Vision, Voice, and Vocation

Vision, Voice, and Vocation_ Arts and Theology in a Climate for Change

I am very excited to announce that Art/s and Theology Australia will hold its first conference on 16–19 July next year.

This four-day event will provide a unique conversation space for artists, performers, creatives, academics, and activists, to consider the vital role of the imagination in today’s complex climates – social, cultural, environmental, political, racial, religious, spiritual, intellectual, etc.

It will also invite conversation around further questions: What kinds of change? What are the grounds and manner of hope, transformation, and resilience? What might the arts and theology have to contribute to such discourse and action, if anything? How do we attend to the margins of this discussion, and speak and act more holistically as communities of change?

More details here.


  1. save the date
  2. help spread the word
  3. get in touch if you would like to offer an academic paper or creative presentation

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

Some Recent Watering Holes


Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source


I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:

And this:

On making a submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-3-30-18-pmOn 30 November 2016, the Senate of the Australian Federal Parliament resolved to establish a Select Committee to inquire into the Commonwealth Government’s exposure draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill. The Committee is due to report on or by 13 February this year.

The Committee is looking into religious views on amending the Marriage Act, and is using Attorney-General George Brandis’ Exposure Draft Bill on Marriage as a reference point. To be clear, the committee is not asking whether the law should change. Rather, it is asking what, assuming a change of law, might be the implications of such a change, including implications for religious bodies and organisations.

The background to this inquiry is in part the suggestion from many religious leaders and religious lobby groups that legalising same-sex marriage threatens to undermine religious freedoms and communities. This concern, almost always poorly expressed, is possibly the highest hurdle still to be passed if there is to be a change in law. Yet it is not at all an argument against same-sex marriage itself. At most, it is merely a claim that amendments to the law should safeguard religious interests, some cultural geography, and the rights of religious communities to mark marriage in ways consistent with their particular ‘doctrines, tenets or beliefs’.

Submissions from a variety of religious perspectives are welcome and vital at this stage. The Committee is receiving submissions by email and online only until next Friday 13 January.

The Committee invites short submissions, written in one’s own words (pro forma submissions, in other words, will be disregarded), from all sections of faith groups. It will also accept submissions from those who wish their names not to be publicly disclosed. This is an important safeguard so that all views can be freely expressed.

The Committee has provided some general advice here on preparing submissions. In addition, a friend of mine has provided a helpful framework for making a submission on this particular inquiry:

Guidelines for Submission

Address to: Committee Secretary, Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, Department of the Senate, PO Box 6100, Canberra ACT 2600.

Heading: Submission to Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill

Your Name, Title & Contact Details
(+ if you wish: ‘I do not wish my name to be disclosed publicly’.)

Reason for Writing – who you represent
Give the Committee an insight into who you represent. For ordained members of religious bodies, this is mostly self-evident. For others, however, it is suggested that you sketch some background of your involvement in your religious organisation. In particular, mention any leadership roles that you have fulfilled, such as committees, volunteer roles, etc., as well as the length and extent of your involvement. Your age too may be added – young people’s views are typically under-represented. Clergy should include positions held and all titles.

Reason for Writing – your interest in this issue
A personal connection to the issue is relevant. For example, your engagement with or in the LGBTIQ community, your conversations with friends, relatives, and religious communities, and your involvement in public discourses around this matter can be mentioned here. Mention also any previous submissions that you have been involved in, if and where you have written on the topic, and ways that you have been involved in advocacy in any form.

Your Views on the Terms of Reference (*)
Many legal experts will be giving advice on the technicalities of the legislation – you don’t need to do that. More important here is to convey views of people of faith ‘on the ground’. For example:

‘I remember when the Church changed its position on divorce by accepting divorcees for re-marriage. The law didn’t need to be changed during that major change. Some ministers refuse to remarry divorcees and I don’t see the need for any extra powers to refuse same sex couples’. [add a personal anecdote to illustrate]


‘I have same-sex friends who wish to marry. They would never contemplate “forcing” an unwilling minister to marry them against his/her wishes. What kind of wedding would that be?’

