December 14, 2006

God's Dealings with Man-- Before and After Christ

In the past few years there seems to have been a great burst of nostalgia for things ancient, even in the religious sphere. Christians have been opening the first half of their Bibles and perusing the Old Testament. Bible study is a good thing, but regrettably, a certain group of these innocents are coming to the incredible conclusion that they must somehow revive the old ways and become 'New Testament Jews,' or perhaps 'Old Testament Christians.'

The word regrettable for this spiritual regression is, if anything, too mild. This looking backward for spiritual progress is being fostered, I believe, by serious misunderstanding of Holy Scripture. In addition, we've seen a major retreat to conservative views in the social and political arenas, so this religious phenomenon follows the same pattern. In any case, I believe that the Christian world is much imperiled by this kind of movement that Paul took pains to warn the nascent Christian church to avoid! This weak-willed yearning for the familiar ways of the past threatened to extinguish the very life of the early body of believers, and Paul was zealous in preventing the death of his 'adopted protege'. He himself had made the leap from his traditional upbringing to the Christ-centered faith, and he really 'got it.' Paul understood precisely what the Messiah had accomplished, and what a radical departure it represented from the ages-old thinking of his fellow children of Israel. When he saw the believers of Galatia starting to slip back into observing the old traditions, trying to 'up-grade them' and integrate them into the new way of relating to God, he used strong words to rebuke them, and gave them direct instruction on their new faith.

The biggest problem with the Galatians is that they wanted to play 'double jeopardy' --they wanted to piggy back Christian beliefs on top of their old Jewish beliefs. Put another way, they were attempting to combine the Old Covenant with the New Covenant, creating a monstrosity in the process. Paul knew: you can't live the New Covenant life with an Old Covenant mindset! Jesus had warned his followers against this very problem when he related the parables found in Matthew 9 (vs. 16, 17). He stated clearly that you can't store new wine in old wine-skins. Wine was often used in scripture as a symbol for spiritual belief, and the message here was (supposed to be) unmistakable. To reinforce the same idea, Jesus cited the other example of sewing new cloth onto an old garment. Again he made the point that this is a recipe for failure; the new and the old are simply not compatible!

What were the 'new' and the 'old' things that Jesus was referring to, anyway? That, it turns out, is a fundamental question at the heart of the Christian faith. Not surprisingly, Jesus was referring to the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. But that just raises the subsidiary question: what are these 'covenants' that seem so crucial? Right. The first thing to know is that 'covenant' means the same as 'testament,' and we notice that the Bible has been divided into two major parts that are labelled as 'OT' and 'NT'. The next detail to keep in mind is that a covenant is a legal agreement or pact or treaty, as in fact, the word is still used to this day. So, apparently, the Bible is composed of records relating to two legal contracts. The obvious questions then are, what are these contracts all about, and why were they created?

A great deal of ink has been devoted by an army of scholars of all levels of knowledge and training to the subject of covenants as used in the Bible. Hence, a massive amount of information--and perhaps even more dis-information--is available to the inquiring mind concerning covenants. My purpose here is not to write yet another treatise on covenants. Rather, I would like to paint for the reader 'the big picture' of why the covenants exist, and how they are important to our faith. Therefore, I will try to present a very brief look at the concept of covenants, and then proceed to my main analysis.

If covenants are legal agreements, what are they doing in the Bible? The answer comes from the nature of God Himself. The two ultimate, personal characteristics of God's nature are these: justice and love. John wrote that 'God is love,' and indeed, that is what Jesus was trying to demonstrate throughout his earthly ministry. But God is also a God of justice; He rewards righteousness and punishes injustice or wickedness. His war with Satan is based on His divine justice being affronted by evil, whether by angels or mankind. In accordance with His justice, God does not do things willy-nilly; God acts in a legal, just manner, showing that He is responsible and accountable, despite being the supreme intelligence of the cosmos. Therefore, in His dealings with mankind, either individuals or groups, God establishes His promises on a contractual basis. Think of it--this is really phenomenal; that the God of creation is ready to hold himself to a legal agreement!

That observation covers the 'why?' of covenants. But the 'how?' questions are entirely more complex. For the purpose of this overview, I'm attempting to condense a lot of material into a broad panorama. (The interested student is urged to do individual Bible study and other research). What we'd like to know is: "What were the OT and the NT, and what do they mean for us today?" It turns out that there were numerous covenants cited in scripture. God made covenants with Adam, with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, and later, with David, and with others. One can analyze these various agreements, and notice the features they share in common, as well as their differences. Many scholars have done just that, and in the process, made the whole analysis as complicated and convoluted as imaginable. In the end, one has to wonder if any of that really benefits the poor believer!

