How should Christians live after Christendom?

Family and faith in a multicultural society

This opinion piece is a slightly adapted version of Professor Patrick Parkinson’s third lecture in his series entitled ‘Family and Faith in a Multicultural Society’ for the New College Annual Lectures 2020. The other lectures are here and here.

In the first two lectures in this series, I presented a rather dystopian picture: first about the state of family life; and second about the erosion of our freedoms of speech, religion, association and conscience. This situation presents Christians, and all other people of faith, with a fundamental question: how should we then live? This question is the title of a book by the great Christian writer Francis Schaeffer, published 45 years ago, who analysed the cultural trends of his time. It is a question we need to revisit afresh in our post-modern, post-truth, post-marital society. How should we respond to the cultural trends of our time?

Accept that Christendom is over

As Christians, we need to accept our declining power to influence society. We must face new realities. To the extent that the churches have engaged in cultural battles to preserve Christian values as norms for the broader society, we have lost every battle, sooner or later. In terms of family life, we have seen the emergence of no-fault divorce, the equation of marriage and non-marital cohabitation, and same-sex marriage. In terms of the value of human life, restrictions have been removed on abortion, while increasingly, euthanasia is permitted.

To every claim that people of faith make that x and y should be prohibited or restricted, there is a compelling answer: “No one is compelling you to have an abortion; no one is compelling you to marry someone of the same-sex. If you believe in marriage, good for you; but you must accept the freedom of others to live together outside of marriage.” These tend to be compelling arguments in the public square against the notion that our religiously-based values should dictate how others live.

This does not mean, of course, that Christians have no arguments to offer in the public square. We can and do argue to protect the defenceless and the vulnerable, even if our views are unpopular, even if we are attacked for our values and beliefs.

However, we should have a realistic appreciation of our capacity to influence the society around us. We may win some battles, gain some concessions; but we should not be surprised if our society continues to reject Judaeo-Christian values. The tide is still going out on Christendom. Our influence will continue to recede, and the extent to which our laws reflect Christian values and beliefs will continue to diminish. That is in no small part the consequence of our declining numbers. Nominal adherence to a Christian tradition remains quite high in Australia; but it is not reflected in church attendance. Those who pray regularly to the living God and who seek to live by Christian codes of behaviour are only a small fraction of those who will tick that they are Anglican or Catholic on a census form. Christian influence is receding because faith is receding.

It has not been easy for church leaders to accept the loss of cultural authority and influence. You see this in the United States, where evangelicals have invested so much hope in the appointment of reliably conservative judges to the Supreme Court, like Neil Gorsuch. This desire to cling to power, whatever the cost, whatever the collateral damage, is misplaced. To quote Psalm 146:3, we must not put our faith in princes — neither presidents nor judges. Blessed, says the psalmist, are those who trust in the Lord their God.

Determining how then we should live requires us to recognise that many of the influencers in the society around us are increasingly overt in their hostility to faith, increasingly open in trying to shut down points of view with which they disagree, increasingly pushing for laws that restrict or remove religious freedom. If we cannot or will not face those realities, we will find it difficult to cope with change and adversity.

“The Benedict Option”

In the United States, there has been much lively and productive debate about Rod Dreher’s 2017 book, The Benedict Option. Its subtitle is: “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” It is a book that New York Times columnist David Brooks described as the most discussed and important religious book of the decade. Dreher, who is of the Eastern Orthodox faith, sees analogies between our time and the fall of the Roman Empire — the collapse of a civilisation as we know it. He says we are on the losing side of the culture now. We need to see ourselves as a people in exile.

Benedict was born in 480 CE, four years after the last Roman emperor in the Western empire, Flavius Romulus Augustus, abdicated. Benedict sought how to live for God in a society which had fallen to barbarians. His famous “Rule” for living a monastic life was about how to order one’s life around the constant pursuit of the Lord.

Dreher argues that, as Christians, we have a decision to make. We can continue to live in this post-Christian world as if nothing was wrong, nothing has changed, but we are at risk of losing our distinctiveness as Christians. The alternative, he says, is to withdraw to some extent from secular society, building strong communities in which we can be educated and discipled in our faith. If we do this, he says, then we have a chance of surviving, just as Benedict, all those centuries ago, created a means to keep alive the traditions of the faith in the monasteries.

