This week I’m in Auckland taking part in a couple of speaking events as part of Jesus Week at the University of Auckland. On Wednesday the 4th of August I really enjoyed taking part in a panel discussion with Matt and Madeleine Flannagan, called “A Godless Public Square”? The broad subject area was the legitimate role of religious convictions in public life, law and politics – certainly a topical area of discussion today. Pat Brittenden did a great job as moderator/ facilitator of discussion, providing a relaxed and really open forum for conversation.
Matt began with a more theological angle, talking about the legitimacy of imposing “private” beliefs onto others, along with a strong emphasis on Christians living an undivided life, not separating ourselves into two people: One with one set of values that we cherish in private, and another serving as our public persona, where we disavow those same values, even though we take them to be the correct values to espouse as reflections of reality. There is a clear disconnect in thinking that policies are morally appropriate for all citizens, and yet we have a moral obligation not to support them as policies – in spite of all other citizens doing precisely this with the private convictions when it comes to a whole range of sincerely held moral or political theories.
I was next up, talking about the kinds of concerns raised in political philosophy over just why religious beliefs are supposedly such a problem in a modern, pluralistic western democracy. There’s a popular concern that religious convictions are somehow uniquely divisive, which is really a misguided worry. Firstly religious convictions are not necessarily more divisive than any other kind of conviction, where they are even divisive at all, and secondly, sometimes the promotion of divisive policies is perfectly appropriate (consider the abolitionist movement, for example). Secondly I looked at the concern that the policies we support for religious reasons lack the right type of justification. It seems to me, as I explained on the night, that lurking behind this concern is a thinly veiled anti-religious bias which assumes without argument that of course any religious convictions we have must be groundless and indefensible in any public forum.
Madeleine rounded the evening off with a fascinating look at the legal issues involved, both in New Zealand constitutional legislation and also in case law and legal principles hammered out in the UK and the United States. The structural separation of church and state, contrary to a common misconception, was never meant to strip religious values from public life. What’s more, current New Zealand legislation, specifically our human rights legislation, gives us every reason to think that we are quite free to bring our whole selves into public life, religious convictions and all. With some worrying legal decisions being made elsewhere in the world (especially the UK) in spite of ostensible freedom of religion, without taking an alarmist approach we do need a vigilance when it comes to maintaining a public mood that is generally accepting of the pluralistic approach to democracy, with citizens free to live out their faith in public with a genuine tolerance shown not just by the religious citizens, but by their non-religious peers.
The questions that followed showed that the presentation was well received by those in attendance and clearly provoked some thinking that will hopefully continue.
The next day (today) at Midday I took part in a regular event called “Grill a Christian,” along with Matt Flannagan and Zachary Arden. Essentially it’s an open forum where people can throw questions at guests to get their perspective on issues. Questions ranged from same-sex marriage to the nature of Genesis 1 and creation, right through to the age-old problem of suffering.
Next was my last engagement for the week, where I presented an explanation of the “minimal facts” method of defending the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. It was actually the first time I have spoken publicly specifically about the resurrection, so it was great to have the opportunity to branch out more specifically into Christian apologetics. My purpose was not so much to convince those present that Jesus really did rise from the dead. In fact, although the talk was in principle open to the public, it was clear that most of those in attendance were themselves Christians. My main purpose therefore was to demonstrate how to communicate the truth of the resurrection of Jesus to open minded enquirers.
These events have been stimulating and enjoyable and hopefully productive, and I’m certainly thankful for opportunities like this. While it has also certainly been good to catch up with friends up here, as always I look forward to returning home to my family. The trouble will be adjusting to going back to work where I don’t engage any of these fascinating issues or work with people in the way that I’d like to. But one must earn one’s crust somehow!