How Should Political Parties Conduct Themselves in Relation to Local Government?

Our previous post has concluded with the affirmation that the Liberal Party is a primary cause of the serious crisis that has now befallen the Borough of Queenscliffe. Of course this is a serious accusation. Can I back it up?

Many of my fellow citizens in the Borough will ask: “What crisis?” My answer, along the lines of the previous post, may well bring forth the following rejoinder:

Well what do you expect? They are after all, all politicians!

So, what am I to say when that is said? Am I to walk away, shrug my shoulders and let the matter drop?

Actually, there is something political I can say there and then – it may at least give some cause to pause. I could say:

And our Mayor’s election platform insisted that he wasn’t a politician!

To highlight this fact is not to indulge a “cheap shot”; this is an important clue to the crisis we face. Our contradictory political situation needs analysis and this contradiction should be front and centre as we carefully unravel the various responsibilities that have formed, and are shaping, our political lives – this anomaly is central to political beliefs that are basic to this crisis.

Readers will also notice I have avoided names. The names can easily be found by a diligent search of the web. I have spoken to the person concerned and told him I am willing to discuss the matter with someone else present. But here I prefer to talk in terms of offices, positions of public responsibility. It is a crisis and it is shared; the mistakes that have been made which have deepened this crisis are not solely the errors of one person acting alone, no matter how unencumbered politicians of Liberal persuasion view themselves to be.

_ _ _ _ _

Readers who have followed the discussion on this site since late 2016 will know I have identify various “offices” contributing to this crisis:

1. The Borough of Queenscliffe Council
2. The Returning Officer for the Council Election
3. The State Electoral Commission
4. The Victorian Parliament
5. Victoria Police
6. The Ice Police Task Force in the Geelong Region
7. The State Member for the Bellarine Electorate
8. The Liberal Party (Bellarine Peninsula Branch).

In this post I simply wish to make a point about what I consider to be the deep failure of the Liberal Party, the 8th on my list. And when we have understood their failure in this matter, we might have begun to develop a new idea of what a political party might be and how it should conduct its affairs, and be seen to conduct its affairs, in relation to LGAs in this polity. There is one step that should be taken immediately by the Liberal Party; I leave that till the end of this post.

I narrow the focus to the Liberal Party even though I believe the Borough Council seriously erred when it failed to raise an objection to the suitability of the person who is now Mayor, not only to be Mayor, but to be a Councillor. The failure to disclose party affiliation during the election campaign was bad enough, and I grant that it may have been an oversight. But to then simply do nothing when, one week later, the incumbent of the Mayoral Office is appointed President of the Bellarine Liberal Party, simply confirms the Council’s deeply disrespectful attitude to the Borough’s electors. Everyone in the Borough who has looked into it knows that the successful Candidate’s subsequent appointment as Liberal Party President disclosed an electoral deceit. By failing to address what is still a scandalous state of affairs (that, by the way, has not been redressed by the President’s subsequent resignation from the party post) the Council has undermined public trust in itself. The Council owes a public apology to the electors of the Borough.

The nomination of the Senior Sergeant in the Geelong Police – who is head of the Police Ice Task Force for the region – must have been endorsed by the Borough official who had to verify the eligibility of candidates. The State Electoral Commission must have also given approval and has still not made any public comment about the election of the said candidate and his failure to disclose his political affiliation as part of his election campaign. The Victorian Parliament, it would seem, has legislated or gazetted changes to regulations that allow serving officers of the Victoria Police to stand in local Council elections. At the very least the political parties have not helped electors know why this has been allowed. We have also heard nothing from the State member as to how the Victorian Government views the deceit as perpetrated upon the Borough’s electors. We have not heard from Victoria Police as to why it is that the Police Code of Conduct has not been violated by that failure during the election campaign. There seems here to have been a significant blurring of what constitutional jurisprudence would call “the separation of powers”, the separation between law making and law enforcement. Do not the police have a code of conduct provisions that forbid gaining office by deceit (even if it were an unintended oversight)?

