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What has Christianity ever done for us?

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 19 October 2022

Despite the lefties in my family who regard anything from the Murdoch Press as the spawn of Satan, I have steadfastly taken the Weekend Australian for many years because of the excellence of the Review section. One of my favourite contributors has been Christopher Allen who writes on the fine arts. I have enjoyed his deflation of current trends in art, the obscure, the self-referential and the unskilled. In his latest offering of September 24-25 Allen attributes the breakdown of traditional mores and the fragmentation of our minds to social media, the internet and the smart phone. He has a point. We can all support our own view of things from the rational to the wildly disparate and plain wrong by occupying our chosen echo chamber. The attack on rationality and democracy in America could not have happened without social media, Fox News and social influencers.

Allen points to the failure of belief and of social norms and notes that Christianity is in decline, but he does not link the two. Surely the impact of the electronic age in all its forms thrived in the vacuum of the soul that has been growing for a few hundred years. Understanding the process of secularisation (all time being reduced to worldly time) is the most pressing problem that is occupying many of those trained in theology. This is the problem of the emergence of modernity that began with the destruction of the Medieval synthesis that selectively incorporated the Hellenic philosophers.

As Benedict XVI noted in his Regensburg address, the early Church found Plato and Aristotle indispensable for its expression of its foundational theology. There followed a time in which the resulting synthesis was refined, particularly as to whether Christianity was based on an ontology (science of being) of substance or relation. This was a crucial distinction in our thinking of the being of God and for our perception of the world. Neo-Platonism (Platonism altered to Christian purposes) relied on the idea of Universals, those forms that existed in the human mind, or originally in the mind of God that determined all forms. Thus, a table could be recognised as a table because the form of table existed in our minds. All tables, notwithstanding their individual differences, shared a universal form and purpose. For an individual thing to exist, its substance needed to be formed by "being" itself, in Augustinian terms God, who was "being" itself and the origin of all forms. This was how God was understood as the creator of all things. Thus, creation was above cause and effect.


There is an increasing body of opinion in philosophy and theology that a major turn occurred in the twelfth century when the existence of Universals was attacked and resulted in the destruction of the Medieval synthesis and the beginning of the age we now call modernity. The movement was called Nominalism because it was said that Universals were only names and being only names could not have existence. The movement, began by Duns Scotusand carried forward in more extreme terms by William of Ockhamand John Buridanmoved our understanding away from the universals of Neo-Platonism and towards an ontology of substance. Subsequently, things were self-existent and were unrelated to other things. This worked well for science because processes and objects in the world were individuated, they were processes and objects only in themselves. However, it produced a reduction in epistemology; how we know things. We could no longer, theoretically, know things by their species, since no table was identical. The most destructive result of Nominalism was that as for tables, no human person was like any other, everyone was an individual. Personhood is no longer understood in relational terms. Rather than describing a person as a son or daughter of parents, they are described as bearing a combination of genes from both, i.e. personhood is based on substance and not on relationship. Neither could a person be described as the creation of God in that his or whole being was dependent on the relationship with God. An ontology of substance is the ground for the atomising of society, and it allows Margaret Thatcher to tell us that there is no such thing as society, there is only the individual.

Our time is marked by the success of an ontology of substance that has delivered us from disease and manual labour for which we should be thankful. However, at the same time we have lost sight of the fact that we are relational beings even though evidence is with us in every moment. Yes, we are bodies the function of which we increasingly understand but the "being" of uttermost consideration is our "being with". This is the tension in life that has been with us from the beginning of consciousness. Just as the being of God exists in the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we only "live" as bodies in relation. While acknowledging that social media can be pernicious, it is also a facilitator of relation. My grandchildren spend a lot of time on the net but much of that time is spent continuing conversations with friends from school.