In the face of almost overwhelming information, with a resulting inverse degree of knowledge, I can only turn to the scriptures themselves in seeking clarity. I believe that the essential clarity is not lacking. The Holy Spirit did not leave us to the mercy of multi-lingual, multi-degreed academics, who cannot reach any accord among themselves in any case. Thank God, He inspired his servants, the writers of the Bible, to speak the simple truth. We don't even know for certain who wrote the book of 'Hebrews,' (many believe it was Paul), yet it is a key treatise on the comparison of the covenants, and ought to be essential reading for any professing Christian. That said, most Christians have rarely, if ever, heard a teaching, let alone a sermon, based on 'Hebrews.' Pastors shy away from this fundamental text, while evangelists apparently realize that it would demolish much of what passes for Christian dogma in their campaigns. Our outspoken friend, Paul, tackled the issue head on (how else, for brother Paul!) in his letters to the believers in Rome, in Galatia, and to a degree, those in other early congregations.

So, dear reader, you can start ploughing your way through all those academic treatises on biblical covenants, and get thoroughly confused. Or, you can pray as you read the explanations given in the scriptures themselves, and see the plain truth. It may help to be familiar with the books of the OT part of the Bible as you read the NT parts; but the important ideas can be discerned on the strength of the latter texts in themselves.

The author of 'Hebrews' is addressing his letter/essay to Christian believers from the ranks of his confreres, the people known as (the Children of) Israel. Israel was the name given by God to Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of the patriarch, Abraham (who came from a group called 'Hebrews' in Mesopotamia). Jacob had 12 sons who were the progenitors of the tribes that constituted the nation of Israel. By the time of Christ, in fact, the original nation of Israel had metamorphosed considerably. Briefly, the original 12 tribes had divided into two nations: Judah (basically the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) and Israel (composed of the other 10 tribes). They had re-united for a time under David, only to split again after the death of his son Solomon. The nation of Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria in 722 BC, and later dispersed, disappearing from the annals of history. What existed in Jesus' day was Judah, now the remnant of the original 'Israel.'

Hebrews' writer, a master of scripture, takes his readers through a solid, logical line of reasoning with one main intention in mind: to point his flock forwards in the (new) Christian faith, and to make it crystal clear why they should, by no means, even long for the good, old days. What were the two 'paradigms,' old and new, that this letter analyses? Let's take a brief look.

Hebrews states plainly that the old system under scrutiny is the Sinai Covenant, brokered by Moses in the dessert, some 1300 years before Jesus' birth. This is the agreement that the people of Israel had been living under for all those centuries, and it was firmly entrenched in their collective minds as their religion and ethnicity--the two are inextricably identified. Yet, building on Jesus' own teachings, Paul was telling Jewish believers to abandon the old traditions, and walk in this new system founded by their savior! The writer of Hebrews explains, in terms that Jews could understand, why this radical departure was unavoidable and, moreover, desirable.

Anticipating Jewish objections, Hebrews defines how Jesus was a perfectly legitimate High Priest, although he did not come from the usual tribe of the priesthood (the Levites). He identifies Jesus with Melchisidek, a famous priest-king who was paid homage by Abraham himself. The writer goes on to consider each major feature of the Jewish religious order--the temple, the great feast of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and the sacrificial system. Without providing another analysis of those individual arguments, the summary is that Jesus introduced a new system that is superior in every way to the previous arrangement. The ministry of Jesus is wholly efficacious and all-sufficient in ensuring the salvation of all who believe in Him (Heb 7:25).