(*) It’s often helpful to highlight the Terms of Reference (ToR) addressed. You can put the ToR as a sub-heading or simply put ‘Term of Reference (a)’ – they’re numbered (a)–(d).

The Committee’s advice here is clear:

Please read the terms of reference carefully before making your submission. The committee has resolved that it will only accept submissions strictly addressing its terms of reference, with a particular focus on the following areas:

  • the proposed exemptions in the Exposure Draft for ministers of religion, marriage celebrants and religious bodies and organisations to refuse to conduct or solemnise marriages, and the extent to which those exemptions prevent encroachment upon religious freedoms; 
  • the nature and effect of the proposed amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984;
  • whether there should be any consequential amendments to this bill, or any other Act, and, if so, the nature and effect of those consequential amendments. 

Substantive submissions that explore the technical aspects of the terms of reference will be published, however the committee does not have the resources or time to consider short statements expressing support either for or against same-sex marriage.  As such, these statements will be treated as correspondence and not published.

As mentioned, claims about the denial of religious freedom are central. Fears being raised include ministers being forced to officiate at same-sex weddings, churches being forced to hold same-sex weddings in their buildings, and religious bodies being forced to provide commercial goods and services to same-sex weddings. The draft Bill aims to address these fears by adding multiple means for faith groups to refuse involvement in same-sex weddings. But many think these new measures go too far. The Bill singles out same-sex couples as the paramount concern of religious people. It also provides brand new, potentially sweeping, powers for refusal by religious groups – and even civil celebrants.

Analysis of the draft Bill by Australians for Equality is here and here. For a different perspective, see the Australian Christian Lobby’s analysis here.

Personal stories have great value. Just keep them clear, concise, and relevant to the Terms of Reference (remembering that this inquiry is not about if the law should change but about what effects would result from the change). Don’t worry about making lots of points. One well-made point serves best.

Conclude with a statement on the effect of legalising same-sex marriage on your faith community, and a recommendation. A conclusion + recommendation might be:

‘The existing Marriage Act already gives my religious body/ministers sufficient power to refuse to officiate at, or participate in, same sex weddings.

Recommendation: A law that recognises marriage irrespective of gender should retain and not exceed these powers’.

Remember, the closing date is Friday 13 January. You can make a submission by either emailing it or uploading it online.

Jonathan Sacks: two recent interviews, two book excerpts

In this first interview, conducted by First Things Senior Editor Mark Bauerlein, Jonathan Sacks talks about themes attended to in his latest book, Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. They discuss René Girard’s mimetic theory, the sibling rivalry that characterises the relationships between Abraham’s most enduring children – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – and the infinite depths and breadths of the divine love for them all.

The second interview is conducted by Walter Russell Mead, and then opens up to many questions from the floor. Here, Sacks explores the roots of religious extremism, the roots and natures of violence, different ways of reading those religious texts common to Abraham’s kids, secular nationalisms, and more:

Sacks - Not in God's NameAnd, two excerpts from the book:

When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps.

So the book of Genesis tells us. Having made human beings in his image, God sees the first man and woman disobey the first command, and the first human child commit the first murder. Within a short space of time ‘the world was filled with violence’. God ‘saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth’. We then read one of the most searing sentences in religious literature. ‘God regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain’ (Gen. 6:6).

Too often in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practised cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. When this happens, God speaks, sometimes in a still, small voice almost inaudible beneath the clamour of those claiming to speak on his behalf. What he says at such times is: Not in My Name.

Religion in the form of polytheism entered the world as the vindication of power. Not only was there no separation of church and state; religion was the transcendental justification of the state. Why was there hierarchy on earth? Because there was hierarchy in heaven. Just as the sun ruled the sky, so the pharaoh, king or emperor ruled the land. When some oppressed others, the few ruled the many, and whole populations were turned into slaves, this was – so it was said – to defend the sacred order written into the fabric of reality itself. Without it, there would be chaos. Polytheism was the cosmological vindication of the hierarchical society. Its monumental buildings, the ziggurats of Babylon and pyramids of Egypt, broad at the base, narrow at the top, were hierarchy’s visible symbols. Religion was the robe of sanctity worn to mask the naked pursuit of power.