There may be an explanation from these offices that will shed light on what is a complex and messy business. And yes, people in public office can make mistakes. So, can people in their running for public office but we also haven’t heard an apology yet from the elected councillor.

Electors will know that members of the police force, not least members who are front line with respect to the problems of law and order in relation to drug usage and the illicit supply thereof, are subject to peculiar tensions. But this is precisely the point at which I wish to discuss the Liberal Party contribution – what it has done and what it has failed to do. It has acted publicly in a way that simply cannot pass without comment.

A Liberal Party that was sensitive to the seeming intractable problems that pertain to the interface between drug use and law enforcement, would never seek to gain political advantage by an opportunistic blurring of the distinction between law-making and law-enforcement. If a Senior Sergeant has joined its ranks, it should welcome him and forego the temptation of using him for election purposes. Their contribution as a political party would be much better served by encouraging said new member to simply take his place among the party membership and offer his advice about public policy when it is relevant to do so. And given this particular police officer has regional responsibilities for the Victoria Police Ice Task Force, should they not be persuading him to concentrate on that very important police work, without distracting him with managing party political business?

I would also suggest that the Liberal Party, as part of their adherence to appropriate constitutional and jural principles, should positively discourage any police officer, and especially senior police officers, that have become members of their party, from trying to gain election to local councils while still serving – even if as in our case regulations do not prohibit it. It should be part of their party’s overall political philosophy that law enforcement should not be blurred with law-making. And that’s the principle they have seriously violated by their effort to piggy-back on the (compromised) election of one of their members. Instead, they opportunistically tried to add to that important police officer’s load by trying to engineer him into the front-line of an attempt to unseat the sitting member (who is police minister) at the next State election.

Their actions actually show a party unfit for public office. And let’s have no more ambiguous nonsense that LGAs should be apolitical!

Let’s hear the truth from the Liberal Party in an acknowledging its own contribution to the deceit that was perpetrated in the Borough election and that as a party it is committed to truthfulness at all levels of our public governance!

Remarkably this disreputable political party, which has treated one of its own paid-up members in such questionable ways, is proposing next week to hold a “law and order” forum nearby in Drysdale. The advertising invites us to “come and have our say”. “Only the Liberals will make Victoria safe again”.

Of course there is a “law and order” problem facing us. But the Liberal Party’s wheeling and dealing speaks too loudly of a political ethic that borders on wall-to-wall disrespect, and that is not irrelevant to the ethos that spawns law and order concerns – there is the Liberal Party’s disrespect for the separation of powers principle that one might have thought was part of the Liberal’s view of public governance; there is in this sorry saga elements of disrespect for the Victoria Police, disrespect for the integrity and good standing of the Borough of Queenscliff. There is the Liberal Party’s continual ducking and weaving when it comes to speaking truthfully.

The Liberal Party has completely avoided dealing with the flawed LGA election in 2016 that had significant consequences for one of its own members. As I said, that failure may have been the Candidate’s  mistake, but if it were a mistake to fail to mention party membership, why should the party reward him with the regional party presidency and thereby further compromise the Borough Council’s standing?

As long as this Liberal Party fiasco continues (see p.2), such actions as we have recently witnessed in the Bellarine Peninsula from them simply suggest that they are beating the “law and order” drum to distract attention from their party’s lack of political principles, from their party’s persistent pragmatic manoeuvring, a failure as a party to be seen in the inadequate support and advise rendered to a new member, and a total failure to insist upon a measure of political discipline by one of its prominent members who, as a senior police officer, is obviously keen to make a contribution to life across the Bellarine.

The electors of the Borough of Queenscliffe deserve a full and frank apology from the Liberal Party for their unscrupulous destabilising of local government.