In contrast, the writer demonstrates how the old, Mosaic system was inferior in every respect, being installed in its day for the purpose of leading the Israelites to the 'real thing' to come. The old contract contained 'object lessons' such as the Tent of the Lord's Presence, and the articles that furnished it; and the sacrificial system for symbolic removal of sins, and so on, to provide tangible correlatives for a nation that had spent the last 400 years under Egyptian authority. The Old Covenant was, in fact, a complete 'constitution' for this people who had arrived in Egypt as a large family, and left, four centuries later, as a nation of possibly, two million souls. All they had known was Egyptian rule of law and social norms; now God, through Moses, supplied them with a full legal package for an orderly society! Reading the 'Pentateuch' (the first five books of the Bible, and attributed to Moses' hand), one can see that it includes, notably, rules of conduct (principally, the Ten Commandments, but there were dozens of extra rules added by Moses to account for various situations common to society). It also covers rules of public health and nutrition, as well as a system of animal sacrifices to atone for wrong-doing. Without such a comprehensive package, the people of Israel could well have broken down into chaos in short order following their hasty departure from Egypt! God was concerned about His own holy name; if Israel fell into chaos, they would ultimately turn to alien gods and idols, as the model they had grown up with, and His honor would be besmirched. That's why He instituted a 'national covenant' with Israel.

So, the Old paradigm had its utility; but as a means of attaining personal right standing with God, it was hopelessly misunderstood by the Israelites. To begin with, the Sinai covenant didn't promise 'salvation' in return for Law-keeping. Many Christians believe that notion to this very day: i.e. that individual Jews were supposed to 'keep the Commandments' in order to 'be saved' (presumably, meaning attaining salvation or paradise in the next life). But the agreement really tells the Israelites that if they (the collective nation) observe His laws, and thus institute a 'theocratic utopia', then their nation would be supremely blessed and attain pre-eminence among all nations. Individuals who aspired to right standing with God were directed to the sacrificial system that was a foreshadowing of the later, perfect work of the Messiah to come. In invoking the sacrificial protocol, individuals were demonstrating the kind of faith evidenced by Abraham when he was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, but was provided with a ram by God, in its place (Gen 22). It was the Israelites themselves who decided that observing the 'Decalog' (the Ten Commandments) was going to represent righteousness for them (Deut 6:25).

It is doubly ironic that, about three centuries after the inauguration of Christianity in Judea (as Rome called its province) the mainstream 'Christian' church gradually adopted the same fallacy. Although some church leaders still understood that Jesus had come to proclaim God's favor towards mankind, the notion became dogma that Christians had to keep the Ten Commandments in order to 'be saved.' Since there arose a backlash against Jews and their religion, the church fathers decided to 'Christianize' the Decalog--just as they had Christianized various pagan and Jewish feasts, such as the winter solstice (into Christmas) and Easter, in place of Passover. So, having to get rid of the 'Sabbath' of the Commandments, they substituted Sunday worship in its place. The gospel of Christ--the good news that God was gracious, and that all that is needed for right standing with Him is for us to believe in His Son--got completely muddled and concealed. It was not until the Protestant Reformation that the gospel emerged into the light of day once more. Yet, sadly, the Protestants too, soon forgot the essential message, and almost unbelievably, they continued the false gospel invented by the Roman church.

That same false gospel continues its unholy existence to this 'enlightened' day, in a confusing message that proclaims, in effect, 'all you have to do to be saved (eternally) is to believe in Jesus... and oh yes, then live in complete compliance with the Ten Commandments for the rest of your life!' This mixed message is an abomination that desolates the gospel of Christ! Yet, it is the dominant 'gospel' being preached to the world today. And Christians wonder why the pagan masses are not beating a path to their churches. This is not 'good news' to anyone; we know it's impossible to keep those rules 100% of the time, and we're told that slip-ups are not permitted. But this is the kind of thing that arises when we try to live the NT life using the OT mindset.

Paul sternly admonished the Galatians in blunt language intended to get their attention. He told them they were 'bewitched' by the old mindset, the desire to return to the old, bankrupt ways (ch 3, vs 1). If that weren't enough, he told the men who wanted to retain circumcision (the physical mark of belonging to Abraham's lineage) that they might as well go all the way and castrate themselves (ch 5, vs 12)! Now that's blunt language, friends. I won't go through his arguments again, (study them yourselves), but his conclusion is that the faith of Christ is a totally different, freeing way of relating to God. He understood fully that this faith was the one described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, which he had summarized with 'the golden rule' (Matt 7:12). In chapter 4 (vs 21-31) Paul compares the two covenants to Abraham's wife and concubine, with the former standing for the new covenant of freedom, and the latter representing the old one of 'slavery.'

