Gehan Gunasekara: Religious guidance as relevant now as it has ever been

Those within the church are as likely to be divided over same-sex marriage as those in secular society. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Those within the church are as likely to be divided over same-sex marriage as those in secular society. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Sam Clements' article on these pages entitled "Irrelevant churches have no right to dictate what happens in a secular society" belittles the role of religion, not only in the context of the debate over legalising same-sex marriage, but in society generally. He argues that "educated, enlightened and humanly progressive societies" have no need of the churches' moral teachings. He also tars all Christians with the same brush, arguing that "the church grooms its victim to accept its claims of moral ascendancy and to unquestioningly accept its authority, and that of its leaders."

Both arguments are way off the mark. The church I attend actually supports same-sex marriage. Furthermore, it encourages dissent from established dogma (after all most of Jesus' teachings were aimed at discrediting and ridiculing the Jewish religious leadership of the time) and independent and critical thinking on doctrinal issues. The Christians I know are deeply involved in the social issues that concern us such as income inequality, child abuse and human rights abuses here and overseas.

It is their faith that moves them to be involved with these matters.

Moreover, we may now be a secular society but the values that underpin it, our moral compass, is almost entirely a result of the influence of religion on Western civilisation. Much of our criminal law is based on the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not kill", "Thou shalt not steal" etc. Besides, many more of its injunctions are cogent reminders of where we have gone astray as a society due to a lack of values to guide us.

For example, many of the commandments contain the sanction not to covet. This word essentially encompasses human desire for various items, most notably material possessions. All the worlds' great religions have advice concerning excessive materialism or attachment for possessions.

New Zealand's current economic predicament is largely a natural consequence of the latter as our indebtedness as a nation stems from our desire for amassing items whether they are houses, flat screen televisions or the latest iPhone.

Likewise, Jesus's admonition to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" would well serve corporate CEOs as they lay off hundreds of workers while they themselves receive bonuses.

Secularism flourishes because most of Christian teaching (and the teaching of other religions) is completely at odds with unrestrained capitalism.

Yet an earlier generation of New Zealand's leaders, notably the Liberals and Labour politicians who founded our welfare state and made us the envy of the rest of the world, based their actions solidly on their religious convictions, although they did not impose their religious views on others. Today's largely atheist generation of leaders lack this grounding and their policies suffer as a result. People nowadays simply accept the status quo simply because there are fewer influences - such as sermons from the pulpit - railing against it.

Clements also argues that modern scientific knowledge and discovery eliminates the need for religious teaching. Nothing could be further from the truth. All our new-found scientific expertise has not necessarily yielded wisdom on how to deal with problems as diverse as global warming and income inequality. These are moral or ethical issues squarely within the domain of religious teaching and the secular world ignores their tenets at its peril.

When it comes to issues such as same-sex marriage, no one ought to have a monopoly on determining what is legitimate. However, on these and other social issues the church is as entitled as anyone else to express its opinion and Christians are likely to be as divided over these issues as society is at large.

Gehan Gunasekara is an associate professor in commercial law at the University of Auckland and a parishioner of St Matthews-in-the-City.

- NZ Herald

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