The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Politicians and business people all over the world have a high interest in the issue of “reconciliation”, says the director of RZIM. “People need to see that there is a distinct, unique and vital contribution that is made through the Gospel”.
Michael Ramsden, international director of RZIM and joint director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA) will be one of the speakers at the upcoming Apologetics Forum to be held in Spain.
In a conversation with Evangelical Focus, the apologist analysed the challenges of an increasingly secularised Europe where the collapse of nominal Christianity contrasts with a new openness to faith among young people.
Ramsden has spoken to students, business people and politicians in several countries. He is convinced that Christians should use every opportunity to answer the difficult questions of non-believers. “We need to share the Gospel through people’s questions”, he says.
In an social context where a new “victim culture” causes more polarisation and divide, the Bible has much to say about reconciliation, Ramsden explains in the following interview.
Question. Michael, you were brought up in the Middle East. How has this helped you to better understand some of the East-West relationships and conflicts in situations like the current refugee crisis or Islamic terrorism?
Answer. I think it has been very helpful, for at least two reasons. Firstly, in the Middle East, issues of hospitality are very important. When you are a guest in someone’s country, you are very honoured. You want to treat them with a special form of respect and extend hospitality to them, which includes food. Around the dinner table you talk about everything: the meaning of life, politics, religion… everything. Even if you come to disagree, you find a way to do it well.
I think it was interesting for me, because when I first came over to Europe, people were very nervous talking to people from the Middle East. They though: “Oh, I can’t ask questions or talk about this and that, it may cause offence and difficulties”. So, a lot Europeans think that, in order to be polite an accepting, we should not talk about certain things. Whereas if you come from the Middle East, this does not sound polite, it sounds rude: “Why are you not prepared to talk about these things? Do you think I am not worth talking to?” So, the lack of hospitality and the lack of conversation is not taken as a sign of kindness or of ‘giving space’, it can be actually interpreted the other way, quite negatively. I think that is mistake we have made in some places in Europe.
The other thing is that we have to ask the question why some people in Europe are going to join groups like Islamic State (Daesh) and fight with them. Part of the answer to that is that in Europe we don’ know what we stand for anymore, or why. When you commit yourself to something, you are making a moral decision. You commit to things that will make a difference. And when groups like the IS become romanticised in the European mind, young people think: “These people stand for something, they believe in something, they are willing to do something about it”. And then they will commit themselves to that, because there is nothing else that is asking that kind of commitment from them.
I think that raises a very important question for us within Europe, which is: What are we asking people to be committed to? What do we stand for? And what difference are we prepared to make? In the absence of a challenge there, if you like, which should come from the Gospel, which we sometime don’t give in fear of making things too difficult for people; in the absence of any other competing voices, people will give themselves into these other things instead. And of course, that can be disastrous, as we know.
Q. Recent statistics quoted in the newspaper The Guardian showed that more than 70% of young people in countries like the Czech Republic, Sweden, the Netherlands or even the UK say they have “no religion”. Sociology of religion professor Stephen Boulivant says: “In 20 or 30 years’ time mainstream churches will be smaller but the few people left will be highly committed”. Do you think we will soon see the end of nominal or traditional Christianity in Europe?
A. I certainly think nominal belief in Europe will collapse. There is no reason to belief it anymore. In the past, nominal belief was driven by the fact that, well, in order to be socially acceptable, in order to be seen as a good person, you had to go to church. Even if you didn’t enjoy it, you still would go. But that is certainly dying out. Even now, the way that we have defined morality, going to church is seen as a bad thing: it’s seen as a sign of intolerance and ignorance.
So, the cultural advantage of going to church has largely disappeared in many places, I think he is correct in that.
On the other side, although it is admittedly small, the last few times I have spoken in European-wide conferences where you have leaders from multiple different countries, all the leaders I have spoken to have talked about seeing young people becoming Christians. These are not massive numbers, we are not talking about tens of thousands of people. But what is encouraging is that it is uniform, it is not that some countries are saying “yes” and other saying “no”.
Even in our experience in Spain, when we did the ‘Reboot’ youth conference there, was that people did respond and think: “actually, I want to be a Christian”. My hope is that very early signs of awakening and openness in some of the younger generation may flourish into something much bigger and bring a real difference in the hearts and minds of many people. On that, I am slightly more optimistic.