Dreher’s book has been misunderstood. He does not advocate that we form monasteries. It is not his idea that we should head for the hills. We are called as lay people to live in the world, but if we are to survive in that world we need to spend sufficient time away from it, holding on to what we have been given, building our communal bonds. This, he emphasises, is not a retreat from society. The monasteries that sprang up during Benedict’s lifetime and thereafter became repositories for the gospel in local communities. They also taught people about the art of living which they had forgotten in the barbarian world after Rome collapsed.

Dreher calls for a similar focus on building strong communities of faith to preserve Christian truth and values. He argues that these are the days for building strong arks for the long journey across a sea of night.

Let me say that I agree with much of Dreher’s analysis and what he proposes as the way forward. His is an American context; the Australian context is different — and different in important ways. Notwithstanding these differences, I agree that in the West we are seeing a “Fall of Rome” moment. Of course, when we speak of a “moment,” we use that word against the backdrop of history. Great buildings do not collapse suddenly. Their final demise may be sudden, but that collapse tends to be the result of long-standing erosion within — the crumbling of stone, the weakening of weight-bearing pillars, and, in Australia, the steady feasting of white ants. We are not at the stage where great buildings are collapsing, but the signs of erosion in the fundamental pillars of our society are all around us.

An important sign of that irreversible decay is that the foundational principles of the Western tradition — notions of liberty and the rule of law — are under attack from both conservative and progressive factions within our polities. In the United States, fundamental values are being attacked from both the left and the right of politics. The dominant narrative on the political left is one of victimisation and oppression, which overall paints a negative view of modern Western civilisation. On the American political right, there is a profound disconnect between the values that are espoused and the actions of those in power. The right of politics, under the current presidential administration, is trashing almost every value that the Republican Party once believed in. The same is true in other countries — most notably Poland. A society which has few foundational beliefs cannot long remain unchanged.

Turning inwards to turn outwards

Adapting Rod Dreher’s idea of the “Benedict Option” for the Australian context, I believe we need to turn inwards in order to turn outwards. What Dreher is recommending is not retreat, but a renewed focus on strengthening the foundations of our own communities of faith. If it is a withdrawal, then it is a tactical withdrawal in order to strengthen those communities to better witness to the God who so loved the world that he sent his only Son.

Rather than the image of the monastery, let me offer another image — that of a city set on a hill. Some forty years ago, I had the privilege of travelling in Israel. I stood on the hillside in Galilee where, according to tradition, the Sermon on the Mount was preached. In that sermon, Jesus said: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” From that hillside, if you look behind you, you can see nestled into the side of a cliff the ancient city of Safed. It is 900 metres above sea level, and is said to be the highest city in Israel. It is easy to imagine Jesus pointing to that city, and saying, “See, a city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” That is how the church should be — a visible witness to others of the kingdom of God.

If we are to be that city in our time, we need to make sure that our foundations are strong and secure, that the city set on a hill is a shining example of what a caring community can be. In terms of family life, that means, first of all, working within our communities to support safe, stable, and nurturing families.

Re-evangelising the flock

A few years ago, before same-sex marriage was made lawful by decision of the US Supreme Court, I spent a few days in Washington, D.C. talking with people about religious freedom. One of them was a top official of the American Catholic Bishops Conference. I asked him how the Catholic Bishops were responding to the debates on same-sex marriage which were then dividing the nation. He said, “we must re-catechise the flock” about what marriage means and why it is important. By this he meant that the bishops needed to persuade their own people afresh about Christian teaching on marriage, and win the debate at least among their own people.

