I recently wrote about how academics in christian universities and colleges in the USA are finding their professional conclusions coming into conflict with the faith statements of their colleges. But this is an issue that to some degree affects all christians.
How should we respond when secular learning seems to contradict traditional christian belief?
There are many places of tension these days, for example: evolution, Bible inerrancy, genocide in the Old Testament, gay marriage, historical Jesus, hell, science vs faith, etc. In all these and more, young christians in particular are faced with dilemmas, as what they learn at High School and university, or what they pick up of the culture around us from TV and internet, seem to threaten traditional or Biblical truths.
Teens and young adults, especially, have to deal with these dilemmas. What is the right approach?
The right approach?
It seems to me that there are three possible approaches to these dilemmas:
- Hold tight to the traditional christian view – don’t give secular thinking (and the devil) a chance. But this may be a losing battle.
- Embrace secular learning and either become a very liberal christian or give up faith altogether. This seems to ignore half the evidence and throw out the baby with the bathwater.
- Believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding christians to new understandings and truths through new secular learning, and embrace both scholarship and faith.
Different approaches may be required for different issues – not everything new is right. But I suggest christians who love Jesus will want to explore the option #3 before they resort to one of the earlier ones.
So how can we find God’s truth on these matters?
Is truth unchangeable?
Many ‘traditional’ christians regard the truth as unchangeable, fixed by a literal reading of the Bible – and it is their reading that is ‘right’, not anyone else’s. But there are good reasons to suppose that some truths change and some interpretations have to change:
- Jesus said the Holy Spirit would guide his followers into “all truth” (John 16:13), which presumably means they didn’t yet have all the truth even though they had been with him for an extended period.
- The Bible shows progression in revelation and understanding, from the Law to the Prophets, and from the Old Testament to the New.
- One of the characteristics of christianity compared to a religion like Islam is that it has proved to be adaptable, adjusting both doctrine and practice as knowledge and culture change.
- There have been continual revival and reformation in the christian church over two millennia as the Holy Spirit reveals, new or again, some forgotten or previously unseen truths – the Protestant Reformation is perhaps the most obvious example, but there are many others.
So we know that some facts about christian belief (mostly those revealed in the historical accounts of Jesus’ life) cannot change, but how we understand them may change, and many less crucial aspects may need significant revision.
Examples from the past
- Christians were key in the abolition of slavery in UK and USA, but it took a long time for this understanding to hit.
- Similarly with apartheid in South Africa.
- The doctrine of the Trinity took several hundred years to develop.
- The Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal movements in the 20th century re-emphasised some ‘lost’ truths about the Holy Spirit.
- It took the hippies (only some of whom were christians) in the 1960s to remind the church that materialism was a danger and care for the poor and non-violence at the core of Jesus’ teaching.
Issues the Holy Spirit may be drawing to our attention today?
These will be more contentious, but I offer them for your prayerful consideration. I see signs that might indicate that the Holy Spirit is leading christians to re-think what they believe or how they engage with these matters:
- doctrines of the inerrancy of the Bible and the everlasting torment of non-christians in hell;
- how we treat gays;
- evolution and science vs a historical understanding of Genesis 1-3;
- the role of women in the church;
- our attitude to war, greed and our care of God’s creation, especially the threat of climate change.
Aren’t we just pandering to the secular culture around us?
It is always possible that we can be more guided by our culture than by the Holy Spirit. But it is also possible that the Spirit might be working through our culture. In Habakkuk 1:5-6, God tells the prophet that he is about to accomplish his purposes through the warlike Babylonians.
I have observed that if God’s people fail to learn new lessons God is teaching, he will often use secular thinkers to press the point. It is sadly the case that secular wisdom has sometimes been ahead of God’s people on matters like racial equality, sexism, non-violence, materialism and the environment.
So how do we know the truth?
In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is asked the same question, and his answer is (in part):
Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear …. It is a man’s part to discern them …”
We are always having to judge what is right, and the only way to do so is to pray and ask the Spirit to interpret scripture and truth to us. But we cannot trust ourselves alone in this – we need to pray for the Spirit to be guiding all of God’s people.
Will we find Truth?
Surely the key question is this. Are we open to new understandings, and will we ask the Spirit to guide us in this journey?