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Faith cannot be replaced by therapy or self-help manuals - there is more to life

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 11 March 2003

Since the only established religion that I am familiar with is my own, the Christian, I shall restrict my comments to that tradition. The question "Does established religion have anything to say to the modern world?" infers that there is something specific about our time to which a word could be spoken.

While, on the one hand human nature has not changed for many thousands of years and continues to fall into the same metaphysical traps, our age, like any age, is unique in how these traps are expressed. For example we have always and perhaps always will, this side of the eschaton, trust in things that will not carry the weight of the human mystery. In other words we are subject to idolatry. Our time is marked by a specific form of idolatry that has come about because of our tremendous intellectual and technological success. We trust that medical science will save us, that our lifestyles will constantly improve and that the future is rosy because of imminent scientific breakthrough. Our newspapers are full of the latest cure, discovery, promise. Why then are we not hopeful?

The objectifying consciousness that brought about the rise of natural science and the advanced technical culture of the West profoundly damaged theological thought. When we began to understand the universe in terms of mechanics, God too became objectified. This was the start of what Rowan Williams has called the "collective amnesia about the meaning of the word 'God'. This process started in the late 17th century". This process has become so complete and pervasive that it restricts popular theological discussion to whether God exists or not. What the church must say to the modern world is that this God is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Father of Jesus. Whereas the objectified God of Enlightenment thought is irrelevant to our concerns (what is safer than to discuss than the existence or non existence of God!) the God of the church is rich in story and insight. This God strikes at our hearts and minds and raises us from our rationalist graves.


All aspects of our lives have been examined measured and "helped". This led Walker Percy, in his book Lost in the Cosmos to write an alternative title for his book:

"How you can survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself, this despite 10,000 self help books, 100,000 therapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians."

Our time is marked by a surfeit of knowledge and things but a poverty in thought about what all our prosperity is for. This leads to the pamphlet that the Australian Federal Government released on precautions against terrorism telling us that "our way of life must go on". Why? The cover of this pamphlet shows people at the beach and having a barbecue. We expect young Australian men and women to lay down their lives for a way of life. It is as though the pamphlet was composed by real estate agents! It is no wonder that our youth continue to suicide, take drugs and lose themselves in ecstatic experience.

What has the Christian tradition to say to this? First, it must applaud and protect the rationality that has brought about our riches. One has only to work in a modern hospital to understand the depth and complexity of our health technologies and the discipline that that requires. Second, it must say loud and clear that to understand the purpose of this great flowering of technology to be to extend a life that has no other purpose than pleasure or to talk about "quality" is to miss the point. The biblical writers talk about the living dead who wait to be raised from their graves. Is this the origin of the vampire myth? Mere extension of years may delay physical death but the soul is still on a path to nowhere. It seems we are destined to live longer only to become subject to anomie, life without the animating spirit of God is death indeed.

As the Christian story that describes life as a journey towards God fades from our society the vacuum has been filled by all kinds of humanist ideology. The medical people talk about quality, the therapists talk about self-actualisation, the get-rich people tell us that we need to step up to our entitlement. On all sides we are told to demand our rights. The shallow nature of these ideologies is exposed by how quickly the fashion changes. Modern culture is in danger of exhausting itself. While our film industry produces more artistic, skilfully directed and made products I often wonder what the point is. Faith has been replaced by the therapeutic. We feel bad or lost or confused and we look for an anodyne. Unfortunately this attitude is extended to the spiritual quest and inoculates us against a real encounter with God. We are so used to being the centre of the world that we cannot imagine that a word may be spoken from outside of our subjectivity. So even if we embark on a spiritual quest we make sure that it is on our own terms. We do not expect to be surprised.

The Christian tradition, while affirming and nurturing our progress in the world, teaches us that to remain human we must live at a remove from our endeavours. This is particularly imperative when our endeavours have become so successful that it breeds human hubris. The words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 are apt:


I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

It would be easy to dismiss this text on the grounds that Paul expected the end of the world. If he was wrong about that he must be wrong about this. However, contrast it with our Federal governments affirmation that "our way of life must go on". While the former keeps us awake and expectant and distances us from our endeavours in a healthy way, the latter would have us "relaxed and comfortable" sunk in soft porn on TV, endless sporting rounds and the fantasy of getting rich. The apocalyptic in the tradition that talks about the end of the world and has been relegated to the lunatic fringe turns out to be central to the Christian message. We are truly human when we live in longing, search the horizon for the new thing that God will do and knowing that there is no real reason why our way of life must go on. All is contingent, our civilization could be swept away and even the species could disappear.

A healthy detachment from the world comes not as a technique to protect us from pain and investment but as a realisation that the world has been given notice in the death of Christ and is in the process of being swept away even as we live out our lives. This kind of detachment does not lead to neglect of the world as it does for societies that do not take the world seriously but it guards us from false investment, like the hospital patient who tells me that "I trust in my surgeon". There was time when this would have been thought blasphemous.

There is a danger that the above text from St Paul is understood as just more good advice about getting our lives in order. We are, of course, more ready to accept this advice if it comes from the Buddha than from St Paul; such is our estrangement from the tradition to which we owe so much. But this is not ideology and if taken as such it will fail us, being yet another good intention at which we fail. The Christian tradition is not made of fine aphorisms that guide life. It invites us into participation in which we find the promise of transformation. That is why Christianity can never be divorced from the church. "When Jesus calls a man he bids him come and die." This is so foreign to what has become the modern mind. Likewise: "If you would save your life you will lose it".

While the modern ethos would turn us all into well adjusted and creative people who hold to good values and live out orderly lives, the church sees the death therein. The church must see through the managerialism, the political correctness, the glib advice for living from the self-help manuals, the cultural relative that suffocates analysis and the aspirations towards life style that enthralls the modern world and name them for what they are; flight from the main game as defined by the gospel. The Christian tradition does not underestimate the capacity of human self deception and hence evil, while secular humanism would have it that we are all good maids and fellows and better if we made up our mind about it. This leads us to great danger. Secular humanism leads to the gas chambers simply because it does not recognise our capacity for self deception and evil. It also leads us to cry "peace" where there is no peace.

The antidote to the pretence of niceness and goodness is the Christian story that unveils the darkness of our hearts (were we in the crowd crying "crucify him") and sets us free from or own self deception. Christianity is not ideology, it is incarnation and when it infects our lives we too become incarnated, real, fleshly, vulnerable, and strangely free. The church must not offer the faith as just another choice to be made but as an unavoidable confrontation that will shake all that we believe about ourselves and the world.

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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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