Also See Living in Babylon
Too Late For America? When Nations Die and Holiness
The Contemporary Church
It was many years ago now, but I’ll never forget it. I was 19 and I tried to talk about my faith at a special dinner at the University of Cambridge. There was a Nobel Prize winner sitting next to me. After the meal, he invited me up to his room, with a number of other senior academics but no other students. He sat me down: “Lennox, do you want a career in science? If you do, give up these childish notions of God. They will cripple you. They will put you right out of the running.”
I felt the pressure. He was telling me: “You’ll not look good.”
There are many young people feeling that same pressure today. They’re nervous about confessing that they’re Christians because of people thinking the same thing, because Christianity is seen as anti-intellectual.
Choose Life That You Might Live
Many, if not most, non-Christians assume that Christianity is a "blind faith"... that Christians ignore reality and have unquestioning loyalty to an absolute belief system without proof or evidence. In fact, that they believe contrary to all evidence and facts. Much to the contrary, the Christian faith is a commitment based on evidence. The Judeo-Christian faith consistently stresses the importance of truth, and makes appeal to evidence to support it's truth claims.
I rather nervously but firmly said to him: “Sir, what have you got to offer me that’s better than what I’ve got?” What he offered me was the evolutionary philosophy of Henri Bergson (of which you may have never heard). I said: “I’ll stick with what I’ve got and take the risk.”
It’s a story I told during my recent public debate with atheist philosopher Michael Ruse for The Big Conversation on Unbelievable?. I’ve never forgotten that day. It convicted me that, if ever I was given a public platform, I would use it to make the intellectual case for Christ to a secular society.
The biblical story of Daniel explores a cultural transition, and its effect on public profession of faith in God. Daniel came from a tiny monotheistic culture in the ancient Near East. As a teenager he was suddenly and unexpectedly taken to Babylon; an intellectual and deeply polytheistic culture. Nebuchadnezzar had invaded Judea and captured Jerusalem, and taken Daniel and his friends. Because Daniel was intelligent, fit and good-looking, he was put into the educational programme through which Nebuchadnezzar trained his elite administrators.
Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel gives us a picture of Daniel reflecting and reading a book so heavy that someone has to support it (see below). It reminds us that the man, by any accounts, was brilliant. When Nebuchadnezzar investigated him and examined him at the end of his university career – and it was very unusual for the emperor to conduct a final examination – he found Daniel to be ten times more brilliant than anybody else.
Articulating The Faith
Daniel was physically transported without warning to an alien culture. We may not personally experience enforced displacement in another country, but in recent years and with increasing acceleration, we have seen the culture around us shift from being broadly monotheistic into being increasingly relativistic and atheistic – a culture that marginalises the possibility of articulating faith in God in public.
The dean of students in Babylon gave Daniel and his friends new names. They tried to homogenise Daniel and his friends by a mechanism of primitive social engineering – no one must stand out. This is exactly what is happening in our Western societies at all kinds of levels. It was a crude but very effective technique.
Nevertheless, Daniel maintained his faith in and devotion to God.
As I get older I meet more and more people that have maintained their faith and belief in God in the midst of our postmodern culture. They go to church and say their prayers, but they’ve long since given up any notion of engaging in public witness for God. The impressive thing about Daniel is that he not only maintained the private practice of his faith in God; he also maintained a cutting edge witness into old age. To maintain your faith in God and your public witness in that kind of situation is not easy. So what is the secret of Daniel’s stability, conviction, power and understanding? And how can we, like Daniel, remain stable in a culture that appears to undermine everything that Christians stand for?
The Hand Of God In History
As he speaks of his situation in his eponymous book, Daniel explains how he was completely removed from his comfort zone, precipitated into a new and very lonely situation where he had to learn a new language, new laws, new literature, new everything – yet he perceived that God had allowed it to happen. It’s very easy to see the hand of God if life is going well; we’re all experts at doing that. But to see the hand of God behind things that aren’t going well is a very different matter indeed.
In chapter 9 of the book, when Daniel is praying about the devastation of Jerusalem, which he was forced to leave, he analyses why his captivity happened. God had spoken through the prophets to the nation and told them that if they started to lose their confidence in him and his word, and allow secular thought and polytheism to eat out the heart of their commitment to God, if they started to play around with idols, they would end up in Babylon, the home of idolatry. When this occurred, Daniel saw that the word of God had come true. It was Daniel’s confidence in scripture that enabled him to overcome the great problem that history had set him.
In the New Testament Jesus is recorded as having said similar things. He warned people of the danger of compromise, of becoming intellectually, morally and spiritually disloyal to him. Those things have consequences; could they have global consequences? If there’s a moral dimension to history, then can Europe simply say “no” to God and write God out of its constitution and expect no consequences? Of course it can’t.
