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On faith

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 13 September 2018


I have never met Cardinal George Pell, nor heard him speak save in television grabs, but I have read a number of his essays, and each of them seemed to be lucid, clearly expressed and sensible - the latter not in every respect, because I do not always agree with him, but logical and forceful in the way his argument is put forward. If you don't agree with him, you have to be able to argue against him. That is not easy.

In the most recent issue of Quadrant Cardinal Pell reviews a book about the situation of the Christian Church in a highly secular world, and in it he makes a number of most interesting points. The one that stood out for me was the notion of the Church's returning to its ancient roots, as a small set of communities held together by faith, and meeting together to practise that faith, in a society that largely ignores the faith, perhaps even despises it. That made me wonder what it was that had held Christian communities together when the 'faith' was actually the orthodoxy. And that made me turn, as so often at my present age, to what had happened to me, in matters of faith.

From 18 to about 20, as an undergraduate, I did wrestle with issues of existence. Maybe most undergraduates do. Existential problems were, and probably still are, awkward questions for young Australians to deal with. My mother sang in a church choir, while my father said, resolutely when I asked him, that he didn't believe in God. Mum avoided answering the question, as she did when she didn't want to. But Dad drove Mum to her church service anyway, and my brothers and I were pressed into Sunday School, in our case Methodist because the church was around the corner, where I gained first prize for Catechism. When we moved towns in 1950, and I was 12 turning into 13, I asked to be able to play tennis instead of going to Sunday School, and that was agreed. My Mum stopped singing in a church choir, too. We had two years of renovating an old house before there was a family holiday of any kind, and her other skills were needed on Sunday mornings.

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I didn't give religion much thought at school, but it returned to my mind at university, where it was religion if anything rather than politics that divided students. The early 1950s saw quite a bit of evangelising, the Rev. Canon Bryan Green (C of E), being one whom I remember speaking to students. And like so many others, I was interested in girls, and wanting to lead a good life at the same time. I remember someone on the evangelist side saying that you could not lead a truly good life unless you believed in Jesus Christ and his way. That seemed to me to be pretty tough, and of course it left out most of the rest of the world, who were not Christian. A friend suggested I talk to the university chaplain about these issues. The discussion was short and not conclusive. I was told I needed to read the Bible. I said I had done so, and that had not helped (I didn't tell him about my prize for Catechism). 'You must believe in Jesus!' he said to me. 'But what does that mean?' I replied. The chaplain said, 'He has shown the way. You must follow it!' We parted on terms of mutual distrust.

I waited for God, or Jesus, to speak to me. No message has ever come to me from on high. And in the meantime, I try to lead a good life, by which I mean to be responsible for myself, act courteously towards others, and join those who volunteer to help those members of our society who need help of various kinds. You can't do everything, but you can always do something. I am not a believer, but not an atheist either. I simply don't know, and that puts me in the camp of the agnostics. As with the threat of anthropogenic global warming, I am sceptical that there is anything out there who resembles the Jehovah of Renaissance art, or that Jesus Christ was much more than an inspired preacher of his time. But there may be in the question of God, just as in the question of climate change, something there despite all the doubts I have about argument and evidence.

So I expect that when I die that will be the end of it. I won't be looking for my parents. I have a picture of Heaven's being an endless line of parents looking for parents looking for parents, and so on. I have never heard nor read any helpful accounts of what Heaven might actually be like, and of course no one has come back to tell us. Hell doesn't seem a pleasant alternative, and of course the same caveat applies. In the meantime I get on with life, the day-by-day issue of human existence and all its manifold complications. Now all that is at the level of the individual person. What about at the level of the society? Our Prime Minister wants Australians to have religious freedom. Quite what he means by that I don't know. Does he? Or is it just a slogan?

Most Australians (52 per cent at the 2016 Census) say that they are Christians, though the proportion drops at each Census. Thirty per cent say they do not have a religion at all. The number of Australians who go to church at least once a month seems to be at about fifteen per cent. It depends a bit on what survey you read. Once a week would be a much harder test, and would greatly lower the Catholic proportion of regular churchgoers, who are the majority of Christians going to church, since it is not really possible for Catholics in regional areas to attend Mass on a weekly basis unless they travel to another parish, or into the nearest large town. Anyway, there is a big gap between professing 'Christianity' and attending a church service regularly. My own sense of what has happened (which I wrote about in What Was it All For? The Reshaping of Australia, Allen & Unwin 2005), is built on the postwar feeling that girls had to be educated, not just boys, the movement of women into the skilled workforce, the contraceptive pill, and the change in legal opening hours on Saturdays and Sundays, all of these variable connected.

Which brings me back to the question of faith. Faith (or belief) in what? It seems to me that in the 19thcentury, when church attendance was much larger, the reasons were not those of faith but of social convention: your congregation consisted of the people most likely to be your friends and those most likely to help you in times of need (this was likely to be especially true of those in the Catholic Church). Today our voluntary workforce is much larger and more general in its application and effectiveness, about which I have written. Is that better, or a slip from the past?

But, in any case, how many of those who went to church regularly in say 1900, actually 'believe' in Jesus Christ, and his way? And what did 'believing' actually mean for them? My guess, and that is all it is, is that the proportions are pretty much the same a hundred years apart. 'Believing' is tricky. It seems to involve oneself and an unknown but powerful Other who has (maybe) mysterious powers. One of my school friends became a surgeon. He is one of five of the 39 in my graduating class who are still believers. He told me that before an operation he takes a small moment to pause and say a prayer. What he is about to do could be life-threatening as well as life-enhancing. 'Help me, Lord!' is the substance of his prayer. I was, and am, deeply impressed. But it has no equivalent in my life, none at all. I feel almost envious. He not only went to Sunday School; he went on to Church and confirmation into the Anglican communion. It worked for him.

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So there you are. I'm not sure that George Pell is right. Maybe he is, and it is a good essay, as I said. But my response is that only a quite small proportion of 'Christians' actually know what it is they believe in, and the proportions haven't varied much over time. All that has varied is the extent to which Christianity is the orthodoxy of the day. To a degree, in 2018 it still is. We are not yet a strongly secular society. Tepidly Christian, maybe?

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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