Some Reflections on Cake, Conscience, and Commerce

1024px-Slide-mille-feuilleOn Tuesday Ashers Bakery were found guilty of discrimination for refusing to bake a cake iced with the message ‘support gay marriage.’ Whichever side of the debate you come down on it was some of the comments made by the Judge and the prosecuting QC which got me thinking. It seems the current legislation doesn’t understand the foundational nature of belief (for all people) and is therefore confused and confusing.

Consider some of these statements:

“the defendants are entitled to hold and manifest their religious beliefs in accordance with the law”  (Judge Isobel Brownlie) – Absolutely right and fine.

“while the defendants have a right to religious beliefs they are limited as to how they manifest them” (Judge Isobel Brownlie) – Fair enough. I might have a deeply held belief that all left-handed people ought to be forcibly euthanized. The law does limit the extent to which I wish to practise my convictions. And that’s a good thing.

“To do otherwise [i.e. not limit manifestation of religious belief] would be to let religion dictate the law” (Judge Isobel Brownlie). Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Upon what basis do we decide what goes in the statute book? If it’s upon ‘no particular basis’ then the law is arbitrary and the state a tyrant. If it is on some basis then what exactly? Common sense? Tradition? The will of the majority? The will of the elite? Mmm . . . reason and history testify that these are not necessarily trustworthy. Nevertheless, choose whichever you favour. Now ask on what basis those authorities function? What is their epistemological grounding? Push hard enough and the answer will be ‘belief’ – belief in moral categories of right and wrong; belief in the value of human beings, animals, and green spaces; belief in the appropriateness of justice and punishment. You can’t run empirical investigation on those things – they are convictions, beliefs, held in faith by one or more people. In other words ‘religion’ (let’s call it belief) does dictate law, if the law is to be based on something and not nothing. So the secular state isn’t neutral. And so the belief (religion) based law is choosing to uphold one set of beliefs against another – which precisely is a heirarchy of rights – the very thing the state is trying to avoid.

So leaving aside the benefits and problems of the 2010 equality act related to the provision of goods and services, take a look at what’s actually going on. It prohibits the refusal of goods and services based on gender, race, religious belief, etc. The law, based on its fundamental beliefs, discriminates against someone for discriminating against someone based on their beliefs. Now, to some degree this is necessary and inevitable if you want law based on something, and not simply anarchy. But perhaps realising what’s going on, and getting it out in the open, would actually allow a much greater degree of liberty within the system. Personally I’m happy with belief-based law that criminalises discrimination against people – it accords with my beliefs. But I’d also like to see that belief-based law allow me freedom not to be involved in the endorsement of beliefs with which I disagree.

All this before we even get into possible unintended consequences of the Ashers ruling. Must a gay baker be compelled by law to decorate a cake with a message against same-sex marriage if he doesn’t want to? It seems to me that the proposed ‘conscience clause’ is a good idea that would benefit all. A Polish T-shirt printer would be at liberty to refuse to print a T-shirt with a BNP slogan on it.  A feminist web designer would be at liberty to refuse to design a website for FHM. And an atheist printer would be at liberty to refuse to print my Christian tract. Of course all three are also at liberty to accept the work. It’s their choice. It’s how the free market should work. A ‘conscience clause’ with regard to the endorsement and promotion of beliefs within the current equality act would both protect against discrimination against persons, and protect the liberty of conscience of service providers. After all, the notion of the state coercing and compelling the sort of transactions outlined above, and criminalising those that refuse is alarming – especially since, as we have seen, the state is every bit as ‘belief-based’ as those they seek to punish.

Why Proper Theological Training Really Matters

barthA blog I read recently recommended reading Barth’s Evangelical Theology as a good introduction to his overall thought. It was written in his later life, after he’d finished the Dogmatics, and it’s only 250 pages, which means it is (should be) a mature distillation of his most cherished beliefs. I’m only about a third of the way through but his chapter on theology in community knocked my socks off. I’ll give you some snippets then try and explain why I think it matters:

“The question to be unceasingly posed for the community and for all its members is whether the community is a true witness” (in other words, if you’re serious about witness, you also have to be serious about being a true witness – i.e. getting your theology straight)

Further “Theology is no undertaking that can be blithely surrendered to others by anyone engaged in the ministry of God’s Word. It is no hobby of some especially interested and gifted individuals. A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community.” (so if you want to be a true witness you need to be engaged in theology – you can’t just leave it to the pros or dismiss it as irrelevant in the “I just want to preach the Bible” sort of way)

“Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be concerned only with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community. Like the pendulum which regulates the movements of a clock, so theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community.” (so theology doesn’t belong in the academy only – it must serve the church in being a witness – from the community for the community. Without robust theology the community becomes a clock telling the wrong time (to varying degree)).

