Month: June 2013

secularism in Australia

I’ve been thinking a bit about secularism in Australia recently.

Lots of factors feed into this. But the spark that’s ignited the powder keg came when I stumbled across this report called ‘Making Multiculturalism Work’, published by UK think tank, Theos (who address issues at the intersection of faith and public life).

I haven’t had time to read it in detail yet. But it looks fascinating.

One of its key findings concerns how the application of a kind of ‘progressive values’ means test might hinder cooperation between different groups:

“In fostering … common action, the report argues, we should abandon any ‘progressive tests’, in which groups are required to show that they are sufficiently politically progressive in order to merit a ‘place at the table’. Instead we should use ‘relational tests’, in which organisations must be willing to work with people from different backgrounds and perspectives.”

What this suggests to me is that those groups with ‘thicker’ — ie. more substantial and value-laden — visions of society and what makes for the common good, may have more chance of successfully collaborating across their differences than those with a ‘thinner’ — more formal, minimal and (supposedly) value-neutral — vision.

I’m sure there’s plenty of research to be done about the extent to which something similar is true in the Australian context. (And I’m probably not the person to do it.)

But it’s definitely made me wonder about how we evaluate those groups that would usually be looked at askance — treated with suspicion and possibly even marginalised because of the fear that they may impose their ‘narrow’ and ‘partisan’ values on others.

I obviously have my own stream of historically orthodox Christianity in mind. But such a description could equally well be applied to many other religious, ideological or cultural groups — from Muslims to Marxists and Macedonians.

Ultimately, I’m wondering whether such groups, each harbouring their own distinctive vision of society and the common good, could actually be the most fruitful potential contributors to a tolerant and inclusive secular Australia?

restoring hope

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It’s Refugee Week in Australia. The overall aim of which, according to the Refugee Council Of Australia website, is to “raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society”.

Timely, given recent events off the coast.

The theme of Refugee Week for 2012-14 is ‘restoring hope’. And I’ve been wondering whether there’s any distinctively Christian contribution to be made along any of the three axes specified by the Refugee Council:

  1. A recognition that refugees’ journeys begin not simply with danger, fear and trauma but also with hope.
  2. An invitation to communities offering hospitality to refugees to view their work in a positive sense — they’re restoring hope to people.
  3. And a challenge to face up to the hope-threatening ‘permanently temporary’ situation many refugees are forced to inhabit.

My mind’s been travelling more and more along the third axis — particularly as I’ve mulled over 1 Peter in the lead up to preaching on it.

I’m totally convinced that 1 Peter is the most important New Testament letter for Western Christians to come to grips with — especially as the tide of Christendom continues to retreat.

What I especially appreciate about 1 Peter is its refusal to allow Christians to lose sight of the theological (as opposed to sociological) reality of our status as ‘displaced persons’ — profoundly out of joint with our context, no matter what society we find ourselves in.

So if we take 1 Peter seriously then Christians should have some intrinsic sympathy for the vulnerability, marginalisation, insecurity and embattled experience of actual refugees.

We should expect to be familiar with not belonging. And we should know what it’s like to be looked at askance or subjected to hostile questioning — even legal sanctions.

More than this, 1 Peter teaches Christians that we should have something to share and contribute on the basis of the ‘living hope’ the resurrection of Jesus ushers us into.

The gift of lasting stability — not only a secure inheritance beyond the reach of rust and corrosion, but also a rock-solid confidence that God himself travels with and protects us on the journey.

The ultimate belonging — to an eternal family bound to one another in genuine from-the-heart love.

The astonish privilege and purpose — graciously qualified to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through the Messiah, Jesus, as we declare the glories of our Rescuer.

All of these 1 Peter holds before us — a dazzling kaleidoscope of hope. With massive restorative potential!

the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak

Last week I heard a terrific talk on Matthew 26.36-46 — Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

This is the journey it took me on:

As we kneel beside Jesus in this moment of intimate prayer, we get an authentic taste of the cost God bears to reconcile us to himself.