It was against this background that Abrahamic monotheism emerged as a sustained protest. Not all at once but ultimately it made extraordinary claims. It said that every human being, regardless of colour, culture, class or creed, was in the image and likeness of God. The supreme Power intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless. A society is judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. Life is sacred. Murder is both a crime and a sin. Between people there should be a covenantal bond of righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and love. Though in its early books the Hebrew Bible commanded war, within centuries its prophets, Isaiah and Micah, became the first voices to speak of peace as an ideal. A day would come, they said, when the peoples of the earth would turn their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks, and wage war no more. According to the Hebrew Bible, Abrahamic monotheism entered the world as a rejection of imperialism and the use of force to make some men masters and others slaves.

Abraham himself, the man revered by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews, ruled no empire, commanded no army, conquered no territory, performed no miracles and delivered no prophecies. Though he lived differently from his neighbours, he fought for them and prayed for them in some of the most audacious language ever uttered by a human to God – ‘Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’ (Gen. 18:25) He sought to be true to his faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.

That idea, ignored for many of the intervening centuries, remains the simplest definition of the Abrahamic faith. It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world. The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry. It was Machiavelli, not Moses or Mohammed, who said it is better to be feared than to be loved: the creed of the terrorist and the suicide bomber. It was Nietzsche, the man who first wrote the words ‘God is dead’, whose ethic was the will to power.

To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege. It is a kind of blasphemy. It is to take God’s name in vain.

And …

Terror is the epitome of idolatry. Its language is force, its principle to kill those with whom you disagree. That is the oldest and most primitive form of conflict resolution. It is the way of Cain. If anything is evil, terror is. In suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks, the victims are chosen at random, arbitrarily and indiscriminately. Terrorists, writes Michael Walzer, ‘are like killers on a rampage, except that their rampage is not just expressive of rage or madness; the rage is purposeful and programmatic. It aims at a general vulnerability: Kill these people in order to terrify those.’

The victims of terror are not only the dead and injured, but the very values on which a free society is built: trust, security, civil liberty, tolerance, the willingness of countries to open their doors to asylum seekers, the gracious safety of public places. Religiously motivated terror desecrates and defames religion itself. It is sacrilege against God and the life he endowed with his image. Islam, like Judaism, counts a single life as a universe. Suicide and murder are forbidden in the Abrahamic faiths. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all know the phenomenon of martyrdom – but martyrdom means being willing to die for your faith. It does not mean being willing to kill for your faith.

Terror is not a justifiable means to an acceptable end, because it does not end. Terrorists eventually turn against their own people. Walzer again: ‘The terrorists aim to rule, and murder is their method. They have their own internal police, death squads, disappearances. They begin by killing or intimidating those comrades who stand in their way, and they proceed to do the same, if they can, among the people they claim to represent. If terrorists are successful, they rule tyrannically, and their people bear, without consent, the costs of the terrorists’ rule.’ There is no route from terror to a free society.

Nor is it the cry of despair of the weak. The weak have different weapons. They know that justice is on their side. That is why the prophets used not weapons but words. It is why Gandhi and Martin Luther King preferred non-violent civil disobedience, knowing that it spoke to the world’s conscience, not its fears. True need never needs terror to make its voice heard.

The deliberate targeting of the innocent is an evil means to an evil end, to achieve a solution that does violence to the humanity and integrity of those we oppose. To give religious justification to it is to commit sacrilege against the God of Abraham, who is the God of life. Altruistic evil is still evil, and not all the piety in the world can purify it. Abraham’s God is the power that rescues the powerless, the God of glory who turns the radiance of his face to those without worldly glory: the poor, the destitute, the lonely, the marginal, the outsiders of the world. God hears the cry of the unheard, and so, if we follow him, do we.

Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way.

