Three Thoughts about the Supreme Court DecisionWritten by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: June 15th, 2018
Today, the Supreme Court of Canada delivered its verdict on the issue of accreditation. After a series of back and forth between the TWU and the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario, the case was brought to the top court of Canada to decide whether the law societies should or should not be allowed to deny the university the appropriate accreditation for its new law school. This accreditation is crucial because without the approval by the respective law societies, one cannot legally practice law in the provinces concerned. At issue was the “community covenant” which every student had to sign before one could study at TWU. This is totally consistent with the religious stand TWU had made in its 56-year history. Unfortunately, there are increasing number of dissent coming from outside and some say inside as well. Let me put in three thoughts about the decision and its impact on TWU and the larger Christian public in Canada.
1) It’s a reflection of changing times
While I am disappointed with the court decision, I think it is only a matter of time before TWU’s “community covenant” would be legally challenged and overturned by public opinion. If this case was brought up two decades ago, I believe the decision would go TWU’s way. Two decades later, among other things, there is a shift of moods and attitudes. Institutional religion is now seen with disdain. People are abandoning churches in large numbers. Throughout Canada, not only are more churches closing down every year, even the remaining churches are struggling with declining numbers. According to PEW research, since 2007, the number of religiously unaffiliated people has been rising. The single largest group of people who believed but are not affiliated with any church or organization are the NONES, people who essentially answer “None” in the column about their religious affiliation. They could still be believers but they prefer to live without being attached to any religious institution or denomination. According to Leslie Williams, a professor of English at Yale Divinity School, she points out how things had changed. In the 50s, Baptists have the best Bible School and the Methodists the best Sunday School program, and lots of people still go to Church. These external signs hide an underlying discontent about the failure of people connecting with the modern culture. She notes in her book, “When Anything Goes,”
“Finally, after half a century of church squabbles, secularism, and Sunday morning golf games, we lost the people, our congregation dwindling along with most other mainline denominations.”She then adds: “The current age has not come up with a new label for itself but defines itself in terms of what it has lost: the influence of Christianity.” In other words, Christians have not updated their own labels. Perhaps, that is one reason why the word “evangelical” is also view negatively. In fact, the words, liberal, conservative, or whatever in between are labels of the past, struggling to maintain their grip on current culture. The frustrated who hold neither of these views too strongly like their ancestors would simply put themselves as “None.” New names are needed.
Such a frustration is not new. Bonhoeffer scholar Jeffrey Pugh of Elon University reflects on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and notes how the WWII martyr had written about “religionless Christianity.” Pugh notes:
“Oddly enough there are people today whose first thought is what would Bonhoeffer do? And the truth is we don’t know because Bonhoeffer never believed in absolute rules. He responded as a Christian rooted in the realities of the moment. And these concrete moments coloured his actions in ways that seem quite contradictory to us looking at them from the position of today.” (Jeffrey Pugh, Religionless Christianity, T&T Clark, xiv)That was in the 40s when Bonhoeffer was disgusted with how the Church at that time sided with Hitler in his persecution of the Jews. If the 40s was a case in which Christians abandon the Church because of a lack of faith in authentic Christianity, 2018 is a case of a lack of faith in institutional religion. Here I like to point out that the importance of faith is not in the what but in the who.
The changing environment is a challenge to how we are practicing our faith. Is it a faith in Jesus or a faith in faith? Make a distinction. Our practice of faith in changing times may need to be adapted, but our faith in Christ does not change.
2) The decision is not the end but the beginning of tough faith
Whenever anyone goes to the courts, there is always a possibility of decisions going against the way we wanted. The community covenant is an interpretation of the Bible, but not biblical canon per se. History hints at but does not guarantee the future. What happened back in 2001 between TWU and the BC College of Teachers is no longer a strong or reliable guarantee. That was one of the reasons for the optimistic approach by advocates of TWU’s case. That was nearly two decades ago. If that case was to be fought now, the result would probably be different. Modern cultural changes take precedence over historical events. It is easy to justify that by saying: Is our present planning for the sake of the past or for the sake of the future? The courts have sided with the latter. Truth according to the SC is based upon the presented evidence, not biblical canon. Reinhold Niebuhr's prayer is still pertinent for today: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." We should not put our faith in man’s decision but in God alone regardless of man’s decisions.
James Emery White shows us two ways to reach a post-Christian generation. The first way is to understand the meaning of Church. The word is “ekklesia” or “called out ones.” It is not to throw Church agendas at the world but to be manifestation of Christ in the world. The early Church was a persecuted Church. They lived out a tough faith at the risk of their lives. The mission of the Church is to call people back to God. TWU may have lost the legal battle but that should not diminish their role as educators. Maybe there will not be a law school after all. Putting things in perspective, the courts have agreed that such a decision infringes on TWU’s practice of freedom of religion. Moreover, even at 7-2, the decision was not unanimous. Numbers are at play here. It’s a limitation of the democratic process. As LGBTQ rights become more mainstream, and the rights of traditional Christianity curtailed, the utilitarian philosophy of the greater good for the greater population will take hold. Such a teleological premise will not be fair to the marginalized. Understanding the meaning and identity of Church will go a long way to remember that one's identity is not diminished because of a court decision. It is always anchored in the Person of Christ.
