In a recent post I shared the unexpected and stunning turnaround in my health that I experienced in February. The last 6 months of 2018 had seen a severe decline in my mobility to the point that on any given day I had no idea how long my body would be in a state of tremoring and muscle rigidity before flipping into severe dyskensia and somewhere inbetween those states giving me broken periods of mobility. Some days were good and others were bad.
As awful as this was, it was also a period in which I discovered a new layer of spirituality. My faith has long been framed around the imperative to participate in God’s work of redeeming creation. In the faith of my childhood this meant seeking to share a gospel of salvation of sinners from the wrath of God. As I got older it meant greater appreciation for recognising God’s grace, joy, love and generosity in all creation along with the human capacity to surrender these to greed, violence, injustice and fear. It meant participating in God’s work of helping us recover our humanity, our communities and our world through the revelation, grace, healing, forgiveness, and hope opened up by the crucified and risen Christ. It meant giving myself to the life of my church and to working with others across our nation in advocacy for justice.
Yet as my body grew increasingly recalcitrant my activist oriented faith became increasingly remote. My spirit was willing but my flesh was weak! Somehow, in the midst of this God met me in a new way, in a spirituality that found its meaning in the simple knowledge that God was with me, and that my days were lived in the presence of a God whose grace, love, generosity, joy and hope were trained upon me. It was a season to simply be in the presence of God.
This did not mean I entered a contemplative life of silent meditation. Apart from the fact that it is difficult to calm your spirit when your muscles are tremoring at breakneck speed or you’re swaying madly like someone completely inebriated, I am by nature extroverted and 30 minutes of silent contemplation still sounds like a form of torture to me. No, it was in the soaring wail of Clapton’s guitar, the resonant lyric of a Dylan classic, the contagious rhythms of Aussie pub rock that I found points of joy, grief, celebration, hope and grace. It was in the sheer joy of a schmalzy romance, the unrestrained laughter gifted by a good comic, the laying bare of injustice in a well researched doco, the emotional engagement with the characters of a well scripted and acted drama, or the outrageous hope of sci-fi that I connected with love, hope, pain, grief. It was in the prayers of my friends, the expressions of care of my church, the grief and hope that were shared with others, and the tender compassion and generosity of Sandy, Ash, Jess and Lachy that I found myself moved time and again to tears and astonishment at the presence and power of grace.
These have long been part of my encounter with the Divine, but they had now become the centre of it. All these and more connected me to the overarching narrative of my faith and the story of Jesus and were means by which I found myself simply resting in Grace, Joy, Love, Hope, and Grief. Nothing else to do. No deadline to meet. No project to complete. Just being. Resting. Receiving.
Reflecting on this I wrote a song echoing what I believe God was saying to Sandy and I during this period. The lyrics are repeated below. And now that my health has turned around, I hope that I will retain this capacity to rest in God’s grace, draw ever deeper into God’s love and get myself lost in God’s embrace.
Come rest yourself in my grace
Fall ever deeper into my love
Get yourself lost in my embrace
I am yours
You are mine
You are my child.
My child you thrill me
I have set my heart on you
My love for you will never fade
I will see you through it all
Through the fire,
Through the storm
Til you reach safe shore
My child I’ve got you
If you find yourself grown weary.
And your heart is overwhelmed
I will carry you in my arms
And hold you until all is new
Lord, I put my trust in you
It’s all that I can do
As I fade away.
I’ll seek for you my friend
In that place we’ve always met,
In the haze of grace.
I was revisiting Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament recently and was reminded of his very helpful description of how we can discern God’s word to us through the Scriptures. He speaks of a fourfold task:
- Descriptive Task: Reading the Text Carefully. This seeks to identify the messages of the various texts/books of the Bible “without prematurely harmonising them”. It is to make sense of a text on its own terms, within its historical context;
- Synthetic Task: Placing the Text in Canonical Context. How do the various texts fit together to contribute to a whole-of-bible ethical perspective? Hayes suggests that the themes of community, cross and new creation provide an interpretive framework we can employ to identify this;
- Hermeneutical task: Relating the Text to Our Situation. How do we bridge the “temporal and cultural distance between ourselves and the text…to appropriate the New Testament’s message as a word addressed to us?”