Today God is calling us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, to let go of hate and the preaching of hate, and live at last as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honouring God’s name by honouring his image, humankind.

Jonathan Sacks on one gift that religion bequeaths to liberal democracies

Sacks - The Dignity of DifferenceJonathan Sacks has described the public commons as ‘the places you go where you do not have to pay’. Such places are becoming increasingly rare in the world’s cities; they are being converted into shopping centres and entertainment complexes. ‘But these are not civic spaces. We go there as consumers, not as fellow citizens’. And so we are formed. Relationships once based on neighbourliness and the shared bonds of citizenship have become commercialised and disembodied. And exposed here, Sacks argues, is one of the real gifts that religion bequeaths to liberal democracies – that they can help such societies ‘to acquire the habits of co-operation which form the basis of trust on which the economics and politics of a free society depend’. He continues:

One of the classic roles of religion has been to preserve a space – physical and metaphysical – immune to the pressures of the market. When we stand before God we do so regardless of what we earn, what we own, what we buy, what we can afford. We do so as beings of ultimate, non-transactional value, here because someone – some force at the heart of being – called us into existence and summoned us to be a blessing. The power of the great world religions is that they are not mere philosophical systems, abstract truths strung together in strictly logical configurations. They are embodied truths, made vividly real in lives, homes, congregations, rituals, narratives, songs and prayers – in covenantal communities whose power is precisely that they are not subject to economic forces. They value people for what they are; they value actions for the ideals that brought them forth; they preserve relationships by endowing them with the charisma of eternity made real in the here-and-now.

On religion and civil society: a response to Simone Sinn

Church-MosqueLast week, I was again in Geneva participating in a colloquium on religion and state. The meeting had a particular focus on the ways in which Christianity and Islam conceive and negotiate their relationship with the state. It was, as I anticipated, a stimulating event. I was invited to give a response to a very fine paper by Simone Sinn of the Lutheran World Federation. I enjoy doing such things. The tricky bit about doing it this time, however, was that I first heard the paper at the same time as did everyone else; i.e., I never received a copy of the paper in advance. But like one of Alexander Pope’s fools, I braved upon ground where angels might think a couple of times before venturing, and hazarding a guess (which was pretty accurate, as it happens) at where Simone’s paper might go – and in a desperate state ripping shamelessly from Rowan Williams (especially his wonderful collection of essays in Faith in the Public Square) – I tentatively offered the following words (and some good discussion ensued):

–––––––––––– ℘℘℘℘℘℘ ––––––––––––

Taking some bearings

Ongoing deliberations about Turkey’s admission to the EU and, of course, what is being called ‘Europe’s refugee crisis’, have exposed even further all manner of concerns about what we might call Europe’s historic Christian identity and indeed about the idea of ‘Europe’ itself. As we speak, in my own country (which remains, in many ways, an outpost of Europe), there is widespread anxiety regarding the arrival of refugees, especially those from Muslim-majority lands, and concentrated protests going on regarding the building of mosques and the recent granting of a visa to a certain Dutch politician with a very interesting hair style who plans to launch a new political party in Australia. So, what a time to be thinking about these things!

The one thing that is certain in this current climate is that things are ‘deeply uncertain and fluid’. ‘There is’, as Rowan Williams has noted, ‘widespread impatience with transnational institutions, from the EU to the UN, yet equally widespread anxiety about the dominance of a single power. We are increasingly aware of the issues that cannot be solved by single sovereign states on their own – ecological crisis, terrorism, migrancy – yet are uncomfortable with any notion of global jurisdictions’. The global north is increasingly conscious of facing a highly critical, if internally diverse, Islamic world and is struggling to know how best to respond to its presence outside and inside its own borders. ‘Enlightenment liberalism, the self-evident creed of reasonable people, now appears as simply one cultural and historical phenomenon among others. Its supposed right to set the agenda for the rest of the world is no longer beyond question, however much the American Right or the European Left assume that their positions are the natural default beliefs of intelligent human beings, and that cultural and religious variety are superficial matters of choice or chance’.

