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In a world with many problems, is religion still relevant? Has a more scientific outlook assumed the status that religion used to have? Does the post-pandemic world have any need for God? Perhaps someone should just sweep the church one last time and then turn off the lights? These are important questions, but it also seems true to say that if Christianity can help us to make sense of some of the challenges that we are up against today, then it may still be highly relevant. Of course, we may say that it is relevant simply because it is true, but I find many people want to understand what it would really change for them if it was true.

I think that faith is relevant. The straightforward reason is that religion shapes people in all sorts of ways through their beliefs, traditions, practices, and culture. And the social sciences have long understood the value and relevance of religion in the tasks of describing and predicting human behaviour. Sociologists have been exploring the way in which religious influences – across cultures – can add to our understanding of the world and each other. Therefore, one way in which religion is usefully relevant is in the task of understanding ourselves.

The more interesting question here concerns another type of relevance. This is when something is closely connected or appropriate to what is being done or considered. Or if it is needed to ensure the successful progress of our lives. The question of whether religious faith is relevant in this way is the more intriguing puzzle for each of us to consider. Is religious faith closely connected or appropriate to our normal non-religious experiences? Does it help? Are there elements from the landscape of faith that could be relevant in this more closely connected, or personal way?

I will not attempt to defend the claim that all religion is relevant in this way. Instead, I will focus upon asking whether the core message of Christian faith is relevant. And I would encourage you to explore and to compare[1] how other perspectives tackle the same issues. I will not try to defend the idea that everything which comes to us under the banner of Christianity is relevant either. Instead, I want to cut straight in, and go right into the heart of the matter.

We will approach this from the centre of the Christian faith, the cross[2]. When I say ‘the cross’ I take that to correspond to the combined events of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  The cross is the central event in the life of the central character of Christianity. There is no Christianity without the cross. The cross is the central thesis, idea, action, and moment of Christianity. John Stott wrote that, ‘what dominated Christ’s mind was not the living but the giving of his life.’[3] So we will ask the question that takes us right into the middle of the issue: is the cross relevant to life now?

It might seem strange to say that the cross is closely connected to what we are doing, and how we now live in our modern 21st-century existence. Some might hear this suggestion and say, ‘We have science now – we have evolved beyond religion, beyond the cross. It is just unnecessary.’ The same sort of impression can occur to you if you look out of the window in any town or city. You see everyone actively going about their business. Real life is happening, and everything is just fine, but it is all oblivious to, and seemingly unaffected by the story of the God who died in a distant land 2,000 years ago. Is the cross as irrelevant as it can seem in moments like this?

What is this real life? What are the issues and questions for 21st-century human beings? What are the important challenges in our lives today? The philosopher Immanuel Kant posed three questions for humanity. They are, ‘What may I hope for? What should I do? What can I know?’[5] These three questions refer to three broad areas of ongoing human experience and difficulty. I find Kant’s three domains of life: hope, morality, and knowledge to be a helpful way to consider the question of the relevance of faith.

These three domains are symbiotic with each other and with so much human experience and activity in the present moment. Therefore, any insights from philosophy, theology, religion, or the arts that connect closely with the questions and challenges that arise from the modern human experience of hope, moral transformation and knowing are likely to be stimulating, and relevant. If the core event of Christian faith – the cross, were able to draw out a certain kind of honesty about modern humankind’s predicament and connect into the issues highlighted within that experience then enlightened, modern 21st-century human beings might find something personally relevant for them too.

What may I hope for?

Kant asks, ‘What may I hope for?’ I think that hope is linked to the imagination. It is an ability to conceive of, or imagine, a better destiny or future. A clear-eyed, non-naïve but sincere sense of hopefulness lived in the context of modern life, with all of its confusions and troubles, is not common. There is a story about hope in the bible in which Jesus finds himself confronted by a man who is unable to use his legs to walk. His friends eventually lower him on his mat through the roof, right in front of Jesus.

