­
EFAC Australia

Hi Chris, what have you been up to over the last couple of years or decades?

Hi Wei-Han. It's nice to see you. I've been travelling the world at CMS's expense for most of the last 15 years actually. Almost 3 years ago we got back from our time in Argentina working with students and the Anglican Church. Since then I spent a year working at St Jude's, I’ve done some study, and our oldest son Ben died of cancer.

...what are you up to now?

Right now I'm taking a sabbatical actually. With the ups and downs of the last while it's a good time to slow down. I'm doing a doctorate in theology relating theological knowledge and scientific knowledge: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michael Polanyi and Richard Rorty to be precise.
Polanyi - isn't that the name of an inlet to the Russian submarine base in the Arctic?

Could be... though I somehow think you made that up.

So why so interested in these dudes with thoughts?

In a nutshell: I think that one of the key challenges which we face is defending orthodox Christian faith in the face of what we could loosely call postmodernism. It's an apologetic challenge which ranges from the very philosophical to the content of our Sunday preaching.

So where is the problem?

In the light of the success and so called certain knowledge of science, one problem is that some Christians have thought that a way forward lies in making our faith appear more scientific. But it is dangerous for Christians to buy the enlightenment view of scientific knowledge and certainty. It was Descartes' attractive project to ground belief on foundations that could not be doubted, but it turned out to be a foundation of shifting sand.

Can you give us an example?

I think the creation science movement is an extreme example of Christians accepting the norms of science. In their zeal to defend the truth of the Gospel they try to squeeze the faith into a scientific straitjacket. But ironically, at the same time that some Christians took a turn towards the security of scientific certainty, that very view of science was being called into question. And of course when the edifice which makes up that particular view of science starts to crumble, then so does the view of faith that is wedded to it. In the last 40 or 50 years, critiques of science and of the possibility of absolute and certain knowledge have led to much of what goes by the name of postmodernism.

And that's a bad thing, yes?

Well, yes and no. In one sense postmodernism is an affirmation of human humility. And theologically we ought to affirm that as a welcome challenge to human pride. But on the other hand, if such 'postmodern humility' leads to a sort of pathetic inability to affirm anything as true then it has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. So the challenge is to both affirm the possibility of holding fast to truth and at the same time to recognize what is called in the trade 'human finitude'.

It sounds dangerously like relativism to me. Does that mean that one belief is as good as another?

No. Relativism is normally the view that there is no ultimate truth, but only interpretations. Sure we are all interpreters, but some interpretations are right and some are wrong. There are many interpretations of 'the Christ event' but in the end either the resurrection occurred or it didn't. As evangelicals we are convinced that there is good reason to believe in the resurrection. But as I said: sure and certain proof along the lines of the (mistaken) model of science is not to be had.

So how is any of this relevant to say... the mission-shaped church? Or general pastoral care for a congregation?

Well I think it is relevant in a number of ways. One way is simply the trickle down effect: as we think about these things at a theological and philosophical level the conversations eventually shape the thinking of the church as a whole. More immediately, my own preaching and apologetic conversations are informed by thinking about the relationships between philosophical hermeneutics and scientific and theological knowledge. And in all of this, I don’t think there is any doubt that the huge challenge is to defend the uniqueness of Christ. We live in a context where tolerance is a creed that paints uniqueness as both an offensive and a naive concept.

Yes but hold on… What would you say to non-philosophical types who think, ‘Just explain the Gospel and convert people will you?!’

I say, great! I believe Romans 1:16. So preach it brothers and sisters! But at the same time there are many people, both non-Christians and others who have been Christians for years, who want solid answers to some of the questions that are part and parcel of recent Western thinking. We have a responsibility to them and to God to defend the Gospel in a pluralist society. And don't forget these things do hit the level of conversations in the street.
You mean today’s experimental university philosophy is tomorrow’s experiential school-gate conversation?

Yes, that’s well put. And as you said earlier, few people understood Foucault or Derrida when they lectured, but today children grow up with postmodern blood in their veins.

You mean: "What's true for you is not necessarily true for me"?

Exactly. That sort of thinking is simply normal nowadays and anyone who thinks differently is politically incorrect and considered downright rude. Of course the internal contradictions of relativism are numerous but that doesn’t stop such fuzzy thinking taking hold. It also serves as a very effective way of avoiding facing up to the rub of sin. But enough from me: I’m moving into preaching mode!

So should members of EFAC be bothered to think about these issues?

Absolutely! As evangelicals we want to boldly affirm and proclaim Jesus Christ as the truth. And we don't want to do that in a way that is intellectually ignorant. I think one of our greatest apologetic opportunities is to discern the truths and falsities of all that goes under the postmodern banner and to help people understand, that rather than being a dire threat to faith, there is much that affirms our Christian convictions. Not least that the truth is found in a person and reveals itself in relationship.

OK, can you recommend a place to start reading or looking?

Mmm… well I think the place I started years ago is a great place. The first few chapters of Lesslie Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society are excellent. Highly recommended. Then there are Polanyi's works: Personal Knowledge is the big one. It's heavy going but fascinating for those interested. But I'm afraid I'm not up with the latest books in the bookshops. And after Sam McGeown's recent article in Essentials I might stick to books that have that old musty smell to them! I’m also happy for people to contact me personally for more suggestions.

What next after the studies?

A good question. I'm ordained and Anglican. I also enjoy teaching and I enjoy wrestling with the issues we've been talking about. My expectation was to return to parish life, but the upheavals of late need some time to settle down before embarking on the next step. God will lead in his good time I guess.

Chris Mulherin grew up in Melbourne, worked for Scripture Union and lectured in engineering and philosophy before moving to Argentina with CMS. In Argentina he worked with university students and was minister of the Anglican church in Tucumán. Married to Lindy, they had 5 boys until Ben died last December. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

­