Twittering Plebiscites and the Sending of Messages (1)

My older brother recently attended a high school reunion. He was a few years ahead of me so this reunion was not for my year. But he was asked about me and my younger brother, about what we were  doing. He tells me his reply about me went something like, “He works as an independent Christian scholar.” So, is that what I am? Well, I cannot deny it, and indeed have no wish to do so. In fact, it is probably best to just leave it at that and allow my brother’s questioner to make of it what he will. If that spoken “tweet” gets around then maybe someone might get in touch and ask me to “please explain”! Will these NJ posts be able to provide answers?

Another correspondent from my high school days, a legendary fellow who has been a truckie and poet out west, was recently in touch – this contact also came to me via my brother. It seems that having a relatively famous poet for a brother keeps my own “network” alive! Is keeping networks what older and younger brothers are for? Maybe!

When he did get in touch, this truck-driver poet told me he had been pretty sure that by now I would have been a well-established minister in some Christian church somewhere. Well,that I take as a real compliment – he must have seen some dedication in my youthful profession of Christian faith. So does he read my blog as my personal alternative to a weekly pulpit?

This above, I now reveal, is part of the “back story” of my previous series on the (is it now discredited?) “theory of secularisation”, and the seeming de-Christianisation of “the west” that has begun to make itself so obvious in everyday life. And so, how are such who imbibe a secularised way of viewing the world, to interpret the significance of their seeming forgetfulness of their “Christian connections” early on in life? Are they to explain their lack of interest in these matters? Is it that forgetting is merely a “secular” activity anyway, in which case “secularisation” might seem to be a life-time conspiracy that inevitably, fatefully, prevents people from facing up to their own residual “religiosity”.

Ad so, in addressing my peers from the past, I’m trying to think of ways of making a Christian political option – yes as I understand it – palpable. That was part of my motivation for the previous series: why are we inclined – is it nature or nurture? – to forget how religious we were, or even that we had some “religious experience” at primary school (1956-1965). Could “secularisation” in any particular adult case merely be a matter of adult fashion, where it is simply the “done thing” to forget these things, or say you do, until at last you believe they were irrelevant anyway?

I’m aiming as much at poetic truck drivers or other former school mates, let alone former students or colleagues or anyone else who may have stumbled across me, or for whom our paths have crossed in days gone by, as well as those who have serendipitously come across this blog, however that may have come about.

So, at that level – where Nurturing Justice cannot avoid being part of “everyday life” – our political option reflections are framed to encourage whomever might see some ambiguity or even inconsistency in “my story” or my “blog” to be provoked to think further about “things” – not necessarily spend more time surfing the wide oceans of social media – but more specifically to engage in a kind of “personal reflection”, if not of their own ambiguities, convoluted paths or deep contradictions that emerge willy-nilly in everyday life, then of mine or someone else’s. Make my day reader and keep on thinking about political responsibility. (Political responsibility and childhood – hmm. Seems like we have come across a possible future post.)

Nurturing Justice is not intended to be gob-stobbing conversation blocker.

And I would dearly welcome (pardon the sentimentalism) talking about “things” with old school friends, who knew me, and particularly with Christians who I got to know as the leader of the Blackburn South High School “InterSchool Christian Fellowship” in 1968, or a Monash Evangelical Union “Men’s Vice-President” (1970-1971), or even as a co-founder of the Monash Christian Radical Club (1971).

Now, what I have said above also presupposes, at least to some degree, the rampant development of “social media”.  Is not “social media” a dynamic force, an ongoing agent of “secularisation”? Could it be part of a new “religion”, a religion perhaps in which “latter-day” decrees – that might well merit comparison with Islamic FATWAS – are sent out against those who are viewed as ****phobes!

Let’s just provide two questions for the moment for readers to think about as part of this broadsheet’s attempt to promote political thinking and discussion. Let’s reflect upon the impact of this technological presupposition upon the structure of contemporary political life and our subsequent conversation about it? Here’s two questions to think about.

  1. Have the blockers of the Liberal-National Government’s “plebiscite” on gay marriage, considered how they have hidden themselves ambiguously behind TWITTER and similar launch-pads by a justification that accuses the supporters of a plebiscite of wanting a platform upon which “hate speech” will take control? What are they going to do about “hate speech” on Twitter, particularly FATWAS issued against their own political opponents?
  2. If a Muslim cleric can say that Islam’s books teach the unconscionable beheading of people, is he to be considered an “Islamophobe”? He is clearly fearful of how Islamist Jihadism stereotypes all Muslims. So are other citizens now given permission to say this too? (ref Matthew 5:43-48).

At this point, in this blog, I wish to suggest to fellow Christian readers in particular, but anyone else is welcome to join in, that there at least two questions Christian citizens should asking of themselves and among themselves in order to develop a Christian political perspective.

  1. How are we Christians to come to terms with the teaching of Jesus and the apostles concerning marriage (see Jesus’ definitive proscription of making any person, God’s image bearer, into a sexual object – Matthew 5:27-32; Genesis 1:27-31; 2:15-25; Exodus 20:12,17)? How are we to live in a way that faces up to the long-tradition of generation-by-generation mis-education about marriage, of adulterous living, about the practical denigration (the church-led secretive closeted mardi gras if you will) in which God’s image-bearers male-and-female, in the west, have been cruelly violated? How is the pagan mythology of “sexual identity” (and the equally misrepresenting nonsense of “heterosexuality”) to be adequately refuted within the churches claiming to be Christian in an ongoing biblically directed discussion among us as disciples of Jesus Christ seeking to walk in the ways of His Kingdom?
  2. How are we Christians, to resolutely take seriously the New Testaments teaching about the anti-Christ (2 John 1:7-11) and clearly take distance from all such teaching and ways of life whether modern, post-modern, ancient or archaic?

A conversation about a Christian political option is urgently needed among Christians – today. And in further posts we might consider some of the “social media” “information technology” dimensions of this conversation.


updated 30.5.17 

An Inconsolable Wailing in Ramah

Lifelong Lament of the Man of Sorrows for Bethlehem, His Birthplace

Some Sad Thoughts on the Manchester Atrocity

How are we to go on living, day after day? How many more times are we to hear, yet again, of yet another atrocity designed to tell us that we are simply those who are on the long list of those who have not yet been murdered? I am appalled to put it this way but this relentless anarchic campaign invites us to imagine ourselves and our local community wrecked – in a few hours or tomorrow – by such arbitrary cruelty, blasphemously labelling its terror with the pious fraud of Inshallah. It is as if a magic appeal to the heavens will transform practical hatred into righteousness, suicidal self-destruction into blessedness.

This is satanic evil and we are called to confront it by our prayer and, such is the seriousness of our times, even by our fasting.

