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  • Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
Download a few chapters of the book here.
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Entries in religion (3)

Sunday
Jul172016

Losing our (civil) religion


South African pastor and bishop Peter Storey said, “American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnection between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.”

- from Common Prayer: A liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (14 July)

This beautiful quote from my mentor, and former Bishop, ties in with what I tried to convey in this video 'Losing my religion in Basel'.

In this blog I travel by bike and train from Nijmegen in Holland to Basel in Switzerland. The purpose of the journey was to speak at the 12th international Bonhoeffer Conference.

My paper was on Bonhoeffer and Mandela: A conversation on Christian humanism and Christian witness.

The point of my paper is to make the argument that a political anthropology with very little faith conviction (like Mandela held) could not solve some of the complex challenges that the world (and South Africa in particular) faces. What is needed is a deeper, more significant change of persons to become truly human, and to relate to others as truly human - a condition that can only be brought about by ontological participation in the true humanity and divinity of Christ, as Bonhoeffer suggested. Bonhoeffer was deeply influenced by Patristic Eucharistic Christology - the concept of theosis suggests that God becomes human (in Christ) so that we can become more like God (or take on the character of God's nature) by participation in Christ. Thus, true humanity is to become like the true human - Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer, characterised this true human as 'a man for others'.

However, in relation to the quote above and this video, I also reflected on the role of civil religion in South Africa. Civil religion is a form of 'belief' in which our hopes, aspirations, and even faith, are placed in the nation state. North Korea has a very particular and overt form of civil religion. The United States also has a form of civil religion that can be witnessed in things such as the phrase 'God bless America', and the symbol of the nations flag which is displayed in religious buildings like Churches, or the phrase 'In God we trust' on the coinage. Robert Belah has suggested that Americans often are not sure of the distinctive elements of their faith (i.e., if they are Christian that their salvation comes through Christ, that their belief is in a tri-une God etc.) rather they have a vague notion of belief in something that transcends them, and often it is a civic belief - a belief in the 'saving power' of their collective national identity. Patriotism replaces religious conviction, even to the point of the ultimate human sacrifice, namely, the willingness to offer up their lives for the sake of the nation.

In this video I suggest that South Africa was not immune to this civil religion. At the start of the new South African democracy there was such hope and optimism in the new South Africa. Nelson Mandela was naively regarded as a ‘Messiah’ that would lead the people to salvation. Desmond Tutu, was regarded as the high priest of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ who gave religious credence to the new hopes and beliefs of the people. The South African constitution was held in awe by many as a type of sacred ‘text' for transformation that gave the guidelines and inspiration for our new humanity. Whereas the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) served as a ‘liturgical moment’ for this civil religion - many hoped that this moment would usher in, or inaugurate, true and lasting change.

Sadly, such misguided belief gives over our responsibility and the possibility for true and significant change to historical persons, events and processes that cannot realise it. I suggest that this idolatry is a form of civil religion that we would be wise to leave behind. The political dispensation of the Nation and civil society cannot truly transform and renew citizens and society. Indeed, neither can 'religion' as a social construction. What I contend is that we need active citizens who are renewed in heart and mind, and who work sacrificially, tirelessly and in the character of the true human - Jesus Christ - for the renewal of humanity and society.

It is not that the state and the political dispenstation are unimportant, they are. However, they are not be 'believed' in. These structures are there to protect our rights and freedoms. Our true humanity, our dignity, our life - these all stem from the source of all life and life, Jesus Christ. Our character is formed by being part of the new community that is made possible by the true person. Thus, the Church as the body of Christ (not the institution) is the people among whom we live out, and learn, what it means to be truly human for the sake of humanity and creation.

I'd love to hear your take on this!

Monday
Feb232015

A question of meaning in Law and Religion: Problematizing “the objective normative value system” imposed by judges on the South African Constitution.

Tomorrow the summer school on religion and law will begin at the University of the Western Cape.  I have the privilige of co-presenting the opening paper with Advocate Keith Matthee (a fellow Methodist, Senior Council at the Cape Bar and acting Judge in the High Court).

