Society Cries Out for Values of Faith

January 21, 2013 — With its preponderance of violence, greed, and immorality, today’s secular society needs the transformational power that only the values of faith can provide, Yale professor Lamin Sanneh said last November at Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS).

Sanneh, who was speaking at the annual Stob Lectures sponsored by CTS and Calvin College, said that while separation between church and state may be a helpful tool in today’s culture for managing the conflicting demands of politics and religion, it is both difficult and ultimately destructive for society and often for religion itself, Sanneh said.

“There cannot be a rigid separation between church and state,” said Sanneh, professor of missions and world Christianity at Yale University.

In a lecture that ranged from the state of Christianity in Africa to the political approaches of Muslims and Christians, Sanneh said it is neither healthy nor particularly easy to divide the political and moral impulses of human beings.

Both have their purposes, he said.

“The secular state is very good at using values, but not at producing values,” he said in one of the lectures. “Religion has a most important role to play in creation of the common good.”

Society flourishes, he said, by its diverse character and the care and service that we show one another, especially since we are sinful people whose tendency toward self-exaltation, abuse of others, and individual success goes against the idea of a common good and a sovereign God.

“Being a political animal and carrying on political transactions is not enough,” Sanneh said. “Human beings are not logical animals in a political landscape. We are imbued by our Creator with the knowledge and ability to do right and wrong.”

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If this lecture is actually reported by this article, it seems to me there was failure to articulate the distintinction between "separation between church and state" and "separating government from any religious perspective."

Properly defined, there should be separation between (the institutional) church and the state (government).  But separating government and governing from religoius perspective is an impossibility, let alone unadvisable.

It seems to me that this article, perhaps this lecture, is probably intended to persuade CRC'ers that it is good when the CRCNA, at the denominational level, involves itself in political lobbying efforts (as it does) and taking specific political positions (as it does).  Doing that will, in the long run, result in little more than the institutional church becoming less of a church and more of a political organization.  If anyone cannot already see that trend clearly in a number of the mainline churches, he or she just isn't willing to recognize it.  The other result will be trimming off members who either don't want to belong to combination church/lobby or don't favor the particular political perspective taken by the church.

Reformed thinking has already solved the "problem" this lecturer seems concerned about.  Reformed thinking, even Abraham Kuyper himself, distinguished between the church as institution and the church as organism.  The CRCNA is an example of a church as institution.  An example of the church as organism, in my life at least, would be Oregon Right to Life, or Christian Legal Society, places where Christian combine their forces to do particular stuff in the world that should be done by the church as organism (the holy catholic church).  The advantage of having both (church and institution and church as organism) is that one can be involved in both a smaller family (church as institution) and a bigger family (church as organism).

"With its preponderance of violence, greed, and immorality, today's secular society..."  How is today's different from yesterday's?  Was U.S. society in 1876 less greedy, violent and immoral?  How would you measure that?  That would be the year, by the way, when Custer was defeated at Little Bighorn in a war sparked by the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, a war that would also see a massacre at Wounded Knee.  Was it less violent, greedy, and immoral in 1680 London?  What about 1525 Germany when Luther railed against the "murdering, thieving bands of peasants"?  I'm sure neither Saracen nor Crusader had a thought for filthy lucre while they were virtuously slaughtering one another on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean.  The fact is, human society, secular and otherwise, has been violent, greedy, and immoral since Adam bit the apple and his son Cain murdered his other son, as even a passing familiarity with history will amply demonstrate.  There is nothing unique about modern sin.

"The secular state is very good at using values, but not at producing values..."  What, pray tell, are "values"?  It's one of those words we toss out as if everyone means the same thing by it, but we don't.  I might also point out that the reason we have a secular state in the U.S. is because the religious states of Europe had spent nearly 120 years killing each other after Luther interfered with the sale of indulgences and greedy princes saw an opportunity to confiscate church lands in the name of Jesus.  It would seem the religious state isn't very good at producing values, either.

"...individual success goes against the idea of a common good and a sovereign God."  Since when?  Does that include Professor Sanneh's own individual success?  A Yale prof holding an endowed chair - that's no slouch job (average salary of a Yale full professor in 2012 was $180,000, by the way, and an endowed chair is typically above average).  Or is it only the individual success of businessmen that mitigates against a sovereign God and the common good?

Which gets me to the real problem I have with this talk as reported (and it's possible Professor Sanneh's actual lectures take on these matters - we must allow that a report doesn't include all the nuances of a lecture series).  There's nothing of "us" about it.  It's as if it's all "those people".  It's as if such selfless paragons of virtue as university professors, seminarians, and preachers are exempt. We happy few, living on the proceeds of donations from working people and businessmen - we aren't greedy like they are.  Perhaps it's because I've heard that tone and implication in dozens of speeches, articles, and books that speak like this and Professor Sanneh is different, but the way it's reported it's the same old unfounded claim to moral superiority based on supposed intentions rather than practical results.  In terms of practical results, I'd say Bill Gates has done more for the common good of humanity in material terms than any other man now living.  I've no knowledge of his religion or morals, but simply his decision to put MS-DOS and Windows out there as open architecture, inviting others to devise both hardware and software for it indepent of Microsoft, has generated hundreds of thousands if not millions of jobs, businesses, and opportunities around the world, and it meant the price of computers came down quickly to the point they are ubiquitous today.

To be sure, the Bible (not generic "religion" - there are lots of religions, and even more religious people, who are just as violent, greedy, and immoral as any secular state) - the Bible does point us in a direction of sacrificial service to God and suggests a different standard by which success, individual or otherwise, might be measured.  But I could have saved the seminary a bunch of money on travel fees and honorariums by simply pointing to a couple verses - Luke 12:15, and Matthew 4:4.  It's far more succinct, and unimpeded by leftist boiler-plate that is divorced from the doctrine of total depravity, cogent history, logical economics, and rational politics.