Matthew begins his record of Jesus the Messiah by telling us the genealogy of Joseph. The story of that side of Joseph’s family history would have been an important part of the Son of God’s education. Look carefully at the list. Notice the reference to Judah; notice the reference to Solomon, David’s son, the child of Uriah’s wife! Matthew’s record is deep Good News. The Lord God so loved his own specially chosen people despite their gross sins. King David is here listed as an adulterer and a murder. And yet, Joseph, who cannot escape his membership in this dysfunctional familial line is called into service. Did the Lord care for Abraham, Jacob and David? Will the Lord look after him as husband of Mary now that she is pregnant?

Matthew not only tells us how Joseph came to be part of the story but also how Joseph and Mary told that story to Mary’s oldest son. The strange and gruelling events that they endured were explained in terms framed by what the prophets had announced long ago. And so, Matthew is telling us, Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, lived out his days with an awareness that His heavenly father, the one he could utterly rely upon, was faithful to his promises. God is with us despite the terrifying nightmare visited upon Jesus’ own age cohort in Bethlehem, where he had been born. This young man is being prepared by wise parents to be the man of sorrows, intimately acquainted with grief.

So we can conclude that this part of the family story hung over Jesus during His earthly life. Just as Joseph could not get away from the scandals in his lineage, so Jesus had to deal with the knowledge of a most awful and brutal “cleansing” that took place some time after his parents fled with him from Bethlehem to a safe haven. Yes, indeed the prophet Isaiah had dubbed him :

One despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief! (Isaiah 53:3)

And this family lived to tell the story of God, Immanuel, coming to live in the midst of his tragically forever backsliding people; it may be a story of a great fulfilment but Joseph, along with his already pregnant wife, had to get used to telling that story to Mary’s first-born:

This is what is to happen: the young chaste woman shall be with child and give birth to a son, and the name they shall give him will be Immanuel – which is “God with us”(Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8,10).

Scripture fulfilled! But such a tragic story as well, a story that could not be told without tears welling up in one’s eyes, without sickness taking a grip on one’s stomach. A young displaced family fleeing the murderous reach of the psychotic monarch of Judaea. Herod showed himself to be skilled in the arts of practical, cowardly hatred.

Joseph and Mary would tell this lad how he came to be born, how they were surprisingly found at Bethlehem by three naïve, star-gazing magicians from the east who had petitioned the King and thereby fed his psychotic jealousy. The Messiah of Israel, the promised Prince of all princes could only be a threat to this madman, as much as he is still a threat today by his life and his teaching that even goes out to those committed to such appalling Islamic terror:

You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:43-45).

These star-gazing magicians had asked Herod the whereabouts of the new-born King of the Jews that had been revealed to them as they stared at the stars. But it  was a dream that awakened these naïve visitors to the danger in which they had placed this young, innocent family and so they departed without reporting back to Herod. And the result? A campaign of shock and awe was visited upon those families of Bethlehem who had recently been granted sons. No sons born in David’s city were going to challenge this maniac’s rule!

Reading through the New Testament we notice that this famous city of King David, the city of Jesus’ birth, is only mentioned in connection with his birth. Did Jesus visit Bethlehem in his ministry and on his way up to Jerusalem? We are not told.

King Herod’s brutal murder of all boys under two years of age is also told to us by reference Jeremiah 31:15:

Thus says the Lord“A voice has been heard in Ramah;
    there has been wailing and great lamentation.
It was Rachel is weeping over her children;
    and refusing to be comforted because these her children, are no longer.”

Yes, his coming, his first coming, would be with tears and weeping. But Israel’s Messiah, the Anointed, the Son of God, has come near and bodily shared it all, our human griefs and pains. And despite Herod’s action, Bethlehem retains its place in Jesus’ story, the place in Jesus’ story that provoked inconsolable lamentation. And yet despite such life-long tears, such life-long weeping, Matthew is compelled to tell this story. It is so strange this chapter that tells us of Jesus’ birth and family life, but it is Matthew’s opening announcement that Immanuel has come to fulfil God’s promises by being by our side.



Politics as Business – Business as Success!



Yesterday, we noted how the fashion of posting innocent “selfies” to a Facebook page has come about in the aftermath of a world-wide effort to transform universities into enterprises of intellectual self-promotion. My intention is not to identify in mechanical terms some “causal link” – the 1980s reform to Australia’s university system > the 21st century’s unleashing of unbridled narcissism – but rather it is to draw attention to how genuine political education has been made more complex by the impact of neo-liberal managerialism upon science and scholarship.

But it is true that our lives will continue to be filled with inner tension and outer turmoil when public life is dominated by the mercantile foolishness that presumes “success” must be any person’s “chief end”. We do not need a PhD thesis in psychology to be able to see that for the recently elected President of the United States of America, personal “success” is his chief end. It is about orchestrating things by making demands, and to keep on doing so, until he gets his own way. His Twitter tweets are also warnings to those standing in his way now that he has reached the top. (Consider his Tweet this week to the sacked FBI Director. I would have thought that was a “bullying threat” but I haven’t seen Twitter cancel his subscription, at least not yet.) The current aim of the incumbent of the White House is to supersede any threats to his “success” by his “success” and his tweets are made with that in view. The road to “success” and then, having achieved his goal, the path he is on demands that he put into action the plans he has already devised for dealing with competitors, those who, by their “success”, stand in the way of his getting his way.

Still, when all of life is characterised by “success” then one will become aware of a reality that has to be mastered by making many steps, each requiring a mini-success along the way – large and all-embracing goals are achieved by many small and limited successes that accumulate as one’s life goal is attained. In all this, the important thing is to gain one’s self-respect, and to do in a way that ascribes status to oneself by achieving one successful project after another …  and so by mastering the Facebook subscription and launching a first “selfie” one is simply taking the first small step on the path of self-promotion, artfully cutting a deal for oneself, incessantly demonstrating that one is successful and not to be messed with. A public ethic of “success first for me” is also inevitably to announce a threat to any who might “get in the way”. It is also a personal self (if not selfie) discipline.

Consider how the respectful and respected youthful Barack Obama gained “top job” after his “game changing” method of connecting his bid for the Presidency to what is now known as “crowdfunding”, support gained by an appeal for funding, an initiative launched from “social media”. The man who wanted to take his place once Obama’s time had expired, watched all this very carefully and decided he knew how he could gain “top job” by successfully learning the lesson and taking social media one step further … the trick was to develop a technique that would not just gain sufficient support to gain office but one that would enable him, so he thinks, to maintain support once he gained what he decided he had to have. The “top job”, he concluded, was there for the taking, and surely the country needed him to take it – and so he proceeded via his Twitter account to send out that message.

 The ambiguities begin to pile up. Is this an approach to political life that can be sustained? Now that the US President has endorsed a particular use of Twitter, going one-step further than Barack Obama’s “crowdfunding” technique, to garner public support, what is the next step? Where is this development taking us? We may need to think long and hard about this and also reflect upon the uncertainty we have about the answer to that question – if we have one. Does it not remind us of the crisis in which western democracy is now floundering? Does it not confirm to those besotted with Twittered politics that we no longer have a clear idea about the political party’s task?

And of course the US President is by no means the only politician using Twitter.


