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Number 106, October 2019 ISSN 1837-8447
Brought to you by the Bible Society
The truth about secularism Passionate voices Zoe: Our gift from God
AUSLAN: Signs for the times
Still time to book for Christmas
GOLDEN OLDIE: Obadiah is pleased to see the Anglicans are keeping up the tradition of having scholarly bishops (regional leaders). Take the announcement of Mark Calder who, by all accounts, is an acclaimed appointment as Bishop of Bathurst. Including the official Sydney synod email that revealed “Mr Calder studied at Moore College from 1894–1987.” Obadiah also approved the return to biblical (as in Genesis) longevity.
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Bible Society 10
In Depth 5-9
CAN’T KEEP SHREK DOWN: Thanks to our eagle-eyed friends at Christian Media and Arts Australia.
Next steps for religion laws
CATS’ STUFF: Obadiah walks his cat on a lead, but if he wanted a cat carrier ,the one at mybeliefsupply. com might do for Gandalf the grey cat. But what intrigues Obadiah is the cross logo and the name of the company. Obadiah guesses it’s virtue signalling for Christians.
Staffing policies for faith-based institutions are the central concerns about the draft Religious Discrimination Bill according to a new paper from Freedom for Faith (FFF), a Christian legal think tank advocating for religious freedom. While the draft bill aims at securing the right of faith-based organisations to preserve their identity and ethos, FFF believes there are practical problems in the way the Bill is drafted. In their submission to the AttorneyGeneral Christian Porter, FFF suggests the bill makes it possible for organisations who want all staff to be adherents to a faith to be protected. But schools and charities that wish to simply have a preference for staff of faith will not. This is because it would be
easier for a faith-based organisation wanting all staff to be adherents to link that to “doctrine, tenets beliefs or teachings.” Some Christian organisations believe a “critical mass” of Christian staff, rather than only Christian staff, is essential to their ethos. FFF compares faith-based bodies to groups like political parties that have a right to fit their staff to their purpose. “This is not a right to discriminate. It is a right to select. And it is just plain common sense.” The definition of “religious body” excludes hospitals, aged care, publishing houses and youth campsites. Because any body that “engages solely or primarily in commercial activities” is excluded, this would mean that a Christian or Islamic bookshop could not select
believers. “The great majority of faith-based aged care homes, child care centres and hospitals serve all who come to them for services that they provide,” FFF argues. “But in order to maintain the religious and cultural ethos of an organisation, it is necessary that the faith-based service provider has a right to prefer staff who practise the faith with which the organisation is associated and ... motivated.” To avoid conflicts between Federal and State laws, FFF suggests a positive statement in the Religious Discrimination Act that a faith-based body (widely defined to include schools and charities) should be able to “appoint or prefer to appoint staff who practise the religion with which the organisation is associated.”
Michael Jensen “We think that to be gentle is nice, but to be nice is insipid, and to be insipid is to be weak ... But gentleness is not the opposite of strength or passion.” Page 15
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Two sets of passionate Christian voices Two sets of demonstrations drew large numbers of Christians last month – the Climate Strike and rallies against decriminalising abortion in NSW. The outcome of the abortion rallies and nightly demonstrations outside the NSW Legislative Council has been a modified bill – described by Greens MLC as “significantly worse.” Amendments mean that it will now require doctors to certify “sufficient grounds” for late-term abortions, remove the need for doctors to refer patients seeking termination to other doctors – they only need to point them to NSW Health – and require guidelines about sex selection to be set up immediately. A significant change is that data on all abortions will now be compiled by the Health
Department, a move likely to significantly spark future debates. However, the bill will make abortions more accessible – particularly before a 22-week cut-off - as well as decriminalise terminations. Labor party member Walt Secord recorded his view that a crucial late amendment to codify requirements for lateterm abortions was “an attempt to appease the members for Mulgoa and Riverstone.” This was a reference to the threat by Tanya Davies (Mulgoa) and Kevin Conolly (Riverstone), both members of the Liberal Party, to move to the cross benches – and plunge the Berejiklian Government into minority status. Davies announced the move at a “Cathedral Conversation” event at
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St John’s Anglican Cathedral in Parramatta. The effect of the stand by the pro-life pair of MPs has been to bring in a modified bill more conservative than the Victorian and Queensland abortion acts that it was originally based on. Speaking for pro-life MPs, Christian Democrat Fred Nile told the house that the bill and the late amendment on lateterm abortions were “weak.” He said, “Since I became a Christian in 1959, I have sought to be a consistent pro-life, pro-family campaigner.” The pro-life MPs won a few battles but the war decriminalising abortion - was won by the pro-choice majority. Eternity asked school students, at the centre of the Climate
Strike: “Do you think you see the issue of climate change differently at all because you are a Christian?” Oscar McClean, aged 14, who attends St Philip’s College in Alice Springs said, “Yes, I do. Some people believe that climate change is not their issue and that someone else can deal with it, but as a Christian I believe that it is our responsibility as humans to look after our planet and its animals. God gave us this Earth but we are the ones who need to care for it.” Eliza Palmer, 19, who attends the University of Newcastle and joined the Climate Strike with her fellow Adamstown Uniting Church members said, “Being a Christian makes the issue of climate change far more important. I’ve had
people tell me that I don’t need to worry about climate change because God is in control. I am not doubting God’s sovereignty. I simply believe that God called us and gave us the responsibility to take care and be stewards of creation, and we are not doing this. God proclaimed that creation was good, but the way we are destroying it certainly isn’t good.” Tom Barker, 16, who went to the Climate Strike with two other friends from his public school in the Hills district of Sydney, said, “I believe that, as a Christian, it’s our responsibility to look after this Earth, as it is God’s creation. So for me, this makes me even more passionate about trying to help combat climate change and I see it as a way to express my love for God.”
