Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.—Blaise Pascal

It seems like an oxymoron to speak of religion as initiating evil. Most of us live peaceably and do our best to help our neighbours. But are we sometimes guilty of acts of injustice due to misguided religious beliefs? Increasingly I notice that religion is coming under scrutiny in our society. People are questioning whether civilization would be better off if religion vanished or, at the very least, they think that religions need substantial modification.

This topic came into view in early October during an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, with author Sam Harris as the guest. The discussion turned toward Islam and whether or not it was acceptable to critique Islamic beliefs, particularly beliefs that were inconsistent with western values of dignity and respect. Harris and Maher, both atheists, argued that it should be acceptable to criticize aspects of the Islamic faith (or any faith for that matter) and that such critique should not be understood as hatred or bigotry toward Muslims. Others on the panel thought their comments were “racist” and “gross.” Harris argued that his opinions were not spurred by contempt for the people who believe, but rather for the beliefs themselves. He referred to Islam as the “motherlode of bad ideas.” Immediately, social media was aflame with opinions both for and against Harris.

Harris' remarks raised an important question: Are people of faith open to encountering criticism of their beliefs? It's not uncommon to hear some of Christianity's mouthpieces raise the warning flags of “intolerance” and “persecution” the moment someone outside of the church calls us out on some of our less-sophisticated beliefs. Can we withstand such external evaluations and receive constructive criticism? Even more importantly, do we have the courage to critique ourselves? While it's easy for me to offer Muslims ideas about how to advance their belief system, any real change, if it is needed, will only happen through reform efforts from within the Muslim community. Likewise, real change within Christianity, if it is needed, can best be achieved through the efforts of its own adherents.

Undoubtedly, there will be people who scoff at any suggestion that change is needed, especially if the suggestion comes from someone outside of the faith. Christians are some of the toughest people to convince that they don't have everything right—doctrinally or pragmatically. The Protestant church grew up (and into) the belief that absolute knowledge could be obtained. And why not? We worship the source of all truth and live according to a book that is believed to be the very words of that source. We assume that absolute truth is accessible and knowable. Therefore, how could anyone suggest that we may be wrong? We are followers of “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

We forget, however, that while God may be perfect, humanity isn't. And if humanity isn't perfect, it follows that our theology isn't either. While God's nature is absolute, it doesn't mean that our version of Christianity is as well. Consider the example of women in ministry and leadership. Ever since Catherine Booth stood to “say a word” at Gateshead chapel in 1860, women have been preachers and leaders in The Salvation Army. However, a large number of Christian denominations believe our position on this is in error. They point to a number of Bible verses that speak about “female submission” and “male headship” and say the case is closed. In this regard, The Salvation Army's position is more in line with the societal norms of gender equality, while other denominations could be seen as lagging behind. It's not that The Salvation Army acquiesced to cultural values in this matter; it just so happens that our views coincide with those of our culture and maybe even influenced them. From our vantage point, we might think that other denominations are in error. However, on other important issues, we may be the laggards, while other churches and our culture have surpassed us.

Can you think of what some of those issues may be? Is this a time for religious people, including Salvationists, to open our minds and be willing to evaluate some of our opinions and beliefs? The Holy Spirit is at work in the entire world, not just our own little piece of it. Perhaps we can see him working through the lives of those we might not expect. We may even find ourselves representing Christ better as a result.

Major Juan Burry is the executive director of Rotary Hospice House in Richmond, B.C.


On Friday, February 20, 2015, Kathie Chiu said:

This was an interesting article and the comments are great. I appreciate the challenge from Jonathan about not letting culture dominate nor steer our theology and doctrines. However, I think we need to be involved with our culture and evaluate how our own beliefs can intersect with culture, engaging people in thoughtful discussion.

I also am reminded as I read your comments how the bible has been used in the past and interpreted to support slavery and the separation of the races. As our society has changed and evolved over the years, we have come to believe these things are wrong. Our culture accepts that racism is wrong and that slavery is abhorrent. However, to think those ideas came exclusively from Christian beliefs would be a mistake. Many, who were not Christians, were involved in civil rights work and together with some Christians, who were considered "progressive" in their day, worked to fight against injustice. I know of young adults today that have deep and strongly held values against social injustices. These ideas in them are not there because they read and believe the bible. Therefore, I must conclude that our culture's values are intersecting with Christian values.

This has been an interesting conversation. Thank you for the article, Juan, and thanks to John for engaging in conversation about it.