- The Pragmatic Task: Living the Text. How are the biblical imperatives embodied in the life of the Christian community? Hayes argues that “The value of our exegesis and hermeneutics will be tested by their capacity to produce persons and communities whose character is commensurate with Jesus Christ and thereby pleasing to God”.
I plan to write a few posts that use this fourfold task to reflect on what I have discovered about reading the Scriptures and being shaped by them. For now I want to suggest a fifth task to add to Hays’s list. This is “the empathetic task”.
For many years I saw the first three of Hayes’ four tasks as something I could achieve within the confines of my study. Close attention to the text in its original languages, appreciation of the genres of the Bible, and critical reading of the commentaries of scholars would be the keys to success.
Yet when I look back to those occasions my understanding of biblical ethics have most profoundly changed, the catalyst was not what happened in my study, but hearing the stories of those whose lives were most impacted by the church’s ethics. It was hearing the stories of people who had been divorced and subsequently marginalised in their churches that drove changes in how I read, synthesised and applied the relevant biblical texts. It was meeting women who had been wounded by the sexist attitudes that prevailed in our churches when I was a young man (and sadly in many ways continue to do so) that led to a revision of my reading of the Biblical texts on men and women. More recently it has been the voices of gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender and intersex Christians that have caused me to revisit a biblical ethic of sexuality and gender.
I am not saying that hearing the voices of others should replace robust work across Hays’s four tasks, but that it indelibly shapes that work. So much so that I am convinced that it is near impossible to hear God’s word to us without hearing the voices of those who are marginalised, wounded and offended by our ethics.
There are, I think, at least two reasons for this. The first is that we all approach the text with assumptions, values, and biases that don’t simply impact on how we apply the text (Hays’s steps 3 and 4) but what we see in the texts (Hayes’s steps 1 and 2). This is true even for the greatest of biblical scholars. I have sufficient confidence in the capacity of human beings to communicate that I don’t buy into those theories that suggest reading the Bible is never an act of understanding another but only ever an act of self-expression. But I also accept that every reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation in which the interpreter is an active agent whose perspectives, assumptions, values, biases, etc shape their reading across all four of Hayes’s interpretive tasks. I think this is why hearing the voices of those who are marginalised and disempowered has been so powerful in my reading of Scripture. They see things I don’t and force me to recognise ways that the dominant readings of my particular church tradition may reflect the interests of power rather than the voice of the Spirit.
Second, history suggests that it is in the protest and pain of the marginalised rather than the intricacies of biblical interpretation, that new movements of the Spirit of God often emerge. Indeed robust biblical interpretation often lags behind the intuitions of the Spirit. It was the voices of slaves and the recounting of their cruel and indecent treatment that pricked the conscience and fired the compassion that drove the abolitionist movement. Mark Noll shows in his book on the US Civil War as a Theological Crisis, that the early abolitionist movement was driven by an intuitive sense that something was wrong rather than robust and defensible readings of Scripture. The theologies of the early abolitionists were weak and their “biblical ” arguments easily refuted. It would take some years for a robust biblical defence of abolition to emerge. Those who sat in their studies and didn’t take the time to listen to the voices of the marginalised and oppressed missed the early signals of a movement of God’s Spirit.
This is why I now find my desire to hear God’s voice on social and ethical issues takes me out of my study and into conversation with those most impacted. In their experiences of pain and struggle, of dissonance between their experience of God and the dominant theologies of the church, in the gap between their present treatment by their fellow human beings and their hope, and in their questions and their alternate readings of Scripture, is often found the whispering of God that allows us to go back into the study and together seek the mind of Christ.
Grab a cuppa and give yourself some time. This is a longer than usual piece
When I was a teenager I remember being both excited and fearful when one of my non-Christian school friends came to church. I was excited because they were expressing an interest in faith. I was fearful lest they take communion, for it had been drummed into me that “anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily, eats and drinks damnation on himself”. Looking back on it now it seems so odd. How could it be that the very ritual that signified grace and love could simultaneously be an object of fear and terror?
The answer was centuries in the making. The fourth century theologian, Augustine, gave us the doctrine of “original sin”, which held that not only do human beings sin, but that they possess a sinful nature that makes it impossible for them not to sin and renders them unable to do anything truly good. Although Augustine recognised the doctrine could not be demonstrated from Scripture it became the orthodoxy of the Church for centuries to come. For example, I was encouraged to take up this view as a teenager when I read Holiness, a book first published in 1877, written by Anglican bishop, JC Ryle, and considered a classic. Reflecting the theology of original sin Ryle says
I ask my readers to observe what deep reasons we all have for humiliation and self- abasement. Let us sit down before the picture of sin displayed to us in the Bible, and consider what guilty, vile, corrupt creatures we all are in the sight of God.