Similarly, the writer of Hebrews understood that the 'new covenant' was the fulfillment of the prophecies of Jeremiah (see vs 3:16, and especially 31:31-34) who spoke of a new covenant that would NOT be like the one made at Sinai through Moses. This one would have its rules written on the heart, not on tablets of stone. As foreseen in Psalm 40, it would not require animal sacrifices; it would require a heart turned to God. As Ezekiel had prophesied (vs 36:26-27), the 'heart of stone' would be replaced with the heart of flesh (love, grace). It was to be a spiritual revolution! Instead, it was perverted over the years into a confusing abomination, grafting the new ideas from the gospel age unsuccessfully onto the old traditions from the antiquated days of Moses.

God did not leave things in a confusing state; far from it. It was recorded in the gospel accounts (Luke 23:45) that at the moment Jesus exhaled his last breath, the curtain in the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. This was a clear demonstration that the old order was finished. The way into the 'Holy of Holies' was now wide open to anyone who approached (Heb 4:16; 10:19ff); the priesthood was futile (Heb 7:27ff), the animal sacrifices valueless (Heb 9:12ff). Both were no longer needed; the 'shadows' were superceded by the things they foreshadowed. Just in case some people didn't get this graphic message (and most did not), God made it abundantly evident a few decades after the Cross when the Roman legions invaded Jerusalem in 70 AD, and completely demolished the great Temple, which the Jewish priests, law-givers and rulers were so proud of. What more could God do? Well, we know that the surviving Jews were dispersed all over Europe, and Judah/Judea disappeared from the map.

To certain inquiring minds, it is a matter of considerable amazement that the early Christian church, which had manifested miracles, degenerated to such a degree over the subsequent ages, that today, it is almost a laughable institution in terms of its moral power and spiritual influence in the modern world. How could this have happened? My thesis is that the miracles disappeared at about the same time as the 'mixed gospel' became the common currency of Christian faith. With this abominable admixture of grace plus works, the resulting 'false gospel' has no real power to attract and hold souls. Worse, it quickly engenders a spirit of legalism, as people scramble fearfully to 'keep the Law.' And legalism is a deadly, stultifying disease, in the life of a believer or of a church, make no mistake! History proves that Paul was entirely justified in his attack on regression to the old ways, the Mosaic Covenant.

Some students label the Sinai Covenant a 'covenant of works.' But, as you can see by now, that is not exactly the case. It was not intended by God to be a covenant of works; it was the Israelites who fashioned it into such a beast. God intended the sacrificial system included in the Old Covenant to point sinners to the coming Messianic Savior, just as Abraham's sacrifice had done... and (many believe) just as practiced by Adam and Eve, and their son Abel. Thus, 'salvation' was always effected through faith in the provision of God. Jesus 'ratified' that eternal covenant when he instituted his 'Covenant of Grace' at the last supper (Matt 26:27), and delivered with it a New Law (or new commandment; Jn 13:34, 15:12, 17). That law of love, abiding in the heart (or mind, literally) is infinitely superior to the old Decalog, the constitutional law written on stone. (That contrast can easily be the subject of another, separate essay, so I'll leave it, for now.)

In summary, the reader can see now, this writer sincerely hopes, that... 1) God holds His dealings with humanity on an orderly, legal basis, expressed in 'covenants' that He made with individuals and with groups. The major covenants considered in the Bible are the one made at Sinai, through Moses, with the children of Israel, and the one sealed with Jesus' blood at Mount Calvary. 2) The Old Testament was re-interpreted and mis-interpreted by the Israelites to assume 'salvation by works', and their faulty understanding has been passed on, over the ages, to the organization known as the Christian church. 3) The New Covenant manifested by Jesus, and ratified by his sacrificial death at Calvary, is the only means to personal salvation. This covenant is based on God's grace, without reference to Law, and is invoked by belief, faith, in Christ and his perfect ministry.

In closing, this writer acknowledges that much of the preceding essay may appear to be radical, and even 'antinomian'--the fancy word used by scholars to mean lawless. You must understand that living in the gospel's freedom does in no way give anyone licence to live a hedonistic, lawless life. Far from it! Living under the law of love (God's grace) means living a responsible life, putting others' interests ahead of our own. There's nothing antinomian about it. Under Jesus' covenant, the focus is taken away from a check-list of external, written rules, and shifted to the completed work of Christ. We are judged righteous, not on the basis of performance, but purely due to faith in Him. Through that faith, we enter into 'covenantal solidarity' with Jesus, and are seen by God as identified with His Son. These concepts, again, are sufficiently important to represent the subject of a separate study (available from this author and others, too.)


December 7, 2006

Is the SDA Church Christian?