Jesus falls apart at the prospect of draining the cup of God’s wrath against sinners. He’s broken and oppressed. Weighed down with grief and fear. Begging for there to be any other way.

But he also willingly chooses to trust his Father. He surrenders. And consents to walk the path laid out for him — the path leading to the cross.

As a result, he completes the mission the Father sent him on. And leaves us an example at the same time.

  1. An example of trusting obedience — “yet not my will but your will be done”.
  2. An example of honest wrestling in prayer — not hiding his dread at what awaits him but laying it before his loving Father.
  3. An example of transforming forgiveness — dealing gently with his wavering followers as he restores and summons them to renewed obedience.
  4. And an example of God-honouring response to suffering — not allowing the darkness to blot out his confidence in his Father’s goodness (and thus the goodness of the path before him).

In a sense, these are the two mega-themes of the Christian faith: God’s decisive achievement of reconciliation in Christ and the response it summons us to.

But what really gripped me about the talk — and what still grips me about this passage — is how it brings together these two themes.

It all hinges on the third point.

You see, Jesus invites his inner circle to share his agony — following at a distance, keeping watch and praying. And when they fail (not once but three times), he forgives and summons them to renewed obedience.

Verses 40-41 are where things get really interesting.

Notice first how Jesus won’t let them hide from their failure: “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?”

As always, God’s forgiveness isn’t a shrugging indifference — as though what we do (or don’t do) doesn’t really matter. That’s what makes is forgiveness.

Notice too how his gentleness and understanding in forgiving — “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” — goes hand-in-hand with a reiterated summons to obedience: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

This transforming forgiveness is what Christ willingly drinks the cup to secure for us.

Ultimately, Gethsemane opens a window into the cross not simply as the objective achievement of reconciliation — securing the possibility of salvation or whatever. It also gives us a glimpse of the ‘subjective’ goal of the cross — the flesh and blood reality of salvation.

For here we see our Saviour choosing to drink the cup we deserve to drink in order to call forth and enable our stumbling and faltering Grace Rather Than Fear-driven obedience

He surrenders to his Father’s will so we might obediently trust.

He pours out the grief and pain in his heart so we might bring our own to God in prayer.

He forgives and restores so we might become agents of transforming forgiveness.

And he clings to his Father so we too might know the light that shines in the darkness…

maybe I’m not so crazy after all…

I’d given up hope of getting a blog post in this week. But inspiration has struck — at 4.30 on Friday afternoon! (Better late than never I guess).

Although, rather than ‘inspiration’ I should say ‘Oliver O’Donovan’…

You see, O’Donovan affirms my recent flip-flopping between conservatism and liberalism when he draws together some observations about the gospel and the created order at the conclusion of a densely-packed few pages of argument in chapter 3 of Resurrection and Moral Order (pages 53-58):

Christian ethics … looks both backwards and forwards, to the origin and to the end of the created order. It respects the natural structures of life in the world, while looking forward to their transformation. This can be seen, for example, in the First Epistle of Peter, which starts with a general characterization of the Christian life in terms of ‘hope’, which is set ‘fully on the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ’, and then elaborates a special ethics in terms of respectful submission ‘for the Lord’s sake’ to every institution of human life, especially the institutions of government, labour and marriage (1 Pet. 1:13; 2:13ff). There is no conflict here between what might be thought of as the ‘radical’ character of the general outlook and the ‘conservatism’ of the specific counsel. A hope which envisions the transformation of existing natural structures cannot consistently attack or repudiate those structures. Yet the ‘conservatism’ (if it is proper to use the word) includes a sense of distance, which springs from a sharp awareness of how much the institutions need redemption and how transitory is their present form.

I find this heartening. And packed with explosive implications.

Heartening — not only because O’Donovan agrees with me(!) but because I’m due to preach on 1 Peter next semester and this suggests I’m not barking up entirely the wrong tree.

And packed with implications because taking 1 Peter seriously has the potential to lay dynamite at the foot of many cherished ideas about politics, work and relationships on both the right and the left.