20 When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” 21 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

22 Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.…” He said to the paralysed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. 26 Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”[6]

I often wonder how much hope the paralytic man in the story really had when he saw the crowds around the house where Jesus was? He was brought by his friends, in hope. They must have had some hope that Jesus could help him, or a hope that Jesus could do something. They had to have had some hope that Jesus would notice him. And then he did, and then all the hope turned out to be true hope.

What we hope for doesn’t have to be a miracle for it to make a significant difference. And we do hope for all kinds of things quite frequently. I remember hoping that I had passed my exams at school. Perhaps you are hoping to get onto a course, get into Uni or be invited for an interview? The thing that I wanted more than anything was a girlfriend, that was what I was really hoping for. Looking back now, I think that the thing that I probably needed was intimacy. Even so, when we hope romantically, it could be the case that sometimes we are just hoping for a real friend. We can project that on some new gadget, job, situation or status in the world, but it might be driven by our deeper hoping. This is what C.S. Lewis called desire or longing.

Sometimes we just feel stuck in our circumstances, and we hope for a different situation. I remember talking to a friend who told me that when he travels and meets people in different places, he often asks them the same question. So I started asking the same question about hope whenever I could, and it has led to some fascinating and honest conversations. The question is: do you hope that your siblings, cousins, or kids will stay where you are or leave and go somewhere else? If they say ‘I want them to go to [somewhere else]’, then this can indicate that they don’t have a lot of hope for their own country.

Remaining hopeful can be a hard-fought battle and mental health challenges can make it even tougher. Before we went into the global pandemic, levels of anxiety were already peaking at higher levels. The isolation caused by long pandemic lockdowns cut many people off from personal contacts which can help alleviate pressure. And despite growing up and living through the longest period of peacetime in Western Europe, many people, particularly the younger generations, have reported feeling apprehensive and fearful about the future. Employers are now increasingly aware of resilience and mental health first aid training.

A factor in this may be communications technologies like smartphones and the internet, which mean that we are more connected than we were 15 years ago. For example, a headteacher in a London secondary school told me that when a high school shooting occurs several thousands of miles away in the USA, they have to bring in pastoral support and counselling. Their students are so connected through their devices that they become deeply affected and anxious as they learn about what has happened in the USA. Through our smartphones, the media and social networks present us with a continuous cycle of economic crashes, moral scandals, terrorism and extremism, wars, instability, pandemics, and concerns about the future. Every single recent generation has been touched by the difficulty of living life when you struggle to hope that things will improve. Immanuel Kant was right to think that hope was important. Hope is a deep human longing.

When the paralytic man met Jesus, he discovered a true source of hope. Jesus became a source for him, of two types of personal hope, an immediate hope and an eternal hope. The Christian story explains that when Jesus forgave the man’s sin – dealing with the barrier which would bar him from an eternity with God – Christ gave him a forever hope. Peter Kreeft once wrote that, ‘The deepest hope of the human heart is heaven.’ I wonder if this is because heaven is the only world that we tend to imagine which does not include death. A good consensus of psychologists and sociologists, like Ernest Becker[7], have identified death as one of the greatest fears of 21st-century human beings. So, if hope is held alongside what we fear and if what you fear is stronger, then it’s hard to live in hope or to feel very hopeful.

How is the cross relevant to this question of hope? Christianity, if true would declare that Christ confronts the fear and the reality of death with his cross. And that the shame and pain of humanity is transformed through Jesus’ death on the cross, into the hope of a new friendship with God. People can now move from searching for hope, alienated from God, to a new status, a resurrection-equipped people, who have an answer that speaks to their deepest fears, or death and being alone. When Christ comes back from the dead – if that is true and real – then this is the most hopeful news that has ever been told. A personal, ongoing, life-giving, death-silencing, shame-busting friendship with God is available. There is a new world breaking in, and this world does not include suffering and death. This is highly relevant to anyone searching or struggling to find for a real and true hope.

What should I do?

Kant’s second question, ‘What should I do?’ concerns the moral domain. What does this mean? It is the area of right and wrong, or the moral nature of reality, the grounding and apprehension of moral values, as well as the normative and applied systems that we express our moral worldviews through. This is the domain of moral conduct, or individual ethics. How should we behave? How should we treat each other? Is this, like hope, also a pressing need for 21st Century humanity? Is right and wrong relevant now?