In a further post, “Local Government, Public Justice and Community Health Care“, we will discuss how this same deep political crisis has manifested itself in the ongoing regional dispute following the vandalisation of innovative and creative local initiatives in aged care. This series of posts aims to explore the complexity of local politics and indicate how it is being shaped by legislative and political developments further afield, beyond any one LGA’s area.

BCW 10 June 2017.

 

 

Local Government and Public Justice

There is a long-running and very widespread political viewpoint among Australian citizens that local government has been, is and always should be, above politics. Even to state it like that in its simplest terms, in one sentence, is to begin to see how absurd such a political viewpoint is. As a political view it is simply ridiculous; it is illogical and contradictory. But try arguing against it with neighbours in your Borough or Local Government Authority (LGA) and you will soon find how politically entrenched it is. You might also find that it is more of an aspiration for many people, an ideal that at least at the LGA level political life can find mutual compromise and avoid the cynical self-interest ascribed to State and Federal Governments. Nevertheless as a political view it is politically incoherent.

Coming to terms politically with that political incoherence, however, will require ongoing engagement. And it is not just intellectual, but political. It will mean pointing in a different political direction. If that means people will stop listening, then ways will have to be found to counter those wilfully deaf ears. And it will not be easy. nevertheless, for most citizens LGAs are remote and as riven with similar tensions and arguments that are found at State and Federal levels. Perhaps it is just the inherited complexity of social life these days that prompts so many to avoid thinking about “local politics”. And yet it still will have its everyday impacts upon them from garbage removal to local health services, to Meals on Wheels for the elderly, to planning laws that restrict your neighbour from building a multi-storey townhouse next-door.

We have recently discussed how local politics in the Queenscliffe Borough, in which NJ’s editor lives, has been deeply corrupted and also by political actions that appeal to this a-political viewpoint. And it would seem that those perpetrating this most recent corruption use this a-political viewpoint (Local Government is not about politics) as a cover for what is nothing other than their own political deceit. Queenscliffe has 3,000 voters on its roll and at most 2,500 permanent residents – probably the smallest LGA in Australia, certainly the tiniest in Victoria. Compared with the City of Greater Geelong (currently under administration) which has 250,000 residents it is but 1% of the size of this LGA neighbour. The fact that it is still an LGA entity certainly suggests wheeling and dealing and in future posts we will explore some of the ongoing political and social ambiguities that arise from this. But let us return to the corruption of the electoral process that pertains as at this moment.

I suspect that the person involved who became Mayor, who had been a member of the Liberal Party for 18 months prior to the election but never revealed it during his campaign, simply assumed that since the Liberal Party’s policy with respect to local government is the aforementioned a-political viewpoint, he didn’t have to mention his party affiliation on the hustings. If that is so, it indicates a level of political naïveté not only in the successful candidate but also, most worryingly, among the persons who voted for him. “I am not a politician” he told us; not once but repeatedly. And so he presented himself as someone who aspires to be “above politics”. Then, upon being elected, the body of elected five Councillors convened and since he had a quota (600+/-) from first preferences, they decided he should be the Mayor. They didn’t have to do this, and certainly the LGA election is not meant as a Mayoral election. But they did it and, as it happens, simply compounded the political problem as it has subsequently unravelled.

A week later, the Bellarine Liberal Party announced that this same man, who had just assumed the public office of Mayor, was elected unopposed as President of the Regional Branch of the Liberal Party. The electoral stump speech “I am not a politician!” certainly seemed like it had been a carefully worded diversion keeping the true state of affairs from the electors, at least until they had voted. Shouldn’t the electors have been made aware of this Candidate’s political affiliation before they cast their ballot? But because the election campaign proceeded without this fact being disclosed, the Borough electors had not been properly informed and the integrity of the entire election seems in retrospect to have been compromised.

