Earlier this week I submitted the following piece to The Age as a response to Barney Zwartz's op-ed in last Sunday's edition, "It seems that faith is not only unacceptable, but now must be cancelled." It didn’t make it into The Age - fair enough. But I thought I'd give it an airing here. It is the same genre and roughly the same length as the Zwartz piece. Nuance is often a casualty in op-ed pieces, as no doubt it has been in what I've written here. But even with the brevity and genre of an op-ed, I do think that Zwartz's argument is so lacking in nuance that it warrants some push back.
Barney Zwartz rightly claims that the “Andrew Thorburn fiasco raises complicated questions that are hard to reconcile.”
Yet Zwartz’s own claim about faith being “cancelled in the public arena” makes the task more difficult. It is inaccurate and an overstatement.
If we are to navigate the issues we will need more diverse understandings than those offered by Zwartz, not only of faith but also of the public arena.
All manner of Christians exercise significant public leadership in Australia’s public arena. The current Governor-General is a Christian. Five of our six most recent prime ministers are Christians. Several of our current state premiers are, and one of them is a self-described “social conservative.”
Clearly, something more complex is going on in Australia’s relationship with Christianity than the reactions to the Thorburn case tell us.
For Zwartz, the issue is sex.
It seems to me that the critics’ fundamental disagreement with Christianity is over its view of sexual behaviour in general, rather than gay sex in particular.
This dividing line was sharply drawn in the Thorburn case, although his church’s specific teaching on homosexuality generated much of the controversy.
Zwartz doesn’t tell his readers that globally, Christians are themselves engaged in a difficult and long-term debate, with its own internal fault lines, about just how integral these traditional teachings on sexuality are to the way of Christ.
Christians who do see the traditional teaching as a non-negotiable fault line will find themselves at odds with a culture which has adopted different sexual norms.
Flash points such as those we observed last week will not go away. Certainly, as they arrive, we could hope for less cavalier accusations of bigotry, less talk of persecution, and more religiously-literate social commentary.
That such flash points will occur does not mean that faith has been cancelled.
Nor does it mean that Christians who have less traditional views on sexuality have automatic access to places of public leadership. A Christian who, in following the way of Jesus, opposes neoliberal economics, and who chairs a church that profiles that opposition, would probably not be welcomed to leadership in either of our major political parties.
If Christianity is diverse, so too is Australia’s public arena.
Defining the “public” of a multi-cultural, multi-faith nation such as Australia is a difficult task. We live our national existence in a series of overlapping publics which continually negotiate their relationships with each other. The current discussion about the Voice to Parliament is a case in point.
To the extent that there is a public arena, it emerges as those relationships are negotiated.
Of course negotiations often break down. For some Christians (as well as people of other faiths) and for some secularists, that is where we are. Culture war is the only option.
With its lack of nuance, the claim “faith has been cancelled” is a salvo in the culture wars. As were many of the categorizations heavy-handedly applied to all Christians last week.
Yes, faith in the contemporary public arena is complicated and challenging, and the Thorburn case does raise “complicated questions” to which the diverse Christian community will have diverse responses. But it does not prove that faith has been cancelled.