Just walk into any pub and you’ll find people pontificating about everything under the sun with great authority. The same can happen at the General Synod of the Church of England – and I bet it happens in every boardroom, every other church and every other medium. We love to speak about things we don’t actually know about.
The General Synod brings together some fantastic people of vast and impressive experience. But there are times when the theme of a debate blanks some brians and brings to the microphone people who have no idea what they are talking about with such confidence. For example, whenever the General Synod debates something to do with the media, my heart sinks as speaker after speaker makes it evident they read the Daily Mail and have no idea what they are talking about.
Today in Blackburn was different. A German member of the Meissen Commission (which I am currently chairing) spoke with serious passion about his confrontation in East Germany with young neo-Nazis. This guy grew up in the Communist GDR and worked as a Christian pastor in a society that persecuted you for your Christian commitment (or lack of atheism). He now faces a society in which atheism is taken for granted and neo-Nazism is gaining ground eveyr day – even with demands for a return to Germany’s 1937 borders.
His question was put in the context of a discussion about the nature of truth and truth claims. If we have no conviction of the absolute truth claims of Jesus Christ, how (he asked) do we deal with the young person who says he wants to be a neo-Nazi? It is not enough to simply tell him he shouldn’t – without giving a cogent reason why not … one that is rooted in something more reasonable than wishful thinking.
My German friend’s point was that if you accept (uncritically) the common assumption that relativism is normal and any ‘truth’ is OK as long as it is ‘true for you’, you have nothing to say to the young neo-Nazi. He has chosen his path and you have no grounds for denying him whatever will make him feel fulfilled. On the contrary, he said, we have to have a grounded and consistent theology and anthropology for giving a cogent reason for not becoming a neo-Nazi.
In other words, the problem lies not in the neo-Nazism, but in the relativistic thinking that reduces our fundamental philosophical and ethical choices to mere consumer preferences. If you reject the need for a ‘truth claim’ that you believe is more true and more compelling than other truth claims, you have nothing to say and no grounds for saying it.
His point was that a Christian needs to be intellectually as well as culturally and pastorally sharp in addressing the real lives of young people in East Berlin. To neglect the seriousness of the philosophical/theological task is to vacate the space in which nasty cancers like neo-Nazism can fester and grow without coherent challenge. Simply mounting a demonstration to shout that ‘my preference is better than your preference’ is hopelessly inadequate and will achieve the opposite of what you hope to achieve.
A coherent response to the neo-Nazi requires a clear understanding of and commitment to a view of the human person that is rooted in him having been created in the image of God (anthropology); in him being morally responsible in a way that regards some choices as more or less moral than others; in him assuming a view of society that involves mutual responsibilities; and in him committing himself to a way of life that sees power in a wooden cross and not in an Iron Cross.
This is challenging. In a liberal democracy the question might not be too urgent – yet. But in East Berlin this is the real challenge of today among young people who are given pride and certainty in political doctrines rooted in seriously dodgy anthropologies – but able to flourish in a society that has relativised its moral judgements to the level of ‘your choice is equally valid to mine and I can’t stand in judgement on your choices’. That way lies deep trouble – as Berlin discovered once before.