Even babies were afflicted with this despised nature.
The fairest babe that has entered life this year, and become the sunbeam of a family, is not, as its mother perhaps fondly calls it, a little “angel,” or a little “innocent,” but a little “sinner.” Alas! as it lies smiling and crowing in its cradle, that little creature carries in its heart the seeds of every kind of wickedness! Only watch it carefully, as it grows in stature and its mind developes, and you will soon detect in it an incessant tendency to that which is bad, and a backwardness to that which is good. You will see in it the buds and germs of deceit, evil temper, selfishness, self-will, obstinacy, greediness, envy, jealousy, passion – which, if indulged and let alone, will shoot up with painful rapidity.
JC Ryle, Holiness
According to this narrative the essential truth about us was that we are vile and loathsome creatures. So why would we expect God to do anything other than reinforce this notion? And so theologians declared God is actively seeking to bring us to a place of brokenness where we see who we are. Take, for example, the famous Puritan Thomas Hooker:
The Puritan minister and Connecticut founder Thomas Hooker frequently compared the relationship between God and human beings to a king who has discovered traitors plotting against him. What would the king do? He would torture them. The traitor would be “brought upon the rack, and then one joynt is broken, and then he roares by reason of the extremity of the payne.” Perhaps then the accused would confess to some wrongdoing, but the king would not be satisfied. Instead, he would be “hoysed uponteh rack the second time, and then another joynt is broken, and then he roares againe.” The king would keep at it until he “discovered and layed open the whole reason.” God tortured the human soul so that men and women would cry and roar and eventually mourn for their sins.
John Turner, Thomas Hooker & the Terror of God
This teaching continues to find a place in the Church today, albeit in less violent forms. The website of an evangelical church near where I live describes the “good news” that “we are more flawed and rebellious against God than we ever realised, yet in Jesus are more loved and forgiven than we ever thought possible” (Maitland Evangelical Church).
The wretchedness of humanity may have been an unwelcome “truth”, but it was made a terrifying concept when coupled with the notion of God’s holiness as an offence against God’s honour. To disobey the will of a human king was serious enough. To disobey the will of the heavenly King was infinitely more serious. God was thought to be so pristine, pure and good that evil and sin could not survive in God’s presence. God would break out against evil, and in the fury of his wrath strike it dead. Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” is a frightening example of this type of thinking. He sermon includes this piece
The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince…
Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
To the wretchedness of humankind due to original sin and the nature of sin as an offence against an infinitely holy God, theologians added the assertion that God seeks his glory. In a disturbing piece of writing on hell, British Evangelist John Blanchard reflected this tradition when he wrote
In his eternal punishment of the wicked God is not aiming at their good but at his glory. The time for correction and discipline will be over. What matters then, is that God’s justice is satisfied, his majesty vindicated
John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell (Evangelical Press, 1993) p147
Who wouldn’t be terrified of such a God? The genius of the Reformation was that it took these twisted notions of God and humankind and crafted them into a theology of atonement that reconciled them with claim that God is love and provided relief from the emotional breakdown anyone who took the teaching seriously would be liable to suffer. Martin Luther spoke of the anxiety and despair he felt when recognising that God was filled with wrath and anger against him that was entirely justified, but which he could do nothing to evade. Although he was a monk who dedicated himself to worship of God, Martin Luther found himself hating God and despairing of a future in a hell torment. In the throes of his crisis he had an aha moment that would change the world: that the just shall live by faith. Our works might condemn us but our faith in Christ saves us.
The Reformers went on to expound a new way of understanding the death of Jesus by placing their own novel twist on the theory of satisfaction first reported by Anselm in the 13th century. At the cross God poured out his wrath upon Jesus, which met the demand for justice and satisfied God’s offended honour. Because God-in-Christ bore the penalty for sin, the righteous standing of Jesus could now be credited to the wretched sinner. God could now look upon sinners who embraced faith as though they were Jesus.
And so for the last 400 years the heart of gospel proclamation in the evangelical, reformed at Pentecostal churches has followed the pattern set by the Reformers.
