was great was that a load of folks from the atheist community came down to the pub with us afterwards where we shared Christ with them until midnight. It was great to engage with some really good questions and see a real openness amongst them.