All of life, it would seem, becomes caught up in ways of speaking “in a world where spin and superficiality has far too much to say” (to quote the PM’s valedictory tweet on the death of Mark Colvin). Well yes. And the question is not whether but how spin and superficiality are to be overcome with genuine political discourse and political education. These timely words come back to haunt the Australian Prime Minister in a political context this is not only dominated by spin and superficiality, but by his own recent political “success” when he met the US President. How is it that he and the US leader can get away with mouthing the view that the US with their Australian military associates actually WON the war in Vietnam? How did this view ever escape exposure as “spin and superficiality”? How is it that this “fake news” wasn’t blown out of the water? Spin and superficiality indeed, Prime Minister! The Prime Minister’s Personal Assistants need to stop trying to make the Twitter page so pretty and instead concentrate on giving historically accurate and truthful advice!

And here’s the thing: the launch of the PM’s “selfie” with the US President, and the management of his Twitter account was the goal at one point and its “success” simply meant anything and everything else had to be of subsidiary importance. Did Rupert Murdoch’s Australian-wide tabloid  The Australian feature this “fake news” as news? Is anyone going to inform the thousands of Vietnamese boat people who came to these shores that they were mistaken, that the war had been won by the US and its allies? Did it have to take a former and much respected diplomat, the one-time Australian Ambassador to the United Nations (1992-1997), to tell the PM of his egregious error of fact? And dare we ask whether the record been corrected with the Americans? Are we to conclude that it would simply be spin and superficiality if it were corrected? (Alternative facts, Prime Minister?)

It is certainly not just the Trump administration that has deep troubles with itself. There is indeed much here that requires ongoing and sustained analysis. In closing I list three matter that Nurturing Justice should seek to discuss in upcoming posts.

  • The success ethic, social media communication, schooling and the political education of children!
  • How has political representation been transformed by the “success” ethic? How should Parliamentary representation, as work, be viewed in relation to “careers”? What has the tendency in Parliamentary democracies to make elected representation into a career, meant for careers in the public service and for the diplomatic service in particular?
  • How has the “reinvention of Government” according to neo-liberal criteria since the 1980s and the privatisation of State services meant for the State crafting development and the respect for citizenship as an integral part of accountability of public governance.

To repeat: has not the US President endorsed a use of Twitter to suggest that political “success” is within the reach of any aspiring citizen – whatever the goal may be? What goals may these be?

BCW 18.5.17

Blogging as a Selfie?

“Oh, what genius! What a headline! All the hard work over many years and Nurturing Justice is finally on the brink of global fame! Doesn’t this make it all worth the effort? This NJ heading will give many hits and more followers! My blog on the verge of fame, a regular post for so many around the world!”

Well, before readers get their interneted exercise by jumping to conclusions, the above is a blog version of the self-referential nonsense Jesus warned about in his parable of the wealthy landowner.

There was a rich man whose land bore fruit in abundance. “What am I to do?” he asked himself. “I have not the space to collect the harvest. This is what I shall do,” he then exclaimed. “I shall pull down my storehouses, building larger ones, and into them I shall collect my corn and my other goods! And then I shall be saying to myself, “My good man, you have many good things laid by for many a year to come. Take your rest now; eat, drink and enjoy yourself!” Yet God spoke to him thus: “Foolish man that you are! This very night your life will be demanded of you. Well then, the things which you have made ready – to whom will they belong?” Indeed, this is how matters stand with the man who stores up riches for himself but has none in the sight of God.” (Luke 12:16-21 Heinz Cassirer translation).  

Isn’t there a problem with Blogging – isn’t it simply a means of sending elaborate arguments which are, in the final analysis, self-promoting?

In my former life I have been an academic, a tutor and lecturer. To gain promotion, or perhaps a permanent, tenured position, it was taken-for-granted that we had to produce a curriculum vitae and that meant a list of publications. And when the universities were transformed around the world as educational enterprises that had to be run on profit-making lines, that meant one’s avoidance of self-promotion had to be dispensed and lists were required as part of yearly assessment. Writings were to be classified in various categories with different weighting – published books from university publishing houses, commercial books, peer reviewed journal articles, other articles in other journals, book reviews, other writings like letters to the editor and so on. All categories were given a weighting and the results these days can be found from the web-sites of academics. They are a requirement from university management. Academics not only have to engage in research and teaching; they have to indulge in self-promotion and this requires an ongoing, peculiar and persistent accounting in which everything written and everything published and all papers delivered at conferences and all guest lectures be assiduously itemised. Can we say it is a kind of professional Facebook page!

There’s no escaping it. If you want to survive you’ve just got to sell yourself. That’s the name of the game. That is the art of the deal.

That’s the mantra: self-promotion. Is that not the spirit motivating the “selfie”? This not only creeps into everything an academic does; it creeps into everything. Such intellectual entrepreneurs are but the products their own selling – and that is the ideology which, more and more, is driving universities the world over these days. My experience of universities and university teaching (1978-1998) knew this motif, was shaped by it in its own way, but it did not have the government-backed managerialist “enterprise-university” power behind it that it now has. And my academic experience came before the onset of the “Twitter Revolution” but in looking back I can perceive the trend, the trend that saw academics cajoled, this way and that way, into various kinds of self-promoting entrepreneurship.

These days prominent public figures, and those elected to public office, seem bent on using their mobile phones and I-Pads to solve any worries they might have that they are not adequately representing their electors. They are making sure that their statements gain as much popularity as possible. And so they are in the “political business” showing ongoing sensitivity to the “political market-place”.

And here I am, the steward of my own blog that goes back to 2006, keeping an assiduous record of all my Nurturing Justice “posts”. And yet, given the structuring of this blog – all due respects to notwithstanding – the internetting technology that I am here employing might suggest that this is but a elaborated and wordy form of what any “Tweet” conveys as it makes it contribution within the constraints of its word limits. Best to keep is short and sweet.

All of this has come to mind this morning when one of my correspondents sent me a link to the May 16, 2017 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by David Brooks.

When the world is led by a child – reports that President Trump betrayed an intelligence source reveal the dangerousness of an immature man.

As I read this, I found myself tempted to indulge in self-congratulations – had not Nurturing Justice already opined (19th January) that the candidate elected to the US presidency last year was bent on mimicking Bart Simpson the “I didn’t do it” kid? And at that point my question that I need to ask myself, let alone any critical point I might direct at Brooks when endorsing his comment, is whether I am avoiding the kind of foolishness Jesus told his disciples was how God looked upon such vacuous self-referential praise! Moreover, how does one read Brooks without it simply feeding a hunger for diversionary “entertainment”, even as the political soap operas of our experience these days are filling us with the two emotions of boredom and deepened anxiety. Does not a little “serious reflection” tacked on to a review of “upcoming entertainment”  assuage any work ethic feelings of guilt that too much time is spent and wasted on “entertainment”.  Given the “show” David is commenting upon his op-ed piece has the form of a film critic seeking to challenge our world-view. Admittedly, Brooks is a journalist who has long been seeking to do more than just comment upon politics but to encourage his readers and listeners  to look again, to reconsider, what is taking place.

