What relationship with society do Christians want?

The recent census data recording the decline in Australians identifying as Christians raises a multitude of thoughts and questions.

Why, for example, are countries that have inherited the institutions and values of Western civilisation seemingly rejecting their Christian roots? Why is Christianity thriving in other parts of the world but declining here? More curiously, ‘What do we mean by Christianity?’

Tom Holland, a secular historian, explores in his book Dominion the historical foundations of the Western world and concludes that the moral and social norms of the West are a result of what he calls the Christian revolution. He argues that to grow up in a Western country is to grow up surrounded by a priori assumptions about what is moral and virtuous, values founded on Christian beliefs.

For example, he asserts that the modern Western notion of human rights was not evident in any civilisation across history, other than those dominantly influenced by Christianity. The abolition of the slave trade is another example. It was the impetus of a Christian worldview about the innate dignity of the human person, based on persons being made in the image of God, that gradually shifted the social conscience of the Western world about the ancient practice of slavery. This enabled slavery’s abolition, at least in the West.

On what is the social power of Christianity based?

While Holland’s thesis is certainly compelling, it also challenges us to consider whether he is talking about Christianity understood as a social belief system that just happened to be highly effective historically, but which may not necessarily have to be rooted in religious faith or practice. Or is he talking about a belief system that, while philosophically and theologically sophisticated, actually only works if based on a personal faith? This is an important question because it raises an associated question, “On what is the social power of Christianity based?”

There is no questioning the power of Christianity historically. I use the word power rather than influence because I think it more accurately reflects what Christianity has achieved, consistent with Tom Holland’s thesis. If Christianity’s power is based on it being a clever philosophical system, I suggest its influence would only persist until a more powerful philosophical system replaces it. If, on the other hand, the social power of Christianity is based on more than its philosophical prowess, and more fundamentally finds its power in the lived faith of believers, then it will only maintain that power, its currency in the world, if Christians believe and live their faith. To live here means to express it, communicate it and stand for it.

My point is that Christianity only has relevance in the world if Christians actually take Christianity seriously and not just perceive it to be a comfortable cultural system. If Christianity is actually more than a social philosophy, it will challenge us to offer a faith response. This challenge is well expressed in the title of Francis Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live? or maybe put another way, “On what basis should we then live?” Are we Christians because it is the best social club available, or are we Christians because a relationship with God is possible and this possibility, this reality, changes not just our personal experience but changes the society we live in? The philosopher Levinas recognised the power of the genuine Christian telos (end goal) when he said that through the inward embrace of the life of the cross, the believer “triumphs over time’’. The inference here is that genuine Christianity impacts temporal existence.

This is exactly what is happening to Western Christianity – it has no collective vision.

If genuine Christianity is based on a personal and transforming faith in and relationship with the creator of the universe – an impressive thought when really considered – then it should make a significant difference in every area of life. So why is Christianity in decline, at least in the West?

If any entity continues to decline eventually it will die. A simile for “die” is “perish” and the Bible makes an interesting reference to “perish” when it states in Proverbs 29:18, “without a vision, the people perish.” This, I believe, is exactly what is happening to Western Christianity – it has no collective vision. For sure there are many within Christianity who have a vision, but I suggest that the Church as a whole is not living out of a clear vision. Rather, it is responding, surviving, managing, placating and not leading. A vision inspires, invigorates and gives energy for considered action, for leadership.

I was considering the notion of leadership recently and was struck by the fact that highly effective leaders are not leaders simply by dint of personality but fundamentally by the impetus of an energising belief. Effective leaders lead because some idea or belief system has captivated their imagination. They can envisage a state or condition different from the status quo.

The Australian census reflects what is happening in society. I submit that Christianity as a whole remains confused about Christianity’s place in society. Interestingly, there are several possible constructions of how Christianity can relate to society. Few would likely be hoping for a return to Christendom where there was little divide between church and state, but there are other formulas for the nature of the relationship between Christianity and society. Richard Niebuhr famously articulated several possible relational combinations.

Do we offer only a light sprinkling of salt or a bright light on the hill?

For example, is Christianity, as noted above, simply a very good philosophical system that a culture employs as a motif, a symbol of identification, but one which does not fundamentally change its motivations and modus operandi? Alternatively, might Christianity be a collection of believers separate from society, with believers and the wider society tolerating the other’s existence? Finally, Christianity’s mission might be to transform culture and significantly impact its values and even its institutions.

Each of these options, in principle, produces different outcomes. Do we offer only a light sprinkling of salt or a bright light on the hill? The problem is we cannot seem to make up our minds. It is important to realise that society and its culture is not something distant from our daily lives. We are surrounded by it and immersed in it. Cultural change is inevitable, but the type of change is not. As Christians, we have the option of allowing others to determine the direction of change without us or to actively add our voice to the process. If we could only agree on what we as Christians are here for, we might raise a unified voice and do more than manage our decline.

Dr Denis O’Hara PhD works at the University of Queensland as the Director of the Master of Counselling program. He has keen interests in hope studies and in the field of trauma recovery and has published extensively on these and other topics.