Two Opposing Worldviews
In the midst of a materialistic interpretation of how the universe came to be, Daniel held on to a Godcentred view. The Babylonians believed that the universe could be explained through the concept that primeval matter first existed, and the gods arose from it.
Many of my colleagues are atheists, some of them physicists, and they will tell me: “Look, there is evidence of great intelligence in this universe, far beyond our intelligence. Look at the fine-tuning of the universe and so on.” But if you question them further they will say: “But of course, this intelligence is natural. It has evolved from the primeval stuff of the universe just as much as any other intelligence.” In other words, they believe exactly the same about the nature of the universe as the Babylonians did. That makes this ancient Babylonian worldview deeply relevant for the 21st Century.
The central issues of the contemporary God debate in our country, and in the West in general, is between two worldviews, just as Daniel experienced. One that says we start with mass energy (wherever that came from), and the laws of nature (wherever they came from), and everything else proceeds out of that by an unguided, mindless process. And in the end it reaches up to mind and reaches up to the idea of god because no God exists.
The opposite worldview is that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1); “In the beginning was the Word”, all things came to be through him (John 1:1-3). That is, the biblical worldview starts with mind. The presupposition made by many of the institutions in this country is that the materialistic explanation is the only valid one and every other one must be quiet.
Turn to the famous story of the lion's den. The top civil servants want to get rid of Daniel because Darius wants to promote him to the most senior position. They investigate him and send the secret police, who can find nothing against him. They say: “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God” (Daniel 6:5). So they hatch a plan that leads to Daniel’s night in the lions’ den. They go to the emperor and say to him:
“We really think that you should have a focus for the nation. We’re suggesting, just for 30 days that you ban all prayer except to your majesty.”
“Oh! What a marvellous idea!”
“And, your majesty, here’s the document. Sign it. According to the law of Medes and Persians that cannot be altered and cannot be changed.”
They were doing something that’s happening all the time in the modern world. They were creating a positive law that forces a choice between that law and the law of God. It’s an example of positive discrimination; with the intent to stop Daniel publicly professing his faith in God.
What are we going to do about permissions to publicly practice the Christian faith in our setting? Today we hear talk of ‘faith schools’, by which people mean religious schools, but every school is a faith school. Some of our schools are pumping atheism all the time. What our society has failed to realise is that atheism is a belief system, every bit as much as Christianity or any of the other major religions. But they’ve cleverly pushed a false definition of ‘faith’ into society. They think ‘faith’ is a religious term for believing where there’s no evidence. They can describe me, for instance, as a ‘man of faith’ since they say I believe where there’s no evidence. This is an insult. They also imagine that they are not people of faith, they’re people of science, as if you didn’t need faith for science. Of course you do – you cannot do any science unless you believe that the universe is accessible by the human mind.
Faith and Facts
Some suggest we cannot find facts to support our faith, nor is it preferable to try. This is silly. We're enjoined to have faith in part because we have evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. However, biblical faith is not just intellectual assent. It's not just acknowledging that certain facts about Jesus, the Bible, the resurrection, or whatever, happen to be true. It's taking your life and putting it on the line based on your confidence in those facts.
Do Extraordinary Events Require Extraordinary Evidence?
The Christian position only asks that we use the same reasoning and rational thought that we use to derive what are considered good conclusions in historical investigation, and apply those same means and methods to the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus.
Return with me to Daniel’s capture at the start of the book. Daniel didn’t protest against having the Babylonian education. He didn’t run away. But, crucially, he knew where to stand up and protest. He said: “I’m not going to eat the food and drink the wine.” People have speculated as to the reason for this; I think Daniel had such an insight as a teenager that he realised that if he started drinking the libations at the meals he might end up at the kind of idolatrous feast that was put on by Belshazzar in Daniel 5.
Daniel said: “Give us food that is not contaminated in that way.” And the man was terrified. He liked Daniel and he said: “Why should I risk my head with the king?” Daniel said: “Test us.”
Notice that Daniel was very gentle with this man in his protest; a lesson for how we should treat people who disagree with us as we stand up for Christ in our postmodern culture. Like Daniel, we must show respect and honour amidst our protest. Every man and woman, whether they disagree with us or not, is made in the image of God and worthy of infinite respect. “Test us,” said Daniel and his friends. And after ten days they looked better than everybody else.
Babylon had changed these men’s names, but it couldn’t change the men. Babylon always changed names; the basic philosophy of Babylon was: “Let us make our name great.” But Daniel had a Hebrew name which meant “God is my judge.” Even Daniel’s name witnessed to the fact that he believed there was an absolute morality and a transcendent judge outside space and time. There are only two ways of living: one is that we restlessly try to create our own name, as did Babylon – and as our culture calls us to do today. Or we learn to trust God for the significance of our name. Babylon may have changed Daniel’s name, but Daniel never lost his identity.