Christians: Not Always the Best Brain Surgeons

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!

12 Comments

  1. I certainly agree, Stephen, in fact have been saying the same in my small corner for a long time. And I’ll keep doing so, even though few seem to be listening – as will you, I’m sure.

  2. You put forward an interesting view on the topic, but I still find a lot to object to here. I disagree with Greg Sheridan’s argument that considering the impact on children is an attack on all non-biological parents, and find it inconsistent with what I have heard from Katy Faust and others.
    I also disagree with the claim that our postcode has a huge bearing on how our kids end up. Overwhelmingly the most important thing is not the postcode but the family environment kids are raised in. Canadian Criminologist Professor Ray Corrado has some excellent research to back this up.
    What I really wanted to put forward however, is that I find the whole thing impractical, at least for people like myself. I don’t oppose legalizing homosexual marriage because its good strategy, likely to win, gives Christianity cultural credibility or even to make life better for some people. I oppose it because I believe it is wrong. So when it comes time to vote on a plebiscite, my vote will reflect my conviction. What I’m trying to say is that it’s pointless asking people of conviction to look the other way for strategic advantage, and that is what the whole thing seems to boil down to, unless I’m missing something?
    I agreed with you that there are more important political issues to discuss, like freedom of speech and religion etc. I’m not angry and know life will go on either way. I don’t expect the culture to reflect my values or view of marriage, but does that really mean I shouldn’t be opposing changes to the law that I believe are wrong?

    1. Hi mate
      I don’t want you to get me wrong on this. In the plebiscite I will be voting “no” also. But that in itself is an admission that we are talking about a democratic secular system. The church is a theocracy so we live by a different standard. I also think it’s pointless trying to convince people of conviction (on the other side of the debate) using statistics or “proofs” of how bad or dangerous something is. We must be convinced that the church is the alternative community to the world and stand by that. At the same time we don’t have a preferenced seat at the table. I am not saying there will be no problems for children of same sex parents, I am saying it’s a ropey argument to pin things on. We haven’t fought for this one on other forms of surrogacy at all, i.e, heterosexual surrogate matters. Every time Christians go on a TV show they bow down to the idol of statistics or some such ropey framework, proving that they are simply fighting the battle according to the rule books handed to them by the culture. And it hasn’t worked, hasn’t convinced anyone and is simply able to be countered by another bunch of stats. better to be radical on these shows and simply state that we see the world and how it is put together completely differently, hence we don’t expect to be understood, but we won’t back down.

  3. Steven, glad to see you share my admiration of Greg Sheridan. I largely agree with the article you wrote, but I am not as confident about the impact of agnosticism as you are. The faith has not always managed to achieve particularly good results, particularly when in positions of power.

    I feel that churches becoming smaller liberates Christians to focus on the issues they care about, which for me has always been social justice far more than anything else. Nothing wrong with having a massive church/faith but managing that seems to create more internal issues than it solves sometimes.

    As to SSM, I think I agree with the pope(!), that it is really not an important issue, and serves more as a distraction than anything else. I think you need to focus your effort proportional with the importance you attach to an issue, and for SSM it seems to have received a disproportionate amount of attention. (Refugees, Aboriginal health, Mental health, the environment and Overseas aid are far more worthy of attention in my opinion).

  4. “won’t somebody think of the children” argument, I agree, clumsy and anachronistic. (Aren’t there better reasons? the nobility of the grand narrative, the rawness of humanity when the chips are down etc. Is social science that reliable? data collection, measurement, correlation/causation etc)

    However I think I’m misunderstanding your opening hook. You seem to be suggesting static neutrality, for example a Mormon pilot will fly us safely to our destination or a Nazi guard will use maths to efficiently organise the death camps etc etc. (invoke Godwin’s law early and often) I know it’s an opening gambit before you go on to make laudable points about the place of Christianity in culture but it makes me feel you think there is an upstairs world of religion and downstairs world of facts. It makes you think that you think secular neutrality is an actual thing, or am I misreading (over-reading?) you? Surely ‘the medium the message’?

    What I mean is that any single thing broken down into it’s smallest parts is, neutral. A ditch is a ditch. But within a narrative a ditch is either a channel for water, a place to bury bodies, or where you stop to look at the stars. Basic algebra is the same in Perth and Pyongyang, but can be used for all sorts of purposes, good or nefarious and maths itself isn’t a neutral secular activity, the grand paradoxes and complexity of physics, show us a world that is ideological through and through.

    In summary: It feels as though you set up an initial false premise: alleging that ideology and function are seperate, to make a latter valid argument, Christians are too narrowly focused on SSM.

    1. Good thoughts, thanks Luke.

      My main aim is always to flush out whether Christians actually think they can regain the cultural ascendancy, which unfortunately I think many of them will fight to the death for. There’s a lot of anger out there. It’s one thing to state our case clearly before the world, and it’s another to try and fight tooth and nail against the world’s idolatry using statistics.

      Hence I am not suggesting a neutrality. I have less expectation of secularists than most Christians, because I am under no illusions that even by stating my case clearly that my argument will win the day. Not because my facts aren’t facts, but because the culture does not want them. By all means state them, but I get the impression that many Christians think if we say the facts loud enough and long enough on enough fora, then somehow this might turn things our way. I don’t believe that secular neutrality is an actual thing. I do believe, however, that the system is hijacked towards secularism, in a way that has already precluded a place at the table for the theist perspective, and the Xn one in particular (thank you Charles Taylor).

      I think SSM is an important marker of where the culture is, but then again I also think that abortion is a huge issue and we have simply thrown up our hands on that one from what I can see. We are horrified by SSM because it’s the latest thing, but the shock of abortion doesn’t seem to carry the same weight any longer, even though it is obvious that it is far more dangerous to children than having two parents of the same sex. I am not saying we should not speak out against the culture, but I am saying we should not expect to use the tools of the secular framework to advance our arguments, or if we do use them then expect to beat your head against a wall in trying to get a public hearing.
      Yes there are valid statistics that will back up the fact that the children of SSM will be less emotionally stable, but in the public square don’t expect that to be left unchallenged by counter data about something else. We’re not ultimately driven by data, though it will, I believe, in the long run, prove the case that SSM is destructive.

      Maybe it is more to do with my view of the church contra the culture and the fact that no one seems very keen to be seen to be a “loser of history”, which, if you read Revelation, is central to that text. Western Christians are struggling with their eclipse, so don’t negate that reason for much of the flummox going on. The “world” in John’s gospel doesn’t come off as anything but dark, ignorant and committed to sin.

  5. Too often we hear of the great legacy of Christian thinking reduced to a road traveled only by knaves and bumpkins. I guess it’s all in how one sees it, whether the perspective is objective or driven by some agenda…

    Stephen, you are drawing back from the frontlines of the battle so fast that it looks like you are placing yourself in exile.

    The SSM issue is so huge that it calls one’s vision into question if that goes unseen.

  6. Just like the kids at a bad postcode, the church is going to find itself in a “bad country.” But it doesn’t change the church. It just opens a frontier to show that we are different.

    Aligning church values with the state values over the years put the church in a very comfortable position. The church has become very similar with the state. On a micro level, it’s very difficult to say who is Christian and who is not.

    Changes in the state policies will put the church out there. It’s a good thing. The world needs to know that we are not of this world.

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