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Vision for the future
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For many years we have known that a child’s experiences during their early years have a signiﬁcant impact on their future development. With twice as many Indigenous children considered developmentally vulnerable compared with non-Indigenous children, early childhood learning becomes a crucial foundation for life-long learning. World Vision Australia’s Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) program is making a real difference and Christian Fellowship Tours (CFT) is proud to announce that we will be partnering with World Vision Australia to support First Nations communities in Australia. “Our vision for every child, life in all its fullness; Our prayer for every heart, the will to make it so.” (World Vision’s Vision Statement) From 2020, Christian Fellowship Tours will be partnering with World (CFT) Vision Australia on selected tours, with 50% of proﬁts on these tours being gifted back to World Vision to support their valuable work here in Australia. World Vision is one of the world’s most trusted and dynamic Christian organisations, best known for its international child sponsorship and community development programs in more than 90 countries. Since 1974, World Vision Australia has adapted this successful community-led development approach to partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and organisations to help support them to lead their own development and
Jaidene and Josephine enjoying a playgroup in the Pilbara region realise their own goals. I am personally thrilled that CFT will be helping make a difference in my favourite part of the country – the incredible Kimberley, one of the world’s most precious wilderness regions. Come and meet the World Vision team in Derby and learn about the important work World Vision
does “on the ground” at the West Kimberley Early Childhood and Development project on our CFT Tour – “Visionary Top End”. Explore the Kimberley on this 16-day World Vision Australia partnered tour from Broome to Darwin departing 22nd July 2020. On tour we take the time to connect with the local community
and enjoy fellowship as well as daily devotions and Sunday worship with our Christian Tour Leader. On this unique Kimberley holiday, we combine the beauty of this ancient landscape, the wonders of Broome, Kakadu and Katherine, with ﬁve different cruises as well as faith-based experiences such as meeting with
World Vision staff in Derby, Reach Beyond Radio and Nungalinya Theological College. Join us for a holiday with a difference that actually MAKES a difference. Our other 2020 World Vision Australia partnered tour is a wonderful European itinerary that includes the historic Oberammergau Passion Play. Dating back to 1634 this dramatic depiction of the Passion of the Christ is world famous yet only performed once every decade. Join us for our 26-day “Taste of Europe” holiday that incorporates food and faith – travel with fellow Christians to celebrate our faith, to savour traditional foods and enjoy some unique gourmet experiences. This World Vision Australia partnered holiday will be a feast for the senses as well as the soul – a spiritual experience not to be missed. Christian Fellowship Tours has supported World Vision Australia for many years with our “One Bus, One Child” programme, sponsoring 14 children from Zambia through our coach ﬂeet. Whilst we will continue this international child sponsorship it is exciting to be directly supporting disadvantaged children in our own part of the world. We invite you to join us on a CFT / World Vision Australia holiday, a holiday that contributes to the valuable work World Vision Australia supports within Indigenous Communities. Become part of the shared journey of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that creates a stronger future for all. Jason Cronshaw, Managing Director, Christian Fellowship Tours
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Helen Thomas on a time to be born page 6
Martyn Iles stands tall JOHN SANDEMAN “Stand tall!” would not be a bad slogan for the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) – at least, while its Managing Director Martyn Iles runs it. That man is tall. Way tall. So tall that Bible Society’s executive producer, Richard, has to swap chairs in the studio when we settled Iles in to tape an interview. Eternity is surprised to learn he is only 6 foot 7 or just over 2m. As Iles arrives, he spots a book in the library that lines the entrance to the Bible Society Australia office, where Eternity is based. “I have read that book” he says, gesturing at Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Berkhof’s tome is not part of our interview but it helps place Iles – it’s a conservative Reformed theology book, for many years a pretty standard text for evangelicals. I read Berkhof too, as a teenager sneaking a look at my sister’s Bible college texts. He’s named Martyn Lloyd Iles, after the British preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, long influential in the Reformed wing of the British evangelical movement during the 20th century. So that’s why the ACL’s leader spells his name that way. He grew up in his parents’ open brethren church. “Nobody wakes up in the morning at any stage on their life and says ‘I want to be the Managing Director of ACL when I grow up.’ It wasn’t something that occurred to me.” But clearly Iles believes it did
occur to God. “Moving to Canberra was a most unusual step. But that was simply a response to the prayers that I prayed, and the Lord making it quite clear that the move to Canberra was what I was supposed to do for whatever reason.” During our lengthy conversation, Iles is coming across as a very conventional Christian. He goes to church in Canberra at an “FIEC Church – the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, who I hope won’t be too hurt if I call them ‘Sydney Anglicans without bishops.’” So I ask him a question related to one of the biggest public issues ACL has been involved with this year: “Are you concerned about some of the odd doctrine that Israel Folau has?” “Ah, no – I think Israel Folau, like all of us, has been on a journey in his faith, and I think his is a miraculous journey. He was a Mormon. He has been through a conversion experience in a Pentecostal church and, across all stages of his walk with the Lord, he’s changed, he’s developed, he’s strengthened. “I come from, myself, a small and fairly insular movement. And it was at that stage a good thing in my life – an opportunity really to be isolated with Scripture and to grow more and more. “Over time my eyes have been opened by God’s grace – I trust in a good way. We are all on that journey. “I know Israel well enough to believe sincerely that man probably
We have been dealing with those things that are at the fore, in terms of political change.” belongs to the Lord. We have had wonderful biblical and theological discussions. I don’t have too many concerns. I think he is on an excellent road.” It strikes me as an inevitably practised but sincere answer. Separate to the highly publicised Folau/Rugby Australia case, the most controversial thing ACL has done this year was, arguably, an election flyer. It resembled a report card that listed the issues of importance to Christians as the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament; euthanasia or assisted suicide; abortion funding by the Federal Government; schools programs relating to sexuality; and the freedom for religious schools to be religious schools. On that election flyer, One Nation and the Australian Conservatives did very well. I put it to Iles that many Christians were shocked they were being told to consider voting for One Nation. “I would say I have grave
Facebook / Martyn Iles
ACL’s youthful new face, Martyn Iles.
concerns about some of the policy issues that relate to One Nation; for example, I know Pauline Hanson is in favour of euthanasia. I know she is not solid on the prolife stuff at all. “Having said that, One Nation are actually very, very good to work with. “You know, One Nation senators’ doors are open. They talk to us. They actually want to know what it is that we have to say, and I find working with them far more pleasant and constructive and leading to good results than working with the vast majority of other cross-benchers in the Senate, and that’s just the way it is.” Later in the interview, Iles offers a clarification: “I am not a big fan of issues-based voter guides and we didn’t do one that was intended to be a comprehensive guide for Christian voters, because there’s other groups that do that very well.” Eternity went back through the last six months of ACL press releases – which confirmed the 2016 research by Stephanie Judd, that showed ACL focussed on a narrow range of issues. School sexuality programs, offensive advertising, Folau and religious freedom featured heavily, with none of their press releases on “social justice” issues such as refugees. We repeated the exercise to test Iles’ own record as Managing Director of ACL. “We have never been silent on issues like refugees,” he responded. “I mean ACL, when I was chief
of staff, was a key voice in the creation of the program for a special intake of – I think it was 12,000 or something – refugees from the Middle East. “We actually ran a campaign on that. So we do have a history of being involved in a range of things. “In terms of the present, we have been dealing with those things that are at the fore in terms of political change. So right now in NSW the abortion issue, and in Western Australia and Queensland, you have euthanasia. “When these issues come up, somebody’s got to address it and ACL is the go-to group on some of these things. With limited budget and limited resources … you know, you are depleted in terms of what you can do. “We want to to run an antihuman trafficking campaign, that’s our next thing. But it keeps getting deferred because the religious freedom thing won’t go away. “I make absolutely no apology. No apology for focussing on life, for focussing on the gospel, focusing on the issue around LGBT stuff because that is an ideology that is moving actively and viciously against the Christian faith. “The niche we’ve found ourselves in is one where we talk about a lot of things that other people don’t necessarily want to talk about. They’re the harder subjects and we’re sort of the lightning rod from time to time. Someone’s got to do the job because, if we are silent on issues of gravity and importance, we will be silenced.” continued page 6
Martyn Iles From page 5 Iles sketches out his approach to politics – he believes that ideology is the real driver. Eternity put it to Iles that one of the unintended consequences of their focus on certain issues is the idea that to be Christian is to be politically conservative. “Well, I hate political labels,” Iles responds with a smile. “Because I always say Christianity is not politics, and we need to be careful to maintain that. “Christianity is Christianity and it has a voice in politics. Our motto is ‘truth made public.’ [The prophet] Isaiah laments – God says through him – that truth has stumbled in the public squares and therefore righteousness cannot enter, and their justice has turned back,” (quoting Isaiah 59:14). “I see so much synergy in those descriptions of the days of the prophets with the days we live in now – and we have a role in making sure the truth is heard.” Iles recounts a story of meeting with a group of people “who used to identify as homosexuals. “[A] transgender person actually said ‘I want to say a special thanks to ACL because when I was going through my journey, it was ACL resources that I found. I contacted ACL and someone from your staff came to see me, and that started a journey’ … and through others, he ended up being converted, he said. “[He said] ‘the miracle for me is not that I’m no longer transgender, it’s that I found Jesus.’” Eternity asked Iles to respond to the idea that division is implied by
I feel the need to be freed up to be a clear voice … that is Christian.”
some Christians working with ACL and similar organisations, while others work on social justice issues. “I think it’s a reality of the world that you have got this many dollars [and] this many people and God has put you here so, naturally, you will gravitate into something. But that’s not a negative thing in the sense that you say, ‘Well, because we are doing this, we’re divided from the people who are doing that.’” Iles goes on to tell a story that reflects a view that things will get tougher for Australian Christians, as he reveals his own admiration for Israel Folau. “I was talking to an archbishop – one of the Eastern bishops in Western Sydney – and he used to be the Archbishop of Mosul. He’s now became the Archbishop of Sydney. He talked about how ISIS came to Mosul and a number of people in his church were killed. He fled – one of the last people out. His church buildings were desecrated. “At the end of our long meeting, I asked ‘A rchbishop, what was better? Mosul or Sydney?’ And he did not even blink. He said ‘Mosul.’
“I said, ‘Why?’ “‘Because in Mosul,’ he said ‘You have two options, live or die; Christ or denial.’ “He added, ‘In the West, you have a third option. It’s called compromise. That’s the way many of you live. And I fear that is the way many of my people will live as times get harder.’ “That captured something for me. We are so culturally imbued with the notion that life should be good. And if we just work hard, get the right results at uni, rush forward in our careers and put our head down, we will get there. “What’s there? Well, big house, family and comforts and all the rest of it. “What if the day comes when you have to make a decision for God that costs all of that? “And this is why I have such respect for Israel Folau, by the way, because what he did was more out of his own sincere conviction that he had to serve God first.” Despite being head of Australia’s most high-profile Christian political group, Iles insists a number of times that “Christianity is not politics. It’s really peculiarly hard for ACL because we are a political entity.” But with a new motto – “Truth made public” – Iles is thinking ACL needs to be more than that. “We’ve just gone through a restructure in head office and I have been able to appoint a Chief Political Officer whose job is politics. It’s kind of made me a little less affiliated with the mucky aspect of politics.” “I feel the need to be freed up to be a clear voice that is not political but a voice that is Christian.”
A time to be born HELEN THOMAS
I was 35 years old and 19 weeks’ pregnant with our third baby. We were very excited about it and were relieved I had got so far, as I had quite a few miscarriages while trying for the first of our two children. It had a been a typical pregnancy for me. Nausea, crying, vomiting – while keeping smiling for our two little girls and counting the days till I would feel better. By 19 weeks, I was coming out of the fog and we went for our routine ultrasound. The sonographer fell silent, took a long hard look at the baby’s head and then announced that she needed to get the doctor. God in his great kindness gave us ten minutes to wait for the doctor. In that ten minutes, [my husband] Marty and I had a chance to talk through the ‘what ifs?’ What if there is something wrong? What if it is just minor? What if it is fatal? And we also had time to pray. In that room before the doctor came in, we asked God to help us to trust him no matter what we were about to find out. The doctor came in, had a close look at the baby and then delivered the shattering news that our baby girl had a condition that would
prove to be fatal at birth, if not before. At this point we were told that people in our situation, of course, induce labour and end it all then and there. We decided not to follow that advice and went home to get our heads around 20 more weeks of pregnancy, the impending death of our daughter and how on earth we were going to tell our children, our parents and everyone else who had been so excited with us about this baby. Our grief began that day. In fact it was probably one of the two most traumatic days of my life. I remember walking out of the ultrasound feeling physically sick. I remember the tears just spilling out of my eyes and my husband’s which was a scary and new sight for me. We sat down in the foyer on a well positioned sofa until we could gather ourselves to head home. Walking through the front door meant facing reality – I had to tell my mother who was babysitting. We had to tell our children their much anticipated baby would never be coming home from the hospital but … we could tell them with great certainty that their baby sister would be going from the hospital to heaven.
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Our dear three-year-old Abbey asked if God was going to take her there in the pram. These were big concepts for little children to get their heads around but we spoke to them with complete honesty about everything that was happening. That first night, we went to bed utterly exhausted and in disbelief. I remember a physical pain in my stomach that I had never felt before. We opened our Bible to Psalm 139 and read: For you created my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful. I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. We took great comfort in this psalm. Here the author of the psalm was telling us so clearly that God had created our baby’s inmost being. He’d knitted her together in my womb, she was fearfully and wonderfully made (despite her awful prognosis); her frame was not hidden from God. His eyes saw her unformed body and all the days ordained for her were written in his book before one of them came to be! Our decision was made – we were carrying her to the end. We wanted to name the baby so that we could refer to her by her name for the short time she was going to live inside me in this world.
A gift from God, baby Zoe. When you have been a primary school teacher, naming your children is a more difficult task. We wanted a name that we liked for this precious little one but also a name with meaning. We came up with Zoe Elizabeth – Zoe meaning life; Elizabeth meaning devoted to God. Zoe kicked around in my belly just as the others had and I was absolutely determined I was going to enjoy every movement. And enjoy it I did. I really loved watching my belly grow and cherished every little move. The 40-week mark came and
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went and we had come to a deal with my doctor that I would go in the day after my due date. The night before we were due to head to the hospital we sat on the couch after putting the kids to bed and opened our Bible to Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die.” Again we prayed together – we thanked God for her life, a life that was about to be born and about to die. And we thanked him for the gift she had been for that short time. We popped a small bottle of
Moet. Moet for Zoe. We toasted our daughter and braced ourselves for the day ahead. She arrived alive. We watched, we waited, she kept breathing, so we called the children and grandparents in to meet her. They came and later went home, as we still watched and waited. The minutes grew into hours and the hours grew into days and the days grew to a week and the hospital started talking about sending us home. That was never part of the plan. Well, not part of my plan but, as it would seem, it was part of God’s. When she was 11 days old,
we took her home to a house completely unprepared for a newborn but thanks to our church community, we wanted for nothing. In fact, I had three prams delivered and much more flash ones than I had had for our other girls! When Zoe was one month old, she had outlived every other child ever born with her condition. She turned two, then three and then four. She spent lots of time in hospital and I became great friends with every doctor and nurse on the children’s ward at Royal North Shore in Sydney. Every time Zoe got sick, we knew that it could be the end. In July 2011, pneumonia struck again. As I walked out of our house with Zoe in my arms ready to take her to the hospital, for some reason I stopped on our front doorstep and I said to her, “if you don’t come back here Zoe, we are so thankful that you came.” At 5pm that afternoon, lying her in her father’s arms, we told her it was OK to go and prayed that prayer one more time: God help us to trust you today and always. And he took her home. Her hard little life in this world was over. Four years and 39 days she lived in this world – God had it all planned since before the beginning of time. We miss her every day. There will always be a hole in our family photos but, more importantly, in our family. I will always find it hard to answer the question: “How many children do you have?” If I was God, I would have planned it differently but I do trust in his perfect plan. He has kept answering our prayers. We do trust him.
What happens after the last Christian RORY SHINER What’s the truth about secularisation? – Eternity is pleased to present a powerful address that Rory Shiner, senior pastor of Providence City Church in Perth, gave at Freedom19, a conference hosted by Christian think tank Freedom For Faith. At some stage, there was a funeral at which the last active believer in Thor was buried by children who no longer shared their faith. History has left us no record but it must have happened, even if those present were unaware of its historical weight. Australia and the last Christian If, some years from now, the last Christian in Australia is buried by children who no longer share their parent’s faith. What will that moment mean? Will it matter if Australia loses God – the God of Christian faith? 2067: The last British Christian Damian Thompson, in a 2017 article in The Spectator, calculated that Christianity will end in Britain in the year 2067. As Thompson acknowledged, the chances of that literally being true are remote. Immigration continues to bring people who are significantly more religious than the nations to which they come. And, based on demographic trends alone, the world seems set to become more rather than less religious. And any linear extrapolation of this sort of data is bound to come up against the decidedly non-linear patterns of history. Like Thompson, I am using the idea of the last Christian funeral to focus our question. Secularisation When we think about the future of Christianity and of religion in Australia, we are thinking about a process called secularisation. The word “secular” is a word that comes out of Christian theology. “Secular” means “of this age” or “of this world.” Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire, where a civil code was already in place. It did not, like Judaism and Islam, need to build a civil code. Christianity was born within a state; it did not need to give birth to a state. However, in its convictions, Christianity is a public religion. Through belief in a creator God, it has something to say about everything. This included public spaces over which it had no control but in which Christians believed their God was present and active.
Out of this, a theological distinction emerged between what was proper to this age (“secular”) and what belonged to the age to come. This ability to distinguish secular from sacred, Church from State, has been described by Rabbi Wolpe as one of Christianity’s greatest gifts to the world. Sometimes, of course, as our children become independent, they go off in directions we did not anticipate and perhaps do not always endorse. The idea of the secular is a case in point. What was once an important tool of Christian theology has become, over time, something rather different. The secularisation thesis Most Western nations are understood to be going through a process of becoming less religious (called “secularisation.”) The easiest way to demonstrate this is through a decline in religious institutions – fewer people going to church, mosque or synagogue. If that is the measure, it would seem some sort of secularisation is happening. Sort of. Sociologists speak about belief, belonging and behaviour as the great trifecta of religious life. Religion involves believing certain things to be true but also belonging to a community or institution and adopting certain behaviours. Including those three measures, the apparently simple proposition that Australia is becoming more secular and less religious becomes more complicated. As sociologist Linda Woodhead has said, to argue that modern society is less religious on the basis of a decline in institutional affiliation is a bit like arguing that modern society is less enthusiastic about communication on the basis of the steep decline in the use of telegrams. Stories of secularisation Most of us in Australia carry in our heads a story about the place of religion and of secularisation. I am using “story” in the way philosopher Charles Taylor uses the word. Stories are the way we gather facts, events, thoughts and opinions into a narrative in order to discover their meaning. We humans are reluctant to see history as just “one damn thing after another.” We search for meaning, and meaning is delivered in stories. As the great atheist fantasy author Phillip Pullman has said, the world is shaped more by “once upon a time” than it is by “thou shalt not.” The subtraction story We modern Australians carry
in our heads a powerful default story about the place of religion in our society. It is a story that Taylor has called “the subtraction story.” The short version is that science beat religion. The longer version goes a little something like this: Once upon a time in the West, everyone believed in God. But then something changed. In the 1600s, a new way of acquiring knowledge, the scientific revolution, began. This way of knowing was extremely successful, and people began to emerge out of the religious fog. The 1700s was the age of enlightenment, when this new epistemology was applied beyond science to morality, government and society, with great effect. In 1859, Darwin published The Origin of Species and, with it, the last great claim of the Christian faith – the claim that humans occupy a unique, God-given place in the universe – crumbled. Then, finally, the 20th century brought modernity: democracy, free markets and technology. With modernity, secularisation just comes with the factory settings. Religion, to quote Christopher Hitchens, is humanity’s “first and worst” attempt at explaining the world. It cannot co-exist with modernity. It will either become literally extinct, in the way that the worshippers of Thor are now extinct, or it will become so marginal, even in the lives of those people who believe, that it will one day be functionally irrelevant. Set your calendars. The last Christian funeral will shortly begin. “Census no religion” We saw this story powerfully conveyed in the “Census no religion” campaign of 2016. The campaign itself was a good-faith initiative to encourage people who had no religion to say so in the census. As a question seeking more accurate information, it was laudable. But notice the language used in the campaign:
“Not religious any more?” If the sign had said “Not religious?” it would be merely an
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information campaign. But add the words “any more” and the sentence comes alive. Now it’s not mere information. It’s a story. The rhetorical effect is similar to the 2016 Trump campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Remove the word “again” and the slogan becomes a pedestrian statement. “Make America Great.” But add “again,” and the phrase becomes a story. America was once great. But somehow it lost its way. Now a hero has arisen to restore order to the universe by making America great again. The phrase “not religious 100 any more” taps into a similar kind of story. Once upon a 80 time, we were all religious, but the fog is lifting. Lots of people aren’t religious any 60 more. How about you? It’s as if an advanced Dyson vacuum cleaner - set 40 to “religion” - were making its way through our society. 20 Like any vacuum cleaner, it can’t get everything – there are still places under the fridge and behind 0 the couch it can’t quite reach.
However, it’s doing a pretty good job of getting religion out of all the places you can see. The rest of the furniture is basically where it was. We’re the same people doing the same stuff in the same way; we’re just not religious any more. Australia’s subtraction story The subtraction story is the dominant story in our culture. And when we look at the data for Australia, the story seems to check out. Kind of. At Federation (1901), Australians identified as 96 per cent Christian. By 1954, that figure 100
Population identified as Christian according to census
60 40 20 0
n? Australia, secularisation and God was formally adopted by rulers, the process of catechising the population into the faith was often thin and faltering. Many priests were uneducated and, not actually knowing Latin, Percentage of would mumble the Christians in Australia through service with in 2016 was 52.1%, Latin-sounding words. Perhaps down from 61.1% our forebears were in 2011. not as pious as we imagine? Troubling nonThis fall of 949,161 correlations Secondly, does Christians was the data behave in despite a large the way the story would predict? increase in The answer is, not population. really. Actually, the Age of the Enlightenment Decrease is due to was also the great age of Christian people changing expansion and religion choice – not time of the birth failed replacement of of evangelicalism. In the 19th ageing Christians. century, after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, religious belief and practice actually went up. According to some scholars, Britain reached peak Christianity in 1901. Compare that to the figures for the Currently, tertiary education general population in the same makes church attendance in period, where only 0.8 per cent of Australia more rather than less people said they were atheists and likely. The more educated, the 1.7 per cent agnostic. It’s hard to more likely to attend church. believe our self-understanding has The problem of the exceptions not been affected. Thirdly, there is the problem What do we make of the recent of the exceptions. The traditional dip in Christians from 2011? Put secularisation thesis has always concretely, about 950,000 who recognised the odd exception of said they were Christian in 2011, the United States – a modern, said they weren’t in 2016. Where prosperous Western nation which did they go? Overwhelmingly, remains deeply religious. they did not change their religious But in the latter half of the patterns but their identity. Church 20th century, more and more attendance remained fairly exceptions had to be added to the constant in the same period. list – Southeast Asia, the Middle Holes in the story East, China. These have all been Some version of the subtraction places where modernity does not story dominates our imaginations. seem to exclude religion in the way But does it match the evidence? I the theory might have predicted. think, with some difficulty. Firstly, Indeed, the exceptions are so many the subtraction story relies on the that some scholars now talk about notion of a Golden Age of Faith – the western European exception. a time when religious belief was A reframing story ubiquitous and uncomplicated in I follow Taylor and others in the West. How true is that? Not as believing that the more plausible true as we might think. story is not a subtraction story but The evangelisation of Europe rather a reframing story. In this was a long, slow, and erratic account, our path to secularisation process. Even as Christianity was not that religion was our “first
SITUATION IN AUSTRALIA
was down to 89 per cent. Then, the most recent data shows something dramatic. Between 2011 and 2016, those identifying as Christians went down to 51 per cent. But this story of decline in people identifying as Christian has little relationship to what’s happening in Australian churches. The churches have had moments of vitality and moments of decline. Indeed, from 1945–1963, while Christian identification was going slowly down, the churches were actually experiencing a time of revival, growing on almost any indicator you care to measure. What about behaviour? In his recent magisterial book, The Fountain of Public Prosperity, Australian historian Stuart Piggin has argued that Australia is one of the most Christianised nations on earth in terms of the prevalence of Christian values in the culture. This is not our selfunderstanding. Why? In a survey of Australian historians in the mid1980s, 48 per cent reported that they were atheists and a further 12 per cent said they were agnostic.
and worst” attempt at explaining the world. Rather, the path to a secular age has been long, meandering and complex, wherein science, art, poetry, culture, clocks, aspects of Christian theology, wars, economics, architecture, philosophy and reproductive technology have taken our culture on a non-linear and erratic journey to our current secular moment. What has changed is our conditions of belief – the things we think, before we have started thinking. Modern life is captured by what Taylor calls “an immanent frame.” Transcendence has not been reasoned out so much as it has been framed out. A frame does not tell you whether or not there is anything outside of it. What it does is direct your attention to a certain limited area. For Taylor, it’s possible to have an “open” or a “closed” spin within the immanent frame. You can believe or not that there is a transcendent reality outside the frame. The frame says, “Don’t worry about that. Focus here.” The immanent frame and the last Christian What has happened in Australia is not that “religion” has been, or is being, vacuumed out of the public space by the rational processes of modernity. If you will permit the dad joke, science was framed. We all were. Modernity has framed us. But frames are not cages. There are ways out. Changes in Australia Something has changed. What is it? I believe it is not the possibility of religious convictions as such but the nominal Christian consensus. The late, great Les Murray described Australia as “roughly Christian.” It was once a country in which most people thought of themselves as Christian. The division was between nominal and active Christians. When the evangelist Billy Graham came to Australia in 1959, almost all his messages were about the need to be “born again.” The New Testament speaks of being born again only two or three times and yet it was at the heart of Graham’s message. Why? Because Graham was speaking to a “roughly Christian” nation. When you are speaking to people who are “roughly Christian,” you need to draw a sharp distinction between nominal and active Christian faith. We now live in a country where the pressure or desire to identify with Christianity has collapsed.
That’s a real change. It is a mistake, however, to imagine the space left behind is a simple, common-sense space from which religion has been vacuumed out. Much of the religious furniture is in place. The last Christian funeral? Would it matter if Australia lost God? First, the possibility is remote. The idea that modernity necessarily entails a post-religious future is a doubtful claim. Secondly, a good-faith argument could be made that huge swaths of charitable work in areas such as education, care for the poor, ESL, refugee services, international aid, aged care, and other justice and mercy work are sustained by specific religious commitments. Since the postwar era, two institutions, the State and the Market, have greatly reduced the social space left for voluntary associations. But a future in which almost everything is done by the Market (which seeks a profit) or the State (which has a monopoly on legitimate violence) is terrifying. Thirdly and finally, the idea that the removal of religion from the public square is a simple operation of removing eccentric and irrational ideas from an otherwise rational space is a fantasy. In which laboratory were human rights first discovered? By which experiment did we demonstrate the equal dignity of every human being? By which line of reasoning did we ground the claim that poor and the weak deserve special honour and care? The truth is these are ideas whose origins and development are specifically religious, and mainly Christian. As atheist philosopher John Gray points out, ideas such as free will, progress, the idea that humans are different from other animals, and that humans ought to steward the resources of the world virtuously, are each beliefs that “no one would think of taking seriously if it were not formed from cast-off Christian hopes.” If religious ideas were to be successfully removed from public life, one day we may wake up surprised at which babies were lost with the religious bathwater. This article was developed through lectures first given at St Bart’s Anglican Church, Toowoomba, and then in different forms at the UWA Christian Union and the 2019 Freedom for Faith conference. I thank each of those communities for their hospitality and their generous feedback.
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BIBLE @ WORK
New digital Auslan Bible available for the first time
Rev. Dr John Harris gives the history of the Auslan Bible project, as Peter Bonser translates. KALEY PAYNE On International Day of Sign Languages last month, Bible Society Australia launched new translations of the Bible in Auslan, Australian sign language. It’s the first time John’s Gospel, a revised version of Acts and selections from Paul’s letters have been available in the language, which are accessible in digital form for free. These translations add to existing Bible translations in Auslan that have been launched since the Auslan Bible Project began 22 years ago. According to the United Nations, there are 72 million Deaf people worldwide who use more than 300 different sign languages. In Australia, about 20,000 people use Auslan to communicate every day. “For those people, sign language is the first or only language that they know,” said Melissa Lipsett,
acting CEO of Bible Society Australia, who launched the Auslan digital Bible in Sydney. At the launch, she opened up the Bible to Romans 10:15 - a passage that has now been translated in Auslan: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Bible Society translation consultant John Harris suggested that, in this room, it might be more like: “How beautiful are the hands of those who bring good news.” Mac Adams was born profoundly Deaf and has been involved in the Auslan Bible Project right from the beginning. He told Eternity that Deaf people “think visually”. “Having the Bible in Auslan helps me read the Bible better,” he said. John Harris told the crowd that Bible Society had been approached in 1996 by Christians in the Deaf community to help them translate the Bible into Auslan. One of those who approached him was Betty
Bonser, who has sadly passed away. Her son Peter and his wife Judy have played a major role in the project since its beginning. Both Peter and Judy are children of Deaf parents, but are hearing people themselves. Harris said they have “dedicated much of their lives” to helping see this project through. It was Harris’ role to help the Deaf committee involved in the project “choose the right signs to communicate the intended meaning.” Harris stated it was important to reiterate that the Auslan Bible Project was more than just relaying Bible stories. “This is a translation. It’s not just telling Bible stories. This is a Bible; it’s the word of God. “Some people might say it’s boring ... just like someone might say reading whole chunks of the Bible – depending on what section you’re reading! – is a bit boring. But we can’t ‘jazz it up a bit’. We have
This is a translation. It’s not just telling Bible stories. This is a Bible; it’s the word of God.”
to give the Deaf the honour and respect of giving them the Bible. The difficult bits, the boring bits, the interesting bits. All of it.” In 1999, Bible Society launched the first two books of the Bible in Auslan – Ruth and Jonah – to great fanfare, with a speech from Australia’s then Governor-General, Sir William Deane. He said it was only the sixth time that portions of the Bible had been translated into a
sign language. It was also one of the first major pieces of literature to be translated into Auslan. Harris said the decision to translate Ruth and Jonah first was a traditional tactic for early Bible translations in a new language. “You get a short book of the Bible, a narrative that is easier to translate than, say, lots of Paul’s discussions. So we have two short narratives and can say we’ve done the first two books in this language ... it creates momentum,” he said. Twenty years later, Auslan now has an abridged version of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the full books of Luke and John, and a collection of Paul’s letters. “We hope that a new committee of young Deaf people will come forward to continue the work.”
+ If you would like more details, visit auslan.bible
The Apostles’ Creed I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ God’s only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was cruciﬁed, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father. And he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
It’s 1629 years old at least and still useful. It’s the Apostles’ Creed: a short summary of the Christian faith that many reach for when they need a less-than-one-page answer to “what do you believe?” This old statement of faith is exciting enough to be the subject
be a central activity of every local church. But many believers today have never had the opportunity to come to a mature understanding of their faith. “Both books are written to inspire. Mike’s book on the creed, and mine, were partly written for pastors and church leaders. “We’re hoping they will read these books and will see the richness and vitality of catechesis. If I had my way, I would see every local church transformed into a powerhouse of adult education!” The creed is also an object of wonder for Mike Bird. “The best thing is that you are confessing a faith that the Christians of western Europe and across the world have declared for nearly 2000 years as a symbol of what it means to believe in Christ and what it means to follow Christ. The Apostles’ Creed is ancient, it’s not a fad, it’s like granite. The creed
Barney Zwartz on church helping state page 13
The best thing is that you are confessing a faith that the Christians of western Europe and across the world have declared for nearly 2000 years.”
John Sandeman on Christianity’s elevator pitch
of two recent books by several of Australia’s leading theologians: Michael Bird of Ridley College, Melbourne, and Ben Myers of the Millis Institute in Brisbane – and one currently being written by John Dickson of the “Undeceptions” podcast. It could even be older than we just said. (That age estimate comes from the first time it is mentioned in recorded history.) It is attributed by tradition to the twelve apostles themselves. But the creed is more than very old. It is useful. “The current climate of the Australian church helps to explain why my friend Michael Bird and I both ended up writing books about the creed around the same time,” Ben Myers tells Eternity. “We noticed that many Christians in Australia have never really been catechised. ‘Catechesis’ is the ancient word for an education in Christian discipleship. It used to
also transcends denominational differences; it embodies what C.S. Lewis called ‘mere Christianity’ and what Thomas Oden called ‘consensual Christianity.’ The creed declares those elements of the faith that bind all Christians together irrespective of their differences. It is an instrument for unity, oneness, and a shared worship.” Let’s take one key affirmation in the creed: “I believe ... in Jesus Christ ... our Lord.” “The real centrepiece of the Apostles’ Creed is not a doctrine but a name,” writes Myers. “To confess Jesus as Lord is to set him above all other loyalties. It is to make a universal claim. If Jesus truly shares the identity of YHWH, then he is the hidden truth of creation, of history and of every human life (Col 1:15-17). I confess him as my Lord only because I recognise him as the Lord.” Michael Bird explains “the
The Apostles’ Creed from page 11 ... title ‘Lord’ (kyrios) conveys that Jesus carries the weight of divine authority. Kyrios is not a technical title for a deity but simply denotes a person who has authority over someone or something. In the ancient world slaves would refer to their masters as kyrios (Greek) or dominus (Latin). In the gospels when Jesus is addressed as ‘Lord,’ it normally means no more than ‘sir’ or ‘master.’ However there are other occasions where the designation of Jesus as ‘Lord’ is intended to convey Jesus’ divine identity. The resurrection and exultation of Jesus drove the early church to refer to Jesus as ‘Lord’ in ways identical to how the Old Testament refers to god as YHWH. “So when Paul says that Jesus is the ‘one Lord’ through whom all things come (1 Cor 8:6) and ‘every tongue [will] acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord’ (Phil 2:11), he was using YHWH-language to describe Jesus as the ‘Lord.’ The purpose of this blend of scriptural allusion and devotion to Jesus is to underscore the unequalled status given to Jesus by God the Father.” Another stand-out feature of this ancient confession of faith is its real-world impact. “The ancient institution of slavery didn’t vanish all at once,” Myers writes. “But when slaves and
If the creed were formulated today, I think it would have a lot to say about the soul.”
free persons stood side by side and confessed that Jesus is Lord, the days of slavery were numbered. “When early believers entered the waters and took the name of Jesus on their lips, the tectonic plates shifted. The slow revolution had begun.” Carefully unpacking each phrase of the creed is what Bird and Myers have done. This reveals the short creed as an extraordinarily powerful text. It’s deep. It surprised both writers. “Oh yes,” Bird responds, “the line about Christ descending to the dead/ hades/hell has created much confusion. Christ did not go to hell, despite what some late Latin versions of the creed say and their Elizabethan English translations. Christ went to hades, the waiting place of the dead, to break the bonds of death. A Byzantine hymn writer, Romanos the Melodist, imagined hades berating the Devil for being so gullible as to be able to think that he could defeat God and keep the Son of God in the
clutches of death: ‘Your vaunted cross-tree sends tremors through the universe. The earth is quaking, the sky is black; rocks are splitting, the temple veil is in shreds. Those in the tombs are rising up and corpses shout, ‘Hades, don’t you understand? Adam is beginning his return to Paradise.’” Myers tells Eternity: “The biggest surprise came when I started teaching a class on the Apostles’ Creed. “I thought the class would be about Christian history. But it ended up having a strong apologetic focus. We discussed the problem of suffering, God and gender, violence and the atonement, the fragility of creation, the place of the human body in God’s purposes. “These problems seemed to arise naturally as we worked our way through each line of the creed. So the creed gave us a framework for exploring some of the toughest intellectual challenges that Christians face today. And it gave us a way to relate those challenges to a wider context of God’s purposes for creation. I taught that class for several years and it became a really dynamic dialogue between the ancient faith of the church and the contemporary world. That’s the dynamic that I tried to capture in the book.” So which bit is Bird’s favourite? “I love the section about the catholic church and the communion of saints. Our faith is not simply assent to belief in God and accepting an offer of salvation from Christ for us as individuals. Faith is about the people created by the gospel of Christ. The church
The Apostle’s Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism by Ben Myers | Lexam Press
What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostle’s Creed by Michael F Bird | Zondervan
confesses itself in its confession of faith. We are bonded to the Father through Christ and through the Spirit and yet in the same way – even mystically or mysteriously – we are bonded to each other as well. As we grow closer to God, we grow closer to each other. “There is then no communion with God without a common union with each other. The church is not a dispensable fashion accessory in my personal and private religion. It is not the throw-away packaging of my Jesus-anity. The church cannot be replaced with an iPad app and some Facebook friends.” The creed has great resonance with some Christians because it is ancient. But what if it was written today? “The Apostles’ Creed places a huge emphasis on the body,” Myers says. “God is the creator of material reality; God redeems us by entering creation in a human body; and at the end of the age we will be raised in our bodies to the glory of God. If the creed were formulated today I think it would have a lot to say about the soul. In the time of the ancient church, it was very controversial to affirm the dignity of the body. Today we are faced not only with denials of the goodness of the body but also denials of the soul. There is a huge pressure in our society to live on the surface. The deeper spiritual yearnings of the human person are suppressed and denied. If the creed were written today, it would have included a confession of the human soul and of the way God’s redemptive purposes are aimed at the redemption of the full human person, body and soul.”
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How the church serves the state
As politicians and others debate whether and to what extent the state should protect freedom of religion in Australia, it’s worth recalling the ways that Christianity has in fact made the state as we understand it – and not infrequently protected the individual from it. Wherever we may stand on the political spectrum, there are at least five insights Christianity has brought to political understanding in the West over the centuries. Insights that have become so deeply embedded that many people are ignorant of their origin. These insights, highlighted in a long essay by Michael Matheson Miller on the Law and Liberty website, hold true despite the
pixabay / stux
Barney Zwartz on Christianity’s political task
mixed legacy of the church and individual Christians over history. Since Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, it has been subject to the negative influences of greed and ambition that gained little foothold when it was the religion of mainly the poor and oppressed. Since then, the church has often sided with power and with oppressors, and acted to preserve its own status and wealth, as we have seen right into the 21st century. Political power has been abused in the name of religion. Nevertheless, the contributions that Miller identifies as born of faith’s assumptions about the state, the individual and conscience are vital to a flourishing democracy. 1. The state is not divine. In firstcentury Rome, the emperor was a god and morality, politics and religion were all part of the one system with one authority. Then came Jesus with his revelatory instruction to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. He clearly separates the two and decrees the state is not sacred. There have been many secular attempts to make the state sacred, from the ancient empires of Egypt, Assyria and Rome to the French Revolution, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. 2. The state does not trump the individual’s conscience. The second insight is related. The state is important, it is there for our benefit and should be obeyed, as Paul exhorts, but it is not the
source of truth or law. It is not the final arbiter of what is right and just; no matter how hard it tries, it cannot outweigh individual conscience. And the state is bound by the same moral laws as individuals, as recognised by the checks and balances built into our political system, thanks not least to Protestant reformer John Calvin. Importantly, Christianity explicitly teaches that justice must be impartial, for example Leviticus 19:15. That is the foundation for the rule of law, as opposed to the arbitrary will of humans. We understand this truth all the more in the light of its absence, such as in nations plagued by corruption. 3. We are to be committed to the good of all. The third insight is commitment to the common good, in other words the political and social conditions that allow individuals, families and communities to flourish. Secularists with whom I’ve discussed this are often unwilling to concede its religious origins, but it is not a natural understanding in many non-Christian societies across the globe and the centuries. The Nazis, for example, identified the common good with the good of the state or the Party (the two were more or less coterminous), but that
is not the Christian vision. Instead, we are bound together and the state must work for the good of all. 4. Humans are fundamentally members of communities. This fourth insight, all the more important in an age of identity politics, is the importance of the family and of a diverse civil society. Humans are social beings, born into families and cultures, who flourish in community. The family is the basic unit of a flourishing society and, as Miller observes, is a biological and sociological reality that exists prior to the state (both logically and historically). But the family needs help to flourish, as expressed by the axiom that it takes a village to raise a child. The common good needs a rich and varied civil society, including civic groups, churches, charities, schools, volunteer organisations, sports groups, police and more. 5. The state can never bring about a perfect society. The fifth insight is particularly out of step with modern secularism: the recognition that the Christian vision of government is antiutopian. This is not popular because it rests on the reality of sin – an idea increasingly out of fashion, yet the only Christian doctrine amply evidenced in the
pages of our newspapers every day. No state can build a perfect society because the reality of human fallibility gets in the way. As Miller notes, “politics cannot solve the fundamental problems of suffering, evil, sin and death. We cannot be redeemed by the state or technology, or the dictator or the majority.” Jesus recognised this sad reality when he said “the poor you will always have with you.” Of course, Christianity is not a political program and does not endorse any particular political vision. But a Christian vision of government, as Miller says, is not simply a secular vision of government with religion sprinkled on top. Secularism is not neutral. A Christian vision of government is grounded in key theological and philosophical ideas about the nature of God and reality, the importance of justice, the value of freedom, the role of the family, and a rich understanding of the human person as created in the image of God, made for flourishing, and called to an eternal destiny. In an age of political polarisation and self-doubt, it’s a vision that still has plenty to offer. Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
What is a church without its young people? Today’s young people matter to God. And they are the next generation of parents, church leaders, business owners, and political leaders. That’s why we must invest in our youth and children, to help them stay on course and follow Jesus Christ for life. But sadly, 40% of Christian young people, like Ben, will walk away from church by the time they leave home. It’s a reality that we simply can’t ignore. This is why Youthworks exists – to help build effective youth and children’s ministries in every church that give young people the true direction they so desperately need.
Ben grew up in church.
He never felt connected
At 18, he abandoned his faith...
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Feeling like God is unreachable
Katherine Thompson on hope even in extreme pain
We find hope and a path through to God so that it is possible to connect again.”
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Several years ago when there were multiple stressful events happening in my family, including the death of my brother from cancer, my health was impacted, and I got to a place where I had trouble focussing to pray or read the Bible. The information just didn’t go in, and I couldn’t sit quietly to string words together in my head in mental prayer. I found it difficult to connect to God in the traditional ways that I had been taught. It was tempting to conclude there was no point trying to pray or read the Bible, and give up. If I had done this I would have in effect decided deep within myself that God is unreachable.
What I have discovered is that feeling like this is very common at times of grief and loss, not just from the death of a loved one, but when we lose other meaningful things in our life, such as our dreams, our job, or something is just plain disappointing and unexpected. It is also normal when we experience anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue, autoimmune disorders, or chemo brain, neuropathic pain, and other health conditions that impact our ability to concentrate, learn, feel and remember. These silent burdens impact our life and make the most basic things like reading our Bible, listening to a sermon, or praying impossible. Jars of Clay wrote a song called Silence that says: I’ve got a question - Where are you? Scream, deeper I want to scream. I want you to hear me, I want you to find me. I want to believe but all I pray is wrong and all I claim is gone. St John of the Cross wrote about the Dark Night of the Soul. He describes these times as feeling like we are lost on the road. We feel like God has abandoned us and we lose our sense of peace. We grow weary in practising our faith. It is at this time that we can feel like giving up on our faith all together. The pivotal moment that we can miss is the need to change our way of relating to God. We need to stop relying on thinking, reasoning and emotional faith practices, and instead learn to
trust God in a new way. Both head knowledge and emotional spiritual highs are not enough. Paul writes in Romans 8, that nothing can separate us from God, and that Christ intercedes for us. This means that all those things I have listed cannot cut us off from God. The Christian contemplatives have long warned us not to rely
on our thoughts and feelings to be the sole guide to our faith. Humanistic psychology would echo this sentiment and say that our life cannot be directed and determined by our thoughts and feelings. A lot of the time our thoughts are irrational, untrue and unhelpful. Our feelings can be unregulated and lead us to act in ways that are
destructive. This doesn’t mean we should completely disregard our thoughts and feelings as part of our experience of God. The problem is one of discernment, and there are times in our life when it is harder to see what the Spirit is saying to us. This is why we need to line up our understanding with Scripture, circumstances, and the views of trusted Christians around us. It is important that we find hope and a path through to God so that it is possible to connect again. St John of the Cross talks about this as being through contemplation. In psychology, some theories of the human mind make a distinction between our rational self (e.g., our thinking), and our observing self (e.g., our consciousness). They say that finding ways to reconnect to everything around us means less emphasis on our thoughts and feelings, and growth in our ability to be present and focus on what we are doing in the now. Our pre-Enlightenment church tradition, is full of practices that use the observing self to engage in contemplative prayer and meditation on Scripture. We can learn these spiritual disciplines and “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46.10). This knowing is not rational, it is a deeper knowing that goes beyond ourselves. Richard Rohr describes this as our spirit communing with the Holy Spirit. Dr Katherine Thompson is the author of Christ Centred Mindfulness.