Q. The theme of the ‘Fórum Apologética’ (Apologetics Forum) this year is: “Being influencers in a secular society”. How does being a inflencuer look like for us as Christians, compared to other styles of influence we see in society?
A. A lot of the way we do influence today in Europe is through power. We do a lot of political lobbying, trying to persuade people to create an exemption for something or grant permission for something. A lot of that is done through an appeal to a large popular movement demanding or some kind of exercise of power to bring something about.
But Christian influence is different. Christian influence fundamentally comes through serving, which you could see even in the early days of the Christian church, when they had no political power and no political influence, and were even persecuted under the Roman administration. It was through both being very clear with the message and dealing with difficult questions directly, but also very clear in terms of engagement with the culture (in terms of how to serve) that, as the church gave herself to that, and laid down her life down in service of the people that she was trying to reach, the end result was, eventually, a huge shift within the Roman Empire as it then was. All of a sudden, what was persecuted and ridiculed was later embraced and became mainstream.
We need to rediscover some of that narrative. We need to admit the legitimacy of some of the questions and objections the people bring. Rather than to see these as a threat to our faith, we should see it as an opportunity to share our faith. We also need to think what it does mean to live and serve in this culture in a way in which we can truly change and transform things.
Q. You also speak about integrity in the public life. Some young Christians may be thinking: “I want to do a career in politics”, but they realise how difficult it is to be truthful in these contexts. How should we train young people to be light in these areas of society?
A. First of all, we need to help Christians to be very wise. What we need to help people see that, actually, the issue of integrity is fundamental to all of life and all of society. Integrity is that sense of feeling whole and integrated. But most people feel they live a very divided existence. Even if they are non-Christians: one has to be something at work, something else with the family, something else with their friends… So we feel split across a lot of different areas.
Most people start with a desire to be admired. Mostly young people, when they went into the workplace and into politics, about 30-40 years ago, they would have dreamt that as they got older, people would have admired them and respected them for the way that they lived and conducted themselves. But their experience is that “as I go through life, I have to make so many compromises and give up so much I don’t feel integrated at all, I feel that somehow I’m divided in my heart in so many ways”. The first thing to do is to tap into desire that we do have to see integrity and a live well lived. We may become cynical as we grow older, but there is this desire for it.
The other thing to remember is that the Christian faith as a lot of compassion in it. In our culture, we believe that conviction (what we believe to be right and wrong) runs counter to compassion. We have to show that actually conviction and compassion run together. You can have strong convictions and beliefs, and yet at the same time you can be compassionate in terms of how you engage with and respond to failures.
We need to help people think more sophisticatedly about it, and also help the church recover her public voice, so that when she speaks about integrity, it doesn’t sound like we are moralising and telling other people that they are bad. We need to find a way that talks about integrity also in a positive way, that inspires people.
And the amazing thing about the Christian Gospel is that even when our integrity fails, there is a way for restoration and there is a way to come back.
Q. Are our societies ready to let Christians express their belief and their willingness to serve in a context where atheism has been helping to push religion out of the public spaces?
A. I think right across Europe we have to deal with this assumption that if you are right, intelligent and able, then the default position is atheism or agnosticism.
I was speaking recently, in a very different setting, in Bermuda. I met an awful lot of people there, and there were atheists that came up and actually thanked us for the meeting that we were doing publicly in the country. We had about 1.5% of the population attend one of the meetings, which is very significant. What was interesting is the gratitude, and the thanks from agnostic and atheists that were telling us: “What you are talking about is so important, and these questions you are raising are absolutely fundamental, and we had no idea that the Christian faith had such a good response and understanding of this”.
So, if we are going to recover some of these public areas, people need to see that there is a distinct, unique and vital contribution that is made in and through the Gospel that makes a big difference in all of these areas.
People often think integrity is an optional extra – you only do it if you can afford to be moral. But even in economies where the mafia is at the centre, if you are a member of the mafia, you believe in integrity. You cannot lie, cheat and steal from the family. If it is outside the family, you can do what you want, but in the family, your ethical and moral commitments are absolute. So, the question is not: “Is there a circle to which morality applies?” but “How big is this circle?” Is the circle just me? Is it the family? Is it my town? Is it my company? Is it my country? Is it Europe? Is it the world?
Once people begin to understand that some of these things are not optional in life, but necessary, then the next question is: “Where do these morals come from?”, “why do I only extend it to some people and not to others?” And “what does that actually mean for me?”. And this is when in public life people say: “Wait a minute, these are very important questions”. These are the kind of things in which the Gospel begins to make a very big difference.