As Williams also notes, the narrative, standard just a few decades ago, of a universal drift towards so-called secularization has had to undergo radical modification, a challenge severely hindered by the fact that so much of Europe seems to have developed a severe case of amnesia regarding its own complex history dating back at least as far as the Germanic, Turkic and Slavonic migrations that destroyed the Roman Empire between 376 and 800 CE. This is not a situation, in other words, that was birthed in the Enlightenment. Rediscovering this story, it seems to me, is critical if current challenges are to be responded to responsibly and constructively. I am grateful, therefore, for Simone’s paper and her efforts to locate more recent public discourse in some larger historical frames, with her two twentieth-century examples from Germany and Indonesia. This kind of work is important if we are to avoid the unhistorical and facile optimism that characterizes so much contemporary debate on all fronts.

Some theological commitments

Simone is equally concerned to bring other resources – explicitly, theological resources – to this task. This is highly proper, not least because the central and foundational convictions of political liberalism in Europe are an explicit fruit of its Christian history. Particularly, ‘the distinctively European style of political argument and debate is made possible by the Church’s persistent witness to the fact that states do not have ultimate religious claims on their citizens’.

Simone focuses on two theological commitments that, in her words, ‘enable an affirmative understanding of civil society’. She names here anthropology and political ethics. As important and fruitful and these two fields of enquiry might be, uprooted from some even more basic theological commitments I’m not convinced that they provide for the Christian community the robust ‘theological motives’ (to use Simone’s phrase) or theological muscle that the opportunities and challenges before us call for. More germane and fertile enquiry might be had by attending more explicitly to implications perhaps yet unearthed or unapplied to this new context in the following five areas:

  1. Incarnation. There are questions to be asked, for example about the character of Christ’s body as ‘extendible’ and ‘transposable’ and ‘unstable’, a body that can expand itself, for example, to incorporate other bodies and ‘make them extensions of his own’, as Graham Ward argues. What might be some implications for the church of its own claim that in Christ the world has been given a body that ‘can cross [all] boundaries, ethnic boundaries, gender boundaries, socio-economic boundaries’, and religious boundaries, for example, boundaries unpoliced by the church?
  2. Trinity. Recent decades have witnessed significant interest among theologians – both Roman Catholic (e.g., Karl Rahner, Jacques Dupuis, Gavin D’Costa, Raimundo Panikkar) and Protestant (e.g., Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Clark Pinnock, S. Mark Heim, John Hick) – to explore more intentionally ways in which the revelation of God’s triune mode of being might constitute a constructive basis or ‘roadmap’ for a positive interpretation of religious diversity and even religious pluralism from the standpoint of Christian theology. I understand that there has been a formal dialogue between French Muslims and Roman Catholics around this very question.
  3. Pneumatology. There are also questions to revisit here regarding the implications of the claim that the church has no monopoly on God’s Spirit but that the Spirit belongs to everybody, and to nobody; questions constructively explored some decades ago in the work of John V. Taylor.
  4. Soteriology. What bearing might faith’s claim that there can be no salvation apart from my neighbour, for example, have to our discussion on life together in changing territories?
  5. Ecclesiology. Are there not pressing questions also to be asked here about the strangely eschatological and provisional nature of the Christian community’s place in the world (something exposed, thank God, through the erosion of the Constantinian arrangements)? And then there are critical questions too about the alternative citizenship of the church and its sharing a common life with those who do not share that citizenship.

On the public commons

Simone champions the widely-held view that the notion of a ‘“civil society” presupposes a space … where citizens can organize themselves voluntarily around common interests or common goals’, a space, she says, where ‘active citizenship is experienced and exercised’, and, we might add (drawing on the work on John de Gruchy), a space ‘in constant need of broadening and deepening, and therefore of debate and [of] clarification’. Such a commitment need not, of course, be grounded in any consensus about what constitutes ultimate truth, or even agreement that such an oddity may exist. It requires only that citizens seek to meet in such a space, and a just state that will regulate its chaotically pluralist character. (I was at this point in Simone’s paper reminded of that pioneering Scottish architect and architectural theorist Alexander Thomson who, in the middle of the nineteenth century, championed a vision of public space that is both open and horizontal, and whose work was informed by a deep conviction that the so-called private life of the home be not divorced from the public space of the street where the community gathers to make and to carry out ideas together.)

