October 14, 2018

It’s a Religious Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand

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Noel Pearson’s comments this weekend about the nature of religion remind me of being in a foreign country and struggling to find my way back to the hotel.

There you are in Thailand on a week away. You were sure your accommodation was down that side street, but then again it could be the one over there.  It’s a bustling marketplace after all.

So you go up to a vendor at a vegetable stall, and in your clearest, most enunciated English you say:

“Excuse me!  Can you tell me the way to the Shangri la Hotel?”

Incomprehension.  With a few words of Thai given back to you.

So you try again.



Excuse      me!    Can  you    tell   me  the    way    to     the    Shangri   la    Hotel?

Because you reckon when you’re in a foreign country and you’re speaking a foreign language to locals, if you just say it slower and louder and more often, they’re going to get it.

Stupid right?

But that’s what it’s been like this week in Australia; a week in which the 20 recommendations of the Ruddock Review on Religious Freedom were leaked to the media.

We’re speaking foreign languages to each other.

And no matter how much people of faith say to the secular world that faith is not simply belief, but practice, it just doesn’t sink in.

People of faith cannot understand why people who oppose faith-based organisations being able to discriminate on religious grounds don’t understand them.

People who consider any rejection of the sexual legalities of the late modern West as mere homophobia or bigotry cannot understand how religion can go beyond what one thinks, or at most, what one practices in a religious building.

The debate has exposed the fact that there is no longer any common language in the West upon which discourse can be based.

It’s time to print some tee-shirts:

It’s A Religious Thing: You wouldn’t Understand

This came home hard and forcefully, when the otherwise excellent Noel Pearson, one of our foremost indigenous leaders and public intellectuals, put forward the case for what he calls “common decency” in an article in The Australian this weekend entitled “Between church and state, let’s cherish common decency“.

And, sadly, his conclusions simply prove the tee-shirt’s adage.  Here’s what Pearson says:

“I would distinguish between what is taught and who is allowed to be taught and who can teach and work in religious schools. Provided employees can and do discharge their duties without contradicting the religion of the school, then their private sexual preferences and ­arrangements should not bar them from employment if they have nothing to do with their employment at a religious school.”

I find this odd in the extreme.

I especially find it odd coming from an indigenous leader in Australia.  In this country, in which the recognition and respect of a culture older than the West, along with its practices, have been gravely under-valued,  Pearson is saying that modernist views of the belief, self and autonomy take primacy over ancient religious belief and communal practice.

And for no other reason than that they do.

Surely Pearson is not suggesting that belief is somehow an esoteric set of thoughts that are independent of what one does, or what one requires of a community in order to be part of it in any meaningful manner?

That is precisely what he is saying.

Comments like Pearson’s – far more irenic than some of the shrillness coming from the Fairfax media and the ABC among others – simply proves that religion is a foreign language in the modern West.

And I mean “foreign”.  It’s no longer the case that religious language is the native tongue in the West – and it hasn’t been for some time.   Common decency can only be called for, when we have a common understand of what is common.  And a common understand of what is decent for that matter.  And we no longer do.

The culture has been speaking a new language these past few decades and it’s a hegemonic one. And as with any cultural hegemony, the loss of a language is the loss of a culture – something Pearson should know about all too well.

It’s one reason why, as a church pastor, I am determined that we maintain the use of theological language to describe who we are at church.  Language that is older than us, that calls us to behaviour that is increasingly foreign to our initial default, steeped as it is in modernity.

Church is a foreign country, and Christian theology is a foreign language. When we become Christian we learn the foreign language by emerging ourselves in the foreign country long enough for it to become our first language.  To become the language we think in, and operate in.

For so long we’ve been told by missional thinkers that the key to mission is to speak the language of the surrounding culture. I disagree.

The key is to speak the language of our ancient faith first and foremost, because only by doing so will we live the culture of our ancient faith.   Our language should be different enough to be questioned, ridiculed, scorned.  And different enough to be adopted by those tired of the old country and its language.

If our lives, lifestyles and values look no different to the surrounding secular culture, you can bet that its because we immersed ourselves first in the language of the secular culture; the language of therapy not theology; the language of autonomy not community; the language of  self-fulfilment, not self-denial.

An uncritical acceptance of “the literature and language of the Chaldeans”, will lead to an uncritical identity with the values of the Chaldeans to echo Daniel chapter one.

Seated at that dining table in Babylon, offered the meat from the king’s table, Daniel didn’t just think himself into identity as God’s man, he practiced himself into it, and at great risk to himself.

It’s as if he was wearing a tee-shirt with the slogan:

It’s a YAHWEH thing, You wouldn’t understand.







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