What the Liberal Party did by appointing him as their President, and what he did in accepting that appointment, was nothing other than delivering a mortal blow to the trust electors in the Queenscliffe Borough could have in their Council. There’s no other political way to see it. Trust, central to our political system’s claim to embody a genuine representative element, has thereby been broken.

The subsequent action of the Liberal Party seemed oblivious to this fact. It certainly casts doubt on the way in which they – the self-proclaimed “movers and shakers” of our Federal polity – had grossly mis-read the political situation. An appeal to the alleged principle that “local government should be above politics” simply compounds the issue. This is deceitful politics that would make Machiavelli blush.

Local sentiment from those who bother to reflect about political life is that the Borough Council has now broken trust with the Borough and has allowed itself to become a de facto sub-committee of the regional branch of the Liberal Party.

What does this story tell us? Before I go on we might note that the said person has since resigned from the Liberal Party Presidency. Why? Was it because as Mayor there might arise a conflict of interest? No. At least that is not why he said he had to resign. The incumbent of the Mayoral Office resigned from the Presidency of the Bellarine Liberal Party because as a Senior Sergeant in the Victoria Police Force (heading up the task force on ice across the Bellarine Peninsula) there is a risk of a conflict of interest with the Liberal Party machine as the State Opposition gears up for the next election with a law and order campaign.

If you are bamboozled by all this, then join the crowd of confused electors across the Bellarine and in particular in the tiny Queenscliffe Borough. The Liberal Party has decided to go all out to attack the sitting Member for Bellarine Electorate, the Police Minister in the State Labor Government! We do not even know whether she will stand again next time around!

What a complete mess! So to return to our question: what does this tell us? There are the obvious questions we have previously asked about this: about the apparent compromise of the police’s code of conduct; about the silence of the Victorian Electoral Commission on the compromised election; and on the fact that a Senior Sergeant in the police force can even run for public office without there being a compromise of the separation of powers between law-making and law-enforcement. Admittedly it also happens elsewhere. So my guess is that this is not just a matter of one LGA, but indicates something that needs to be clarified across the state.

 Moreover, true to their form, the political parties have failed to make any clear statement about this matter. Electors are still waiting to be educated politically about the propriety of a police officers running for and taken up public office when also serving in law enforcement. And the Police Minister, the local member for Bellarine, has not actually gone out of her way to address this issue.

Somehow we will have to make some sense of this deeply political failure. Even in the tiny political community of the Queenscliffe Borough our politics is no better than what is found in larger, more impersonal LGAs. In subsequent posts we will explore other dimensions of the way in which our political community is out of step with its neighbouring political communities. There are ongoing consequences in all areas of our social life and these need to be explored.

And as well as all this we are now confronted by a national political situation in which the political parties themselves have shown that they are up to their necks in crooked dealing. The simple fact that we need to get into our political heads is that our system of public governance is mightily compromised.

How is this political situation to be addressed politically? To ask the question in terms Nurturing Justice has been asking for some time: Is the political party over? A Christian political option, if it is ever to emerge in the Australian polity as more than a Nurturing Justice aspiration, is going to have to deal with that question, root and branch, all the way down, and it will not be able to avoid promoting public justice at the local government level however “local” is configured.

We will continue this discussion next time and extend our discussion of the “constitutional crisis” of the Borough of Queenscliffe by analysis of the crisis in community health care. Stay tuned.

BCW 8 June 2017

 

 

 

Twittering Plebiscites and the Sending of Messages (2)

INTRODUCTION

In our previous post we posited two questions for Christian readers to ask themselves as they reflect upon the way “social media” has, in but a short decade, seemingly transformed our political debates, or at least appeared to do so. We have linked this discussion to our previous posts that have sought to cast doubt upon the esteemed dogma, regularly put forward as an unassailable fact, that this is a “secular age” and that Christian citizens ought to unhinge their citizenship from their faith in Jesus Christ.

