Advance Australian Christianity?

The theme of this year’s Ethos Conference was Advance Australian Christianity Where? God’s Public People in Secular, Pluralist Australia. The focus was on discovering the place of thoughtful people of faith in some of the most pressing issues facing our world including; climate change, relationship with Aboriginal people, secularism as a force, welfare and the growth of cities just to name a few. Below are some of the highlights that I picked out during the conference. I have attempted to offer just a summary although there are some of my perspectives dotted throughout.

Ray Minniecon

There were a few threads running through Uncle Ray’s talk at the conference. He shared personal stories of feeling burnt out, like an old car by the side of the road. And the encouragement of an old Aboriginal elder who simply called him to get inside the church and other institutions and make them more Aboriginal friendly. He shared stories of being effected by walking with men of the stolen generation, knowing their suffering in his bones. He has also felt deeply the need to recognize the Indigenous soldiers who fought and died for our country. This issue as well as working with World Vision on local Indigenous issues has taught Ray how politically volatile it can be to move in Indigenous affairs.

Ray also shared a history not many of us would think of. Next year is 50 years since the 1967 referendum that included Aboriginal people. Gough Whitlam was the PM that probably did the most good and the most harm for Indigenous people. He began the process of land rights but also came to the Aboriginal churches and handpicked the leaders to work on Aboriginal education, health and housing policies. The policies came from the vision of ministers of God. However, the church was left without leaders.

Over those 50 years Aboriginal people have had to adjust very quickly to personal, family, cultural and political changes. Ray asserts they have done a great job!

Ray reminded us that the Bible is not ours, sometimes we own it in an unhelpful way. Pointing to Scripture passages like Deuteronomy 32:7-8, Ray explained that it was the Church through Pope Urban in 1095 that instituted the Doctrine of Discovery which so pervaded the European culture, justifying invasion and the proclamation of Terra Nullius on the basis of not being Christian or (my words) not being like us.

Zed Talks – A Secular Age and Australia

It was helpful to hear the cultural mix from which Zadok emerged (one of the Ethos publications.) It was in the mid 70’s during the ferment of the Whitlam years as a somewhat quiet Australia was forced to interact with changing family law, affirmation of art, withdrawal from Vietnam, free tertiary education (don’t I wish) and the list goes on. Zadok came onto the scene to help Christians address these issues and ever since it has been a voice engaging both the centre left and centre right of the Australian political divide, attempting to provide a different voice.

Mark Brett lead a great reflection on Psalm 94 as a hermeneutics of protest. A quote from the Psalm resonates with feelings on both side of the political divide. ‘Wrong changes places with right and the courts host injustice.’ Connecting with my own thoughts as people of faith the Psalm points us to a political influence without dominance, lest we become too nostalgic for Christendom. On the surface that sounds very unappealing but the pull towards thinking we have some right in the public square is subtle yet still very strong.

Focusing on protest the Psalm is a lament to God, not to the King and it doesn’t take place in the public square. It points us towards the realisation of God’s Kingdom. However, we are not excused from the public debate but we go expectantly looking for God’s gracious acts. It is he who will repair the world and we are called to join with him in upholding the rights of the widow, orphan and the marginalized. This allows us to connect with others who are searching for the common good. Biblical wisdom literature leads us to expect these kinds of social interactions.

Angela Sawyer helped us reflect on the phenomenon of the ex-churched. She has settled on the term exiles, picking up a contemporary motif used by authors like Michael Frost. Many who are leaving church are not giving up on spirituality, simply the organized form of religion. She told the not unfamiliar story of a couple reflecting on their church experience and moving to the point of feeling physically ill before, during and after the service. She challenged the stereotypes around church leavers. They are often people who have been very committed to a church but have found it unappealing to continue attending for a whole variety of reasons. For some they had to leave to continue growing as explained in M Scott Pecks stages of faith.