The Summer School is a collaboration between the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, the University of the Western Cape, the University of KwaZulu Natal and Stellenbosch University.  This year we will focus on the topic of law and religion.

The title of our paper will be:  A question of meaning in Law and Religion:  Problematizing “the objective normative value system” imposed by judges on the South African Constitution.

Here is the abstract:

In a 2001 Constitutional Court case Ackerman J and Goldstone J stated:

Our constitution is not merely a formal document regulating public power.  It also embodies, like the German Constitution, an objective normative value system.” [1]

Our paper seeks to highlight and discuss a key problem in this accepted approach to the South African Constitution. Namely that this approach incorrectly presupposes only one meaning for concepts such as dignity, equality and freedom and that such meaning is ascertainable by reference to an objective value system contained in the constitution itself.

The result of such an approach is that the constitution becomes imbued with theological meaning and power and so oversteps its bounds from being a protector of religious freedom and an arbitrator of religious rights, to holding a normative theological position alongside, or even in conflict, with religious groupings in South African society. 

The problem can be illustrated by means of a comparison of the different conclusions reached by the South African and German legal systems about whether an unborn child is “life” as envisaged in the equivalent provisions in the two constitutions.

Our paper will argue that the following could serve as a contribution towards addressing this legal theological problem:

  1. See the bill of rights for what it should be, a legal document regulating public and private power and not a document for imposing a specific worldview (“objective … value system”) on society.
  2. In every legal decision judges must recognize the role of their own worldview, inclusive of those who hold a worldview that they would describe as agnostic or atheist,  as an authoritative point of reference, (or value system) when they seek to give content to concepts such as dignity, freedom and equality.  This is of particular importance if the judge concerned in her own daily life draws upon a normative religious source, such as the Bible, Quran or some other commonly accepted religious/philosophical document or code.
  3. The various religious communities, inclusive of the atheistic and agnostic communities, must be allowed and encouraged to exercise their unique role when it comes to developing, critiquing, or explicating the “normative value system” referred to in the quote above. In this process the role of the state/courts/law should be to regulate these religious communities inter alia with a view to curbing any abuse in the exercise of this unique role.

I will post feedback on the paper, and the paper itself (once it is published). So please do check back here for more information.

Here is a list of the papers that will be presented:

Tuesday 24 February

8h45-9h15

 

Arrival and registration

9h15-9h30

Bernard Martin (Dean of Law, UWC)

Opening and welcome

9h30-11h00

Dion Forster (SU, Systematic Theology) and Keith Matthee (SU)

A question of meaning in Law and Religion:  Problematizing the objective normative value system contained in the South African constitution.

11h00-11h30

Tea

 

11h30-13h00

Wilhelm Gräb (HU, Theology):

 

Religious Implications of a Constitutional Democratic State: Why the Secular Differentiation is not True and What the Religions can Contribute to Law and Justice in a Constitutional Democratic State

 

Jacques de Ville (UWC, Law)

The khōric Constitution

13h00-14h00

Lunch

 

14h00-15h30

Rosa Schinagl (HU)

Love – a law or an inner drive?

 

Asharaf Booley (UWC, Law)

Women and Islam: An Overview of the Marital Contract and Practices found in Muslim Countries

15h45-16h30

Phillip Öhlmann (HU)

“Faithful men don’t beat their wives?” Measuring religiosity as a determinant of individual actions and social capital

17h00-18h45

Agustín Fuentes (Notre Dame)

Dean’s Distinguished  Lecture (UWC Library Auditorium):

Deep roots for justice, law and religion? The significance of cooperation, compassion and imagination in human evolution

 

Wednesday 25 February

9h00-10h30

Simanga Kumalo (UKZN, Practical Theology):

Religious Organizations and African Immigrants in post-apartheid South Africa: The Case Study of Central Methodist Mission and Bishop Paul Verreyn

 

Miranda Pillay (Religion and Theology, UWC)

Abortion, Law and Religion

10h30-11h00

Tea

 

11h00-1230

Ian A Nell (SU, Practical Theology)

 

Towards a deeper understanding of “Just Leadership”: Engaging Beyers Naudé

 