So, here Nurturing Justice continues to make my suggestions to readers, particularly those who are fellow Christians, but anyone else of other faith, uncertain faith or no-faith who is reading this is welcome to join in. At this point we are assuming that there is a Christian way of life and we want to clarify how that way of life should be coming to expression in the midst of public debate that is increasingly fomented if not malformed by what we now call “social media”.

And so, we have to limit ourselves and confine our observations to two topics – homosexuality and Jihadist Islam. When these topics are raised in public debate, and in social media in particular, questions about the Christian way of life are unavoidable. And so if we are wanting to find the path of authentic discipleship we may find it excruciatingly difficult – we may well be suffering from a kind of “media fatigue”, a sense that our faith has been under attack for so long that really we simply want to retire to “smell the roses”, spend time walking along the coast, reading children’s stories and simply avoiding the contentious new, newspapers and the ridiculous tweets of the totally out-of-his-depth American President.

There are of course many other issues which require Christian citizens to engage in ongoing political conversation if we are to develop a Christian political perspective. But we single out these two in particular; they have been with us for decades, are not going away and to raise them yet again is to have us asking ourselves whether we are making any headway..

So in the former post I referred to two issue, the questions of which I now edit.

MARRIAGE AND THE IMAGE OF GOD.

1. How is the pagan mythology of “sexual identity” (and with it the attempt to misrepresent the human condition by appeal to a bogus “heterosexuality”) to be adequately refuted within and among Christians and their churches to make good the claim to be the disciples of Jesus Christ?

Another way of saying that is to acknowledge that we are called to live with an enriching recognition that the Imageo Dei is male and female as the scriptures confirm and that the glory of God is unfolded as males and females serve their creator in all of our life including marriage. Marriage is the inaugural God-endowed institution for the generation-to-generation nurturing and cultivation of creation’s stewards by God’s image-bearers.

With the teaching of Jesus and the apostles as the Christian basis for marriage, we turn again to Jesus’ teaching and discover the definitive proscription of violating the other person by a covetousness (the 10th commandment) that would render any person, any of God’s image bearers, into a sexual object and thereby violate that person’s standing before God (as with the 5th as well – Matthew 5:27-32; Genesis 1:27-31; 2:15-25; Exodus 20:12,17). This gives sufficient ground to such an exclusive view of marriage. Christians are called to receive the teaching that humankind has been created male and female and this is quite other than the pagan presumption that humanity simply has to be allowed to form various kinds of homo-hetero balance for cosmic harmony. And as difficult as this may be for some people, this biblical teaching yet calls us to fully respect the unmarried and the widow and widower.

But then even with such basic viewpoint, a veritable tsunami of historical questions will flood our consciousness: 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 (including what seems to have been a secretive riot of sexual license within the closets of the Christian church and its organisations itself) in which God’s image-bearers male-and-female have been cruelly violated and Christians have cruelly and violently abused themselves and their public trust in the process? And how does the Christian community, the Body of Christ, reckon with the way in which Christian profession has been used as a cover for all kinds of degrading and hypocritical practise?

Seeking to face up to this Biblical teaching certainly calls upon us to seek wisdom as we make any contribution to public policy, let alone with respect to pastoral care that is required within church communities. Why shouldn’t two women in seeking to develop a stable household for their respective children, having fled abusive and violent partners, set up house together and seek, as best they can, to provide a stable home with the kind of legal entitlements granted to other households?

And as indicated above there is the need to exercise discernment in the way in which a Christian view of sexuality is discussed when putting forward a public view of why marriage cannot be homosexual. And that view will have to be put forward with ongoing integrity what legislatures and courts decide. Governments make mistakes; marriage equality advocates are making a massive mistake when they assume that the matter will be finally resolved with legislation. Not at all.

Marriage presupposes a sensitivity that husband and wife are called by God to nurture between themselves, with all their own distinctive personal characteristics in a permanent life-long bond. And Christians in nurturing their children are going to have to learn how to maintain unashamed adherence to the teaching of Jesus.

