UNCOVERING THE HIDDEN DIMENSIONS OF A SECULARISED IDENTITY – Part One

Faith: Is it all about the language we choose to use?

Consider the following rumination I have constructed as an attempt to put into words the kinds of uncomfortable reflections that we older “baby boomer” Christians living in Australia in 2017 may well be putting to ourselves as we advance into senior citizen status, that is if we haven’t done so already:
I look back and remember how as a young member of a local church at age 14, I resolutely answered “Yes!” to the questions put to me at Confirmation by the Archbishop. Am I now to be provoked, 50+ years later, to wonder why I still say “Yes!” to those same questions? I may have developed some serious questions about the liturgical form in which that affirmative answer came from my lips. But am I to conclude that I am a disciple of Jesus Christ today simply because I chose to be his disciple the day before yesterday? Is that how faith works? Am I to say that I am a Christian today because I refuse to deny what I affirmed yesterday? Is Christian faith merely a choice to now hold onto what I chose to do in the past, standing by what I chose to do yesterday or the day before? Am I merely being headstrong and dogmatic about some propositions that arose from what I was taught and came to believe in Sunday School, and Catechism Class, while also choosing to be selectively critical about other matters that have since come to my notice after having taken on such prior Christian responsibility that I couldn’t avoid, during and after my “scientific education”?
The question arises: how am I to maintain the authenticity of my most basic choices now, today? And to entertain this question is to raise other ones: Am I being unfaithful before God to engage in such reflection? Do I believe today and maintain my affirmative answer because the “religious choice” I made yesterday has had certain life-shaping consequences, and to now choose otherwise would simply make my life too problematic? To now choose otherwise would bring on too many new questions for which I might not know the answers; too many problems would be created for which I have no desire or even competence to solve. Is that why I stick to being a Christian? Is it really an aversion to creating more problems for myself because basically I don’t want to see myself as a problem solver?
Now I may not want to adopt such a line of “self inquisition”, but whether I ask such questions of myself or not, it is nevertheless the kind of accusation that jumps out at me from the way our post-modern, consumerist life is lived. What I am trying to say is this: it is such a way of construing any person’s “religion” that is featured if not promoted repeatedly and incessantly by all the power-houses of the mass media. To follow that line of questioning is to believe that people like myself are “religious” because we have made a peculiar choice, because of a habit from attending a peculiar market-place, if not a latter-day religious Megamart, then why not a post-reformation supermarket or even merely a pious independent “corner store” that tries valiantly to deal in the “goods” of a particular tradition.  Most religious people are those who have decided not to undo their “religious decisions” and “spiritual choices” despite the fact that we, in Australia, like the UK, “no longer live in a Christian country”. To live these days is to move on; can’t keep on doing those same old boring things because, after all, they no longer hold out the attraction their “goods” once had. But for those who wish to do so, the arms of the old churches, and old-time religion, are there for them to make their retrospective sacrifices!
Could it be that my faith is what I am continually told it is, just another commodity, even if it be one that I have manufactured by my own “Christian” choices to live within a “Christian” story? And have I not grown accustomed to the label of those who persist in seeing me as a person with some kind of retro-spirituality? And besides, have I not grown older and become wiser so that I can even now ask such questions and with fearless retrospectivity face up to their challenging consequences? Will I not look again and ask myself whether marriage, for instance, is actually a God-given institution of a life-long commitment between a man and a woman, as I have hitherto believed and which, at the time I was prepared to publicly affirm for myself when my wife and I tied the knot? Is not my praying, in which I am actually talking to no-one else but myself, what has allowed me to create the fanciful notion that God in Heaven, whom Jesus taught his disciples to call “Father”, is actually listening to me? Would I truly be leaving the faith were I to now concede that as I have grown older I have grown wiser as a consequence of my own well-trained and educated choices based on my well-honed problem solving abilities, and so as a consequence I will need to concede that any “faith commitment” must always be to what we now know must be unknowable and uncertain? Don’t I now know that to be a Christian in this post-Christian context requires me to be clear-headed and courageous about such a self-evident fact? Reality is created by the decisions I make. Don’t I now have to “move on” to the next step of enlightened democratic inclusiveness and embrace the fact that people not only make their own spiritual identities but they are the ones who alone can create themselves? Isn’t that what the church should now be concerned with in order to make its contribution? Have I not, as a mature adult, chosen God even while as an enthusiastic youth I may have gotten all carried away with the delightful prospect that God had chosen me? Should I not now move beyond such presumptuous arrogance of youth?

Now I do not want readers to misunderstand these “ruminations”. What I have tried to formulate is actually not what I believe. It is what I believe to be the incessant challenge of the way of life we (i.e. who claim to be followers of Christ Jesus) confront in this country, probably every day – a way of life dominated by a pragmatic view that assumes that human life is best viewed as problem solving, as the ver precarious construction(s) we put together to make our lives meaningful. (Here also is the base-line liberal conviction that is propelling the ongoing demand not just for individuality respect, but for identity rights).

