Ungodless: Being Christian in a Secular Australia
There are always cultural challenges facing Christian believers. One set of challenges for our discipleship comes from living in our secular age, where the gospel is felt to be yesterday's discredited news. How can we face this cultural situation and make progress as Christians?
A statistic: Norman Morris Roy Morgan Research, wrote in April of this year, “By Easter next year, it could well be the first time that the majority of Australians don't affiliate with Christianity.” Morgan polls from late 2011 to early 2014 had Christian affiliation in Australia dropping from 60.9% of the population to 52.6% and trending down towards 50% and under.
A story: the decidedly godless journalist Paul Toohey recounts talking to Muslim women from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan in Indonesia:
“Over tea served in glass cups the women were asking about Australia. […] They wanted to know about jobs, the cost of living and their level of acceptance as Muslims, should they make it. I told them that the greatest freedom Australia offered was the freedom not to believe in God. We'd more or less got rid of him; he was not required. One woman buried her face in her hands, appalled. They all looked slightly alarmed. But this was one bit of useful information I could provide. Their acceptance in Australia, if they made it and were not to disappear into strict cultural enclaves, would require them first to accept us. Then one of the women said something that started them all laughing. Maybe it didn't seem such a bad idea, living somewhere godless.”
Toohey casually and unapologetically presents godlessness as the foremost cultural conviction that Australians share, a source of the freedom we cherish together. If the downward trend in Christian affiliation continues, and if Toohey's view that being Australian means being godless increasingly shape our national psyche, how will we Christians approach being in a shrinking minority of ungodless Australians? Here are four kinds of response that I perceive amongst us.
One response is to agree with the critics of Christianity and seek to remake Christianity to be a new thing that lines up with the new spirit of the age. I suggest this happens in liberal Christianity. People find it implausible that Jesus is the only mediator between God and human beings? Well, they are right! We Christians have to drop this myth of Christ’s uniqueness and learn to see God at work in all the religions of the world. People find it implausible that there is a personal God who made the world and hears our prayers and will judge the living and the dead? Well they are right! We Christians have to drop the literal interpretations of our theology and learn to see our doctrines simply as stories which help us live lives of love, which is the real point of Christianity, not being saved from death and hell. People find it implausible that we should take the sexual ethic of the Bible seriously today? Well they are right! We Christians have to drop our backward and repressed view of sex and have the compassion to let people do what comes naturally. In this way Christians abandon Christianity and become assimilated to the secular age, preaching the convictions of a secular age in the churches, in a kind of reverse evangelism.
I suggest that you also see the same thing in churches which preach the health and prosperity gospel. People want power to step up to a new level of material wealth, or to remake themselves as leaner, more disciplined, more successful individuals and so to reap the rewards our society bestows on the successful. Well, we Christians can help! God wants to bless people after all, and he wants to change and transform people and bring them into a better future, and his Spirit empowers us to do great things and fulfil our potential. So just believe in him and start living your best life now. In this way, too, Christians abandon Christianity, and become assimilated to the secular age, preaching the convictions of a secular age in the churches, in a kind of reverse evangelism. The first kind of alignment with the spirit of the age – liberalism – empties churches, but the second one – the prosperity gospel – fills them. Christians must attend to the spirit of our age, to be sure, but in order to commend the one gospel intelligibly to our age, not to remake the gospel in the spirit of our age. Let’s not surrender.
Another response to de-Christianisation is to fight tooth and nail to defend and preserve Christian truths and values against any erosion or marginalisation. This fight might involve political organisation aimed to keep a distinctively Christian voice articulating Christian concerns in the halls of power, and working political leverage to get legislation that reflects Christian convictions. So, for example, the Australian Christian Lobby introduce themselves on their website saying, “The vision of the Australian Christian Lobby is to see Christian principles and ethics accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate to each other as a community.” They and others use the tools of political and social activism – mobilising a base of supporters, keeping them informed, running public meetings, organising rallies, briefing politicians, writing social and political commentary, raising funds, presenting petitions, encouraging people to write to their local members. They do this to contest any legislation which might reflect values not compatible with Christian faith, and commend legislation that reflects Christian aspirations. Many Christians wish to encourage others to be active as Christian citizens and to be engaged and active politically, so that a Christian witness is preserved and we don’t lose a precious Christian social heritage without a fight.
Unlike the response of surrender there is something to be said for fighting, or, put less pugilistically, for Christians being engaged as citizens, expressing our preferences to our elected representatives in the various channels that operate in our society. It seems to me that there is an art to getting this right. Although we believe that Christ is Lord of everything including Australia, others do not share this conviction, and will not feel the Christian outlook has any inherently privileged place in shaping the laws and policies of our nation. We will be expected to make our contribution to the national discourse as citizens among our fellow citizens, rather than as natural chaplains to the nation assuming we have a special right to speak arising from cultural precedent or divine appointment. Commending Christ to all in that situation is where the art (and the need for good character) comes in.