There’s something here in his piece that Nurturing Justice as well as those seeking to nurture justice should take to heart – if this “show” is demonstrating that the US has elected an immature, petulant and self-absorbed child as its President, what is this doing to the political education of 9 year olds? Now there is something to get our public policy teeth into – there is something that invites to to develop a comprehensive Christian sociological elaboration of the way children are nurtured politically. Not just in general terms; but what does Mr Trump’s election and the burgeoning populist nationalism that it represents (around the world) tell us about the manner in which a younger generation are being educated politically.

No, blogging is not a selfie BUT by asking ourselves the question we come face-to-face with our political responsibilities to the next generation and the one after that! This will require a deepened commitment to journalism that confronts the political economy of our global society in ways that demonstrate an enduring love for our our neighbours, at home, abroad and those seeking asylum from tyrannous governments and exploitation. Such journalism will have to provide genuine political education – not Tweets, not sound bites, but clearly articulated arguments and policies. Therefore we would conclude that, yes, blogs can degenerate into “selfies without word limits”. But this is no reason to stop writing and persuading and publishing to commend a Christian political option.





A Christian University Student Confronts the Secular University  

The assumption that “religion” was a “private” matter was firmly entrenched, so much so that its privatisation as that had occurred in our own personal lives was rarely discussed. It is, I guess, a failure to be explained by various contextual factors, not least the intellectual elitism that was part of the positivist world-view that had superficially absorbed the “Protestant Ethic” thesis of Max Weber, and what was said to be his version  of “value free” scientific inquiry (see comment quoted by Hugh Stretton in a later post). In this way a taken-for-granted historical interpretation of the “privatisation” process was simply oriented to ignore any doubts that students might have raised about this “privatised” view of religion when they reflected upon their own experience of, say, the previous 5 years.

Such was the prevailing university ethos that all such doubts were considered to be “private” or “personal hangups”. Even so, for me the teaching of Jesus Christ about what it meant to be his disciple had become important in an everyday sense and so “being a Christian” became more and more a way of life, something to be lived out, something that could not avoid its public expression. It was not just a matter of what I said to people on the bus I took when travelling to the campus for classes. Even the bus ride made sense as part of the life Jesus Christ called me to live. So did the football field. But did that simply mean, courteously thanking the driver and talking quietly about my personal beliefs to the person who happened to sit next to me? Although I could not accept a “privatised” view of religion, I was not really prepared to consider what “being a Christian” meant for the sociology lecture, where we might be invited to ask questions, or the tutorial where we were required to give a brief paper. Was I ready and able to reflect upon what might be called the “everyday secularisation” that had already become part of my life? Was I ready and able to reflect upon the “everyday secularisation” in which I was immersed every day.

And so my point here is that “secularisation” was already very much alive in our pre-university experiences and should have been part of class-room discussion in university sociology when we were introduced to “secularisation theory”. The fact that I can now say that we were not encouraged to openly explore our own religious experience to that time as under-graduates should not be interpreted to mean that we were discouraged from doing so privately. In the same way the reigning “politeness” (and at times sheer mean-spirited arrogance that Stretton fingers) didn’t encourage us to critically explore the schooling we had experienced (or endured). To do so, on either count, would have violation the accepted views of “value neutrality” of the teaching that was being presented to us. The Vice Chancellor attempted to enter into debate with a statement that demonstrated his own positivist credentials:

It really is important that university scholarship should be neutral and objective. [It should not be forgotten that at this time the Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Politics publicly asserted that Karl Marx was not on the economics curriculum because he had not made any significant contribution to economic theory!]

At the very least there is a field here for further sociological and historical research to understand just what the previous presumption of the privatisation of values for scientific and scholarly research meant and how that coincided with the dogmatic acceptance of what Berger now refers to as “secularisation theory”.

To cut a long story short: the cultural context in which Christian faith then confronted modern life was one in which one faith was dominant – and it remains to this day even if it has suffered serious challenges from post-modern relativism, nihilism, resurgent nationalism and even Islamic Terrorism. But this dominant faith of our universities is pragmatism even as John Dewey had described it. Our political-economy is led by those who fervently believe that politics is a part of human culture given to us to solve our economic problems. This is not Christianity, but a rigid and dogmatic faith and trust in the human capacity for problem solving, and it leads the way even as it is not at all sure where it is headed. That was the perspective that prevailed in the social sciences, and particularly in sociology as well. And the problem that defies resolution, and seemingly cannot be avoided, is that Christianity in large part has accommodated pragmatism and Christians are living a life that assumes that their own faith needs to be harnessed to the problem-solving autonomy of pragmatism.

I ask this question now – almost 50 years later – and I can grandstand and say that I should have been invited to investigate this crisis by sociology lecturers and tutors who should have seen this as part of their professional task. But such a dogmatic ex post facto judgment on my part would simply hide the fact that just as I was became somewhat unsure as to why I was at university (in 1969-1971), so when I taught sociology in years that followed I didn’t adopt the kinds of pedagogic strategies I would now say should be simply part of the deal.

The more interesting sociological question, perhaps, is one about the state of the discipline as understood in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was dominated by that same secularised utilitarian outlook and I suspect lecturers and tutors who may have had a keen sense of their responsibility for nurturing a genuinely intellectual attitude did not necessarily find it easy to do so. Yes, some were of the “survival of the fittest” school who delighted in the brutality of their cruel comments: “you pass because you give well organised pseudo-attention to the theorists you go through the motions of considering … you give the game away by asserting propositions that indicate you were writing a religious tract rather than a serious intellectual exercise…” The fact this tutor overlooked at the time was that some religious tracts were indeed serious intellectual exercises and had changed the world, having had significant social and political consequences. And in my response to her I ignored this as well!

Leaving aside the blatantly uncaring, unloving attitude of those aspiring to assert an Oxbridge (or even LSE) elitism in Australia’s antipodean academies, let me list a few examples of how “everyday secularisation” were part of my experience and note how they were avoided when I was initially introduced to the sociological theory that “secularisation” meant an inevitable retreat from religious faith.

1. I can remember my mother teaching me and my brothers the “Lord’s Prayer”. This was before going to sleep at night when we were very small. As we grew older, “Grace” was only said sometime on Sunday before dinner (still then the classic “roast” that had cooked in the oven while Mum attended church as Dad stayed at home “nearer God’s heart in the garden than anywhere else on earth.”)
2. We three boys were encouraged to go to Sunday School. I remember one Sunday morning saying to Dad that I didn’t want to go. He said I had to go. It seemed to me that since he didn’t go to church, it was somewhat illogical for him to require me to go to Sunday School. Logic didn’t prevail, however; I went.
3. Most of the children in my primary school classes (1957-1962) still went to Sunday School. By third form of high school (1965), a smaller but smaller percentage of students in my year were still attending church and involved in church youth group weekly activities. By form six, I suspect, the numbers had fallen appreciably. At High School, I joined the InterSchool Christian Fellowship which in Form 4 – I had been confirmed at the local church in Form Three – and I became a leader in Forms 5&6. The group met weekly and was supported by a network of Protestant and Evangelical churches and associations.