Some people suppose that the SDA (Seventh-Day Adventist) Church is just another protestant denomination, while others regard it as a cult due to their reliance on the writings of one of their 'founding mothers,' Ellen G. White. The truth is more surprising--the SDA Church, while believing itself to be ' the 'remnant church' of God, is instead, an anti-Christian organization. That may sound outrageous, but will make sense after an explanation. And why do I pick on the SDAs, out of the babble of self-proclaimed, official voices of the faith of Christ? That too, I will clarify below.

The crux of the problem lies in the errant 'gospel' espoused by this Sabbath-based church. (Sabbath is the 24-hour period from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and was cited in Moses' Ten Commandments). Any church that lays claim to the title of Christian must have, at minimum, a proper understanding of the basis of Christianity, the 'good news' of Jesus Christ. Of course, Adventists think they alone have the true gospel... the majority of members blissfully unaware that it is actually opposed to the message that Jesus came to bring. For the skeptical or curious, let me outline what they hold as the 'gospel,' and where that reasoning leads.

Like all their teachings, the SDA version of the gospel is marvellously complex, and requires considerable study and time to define and absorb. They talk about a two-phase process of salvation that some of them call 'the objective gospel' and 'the subjective gospel,' which refer to the more familiar theological concepts of 'justification,' and 'sanctification.' They say that Jesus' death paid the penalty for our sins, thereby providing the justification that gives us the legal right to eternal life. However-- before he or she can breath easily, there's the second little matter for the converted Christian to deal with. 'Sanctification is the work of a lifetime,' is a phrase familiar to Adventists-- meaning that the new convert must spend the rest of his/her natural life working on 'character perfection,' another buzz-phrase of Adventism, which refers to how one gains sanctification, the second mandatory requirement of salvation.

Now, to get around the obvious argument that this is a 'works-based' salvation, and therefore, unChristian, recent SDA theology brings in the Holy Spirit: it's the Holy Spirit working in me and thru me, who perfects my character, not really 'me.' It sounds credible, especially to new, unstudied Christians. The trouble is, the Bible simply doesn't speak anywhere about this kind of bilateral gospel. Scripture tells us that the work of Christ was all-sufficient, and needs no assistance from the human spirit or the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 1:30; Heb 10:10, 10:14, among many others). Okay, the Christian may agree; that's an un-biblical gospel... But, does that make it anti-Christian? The answer is yes.

Any gospel that requires a person to do some 'work,' to take an active role in his/her own salvation, is by definition, anti-Christian. If we have any part to play in our salvation, it makes the life and sacrifice of Christ of no account; it renders the grace of God not a gift but a wage. Second, one has to follow this theology to its logical conclusion to really see how demonic it is. For the Adventist, the outcome of this thinking is that s/he must be able to develop a sinless character over time... and that those who fail to do so must have weak moral fiber. It follows for them that the 'losers' of life are there by choice; they haven't allowed the Holy Spirit to work in their lives. The attitude that we can achieve perfection of character (i.e. sinlessness) hardens the heart towards those we judge as spiritual laggards, and can create envy towards those we perceive as 'high achievers' (or perhaps as just fakes). Legalism always entails judgementalism; one who hasn't accepted unconditional grace can hardly extend it to his fellow sinners.

In conclusion, any gospel that negates, or adds requirements to, the grace of God--the free gift of eternal life--is a pagan philosophy, anti-Christian. And the illustration above shows how adhering to this belief leads directly to anti-Christian behavior. In short, the Seventh Day Adventist Church is an anti-Christ organization posing as 'the remnant church' (their catch-phrase) with the message for the end of this age. And, incidentally, that claim puts them into the same category as such other self-proclaimed oracles as The Watchtower Society (Jehovah Witnesses), the 'Latter Day Saints' (Mormons), and even Baha'i.

Now, why did I select the SDA church for this analysis? Because they epitomize the same problem that affects virtually the whole panoply of churches calling themselves by the name of Christ! To give them credit, at least the SDAs follow their false gospel to its logical conclusion. And in doing so, they illustrate the error of the mainstream denominations. You see, almost all the churches proclaim a warped, hybrid version of the gospel that tries to graft the heart of the Old Testament (also called the Sinai, or Mosaic Covenant) into the body of the New Testament proclaimed by Jesus Christ. In his brief ministry, Jesus warned his followers against this very mistake (Matt 9:16-17). How do the churches do it? (And they've been doing it for almost 2000 years!). They do it by carrying the Ten Commandment law of Moses from the Old Covenant, and making it an essential feature of the Covenant of Christ (which it most certainly is not; study Hebrews, ch. 7-10, for ex.). Hence, the false gospel proclaimed by mainstream church spokesmen goes along the lines that 'You are saved by believing in Christ... and you maintain that salvation by obeying the Ten Commandments.'