Johan Cilliers (SU, Practical Theology)

Poverty and Privilege: Re-hearing sermons of Beyers Naudé on religion and justice

12h30-14h00

Lunch

 

14h00-15h30

Mbhekeni Nkosi (UWC, Ethics)

Conceptual clarification of the German restitution model:  South Africa as a case study

 

Grischa Schwiegk (HU) 

Secular distinctions and the problems of ground and motivation in “secular” law – theoretical considerations

15h30-16h00

Tea

 

16h00-16h45

Manitza Kotzé (UWC, Religion and Theology)

Biotechnology, bills and belief: Justification, self-realisation or domination?

19h00

William Storrar (CTI)

Cilliers Breytenbach (Faculty of Theology, HU)

Michael Weeder (St Georges)

Panel discussion (St George’s Cathedral): International perspectives on Religion, Law and Justice

 

 

Thursday 26 February

 

9h00-10h30

Demaine Solomons (UWC, Religion and Theology)

Justice and Reconciliation: Antagonists or soulmates? The Kairos Document Revisited

 

 

Muneer Abduroaf (UWC, Law)

The impact of South African case law on the status of Muslim women: An analysis of court decisions versus the current (2010) Muslim Marriages Bill provisions

10h30-11h00

Tea

 

11h00-12h30

Lana Sirri (HU)

The tensions between ancient and modern interpretations of Islamic law, based on the work of Kecia Ali Sexual ethics and Islam-

feminist reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and jurisprudence

 

Hendrik Bosman (SU, Theology)

“The dialectic of religion and law according to the memories of Moses in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament”

12h30-14h00

Lunch

 

14h00-15h30

Andreas Feldtkeller (HU)

“Justice in Islam between Tradition and Modernity. Some Thought in Dialogue with the “Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi”

15h30-16h00

Tea

 

16h00-17h30

 

Open discussion of conference theme

18h30-

Conference Dinner

Life sciences building

 

It looks like an exciting program with a lot to think and talk about!

References:

[1] Please see the quote in, Ackermann, L. 2012. Human Dignity: Lodestar for Equality in South Africa. Juta and Company Ltd. p.28.

Wednesday
May282014

Why Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is wrong - law infused by religion is a bad idea

 

 

The lead story in the news this morning (28 May 2014) is a report that South Africa's Chief Justice, Hon Mogoeng Mogoeng, wants to "infuse laws with religion" to raise the moral fibre of the nation. He was speaking at the Religion and Law Conference at the University where I teach (Stellenbosch University).

 

While most faiths do develop the moral fibre of their adherents, this is not something that should be put into law! Yes, faith has a public role, and should have positive effects on public life, but religion should not get preference from the legal system of a nation. The law is intended to protect the rights of all citizens, regardless of their religious perspective. Laws should be based on the principles of justice and our shared human dignity - whether a person has a religious belief system or not, or differs with the religious beliefs of a minority, or majority, of the population, their rights should be protected in law. Religion on the other hand is based on beliefs that are not commonly shared, in fact some beliefs may run contrary to our common human rights (like the treatment of women and girls in some faiths, or the disregard of the rights of persons with a same sex orientation). Most people who want religion to be enfranchised in law want their religion, or religious convictions, to occupy that privileged place. I am guessing that Judge Mogoeng inadvertently expressed such a view. Indeed, nations like South Africa are deeply religious, and so we must take note of religious convictions and religious groupings. But such individuals or groupings should not be accorded special place before the law. Civic organization should enjoy the same access to the law and the same rights and privileges as a religious organization.

This does not mean that religious persons and organizations have no role to play in society, or in serving the nation. Quite to the contrary, campaigns such as Unashamedly Ethical and EXPOSED - Shining a light on corruption are wonderful examples of how people of faith are engaging social issues. The law protects their right to express their views and gather others to encourage them to change their values and behaviour. It was not always so in South Africa, a government that called itself 'Christian' oppressed its citizens, robbing them of their rights and dignity. No, we need a just, ethical, secular state that protects the rights of all citizens, including those who are religious, to be able to express their views in society.
By a secular state I do not mean a state that relegates faith from the public sphere and confines it only to the private realm.  Rather, I think of a secular state as one similar to that espoused in the constitution of South Africa - that is a state that is not partisan to any one religious group, or to persons with no faith perspective. Such a state recognises the importance of faith in shaping people's lives, their values, choices and actions, and so protects that right. Yet it does not accord higher value to any one group than another.

