Friday, October 14, 2022

Faith has not been cancelled: a response to Barney Zwartz

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.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Church: God's Polycentric Experimental Community

This is a new ecclesiology unit at Pilgrim Theological College. I'll be co-teaching it with John  Flett in first semester. It adopts a new approach to the scholarly discussion and exploration of the church. 

This is the formal description of the unit's content:

This unit explores the roots of the Christian community in the messianic ministry of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ and the sending of the Spirit. It highlights the diverse embodiments of the church found in the New Testament and presents them as evidence of the ferment and de facto experimentation which characterised the formation and self-understandings of early Christianity. The ecclesiologies built around the classic marks of the church will be surveyed, but this survey will demonstrate that such ecclesiologies often obscure the experimentation which properly belongs to reflections on the Christian community. The Reformation's disruption of the Western church, the modern missionary and ecumenical movements, the emergence of the 'global church,' and ecclesiastical scandals and corruption all provide the background to the contemporary recognition of ecclesiological ferment and recent discussions about the polycentricity of Christianity. This ferment will be framed Christologically and pneumatologically in ways that provide theological foundations for experimental reflection on the church's mission, structures, and sacramental practices. The unit will include some focus on the relevance of these issues to the vocation of the Uniting Church in Australia.

Why the framing ideas of experiment and polycentricity?

The notion of the church as an experiment is a theme that runs through Mike Higton's recent book, The Life of Christian Doctrine (T&T Clark, 2020). He writes this at one point:

With all its division, and in all its diversity the Christian church is being beckoned by the Spirit into the discovery of God’s abundant gift in Jesus Christ. Its life is a collection of experiments in which the abundant love of God is explored and embodied (p.203).

To think of the church's diverse life as a "collection of experiments" in the exploration and embodiment of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ provides a new language and conceptuality to study the church. 

The notion of a polycentric church is taken from the discipline of 'World Christianity' (arguably a better term than 'global church') where it is used to resist received ideas of Christianity being controlled from established  institutional, geographical and cultural centres. As John Flett suggests in his book Apostolicity (IVP, 2016), this shift is a long-delayed recognition of what happened at the Jerusalem Council:

Theorists of world Christianity...affirm that God works in and through history and that the Holy Spirit structures the church [anew]. These theological axioms guided the decision of the Jerusalem Council and stimulated the non-territorial pluriformity and polycentricity basic to the Christian faith (p.285). 

This does not mean that the church has no norms. It means, instead, that the church's norm lies outside of itself. As Flett also says: 

Apostolicity means that the church does not possess its own identity. The church finds this identity in the history of Jesus Christ. This is the possibility of historical continuity, for it is the continuity of the resurrected Jesus Christ and his abundance through which every history is redeemed. Because it is the history of Jesus Christ, it takes the form of participation in his being sent to and for the world and thus the integration of multiple histories into his and only so by the testimony of the Spirit (p.328).

Within this framework, therefore, students who study this unit won't merely be introduced to official ecclesiologies or be presented with a "how to" ecclesiology. Rather, they will be invited to develop an imagination to foster their own contribution to, and leadership in, experimenting with the church. The first step in developing this imagination is to see that it is not possible to think about the church without first thinking about the "history of Jesus Christ"  and the "testimony of the Spirit." There can be no ecclesiology without Christology and pneumatology. Learning to think about the church in this theological triangle will be the challenge and opportunity of this unit.


Lectures will be on Thursday mornings at Pilgrim. It is mutli-coded, being available for credit in Christian Thought (CT), Missiology (DM), and Mission and Ministry (DA). You can enrol in either the face-to-face or online synchonous cohorts. The unit can also be audited.

Check out the official unit descriptions, course content, reading lists and assessments at these links:

  • Undergraduate Face-to-Face:  CT; DA; DM;
  • Undergradute online synchronous: CT; DA; DM;
  • Post-graduate Face-to-Face: CT; DA; DM;
  • Post-graduate online synchronous: CT; DA; DM;

For enrolment information contact Pilgrim's registrar at 

(I've written here about the other unit I'm teaching this semester: Christianty's Big Ideas.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Christianity's Big Ideas: Tuesday nights at Pilgrim

I'll be teaching this unit at Pilgrim Theological College on Tuesday evenings (6.00pm-9.00pm) during  Semester 1, commencing on February 22nd. 

The unit is the entry-level introduction to what might otherwise be known as systematic theology or  Christian doctrine. Those terms do point to particular ways of thinking and studying, but whichever is preferred, they deal with the ideas that have classically characterised Christian thought: God, revelation, creation, humanity, Christology, redemption, church, hope etc.

In addressing these topics as Christianity's 'big ideas,' I take the opportunity to explore how, precisley as ideas, they have emerged and developed in the midst of intellectual debate, political struggles, apologetic defense and contextual revision. Sometimes they have defended the Christian and wider status quo, other times they have been tools for deconstructing the status quo and constructing new visions of life. Sometimes these ideas have inspired individuals and communities to love and service, other times they have legitimated arrogance and division. 

Something I'll be highlighting in this year's iteration of the unit will be the theme of 'conversation.' What conversations produced the ideas that Christianity has inherited and what conversations should these ideas be part of today? These conversations can be internal to the church (across time and place), at the interface between the church and the wider communinty or they can be conversations in the wider community to which the church listens in. 

Therefore, as well taking time to introduce a broad range of classical theological topics and styles of theology, the following are some of the topics and conversations which will be addressed at various points along the way:

  • Theology and Revelation: What can be learnt in conversations between received theological knowledge and ancient wisdoms?
  • Scritpure: How does the Christian doctrine of scripture relate to popular discussions about 'sacred' texts?
  • Jesus Christ: Who is the Jesus invoked in attempts to defend the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition?
  • Church: How might the church contribute to discussions about the post-secular west?
  • Human being: What can a Christian anthropology contribute to the critique of neoliberalism?
  • Hope: What can Christian discussions about hope learn from climate change activism?

The unit is both face-to-face and online synchronous. You can read the official unit description and check out the details of the learning outcomes, assessments and readings at these links: undergraduate face-to-faceundergraduate online synchronouspostgraduate face-to-facepostgraduate online synchronous.

For enrolment enquiries, contact Pilgrim's Registrar at:

For any specific enquiries abvout the unit content, contact me at