The spur to writing this article was that Alan did not explore how cultural amnesia has opened the way for the fragmentation of the individual. The West has simply lost its story. Instead, he suggests we may cure ourselves by practicing yoga and meditation to "give us relief from the chatter". He also recommends reading of the great humanitarians, various philosophers and Nietzsche. He resolutely ignores two thousand years of Christian thought that has formed out society. Apparently, our society is in crisis because we have neglected the Greats of literature very few of which appear on the curriculum of any Australian university. A line is not drawn between the decline of Christianity, that has been the most influential force in the construction of our society and its present confusion. This line is not drawn because our Christian heritage has been so firmly trashed and ignored by all levels of education and the arts and in academe. While we decry the loss of indigenous culture and recognise that much of the parlous state of aborigines in this country is the result of that loss, we triumphantly turn away from our own cultural heritage and do not connect that loss with our own parlous state.

Mind you, there are grounds for our society turning its back on the Church, the revelation of the extent of sexual abuse perpetrated by the ordained on the young and innocent, the obvious hucksterism of the mega-churches, the authoritarian mode of the Roman Church, the limp liberalism of much Protestantism and the stupidity and gullibility of evangelicalism. Add to this the role played by the church in colonial times and the destruction of indigenous culture. It is no wonder that the Church now occupies a smaller place in our community and looks forward to occupying an even smaller place.

I contend that this is not a necessary progression and that all the negatives that have displaced Christianity from the centre of so many lives have missed its essence. While Allen goes on about humanism, he fails to see that concern for the human is at the foundation of Christianity and that historically, societies that adopted Christianity were more civilized than their pagan counterparts. Respect for the human lies at the core of Christianity. This is so obvious that we can only be stunned when public intellectuals fail to recognise this.

I am amazed that the best educated and most widely read men and women can so easily miss the gulf between the gentle Galilean and what we have made of him in our quest for influence and power. For example, we find this outburst in Ian McEwan's latest and possibly best novel, Lessons:


Historically, he announced, Christianity had been the cold dead hand on the European imagination. What a gift, that its tyranny had expired. What looked like piety was enforced conformity within a totalitarian mind-state. To question or defy it in the sixteenth century would have been to take your life in your hands. Like protesting against Socialist Realism in Stalin's Soviet Union. It was not only science that Christianity had obstructed for fifty generations, it was nearly all of culture, nearly all of free expression and enquiry. It buried the open-minded philosophies of classical antiquity for an age, it sent thousands of brilliant minds down irrelevant rabbit holes of pettifogging theology. It had spread its so-called Word by horrific violence and it maintained itself by torture, persecution and death. Gentle Jesus, ha! Within the totality of human experience of the world there was an infinity of subject matter and yet all over Europe the big museums were stuffed with the same lurid trash.

Given McEwan's close friendship with the anti-Christian fire-brand Christopher Hitchens, we may assume that these are not opinions inserted into the mouth of the protagonist of the novel, where it does not serve the narrative, but represents a venting of McEwan's outrageous attitude to Christianity. In venting his feelings in this way he dishonours the task of the novelist. Ironically, the protagonist limps through life and finds his only consolation in old age is the love of his family, i.e. in relation. In other words, he fulfills the gospel!

In our time one can achieve a solid BA in literature, philosophy, politics and history, be broadly read and still not come across any of the great writers of Christian theology. It is in this vacuum that extreme bias grows. Public intellectuals of all stripes remain ignorant of even the basic tenets of the faith. The problem is that Christianity, through the ages, has been turned into Religion and one must be "religious" to have any involvement. Being religious is thought to negate common rationality and makes slaves of the believer who must swallow puzzling and often superstitious propositions. The religious live in a world apart and Christianity is allied with the world's "great" religions and thus rub shoulders with Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism even though they have almost nothing in common. On the contrary, it may be argued that Christianity is the end of all religion since Jesus was persecuted and murdered by the temple officials of the time.

The task of the Church has always been theological, now more than ever. How do we build a theology that preserves the Hellenistic Christianity of the early creeds and yet integrate it with the useful insights of Modernity? In some ways we find ourselves with a similar conundrum as did early Christianity, with the necessity of integrating seemingly contradictory notions. Perhaps we can become Hegelians again with his thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Thesis: "Person is a body". Antithesis: "Person is a soul". Synthesis: "Person is an ensouled body." We need both an ontology of substance and an ontology of relation. Our tragedy is that the later has been eclipsed by the former.


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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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