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The Swan isn't dying yet

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 13 January 2016


Max Wallace's "Religion's dying swan act" does make some pertinent points. Certainly in the West, Christianity has been in decline for some time. It has lost the ability to attract clergy and congregations. However, my little piece of Christianity, and I am sure of many others, is alive and well and each Sunday is a lovely thing I could not do without. What is more, numbers are no guarantee of truth. Just because Christian numbers are declining does not mean that the sacred that is at the centre of their life is bogus.

The privatization of religious belief has been a feature of Western thought for quite some time now. In Australia we lack commentary on religious affairs in the newspapers, it is almost entirely neglected or badly done on TV. Only Radio National produces theologically interesting content. Our politicians are worried that someone will import their religious beliefs into policy, surely a sign of the force of secularization in this country. It is not that Christianity is dying from the inside since the publication of theological books and magazines world wide is unabated and perhaps even growing.

Given all, this my criticism of the rationalists, the humanists and the secularists is their desire for a society in which the sacred is no more. They justify this desire by associating the sacred with superstition and ignorance and the subjugation of reason to belief. These are all old Enlightenment tropes that are familiar to us. They do contain a grain of truth, especially if one inspects popular religion in all its weird diversity. However, if you look at the mainstream theology of the Church on its own terms i.e. not on the terms of natural science, it is rational. Indeed, it is a rational structure that has been built up over the centuries and which is continually being reformed and modified. But how would anyone in Australia know this since religion in schools has been a joke for years and our major universities, grounded in Enlightenment ideology, banned theological studies since their inception?

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Theological knowledge is mostly confined to the ordained and a few academics that work in some of the new universities that have opened their doors to that kind of education. There are also many parishioners who are theologically sophisticated by absorption of years of liturgy and preaching. Perhaps the decline of the Church is the result of both a post Enlightenment push and the failure of the Church to gather the faithful for all manner of reasons. Inadequate clergy training must be among those reasons.

Worldwide, academic theology is alive and well with centres in all the leading universities. If Christianity was doing a dying swan act then it would be expected that such studies would be moribund. But they are not. Conferences are organised, books published, reputations established. The Church is actively involved in a conversation with the world.

The main problem with programmatic secularisation is that it is anti-cultural. The Catholic historian and philosopher Christopher Dawson wrote: "A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture." And culture, as the biologists remind us, is life.

It is commonly held among theological circles that all Art is spiritual in that Art strives to articulate the hidden, the unseen. In other words its role is not entertainment: its role is revelatory. Without art we would live in a dull world that consisted of only the surface of things. For example, to read the gospels is to be involved in a work of art. The gospels writers have written a drama. The building blocks of that drama are scraps of remembered people and events. We get a sense of this when we listen to Bach's St Matthew's Passion. We also get a sense of it in a well performed Mass with appropriate music and action. We are addressed, we are moved, and the world is set to rights.

Do away with the sacred and you will do away with the centre of art in all its manifestations. Is this not the reason that what was once fine arts no longer speaks to us because it consists mainly of the novel and the spectacular or the merely new. It has become entertainment and has capitulated to the secularist notion that the world is superficially understandable. But it is of interest that the dramatic arts are alive and well and often produce moments of revelation that speak to us of the human condition, of what it is like to be thrown into a world full of chaos and mayhem and constantly shadowed by death.

I wonder what the secularists would offer instead. Would they try to argue us out of our dread of death or the death of our children? Rationality only goes so far and then fails. That is why programmatic secularisation will eventually fail because is can offer no genuine solace and no narrative that orders the world. Or, rather, the only narrative they can offer is the narrative of nature wherein humanity is just another species and a destructive one at that ultimately destined for death.

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The argument is not, in the end, about the existence of God who is a part of nature. God is not a part of nature. God is a human construct. To say so is not a final argument against religion. Neither is it to say that poor weak people who cannot deal with the realities of being human invent a God to comfort them. That is not how it works. Rather, in the Christian tradition, that is the only tradition of which I am qualified to speak, the people of the nation of Israel reflected on their history in the only way they knew: theologically. This is a kind of empiricism, they reflected on their experience and wrote poetry and longs and legends and histories that reflected that experience. In other words they created a culture that supported life. They became a people formed by a narrative that told them who they were and that, importantly, warned them of the dangers of religious thought. This was the tradition inherited by Jesus.

When you are born as a Jew or a Christian you are not born into a void of individual choice and freedom, you are born into a narrative and the celebration of that narrative in worship. You are told who you are. You may reject that identity in later years but you may still identify with the narrative of your people.

Secularisation would remove all of this and have us stand naked in the world armed only with autonomous reason and our own shallow desire and choice. They can expect that this will be enough because they underestimate the fragility of the human psyche, the way it grasps after itself, the way it trusts in false gods, the way it lives in fear and turmoil. We should know the intensity of the human drama if only through the plays of Shakespeare. Life is not easy; it is beset all around by contingency and ignorance as to the true nature of things. It needs a life giving narrative that reveals what is hidden; it needs revelation to be able to cope with the unbearable lightness of being.

The secularists would have none of this. Their view is muscular, brave. They are in common with fundamentalist Christians who want proof of everything, an evidence based approach to life, achievable goals. They are the new barbarians who would trash the sacred because they do not understand it.

On the other hand, Christianity does not guarantee stability and in the end stagnation. It produces a tension that cannot be resolved and keeps the believer on his or toes. As Israel was a nomadic nation and the Son of Man had no place to lay his head, Christians wait in patience for the Spirit to act out of the future. They live in hope .

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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