Lest the liberal state loses its essential liberalism, that public space and ‘active citizenship’ of which Simone rightly speaks must engage also in a continuing dialogue with religious communities, and those with each other. Failure to do so would mean that the state would become ‘simply dogmatically secular, insisting that religious faith be publicly invisible; or … chaotically pluralist, with no proper account of its legitimacy’ except that ‘the state is the agency that happens to have the monopoly of force’ (Williams). Luke Bretherton, in his book Christianity and Contemporary Politics, argues much the same – that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that ‘there is an increasingly constructive engagement between [itself] and minority religious groups’. To be sure, the source of our common life does not itself rest in the state any more than it rests in any other intermediate institution, guild, religious or civil association, each of which ought, in Williams’ words, to ‘have a natural liberty to exist and [to] organize themselves’. But the state is given a unique vocation to, to some degree, regulate this social variety and ‘chaotic pluralism’, a role that is an implicit outworking of any political philosophy that rejects a sacralized sovereignty. The challenge, therefore, is for the apparatus of the state to become what Williams calls ‘a reliable and creative “broker” of the concerns of the communities that make it up’.

The history of Islam, particularly outside of its historic-majority cultures, is a history characterised by the experience of negotiating and renegotiating its way in a great variety of settings. This is indeed the character of all living faith. Some Muslim scholars, such as the Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan (who teaches at the University of Oxford) insist that there is in Islam no absolute theological commitment to an imposition of specifically Muslim law even in majority contexts. In his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, he contends that Muslim identity need only be at odds with Western cultural identity where certain cultural habits are in direct conflict with Islamic precepts. This means, he argues, not only that there is no single ‘homeland’ for Muslims, but also that Muslims can be at home, can adapt in truly integrated rather than in ‘hodgepodge’ ways, in any geographical and political environment. And so they must, he insists, avoid ‘self-ghettoization’, avoid becoming ‘spectators in a society where they were once marginalized’, avoid retreat from the public commons and what Ramadan calls ‘the service of all, for the good of all’. ‘The “way of faithfulness”’, writes Ramadan, ‘compels [Muslims] not only to respect plurality but also to step outside the [intellectual, religious, and social] ghettos, [and to] know each other better’, to be constantly renegotiating the new public spaces, as must the church, and to act together to ‘ensure the fullest possible statement of shared moral goals and anxieties’ (Williams) in the public commons.

I share Simone’s conviction that viable civil societies in religiously plural contexts presuppose viable interreligious relations, with a high priority given to efforts at the local level where the freedom to engage in ‘convivial and cooperative relations’, however difficult and unstable, and to do so in ways that avoid what Luke Bretherton calls ‘religious vandalism’, yields – dare I say it – signs of the Spirit’s work, signs indeed that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and all those who live in it’ (Ps 24.1). All this, for me, is an outworking of an implicit christology which resists existing in a vacuum, which rejoices in the fact that ‘dialogue among the religions is no longer a luxury but a theological necessity’ (David Tracy), and which welcomes the encounters, challenges, and fresh questions that a rapidly-changing Europe (and Australia) occasions.

The Indian theologian Stanley Jedidiah Samartha (incidentally, I suspect that we could learn a great deal from the Indian experience vis-à-vis religious plurality) sees in the coming of Jesus part of ‘God’s dialogue with humanity’. Our dialogue with people of other faiths, he argues, is part of our participation in God’s dialogue with humanity, and this, as Karl Barth insisted, is grounded in God’s own intratrinitarian dialogue. Of course, as Williams has suggested elsewhere, part of what happens in a good dialogue between people of different faiths is, one hopes, learning to see what the other person’s face looks like when it is turned towards God. To shut out that possibility is to reject the invitation to grow up, and it is to abandon the difficult gift of ‘hard silence – a stepping-back from the urge to solve things prematurely’.