Human beings and the evils that they do to each other have been some of the greatest sources of suffering and destruction in human history. Now futurists speculate that one of the greatest challenges to the survival of human beings in the future is: what will we do with the new weapons and technologies that we will surely make in the future? This is not a just a technological but also a moral question. Every few days the news reports another mass urban shooting. Our security services are hard-pressed to keep a lid on the radicals and extremists who threaten to rampage through our capitals causing as much death and horror as they are able to. Ken McCallum, the director of MI5, said in 2021 that 31 late-stage terror plots have been foiled over the last 4 years. The Office of National Statistics recorded 600 homicides, 1,574,000 violent incidents, and 2,968,00 thefts in the UK during 2020-21. Human moral conduct impacts everything from wearing masks to markets, as we have been increasingly aware of the relevance of morality to markets, and witnessed crises like those that engulfed Worldcom, ENRON, and the car emissions scandals.

At home, we get regular phone calls from scammers, people pretending to help us with the internet or banking, other human beings who are engaged in deliberately trying to trick us into giving up our bank and identity details so that they can steal from us. Human moral conduct has contributed to a loss of trust in political leadership, the media and in sport (expense-flipping, press hacking, and doping). And instead of demonstrating a different ethic, religious leaders, governance boards, the church and Christian ministry have often supplied further exemplars of failure in the way that they responded to abuse. Immanuel Kant himself, like many of the early modern philosophers, also articulated – at least for a time – some racist views. The church, the world, and our own experiences lead us to an identical conclusion. Humanity is in a complete mess.

Personally speaking, I see examples of moral failure in my own life too. Sometimes I find inside myself a struggle to do what is right, like a reluctance to say sorry to my wife when I mess up. An impatience with the children as they ask for something. I find great comfort in the honesty of Paul’s words, ‘For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.’ [8] For me, this is not about knowing what the right thing to do is, but it is a tendency to hold back from doing the right thing.

Sam Keen comments that our moral conduct is connected to another drive, ‘The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and achieve a heroic self-image.’ This is our desire to give ourselves the best – to provide ourselves with a new identity, a manifested vision of a happy life, that causes us to justify doing the worst. This might be to delay or fail to deliver the care, love, kindness we ought to. Or it might be as clever sounding as to refuse to listen or to change our plans in the balancing of the many over the one. The point is that what we do is somehow connected to the desire to build up an identity, or a status. To describe our value to others and ourselves. The late Tim Keller says that ‘Everyone gets their identity, their sense of being distinct and valuable, from somewhere or something.’

I’m sure that I’m not alone in this perspective that something is seriously wrong with humanity. The Bible has a name for this state of being hungry-for-identity connected to a kind of moral instability and weakness: sin. This means that if this Christian story is true and God is there, and is completely holy and pure, then this creates a barrier between people and God. In a real sense, sin is understood to be the deep refusal to find your sense of value or identity in what God says and thinks. It is the refusal of friendship with God, in the same pattern as Genesis 3, where humanity rejected God. At base the ancient and modern move is the same, it is to assume personal virtue is adequate for ascent towards God and heaven.

How does the cross speak to the pressing modern need for moral transformation and renewal of human beings? How does the cross speak to the moral weakness of the 21st-century self? When the paralytic man is taken to Jesus for physical healing, he receives something else. He is told that his sins are forgiven. His dirty laundry is dealt with by Jesus. He is offered a reconnected relationship with God. Christ’s cross is an indictment – a clear statement that something is badly wrong with our world. It tells us that we are in real trouble, but it also tells us that Jesus has gone to real trouble for us. The cross is a profound diagnosis of human nature and our state of alienation from God. And the cross is a profound treatment of that problem because it is no less than the divine offer of a slowly morally transformative and restorative friendship with God.