Now I realize that most people who read the last statement will scratch their heads and say, 'So-- isn't that right?' No! It isn't right. That's not why the Son of God lowered himself to become a human, live a sinless life, and die ignominiously for our sins. The 'good news' is much better than that official party line from the organized churches! The true gospel is that Jesus has liberated us from all reference to the code of Moses, from behavior-based religion (and, not insignificantly, from hierarchical, patriarchal religious organizations). If the mainline churches really believe we have to obey the old, Ten Commandments, then they should do as the Adventists-- they should observe the Mosaic Sabbath, and not Sunday as the 'day of rest.' All the churches have fallen into the 'Judeo-Christian' trap of keeping old wine (the Ten C's) in new skins (the message of Jesus); and they've been doing it for so long that few people, no matter how sincere, are able to see outside the paradigm (the 'strong delusion'). In attempting to base a Christian theology on this error, the SDAs have been more consistent than other churches, and thus make the issue more apparent. Whether observing Sabbath or Sunday, the result is equally futile! As Paul labors at length to teach, believers are not under the Old Covenant, and the Commandments are a moot point-- a holdover from a specific tribe, from a long bygone era.

Culture - Harmless Custom or Curse?

Culture - Harmless Custom or Curse?

Culture is one of those somewhat ethereal notions that most 'New World' natives donÕt think much about. We come from a wide variety of backgrounds in the 'Old Countries,' and after a couple of generations, we all meld into the great, consumer, secular, society that is both mirrored and parodied at us. Sure, we keep some vestiges of the old ways, conveniently modified and denatured to fit our busy lives; but overall there's a remarkable homogeneity. That was the case, that is, until the last few decades. What the dawn of the 21st century has demonstrated is that the notion of culture is not simply some quaint, benign set of customs and mores passed down from one generation to the next to preserve some sense of collective identity. No; there's more to it than that. Much more; and it's not all cozy.

As long as 'culture' is about superficial things like feast days, dressing in traditional costumes, or eating ethnic food, everyone's happy; no harm done. But, we have witnessed growing tension between major cultures as, for instance, in Europe where the burgeoning Muslim population is finding itself in conflict with European societies. Globally, the Bush administration has created and pursued what amounts to a 'modern crusade' of an ostensibly 'Christian' West versus the feared 'Islamo-fascist terrorists.' These have become very serious conflicts, based on inherited collective beliefs on both sides. There are smaller examples that are worth mention. In Canada, the Sikhs have won some major concessions for their particular culture. Sikh men who join the RCMP do not have to remove their turbans to don instead the famous hat that is part of the now-ceremonial red uniform. In some provinces, Sikhs riding motorcycles are exempt from wearing a proper protective helmet. In some cities, Sikh males can wear their 'ceremonial' daggers (the 'kirpan') in public places such as schools, where anyone else would be charged with a weapons offense.

As these examples indicate, the worst instances appear when culture and religion intermingle-- as they inevitably do. In fact, one can argue that all 'religions' are merely specific types of culture. This is because true religion is an inner experience, a relationship between a human and his God (however defined); it is beyond culture. These mass movements with their hierarchies, their membership rolls, and their administrators and treasuries are cultural institutions that have grafted some kind of religious beliefs into their shell. Like all culture therefore, institutionalized religions are artificial... mere constructs of human imagination. Regrettably, they never admit this fact. Every major religion insists that it has the only absolute truth, and that all others are in error. Maybe even this stance could be tolerated, except for the sad reality that, too often, the men leading these religions, like sanctimonious drug lords, are determined to make everyone consume their product. In the end, I can't make any real distinction between religious custom and culture-- they are in all essentials, the same thing.