Such a perspective can hardly be suggested with 140 characters of a Tweet. And if we Christians haven’t found a way to discuss human sexuality among ourselves – and given some of the scandalous revelations that are before us who can blame anyone for being hang-dog about the topic? – we are hardly ready to launch forth with a well elaborated comprehensive political viewpoint about marriage, family life, households and so on. But we do have to take up our political responsibilities as Christian citizens to love our neighbour by seeking public justice for all.

THE NEW TESTAMENT’S TEACHING ABOUT JESUS CHRIST CONFRONTS ISLAM

2. How are we Christians, to resolutely take seriously the New Testament’s 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?

Again this is not a matter to be taken lightly and it is certainly not something that should be reduced to a 140 character Tweet. But if we Christians are true to our profession then that means we cannot avoid responding to Islam and that religion’s teaching about Jesus Christ.

In September we will be 16 years on from the intensification of Islamic Jihadism that was signalled by the 11th of September 2001 attacks on Manhattan Island.

Now consider the Muslim viewpoints from these two links:

Here is a link a Sufi friend and colleague sent to me. He is continually concerned with the way in which Jihadist Islam is causing havoc in Muslim communities here in Australia. He is concerned to develop what he calls the cosmopolitan Australian Islam that has inspired him since before Yugoslavia fell apart into ethnic violence in the 1990s. It was from that disintegration that he and his wife fled. And yet, he is also of the historical  view that despite what Sheikh Tawhidi affirms, he believes that to a large Islam advanced peacefully – Islam he affirms is religion and insofar as it is religion, a matter of faith, its advance is always peaceful not the military subjugation of an empire. So already as the television announcer said, seemingly with great surprise, there is deep disagreement, deep public disagreement, among Muslims with respect to their own religion. Sheikh Tawhidi in the midst of that profound religious confrontation claims that Islam needs to move away from its “scriptures of war”, its books that are used to teach young people to go and behead the infidel.

Here’s another viewpoint, this time about the annual feast of Ramadan and developed by someone who is said to be an Emirati pop-star.

How are we to enter into political discussion with Muslim fellow citizens? The discussion can not only be about the murderous activities of the Islamic Jihadists? And the political discussion will have to broach the New Testament teaching at some point but it is also going to have to do so in a political where other religious commitments, anti-Christian messianic motives are at work. In doing so we are going to have to find a way to do justice to all these religious viewpoints including the various kinds of Muslim contributions we have noted above.

And though “social media” discussion of such antitheses cannot be avoided, for our part Christian citizens are going to have to learn how to account for the inner conflicts  within other religions and ideologies, including within Islam? To address the kinds of issues and disagreement that are raised about the atrocities of Islamic Jihadists we will have to have some idea of how they are each claiming to give expression to a Muslim “way of life”? And the difficult part of this is that the Islamic Jihadists are also claiming to be giving authentic expression to a Muslim “way of life”.

PROVISIONAL CONCLUSION:

There is indeed an urgent need for a Christian political option conversation world-wide – today. And in this and further posts we have wanted to consider some of the problems that “social media” – “information technology” – presents to us as we seek to form this vital conversation. The content of these posts should not only look at what should be the content of our posts, but at the emergent and taken-for-granted “hit ‘n run” structuring of social media conversations – Twitter and the like, with what are in fact conversation suppressing character limits, promotes unprecedented possibilities for the generating of fear, for manipulating and making fellow citizens scared – and all the while “contributions” are being made which carefully and persistently avoid sustained argument. Consider only what comes from the US White House, but then also ask your friend, the harried parent whose son has been the subject of continued barrage of vitriol from a former friend. The possibility of political irrationalities gaining a hold are increased and all the while there is the ongoing threat of Muslim Jihadism that is telling us that, as far as these psychotic murderers are concerned, we are simply the ones they haven’t yet reached with their emissaries of death.

