Christians don’t always make the best brain surgeons. Given the choice of the surgeon with the steady faith, but the unsteady hand, or the hedonistic playboy surgeon with dead man’s hands, it’s, ahem, a no brainer.

Christians don’t always make the best brain surgeons. Or the best lawyers, the best politicians or the best anything really.  Not even the best leaders.

And they don’t always make the best social commentators either. Why are we sometimes so wide of the mark when it comes to cultural observation? Perhaps spiritual pride. Belonging to the-age-to-come does not make us inherently sharper observers of our culture (just ask the Paul of 1Corinthians1-3).

Indeed, our rush to ape the culture in so many ways says precisely the opposite about us. We adopt practices (leadership models being a good example) at the very moment the culture is junking them after trying them and realising they don’t work.

Which makes Greg Sheridan’s article in The Australian today worth a read.  Now Sheridan is Catholic in the cultural sense.  His article pretty much admits that:

…. I am a believing Catholic. Though spectacularly unsatisfactory in every way, ­irregular in my practice, far from diligent in observation, guilty of countless derelictions, not remotely bound in public policy by church positions or any such, I do actually believe in the Catholic Church and its message.

In other words, Sheridan is a ropey enough Catholic for me to say he probably hasn’t read much theology, doesn’t attend church much and doesn’t have a subscription to the excellent Catholic philosophical journal, First Things.

But what he lacks in fidelity to his faith, he more than makes up for with his keen eye on the culture.  That’s why he’s the Foreign Editor of the paper. And his article today on why he believes the Christian community should stop fighting the SSM battle is a good one, all things considered.

Ok, you’re not going to agree with everything he says, or even for exactly the same reasons, but I for one agree with him that we’re fighting a losing battle in the public by arguing the exact point Sheridan says we shouldn’t argue: the “won’t somebody think of the children?!” argument.  It’s been dragged out enough by Christian groups in public settings and I think, as Sheridan does, that it won’t fly.  Hence he says:

Some arguments some Christians make against gay marriage I positively disagree with. The talk of a “stolen generation” being made up of children in gay couples because they are not with both their biological parents is an attack really on all non-biological parents. It’s a bad attack.

It’s a bad attack. Bingo! If you can’t see that by now, then you’re not half the social observer Greg Sheridan is. So I’m pretty sure Senator Penny Wong and her partner will raise their kids just fine, particularly in comparison to the kids in the drug house down the road from me.  And going on QandA saying otherwise just doesn’t hold up.

The “won’t somebody think of the children” argument fails to add social, psychological, educational and relational factors into the mix.  Like it or not, in Australia your postcode often has a huge bearing on how your kids end up.

As Mark Sayers observes in his recent book, Disappearing Church, too many Christian social observers are waiting for the cultural equivalent of the zombie apocalypse; an ugly Biff Tannen world of wailing sirens and debauchery, and it simply won’t arrive on cue, much to our chagrin. It’s a “beautiful landscape” out their folks, even if much of it is facade.

Now, in case you’re foaming at the mouth already, Greg Sheridan goes on to make these stunning observations that you will wholeheartedly agree with:

I think the failing of traditional Christianity across the Western world is the greatest single cultural crisis we face. It is very much an open question whether a civilisation can survive without transcendent belief.

But the churches would be much better to recognise themselves as minorities in Western society and indeed to demand minority rights. They need to advocate for the Christian vision of the good life but not primarily through legal enforcement.

Note those two key elements. Firstly, Sheridan believes that the collapse of transcendent belief will lead to the collapse of the civilisation. I tick that box too. The collapse of belief in the transcendent, and the corresponding “immanent frame”, as Sheridan’s (albeit more observant) fellow Catholic, Charles Taylor puts it in A Secular Age, will lead to a long drawn out train crash. And “long” is the operative word here.

And, secondly, Sheridan believes churches need to reassess their place in the culture and see themselves as minorities, advocating their lifestyle, but not enforcing it. And I tick that box as well. Indeed that’s the basis of an exile theology right there.

But here’s the killer line that many Christians in the West who are less astute than Sheridan just can’t admit, and whose refusal to admit it is leading to a whole lot of anger. He states:

No Western society was ever really a Christian society

Full house right there Mr Sheridan!  It’s the mistaken belief that there was a golden age of gospel purity in the culture, in which people not only assented to doctrinal belief, but practiced godliness at a level beyond our current level, that has made so many Christians arc up about where culture is headed.

That the culture’s “stated” morals more or less aligned with the Christian church’s morals was a happy coincidence for the church.

There would have been no need for a Wesley-led revival in England if that country had been a Christian society in practice (tavern fighting anyone?), just as there would have been no need for an Whitfield-led revival in the New World.

Too many Western Christians are living in the rain-shadow of the polarising debates in the United States, especially the unfounded view that its roots and practices were firmly Christian.

We end up being angry about the loss of something in another country that was never their experience in the first place. Not smart.

Deism propelled the American experience, and church attendance in the early years was less than 20 per cent, jumping to only 34 per cent after 1776. (Have a read here).

Sheridan’s cultural astuteness is summed up by how he read the state of play in the future:

The only real danger to legalising gay marriage is that it may lead to some restriction on religious freedom. This is not the nonsensical non-issue of Christian clerics being forced to solemnise mar­riages they don’t approve of. That will never happen.

The much likelier danger is that our often counter-­productive human rights bureaucracies will deem it an offence for people to propound traditional Christian teaching. That would be wrong. It is only in that one specific area I think really ugly polarisation could come about.

Which pretty much correlates to what the former Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, told me.  Wilson, now the Liberal Party candidate for the seat of Goldstein, is erudite, a classic libertarian, gay, pro-SSM, and pro-religious freedom. 

He told me that so many Christian groups he encountered were up in arms fighting the wrong battle, and in doing so were in danger of losing what was really worth fighting for.

Their misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship between church and state led to them fighting tooth and nail on the marriage issue, when their real danger was the loss of their freedom of public religious expression.

Wilson says the church risks losing both the SSM fight and this more important second one.  Grasping at everything, and coming up with nothing. Not smart.

Let’s leave the last word to Sheridan, who has a pointed comment to make towards proponents of SSM as well:

There should be some general protection for the churches. If the proponents of same-sex marriage are smart enough to accommodate this level of religious freedom, I don’t think this reform should cause any distressing social polarisation at all.

It sounds like some “smarts” all round wouldn’t be a bad thing, Christian, pagan or otherwise, in what doesn’t have to be an ugly debate.

And figuring that out doesn’t require brain science or rocket surgery!