Some concluding thoughts

Simone’s paper is a welcome invitation to imagine a space less threatened by the ignorance that engenders and nourishes fear, and to embrace the unforeseen possibilities that a future which must not neglect its past – lest Europeans (and Australians too, for that matter) become a thriftless people – ought neither to be yoked to it.

In 2005, Rowan Williams delivered a speech not too far from here at the Palais de Congrès de Lyon. His speech was entitled ‘Is Europe at its End?’, and he concluded, as will I, with these words:

In short, my hopes for the future of Europe are that it will continue to be a culture of question and negotiation – because I believe that this is the way it is truest to its Christian roots. But given the enormous dangers of a dominant secularism, a denial of the public visibility of religious commitment and its role in managing and moulding social identity, I hope for a political climate in Europe that is open to co-operation between state and religious enterprise. If this does not happen, the state becomes unselfcritical in its godlessness and religious communities become isolated and defensive; they too lose the capacity for critical awareness.

Nicholas Lash on ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’

‘When people say (as they do, it seems, with increasing frequency) that they are more interested in “spirituality” than in “religion”, they usually seem to mean that they prefer the balm of private fantasy, the aromatherapy of uplifting individual sentiment, to the hard work of thought and action, the common struggle to make sense of things, to redeem and heal the world. When church leaders are exhorted to concentrate on “spiritual” affairs, the implication sometimes seems to be that these things are different from, and loftier than, such mundane matters as proclaiming good news to the poor and setting at liberty those who are oppressed’. – Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 92–3.

some friday link love

The biggest threat to science and scientific progress is not religion or religious believers, with our superstitious or supernatural beliefs, but the arrogance of those atheist fundamentalists among the scientific community who believe that science is the only legitimate and conceivable way to explain or understand the world – and who antagonise a sceptical public in the process.

Edward Davis lectures on religion and science

The Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Otago is hosting Professor Edward Davis for a series of public lectures on religion and science.

Professor Davis is Distinguished Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College (Grantham, Pennsylvania), where he teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science. Best known for studies of the English chemist Robert Boyle, Professor Davis edited (with Michael Hunter) The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), and a separate edition of Boyle’s subtle treatise on the mechanical philosophy, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1996). He has also written numerous articles about religion and science in the United States, including a study of modern Jonah stories that was featured on two BBC radio programs. His current project, supported by the National Science Foundation and the Templeton Foundation, examines the religious activities and beliefs of prominent American scientists from the period between the two world wars.

Abraham Joshua Heschel on contemporary religion

‘Little does contemporary religion ask of man.

It is ready to offer comfort; it has no courage to challenge. It is ready to offer edification; it has no courage to break the idols, to shatter callousness.

The trouble is that religion has become “religion” – institution, dogma, ritual. It is no longer an event. Its acceptance involves neither risk nor strain. Religion has achieved respectability by the grace of society, and its representatives publish as a frontispiece the nihil obstat signed by social scientists.

We define self-reliance and call it faith, shrewdness and call it wisdom, anthropology and call it ethics, literature and call it Bible, inner security and call it religion, conscience and call it God. However, nothing counterfeit can endure forever.

It is customary to blame secular science and antireligious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless’.

– Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: a spiritual anthology (ed. Samuel H. Dresner; New York: Crossroad, 1988), 39–40.

Public Lecture: Mysticism in the Abrahamic Faiths

The Otago Tertiary Chaplaincy & the Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group are hosting a public lecture by Rabbi Niles Goldstein on ‘Mysticism in the Abrahamic Faiths‘. All are welcome.

Details: Monday 17 May in Archway 3 Lecture Theatre, University of Otago; 7.30-8.45pm.

Niles Elliot Goldstein is Rabbi Emeritus of a progressive synagogue (New Shul) in Manhattan, Downtown New York where he served as its spiritual leader from its founding in 1999 until 2009. Prior to this he was a senior fellow at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a program officer at The Steinhardt Foundation, and the assistant rabbi at Temple Israel in New Rochelle. He is a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the New York Board of Rabbis. He is a former US Army Chaplain and Law Enforcement Chaplain. He was active in offering counseling in Manhattan post-9/11.