In France, there is ongoing anger among some Muslims because the head-scarf worn by females was banned in public schools. Now some British officials are under fire for asking Muslim women to remove the veil when appearing before government officials (e.g. judges). Holland is considering a ban on wearing face veils in public. And then there were those cases in the US where it was acceptable to celebrate Divali or Hanukkah, but by some curious twist of logic, one could not mention Christmas except by allusion. Those are relatively inane instances of the clash of cultures. But it gets uglier. What about the practice among some (mostly African) societies, of female genital mutilation? When immigrants from those groups carried on the practice in Western nations, they justified it as 'part of their culture.' What about so-called 'honor killing' of women who are considered to have broken some sexual code, whether willingly or otherwise? No problem: if it isn't sanctioned by religion, it's just cultural. Hence, when considering the extremes to which cultural practices can reach, the question must arise: how far can a modern, enlightened society tolerate abhorrent or counterproductive practices under the guise of culture?

Maybe we could ask another question: is there anything sacrosanct about culture that it should be excused from tests of reason? Some people love the variety of human experience inherent in diverse cultures. Others can't venture far outside the confines of the world they know and trust, and would like to see the world homogenized into one, bland culture. I think it's clear that, in the balance, we are better off, richer mentally, having a variety of cultures. Equally clearly, I believe, is that we are not well served by anti-social practices that have become cloaked in the veil of culture. To the true believers I would ask, if the kirpan or the turban are ceremonial, then why not reserve their use for ceremonial occasions? No one would object if men wore turbans or women wore hijabs in the temples or places of assembly used by these religions. It becomes objectionable when the adherents of a particular sub-culture enjoy rights that are not dispensed to everyone, purely on the basis of so-called religion or culture.

On the matters touching on physical harm (FGM, honor slaying, etc.) there can be no exemption on the pretext of culture. These are clearly inhuman and immoral practices and must not be tolerated. An ostensible gray zone has emerged recently in North America with regard to the practice of polygamy, mainly by a few zealous members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. Defenders claim, predictably, that it's a question of freedom of religion (which I regard as the same as freedom of culture). Investigation has discovered cases of girls as young as 14 being forced into marriage against their will; of young women forced to marry men decades older; and of men who can't even remember the names of their numerous children, born to numerous wives. These stories illustrate the dangers of counter-cultural practices founded on self-serving or questionable custom. There is a line where individual rights must take precedence over tradition, especially tradition that has no basis in necessity or in ethics.

I realize that there is a problem with my outlook. It could be argued that I am imposing my own, culturally induced understanding of ethics over those of the affected sub-cultures. The argument comes down to a challenge of the authority of a given religion, since all cultures must resort to their associated religion in dealing with matters of morality. Now, my response is that it is obvious that none of the religions has prima facie proof or evidence of its natural superiority in spiritual matters. The sheer number of faiths, and the dispersion of their beliefs and their place of origin demonstrate that none can be objectively viewed as uniquely endowed with total truth. Therefore, it is reasonable to seek an objective standard that is beyond the reach of the babble of religions, though it may take the best points from any of them.

And, incidentally, I am not arguing that the Western, secular way of life is inherently superior to other cultures. Certainly, though, there are laudable features of the secular society-- just as there are some reprehensible ones. Demonstrably, the separation of church and state is one of the most important and beneficial aspects of 'traditional Western society.' We have recognized the flaws in mono-religious societies, and have taken reasonable steps to avoid such dangers and ensure equitable religious liberty for all. Yet today we have an influx of immigrants who would like to invoke that hard-won constitution to take on rights that inhere, not in the person, but in the particular collective to which they belong. This desire for faith-based exclusivity is, in my opinion, a troubling trend. It is, though, preferable to those who would simply replace the constitution with their particular 'holy writ' (be it the Bible, the Koran, or whatever). I have absolutely no confidence in the ability of any 'faith-based' government to treat the population with a fair or even ethical hand. (And that goes as much for 'Christians' as for any other religious culture.)

The dispassionate observer can hope that the secular state will hold; that it will not be hijacked by any special interest group, especially one that claims special insight handed down to them by God. One fact favoring the prevailing of the secular state is the number of competing cultural/religious interests all wanting to assert their hegemony. The government cannot favor one over another, so that maintains some balance. However, there is one special-interest culture that has risen to prominence in secular democracies, and exerts an influence over government that varies from subtle to blatant, depending on time and country. We don't think of big business as a culture, even though we have come to speak about 'corporate culture' as a recognizable characteristic of large enterprises. Yet, essentially, corporations represent a form of culture, and they lobby hard to ensure that their cultural outlook receives favorable treatment from government. So, we have succeeded, largely, in separating church and state... but, have we been equally diligent in separating state/government from the pseudo-religion of corporatism?