Why do I list these as part of “everyday secularisation”?

1. Praying to God may have been important when I was young. But as I grew older it became less and less emphasized and apart from the occasional ‘Grace’, not something done as a family. I suspect the custom of praying before meals in previous generations had, with us, become guiltily reduced to now and again at Sunday dinner.
2. Sunday School was common for many school children in the 1950s. That was part of our post World War II “baby boomer” generation’s taken-for-granted experience. It suggests that for a while religion was deemed important in the aftermath of the war. It provided moral glue. It was rationalised by those requiring their children to attend Sunday School, even if they were not church members, as a necessary means for the moral instruction of the young.
3. By becoming involved in the Inter-School Christian Fellowship (ISCF), and then later at University in the Evangelical Union (EU) – a member of the nation-wide and international “Intervarsity Fellowship” (IVF), the possibility arose to reflect upon how it was that there had been such a decline in churches, Sunday Schools and Christian youth clubs. In that sense, such association membership, as with continued church attendance, was “against the tide”. Many within the EU saw the club as means of reviving the churches.

Within the expanding Melbourne suburbs, ISCF and EU were part of a loose confederation of Christian associations that renewed contacts at Belgrave Heights at Easter, supporting Overseas Missionary Fellowship (CIM), Wycliffe Bible Translators (Summer Institute of Linguistics), the Australian Institute of Archaeology, and Scripture Union. In 1970 there was a second “Billy Graham Crusade” – a first had been held in 1959 – and this may have presupposed such a network. But the widespread Christian and evangelical acquiescence in “secularisation theory” coincided with an increase in university trained graduates in these organisations.

University was said to be the place for professional training. The view was this: a scientific and modern outlook was developed at university and those undergoing scientific training were gaining a basis for professional expertise to face up to the facts that could be objectively verified. The prevailing view was that modern society had developed with “religion” assuming its place in the background, religious beliefs being a private matter. Since all this was taken for granted, the experience of advancing “secularisation” of which we may have already become aware, did not become part of any discussion in lectures or tutorials. It was simply assumed that religion, and with it religious experiences, were indicative of a way of life that was on the way out, a way of life that had been superseded.

It did not occur to us as we sat in sociology lectures and tutorials that these social experiences of “everyday secularisation” from our own twenty year Australian social experience should have been openly discussed and analysed in tutorial classes. Despite the implicit endorsement of auto-biography by Peter Berger (Invitation to Sociology Penguin 1963/ 1968 p.27) because it provided empirical “data” for sociology’s scientific advance, religious belief was merely accorded due respect as a matter of private conviction. And there it could stay, respected and undisclosed subjected to a disciplinary imposition of a necessarily secularised consciousness. By contrast with religion, science was said to be concerned with what was public and factual, with what, in other words, was objective and open to scientific verification. Religious belief may be accorded deep respect as an unavoidable and even mysterious dimension of human subjectivity, but we weren’t encouraged to concern ourselves with that – in ways strikingly similar to how the dodgy Queensland Premier of those years said in reply to difficult questions: “Don’t you go worrying about that!” Had not human social development increased as religious influence decreased? Was not western progress so advanced that we were on the verge of conquering all kinds of problems that previous generations had no known how to think about, let alone resolve because of dogmatic prejudices inculcated by dogmatic religion? And so the focus was very much upon other matters of large-scale social institutions and processes and functions, rather than exploring the possible sociological significance of Sunday Schools, Christian Clubs and church membership. If there was encouragement to study such vital aspects of our younger lives it was only ever indirect, and certainly not to help us understand how we had already participated in what was assumed to be the inexorable process of secularisation which emancipated adult maturity to think rationally and scientifically.

In these times when we hear about the ongoing cover-up of scandalous sexual abuse and exploitation in Christian churches, one can only surmise about what might have resulted subsequently, let alone then, had sociology tutorials, in those so-called radical times, been fired with a genuine concern to ensure just discussion and analysis of the “everyday secularisation” of the kind I have outlined above, let alone the profane and disgusting conduct that was perpetrated under the protection of self-defining sacred institutions.

To give another example: why was it, with all the “secularisation theory”, born of the enlightened reason dominating those radical years, missed the impact of this mis-use of religious institutional power implicit in the stolen generations and had to wait decades for recognition let alone for Government’s “Apology” on behalf of the nation and ongoing reconciliation? Doris Pilkington Garimara (Dolly Craig) (1937-2014) the author of Rabbit Proof Fence, published her book in 1996; the film came in 2002. The prevailing and pathetic advocacy of “secularisation theory” in sociology might want to say that it was sociology leading the way to reconciliation but that simply deepens the question as to why such injustices were not confronted decades earlier? Just as “secularisation theory” may have been set forth in the same breath as “civil rights progress”, just as easily it might be said to have hampered the understanding of what was at stake, particularly when it failed to form an open view of the social world that would initiate an inquiry into the “social construction of secularisation” and do so by placing student evidence of “everyday secularisation” on its sociological research agenda. But if its horizon was itself secularised, from its own beliefs, then it clearly missed what was self-evidently right there in front of it.

There is more, much more that I can and should say about this. This series of posts has gone on for long enough. In future posts I will discuss further how I came to understand the calling of the Christian student. In the meantime those who have read this far might find my 1989 reflection worthwhile reading.




An Appeal to my Fellow Confirmation Candidates of 1965?

Let us briefly recap:

In the second post in this series I wrote this: What I am seeking to develop here is a discussion about some of the ways the contemporary and taken-for-granted secularised identity (i.e. personal identity) is generated. I am suggesting it was from the standpoint of the Christian way of life that I began, however blurred my vision, to perceive the dominance of this “other” way. And at the same time that the Christian way of life became the self-evident path on which I was walking, I started to suspect that this “other” way in which I had been nurtured, claiming to be Christian, was a heritage forming the institutions of public life in this country and to do so in a way that encouraged people to publicly form a way of life that is a radical alternative to its own Christian “background”. In such a context, churches, Christian schools and Christian associations simply seemed to be committing themselves, their teachings, and their social involvement and public status to various ways in which they, as church organisations, congregations, denominations, church councils, bible study circles, schools to resolve their own problematic standing because they/we had already been lulled into viewing the Christian way of life as a problem to be solved. This was a Christian life committed to an incessant effort to identify and solve problems relying not upon “your heavenly Father who knows all you need” but upon the superior rational capacity we would get from advancing our educational qualifications.

I have greatly enjoyed writing this series and have even ruminated on why that may be. In fact the above statement is a re-write of what I initially wrote. Being someone who also writes, I find myself re-writing and polishing my prose. And as I do so I find myself asking, why should I do this and, in this instance when I seem to have achieved more than 50 hits in four days, who am I really aiming at!