Something however does not seem right. For one thing, it never made much sense to me to say that sin could be transferred to Christ and his righteousness transferred to me. It might be a neat legal manoeuvre, and it may be profoundly moving to say that God took our punishment upon Godself, but it is hardly justice for God to punish the innocent and acquit the guilty. Moreover I remained a sinful human being. God knew it. I knew it . We all knew it. I love the thought that Christ’s righteousness is credited to me, but I struggle to escape the conclusion that it is God getting us off the hook of punishment on the basis of a legal technicality that in any other context would be decried as a travesty of justice. And even if we accept it as true, it didn’t change the fact that I was a filthy, rotten sinner. There may no longer be a penalty to pay but surely God was still perpetually furious with me.
But it seems to me that by far the strongest objection to the Reformation narrative is that it just bears no resemblance to the life and ministry of Jesus. If Jesus was God incarnate among us (and I think he was), then he didn’t behave anything like the God of my theology. Sinners didn’t combust when they came into his holy presence. Jesus didn’t resile from contact with them, nor did he express feelings of disgust and abhorrence at being plunged into this great heaving cesspool of sin.
Far from abhorrence, repulsion and disgust, Jesus is described as filled with compassion for humankind, went out of his way to touch lepers and shared meals with prostitutes. He didn’t applaud the righteous instincts of a crowd ready to enact the demand of God’s law that an adulteress be executed, but intervened to heap shame on her would-be accusers and deliver her from them. He got angry, but it wasn’t an indiscriminate outrage against “sin” but was targeted at those who spiritually and financially oppressed the vulnerable.
So I’m wondering if the problem is that the Reformation didn’t go far enough. The Reformers took on board the assumptions of that time about original sin and the nature of God’s holiness, and crafted a powerful narrative from that. With the benefit of hindsight I think we can argue that they should have questioned the assumptions about sin and holiness that they held.
The doctrine of original sin, which even Augustine recognised could not be found in the Bible, ironically falls short of what the Bible has to say about human beings. Yes, human beings have a propensity to greed, violence, selfishness, pride and the like, but we also have the glory and beauty of being those were created in the image and likeness of God and are capable of extraordinary acts of generosity, kindness, compassion and justice. Standing on its own, the construction of human sinfulness that was held in the church for so long tells us that we are worthless. In my youth we would often say that God loves the unlovely and God values the unworthy. Yet we are not unlovely and we are not unworthy. The Bible directly ascribes worth to us because created in God’s image (eg Genesis 9, Psalm 8). It seems that in order to magnify the glory of God, theologians and preachers past felt it necessary to reduce human beings to worthless abhorrent creatures. I don’t accept this is true to the biblical teaching on human beings, true to the way Jesus treated human beings, or true to our own experience life.
Alongside the disaster that the doctrine of original sin has proven to be, I wonder if we have not badly misconstrued the nature of God’s holiness. Yes, God is fiercely opposed to sin, but we have falsely located the origin of that opposition in the notion that our sin offends God both objectively (ie it violates God’s will) and subjectively (ie it arouses God’s anger, revulsion and abhorrence).
In my experience two Biblical passages above all are cited to support this: Psalm 51 and Habbakuk 1. Reputedly composed by King David after his sexual assault of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, Psalm 51 contains David’s heartfelt but misguided prayer that “Against you , you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Ah…no. As the prophet Nathan made clear when he confronted David, David had sinned against Uriah, and I would add against Bathsheba. If Psalm 51 was a prayer of repentance after the sorry episode with Bathsheba and Uriah (and it’s only tradition that says it is) then we must conclude that like many of the psalms, David’s prayer does note represent textbook theology but the cry of a broken human being, and in this case, the hubris of a king.
Likewise, when read in context, the prophet Habakkuk’s statement that “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing” does not mean that God is literally not able to gaze upon evil, but that God opposes evil.