We began this post by reflecting upon the place of “social media” in our lives. We have identified two “hot topics” and suggested that our Christian contribution has to be disciplined by heading Biblical teaching. In Biblical terms everything that exists is subject to the Creator’s creation order and that includes all possible “ways of life” that have unfolded in human history. The important issue, I think, from this post is that these diverse “ways of life” and their various, competing even antagonistic contributions can be found reflected and disclosed within the framework of “social media”. Next time we will try to get some further insight into “social media” in creational terms, but even then we won’t be able to properly assess its true value if we ignore the ways in which it degrades and denigrates.

But then we are certainly not going to consign “social media” to the trash heap. This is because computer, I-pad and mobile phone are all given to us and retain their value because Christ Jesus as our Redeemer retains his sovereign claim upon these creatures and the entirety of creation.

BCW

30.5.17

 

 

 

 

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 WordPress.com 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.

BCW

17.5.17

 

UNCOVERING THE HIDDEN DIMENSIONS OF A SECULARISED IDENTITY – Part Five

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]

UNCOVERING THE HIDDEN DIMENSIONS OF A SECULARISED IDENTITY – Part Four

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.

Context

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 ….

BCW

12.5.17

 

UNCOVERING THE HIDDEN DIMENSIONS OF A SECULARISED IDENTITY – Part Three

Secularisation Theory Re-Examined

Revisiting and Confronting Peter Berger’s Sociology 

Recently, I participated via email communication in an academic symposium that assessed the perspective recently developed by the well-respected Austro-American sociologist of religion, Peter L Berger (1929- ). This was part of a project generated from Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. Various scholarly responses have since been compiled together in a book that may shortly arrive on academic bookshop shelves. It concerns Berger’s claim that his recently announced “pluralism theory” challenges the taken-for-granted “secularisation theory”, which had been the ruling orthodoxy for so much social scientific and historical research in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Besides, Berger had himself set forth his own contribution to sociology by assuming this view was basic to a correct and social- scientific understanding of modernity (i.e. since the 16th and 17th centuries). Readers can explore Berger’s view, and also some of the responses that will be included in the future publication here. It is a significant contribution since it is about how a central and defining proposition in sociology is now understood by one who, but a few decades ago, was one of its leading proponents.

The ambiguity in Berger’s professed Christian contribution was the focus of my contribution to the symposium. He asserts that there can be no Christian sociology but completely ignores the fact that such a view was implicit to the former “secularisation theory” that was now to be superseded by “pluralism theory”. As such the symposium was as much a consideration of an ambiguity inherent in Berger’s own “intellectual biography” as it was dealing with antinomies inherited and then re-invented in the discipline of sociology. My 1969-1971 experience of “secularisation theory” in undergraduate sociology at Monash University came when structuralist understandings of religion were entrenched and we were in the earliest days of Peter Berger’s pragmatic-phenomenological insistence that sociology required a “biographical approach”.

My university studies presupposed an “everyday secularisation”. Whatever went on in church, or ISCF or Christian clubs on campus, was presumed to be “religious” and what went on in lecture theatres and tutorial classes was “secular”. A critical moment for many students who saw themselves as “religious” was when these “spheres” seemed to intersect, namely within the tutorial concerned with the sociology of religion. That was where we heard about “secularisation” as a retreat of religion from the public square, as a sine qua non of modernity.

The Christian ministers and leaders who advised me at this time, did not see any need to challenge the inherently problematic dimension of any Christian university student’s experience. It was to a significant extent not only accepted but vigorously promoted within church circles. For instance, it was very difficult to raise political questions within the context of a “Christian” association or a church. These matters were said to be “secular” and outside the sphere of the spiritual concerns of the church. But of course this view was contested and on one occasion I recall it came as a pronouncement from a prominent evangelical philosopher that he saw no problem with being a Marxist in his public life, if he remained convinced of the Gospel in his private life.