Should this series be re-titled: An Appeal to my Fellow Confirmation Candidates of 1965? The only “data” I have about the 15 or so other candidates who joined in that service at The Anglican Church of St Edward the Confessor, Edinburgh Road, South Blackburn, back on 25th August 1965, is the vague sense from the months and years thereafter that for many it simply began process by which in time they would stop coming to church. Was it also the beginning of mere nominal allegiance, confirmed by a church ceremony, that they didn’t know have to confront? A passing out parade, perhaps? Maybe. Who knows? I went on as a young student to university and did so as a Christian. There I didn’t study for a job but to get a social perspective – at least that is what I said I wanted when I was asked at the time. And I studied sociology that, as I have tried to point out has since claimed itself to be the harbinger of an educated generation who understood that:

  • religious belief is still important and takes its place in “the background”.

  • religion  is no longer front and centre and to assume so is to excuse oneself from secular society.

So, my question to myself is: might this discussion be helpful, even to my fellow confirmation candidates, let alone fellow members of St Edwards Youth Fellowship (we invented the acronym: SEDYOF) so many moons ago? Well why not? 

So, now to return to the manner in which university sociology was taught in those late 1960s early 1970s: as I have suggested, what frustrated me deeply was the inability of our 2nd and 3rd year tutorials and lectures to deal with such dissonances that were integral to our everyday “religious” experience. These kinds of experiences were all too self-evident to some of us who were not about to pretend to deny our “religious” backgrounds. We sat there in sociology lectures taking it all in and hearing, in effect, why “religion was no longer the central and defining feature of post-industrial social life” or, more stridently, why “religion was well and truly on the way out”. Yet with all this theory, our lecturers were perhaps just a little too polite in pedagogical practise. And perhaps their politeness rubbed off too much on us because we didn’t broach these difficult questions that had already arisen for us in various “religious” contexts.

Let me mention a difficult question that is very much a part of my political sociological reflection these days: what are we to say about solemn religious vows? How can they be properly understood – even in the context of allegedly “neutral” sociological analysis – without reckoning with the unavoidability of pre-scientific assumptions that give direction and coherence, let alone meaning, to the theoretical endeavour that studies any social setting, no matter how sacred or profane, no matter how religious or secular? This is why my previous public affirmation of Christian faith, in a church, before a congregation, said reverently before God, only becomes problematic to the sociological analysis thereof if sociological analysis has already imbibed the way of life that asserts that human problem solving is its front and centre leading characteristic! To put it another way a Christian may study with “To the Greater Glory of God” (ad majorem Dei gloriam – AMDG) on her lips or even written on the top of every new page of her notebook, but those of the problem-solving way of life are no less confessing some comparable religious allegiance even if they are oblivious of the fact as they tap out their essays or put pen to paper.

But what was the consequence of “secularisation theory” for generations of sociology students, and in particular Christian sociology students who approached their studies in ways to accommodate the “problem-solving way of life”. The consequence was that such a public vow – made in church – had to be referred to in sociological coursework – not as something intensely related to a student’s pre-scientific assumptions – but as a private attitude that is best left, and best respected, in private. Well, consider now how sociology qua discipline considers other vows and think about the manner in which our legal system has inherited a system of legally enforceable promises. What are we doing about such taken-for-granted aspects of our way of life when marriage, family life and the formation of the post-modern utterly commodified household are being reinterpreted for a younger generation? See this insightful prod of two jurists to reassess the taken-for-granted rights talk that is held on most sides of our political debate.

And so, what has transpired with such a view of vows – the empirical circumstances of which have been implicitly avoided by those claiming to be guided by sociology’s grand theories – has been that were assumed to be a problematic of “secular society” and so it was their presumed problematic character rather than the vow itself that had to be theorised with secularising nonchalance. Here, as we have hitherto pointed out, again and again, is a very important issue that simply will not go away when the libertarian tide finally claims its high water mark in this country and the legislated definition of “marriage” becomes a weapon for those wanting public governance for their attempts to redefine their non-marital relations as marriage, with the perhaps unintended consequence, of ignoring a basic feature of such solemn oaths made by its citizens when they were wed. It was a solemn oath that included respect for marriage as a monogamous and life-long institution that was inherently and exclusively male-female.

Marriage as an institution is no longer is viewed in terms of an oath by man and woman to each other before God, even if such a marriage oath as they did take was previously in a church ceremony. The oath is viewed as a contract, a publicly binding something (what? a legal fiction perhaps?) that has been created by civil authority. And so, in the interests of equity and public fairness marriage gets its redefinition in terms of different kinds of dyads, composed of completely a-sexual autonomous gender choosing individuals, who freely have their desire to carry the name (if not stereotype) together endorsed, so that they can be publicly respected as such. As respected as what? The former enforced dyadic union that excluded gender-fluidity from its definition?

In such a development, the former marriage vows of a man and a woman from an entire generation – who took on a church ceremony because they believed that it would be just too difficult not to do so, and hence accommodated puritan grandmother, or unmarried Methodist aunts – are now on the cusp of being reconfigured in “public discourse”. This was simply what was done in the “olden times” before enlightenment took hold, when people actually were still under the impression that a wedding ceremony in a church was truly coram Deo.

Well, we also know, about the way solemn marriages vows in ceremonies conducted in churches have subsequently been abjured by the parties themselves. What about the solemn vows made by those of my generation who submitted to “confirmation”? Both of these were said at the time they were made as being solemn vows before God. And perhaps sociology, and its proud adherence to “secularisation theory” has played some part in this?

1. In the Anglican Church of which I became a full member at the age of 15, I affirmed with a solemn vow my baptism as a child and publicly acknowledged that I was bound before God and that congregation to live henceforth as a Christian. I’m not suggesting that the service as I now re-read it is without deep and perplexing ambiguities. To the contrary. But I’m left to wonder why our sociology classes left us with no discussion about this, let alone given any suggestions as to how such ambiguities could be resolved other than the implied one that such ceremonies were (and are) merely the persistence of a way of life that has long since been superseded. Had I not been told, again and again that:
“You shouldn’t be taking this religious stuff too seriously you know. Why have you become a Christian? What’s in it for you?”
But what was a young confirmation class graduate to say? Maybe he had submitted to this ceremony, gone along with the confirmation crowd because of an overwhelming sense of being overawed by what the Bible had taught about Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah. The human race has been met face-to-face with God Himself, God with us. And the point is that when “secularisation theory” met the “everyday secularisation” of Christian high school graduates in those days – no matter what was said – the sociology tutorial class we interpret it in secularised terms because the tutorial class was assumed to be the realm of merely secular opinion sharing. religion was on the way out and sociology of religion was giving us a theoretical explanation of why it wasn’t present in the university class-room.
The problem that this raises is not just that it is an intellectual endorsement of the privatisation of the student’s faith; but as intellectual attitude it simply “goes with the flow” of a problem solving way of life. The problem is in the dogmatic assumption that will not be brought to light in order to have it justified. It is the view that any profession of Christian faith arises in a person by an autonomous act that “constructs” the “new” reality, whether the promises of the Lord God can be relied upon or not. In other words this is a deep problem – a logical contradiction is the pre-theoretical commitment, the way of life in which “secularisation” theory as it has been promulgated is embedded.
2. The second issue of vows and oaths concerns the vows and oaths made by marriage partners, man and woman, in Christian marriage ceremonies. These ceremonies, seeking to be obedient to the teaching about marriage and family life that has been set forth in the New Testament by Jesus and the Apostles, have hitherto been acknowledged and endorsed as public vows concerning the married couple’s genuine intentions. The libertarian agitation for “same sex marriage” has for decades now, joined by Christian leaders and many other prominent Christian scholars claiming Biblical justification for their change of view as well, now advocate legislation and church practise that implies a view of public justice, let alone of view of Christian political action, that assumes that government should legislate a “base-line” definition of marriage that is not only privatised by secularised, that is making problematic marriage vows claiming to be made in the presence of God.