Where the traditional narrative sees history as the outworking of the great tension between God’s holiness and God’s love, it is a narrative that is strikingly absent absent from the teaching of Jesus. Jesus rather seems to reframe the notion of holiness within a framework of love. “Be holy as I am holy” is cast in Luke’s gospel as “be merciful as I am merciful”. Jesus did not tell parables of a God who can’t abide the presence of sinners, but of a God who loves people and goes out searching for those who are particularly wayward – God is the shepherd seeking a lost sheep, a woman seeking a lost coin, a father seeking a lost son, a king who forgives a great debt, a rich man who gives his workers more than they deserve. Over against the Pharisees who had a spirituality grounded in purity, Jesus had a spirituality grounded in love for others. For him the demands of the law were summed up in two commands: love God and love your neighbour. His followers would have a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees, not by outdoing them at their own game, but by expressing holiness in an entirely different manner – loving others. Where the Pharisees identified God’s people by their maintenance of purity standards, Jesus said that they would be identified by their love for one another and those around them (eg Matthew 25 parable of sheep and goats). Holiness in Jesus’s teaching seems to be the unwavering commitment of God to proactively seek the good of all creation.
It makes sense then to see God’s abhorrence of sin deriving not from some impugning of his honour ( as if human beings could do that!) but from the damage it does to people and to the planet. Could it be that the dismay of God is not the pique of an offended noble, but the broken heart of a creator who witnesses the very people he loves and values destroying themselves, each other, and the planet on which he placed them. This brokenheartedness can issue in anger at the damage we do to one another, compassion for the ways we have been damaged by others, and wisdom to prevent us damaging ourselves.
And by the same token, God can rejoice in the love we show each other, the justice we enact and the care we show for creation.
Moreover, if love is at the heart of God’s holiness and God’s opposition to sin, we are relieved of the idea that God’s highest good is to seek God’s own glory. The gospel defines love for us as laying down one’s life for the other and putting the interests of the other above oneself. We know this is what love is because this is how God has loved us. The suggestion that a day will come when God will cease to love people or subordinates their best interests to pursue self glorification, overturns the very centre of the gospel message.
Is it not time to lay aside the blemishes and distortions of the Reformation narrative and share with our world the glorious truth that there is a Creator who values us more deeply than we can imagine; who longs for our flourishing; who is filled with empathy at our brokenness; who is deeply angered by the damage we inflict upon others and the planet; who grieves the damage others have done to us; who has wisdom to share that will lead us down the often counterintuitive path of flourishing; who is working to bring peace where there is conflict, love where there is hate, hope where there is despair; who is willing to forgive and to restore; who was revealed to us in Jesus; who laid down his life in order to win us back; and who raised Jesus from the dead to bring humankind and creation to the place where healing and peace will be complete.
I just heard the news that Billy Graham died. Perhaps the greatest evangelist of history, I was one of millions who were profoundly influenced by his ministry. My mother was on the organising committee for the 1979 “Billy Graham Crusade”, held at Randwick racecourse. This meant that our household was swept up in the fervour of those crusades. I was 14 years old. I can’t remember whether I attended every night of the crusade or not, but I can recall the surging emotions; the energy of a large crowd; the tension rising within me as Billy Graham led us to a sense of moment in which we perceived we stood face to face with the God who created the Universe at a point of decision that would reverberate into eternity; the delirious joy and sense of holy moment as thousands of people responded to the invitation to signal their embrace of Christ by leaving their seat and walking to the stage.
My faith has changed much since those crusades, but today is not the day to critique but to remember that they were part of an era that imparted to me the breathtaking news that the God who called the universe into being is filled with a love for creation, and for me as part of that creation, that is wider, deeper and stronger than I can imagine.
And I remain inspired by the humble integrity of Billy Graham. As one might expect, everybody wanted a piece of Billy Graham. The expectations of the Christian world were laid upon his shoulders. There were some who thought he should have aligned himself more intentionally with the great civil movements for justice that marked the last half of the twentieth century; there were some who thought his embrace of groups outside the confines of conservative evangelicalism were unacceptably compromised. Yet whatever one might make of these things, Billy Graham spent half a century as a high profile world Christian leader without scandal. He did not take advantage of his position to amass obscene amounts of wealth; to solicit sexual favours; or to play power politics. He dies at 99 a man who is widely respected as a decent human being of deep personal faith and exemplary character.
Rest in peace, good and faithful servant.
I recently read Mark Noll’s book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. It was something of a shock to discover that in the mid 1800’s the majority of North American evangelicals opposed the abolition of slavery.