That debate on same-sex marriage is over now. In Australia, as in America, the nation has chosen its path. Churches, mosques, and synagogues, as well as those of other faiths, are free to make their own decisions on whether to solemnise a same-sex marriage. We should not be seeking to continue that argument. Christendom is over. But it is worth thinking about that expression, to re-catechise the flock. To “catechise” is to educate afresh, to persuade believers of the fundamental wisdom of Christian teaching. I prefer to say that we need to re-evangelise the flock. This is a task of positive persuasion. It does not involve attacks on anyone, criticisms of anyone’s lifestyle, denigration of same-sex couples, single parents or anyone else. No. It is a positive story we need to tell, good news, not condemnation. As Glynn Harrison argues, we need to tell a better story about why adhering to a Christian understanding of marriage — involving the union of a man and a woman for life to the exclusion of others — offers a pathway to happiness that may well elude those who have abandoned Christian values.

In the past, the way Christians have taught about family life has involved explaining rules: rules about sex before marriage; rules about sex outside marriage; rules about the grounds for divorce; rules about same-sex relationships. I suspect that such a traditional way of delivering Christian teaching on this subject will not gain traction among young people today. There are two problems with rules: the first is that the Bible’s teaching is not always that clear; the second is that a focus on rules emphasises only the negative. We have to persuade, not just to prohibit.

The clarity of biblical teaching

One of the problems with rules is that the Bible’s teaching is not always crystal clear. Take the biblical teaching on divorce. Of course, the central message of Jesus is unequivocal. Marriage is intended to be a lifelong commitment: “What God has joined together, let no-one separate.” But Jesus clearly allowed an exception for adultery. Paul had an exception for desertion by an unbelieving spouse, and anyone working with families will know that there are other situations — particularly when there is continuing domestic violence and child abuse — where maintenance of the marital relationship is quite simply unsafe for one or more of its members.

Theologians cannot agree on the rules about whether remarriage is permitted, and in what circumstances. Nor is there agreement on the place of grace and forgiveness for those whose marriages fail, or how we sort out who made the decision to leave and who was left, and why. It is a feature of the Western tradition that, on the basis of historical accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus, and the letters of Paul, Peter and others which have come down to us, we want to erect a legal code, a body of rules, a theological framework for doctrine that does not deal well with complexity or with human frailty. I gratefully leave such matters to the theologians.

Making the teachings of Christ attractive

Christians need to find ways to make the teachings of Christ “attractive” (Titus 2:10), to show young people, in particular, why Christian teachings provide such good and important rules for life. Emphasising the prohibitions is part of the story, of course, but perhaps we have done too much of that over the last few centuries, without making Christian teaching about marriage attractive. Consider William Blake’s famous poem, “the Garden of Love” (1794):

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys and desires.

If what we present is a set of rules only, that bind with briars people’s joys and desires, we may find that we are unable to persuade our adherents of the wisdom of Christian teaching. Contrast William Blake’s account of Christian teaching on sex and marriage with that of the fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom. Among the early writers in the Christian Church, perhaps none had as positive an understanding of marriage as did Chrysostom.

John used his pulpit in Antioch to guide his congregants’ households and relationships, instructing them how to live their married lives. He denounced the idea that marriage negotiations should be about money and property. Marriage, he wrote, is not a business venture but a fellowship for life. He taught that marriage must be marked by constant and open communication, and this included sexual communication between the spouses. He taught that there should be joy and delight in marital sex. Men and women should not be ashamed at what is honourable, or blush at what is undefiled. He also taught that the couple should treat their finances as being in common, for each owns, invests in, and depends upon the other’s life, labour and livelihood. Once you are married, he taught, you should abandon the notion that this is mine and that is yours. Your money is not your own.

This fulsome endorsement of the idea of marriage stands in contrast to so much of the asceticism that has characterised Christian teaching about sex. How would our churches be different if we had John Chrysostom’s teaching on sex and marriage rather than the dour and forbidding attitudes portrayed in Blake’s poem?

As Christians, we have a good story to tell about the wisdom of Christian teaching, but it involves a paradox: we need to give up in order to gain. To make a commitment to a man or woman for life to the exclusion of others involves a major level of sacrifice. It means committing to the other for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, forsaking all others. For many of us, that involves a choice to resist the temptation of other relationships, to resist the thought that the grass may be greener on the other side of the marital fence. We need to talk about the value of commitment, pushing through the tough times and adverse circumstances, to a time beyond when our relationships will again sail through more tranquil waters. We need to talk about the rewards that come from the discipline of denial.