Some do not think fight is the way ahead, perhaps because it will never be anything more than a doomed rearguard action. Instead of fight there is flight – a bunkering down into Christian enclaves of various kinds, leaving the mainstream culture and living apart, building a whole parallel structure of social institutions, where our counter culture can survive. In "Thoughts after Lambeth" T. S. Eliot wrote, "The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide." This gets expressed in many ways. Take education for example. The state schools are lost, we say. If our children are to escape the black hole of secularism we need to take their education back and do it ourselves. Maybe taking our kids’ education means home schooling, maybe it means Christian schooling, but we need to preserve the faith while we await the collapse of the non-Christian experiment in education. Here’s another example: popular music is the tool of the devil. We must delete all our secular mp3s and listen to Christian bands only. Others would say that even that’s not enough. The very form of popular music is corrupt, and a properly Christian music sounds like Bach, or Handel. We need to hold onto the beauty and goodness and truth of God, and flee the culture of death surrounding us.
Like fight, there is something to be said for flight, that is leaving cultural forms and institutions that stifle, undermine or even persecute Christian aspirations in favour of alternative forms and institutions that express Christian convictions and aspirations more faithfully. Perhaps the traps this response can fall into are fear and contempt. The fear is fear that the world will overcome Christ. But ‘he that is in you is greater than he that is in the world.’ We should not flee in fear. The contempt is contempt of the world: let them all go to hell. But God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. We are still to love our neighbours, believers or not, and not to despise them or withdraw entirely from them. So our alternative forms and institutions should remain in touch with the wider society for the sake of that society.
Change the world (again)?
Another response is to say, well Christendom is dead, but that’s a mercy, because we are now back to purity of first century Christianity, and we can ditch the Constantinian baggage and start all over again to win the culture through authentic Christian living. The job is not a political fight nor a cultural flight, but grassroots movements with fresh expressions of church. No more denominations and parishes, it’s time to learn again how to plant churches and make disciples in a post-modern, post-Christian, secular, hedonistic and individualistic age. If we are on the margins now instead of in the centre, that’s ok, because Christianity works best from the margins. If the culture has turned away from God, that’s no reason for us to turn away from them, but rather to engage the culture again at every level – not in a defensive stance to preserve our ancient privilege, but as people who love our culture and want to reach it and renew it. Christian ministers need initiative, they need to be innovative and entrepreneurial and to empower the people of God, who in turn need to think through how their work and gifts and opportunities can bless and influence and beautify the world and see lives and whole societies transformed again. We need networks of culture-makers, supported by patrons in the great cities of the world, sparking new cultural movements in which Christians are leading figures and the Spirit is the animating genius.
This is also rousing stuff, and has much to commend it. Perhaps the dangers here lie in despising our inherited forms, and putting too much confidence in our projects of sociological re-engineering. It is a good moment to go back to the New Testament and scrutinise our traditions, practices, aims and expectations in light of a renewed careful study of the apostles’ teaching. But it would be passing strange if we decided to neglect or de-emphasise the most ancient and basic of Christian disciple-making structures and practices such as instruction in the scriptures, common prayer and praise, sacraments and designated leadership in local congregations which also maintain a fellowship of mutual recognition and help. It is also good to think carefully and creatively about how cultures are influenced and changed, but if we lay out a plan for how to change the world (based of course on the latest research and the most original and insightful analysis) we should do it with a good dash of humility. Maybe the world won’t change according to the theories of expert cultural analysts or the hunches of disillusioned mavericks.
Who will save us?
Who will save us and where does our power lie if we ungodless are become a dwindling minority? Will it be in the fighters, the flighters, the culture-makers, or someone else? As soon as you put it like that this answer suggests itself; God will save us and all his people, and the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes – Jew or Gentile. So our trust must be in God to preserve, transform and bless us who believe in Christ, and our confidence must be in the gospel as the power of God to bring salvation to the people around us and address the culture we live in.
If we do take seriously the idea that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, then we should take a moment to think through how the gospel goes to work amongst human beings. As the gospel is told, God brings human beings to a new birth by his Holy Spirit; he humbles sinners and lifts them up too as his forgiven children in Christ. They repent and confess their faith in him and he binds them together as members of one another in the fellowship of his church, and as his church gathers in local congregations he gives gifts to his people so that they can serve one another in love and grow up into Christ’s likeness together. In churches we brothers and sisters are taught and nourished with the word of God and in the world we walk in good deeds and speak the word of God. There is a new humanity in Christ; this new humanity has a counterculture, the word of God is its fountainhead and the church is its home. It is a counterculture that can also be carried everywhere we go, work, speak, write, play and rest, whether we go alone or with others. God’s basic programme – whether we are in the early church, or high Christendom or the ruins of Christendom – is laid out in the New Testament, and it does not change because the culture is not as receptive to it as it may once have been. Our hope is in the old, and long, and patient work of making disciples of Jesus, through the inculcation of the truths of the gospel of grace and the disciplines of faith and repentance in the fellowship of other Christians. Political activism, Christian counter-cultural institutions and culturally engaged new Christian endeavours must cluster around and flow out of what is central: gospel ministry, church, repentance and discipleship. Rising godlessness shapes our lives and churches and the deliberations of coming synods will be shaped by it too. Will our response to that godlessness, as we contribute to those deliberations, express confidence in God and his gospel, so that our activism, our institutions and our cultural engagement as Australian Anglican churches are shaped more and more by that confidence, and less and less by any surrender to the spirit of the age?
Ben Underwood oversees the 5pm congregation at St Matthew's Shenton Park in Perth.
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Ungodless: Being Christian in a Secular Australia