We were were not encouraged to openly reflect upon our experiences of catechism, confirmation, Sunday School, baptism, RI classes in State Schools, let alone our schooling if we had been at various church or parish schools. It might now be worthwhile to revisit the 1960s “enlightened” view of marriage and family.

I do recall, how one scholar was endorsed in lectures claiming that the basic sociological classification for family was a mother and child – and hence taking on a general sociological theory that implicitly assumed that a fathering is problematic. To our discredit we did not follow through and examine this in social philosophical terms, but then of course when philosophical assumptions were raised in sociology at that time, we were directed down two flight stairs to the ninth floor and the philosophy department and so would confront its reigning logical empiricism and linguistic analysis.

It is quite probable that we might not have enjoyed the experience had we been encouraged to discuss in sociology classes how the Christian way of life had become problematic even in these formal “religious settings”. The “secularism” that dominated sociology classes at this time was one that had resolutely turned to a “religionless” future but it wasn’t particularly hostile to students with religious outlooks. It was more a positivist expectation that religious commitment and experience was dying out and was in the realm of private values which had been already been superseded – and did not need to be tested against our own experience. The more militant might assert that religion was for “old ladies and little kids” who didn’t know any better who clung to religious belief because they were scared not to, but presumably some of our lecturers were struggling with the secularist air we were all breathing and their own privatised faith problems.

Some years later, Australia’s premier critical economist Hugh Stretton (1924-2015) described these years in terms of a deeply intellectual vandalism in these words:

A specially destructive effect of positivist professionalization was to cut people off from likely sources of self-criticism… In the disciplines which embraced this sort of positivism, … [s]tudents were taught that their values and their moralities were almost literally childish…. non-rational beliefs acquired at home or at church by faith or authority.

This experienced and well-respected academic’s 1987 statement continues:

Students come to university at an age when they are most vulnerable to suggestions that they are immature, that it is time to let go of the apron strings and toughen up and grow up. It was at that psychological moment that their positivist teachers and textbooks told them, as many economics teachers and textbooks still do, that valuing thought has no place in science. They must leave all their soft, childish, subjective values outside the classroom. If they don’t, they can’t hope to see facts, or to think for themselves as adults and scientists. In short they were told to throw away what were in fact the only rational guides to a lot of their scientific work, including many quite technical parts of it. They were taught to sneer at valuing thought as stupid and unscientific. ‘But that’s nothing but a value-judgment’ has stopped countless social-scientific discussions at the point where serious discussion ought to have begun. (“Political effects of positive social science” in Hugh Stretton Political Essays Georgian House 1987 pp.167-174 at pp.170 & 172-3.)

Stretton’s essay is recommended and throws a shining light on the emergence of a cruel managerialism – that has, we must concede also become a sine qua non of denominational businesses seemingly seeking to maintain a niche in the “spiritual market place”.

What I am suggesting is that a good percentage of the students sitting there in lecture theatres had, ten years before that, been regular pupils in Sunday Schools or had attended Catholic Parish schools. And of course there were those from elite Church Schools. Many of these late 1960s students had been “done”, or baptised, confirmed, or professed faith in their early teenage years. But these “everyday facts” were not opened-up and they do not seem to have been considered as a valid let alone vital part of our social lives for class-room (sociological) discussion. In other words, what was missing in those classes considered the “sociology of religion” and “secularisation theory” was any acknowledgement of our own secularising experience in those increasingly secularised “religious settings” (or at least in those settings which from the predominant sociological theoretical standpoint whether functionalist or Marxist saw the impact of “secularisation”. And because we were not encouraged to respect our own past experiences we Christian students were, I guess, encouraged to reinterpret ourselves in ways that downplayed or ignored our faith; did we not then see our faith as indistinguishable from the faith of our peers who had embraced the secularisation, and “left God behind”, who could only say they saw no need for faith. Were not our minds being cultivated to accept what Hugh Stretton identifies as the longer-term results of positivism?

… to sneer at valuing thought as stupid and unscientific. ‘But that’s nothing but a value-judgment’ has stopped countless social-scientific discussions at the point where serious discussion ought to have begun.

[As an aside at this point: my good friend Peter Gibilisco in his account of Hugh Stretton’s life at Scotch College suggests that Stretton’s own encouragement of critical reflection on social context was stimulated by a Plymouth Brother who taught him history: “a miracle of liberality”. Certainly not a Christian who could ever be a scholar according to some secularised stereotypes sometimes rife in sociology! see Peter Gibilisco Hugh Stretton and the Social Sciences MA Dissertation, Monash University  1999 p.17 – his public policy writings are collected here].

[to be continued]


Confronting Christian Sociology’s Cordon Sanitaire

As I have said in previous posts: I had begun to doubt the common “privatised” view of religion as a fourteen year-old. Because I could not accept a “privatised” view of religion, I was not at all willing to accept that the “everyday secularisation” that had already become part of my life should be ignored as religiously neutral. It was not. And that it was not religiously neutral was confirmed by the way in which the sociological explanation of “secularisation” was set forth in lectures and tutorials for us undergraduates as a process that was taking place above our heads, without our own involvement.

In that context to affirm that the teaching of Jesus Christ meant discipleship was a way of life and not merely a way of worship, something to be lived out publicly, had to clash with the “sociological tradition” which presupposed that Christianity had been consigned to the “background”, released to the private realm. And so, my under-graduate years were indeed a spiritual challenge. Even with sociology as my BA major, the idea that my major concern should have been with the development of a Christian sociological perspective did not come easily to me, and it was certainly not presented as a serious project for sociology students.