Another example of how “secularisation theory” was at work in the modus operandi of evangelical Anglicanism (in Melbourne Diocese at least) can be seen in the way in which young students were told that before they studied theology they should get a grounding in a basic undergraduate degree. What was problematic with that? We shall return to this question in a later post and discuss how it could not but be an encouragement to a basic accommodation to the “problem solving way of life” that dominated the latter-day humanistic world-view.

It did not occur to us as we sat in sociology lectures and tutorials that the extensive social experiences of “everyday secularisation” from our own twenty years of Australian social experience should have been openly discussed and analysed in such classes. Besides, to do so, would mean presuming that students were ready to engage in such “auto-biographical” discussions. And was that not tantamount to giving ground for students to merely “rave on”? Peter Berger’s implicit “biographical” approach as sine qua non to the new style sociology had only just begun to make its appearance in the way the sociology curriculum was being formed and it should have already challenged this exclusion. Indeed, my university studies in sociology, may have come mid-stream of such a transition. But it is a problem much wider than can be discerned within one separate discipline. For some lecturers and students, sociology may have been taught as if it were a “world unto itself” but students had other subjects to study as well and an overall programme that linked the social sciences was not available apart from the presumption that the vital inter-linkages (between psychology, economics, politics, history, geography) would be forged within any one student’s own head – and yet there was no place whatsoever to test those interlinkages in an disciplined interlinking way. given that, was it not preparing students to make a personal confession as follows:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
W B Yeats “The Second Coming” (1919)

We “Baby Boomers” have repeatedly been told that these “late 60’s early 70s” years were the the crucial time for the transition to what has been termed “post-modernity”. One has to wonder whether that interpretation of history was simply a part of a self-oriented secularised “Baby Boomer” self-definition. For us of that generation, it seems a somewhat way of understanding the world to refer to those years when we were deemed to become responsible adults to then consider it was when “everything changed”. But Yeats’ poem was 50 years earlier!

Peter and Brigitte Berger published Sociology: A Biographical Approach in 1975 and this followed up and develop the comprehensive overview of sociology based upon the perspective he had outlined in his 1963 classic Invitation to Sociology: a Humanistic Approach. (That 1963 volume had been listed as the “recommended pre-reading” in the Monash Handbook. These were years when Handbooks were compiled in the expectation that students were coming to universities and needed guidance as to what they should read. Besides, Berger’s book begins with his subtle caveat: “This book is intended to be read, not studied”!) A careful examination of Berger’s writings would indicate that his sociology was expressive of his desire to strongly endorse the need to include within the sociology curriculum the examination of biographical examples of “everyday secularisation” from students. And so this was taken up by including a “social setting” exercise in first year sociology. But that was the extent of the “phenomenological” renovation of the functionalist curriculum at the time I encountered it (and it prevailed for decades afterwards) and as with Berger’s Invitation, the approach he implied – which was to develop a social scientific “perspective” rather than endorse a particular “theory” – was not carried through to subsequent courses in later years. Maybe that was because the distinction between “perspective” and “theory” – as he set it forth – simply could not be maintained.

But the impact of the sociology aligned with the Bergers’ biographical approach was longer-term; my initial grounding in sociology was before it could be integrated into the sociology curriculum, and then in my final year we were introduced to the Berger and Luckmann philosophical treatise in the sociology of knowledge: The Social Construction of Reality (1966).

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 drawing on experience from, say, the previous 5 years. In a university context, all such doubts needed to be considered as  (merely) “private”. Even so, the teaching of Jesus Christ about what it meant to be his disciple had become so very 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 but have public expression. It was not just a matter of what I said to people on the bus I took to take me to the campus. Even the bus ride made sense as part of the life Jesus Christ called me to live. 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 so clear about 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?

We will come back to this in a later post in which I discuss how such an initial confrontation is something I cannot now ignore, 50 years later.

BCW

Redraft: 15.5.17