The cross of Christ speaks to the 21st Century struggle to recognise and actualise right living. It calls out our own personal battles with our own tendencies and drives into the light. The cross delivers a series of relevant home truths: that Christ wants to communicate, that we have a problem, but that he has done what is necessary to deal with it. The answer is humility and friendship with God through Jesus Christ. And although many people understand Christianity to be about moral improvement, it is in fact the precise opposite. It is about admitting moral shortcoming, regardless of our efforts to change, and admitting our need for help. We can’t do it on our own. But Christ’s cross tells each of us that he can change us, forgive us, and walk with us. He offers moral transformation through following a different pathway. Not a belief system, or a religion, or a worldview but a friendship with God and this possibility is what rests at the centre of the cross.

What can I know?

Kant’s third question concerns our grasp of reality. The search to know, or to understand is one of the most powerful human drives and desires. It has taken us to the stars, and caused us to launch probes out into the cosmos, to try to find out if we are alone and what clues the universe can give us. This need to know more has led us to the deep oceans, down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench 6.8 miles underwater. Wanting to know and to see, has inspired us to travel the globe, to trek up mountains, hack through forests, and to stumble across the ice, like Scott and Amundsen. We are now so engaged in this mission to know and to understand that we poured $4.7 billion into constructing massive particle colliders under the French-Swiss mountains to help us answer questions in physics about mass, dark matter, and the Higgs boson.

Human beings are unique in nature in asking ‘Why?’ questions. We puzzle into the meaning and mystery of the world in a way that no other creature does. Scientists, explorers, artists, poets, authors and philosophers write books describing the current status of our knowledge of the world and all the questions they do not have the answers to. In many fields we ask: Who are we? Where have we come from? What is the universe all about? Who or what is behind everything? What will happen in the future? These are the questions of the hour, of today, and tomorrow.

The cross of Christ speaks clearly and unequivocally to these types of questions. Christianity offers to address these gaps in our knowledge directly by declaring to us the one who stands behind everything. Through the cross, human beings can apprehend true knowledge about God, and can actually glimpse God’s own nature. The resurrection event also validates Christ’s claim to be God, his teachings, and his own view of the scriptures. I have already described how the cross is a rescuing hope as well as a moral renewal, but it is also a communication about God. It doesn’t just tell us about the rescue, it also tells us about the rescuer. It tells us what our status in the universe is. It informs us that God is not distant but personal, inclined towards us in friendship and grace. And it describes how God is quite unlike anyone we have ever understood or learned about using our own resources. God reveals his unique nature through the cross. It is an unambiguous declaration of what God is like: real, holy, loving, overflowing in mercy, kindness and goodness.

Is the cross relevant?

The questions that we ask and the things that we wonder about are always relevant to us. If we find ourselves asking questions about hope, ethics or reality, then the cross offers us clear and cogent answers. We do live in a world that needs hope, goodness and truth. The cross confronts our deepest fears around shame and death, and through it God offers us a hopeful rescuing relationship. The cross opens up a way for human beings to experience moral transformation through holy friendship and forgiveness. The answers from the cross are surprisingly challenging and not at all like the ramblings of a distant and disaffected old man in the sky. The cross declares our value to God. It tells us that we are wanted. That you and I are loved and known. That God is real. And that a loving God is working through the pain of suffering in this world. That all wrongs are seen, and that there is true justice and mercy. Through the cross, Jesus speaks to the worst fears, deals with our worst parts, and he tells us the truth about reality. Jesus promises to gently show us how we can live in true freedom. He tells us that he loves us, that he is with us. Some of the most difficult questions that humanity is asking are intercepted by Christ’s cross. And if religion means the cross, and what I have described is correct, then it isn’t just relevant, it is a revolution.

[1] I’ve developed a survey system and set of tools that can help you do this in conversation with others called Beliefmapping. See also James Sire, The Universe Next Door

[2] I will not seek to offer a historical defence of these events, instead I will provide a link to Max Baker-Hytch’s talk on the historicity of Jesus, as well as a list of resources for further exploration.

[3] John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 32.

[5] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason.

[6] Luke’s gospel, Chapter 5

[7] See Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 1973

[8] Romans 7:18-19.

[9] John Wenham points that confidence in scripture can be an expression of trust in Christ, because of how he treated scripture himself. For more see Christ and the Bible, (Wipf: 2009) John Wenham

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