You may well ask: How did I become aware of this “way of life” and its impact upon me? That question is not so easy to answer. “Looking back” can always, to a greater or lesser degree, become victim to self-deception. (There have been those who constituted a very strong “line” in university education in Australia that “looking back” is the equivalent of self deception – we will come to in subsequent posts). But after careful consideration I believe I began to sense the challenge of this pragmatic world-view sometime between the ages of 10 and 15 (1961 and 1966). If I were now to take seriously the thoroughly superficial way in which the mass-media deals in terminology, and reinterpret my life in these terms, they would be the years when I allowed myself to be enticed by evangelical religion, by fundamentalism. Need it be said to be something quite different from the mind-deading nonsense of Fox, Murdoch, Fairfax and even the ABC (Have you be paying attention? Recall how we drew attention to the manner in which ABC’s presenter joined this mind-deadening “Drum-beat” by effectively using the show to demonstrate the presenter’s view with a well-prepared journalistic hi-jacking of invited Christian guest). But these were the years when I initially began to read and as I did to so to read study the Bible, to be challenged by the New Testament teaching of Jesus Christ:

If any person would come after me, let him deny himself and every day again take up his cross, and follow after me … For whoever would gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what is the profit for a man when he lists [into his account] the whole world [as a credit] while losing himself and is thus written off (Luke 9:23-5).

I began to appreciate that to do so was to take up an alternative to the way of life that was taken-for-granted around me. And looking back, these were the years when the underlying trust in the human ability to formulate and resolve problems was increasingly making itself felt as the basic idea guiding the curriculum of those providing my schooling, the leitmotif that they assumed held it all together. To succeed I would need to learn how reason confronts reality, formulates the problem to be solved and proceeds to solve it.

But now, to suggest that this “problem-solving” pedagogy increasingly characterised my schooling, is to say that my schooling was in opposition to the way of life I had begun to follow in earnest. And to say this means it is no peripheral confrontation. In fact, a question arises that seems to stand there preventing any resolution, or at least any Christian resolution: is not this the confrontation merely a problem that can be solved by use of reason, and so has to be resolved by a Christian problem solving methodology?

To assert that this prevailing pedagogy was and is indicative of a distinctive way of life, is to begin to face up to its shaping power not only of myself but of my fellow school and university students both before and after my studies. This problem-solving spirit presents itself in education as a dominant way of life with generational consequences. To identify the leading idea of the schooling in which I had been trained – possibly all the way from kindergarten, through primary school, high school and then on to university – is not merely to say that it is important to reckon with it by respecting the values that motivated my teachers. To identify the leitmotif of education is not merely a rough working hypothesis to help explain why the personal values of one teacher diverged from those of another who doesn’t share those values to the same extent.

No, we are talking more about our attempt to reckon with how a way of life characterizes itself to itself, by those living it, confirming it to themselves and anyone else who may be attending. To repeat: we are concerned here not so much with the way “others” see this way of life and its adherents, but with the way those involved in it see themselves. The leitmotif I am talking about is what is taken-for-granted in a school, by the teachers, by the parents who send their children, by the public education authorities and then increasingly by the children nurtured within this way of life. The way of life we are referring to is about everyday confident conduct that is self-evident to those living out this way of life. We might say its self-evidence is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.

What I am seeking to develop here is a discussion about the way the contemporary and taken-for-granted secularised identity (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, that this way in which I had been nurtured, claiming to be Christian, was a heritage forming the institutions of public life in this country 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, their social involvement to various ways in which they, as church organisations, congregations, denominations, church councils, bible study circles, has sought to resolve because they/we have been lulled into viewing the Christian way of life as a problem to be solved, the Christian life as an incessant effort to identify and solve problems relying not upon “your heavenly Father who knows all you need”, but instead upon a presumed our superior rational capacity.

And so to face up to the power and allure of the above line of self-questioning is to begin think about questions that are indiscriminately raised as a challenge to the Christian way of life. To engage in reflection at this level is not, however, to endorse this taken-for-granted “other” way of life. Rather it is simply to reckon with and seek to understand the dominance it has manifested in all areas of our social, cultural and public life, even as it is currently in yet another of its deep crises. Even so, from a Christian standpoint it may well be “other”, but that does not mean we should ignore the widespread presumption that it is the dominant power shaping cultural life in all dimensions.

We might call it pragmatism. We might give it the name of liberal-humanism. It is a way of life that, these days, seems to be characterised by its own crises which it then tries to hide. For liberal humanism to concede that it may be in crisis of generation-to-generation proportions would be tantamount to say that the problem solving way of life has become problematic beyond the ability of human problem-solvers to understand, diagnose and solve. But if a Christian way of life is to be lived as a way of life in the context of such crisis about problem solving the way ahead on a Christian’s path should not be to adjust pragmatically, to incorporate humanism’s problems in the Christian way of life, but to offer a way out by living an integral alternative. The positive bequest of having done so may means it will be decades to come to expression. But where is it said in Holy Scripture that the impact of following the Anointed Servant of the Lord, the Elected Ruler of the princes of this earth must follow immediately upon our responding to His call?

Christianity in our so-called Western world faces deep challenges. What are the means by which the Christian way of life has been weakened by accommodating pragmatism, by acquiescing in the way of life that in our schooling and education has been characterised by an idolatrous reliance upon our human problem-solving capacities?

BCW

11.5.17 (Amended 14.5.17).

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