The ambiguity that I began to confront was this: if the development of a Christian sociology was to be viewed as a contradiction in terms, then this alleged fact needed to be investigated by those who considered it to be so. The theoretical view that was then challenging the dominant positivist view considered facts to be always part of a socially constructed reality and if the impossibility of a Christian sociology was fact did it not need to be investigated so that an explanation of the reality of its social construction could be set forth? And the investigation should definitely not be left to Christian students themselves. Was the social construction of reality perspective put forward by Berger and Luckmann a genuine sociological perspective or not? Or was the “debunking motif” that Berger claims as an integral part of the sociological perspective to be understood as perpetually biased on the side of those wanting to show the secularity and religious neutrality of the scientific discipline? In which case “secularisation theory” thus understood seems to imply a deep religious bias that a Christian sociology shouldn’t be attempted

I am suggesting that such an investigation is not at all peripheral. If society was indeed to be studied in terms of “secularisation theory” then to investigate why a Christian sociology was not possible, by those who believed it was not possible, must go to the heart of sociology itself. The negative case, if it is to function as part of scientific sociology, needs to be argued not merely presumed. The fact that it was merely presumed, the fact that Christian sociology was not a problem for investigation but an irritating problem that needed intellectual avoidance, simply indicated that “secularisation theory” was collapsing under its own antinomies. Without such developed argument, the proposition “There is no Christian sociology” is simply a dogmatic utterance blocking genuine research. And that’s just to discuss how it functions for students who don’t see any inner connection between their religious faith and their studies, even if they claim to have no religious faith.

So sociology, qua discipline, was merely affirmed to be religiously neutral. At that point we have come to a point where a significant sociological research question comes into view: how is it that the reigning commitment to “secularisation theory” didn’t require such challenging questions to be asked! How was it that sociology could be taught with its underlying secularised assumption masked? Why was it that the secularising social life of the students themselves was not part of any “invitation to sociology”? The absence of frank and open discussion about “secularisation” in its personal dimensions and consequences simply revealed a sociology that was dominated by an exclusive and unhelpful dogmatic attitude.


At this point, I guess, my concern with the discipline that has become my major concern, requires some “relativisation” by referring to the prevailing education context of those times. From early on in high school, University entrance had been held out as something for students who were in the “top bracket”. University studies were a pre-requisite for future leadership in our society (or was it to be as student cynicism had it: just a “piece of paper”, a qualification in order to obtain a job?). Only the very brightest and the best would go on to “uni”. And once inside the academy, the under-graduate student discovered – sometimes to his or her deep consternation – that courses were organised in ways that may have required students to choose a “specialist” path but did not necessarily provide a scientific and philosophical training that gave them any basis upon which to make decisions concerning post-university contributions, employment and service. And in the process the idea of the university that had to that time prevailed, as a place of learning with an expectation of student curiosity was subverted. In Australia’s universities this utilitarian view was led by the prestigious professions of law and medicine first securing their place in the emerging scheme of things and they led the way with the basic BA and BSc degrees no longer retaining their central place as pre-requisite for any advanced specialist and professional study. High school was the launching pad for law and medicine and training in a well-rounded scientific competence would be replaced by job-training. Training in science (in all of its specialties) was being replaced by job training specialisation. The hopes of students who entered university in the 1960s hoping to enter courses that would allow them to transcend the narrow, specialised paths required for high school matriculation were soon dashed.

Getting it all Together

I may have had a vague idea of this at the time but it took some time to understand the maelstrom into which I found myself as an undergraduate. What emerged was an intellectual or more exactly a philosophical and theoretical problem that required coherent solution as my university studies proceeded: How was a student to “get it all together”? The demand was that one simply “get through the course”, to worry about intellectual integration later. Such philosophical questions could be attended to after one had become qualified, after one had proven oneself in specialised research in one discipline? Besides, who was going to listen to you anyway?

This problem was also part of the social and cultural atmosphere at that time? We breathed an air full of youthful criticism. There was idealism but it was always tempered by such a utilitarian calculus that – philosophically – suggested that the way forward was to stop being concerned with presuppositions, with pre-theoretical commitments, with asking basic questions about the structure of scientific inquiry.

I guess this kind of utilitarian “wait until you are qualified” fob off had already been inculcated in a “softer version” from family and school, and not so much from church, especially if it tended to indulge youthful aspirations.

Whatever we did as university students presupposed our eagerness to avoid “getting into a rut”. Was the university qualification, a BA, merely a passport to owning a home in the eastern suburbs? Was a BSc a flag that added to one’s marriage prospects? Was a university course merely a way to put off conscription if one had been unlucky enough for one’s birthdate marble to come out of the national service barrel?

I can’t tell the full story here. That would require some discussion of what seems now to have been something of a holding operation due to the stimulating writings of John Stott (1921-2011) and Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). But I can say that a lot of things came together when I read a draft translation titled Reconstruction and Renewal of Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), that would later be published as Roots of Western Culture (1979).

Choosing Ruts Carefully?

But that was also at the time, late in 1971 when I attended a lecture by a Sydney evangelical philosopher, who had already attained his place in a university faculty, who put it in these terms when addressing the inaugural National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1971:

“Choose your ruts carefully!”

He may have been saying this with a considerable dose of irony but I found myself deeply alarmed by the call (and I still do) (The congress was for senior churchmen but the lectures were invaded by many interested evangelical students like myself). Had we not been challenged by the purveyors of the same evangelical outlook to go to university in order to challenge the view that life was inevitably to be “stuck in a rut”? Had we not been told on all sides, including in our churches, that we, a younger Christian generation, needed to serve Christ and avoid the ruts in which our parents’ generation had found themselves? Even our parents, those who still held out hope for us that we would freely give ourselves to our callings, had implicitly warned us about the way post-war “progress” had left them “in a rut”. Were we not warned about the peril of “going along with the crowd” – was not conformity the pathway to a future life lived that lacked authenticity? The genealogy of this view may have been English, but it was a view well entrenched within our generation’s cynicism, albeit somewhat “Christian” to boot. R. H. Tawney had associated it with his fictitious character “Henry Dubb”:

We go to work to earn the cash to buy the bread to get the strength to go to work to earn the cash … [quoted in R H Tawney “Christianity and the Social Revolution” Chapter 11 of The Attack and Other Papers Statesman 1981 (repr of 1953) pp. 157-166 at p. 163 ftn.1. This was a redraft of a 1935 review in the New Statesman.]

But then in 1971, what was this widely-respected Christian evangelical scholar doing by espousing a view that, as I then read it, undermined the self-same evangelical challenge that had, presumably, been thrown out to him earlier on in his life? Was academic success merely the means by which a person gained public permission to implicitly sneer at the urgency with which one started out as a Christian on the path of “higher learning”? How could Christian discipleship be maintained in such ruts? I was not so much angered as disturbed, concerned that this prominent scholar had so seriously accepted the view for himself that a Christian life for a university graduate was necessarily to live with such a dissonant world-view, one that seemed to acquiesce in his own compromised idealism as he set forth his view that the doctrines we live by needed to be affirmed by scripture, tradition and reason.

What was the antidote to this compromised scholastic idealism? An uncompromised anti-scholastic idealism, perhaps? A consistently moral, this worldly, materialism decorated with one denominational choice of biblical bunting?

To be continued ….