Friday, November 03, 2006

Christianity and Intellectual Freedom

Does Christianity allow its members intellectual freedom? Does being a disciple of Christ allow us the freedom to think? Jesus commanded his disciples to make other disciples, instructing them about all that he has taught them (Matt 28:18,19).

Did Jesus teach his disciples to think? “Who do you say I am?” Jesus asked Simon Peter (Matt 16:15). That is a thinking question. Jesus started by asking who the others thought he was, and then he asked Simon Peter that question. In the gospel narratives, Jesus always taught the disciples to think, guided them to come to the correct conclusions and to make decisions. That is intellectual freedom.

Does our intellectual freedom allow us to explore areas of knowledge that are not considered “Christian”? How we answer this question is important. One answer will lead to a wider concept of intellectual freedom. The other answer will lead to books banning and burning.

The concept of intellectual freedom will imply that everyone will have the freedom to express unorthodox or unpopular views, and the importance of allowing to be made available these unorthodox or unpopular views. This will mean that we allow our church members to be exposed to all types of knowledge, praying that our church teaching is enough to help them discern what is acceptable and what is not. I know this statement will make many of you uneasy.

What happens if these unorthodox or unpopular views unduly influence our congregations? What if they contain some ideas that conflict with our church’s teaching? Will it corrupt the younger Christians and our youth? Surely some of these unorthodox or unpopular views should be so deeply buried that they will not see the light of day. The church leadership should appoint themselves to be censors on what their congregations should read or watch. In other words, there is no intellectual freedom as we appoint ourselves as censors for the people of God.

Now what if other people think the same way as we do and appoint themselves as the censor or the guardians of our intellectual freedom? And these people have a different worldview than us? Does the pot then call the kettle black? The Home Ministry of Malaysia (KDN) has been banning books for years. Recently 109 books from one distributor were banned. see list. Why then do we get upset when the government restrict intellectual freedom while we applaud when we Christians restrict intellectual freedom on our own members?

I believe we should follow the example of our Lord. Jesus allowed his disciples the intellectual freedom to learn and make the correct choices. Someone once said, “All truth is God’s truth.” Moses was schooled as a prince by the Egyptians. Daniel was trained by the Babylonian court. Jeremiah sent a message to the exiles and told them to settle down and learn from their neighbours, the Babylonians. As a result of this openness, the learning and wisdom of the Jewish community in Babylon at that time was regarded as their golden age of learning. We need to trust in the sovereignty of the Lord and of the work of the Holy Spirit. As Gamaliel II said of the new Way movement, if it is of God, it will endure. If not, it will fade away.

Christianity should allow its adherents intellectual freedom to explore. Of course there is no such thing as absolute intellectual freedom. Even in the United States, the Supreme Court acknowledges that there are certain exceptions to the First Amendment (freedom of speech). These are obscenity, child pornography, slander and defamation, state secrets, and ‘inflammatory speeches’ that will cause riots. Aside from that there are the freedom to think and express one’s views.

Now why would the Home Ministry (KND) ban Read –Aloud Children’s classics, “Vogue”-Make-up, A History of God (Karen Armstrong), SpongeBob Square Pants, Dora, The Malayan Trilogy (Antony Burgess) and People Watching: Desmond Morris’ Guide to Body Language? How will these books corrupt Malaysian society? It need a lot of thinking to make sense of this.

And there are much more for Christians to think about nowadays: open theism, emergent churches, ancient evangelical future, emigration, to name but a few such thoughts.

Soli Deo Gloria

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition: for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. ”— Thomas Paine, Dissertation On First Principles Of Government

"On Sunday evening, members of the Harvest Assembly of God Church in Penn Township sing songs as they burn books, video and CDs that they have judged offensive to their God."

Bulter Eagle, March 26, 2001


Wei Hao said...

Great post, Alex.. if we are confident in the reality of Who and what we believe in, that the truths of biblical faith withstand the test of time and all the criticisms levelled against it, we dun need to forcefully censor 'dangerous ideas'...

In the age of internet, we cannot isolate Christian people from even wrong and ultimately harmful ideas. What can we do, however, is to innoculate people i.e. introduce these "germs" fairly in a safe environment and allow them to develop their own 'immune system' by looking at it from a biblical/Christian worldview :)

only caveat though is we do not need to revive already dead heresies from the grave (we have enuff problem teaching the truth as it is!) hehe

Alex Tang said...

Thanks Wei Hao,

Yes, we need to relook at the way we "protect" our congregations against pluralistic influences. The traditional way of isolation and building theological fortresses have failed.

As you have pointed out, the Internet has levelled the playing field, opening a floodgate of information, accessable to anyone.

I like your idea of innoculation. To "protect" our congregations do not mean insulating them but vaccinating them with the Word, and helping them to experience the reality of God.

Donna about reviving dead heresies, after all we are in the resurrection business. :)


andre said...


It's an interesting and thought provoking post. I generally agree with your point but I'd like to make this statement - not all book bans and book burnings are created equal.

I'm not at all sure of how to articulate the subtleties but there's a difference between banning books on social, political or religious commentary and banning immoral material like pornography.

In your post, you referenced a church group burning books, CDs and other materials - I suspect for them it was not so much a sign of censorship as much as a sign of contrition.

wei hao said...

Come to think of it, book burning is not without precedent in the book of Acts hehehe :D