Christianity’s Decline Amid the Crisis of the West

Eureka Street’s editor Andrew Hamilton, asks: What fuelled the crisis in the West? This is his considered contribution to the significant debate generated by Paul Kelly’s article a fortnight ago in The Australian, “Blessed be the egoistic individuals”. A post from Nurturing Justice also commented on this article. We continue our contribution here to give further elaboration to what Nurturing Justice understands concerning a Christian political option.

Hamilton’s editorial, like the articles of Sheridan and Kelly, is worth reading, as are the comments of readers  immediately after it. But I would suggest that the line of argument ignores the same issues that Kelly’s critique sidestepped although Hamilton does point out, rightfully, that Kelly has not identified the noxious root of neo-liberalism, the ideology of a system of political economy that is bowed in its piety to the sacred fiction of an “unencumbered self”. This is basic to the now ubiquitous distrust of government in the West. Here and now, representative government in parliament is undermined by behind-the-scenes capitulation to the lobbying of interest-groups and political party machinations that imply that political belief is meaningless unless elections are won. Where is the political willingness to lose elections because of political beliefs about what is good in the long-run for the public interest, for the common good? NJ continues to draw attention to how all major political parties have loosened their concern for the authentic representation of voters – party cadres form parties as public relations firms which have to win and be seen to be winning if they are to retain their jobs marketing the “party line”. Now the locus of Government power is the “party room”, the place for secret Liberal (or Labor) business.

All of this determinative political context remains outside the limits of Kelly’s and Hamilton’s analysis. Both articles, along with that of Greg Sheridan, seem to want to hold onto conventional Christian (i.e. Roman Catholic) teaching as they set forth their viewpoints. Here then is my reply to Hamilton:

Thankyou Andrew. Quite apart from Paul Kelly’s Christian-pagan longing to re-establish Aristotle as the Christian philosopher”, he has sidestepped the need for a critical exposé of how the noxious roots of economic liberalism feed the pervasive global distrust of political authority, and this you rightly point out. But Kelly’s”culture of narcissism” argument blatantly sidesteps the “corporate narcissism” generated on two prominent fronts: 1. the mass media and his own newspaper and his newspaper’s owner involvement in feeding rampant individualised celebrity as if Australians should be proud of one who renounced his citizenship in order to extend his American holdings. And 2. The disgraceful “corporate narcissism” among senior office bearers of Christian churches, exposed world-wide in recent times. Your suggestion that the resultant culture of greed “has little to do with religious belief” cannot be sustained since it is all about an idolatry, a mis-directed religious belief, that gives decisive signals of an apostasy, root and branch, of Christian churches. This should in no way be excluded from any authentic Christian political analysis of our current political co-responsibilities within the unfolding crisis of the West. Did not Rerum Novarum intimate a similar critique and Christian democratic challenge?

I suspect that my own rhetorical question: “What has Aristotle got to do with reviving Christian discipleship in the political domain?” as it appeared in the former post will cause some Christians reading this to suspect that Nurturing Justice is taking an irrational stand. Indeed such views are to be expected and here I take the liberty of paraphrasing the scholarly perspective of such an anticipated critic who will allege that Nurturing Justice has signalled support for a narrow-minded irrational dogmatism.

I was somewhat flummoxed to read: ‘What has Aristotle got to do with Christian discipleship and the task of forming a Christian public discussion?’ That sounds as if a Christian political option is not only close-minded but irrational. Can we not learn from Aristotle as to how a reasoned philosophy should be developed? Indeed hasn’t such reasoned philosophy been basic to Christian theology and for this we need to point to no other eminent scholar than Thomas Aquinas as well as 19th century Catholic Social Teaching. And after all, hasn’t Biblical studies confirmed that Platonic and Aristotelian ideas are implicit in the New Testament? Consider how the Stoic “logos” appears in John’s Gospel. So its self-evident that we need a return to Aristotle if there is ever to be a genuine and authentic return to Christian political responsibility.

Nurturing Justice is unabashed in affirming its view that the task of forming a Christian contribution to public discussion should come from Christian citizens who reckon with the inner connection between their citizenship and the teaching of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament. That being said, there are philosophical and historical issues of profound weight that have to be addressed in any Christian scholarship even if they cannot be resolved here in this blog. Nevertheless, Nurturing Justice is not running away from the need for a comprehensive Christian political science in which such issues are addressed and answered. Here is my brief answer to the above concern.

Paul Kelly makes the connection to Aristotle as if every educated and intelligent reader will already know that Aristotle is the benchmark not only for rational thinking but also for thinking about the virtues of political practice. That, in effect, announces the dogmatic closure of discussion at that point and in my view he is apparently unaware of that closure. Can there be a Biblically-directed justification for the view that Aristotle is the (Christian’s) philosopher? Can this view be anything other than an appeal to a persistent tradition of Christian accommodation with Aristotle, as if that accommodation now should have binding normative authority among Christians?
To follow this assertion an appeal is often made to (what some scholars say is nothing but) a scholarly myth that John in writing his Gospel was drawing on the Stoic logos concept. And hence this reaffirmation of the vital necessity of Hellenic thinking (whether Platonist or Aristotelian) because from there the West has inherited the nostrum that human rationality is autonomous. “Reason” pertains to a self-sufficient reality and with such a scheme any proposed divine creator will have to share any status of non-dependency as a co-creator since it is the self-subsisting faculty of reason, manifest throughout reality, that has enabled the creator to create, giving form to matter. This is the basic dialectical “stuff” of the Greek philosophical tradition and hence antithetical to Biblical teaching.
Kelly and Sheridan in their views of the “crisis” mask a pre-theoretical disposition that seeks such Hellenic accommodation with the Biblical teaching of the imageo Dei. I am not wanting to imply that they be prevented from arguing in this way. I can hardly stop them. No “policeman’s hand” (fundamentalist appeal to a Bible verse) will enhance discussion by making an alternative dogma absolute.
Of course, the philosophy of Aristotle has been formative in the decisive shaping of Christian lives through traditions of such accommodative scholarship – the variations of that accommodation raise ongoing scholarly issues for investigation that philosophers, scientists, historians and sociologists should not avoid. But so has Plato, so has Descartes, Kant, and Husserl. So has Marx. So has Foucault, Rawls and Rorty. But to affirm that any one of these prominent thinkers has pointed the way to fulfilling the first and great commandment (“loving God with your whole heart, soul, MIND and strength”) is not only to suggest an accommodation of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles to Aristotle (or Plato et. al). It means that there is an active assumption that the writings of such non-Christian thinkers should be part of Christian scholarship for the purpose of giving emphasis to how their theories comply with Christian teaching. Biblical teaching therefore is equated with theology, and so theology is proclaimed as the Queen of the Sciences. This notion finds its origin in Aristotle and it has also made its impact upon Protestant thinking and theology (consider Beza and Voetius, let alone more latter-day luminaries). And it doesn’t take long in one’s discussion with Muslims to realise that The Philosopher’s conception of an Unmoved Mover continues to make an impact upon Islamic thought as well.

This discussion cannot stop here. It must be continued.

BCW 20.7.17



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