Noll describes the crisis that the war created,
Debates over Scripture and slavery, which combined passionate moral reasoning, careful attention to the particulars of exegesis, and intense argument about the general meaning of the Bible, pointed toward a twofold theological crisis. The first order crisis was manifest: a wide range of Protestants were discovering that the Bible they had relied on for building up America’s republican civilisation was not nearly as univocal, not nearly as easy to interpret, not nearly as inherently unifying for an overwhelmingly Christian people, as once they had thought.
The argument for slavery would typically proceed along the following lines:
1. The descendants of Canaan were to be owned as slaves by the descendants of Noah’s other sons (Genesis 9:25-27);
2. God sanctioned the keeping of slaves by both Abraham and the Israelites (Genesis 17:12; Deuteronomy 20:10-11);
3. Jesus abrogated many of the Old Testament laws but never said anything about slavery;
4. The New Testament letters showed the apostles were not troubled by slavery – the person who is a slave should welcome freedom if it came but should not be bothered if it did not (1 Corinthians 7:21); masters were instructed to treat their slaves with care and slaves were to be obedient (Colossians 322, 4:1; 1 Timothy 6:-1-2).
To evangelicals it was the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Bible that slavery was ordained by God and could not possibly be described as an evil. The Rev Richard Fuller of South Carolina engaged in a debate with Frances Wayland, president of Baptist Brown University, with each taking opposing sides on the question of slavery. Fuller was convinced that Wayland’s position was fatally flawed
His position is this: the moral precepts of the gospel condemn slavery; it is therefore criminal. Yet he admits that neither the Saviour nor his apostles commanded Masters to emancipate the slaves; …there is not an intimation of manumission, but the whole code contemplates a continuation of the relation …
Five years after this exchange Moses Stewart, regarded as one of the nation’s most learned biblical scholars, rejected the abolitionist argument that slavery was evil and must be instantly abolished. He did feel that Southern slaveowners should give up slavery voluntarily, but was offended by the notion that all faithful Christians must regard slavery as morally evil.
Not one word has Christ said, to annul the Mosaic law while it lasted. Neither Paul nor Peter have uttered one. Neither of these said to Christian masters: ‘instantly free your slaves.’ Yet they lived under Roman laws concerning slavery, which were rigid to the last degree. How is it explicable on any ground, when we view them as humane and benevolent teachers, and especially as having a divine commission – how is it possible that they should not have declared and explicitly against a malum in see ?
…]The abolitionists] must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery house they are pursuing.
As Confederate troops prepared for war, Methodist Minister JW Tucker told them
your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error – of Bible with Northern infidelity – of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism.
As disturbing as this may be, the pattern has been repeated throughout history. Evangelical institutions, churches and people opposed Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement; the South African Reformed church provided the theological foundation for apartheid; evangelicals opposed women’s suffrage and decried feminism. Yet we have not learned any humility. We continue to oppose significant social change, declaring the Bible to be absolutely clear that the changes are not of God. pillory the liberals who would undermine the authority of Scripture, and declare that the sky will fall in should change come
Surely this must give us pause for thought? Why is it that with the exception of a few individuals, evangelical institutions and the movement as a whole, have repeatedly found ourselves on the wrong side of history? What can we do to make sure we don’t repeat the error yet again?
More to come…
The census data is out and one of the headlines has been the rise of people indicating they have “no religion” and the corresponding decline in those who indicate an affiliation with Christianity.
The census data, of course, only tells us about people’s nominal affiliation with a religious tradition. It doesn’t tell us much about people’s practise of religion. The sharp rise in people saying they have no religion and the decline of those affiliating with Christianity could very well represent those who have been irreligious for a long time now feeling comfortable to tick the no religion box on the census. To understand what’s happening in people’s lived religiosity we need to turn to surveys that measure religious practise, such as the Australian Community Survey (ACS), conducted every few years by the National Church Life Survey. This shows that:
Religion plays an important role in the lives of many Australians. The 2016 ACS shows that 16% of Australians attend a religious service at least one a month; 30% of Australians pray or meditate at least once a week and 39% say religion or spirituality is important in their decision making. These figures are far higher than I imagined and indicate that both institutional and non-institutional religiosity are a significant part of life for a lot of people.
Religion plays no role in the lives of many Australians 61% of Australians say religion play no part of little part in their decision making; 21% don’t believe there is any God, spirit or life force; 38% never pray or meditate and 48% never attend a religious service.
