A Sydney dissident's restless faith

What happens when a long-serving lecturer at a theological college leaves full time ministry for secular employment? If you are Keith Mascord, you write a book.

“I get my restlessness from my father” says author Mascord. He’s moved countries, careers and in his faith. The title of his new book launched this weekend says it all: “A Restless Faith: leaving Fundamentalism in a quest for God”. Well perhaps not quite all.

Mascord’s five career changes include ten years full time teaching philosophy at Moore College in Sydney and his current job as a parole officer helping prisoners transition to life outside jail.

What’s a restless faith? “The heart is restless until it finds its rest in God” says Mascord quoting Saint Augustine. “On the cover of the book is a beautiful Ken Duncan photograph of a Northern Australian river that snakes its way into the ocean. In a sense all true quests for truth, beauty and goodness are quests for God. They are always moving towards God or away from God.”

The book is about an intellectually restless journey of faith.

He wants to get one thing straight, though. The fundamentalism in his book’s title is not describing Sydney Anglican evangelicalism, within which he was a college lecturer. He says that while the Sydney Anglicanism had “fundamentalist elements”, in his view it is also “liberal” in not teaching a seven-day creation, and in the matter of the chronology of the Bible. (While ‘fundamentalism’ originally was defined as a belief in the ‘fundamentals’ of Christianity in the early 1900s, it quickly took on the meaning of an anti-intellectual approach to religion.)

He characterises Sydney Anglicanism as a “somewhat unstable half way house between fundamentalism to its right and liberalism to its left”.

“ What I have reacted against is fundamentalist elements in Sydney’s ethos,” Mascord told Eternity.

“The book tells the story of nurturing in North-American-style fundamentalism in Canada”, says Mascord “then a positive and life-shaping encounter with evangelical Anglicanism in Sydney and teaching at Moore Theological College. It was there that cracks began to appear.”

The cracks caused a radical rethink in his Christianity, but for Mascord atheism “was never a realistic option”.

He nominates the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur as a hero – along with some of his former colleagues at Moore.

“One of the great legacies of studying at Moore College and teaching at Moore College is that you do get to be immersed in the scriptures”, Mascord adds. “You understand them certainly as divinely inspired documents and you get to understand them also as human. It is the fully human character of the scriptures that I have become more aware of.

“They are written with human cultures with assumptions and beliefs some of which we have discarded. The world is not flat. The ancients believed it was.”

Mascord describes in his book how Ricoeur’s method of reading scripture encouraged him to critically engage the text; a method similar to the Lectio Divina of more Catholic traditions.

“My daily practice is to make a coffee and to read a passage of scripture, with my wife Judy,” he tells Eternity. “Using Ricoeur’s method in fact. And then pray”.

Mascord does not see himself as a rebel. “I think what makes me different is that I have been happy to speak up and mention some criticisms publically, so I might be known as a dissident. But I have always felt (Archbishop) Peter and others have seen me as a friend even if I am willing to say some hard things.” He still spends a lot of time at Moore College.

Mascord says he deliberately “puts in the past tense” the open letter he wrote six years ago calling for a kinder gentler Sydney Evangelicalism. He is not trying to provide a current critique although he hopes his book will raise questions.

Some of the issues Mascord raises in the book, rejecting the traditional doctrine of Hell and of gay marriage will unsettle some readers. Some will be offended by Mascord’s picture of Australian Christianity and some of its leaders, and this will surprise Mascord who regards his book as gentle. Others will see it as a challenge to make sure they are well thought out on the issues he raises.

He sees some continuity between his old life as a minister and his new job. “it is amazing how many people who have been pastors, priest or ministers who work in probation and parole. It allows for pastoral care and engagement with people at the level of their beliefs.”

Towards the end of a conversation I pose the question; “If you have left fundamentalism, where are you now?”

“Fundamentalism is where I started,” Mascord answered. “In the book I include the doctrinal statement of Prairie Bible Institute, the missionary training college my family lived at in Canada. Creationist. Eternal conscious torment for all those who have not accepted Jesus as their saviour.”

“But now?”

“An even more ardent disciple of Jesus.”

He adds “a post-fundamentalist disciple”. Offered the labels post-fundamentalist, post-evangelical or post-liberal, he says he would be somewhere between post-evangelical and post-liberal.

Mascord is interviewed on Open House on the major Christian radio stations this weekend, and on the ABC’s Sunday Night programme.

The book has a website arestlessfaith.com.au