We were left with two very important considerations, what does community look like for the post-church and how do they have a voice on public issues. The first question is one very close to my heart. My wife and I are in the church leaver but still very active in the faith category. We have not been able to settle in a traditional church for a long time, opting for small church expressions in houses, shops, pubs and parks. Expressions that may not even look or feel like church, yet have a deep sense of the divine.

Gordon Preece followed this with a very thoughtful interaction with Taylor’s A Secular Age. Pointing to the transfiguration as a better motif for us to invest in than the concept of transformation. Transfiguration suggests the holy coming down from the mountain and interacting with the stubbornness of evil. It is non-triumphalistic but allows us to enter into the world with hope having encountered the divine and allowing us to look forward to the promise of resurrection.

He pointed to the recently departed Leonard Cohen and his sense that the transcendent comes from fracture. There is glory shining in weakness. May this always be true! Science and the secular age has missed this concept largely because meta-narrative, any overarching story, particularly the gospel has been rejected. In its place is a story of subtraction, coming from Darwin (although his work does fit with a theory of evolution and providence) and expounded by Dawkins and Hitchins. Into this mix Taylor sees the inadequacy of Sunday school faith and points to the question of how do we prepare ourselves for a cross-pressured world. Preece sees the need for the rediscovery of beauty and myth as part of our tradition, linking this to the image of the transfiguration.

Steve Hatfield-Dodds and Jonathan Cornford brought ecology and economics together in two fascinating talks highlighting climate change and the need to live simply as a response. Interestingly Steve pointed out that growth is not the issue, it lifts living standards however the distribution of benefits is not equitable and that is a cause for concern. He believes sustainability and economic growth can be partners. One of the keys issues is that the advice on climate change has been coming in silos and is effected by special interest politics. The interest of the people is often forgotten. Hatfield-Dodds believes there is a middle ground in the climate change debate that could encourage institutional change without making it a moral issue. He believes that when it becomes a moral issue it can feel like we are trying to convert the person that is wrong. There is room for a diversity of values in this space and perhaps a common ground approach is better than a political solution. As we know, hope motivates ie hope of a better world and fear de-motivates.

Jonathan Cornford took an ecclesiological and missiological look at 2 crises, the global ecological challenge and the challenge of Christianity in the West. He sees that they come from the same root, our mode of living. The modern social imaginary has seen the economy become an objectified reality. If you stop and think about it most things are referred to in economic terms both at a personal and societal level. Our primary response as people of faith needs to be the modelling of a different way. We are a bit behind in this endeavor and people in the broader community may only now see us getting on board with where everyone else is up to in regards to climate issues.

Cornford offers 3 perspectives to help us model a different way. We have the ability to see the world through an entirely different lens, a new imaginary based on the biblical world view that embraces both the spiritual and material. 2. We need to re-orientate our central mission and vocation to embrace the material life. This helps us identify with the human community and the whole community of creation. Thirdly as a response to the ecological crisis we need to embrace a lower material standard of living, but a higher quality of life, (author comment – challenging the economic definition of flourishing).

Lin Hatfield-Dodds invited us to work on ways to, as theologians be inside faith based service organisations, sitting on boards helping theological reflection to happen. A number of faith based services are wanting to rediscover their roots, however currently many pragmatic decisions are being made without reference to faith. She painted a beautiful Kingdom orientated, shalom inspired vision of the world where churches are advocating for good jobs, housing, dental care etc. She reminded us that people of faith are not the only ones working toward these ends. Controversially she is an advocate of competition in the community sector as it relates to choice for the consumer.

I also had the privilege of running a workshop on Shalom and the City, for me the picture and possibility of shalom is so enticing, it has become my imaginary, the lens through which I view the world. I shared how cities can be both places of possibility and pain. That through the New Urban Agenda and the shalom lens people of faith can humbly enter the conversation around what makes great cities. If you are interested have a read of Isaiah 65:17-25 and think about how it applies to your city.

The Ethos conference was full of great people, great ideas and determination to put ideas into practice. It will be interesting in coming months to track where the ideas go.