White’s second way is counterculture. The Supreme Court decision is basically pro-culture, making decisions in favour of cultural norms so familiar to everyday life. Counterculture is about exerting the influence of Christ in everyday life, regardless of how society treats Christians. Just because the decision does not go TWU’s way doesn’t mean TWU should retreat from society. The battle of ideas is just beginning. Neither good works not good words will change the world. Good influence however will require both. More importantly, it’s finding our cultural voice centred on Christ rather than our own interpretations.
3) It’s a Post-Christian culture and we better learn how to live.
Abdu Murray in his recent book, “Saving Truth” calls our world a Post-Truth world. Truth is no longer what truth is, but what the modern culture says it is. In such a world, Murray says that "we elevate feelings over facts, believing that personal preferences are what determine meaning and fulfillment. Objective truth is jettisoned. The transcendent is jettisoned. We no longer just elevate personal preferences over truth. We elevate our own personal preferences over the preferences of others. When that happens, freedom will die the most ironic of deaths under individual autonomy’s machete.”
Feelings and hurts are fought intensely in the legal case between TWU and the law societies. Even when they are fighting with a stated purpose of human rights in a court of law, the question remains: Whose rights are we talking about? If majority rights, what about the minority? If cultural rights, what about the counter-cultural? Are winners determined solely by number of votes for? Truth is, nobody really wins. If the decision does not unite all Canadians, nobody wins. If the decision leads to a one-sided affair, nobody wins. If all Christians exit the legal scene, the legal society would be impoverished. Who would be able to represent Christians from a biblical worldview? Society would lose an important influence. Diversity decreases.
Christians who choose the path of abandonment of society would have failed to be in the world even when they are not of the world. The failure to see the difference is tragic for the spread of the gospel. How then should we live? Perhaps we should learn to accept the decision of the courts and to remember that in the heat of the moment, do not forget the heart of Christ. Remember how Jesus went through unfair trials and wrongful accusations. He was innocent but was still judged like a criminal. Yet, he died for all. He was not voiceless. His Word remains strong and influential even today. The world may try to subdue Christ, but as Scripture says, His Word stands forever. Our calling is to cultivate a voice of reason and persuasion as friends and fellow human beings.
Professors Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer give us guidance in their book “Winsome Persuasion.” They say that Christians living in a Post-Christian world need to maintain three kinds of voices: A prophetic voice to declare the biblical faith and principles of the Bible; a pastoral voice to empathize with the needs of society; and a persuasive voice to keep a check on the excesses of modern society. Just because one battle is lost at the courts should not deter us from pushing forward in engaging the world with biblical mindset. Muehlhoff and Langer urge us to move away from an argumentative attitude toward a persuasive one. The former tends to have “adversarial frame of mind” while the latter approach would be more accepting rather than affirming. That means learning to learn to cultivate constructive conversations that put dialogue above monologue; learning to disagree maturely instead of childish demonizing; and attracting rather than attacking. They note the example of Chick-fil-A who adapted their long held policy of not opening on Sundays to serve over 600 peace officers waiting to donate blood in the aftermath of a tragic shooting of an Orlando gay nightclub in June 2016. It’s a great example of learning to be flexible without compromising on their faith. Opening on Sundays should not be seen as compromising faith. Rather, see it as compassionate faith that is willing to make an exception to the general rule. Unfortunately, acts like this are not regularly reported on mainstream media.
In summary, two things that TWU could still do with regard to the law school. The first is to re-consider the imposition of the community covenant to make it voluntary rather than mandatory. The wording of the covenant need not be changed but the mandatory manner could be relaxed. If one freely subscribes to the covenant, that does not infringe on a person’s rights of expression or belief. I admit there will be other consequences that it may fracture the community further. I also believe that the benefits will outweigh the disadvantages. Bite the bullet now so that one would have a more inclusive environment, a place where people freely subscribe to the faith rather than an interpretation of faith. Perhaps, have half the TWU law school under the jurisdiction of a non-TWU entity like some form of a partnership. That way, if it is not a wholly owned school by TWU, that could justify an exemption from the rule.
The second option is to re-phrase the community covenant. This may take some work to anticipate any future legal challenges to its legitimacy. Once that is done, re-apply for accreditation. Being innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents should be a good guide in such an endeavour. This should not be seen as a loss but a desire to progressively engage the public as a reasonable and respectable voice. This is not just for the case of the law school but also for future departments that may arise in the future. The gospel and the great commission is bigger than a phrase in the community covenant.
Until then, the opening of the law school should be delayed.
Conrade Yap (DMin, MDiv)
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