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The emptiness of the idea of values

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 24 April 2017

On Easter Saturday this year the Enquirer section of the Weekend Australian featured an article by Paul Kelly entitled "A New Secularism Thrashes Tradition: Progressive morality elbowing out Christian values."

While this is a welcome article in the Australian press that increasingly ignores the theological, there are come comments on the article I feel must be made. Firstly, Kelly assumes that the current separation between Church and State is of ancient origins. Anyone who has seen The Crown on Netflix will know that the monarch in England is not elected to a position by the parliament or the people but anointed in an ancient church by an Archbishop in the same way that prophets, priests and kings have been anointed since the days of the Old Testament. The connection between monarchs and the Church has been established from ancient days. The king was seen as being consecrated primarily as servant of God, not of parliament or the people. The monarch acted in accordance with the will of God and the Church was involved all along the way.

The second comment concerns Kelly's focus on Christian values. I always get nervous when people talk of Christian values because, being a Christian for many years I do not know what they are. Values are a bit like human rights; they seem to be spun out of the thin air of speculation and wishful thinking and there is nothing in them one would describe as exclusively Christian. My atheist friends would write a similar list as I would. We all value friendship, family, honesty, security, respect for others and an adequate income. There is indeed a long list of things that we value in common, wether Christian or not. So I am not sure what Kelly refers to when he refers to Christian values.


He would be on safer ground if he focused on virtues rather than values since virtue has a long history going back to Plato and Aristotle and is connected to character. But even a discussion about the secular erasure of virtue is not without its pitfalls. The main reason this is so is because such discussion often exists without the recognition that human virtue always exists historically. One must have a community in which virtue is taught and inculcated. But more importantly, for us to be formed into a people of character who act virtuously in freedom, a community that also bears the marks of freedom must instruct one.

One can be formed by all kinds of communities, many of which we would abhor because they do not produce individuals who act virtuously and in freedom. Examples abound.

Kelly focuses on Christian values that we may translate to the more useful concept of virtues. If Christian virtue is in danger it is not because secularism has undermined it, but because the communities that traditionally formed people in Christian virtue have failed or have been neglected. As I noted in my previous essay in this space, secularism, understood as a neutral space, does not exist. Secularism is always populated by ideology. Kelly is right to complain about political correctness which is a form of utopianism that tries to legislate being good.

The Christian community does not try to inculcate values. Rather, it forms individuals capable of virtue by baptising them. For in baptism confession of sin is made and the baptised is immersed in the waters of death that symbolize the pashe of Christ. The baptised share in the death of Christ and also share in his resurrection to new life. It is faithfulness to this act that determines and enhances the virtues exercised in life. The door to the Church is entered through repentance, the beginning of serious introspective thought about ones actions. Week after week the individual confesses, repents and if forgiven and is then nurtured by the Eucharistic bread and wine. This is how our civilization was built; by the men and women who became people of faith and people of character. Compared to this, the adoption of values is trivial and superficial. They will never be integrated deeply within the self so that actions are almost automatic.

The neglect of this tradition and the nurturing of the individual in the community of faith has caused most of our society to live in a wasteland of conflicting allegiances even for those who intend to live a good life. Perhaps this is what Kelly is troubled with.

Christian morality is not a matter of the adoption of the right values but of being transformed into the image of Christ. Values cannot easily be internalised and leave the individual free. Neither can a sense of duty. Reliance on values can only re-establish the old tutelage of the law, and produce self-righteous legalism and rule based living.


What is disturbing in Kelly's article is that he talks of Christian values as though they were set in concrete for all eternity. Geoff Thomson in his "Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many" has pointed out that the early Church admitted gentiles, a clear break with Judaism who could not contemplate such an act. Thompson makes the point that the Church lives in the Spirit of Christ and that this is an ongoing and surprising process that cannot be bound by anything as abstract as Christian values. This means that we are not tied to moralities that were sufficient to other people, times and places but to a morality that grows with the experiences of the time. To assert something called "Christian morality" it to ignore the continuity of moral development that is inspired by the Spirit of Christ.

The problem with conservatism is that it harks back to a use of morality unfit for the present. It does so because of its positivistic understanding of the timelessness of moral stances. It is not true that what was wrong once will always be wrong in the future. It was once wrong to include gentiles within the people of God. It was once wrong to include people who have alternative sexual attraction. Of course this will provoke the accusation of relativism. While relativism discards the very idea of truth and truthful action this is rather a reasonable alteration of morality according to our experience of being human in the world and prompted by the Spirit of Christ.

Kelly regrets the teaching in schools of the fluidity of sexual attraction in the face of our discovery that sexual orientation is fluid. To ignore this fact is to relegate those with sexual orientation, other than the heterosexual, to an identity crisis that often results in suicide. That being said, there do seem to be issues about at what age these issues are usefully discussed with students.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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