Sunday, June 10, 2007

Socially Redeeming

I had the opportunity last week to hear an interesting exchange between Dennis Prager and Christopher Hitchens. Dennis Prager is a conservative radio commentator who has taught and written on Judaism, Russia and law. Christopher Hitchens is an author, journalist and literary critic. He is also an avowed atheist having recently published, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

During this exchange, Prager is trying to get Hitchens to avoid a blanket condemnation of everything religious.
PRAGER: If you were in an American city that you were not familiar with, alone, late at night, and you couldn’t find your car in a bad neighborhood. You saw ten men walking toward you would or would you not be relieved to know that they just attended a Bible class?

HITCHENS: Not relieved. Not alarmed either necessarily, but not relieved. It’s irrelevant to me in other words. If they had just come from studying Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, then I would feel positively cheered up. Or if they were members of the local Thomas Jefferson Society.
I have heard Prager’s question before, and until now, I thought that it was clever. Hitchens impresses me here. He handles the question deftly. Although I, unlike Hitchens, would be relieved to find out the men had attended a Bible study, I also would be relieved if they were members of the Thomas Jefferson Society. Frankly, I would even be relieved to find out that they had just attended a concert of Bach concertos, or a class on oil painting, or a lecture on thermodynamics.

Prager’s point is a modest one. Let’s allow for the tolerance of religion because it has socially redeeming value. He succeeds in making his point. However, this defense of religion on the basis of social value is ultimately a weak one. Hitchens and I can provide a multitude of other socially redeeming activities. Moreover, we can find religious activity that is not socially redeeming. What if the Bible study in question was sponsored by the Aryan Nation?

I have listened to many of the church gurus who preach that the church must meet the needs of people. We want well-adjusted, self-actualized folks who stay in school and don’t do drugs. That’s okay. The church should strive to be socially redeeming. However, we exist for deeper reasons. We confess that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life.” If we forget that, we may have a hard time justifying our existence.

No comments: