Euthanasia: Some theological considerations for living responsibly

Die Klage der heiligen Zeder

A recent issue of Pacifica includes my article on euthanasia. It can be accessed via this link.

[Image: Anselm Kiefer, ‘Die Klage der heiligen Zeder’, 1981]

‘The Last Day’

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When the last day comes
A ploughman in Europe will look over his shoulder
And see the hard furrows of earth
Finally behind him, he will watch his shadow
Run back into his spine.

It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day

Our stories will be rewritten
Each from the end,
And each will end the same;
You will hear the fields and rivers clap
And under the trees

Old bones
Will cover themselves with flesh;
Spears, bullets, will pluck themselves
From wounds already healed,
Women will clasp their sons as men

And men will look
Into their palms and find them empty;
There will be time
For us to say the right things at last,
To look into our enemy’s face

And see ourselves,
Forgiven now, before the books flower in flames,
The mirrors return our faces,
And everything is stripped from us,
Even our names.

– Kevin Hart, 2015 [Image: jurek d.]

Responding to the Anthropocene

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When Footscray had a beach, and the Maribyrnong River flowed through ‘grassy country’

George Gilbert, Maribyrnong River (c. 1850)

George Gilbert, ‘Maribyrnong River’ (c. 1850)

It’s a cold day here in Melbourne, perfect weather for catching up on a bit of reading. So I’ve been reading a few little books on local history, particularly on the Wurundjeri and the Yalukit-willam people. At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying Isabel Ellender and Peter Christiansen’s beautifully-produced book People of the Merri Merri: The Wurundjeri in Colonial Days. And a cup of tea or so ago, I was struck by these words by Gary Presland from his little booklet The First Residents of Melbourne’s Western Region. I imagine that this was partly because I grew up on the Maribyrnong River, and still travel along its banks on most days:

When Europeans first settled in the Port Phillip district, they saw a landscape which looked vastly different to that we see today. But that landscape itself was a result of long processes of change, some of which had been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. There is some evidence to show that people were living in the Maribyrnong River [sic] valley, near present-day Keilor, about 40,000 years ago. Since that time there have been enormous changes to the landscape – all of which Koories [sic] must have witnessed and lived through.

Many of the most spectacular and significant changes to the countryside have been to the Maribyrnong-Yarra River system.

Ten thousand years ago the valley of the Yarra River was more than thirty-five metres deeper than it is today and the river flowed at the bottom of a deep canyon. At that time the world’s sea level was considerably lower because a great deal of water was locked up in the ice sheets covering Europe. So there was no water in Port Phillip Bay, and instead of flowing through the flat land in West Melbourne the Yarra turned to the south and flowed down the eastern side of a large grassy plain. At this time the Maribyrnong River flowed more directly to the south east and joined up with the Yarra near what is now Williamstown.

In the long period that Koories have lived in the Melbourne area, the Maribyrnong and Yarra River system has deposited a great deal of mud and silt in the river valleys, and as a result the ground level has been raised by hundreds of metres.

From about 10,000 years ago, the sea started to rise, as the Ice Age came to an end. As the ice sheets in the northern hemisphere melted, the water flowed back into the sea and the level slowly rose. By about 8,500 years ago Bass Strait was flooded, and the gradually-rising sea had reached Port Phillip Heads and began to fill the area of Port Phillip. The sea continued to rise until about 7,000 years ago, by which time the level of water in the Bay was much higher than it is today. The top of the Bay then stretched as far north as Flemington and water covered the area of Flemington Racecourse and many of the inner city areas such as the lower parts of West Melbourne, Port and South Melbourne, and St Kilda. At this time Footscray was a beach-side area and the Maribyrnong River was affected by tides as far north as Braybrook.

When the sea level stabilized at its present height, about 5,000 years ago, the waters of the Bay retreated a little. During the previous 2,000 years a new land surface had been built up by the accumulation of silt in the bay water. The ground surface in the flat area where Victoria, Swanston and Appleton Docks were later constructed, and through which Footscray Road and Dynon Road now run, is a result of this build-up of silt. [ed. – You can read more about that here.]

When Europeans first arrived, they were attracted by the sweeping grasslands to the west of the Maribyrnong River. The wide volcanic plain, the edge of which is now covered by the western suburbs, presented rich pastures for the colonists’ sheep. There was a thick covering of native grasses, with a few trees growing along the major water courses, such as Kororoit Creek.

Those ‘sweeping grasslands’ were elsewhere described thus by George Robinson when he visited the Port Phillip settlement in December 1836:

Saw nothing but grassy country, open forest, plenty gum and wild cherry. Saw where the natives had encamped, plenty of trees notched where they had climbed for opossums …. There are herds of forest kangaroo immensely large, a short distance from the settlement, also flocks of emus on the western plains fifty and sixty in a drove …. The country through which I travelled to the Salt Water (Maribyrnong) River had a park-like appearance, kangaroo grass being the principal, the trees she-oak, wattle, honeysuckle. Saw a blue flower, thorny appearance. Numerous old native huts.

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Maribyrnong River, Sunrise. 15 July 2017.

Three remarkable Australians

In recent days, I’ve enjoyed watching these three wonderful interviews:

Free article on George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown 5.jpgSome readers of this blog may be interested to read my recent essay on the work of the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. The essay, which was published in Pacifica, is currently available to be downloaded freely, and can be accessed here, or via pdf here.

I had much pleasure writing this article, but reader beware when I suggest that its reading will be significantly enhanced if accompanied by a wee dram or two of Highland Park. Trust me.

‘Holiness in Victorian and Edwardian England’

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I was honoured to have been invited to contribute a little piece for a Festschrift being prepared for Professor Yolanda Dreyer, of the University of Pretoria. Papers for the Festschrift are being published in the online journal HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies.

My paper is titled ‘Holiness in Victorian and Edwardian England: Some Ecclesial Patterns and Theological Requisitions’. Its Abstract reads:

This essay begins by offering some observations about how holiness was comprehended and expressed in Victorian and Edwardian England. In addition to the ‘sensibility’ and ‘sentiment’ that characterised society, notions of holiness were shaped by, and developed in reaction to, dominant philosophical movements; notably, the Enlightenment and Romanticism. It then considers how these notions found varying religious expression in four Protestant traditions – the Oxford Movement, Calvinism, Wesleyanism, and the early Keswick movement. In juxtaposition to what was most often considered to be a negative expression of holiness associated primarily with anthropocentric and anthroposocial behaviour as evidenced in these traditions, the essay concludes by examining one – namely, P. T. Forsyth – whose voice called from within the ecclesial community for a radical requisition of holiness language as a fundamentally positive reality describing the divine life and divine activity. The relevance of a study of the Church’s understanding of holiness and how it sought to develop its doctrine while engaging with larger social and philosophical shifts endures with us still.

The paper can be accessed here.

When is political power legitimate?

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John Bale, ‘Revelation Chapter 13’, 1545

‘When is political authority legitimate? When does the state have a status and function that may be considered “ordained by God”? When are those who rule – emperors or presidents, parliaments or police – due honor, not out of fear, because they wield the sword and command the means to intimidate, dominate and coerce human beings, but as a matter of conscience?

These have not been abstract issues in the American context. The founding premises of the nation define legitimacy in government, both with respect to a rule considered so obnoxious to human life in society that it was to be resisted and overthrown (the Declaration of Independence), and, thereafter, with respect to the limitations upon political authority and the institutionalization of public accountability (the Constitution). Between the Declaration and the Constitution, political legitimacy concerns how political power is established and how such power is used. Incumbency in itself is not enough to validate any exercise of political authority.

Nor is the matter abstract nowadays. In the past decade the opposition, notably that of Christians, to the war and to the war enterprise in Southeast Asia has upheld the position that the illegal and unconstitutional conduct of the war renders incumbent political authority illegitimate. It is this very point that occasioned the witness of the Berrigan brothers in becoming fugitives at a time when they had been ordered to submit to imprisonment. To have surrendered to illegitimate authority voluntarily would have seemed to condone it. For the Berrigans, there could be no obedience to criminal power.

At a time when the President is reported to be frustrated and angry that his rule lacks credibility and that he does not receive automatic homage, it is edifying to recall that many who have all along opposed him and his regime – and also the Government of Lyndon Johnson – have not done so as weirdos, cowards, far-out radicals or malcontents. In truth, they have upheld the classic American view of political legitimacy. The very citizens President Nixon has been so desirous to watch and spy upon, defame and persecute, humiliate and ostracize, prosecute and punish have been those who have acted to redeem legitimacy in government so that political authority could be conscientiously honored (again) in this nation.

And, more than that, such persons have acted within the traditional doctrine of Romans 13. John Calvin’s comment could hardly be more emphatic or more immediately relevant to both the war and Watergate as manifestations of political illegitimacy:

Understand further, that powers are from God … because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. For though tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the well-being of mankind. As it is lawful to repel wars and to seek remedies for other evils, hence the Apostle [Paul] commands us willingly and cheerfully to respect and honor the right and authority of magistrates, as useful to men …

If that be the truth, for citizens who are biblical people, the way to expose illegitimate authority is to oppose the incumbent regime. In that case President Nixon may not invoke Romans 13 to indulge vanity, induce tribute, evade guilt or compound deceit; rather, he is consigned to suffer Romans 13 as a stunning and awesome rebuke – and as a fearful and timely warning’.

– Mr Stringfellow

‘My mother’s God’, by Geoff Page

Blake - God Judging Adam (c. 1795).jpg

My mother’s God
has written the best
of the protestant proverbs:

you make the bed
you lie in it;
God helps him

who helps himself.
He tends to shy away from churches,
is more to be found in

phone calls to daughters
or rain clouds over rusty grass.
The Catholics

have got him wrong entirely:
too much waving the arms about,
the incense and caftan, that rainbow light.

He’s leaner than that,
lean as a pair of
grocer’s scales,

hard as a hammer at cattle sales
the third and final
time of asking.

His face is most clear
in a scrubbed wooden table
or deep in the shine of a

laminex bench.
He’s also observed at weddings and funerals
by strict invitation, not knowing quite

which side to sit on.
His second book, my mother says,
is often now too well received;

the first is where the centre is,
tooth for claw and eye for tooth
whoever tried the other cheek?

Well, Christ maybe,
but that’s another story.
God, like her, by dint of coursework

has a further degree in predestination.
Immortal, omniscient, no doubt of that,
he nevertheless keeps regular hours

and wipes his feet clean on the mat,
is not to be seen at three in the morning.
His portrait done in a vigorous charcoal

is fixed on the inner
curve of her forehead.
Omnipotent there

in broad black strokes
he does not move.
It is not easy, she’d confess,

to be my mother’s God.

– Geoff Page

[Audio]

Image: William Blake, ‘God Judging Adam’ (c. 1795)

‘Grace always bats last’

A confession: I’m not normally a fan of TED talks (especially the religious ones), but every non-fan ought to at least live with the possibility of making an exception every now and then:

‘The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves your new grandchild. Go figure. The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and heals our world. To summon grace, say, “Help,” and then buckle up. Grace finds you exactly where you are, but it doesn’t leave you where it found you. And grace won’t look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, regrettably. But the phone will ring or the mail will come and then against all odds, you’ll get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness. It helps us breathe again and again and gives us back to ourselves, and this gives us faith in life and each other. And remember — grace always bats last’.

Grace always bats last’! Well said Anne Lamott.

Physician assisted suicide, euthanasia, and capitalism

There’s a good little piece here by Daniel Fleming, who reminds us of the larger economic context in which debates about physician assisted suicide and euthanasia are taking place; and, should the legislation be passed, of the context in which the legislation will be enacted. Here’s a taster:

Where we make social interventions in our context, we should also remember that it will inevitably become someone’s business to deliver on them. Correlatively, in answer to the first question, we should consider what the impact of private, for-profit, companies which specialise in the provision of euthanasia might be. Such companies would have as their primary purpose profit or return to share-holders. They would, assumedly, be required to increase business in order to produce better annual results. What would their marketing strategies look like? Who would their target market be?

One can quickly imagine a strategic planning meeting whereby the market of those who are dying or those who are close to someone who is dying become the aim of the product, perhaps also particularly those who would not be able to afford other forms of end of life care, or those who are suffering from some form of depression. The current proposed legislation [in Victoria and New South Wales] rests on the possibility of someone making a free and fully informed decision, but freedom and coercion have a tenuous relationship when it comes to marketing strategies – especially those directed at vulnerable groups, and that is something we should consider in this case.

To put it crudely, if we agree to this legislation we should be willing to accept active and aggressive marketing strategies from companies who enact it …

Such companies do not currently exist, but for-profit health insurance companies do, and so we should also consider what the proposed legislation might look like from the perspective of an insurance company which is trying to improve its bottom line. Could it be that insurance companies would direct patients toward the cheaper option instead of agreeing to a larger payout for more expensive care?

In the United States, for example, a physician recently claimed that “insurance companies in states where assisted suicide is legal have refused to cover expensive, life-saving treatments for his patients but have offered to help them end their lives instead.” As anyone who has sat in a budget meeting will know, the logic applied here by the insurance companies is perfectly compatible with the value-set imposed by capitalism.

These are uncomfortable considerations, and they take the debate outside of its typical contours which consider the suffering of an individual and sometimes their family, and whether or not it is right for that person to end their own life with medical assistance. That debate still needs to be had. However we land there, it is crucial to remember that the debate takes place in an ideological context, and if or when the legislation is enacted it will be done in a way that takes it beyond the intent of those proposing it, and into the realm of the value set of capitalism. Any legislation or major social interventions has social consequences beyond its original purpose.

You can read the full article here.

Some afternoon meanderings

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‘Elegy from a Seaside Graveyard’, by John Stokes

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From ‘The Eden Set – coming on the coast suddenly’

… and this stone-picture’s Wayne, the Suicide
doing it his way: longest finger
cocked up from the earth
into the sealight fading.

Here the surfer, boy of the sea
still suckled by his mother feeling
his salt mouth, his sighing
over the tablet gravestone of the waves.

Here the incongruous Calvinist whalers
moaning with their predestinations:
born in sin, living to lament
relieving themselves in death

and here the mother lover, with her child
still moving, on top and hung
in the harness, the smash cut
gently into the mind at twilight

and Brad, who knew Sherryl
in the fullest biblical sense
and Nathanial, who knew the kill
and the smell and ways of the mulloway.

These deaths are so Australian
and yet the same. They are sung
in the tongue of the water, the hiss
of the sand-grains rubbing

one with another, and another
and another, under bellbirds
sounding their death knells
into the sealight fading.

So leave the dead ones to it
– they are, after all, forever –
love them, leave them, go
pausing once, at some corner

(you will know when)
so the car-hoon
when he misses you by a nail
gives you the finger!

Resurrect your breath.

Drive on.

– published in Meanjin 66–67, no. 4–1 (2008), 22–23.

Some notes on church worship in Chile

One thing I often like to do when I’m travelling is to visit places of religious worship, whether such be Buddhist, Baha’i, or Hindu temples, or Muslim mosques, or Jewish synagogues, or Christian houses of worship. Among other reasons, this is partly because understanding the cultus (i.e., those convictions and values embodied in ritual and ceremony) of a place is a window into better understanding its broader culture, and partly because I’m fascinated by how such strange creatures as we constantly seek to orient our lives around, from, and towards things transcendent. We are, after all, homo religiosus, as St Augustine taught. One way that this is manifest is in the erection of little shrines around the country, such as this one pictured on the left – a phenomena prevalent in every part of the world I’ve visited.

Currently, I’m in Chile. It’s a country where about 61% of the population describe ‘religion’ as being either ‘very important’ or ‘somewhat important’ in their lives, and where somewhere in the order of 70% of those over the age of 14 identify themselves as ‘Christian’, the majority of whom (60–70%) are Roman Catholic, and around 15% identify as ‘evangelical’. 90% of evangelicals tick the box that says ‘Pentecostal’. The remaining 10% of Protestants are a smorgasbord of mostly Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Methodists. While the numbers are debatable, Mormons claim to be the second largest religious group in the country, after Roman Catholics. There are only around 17,000 Jews, and 3,000–4,000 Muslims in the entire country.

During my time here, I’ve visited a number of churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Last Sunday, for example, I was in Santiago and spent time at the Primera Iglesia Bautista de Santiago (pictured on the right), a large Baptist church with strong links to the Southern Baptist Convention. It was an interesting experience, although I must say that an hour of 80s-style rock ‘n’ roll – even when led by a delightful worship leader, as it was – followed by a sermon that goes for over an hour is hard work on the crowd, especially since it seemed like all the important stuff was happening ‘up the front’ as it were. Still, it seemed that most people like it this way. Open Bibles and the provision of a detailed sermon outline indicated that here were people wanting to be schooled in Christ. That said, judging by the queues for the loo after the service it also seems like many were literally busting to get out of there. I know I was. And yet, at the same time I very much welcomed this connection with my Baptist sisters and brothers.

During the week, I also visited a number of Roman Catholic churches, mostly in Santiago’s inner city. These were near empty on Sunday morning, but during the week these cold, dark, dusty, and musty buildings were frequently occupied by somewhere between 40–100 or so people who were praying, mostly at the various side chapels, a couple of which in each place were clearly more important – or more interesting, or more something else – than the others. People stood to pray, knelt to pray, sat to pray. I was struck by how expressive much of this prayer was. (To be sure, it was on par with other forms of physical expression I observed in countless public places.) Apart from the sidelines of sporting fields or the endless checkouts of shopping malls, such out-in-the-open demonstration of one’s religion is rarely seen in Australia, where we tend to keep our religion more private and where public displays of such are likely to attract the unforgivable accusation of ‘hypocrite’ or ‘religious wanker’.

Today, when the church marked Pentecost, I attended two church services in San Pedro de Atacama, in northern Chile. The first was at the Ministerio Iglesia Apostolica Internacional. Here a small, friendly, and welcoming congregation of just under 20 devoted worshippers meet each Sunday morning in a very small and minimally-adorned room on the edge of town. I too heard the Call to Worship here:

Here, there were no song sheets or data projector to be had (what a relief!), and a sole musician strummed a nylon-string guitar, simply. It was beautiful.

These were humble and decent folk. For two-and-a-half hours, they loved Jesús nuestro Señor together (it was unclear who ‘the’ pastor was, as most adults seemed to take various leadership responsibilities) through some very loud singing and prayers and constant sharing of potato chips, through the reading of Holy Scripture (they stood for the Gospel reading. The preacher read the full text, and then the congregation all read it together), and through an impassioned 20-minute sermon on Matthew 13.45–46, during which time the kids and two women went to a house up the street for Sunday School. Together, they prayed as if ‘God’ might be able to hear them. They prayed like people desperate to find a rare pearl in a field of weeds. They prayed as if their entire world depended on these two hopes. They prayed like they lived – expectantly.

​​The sermon was immediately followed by most people falling onto their knees and praying – led loudly by the preacher; I did wonder at times if some of the men here imagined that God was deaf – and by the mysteriously-coordinated return of the children and their teachers. I wondered about Barth’s warnings about giving ‘no opportunity for enthusiastic rhapsody’, but it was not my task here to make that call; and anyway, if he was serious about that then he should never have written IV/2.

This was followed by a time of laying-on-of-hands and of mutual blessing.

Overall, the gathered seemed to go through an enormous number of tissues, wiping eyes and blowing noses that had been stimulated by some very emotional worship.

Did I mention that it was beautiful?

Not yet worshipped out, an hour or so later I attended Mass at the beautiful Iglesia San Pedro de Atacama, probably the second oldest church building in Chile. The church building is made principally of mud and algarrobo and cacti woods, and bound together by llama leather. It was first constructed during the seventeenth century, and has undergone various modifications and additions since. Here, two priests adorned in Pentecost red, a few nuns, and an impressive music group, led a packed cathedral in worship. I was grateful for the moments of silence here, silence shared with so many devoted people who were seeking connection with things transcendent.

And as the handsome priest placed the wafer on my tongue, I found myself joining them. It was as if the entire week – indeed my entire life, including all those worship events – was simply the prelude to this moment when the Body of God might be consumed.

‘Habits as Signs: Some Reflections on the Ethical Shape of Christian Community’

The latest issue of the International Journal of Practical Theology includes a little essay I wrote titled ‘Habits as Signs: Some Reflections on the Ethical Shape of Christian Community’.

[Image: ‘Irregularities of Discernment’, by theflickerees. Source]

On religion (and theological education) in Australia

Australian religion

Another little thought provoker from an old edition of Meanjin, this time from around 40 years ago (although most of it could have been written last week, or next week):

Unlike those in Britain, Europe or America, our universities have never taken the study of religious thought seriously (Melbourne in fact explicitly excluded Divinity in 1890), and there are no great theological colleges in Australia; until recently the churches imported rather than bred their theologians. The Anglicans and the Romans in particular have had a fractured system of small-time colleges, each with its own emphasis, which are only now being rationalised; all theological colleges are heavily oriented towards the vocational training of clergy, rather than the intellectual critique of the church’s language about God. The last few years have seen the beginnings of substantial theological scholarship and discussion, but each publication is overwhelmingly a contribution to a debate centred in Europe. It may be objected that Australian religion is vastly wider than what goes on in theological colleges, and so it is. But I submit that the failure so far to spawn a tradition of self-sustaining theological scholarship and debate tells us something significant about Australian religion.

There is a second point here as well. Religion in Australia has been, and to a large extent is still, very derivative. The Irish consciousness of the Catholics needs no elaboration, and has caused considerable difficulties to continental Catholics who have come here in the past 30 years; the Anglicans are still in the process of dropping the name ‘Church of England’; Scottish accents have always commanded especial respect in Presbyterian Assemblies. More recently, the ‘evangelical’ Protestants have turned to America to import business models and techniques.

From the early days of the colony, there were groups – the emancipists, the larrikins, the battlers – who thought of themselves as Australians and scorned the ‘new chums’. But these were precisely the groups who were little affected by religion, whether in the formal guise of the churches or through the missions of the evangelists. This striking disjunction is marvellously illustrated by the uncultivated youth in a magistrate’s court about 1840 who, when asked his religion, replied ‘I am a Native’. The foreignness of the Australian Churches, whatever their denominational allegiance, was indeed foreshadowed in the First Fleet; the Church arrived here ‘on the wrong side’, in the presence of an officially-appointed chaplain.

Nationalistic self-identity had, therefore, little effect on religious consciousness: Australia has not even produced its own analogues of the off-beat American sects. All the ‘way-out’ religious groups appearing here with significant impact have been imported. And, of course, in this very paper I have had to take ‘Australian religion’ with the implicit gloss ‘white’: the mythological structure of the Aboriginal ‘dreaming’ has contributed nothing to white religious thought here, however much it has intrigued anthropologists. There has been remarkably little indigenisation.

The picture I am painting may change. In the last year or so one can detect what might prove to be the first stirrings of a genuinely contextual articulation of an Australian religious outlook. (It will be interesting to see whether the new Uniting Church of Australia inaugurated in July can rise to the challenge.) More characteristic has been the short life of Charles Strong’s Australian Church, with its simple Unitarianism, which never really got off the ground.

For the moment, the essentially derivative nature of Australian religion remains more striking. The way post-war migrants have brought their own churches with them, be they Gereformeerdekerk or Serbian Orthodox, has only accentuated this fact. And if we add to that the manner in which the population from the beginning, even if mainly falling under the general classification ‘British’, owned different national and ecclesiastical allegiances with none predominant, then it follows that the Australian church scene is characteristically sectarian ….

The sectarianism of Australian religious life has, of course, had an enormous influence on social and political affairs. The centralised and bureaucratic shape of our education systems was the direct outcome of bitter religious rivalry and distrust last century; State aid for church schools remained the principal issue of religious-political interaction until the Whitlam government established the Schools Commission to defuse the issue.

More generally, the role of the churches in Australian political life has been to reinforce our pervasive conservatism. This role has been accomplished in two ways: precisely by emphasising their derivativeness, the churches have provided symbols of famililiar security in a strange, unsettling environment, and by underpinning a vague liberal-humanism the churches have provided a stable value-system within which personal and political questions can be discussed without serious clash between church and state …. Yet while Christianity has served this conservative role in these ways, it has made no clear doctrinal contribution to the sense of national identity of the kind we noted in America. Insofar as that identity has been articulated in terms of the Anzac tradition, its religious motifs are more reminiscent of a Mithraic blood sacrifice of immortal youth than of the Cross ….

This brings me to the next point: there are regional differences which talk about Australian religion should not obscure. South Australia … has a different denominational mix from the national average; Methodists, Congregationalists and Lutherans have been more numerous there. But denominations aside, there is a striking difference between Sydney and Melbourne right across the religious board. Let me remind you of some facts. It was in Melbourne that the Catholic National Civic Council had its base and Santamaria’s groupers were most influential. It is in Melbourne that the predominantly Anglican Brotherhood of St. Laurence operates. It was in N. S. W. that the Presbyterian Church split right down the middle over church Union. Melbourne Baptists tend to look to English Baptists for guidance [ed. – If anyone knows of such a gang, then do please introduce me]; Sydney Baptists to American Southern Baptists. Melbourne has its College of Divinity in which Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Anglicans and Jesuits now work closely together …. Religious life in Melbourne has always been more urbane, more ecumenical, more catholic in its social vision, more Tory in its conservatism, whereas Sydney has been more assertive, more sectarian-fundamentalist …, a tendency which becomes stronger the further north one goes ….

Insofar as Australian religion is derivative from Europe, it has inherited the theological problematic of Western Christianity. But our situation here is different; the very fact of migration has altered what comes as historically given. The problem of how to overcome nihilism, I want to suggest, likewise requires a different response here …. [We Australians] know ourselves to be thrown into a world in which we are not at home. (Indeed many generations of Australians referred to Britain as ‘home’, and we still cringe around the southern and eastern seaboard.) Hence also the conservative, derivative character of church life; caught up as Australians are in the rapidity of modern social change, before any deep cultural traditions could have become established, the churches can provide rare havens of familiar security. Seen in this perspective, it is no longer surprising that the churches which are, by secular measures, most ‘successful’, are precisely those which appear aggressively old-fashioned, and offer simple assurance.

Further, the tranquillised self-assurance which [Martin] Heidegger takes to characterise inauthentic Being-at-home is highly manifest in contemporary Australia. Unlike people in other countries, we know in our hearts that the rhetoric of public life is largely phoney, even as we continue to invoke it. Our overwhelmingly suburban life-style, it seems to me, has to be explained in terms of an obsession to gather material possessions into the supposed security of one’s own home as a compensating reaction to our corporate lack of natural community. Heidegger could be describing Patrick White’s Sarsaparilla ….

The relevance of all this for our character-sketch is that our cultural heritage is not rooted here. Our form of estrangement is not the European one of a culture which has collapsed in on itself to find nullity at the heart of its being. But neither are we at home; in their different ways, the banality and crudity of our everyday Ocker, the strident assertiveness of our churchly behaviour, the haunting elusiveness of the quest for wholeness which pervades our best literature, all testify to this ….

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves more deeply why it is that the Outback still figures so forcefully in our imagery, even though we flee from its untameable emptiness into the seeming security of suburbia. Our consciousness is shot through with that sort of ambiguity: ambiguity about authority, which is reviled and yet conformed to; ambiguity about the land, which is shamelessly exploited and yet cannot be domesticated; ambiguity about ourselves, as a people oriented towards the future yet clinging obsessively to old, familiar forms of thought and social action.

My suggestion, made with great tentativeness and temerity, is that we stand out into emptiness. There is none of Heidegger’s typically European rootedness (Bodenständigkeit) here, and that, I submit, is what unifies the traits of Australian religion I have noted into a single character.

But emptiness is not nothing; it is the uncanny limit of our self-assertion, a beyond, an ‘outback’ which indwells our existence, curbing any pretensions to absolute knowledge or authority. This deep, inarticulate sense of a limit is the correlative of the recognition of the contingency of our being-in-the-world. Practically, it means that we are driven back into our situation, to grapple with the recalcitrant nature of what is given – our so-called materialism and pragmatism. Theologically, it means that the absence of God is not nothing; it is the particular mode of his presence. At one level, the conservative-assertive style of the churches can be explained as a curious refraction of that theological situation within a derivative culture. At a deeper level, a more positive articulation of how we know ourselves to be contingent beings ‘thrown’ into a reality which transcends us and defies our efforts at domestication, might yet provide a basis for an authentic religious consciousness in this country.

– Richard Campbell

Don Watson on the evangelists, and the God, we need

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I’ve been slowly making my way through some old editions of Meanjin. A thoroughly enjoyable experience. Came across this lovely essay by Don Watson. It concludes with these good words:

‘We need a revival. We need more evangelists on the road. I mean real evangelists and a real God: not those unctuous neophytes and sanctimonious suburban lay preachers with their nice God. We need fiery preachers with a fiery God. Man and God in hot competition. Only then can we be assured that one day something funny will happen to those honey-tongued hypocrites in the United States athletics team. It will be very unpleasant for them you can be sure. And the irony will be — the really funny part — they won’t know what hit them’.

– Don Watson, ‘The Joke After God’. Meanjin 46, no. 2 (1986), 235.

[Image: Source]

On empty talk about faith

‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.

– Dag Hammarskjöld

‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’

The latest issue of Mission Studies is now available online, and includes a little article I wrote on ‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’. The Abstract reads:

This essay attends to the relationship between our ethnic, social, and cultural identities, and the creation of the new communal identity embodied in the Christian community. Drawing upon six New Testament texts – Ephesians 2:11–22; Galatians 3:27–28; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 and 10:17; 1 Peter 2:9–11; and Revelation 21:24–26 – it is argued that the creation of a new and prime identity in Christ does not abrogate other creaturely identities, even as it calls for the removal of such as boundary markers. Catholicity, in other words, is intrinsically related to the most radical particularity, and demands an ongoing work of discernment and of judgement vis-à-vis the gospel itself. Those baptized into Christ are now to live in the reality of Christ who is both the boundary and center of their existence, a boundary which includes all humanity in its cultural, ethnic, gendered, social and historical particularities.

[Image: Jean Marais, ‘Le Passe-Muraille’, Montmartre (1989). Source.]

Bonhoeffer’s Theology in Historical Context

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I’ve noted before that today really is an incredible time to be thinking about and learning from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that pastor and teacher who from a life cut short over 70 years ago left us a profound vision of what it might mean to speak responsibly of ‘God’ and of ‘the world’ in the same breath, and to be Christian community in one of the most violent and unstable and disenchanted times in recent human history. Rather than seek to escape such realities, Bonhoeffer believed that to follow Jesus is to be thrown ever more deeply into them, into the darkness. He taught us that the first place to look for Christ is in hell, and that it is ‘only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith’. It is only by ‘living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities’ that, he said, we ‘throw ourselves completely into the arms of God’. And this means, for Bonhoeffer, that ministers of the gospel are ‘not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice’ but rather are called to ‘drive a spoke into the wheel itself’.

Next semester, Whitley College will again host the Rev Dr Keith Clements, a leading international Bonhoeffer scholar, who will teach an intensive course on Bonhoeffer and his theology. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most courageous theological minds, and to wrestle with how some of his convictions might inform our own faithful witness in the world today.

When: Fridays 6pm–9pm | Saturdays 9am–1pm | 14–15, 21–22, 28–29 July and 11–12, 18–19 August
Where: Whitley College, 50 The Avenue, Parkville
Cost: $300 for audit enrolments (normally $500). Discounted Rate available until Thursday 31 May.
Enquiries and enrolments: 03 9340 8100 or email