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Like kindness, gentleness is one of those qualities we admire, but don’t really want. As Coco Chanel once said: “Gentleness doesn’t get work done unless you happen to be a hen laying eggs.” It may be good to be gentle if you are going to be a nurse or a counsellor, but what about as a barrister or a business owner? It’s toughness that gets things done. It’s aggression that triumphs. We think that to be gentle is nice, but to be nice is insipid, and to be insipid is to be weak. It’s forgettable, and maybe even a bit dull – at least the way we think of it. And this picture of gentleness is unappealing. Weakness is not virtuous. A person may be nice, but that niceness may come from fear. And that fear may mean that they do not possess the fortitude to stand up for what’s right. Neither does this picture of gentleness have any passion in it. Does the person who is gentle, we worry, care about anything important? Where is their zeal for justice or for the truth? We prize righteous anger above all. What’s gentleness got to do with that? But gentleness is not the opposite of strength or passion. The truly gentle person is the person who is strong, but who treats the weak and vulnerable with care and protection. The gentle person does not break the fragile. Which is exactly what God is like. He is utterly powerful, and yet treats us gently. This is the God who lit the fires that burn the stars. This is the God from whom come the great forces of gravity and nuclear fission. The forces of nature, which we cannot control – tsunami, cyclone, earthquake, fire – are only glimpses of his sheer power.
To follow Jesus is not to be enslaved to an abusive tyrant but to find rest for your soul. This is the Lord who carries our burdens on his back – who bears our sins in his body on the tree. He does not treat us as we deserve, but as we need, when we come to him.” it in a second. That’s a great image of God’s gentleness. As Isaiah says: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. And in Jesus we see this gentleness in human form. More than any other character in history, Jesus was a picture of gentle strength, of humble power. These are his words in Matthew 11: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. To follow Jesus is not to be enslaved to an abusive tyrant but to find rest for your soul. This is the Lord who carries our burdens on his back – who bears our sins in his body on the tree. He does not treat us as we deserve, but as we need, when we come to him. But notice that this mild Jesus is not weak, and he is not without passion. He cares for his Father’s holiness so much that he overturns the tables in the temple. His inner resolve is to do God’s will, resisting temptation and overcoming the
trials put before him. Toughness and controlled anger in a just cause are not the opposite of gentleness. We see in Jesus a deeper definition of gentleness. Gentleness is when the stronger restrain their strength for the sake of the weaker. The Holy Spirit wants us to cultivate this fruit of gentleness in our lives. Not only does Paul list it as a fruit of the Spirit, but Jesus says pretty much the same thing when he says “Blessed are the meek.” And Paul tells us in Philippians: “Let your gentleness be known to all.” So: are you a truly gentle person? Where you have power, do you exercise it with gentleness? Now remember, gentleness is not weakness. We can be fooled into thinking that because we are conflict-avoidant or passive that we are gentle. And I guess that is my own personal temptation – to sanctify my weakness as gentleness, when it is really just cowardice. No: I have to tell myself that true gentleness comes from finding our source of strength and confidence in the gentle Christ. If I’m to grow in gentleness, then it will take me to grow in the realisation of how tenderly and humbly I’ve been treated by God himself. That always has to be the starting place. In particular, Christ-like gentleness is a great challenge to men and what we feel a true man should be like. Of course, gentleness is for both sexes. But we tend to expect men to display toughness and strength, and to think of gentleness as unmanly. We celebrate the strength of men, but then we are appalled by the unrestrained abuse of that strength, especially but not only against women. The manners of a past generation, which we now see as quaint, taught men to step back and make space for others. They taught us not to abuse our natural physical advantage or our social privilege. They taught us to control ourselves. They were a habit that taught us an attitude. For whatever reason, we’ve lost that habit, and
pixabay / geralt
Michael Jensen on how to communicate Christ
In Job 26, Job says: He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing. He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight. He covers the face of the full moon, spreading his clouds over it. He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness. The pillars of the heavens quake, aghast at his rebuke. By his power he churned up the sea; by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces. By his breath the skies became fair; his hand pierced the gliding serpent. And these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him! Who then can understand the thunder of his power?’ But … it’s precisely because of this power that God shows us what gentleness is. When he deals with his creatures, he restrains his power. He does not crush us. Rather, he stoops tenderly to help us. In Psalm 18 we hear: You make your saving help my shield, and your right hand sustains me; your help has made me great. In Isaiah 40:11 we hear: He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. The shepherd is a great biblical image for God’s gentleness – it combines tenderness and toughness at once. From the Bible we learn that God is gentle with us as his creatures in providing the resources of the earth for our needs. He is also gentle with us when we stray from him, seeking to woo us back to him. Though our brains are too daft to understand him, he speaks to us in words that we can understand – as John Calvin once put it, he’s like a nanny speaking baby-talk to us. God is very much like Maggie, my Cocker Spaniel. Maggie once brought us a bird, a rainbow lorikeet, alive. Now, Maggie has dog jaws and an appetite to match. But it’s a feature of her breed that she can pick up a bird and carry it to you without crushing a single tiny bone. So, this terrified bird was carried to safety in a mouth full of teeth that could have killed
we’ve lost that attitude. Men, rightly or wrongly people are afraid of us – of our power, our anger and of our violence. But Christian men – men who know the gentleness of Christ – ought to be at the forefront of a new kind of masculinity. We ought to be marked by a courageous humility, grounded in the knowledge that we are deeply loved by our heavenly Father. The Bible also advises us to use gentleness when we deal with complex human relationships. Proverbs tells us that “a gentle answer turns away anger.” The response of escalation when someone else is angry almost never works. The anger of another person can be very frightening, but the safety of standing in Christ gives us the space for gentleness. The Bible also helps us when we need to offer someone correction. When someone has erred, we are to correct them not with cruelty or by shaming them, but with gentleness, so that they will be restored. Gentleness is also our communications strategy for sharing Christ. “Let your gentleness be known to all,” says Paul. Peter tells us to answer questions with “gentleness and reverence.” We are often worried that sharing Christ will look arrogant and judgmental. But that is nothing like the missionary strategy of the Bible. How could we present Jesus with haughtiness and cruelty? To be gentle is not to hold off on the truth. We can’t conceal from people the devastating reality of sin and the coming judgment of God. But we can’t do so from a position of superiority. We share Christ, after all, because we want people to know his peace and his love as we do. The gospel is the good news of God’s gentle mercy. Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.
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A lesson in morals from the young Tim Costello on a day of hope Our children protesting for bolder action to deal with climate change are on the right side of history. In the wake of fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, a powerful hurricane battering the Bahamas, unseasonal rain in parts of Africa and both crippling drought and flash floods in Australia, thousands of school students worldwide took to the streets recently for the biggest yet global climate strike. It was a just response to global injustice and the political impotence of their elders. Politicians across the world have consistently procrastinated on climate change, ignoring evidence that clearly shows it is already severely affecting our planet. The young activists’ sustained and persistent demands for
For God so loved the Earth: Uniting Church students protest outside St Stephen’s Church Sydney. urgent action, supported by the best available science, are to be welcomed. They are speaking truth to power. They are bringing politicians to account. The young are teaching the older generations about values and morality.
In the opening pages of Genesis we are told that humans were created in God’s image and given a divine mandate to care for creation. Creation care is a fundamental building block of Christian faith,
so it is incumbent on all Christians to take this seriously. We are living in a narrowing window of opportunity The climate crisis is a human rights issue – children, the poor and disadvantaged are at greatest
risk of injury, disability and death caused by its impact. The bold student-led protests threaten to topple the false gods – market forces, over-consumption and unrestrained greed – that undervalue God’s creation. They seek a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life on this particular planet. No wonder the coordinated youth movement, harnessing the power of collective action, has hit a nerve. The good news today is that many young people and their schools today are leading the way when it comes to making the world a better place. More children are sponsoring children in developing nations and raising money to build schools in war-torn and disasterprone nations. At home they are increasingly standing up for the disadvantaged through studentrun projects. And they are walking out of their classrooms to inspire change. I have great hope in this generation. They can look at the injustice in the world and ask the question: Why are things like this and what can I do about it? They should never stop asking that question. Tim Costello is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
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