 

A religious state is a bad idea! I developed this idea in my recent book 'Between Capital and Cathedral: Essays on Church and State Relationships' (co authored with my friend from UNISA, Dr Wessel Bentley).

 

On the issue of a Christian government in any nation - I personally believe it is naive of believers of any faith to think that having persons of their faith persuasion in power will make things better for all. What Christians should pray for, and work for, is a just, ethical and unbiased government that looks out for the interests of all of the citizens of their nation. It is the role of the Church and believers to bring people to faith, that is not the role of the government. We should not long for a modern form of Constantinianism. Faith driven political agendas are destructive to faith and society.

 

Here's my view.


  • You don't want an anti-religious government (like that in the former USSR or China, where people of faith are persecuted). Faith is an important part of life. People should have the freedom to practise their faith as long as it does not destroy the rights of others.

  • You certainly also don't want a religious government (we have simply seen too many of these kinds of governments abusing people! Governments like those in Iran, and even the calls for 'religiously sanctioned wars and killings' in America which have confused religion with foreign and public policy) are harmful to faith and society! The problem with a religious government is that politicians are seldom 'religious persons' first and politicians second. Most politicians are politicians first, and they hold some religious conviction when it suits them. Also, if the religion in power is not your religion, or they belong to a different expression of your faith (e.g., Catholic instead of Protestant, or Suni Muslim instead of Sufi...) it can become extremely abusive. I certainly believe that we should have Christians in government, they should be salt and light! But, I don't believe that the Church should abdicate its role and function to the state.

  • No, I believe that one should work for an honest, impartial, just, servant minded secular state. A state that will protect and uphold the rights of all of its citizens, giving equal space for all to exercise their positive beliefs. Such a state serves the nation well and protects the freedom and rights of its citizens to live out their faith convictions within society. We have just such a system in South Africa. It can be uncomfortable for extremists and fundamentalists. But, I believe, as a Christian, it is the way of Jesus to make space for others. Let our love, not our laws, win the hearts and minds of those who hold different convictions from our own. I will write some more about this in the weeks to come.

Some years ago I was privileged to hear a lecture by Professor Martin Prozesky at the Joint Conferences on Religion and Theology at Stellenbosch University. The title of his lecture was the following: 'Is the secular state to blame for the decline in moral values in Southern African society'.

I recorded the lecture using my Macbook - so the sound quality is not all that great. It is not all that bad, but there were some instances when a few desks and chairs were moved in order to get some extra persons into the venue who arrived late. So please just skip through those bits.


The gist of the lecture is this: Does a secular state contribute towards the decline of moral and ethical values? Many religious groups and faith communities would seem to suggest that this is so. Martin makes an exceptional argument that a secular state (not to be confused with secularization) makes for a high moral and ethical standard in society.

The reasons, as stated above, is quite simply that the only alternatives to a secular state (i.e., a state that his not swayed in an direction by religious beliefs) is a theocracy (such as nations in which Islamic law is applied in the name of God), a anti-faith states (such as the USSR under Karl Marx). Neither of these are desirable for truly moral and ethical development. Rather, what is necessary is the kind of freedom that allows all citizens to participate in developing ethics for the common good of the whole of society.

He makes some wonderful statements about what ethics is in its broadest terms. He also discusses the notion of a secular state and makes reference to problems with Southern African constitutional democracy.

I found it most interesting! I would love to hear your comments and feedback!

Here's the lecture - it is a 10MB mp3 file.

If you do use this lecture or download and share it could I please ask that you reference it to Professor Martin Prozesky, 22 June 2009 (Stellenbosch), and also please send a link back to me here at http://www.dionforster.com


Thanks!