The benefits of adhering to Christian teaching

The evidence of those rewards is there for all to see in the data on the benefits of marriage to happiness and wellbeing. A survey of nearly 10,000 people in 11 countries in North and South America and Europe, and including Australia, all of which have a predominantly Christian heritage, found that women in highly religious relationships are about 50 per cent more likely to report that they are strongly satisfied with their sexual relationship than their secular, less religious counterparts. They also have higher satisfaction with their relationships generally.

Safe, stable, and nurturing families

We need to put every effort into supporting family relationships, so that they may be stable, safe, and nurturing. In this regard, we have much more work to do on safe relationships. That same survey found that men who were highly religious were not significantly less likely to engage in violence against their partners. They are also not less likely to commit adultery than men who have no religious faith. So in turning inwards, we need to re-evangelise the flock and to persuade people afresh of the wisdom of Christian teaching. We also need to address relationship-destroying behaviour — particularly violence and abuse.

Turning outwards to support struggling families

A city set on the hill can be a place of refuge for those outside the city, and a source of sustenance to the needy in the surrounding areas. We do not strengthen the foundations and structures of our city for our own sake, but for the society around us.

When it comes to family relationships, the stability and nurture which so supports the mental health of children, Christians have a better story to tell the community. We can take a lead in community education and the support of families going through difficulties. Local churches could do more to offer education about how to develop safe, stable, and nurturing families, taking as our starting point this better story that Christians can tell.

To do this effectively, we need to look for the golden moments in people’s lives when they are open to receiving information and changing the way they view things. One innovative program in the United States that has had some success is the Becoming Parents Program. It was designed for couples who are having their first child together and is based on the preparation courses that community health centres offer to prepare soon-to-be parents for the process of birth and caring for the newborn child. The program was designed by a nursing expert in Seattle, Dr Pam Jordan. It includes the kind of information that midwives will provide. However, it seeks to go far beyond the traditional program which prepares couples for childbirth. The goal is to prepare them for parenthood and to help strengthen the couple relationship at a time when they are particularly open to information and advice, and are seeking to build a long-term family life together.

This program focuses on reducing the challenges of new parenthood by strengthening the couple’s resilience, and by promoting self-care and community support, as well as providing research-based information about infant communication and development. Its goal is to equip couples for strong relationships and confident parenting, fostering children’s ability to thrive.

When I spoke to Pam Jordan about the program a few years ago, she indicated that among low socio-economic groups where relatively few couples marry, a significant part of the program involved encouraging soon-to-be parents to marry in order to provide greater stability for their children. They encouraged very simple weddings, the exchange of vows before family and friends that did not need to cost the earth.

One of the impediments to marriage is that there is a cultural expectation that weddings have to be expensive — a large feast put on, traditionally by the bride’s family for all the relatives and friends on either side. The wedding industry makes the most of that special day, charging premium pricing for every service offered. It doesn’t need to be that way. As churches, we can find ways to celebrate people’s unions which do not leave them or their families with huge amounts of debt.

We can be creative in all sorts of ways about supporting marriage. My wife Martha and I have our own sad experiences of family breakdown — though for neither of us was it our choice. Ours is therefore a second marriage for both of us. When we got married some 12 years ago, it meant for her not only a new stage of her life but also leaving the Baptist Church on the Central Coast of New South Wales where she had been part of the music ministry for many years. Those church members were not just friends, but an extended family. So we held the wedding about half an hour after the end of the normal service on a Sunday morning. People brought food to a potluck lunch; someone ordered and paid for a large cake. Another volunteered to videotape the wedding. The wedding was a community celebration, a farewell to Martha, and a blessing of the church community on our new life together.