The number of those for whom religion plays an important role is declining. Church attendance has declined from 44% in 1950 to just 16% today and in each of the areas of religiosity that ACS measures the younger a person is the less likely it is that religion plays an important role in their lives. In the 2011 ACS, for example, half of the elderly population said religion or spirituality played an important role in their decision making, but only one-quarter of 15-29 year olds said the same.
So what does this all mean?
First, it is impossible to speak of the “average Australian” when it comes to religion. We live in an Australia in which there seem to be at least three distinct groups: those for whom religion is an important part of their daily living; those who have a sense of connection to religion and are open to religious/spiritual experience, but for whom it remains somewhat removed from daily living; and those for whom religion has no part at all in their lives.
Second, I don’t buy the “Australians are becoming less religious but more spiritual” line. The age based data suggest to me that unless we define spirituality in very broad terms to mean something like “I am/want to be part of something bigger than myself” the trend is towards a life in which people give no thought to God, don’t see any reason to participate in religious rituals, and derive their meaning in life and sense of purpose without any reference to God.
Third, the changing status of religion doesn’t simply mean fewer numbers of religious people, but has entirely transformed the place of the Christian church in society. In the middle of the last century almost everybody would have been connected with the church in one way or another. With 44% of the population attending church regularly it would have been difficult to live in Australia and not know someone who was a churchgoer and the high level of attendance gave credibility to churchgoing and the faith attached to it. With just 18% now attending church a large number of Australians will go though life with little or no firsthand experiences of the church or religious faith.
Fourth, the changing status of religion has left many Christians with a sense of dislocation and they are struggling to come to grips with life as a minority group. We are discovering that our ethics are not considered “common sense”, find our beliefs and values caricatured and mocked, and are increasingly overlooked in discussion of public policy. This has led many to argue that we are losing our freedoms, which is not true – no clergy have been banned from preaching sermons articulating their faith, Christians are not routinely dismissed from jobs because of their faith, Christian schools and churches remain free from provisions of the anti-discrimination act. And while there is good reason to believe our society will need to renegotiate the nature of religious freedom, that we will need to champion religious freedom as the renegotiation takes place, and that this might make things uncomfortable for Christian institutions (e.g. institutions that act on behalf of the state may find they can no longer do so) I see no reason too believe our society is about to turn its back on the ideal of pluralism and the protection of freedom of speech and religion. What we are discovering is that when you are part of a religious minority people will disagree with you and often disagree quite strongly. Fortunately we live in a secular, liberal state in which the freedoms of minorities are protected so that even on those rare occasions critics overstep the mark our freedoms are legally protected.
Fifth, many parts of the Christian community have focused their sense of dislocation on opposing the new sexuality (assertion of traditional approaches to sexual intimacy and gender roles; opposition to marriage equality; opposition to new approaches to gender). I have been involved in faith-based advocacy for the last 15 years or so and I have been shocked at how the energy of the churches in the public arena has become so strongly of focussed on sexuality. This seems to me to reflect a Christendom mindset in which we pretend that Australia is a “Christian country” and that conservative Christian values should be preferenced. We need to get used to living as a distinctive minority in a secular, pluralist country. In this context surely our calling is not to oppose the freedoms of others but to live lives of such magnificent graciousness and love that people are drawn to the Christ we follow.
Sixth, following from the last point, I believe we should see the decline of religion as an opportunity. There is something tremendously disconcerting that so many Australians could feel (and still do) comfortable identifying themselves with Christian faith and values. The Jesus of the Gospels calls us to belief in a God of love who is establishing his reign over our lives and world; to build our lives on the notion that Jesus of Nazareth was the greatest revelation of God in history; to live out of the conviction that Christ rose from the dead, is history’s lord and will return to remake our lives and world; to love our enemies; lay down our lives for each other in love; divest ourselves of wealth; remain steadfastly faithful to our spouses; value inclusive community over the exclusivity of family boundaries; take the initiative in making peace with those who have offended or wronged us; abandon the quest for revenge; value the interests of others before our own; seek justice for the exploited and oppressed; and to share the good news of the reign of God. These are values that are radically and subversively counter-cultural and that were tamed and muted during Christendom. Perhaps now that our community is distancing itself from Christianity we can finally be rid of the notion that the consumerist bastard child of British imperialism ever represented the Christ of the Gospels and rediscover what it means to say we are followers of Jesus.