On Saturday, January 17, 2015, Juan Burry said:

In response to the comments by Jonathan, I would like to make the following points:

1. The reference to Catherine Booth that I made was not intended to be an example of the church/Army appealing to culture. I don't think I said that it was. Rather it's consequence (female equality in ministry) is to be viewed in our modern context and how it compares to current cultural values. The point that I was making is that kingdom values and certain cultural values can sometimes find commonality. I think this is an important point to make, as there are a number of Christians who feel the only acceptable posture towards society is a counter-cultural one. While sometimes that is necessary, I maintain that it is not a default position we should take and that we miss out on education, growth and revelation when we do.

2. I did not say that journalists held any "authority" or that Western culture was "correct". This is an inference that was drawn. So I will clarify by saying that culture and those within our society are not always right, but should be listened to and engaged with.

3. The main thrust of this column (as with most of my contributions to this magazine) is evangelical. It is borne out of a deep concern that many of the people that we hope to reach with the gospel will not give us a second thought or consideration since we are often perceived as close-minded and arrogant. Without any attempt to change that perception, then it becomes reality.

4. Attempting to answer the question as to which culture should we take as authoritative by listing a variety of cultural expressions is somewhat of a wild-goose chase. I never stated that culture is authoritative. I only suggested that it should be listened to and considered. Since the first step is merely being open to engagement with some cultural values, then I see no problem with listening to a variety of cultures. I would hope that once conversation has started, then Christians would employ the ethical framework and tools at our disposal to make judicious decisions that seem right (e.g. our Wesleyan quadrilateral - attending to the filters of reason, tradition, experience and scripture).

5. I think it may be important to clarify the quote from the Articles of War. The word "world", in the Christian lexicon, may have a number of meanings. It may be seen as the culture in which we find ourselves. It may simply mean the physical world or all the people in it. It may mean, as it often does in the Bible, a system that is in direct opposition to God. When it comes to the soldiers' covenant, I think it has the latter in mind. Sometimes kingdom values and cultural values overlap. It would be incorrect to say that Salvationist values (or kingdom values) never line up with the values of the world in which we live. However, it would be correct to say that Salvationist values (or kingdom values) are never "world-ly". This clarification is somewhat moot since I never suggested we make the values of the world our own instead of kingdom values.

6. The suggestion to engage with Scripture in isolation from culture and then discuss how we can express it to that culture seems to present a narrow way of developing Christian ethics. I would suggest that not only do we appeal to Doctrine #1, but also #3. A triune understanding of God would help us see that God is at work in the whole world, not just our piece of it. Rather than merely expressing our ethics to our culture, perhaps we can engage with it instead.

We should not be so narrow in our thinking as to assume that the values of God's boundless kingdom are captured within our constructed frameworks. Perhaps in many places the values of the kingdom are being lived out and it is happening outside of the boundaries of what's familiar to us. Humbly acknowledging that fact may help us live out our covenant more thoroughly.

I trust that clarifies.

On Saturday, January 17, 2015, Jonathan Evans said:

I want to affirm that Christians should always be willing to evaluate our opinions and beliefs. It is necessary to be able to be challenged and enter discourse of teachings and behaviours that we propose. The surrounding culture often sets this agenda and Salvationists as Christians should always be prepared to answer to the hope that we have.

Concerning to me however is the argument appeals to the authority of journalists and surrounding culture. The example of female ministry in The Salvation Army was not an appeal to surrounding culture. While a popular position in the 21st century, Catherine Booth was going against the grain of culture because she was inspired by The Spirit of God and interpreted scripture in her pamphlet Female Ministry in a fresh way. Yes, we must listen to our pundits and accept challenges to be theologically rigorous but never should the reference point be our surrounding culture. The Scriptures explicitly warn Christians to not submit to the world's standards (Rom 12; Phil 2:15; 1 John 2:15-17). Salvationists covenant "to make the values of the Kingdom of God and not the values of the world the standard for my life." To be open to progressive revelation, must first have a sound foundation in epistemology followed by sound exegesis and a thorough cultural hermeneutic. Only then can we welcome conversations on beliefs and practices. I suggest that we inquire the Lord and humbly acknowledge human reason and culture apart from God's revelation are limited. God's truth interpreted throughout history in the experience of the church and reliant on God's Spirit is where we arrive safely under God's counsel.

Further, this article supposes that contemporary Western culture is correct and ubiquitous. If we want to interpret our doctrines and lifestyle by culture, which culture should we consider authoritative? William Booth’s Victorian culture or the General’s London culture? My Vancouver liberally educated secular culture or my neighbours conservative Chinese culture? My fellow salvationists in Kenya or Sweden? John Chrysostom’s 4th century culture or Eckhart Tolle’s 21st century culture?

I would suggest a step back in this discussion and begin with our first doctrine and ask how scripture authoritative and sufficient? How are we to interpret it and how do we apply it to our lives? Then we can discuss how this interpretation is expressed to our surrounding culture.

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