Local churches can also be involved in supporting struggling families. Nearly thirty years ago now, I was involved in a small Uniting Church congregation in Blaxland, in the lower Blue Mountains. We had a small cottage on our grounds, adjacent to the main road, that we weren’t using. As a church, we saw the need to reach out to the local community around us. And so, based in the cottage, supported by an initial grant from Wesley Mission, we established the Lower Mountains Family Support Service to support local families who were struggling. Initially, this relied to a considerable extent on volunteers who would provide practical support to single mothers, and would offer friendship to people in need. It ran workshops, including programs for people going through divorce. Now it is known as Gateway Family Services, and provides support all across the Blue Mountains and Penrith areas. It has 22 staff and over 100 volunteers working with it in various ways.

There are, no doubt, many other examples we could cite of the Church in action which involve local churches reaching out to local communities. The pandemic has created huge demands on some churches for support from people needing food parcels and other kinds of help. CityHope Church in Ipswich, Queensland, is an example. In the first two weeks after the COVID-19 lockdown, demand for hampers of food and other goods increased 500 per cent, and have remained at that level. The value of the goods distributed increased from a few hundred dollars per week in April 2019 to $13,000 in April 2020. This is a church doing wonderful work reaching out to its local community; but it comes at a cost. It involves sacrificial giving.

This model of local church involvement in meeting community needs is perhaps a different one than the Church has embraced in the past. We have tended to concentrate our social outreach in large welfare organisations — for example, UnitingCare, CatholicCare, Anglicare, and BaptistCare. These have done great work, but precisely because of their huge size and heavy reliance upon government funding, they have struggled to remain overtly Christian organisations. They may also be somewhat disconnected from local churches that seek to reach out to the community around them.

For this reason, these very large welfare organisations have a somewhat limited role to play in this new vision I want to offer of local churches that turn inwards in order to turn outwards. We need new models, new ways of doing things, new initiatives, new inspiration.

Building communities

It is important that Christians focus our attention on safe, stable, and nurturing families, but we need also to find ways to build community, particularly for those who are not in family units. These communities can then better welcome others.

If current marriage rates continue, around 30 per cent of young people in Australia will never marry. Some will form de facto relationships for a period of time; but whether these relationships will be durable is another question. A small number will form same-sex relationships, but in the last census these comprised less than one per cent of all couples. The consequence, putting this all together, is that our local communities will necessarily comprise a lot of people who are single, separated or divorced; not just young adults who have yet to form a marriage partnership — the traditional focus of churches — but people of all ages who are single by choice, single because they have not found a suitable partnership, or single by shipwreck, because for whatever reason, their relationship has crashed onto the rocks.

For many people in this situation, the greatest problem they face is loneliness. To be sure, all of us have a family of origin, but in a highly mobile society, that family may be in a different country, perhaps on the other side of the world. Loneliness may not be a crushing problem when we are in the midst of busy working lives, but when the busyness of day-to-day existence recedes, for many that loneliness will be more keenly felt. Christian communities will need to find new ways of including those who are single, but not by choice, in the lives of families. To quote Psalm 68:5-6: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.”

Religious freedom revisited

What has all this to do with religious freedom? It is essential for this new orientation, this way of reaching out to our local communities, that we retain the freedom to be Christian organisations. I would say the same, of course, for groups from other faiths in our multicultural society.

The freedom of faith-based organisations to be faith-based organisations is under serious threat in Australia from a misguided and fundamentalist idea of equality. Underlying the campaign against exemptions that I discussed in the second lecture are two beliefs that are stated with a dogmatism that is as powerful and rigid as any belief system of religious groups. The first is a belief that all limitations on who is eligible to apply for particular jobs should be abolished or severely restricted in the name of one conceptualisation of “equality,” even if 99.9 per cent of all the other jobs in the community are open to that person. This position involves taking a very restrictive approach to “genuine occupational requirements” as a ground for exceptions to general anti-discrimination provisions. The second fundamentalist aspect of the campaign against exemptions arises from a belief that the only human rights that should be given any real significance are individual ones, not group rights. This can make advocates disregard the competing claims of groups which would justify a right of positive selection of staff in order to enhance the cohesion and identity of a religious or cultural organisation.