We need to recover some of that narrative, especially in the European imagination.
Q. “A God of love in a world in conflict” is the title of another of your talks. Last year, 2017, was defined by experts as the “annus horribilis” of the social media. How can we as Christians help to bring reconciliation in this context of polarisation?
A. As I travel around the world, more governments and businesses ask me to speak of the topic of reconciliation than any other. That tells you something about the world in which we live. That is true right across Europe, but also in the Middle East, Asia, America and so on.
Our culture has fundamentally changed. In the past we used to talk about honour cultures. In an honour culture we respect and admire leadership that acts with honour and defends its honour. So, if you attack me I respond in a way in order to defend my honour and be honourable. That is how I earn respect and status. We would sometimes contrast that with a dignity culture. In a dignity culture, I do not need to act to defend my honour, the important thing is that I expect to be treated with dignity and I respond with dignity. If someone attacks me and criticises me, I may decide to say nothing publicly. I may go quietly to the individual and talk with them and make peace with them. And that would be seen as a dignified response, I would be respected for that, people would admire that, and applaud it.
Now, we increasingly live in what we call a victim culture. In a victim culture, everybody feels that they are defined by all the bad things that happened to them in the past or are happening to them now. We are all looking to be part of a group that has a special status, because of all the suffering and the pain that we have been through. So we hold on to offence, when we are offended, because it helps define us.
In a victim culture, we very quickly start thinking along lines like this: “Everything I do and say is motivated by love, but anything you do, if you disagree with me, is only explicable to hate”. As soon as that becomes the cultural narrative, disagreement is taken as being hatred. So, we start talking about creating safe spaces, and many people in the culture feel: “I can’t say this, I can’t disagree with that, because to do so, would be akin to hatred and I don’t want to be accused of hating people”.
But that creates a huge problem. We are not talking about things that potentially divide us. And because we believe that everyone that disagrees with us hates us, we feel justified to be hateful in our response to them. So, we get locked in a circle of grievance: “You did this to me”, “No, no, you did that to me before”, and then we are looking to see who is guilty of the worst crime. That makes reconciliation and forgiveness almost impossible.
We will be talking about this in some length during the conference, because it is becoming now one of the biggest narratives culturally within Europe.
Again, this is something where the Gospel has something very powerful to say. We have to learn to forgive, but how do we forgive properly when we have genuine grievance, genuine loss, genuine pain, when we feel genuine injustice, and things have failed. How do we make sure that this does not spiral into violence? This is when the power and the kind of healing that come through the Gospel is absolutely foundational to any society. Of all people, Christians should have the most hope.
The last time I have spoken to European political leaders, they are very much aware of this shift in culture and they are not sure how to respond to it. But I think in and through Christ there is a unique response that we can make.
Q. The annual reports of Christian student movements such as IFES show that more non-Christian students are attending events organised by Christian students now than ever before in the last decades. What is changing in the universities?
A. One thing is that, because we know that as Christians in Europe we are now a small number, that helps us to come together in unity and prayer. Therefore, we learn to work together and we also become more dependent on God. That always makes a very big difference.
Secondly, we realise that we have to answer the difficult questions of the culture. We can’t avoid them. Even if we want to talk about something different, as soon as the questions start, people will ask about what they really want to hear about. What is beginning to happen is that, as we have thought about some of these issues better, we realise that actually, we have something to say that makes a difference. Non-Christians are then surprised that we are prepared to take their questions.
The way we figure out if anything is true, we ask lots of questions in many different ways. If I am saying the truth, you should be able to question in multiple directions and it will still stand together. If it holds together, someone will say: “You know what? Maybe this is true and it makes a difference”.
So, I think the willingness of students now in campuses up and down the world – but also in the context of business and politics too – to say: “Look, you can ask any question you want, we are going to do our very best to give a meaningful response”, will surprise people and make them want to know what else we have to say, and what else the Bible says. That becomes the door through which we can see some of this growth.
That should encourage all of us Christians to be slightly more bold by saying to people: “Please ask your questions, please bring the issues you are struggling with, please bring the difficult things that you are wrestling with”. And if that is where people are, then we can start there and then walk towards the hope we have in Christ.
We need to learn to share the Gospel not by avoiding people’s questions. We need to share the Gospel through people’s questions.