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Seminary leaders: Sept. 11 produced both good, bad for Christian landscape

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–One year after the world stood still for a day, Southern Baptist seminary presidents agree: Sept. 11 produced a mixed bag of both good and bad for the landscape of Christianity.

On the plus side, they say, Americans of all viewpoints were forced to examine their beliefs. Relativism — the belief that there are no moral absolutes — was junked by some people. Also, a door to the gospel was opened.

On the down side, they say, a belief that all religions are equal — known as pluralism — swept across the country. To some people, the God of Christianity and the god of Islam were one and the same.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said relativism is impossible to defend when examining such tragic events as Sept. 11.

“Relativism is an easy escape if you are determined to avoid dealing with the truth,” he said. “But it is cold comfort when the most basic issues of your conviction are under attack. It was moral relativism that fell with the towers on Sept. 11, for even the most left-wing, relativistic, postmodern university professor had to use the word ‘evil’ when describing the murderous attacks.”

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Phil Roberts agreed, saying that “the roots of relativism” were hit hard.

“… [W]e saw many examples of that in the media, with reporters saying this was an evil act, it was wrong and it was bad,” he said. “It’s kind of like Adolf Hitler. If you want any argument against moral relativism, just point your finger at him. You can do the same thing with the World Trade Center. People have had to decide that there is real evil out there.”

The tragedy has also provided a door for a gospel witness, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson said.

“Good has come from the tragedy,” he said. “It has awakened Americans’ sense of vulnerability. Whereas before Americans felt confident of invincibility, now they tremble. This has led some to God, and many more to the position that the United States must defend its own borders. I do believe that it opens the way for an evangelistic witness to many people who would have been closed to the gospel otherwise.”

While the tragedy opened the door for the gospel, it also shed light on the vast differences between Christian and Islamic soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), Roberts said. The terrorists of Sept. 11, he pointed out, were trying to attain salvation by killing others.

“I hope it has awakened people to the roots of Islamic soteriology,” Roberts said. “If you go wrong at the point of soteriology, you not only do not end up in heaven, you create disaster in this life as well. We had 19 young men go out and pirate these aircraft. Why? Not only were they trying to attack America, they also are acting under the false promise that if they die in jihad they’ll go to paradise.”

While some have rejected Islam’s claims, others have embraced pluralism, saying that all religions are simply referring to the same god. Mohler said traditional Christian views — such as the belief that Jesus is the only way of salvation — are now viewed in a negative light in “post-Christian America.”

“The biblical teaching of the exclusivity of the gospel has now been transformed into a hate crime on the part of many in the liberal establishment and in the media,” he said. “… [They] say that any kind of exclusivity in conviction leads to a terrorist mentality.”

But Mohler asserted that today’s Christians must give an answer to questions surrounding Sept. 11 — much like Christians did during the fall of the Roman Empire and during the rise of Nazi Germany.

“Christians in our generation are now called to relate the gospel to this situation,” he said. “That task in the present means that evangelicals must maintain the gospel and not compromise the biblical teaching that Jesus is the only way of salvation. We must maintain our moral vocabulary, calling evil by its name and refusing to join the relativisers. And we have to become emboldened in our evangelism, knowing that there will be some who accuse us of fanaticism just for preaching the gospel.”

Following the attacks there was an initial increase in church attendance and interest in faith issues. However, that soon waned. Christian pollster George Barna released data showing that church attendance increased by as much as 25 percent immediately after the attacks but fell back to normal levels by November.

Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary President William Crews said he noticed the upward-downward trend in church attendance.

“In my interaction with the community, on various boards and in clubs, what I saw initially was a sobering, searching reaction,” Crews said. “Folks were asking questions like: What is really important in life? How could this happen to us? What will happen next? How do I live differently now? I think the initial shock brought people to church, but I don’t see that that has lasted. As time has gone on, the initial searching has passed.”

Roberts said the Christian church nevertheless must call the country to repentance.

“I’m not saying [God] is the author of evil, but he allowed this to happen,” Roberts said. “We need to say to America, ‘You really need to wake up and consider the fragility of life and the fact that America is not immune from disaster and problems.’ There is a tendency for us to be indifferent.

“We had all hoped originally that it would be the impetus of some sort of revival. There was the immediate increase in church attendance. But a month or two goes by and it’s back down to normal.”

So, what happened?

“It could be that we as Christians did not exploit the opportunity enough and maybe do a little more preaching on revival and on repentance,” Roberts said. “That’s the sort of thing that has to start with the people of God. Maybe that’s coming, because it usually takes some time to pray through the matter and get serious. … Let’s not draw a full conclusion on that right now. Let’s wait and see.”

The level of complacency in America troubles Patterson.

“I suppose my biggest concern is that people get over tragedy too quickly,” he said. “What is a vivid memory for some is now a distant happening for most, and there is no longer the widespread sense of the need for God. It may take another tragedy or two of this variety, God forbid, before our people begin genuinely to understand the great need of revival in this day.”

A Golden Gate professor said that the attack should serve as a motivation for Christians to share their faith.

“Interestingly, and sadly, even bad publicity has had a positive effect on the Islam faith,” said Bill Wagner, professor of evangelism at Golden Gate. “The number of converts to Islam has increased significantly since Sept. 11. What has happened? There’s so much in the media — and everywhere else you turn — about Islam being a religion of peace, and last year’s events not being representative of Islam, and people have become very curious. So they visit the local mosque, which is holding community education sessions on the ‘true’ meaning of Islam, and they visit for several weeks in a row, and they convert.

“I think this is a real wake-up call for evangelical Christians. I think we have not been aware of just how advanced the Muslim mission for converts actually is. I think that this has shown us that we are not the only ones aggressively seeking to win people to our faith. We need to be aware of this as we evangelize worldwide.”
With reporting by Jason Hall and Amanda Phifer. (BP) file photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: AL MOHLER, PAIGE PATTERSON, PHIL ROBERTS, WILLIAM CREWS.

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