Public Discussion and Christianity’s Decline

We have been discussing discussion. We have been talking about how we talk, how we converse inter-personally, but that also means we cannot avoid referring to how we communicate and disseminate information and “news”. In my last post the context of such a discussion about discussion was drawn in these terms:

… in a global context dominated by a constant babble of alternative and dissonant stories that now flood our post-post-modern consciousness on a daily, if not hourly, basis, is our own contribution going to be merely more “windy words”? Job’s words to his comforters can remind us how our speech can run out of control. “Will your windy words never end? Will you continue going on and on and on …?” (Job 16:3)

And so the question comes back again – the question is just as pertinent now with this latest post. Do we have any enduring task in all this? Should we even be seeking to make a contribution? Is it worth it?

The human art of everyday conversation is a skill to be learned. Just like complex diplomatic negotiation at a G20 convocation, it is part of the wonderful created reality of our social life. The crisis in discussion as a creaturely activity needs to be understood and overcome. That includes the crisis we experience in our own everyday public and private conversations. There is an ever-pervasive sense of  futility that threatens to swamp us, and it needs to be resisted, challenged with a new way of talking, a new way of approaching our task in this world, our cultural task.

Will windy words never cease? Well, we will need to become convinced that conversation is integral to who we are. We need to become convinced that telling stories, writing articles, giving literary form to our our scientific explorations, writing blogs like this one, are all part of what the Bible refers to in Genesis 1 as “the cultural mandate”. In fact those who have become disciples of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ, listen to and attend to his parting words and realise that their cultural task now, with the announcement of His Kingly Power, is indeed their response to the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The unhealthy atmosphere of public cynicism and scepticism will not be overcome without the growth of a climate of healthy conversation. God’s knew that. That is why Christ was sent and Christian discipleship indeed may flourish in chat with one’s neighbour “over the back fence”. That is why Nurturing Justice says it again: we need to discuss how to form conversation, how to initiate discussion, how to form our contributes to public debates in ways that scrupulously avoid whatever destroys and vandalises the good gifts that God continues to shower upon us.

We need to recapture a sense of public conversation as part of who we are. It is not just something we add to our Christian lives to make our lives less boring by trying to be “more chatty”. Our calling is to converse as our calling, our vocation.

Now as I write this, I am reminded of what I read in The Australian last Saturday. These prominent articles by two leading journalists in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire might seem to be suggesting that a “Christian political option” is going to be initiated sometime soon. [Will it be Rerum Novarum rides again?] See what you think. I will give the two quotes from the pages of “The Inquirer” section and then I will conclude with some brief comments.

Here’s the first:

It is from Greg Sheridan “Six Roads to the West’s Strategic Crisis Point.” p.16 The Weekend Australian July 8,9 2017:
“… the sixth and final dynamic assaulting the strategic position of the West … is the growing distemper of Western electorates and populations generally.
“Since the global financial crisis a decade ago, middle class and below incomes in Western nations have been almost stagnant while a small group at the top has grown exponentially richer.
“This has led to bad-tempered and unstable electorates, willing to entertain all kinds of electoral experiments but not willing to undertake any further budgetary belt tightening.
This robs the Western political paradigm of some of its legitimacy and some of its stability when all the other factors listed above are undermining the grand Western narrative.
“The cyclical distemper born of economic woes feeds off two deeper structural changes in Western societies. The first is the eclipse of Christianity in the West. Several West European nations are more atheist than Christian and the religion with the fastest growth rate in Western societies, albeit off a low base, is Islam.
“Yet Christianity is basic to the Western cultural and political identity. The West for the moment is living off the draining moral capital of its Christian inheritance. Without transcendent belief, there is no ultimate philosophical obstacle to the pursuit of power as the highest human purpose.
“As Henry Kissinger has remarked, Western governments are no longer able to ask any sacrifice from their electorates.”

The second quote is this:

It is from Editor-at-Large Paul Kelly “Blessed be the egoistic individuals” p.19 The Weekend Australian July 8,9 2017:
“The reality is staring us in the face. Yet it cannot be spoken, cannot be entertained, cannot be discussed because there is no greater heresy and no more offensive ­notion than that the loss of Christian faith might have a downside…
“The rise of progressive values in the name of freedom and justice would march in parallel with the decline of religious faith. Put ­another way, they were different sides of the same coin. Eventually, the revolution took judicial and legal form. The greatest institution that embodied the new social order was the US Supreme Court.
“In a series of judgments, the court redefined the idea of freedom and human nature. Weigel captures this, quoting from the majority decision in the 1992 planned parenthood case. “At the heart of liberty,” the judges said, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” Led by Justice ­Anthony Kennedy, this philosophy was repeated in the more ­recent decision to impose same-sex marriage.
“At this point individual autonomy and human rights (what some might call “the Big Me”) replaced the concept of an objective moral order founded in the Christian tradition. The notion of a God-­ordained morality was swept aside along with its view of mankind as more than a bundle of desires to be sanctified as human rights. Man, not God, was enshrined at the centre of the universe.
“The judges reflected the spirit of the age and the cultural revolution that had transformed the West. The idea of freedom was separated from a higher order moral duty and tied to personal self-realisation and self-esteem. Narcissism was legitimised. Weigel says: “There is no claim here that the American democratic ­experiment rests on self-evident moral truths.” The upshot was a society of many truths; each person was granted autonomy to ­decide his or her own moral truth.
“What does this mean for ­politics?
“It requires little insight to conclude such a society and culture that prioritises a cult of “individualism” when translated into the political sphere is less cohesive and united, more divided over existing norms, less willing to accept the decisions and compromises of political leaders, far more difficult for politicians to manage and persuade and, above all, from which to extract a working majority position. In short, governing is harder, the gap between politicians and public more difficult to bridge and the society divided at its essence.
“There is, however, an even deeper problem.
“As the moral status of the church declines, the moral status of progressive ideology grows. Vacuums will be filled. Because the Christian ethos was tied to the past and tradition, it became a target for the new ideology of personal freedom. This is founded in the view that settler societies such as America and Australia have failed to come to terms with the racism, indigenous exploitation, sexism, patriarchy and monoculturalism at their heart. The task of community leaders was once to uphold the values of the civilisation; now, more often than not, it is to dismantle them.
“Pivotal to this transition is the progressive attack on the Aristo­telian framework that made the West a success. This concept was articulated at various stages by the popes, notably Leo XIII and Pius XI. As outlined by Tulsa University professor Russell Hit­tinger, this envisages three “necessary” elements for human happiness: domestic society (marriage and family), faith and church and, finally, political ­society. A brief reflection might confirm the wisdom of this ­framework.
“It is, however, now being dismantled in the new and manic crusade of human freedom. Pro­gressive doctrine denies any preferred model for family structure since that would be prejudicial and discriminatory; it now approaches its ultimate objective in the realm of faith — to drive ­religion from the public square and reject the role of religion and church as a mobiliser of social capital in a secular society.
“The final logic is that everything depends upon politics. As the society of family and marriage ­becomes mired in confusion, as the society of church and religion is the target of assault, so the ­society of politics is being asked to assume a role and burden utterly beyond its capacity and guaranteed to leave community-wide ­unhappiness.
“The tripartite design that made the West such a workable and ­successful proposition is being torn part. Once dismantled, it ­cannot be put back together. This is being done in the name of justice, rights and progress. There was an ­inevitability about the decline of Christian faith, but there was nothing inevitable about the dismal pretender that presents as its replacement.”

There are a few observations that I would make. Nurturing Justice might watch the development of a “Christian political option” that would develop from these analyses, but there are critical issues that need to be raised straight away.

To what extent is The Australian – and other mass media “outlets” of the Murdoch media empire like “the West … for the moment … living off the draining moral capital of its Christian inheritance”? What transcendent belief has motivated News Ltd’s pursuit of power as the highest human purpose? Again, are we to believe that The Australian has had not part to play in the rise of “progressive values” which in the name of freedom and justice have, we now hear from its pages, marched in parallel with the decline of religious faith? Is The Australian not so secular after all? Since when?

Instead of writing in terms of vague generalities, are we to suppose that there has been no political conversation motivated by “Big Me” individual autonomy and human rights promoted by The Australian and its owner? Where has The Australian been in support of the  moral order founded in the Christian tradition?

It somewhat takes the breath away to read how “the philosopher” made the West a success?  What has Aristotle got to do with Christian discipleship and the task of forming a Christian public discussion?

Both quotes suggest a journalistic style that attempts to discuss by standing outside, if not above, the “eclipse” and the “decline” they describe. There is no discussion about how this eclipse might be overcome with a genuine revival of “true religion and virtue”, nor is there any indication that anything can be done now to arrest the political decline by a Christian understanding of public justice. In fact there is no real discussion of how their analysis arises from their faith perspective. The assumption is that they are simply dealing with the facts, “nature”, the news. And the decline of “grace” is their lament.

Further, there is no indication that either journalist sees any inner connection between the West’s crisis due to the erosion of public trust and journalism. How are we to interpret these articles, these discussions? Are they not part of the very trends they lament? Could the dogmatic neo-Aristotelian objectivity they espouse merely be the other side of a syndrome of journalistic denial that forgets that they have been front-row contributors to the phenomenon they now seek to put in the headlines?

And as such these quotes from these contributions to public discussion by two respected journalists, give us no indication that we might be dealing with a cumulative tradition that demonstrates a Christian inability to mount and form public discussion with integrity. Remarkably, as those lamenting the decline of faith, or transcendent values, there is sadly no mention at all of the compromised contribution of senior clergy of the Roman Church who, despite inheriting “Catholic social teaching”, have aided and abetted the public denigration of marriage they so lament.





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