Niles holds an honors B.A. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and received an M.A. and his Ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He teaches across the USA and internationally on issues in mysticism and spirituality, values and leadership, the environment, and on new models for religious life in the 21st century. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Michele.

He is the author or editor of nine books, including the award-winning Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith, and his writing has appeared in many publications, including Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Forward, and Moment. His latest book is entitled The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior (2009).

The New Statesman on ‘God – what do we believe?’

The latest New Statesman is a special issue on God and belief. Some of the more interesting pieces are:

New Zealanders are becoming less religious

beliefSurprise, surprise: a recent survey has found that New Zealanders are becoming less religious:

‘There has been a sharp rise in the number of New Zealanders with no religious affiliation, new research shows.

In a study by [Massey] University, 40 per cent of respondents say they have no religious affiliation compared to 29 per cent 17 years ago. Just over a third of New Zealanders describe themselves as religious.

Fifty-three per cent say they believe in God (although half of those say they have doubts), 20 per cent believe in some form of higher power and about third say they don’t believe or don’t know.

However, 60 per cent say they would prefer children to have religious education in state primary schools with strongest support for teaching about all faiths.

Researchers from the Department of Communication, Journalism and Marketing received responses from 1000 people as part of the International Social Survey Programme.

Professor Philip Gendall, who led the research team, says the view that New Zealand is a very secular country, is supported by the relatively low levels of active involvement in religion. “The survey shows that God is not dead, but religion may be dying,” Professor Gendall says.

“There is evidence that New Zealanders have become less religious over the last 17 years; however, most New Zealanders believe in God and there has been no change in the proportion of those who say they believe in a higher power.”

“So perhaps the apparent decline in religiosity reflects a decline in traditional religious loyalties – rather than a decline in spirituality as such.”

The study found that significant numbers of New Zealanders believe in the supernatural with 57 per cent believing in life after death, 51 per cent believing in heaven and 36 per cent believing in hell.

A quarter of those surveyed think star signs affect people’s futures, 28 per cent say good luck charms work and 39 per cent believe fortune-tellers can foresee the future.

The survey also asked questions about euthanasia and 70 per cent of respondents supported assisted suicide for someone with a painful incurable disease, provided a doctor gives assistance’.

[Source: Scoop]


I have just discovered that the word ‘to search’ comes from a C14th old French word cerchier and from a Latin word, circare, which means ‘to go about, wander, traverse.’ It’s also the word from which we get our word for circus. It led me to think of how search engines serve (at least) 2 purposes: (i) help us to find something we are looking for, and (ii) send us on endless timewasting circare.

Relieved that God’s seeking of humanity is of the former sort, i.e. that he is the God who hunts us down, pounces on us, and clasps us to his breast, transforming us and setting us free in the process, I am equally revlieved to know that there is no epistemological bridge built by humanity to God. Using Luther’s image, the ladder of revelation only works in one direction – downwards. For Forsyth, the question is never one of whether we can know God, but rather whether we realise that our knowledge of him is not only personal, he captures us, but reciprocal – a function of his knowledge of us. Christianity is not about knowing God so much as it is about being known by him. Indeed, ‘revelation takes effect in us, not as an act of insight, but only as an experience of being redeemed.’

As Barth would put it, ‘God is known by God and by God alone.’ Or in Forsyth’s words, the main thing, the unique thing, in religion is not a God Whom we know but a God Who knows us. Religion turns not on knowing but on being known. The knowledge in religion is not absolute knowledge but the knowledge that we are absolutely known, in the sense of being both destined, sought, and searched.’ It was Tom Torrance who reminded us that we can only know God in his self-objectification for us, not by seeking non-objective knowledge of him.

As Forsyth put it: ‘Herein is thought, not that we think God, but that He thought us.’

There is something better than seeking. It is being found … and that by the great search engine himself.