The result is a serious threat to faith-based institutions, including Christian schools and welfare organisations. The argument is that all jobs ought to be open to all people, that there should be no discrimination against anyone on the basis of their faith or the lack of it. Advocates for this position concede that a Christian school ought to be able to insist upon having a Christian school principal, if they so wish, and that the chaplain should be a Christian too; but they cannot understand why the maths teacher needs to be a Christian, or the school counsellor, or the receptionist at the front desk. In other words, they fail to understand how the Christian school is an outworking of Christian community, a visible manifestation of faith.

The threat to religious freedom is real, and serious, because these ideas have now been embraced by a minor party, the Greens, and at least one part of the Labor Party. Nowhere, perhaps, is the threat to religious freedom greater than in Victoria. In 2010, the Labor government enacted the Equal Opportunity Act in such a way as to severely limit the freedom of Christian schools to prefer Christian staff. The effect of the legislation was that religious organisations that wanted to select staff who share in the religious beliefs and values of the organisation had to meet a very high legal threshold. Religious bodies and schools were required to show that conforming with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion is an inherent requirement of the job and that the person discriminated against does not meet the inherent requirement because of a relevant attribute.

This had significant effects on the right of independent schools to select staff that share the faith and values of the school. The term “inherent requirement” has been narrowly interpreted by the courts to refer only to those functions that are a necessary part of the job. Take, for example, the protected ground of religious belief. A Christian school would have to show that it is an inherent requirement of being a history teacher to hold to the tenets of the Christian faith, in order to justify not selecting a history teacher for employment who would be unsupportive of the religious ethos of the school.

This requirement was overturned by the Coalition government when came into power in 2011; but in 2016, the Andrews government in Victoria tried again. It introduced a Bill to restore the original version of the Act. Mark Sneddon, Executive Director of the Institute of Civil Society, explained some of the difficulties this would create:

[T]he bill undermines the freedom of association of citizens to establish and maintain voluntary associations which express and promote particular views of what is good and right. Those views may be based on ethnic, cultural, religious or political values.

The Bill was a fundamental attack on the freedom of association of religious organisations. Fortunately, it was narrowly defeated in the Upper House; but these attacks on freedom of religion and association will come again. The attacks by a state Labor government on freedom of religion and association, and similar noises being made in the federal party, are a significant reason why so many people of faith, and not just Christians, felt uncomfortable about supporting Labor in the last federal election. Labor’s vote increased significantly in many inner city seats, populated largely by people in well-paid professional jobs; but the Labor vote went backwards in constituencies with a large number of adherents to a religious faith. This was true in western Sydney; it was true in Queensland. It was no doubt the case elsewhere also.

For people of faith, this freedom of association is an existential issue. And it is also an existential issue in terms of what it means to be a multicultural society. As Joel Harrison and I explained a few years ago, anti-discrimination laws have an important role to play in the commons of our national life. There cannot be discrimination in employment, education or other sectors in the areas of our life where we meet on common ground. However, beyond the commons are those ethnic, cultural, and religious communities which are so important as places in which people can find community, acceptance, and support for their values and beliefs. There is no reason of public policy why a Croatian social club should not prefer to employ Croatians in the social club; or an environmental organisation should not insist that all its employees share the beliefs and values of the organisation; or that a Muslim school be entitled to maintain its Islamic culture and ethos by choosing, or preferring, staff who adhere to the Islamic faith.

If we abolish, or severely restrict, freedom of association, then we do much to damage what it means to be a multicultural society; and we reduce the capacity of faith communities to meet the needs of local communities around them in the way I have commended. We will not set up organisations to reach out to the poor, or the vulnerable, to care for families who are struggling, to provide support for those who are lonely and isolated, if we cannot do so as Christian organisations expressing the love of Christ through our actions.

And the same freedom of association that is an existential issue for Christians is an issue for Jewish organisations, Muslim organisations, Hindu organisations, and others beside. It is critical to having a healthy and successful multicultural society. This is what today’s religious freedom arguments are all about. They are arguments about what it means to live in a harmonious multicultural society.

Professor Patrick Parkinson is the Academic Dean and Head of School for the T.C. Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland. He is the author of Family Law and the Indissolubility of Parenthood.