And finally theology needs to have roots: “in order to serve the community of today, theology itself must be rooted in the community of yesterday . . . fundamental trust instead of mistrust will be the initial attitude of theology toward the tradition . . .The dogmas, creeds, and confessions of the community of the documents of its resistance and at the same time, of its repenting return to its origins. They are the professions of its faith, formulated in opposition to all sorts of unbelief, superstition, and error.” (so we need to invest some time in learning of theology past and present if we’re to serve today’s community).

So why does all this matter? Of course you don’t have to go to theological college for 3-4 years – you might be an extraordinarily gifted learner who can sit in a cupboard and read all the great works by yourself with no help. But if Barth’s right community is important – learning in community to serve community keeps the focus outward. And I realise not everybody is a reader at all. Some people serve in fantastic ways without formal training. But it seems to me they are exceptional, not normal.

For most of us, if we’re serious about witness we need to be serious about being a true witness, which means being serious about theology. And if we’re serious about the health of churches (what Barth calls community) we need to be serious about theology. And if you want to be serious about theology you ought to be serious about a good training, in all the various disciplines. I occasionally hear people talk about how theological study is unnecessary – “I’m just a Bible preacher; I just preach the word.” That sounds pious, but I think it’s misguided, and is in danger of arrogance. I think it presumes that the much wider community past and present doesn’t have much to teach us, and we’re more than capable of getting along fine on our own. I’m with Barth on this one. If you love the saints, and you love the lost, then you have to be serious about true witness, which means in turn you need to get serious about theology.

A Little Snippet From Keller on Prayer

prayerHere’s a wee nugget from p. 86 of Prayer by TK:

“Imagine an eight-year old boy playing with a toy truck and it breaks. He is disconsolate and cries out to his parents to fix it. Yet as he’s crying, his father says to him, “A distant relative you’ve never met has just died and left you one hundred million dollars.” What will the child’s reaction be? He will just cry louder until his truck is fixed. He does not have enough cognitive capacity to realize his true condition and be consoled. In the same way, Christians lack the spiritual capacity to realize all we have in Jesus. This is the reason Paul prays that God would give Christians the spiritual ability to grasp the height, depth, breadth, and length of Christ’s salvation (Eph 3:16-19; Eph 1:17-18). In general, our lack of joy is as Shakespeare wrote: “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves” (Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2). We are like the eight-year old boy who rests his happiness in his “stars” – his circumstances – rather than recognizing what we have in Christ.”

The A-H of areas of influence

I was at one of the hustings a couple of weeks back and got chatting to a guy from a nearby church. He runs breakfasts for Christians in business, and he was talking me through his little schema to help think about significant areas where Christians can be involved and have a positive impact and influence. They run A-H as follows:

A – Arts
B – Business
C – Church
D – Digital (media – contrived I know)
E – Education
F – Finance
G – Government
H – Healthcare

I kinda liked it so thought I’d share it with you. Which areas is your church strong at in terms of equipping Christians to be involved? Where are you weak? What would it look like in your community if you had equipped and fired-up Christians in each of these areas? Though provoking, no?

Some Things To Remember As You Vote

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Seeing as its polling day, and seeing as we’ve been spending some time as a church reflecting on the whole area of God and government I thought it might be useful to recap on a few foundation stones of Christian engagement with politics.

  1. All government is put in place by God – whoever wins today is no accident (Rom 13:1)
  2. Therefore submit, obey, honour them – even when you didn’t vote for them and don’t particularly want to like them (Rom 13:6-7)
  3. Pray for those in government – before you go, as you vote, in the aftermath. Pray that they may provide environments of peace so that the good news may continue to spread (1 Tim 2:1-4)
  4. Continue to do good – it blesses others and commends the gospel, even to those in authority (1 Pet 2:12-17)
  5. Remember point number 1 again, and add all government is answerable to God. They’ll be answerable to us in another 5 years, but much much more importantly they’ll be answerable to God (Psalm 2).

So do vote, do honour, do good, do pray, and don’t fret. Be a good citizen of earth and heaven.

Lord, let your kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Luther’s fourfold prayer garland

lutherI’ve been enjoying reading Tim Keller’s book on prayer recently. Inspired by his bibliography I’ve picked up a couple of other books on prayer from some of the masters. One of those is Martin Luther’s A Simple Way to Pray. It’s only 45 pages long (with generous font and spacing) and is his instruction to a friend on how to begin to pray.

In essence Luther advises working through the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles Creed. I particularly like Luther’s advice on using the Ten Commandments. Taking one commandment at a time and then dwelling in prayer on that commandment as instruction, thanksgiving, confession, and prayer – thus turning the commandments into a fourfold garland of grace. So for example you might take the first commandment and spend some time thinking on what it means, how it is good for us, where we’ve failed and where we hope to make progress.

Of course it’s not the only thing that can be said about prayer but it strikes me as containing some good ideas in discipling others to pray.