Opinion

What we are worrying about

Is there another way to deal with our age of anxiety, asks Michael Jensen

You don’t have to be a sociologist to figure out that we live in anxious times. The politics of the West over the past five years have revealed that there’s a deep-seated anxiety at the base of our societies. The rise of Donald Trump is only a symptom of this deep worry, a feeling of insecurity coupled to feelings of loss. A simpler, safer world is passing away (or so we think). The only constant is change.

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Globalisation has produced many advantages, but it has also made us hyper-aware that our personal financial security is part of a deeply interconnected and interdependent system – so finely balanced that the egregious behaviour of some banks in middle America affected financial outcomes in far away Australia. The only constant is change, and change we are powerless to stop.

Perhaps parenting is the most anxious point of all.

There are a number of cultural flashpoints in which this anxiety can be seen. One is over the issue of gender and sexuality. Another has to do with national identity. Another is the environment.

Perhaps parenting is the most anxious point of all. My generation of parents are beset with worry, unwilling to let our children outdoors lest they be whisked away by the child molesters who must surely be camped outside our doors, or lest they scrape their knees and we need to amputate their legs. The sad irony is that the dangerous and scary world is being beamed into their bedrooms through the Wi-Fi. And we’ve lost touch with the children we’ve wrapped in cotton wool.

Our political parties in Australia have chopped and changed their leaders in an effort to find a stable point amid the chaos. But this chopping and changing magnifies the feeling of uncertainty. We trust our parties less and less to generate people of real calibre who can lead us in the way that, say, Hawke, Howard, Keating and Menzies did in times gone by.

It is in the media’s interests to inflame this anxiety, too. Headlines trade on our fears, because they know that will get us reading. We are almost addicted to it. No headline ever said “Nothing to worry about – everything OK in world,” or “Less violence, fewer fears.”

How do we tend to respond to this anxiety? Edwin H. Friedman, author of the book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, argues that our characteristic responses to anxious conditions tend to make things worse. We want to fix them. We look for heroic individuals, with super-talents (so we think), who can ride forth and defeat our foes. We imagine that knowing more information will open up a solution, so we accumulate data obsessively and uselessly.

Rather, we should instead look to leaders who do not answer anxiety with more anxiety but operate as neutralisers of anxiety. Leadership that regulates and moderates emotion, rather than amplifies it, is what will help an anxious system of relationships regain its balance. This is true in the home, in the workplace, and in the nation.

… Christians in Australia have formed themselves into a highly anxious system.

I’ve been thinking about how this diagnosis applies to the Christian community in our country.

The Christian community also exhibits its own forms of anxiety. In fact, true to our cultural surrounds, Christians in Australia have formed themselves into a highly anxious system.

We are facing numerical decline, relevance deprivation and media disapproval. We face the aftermath of the child abuse epidemic, in which the churches have been so deeply implicated. It is harder to work as a minister now than ever before, and we are seeing a spate of ministry burnouts.

Of course, our responses have been to try and find a quick fix to the anxiety. Read this life-changing book, elect the right leader, change theological education so that pastors can do what it is we think will save them, be more missionary or more missional, plant more churches. Be more relevant, more traditional, more feminine, more masculine.

But these quick fixes don’t change the deeper problem, which is an emotional one. All our exhaustive efforts seem to peter out.

… Concern for doctrinal purity can become almost paranoid.

There are two very bad responses that I see to this malaise.

The first of these is anxiety about doctrinal purity. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am very much interested in correct Christian doctrine. I am not impressed by waffle and vagueness when it comes to Christian truth. I think it is important – no, vital – that denominations and churches watch their life and doctrine closely.

But the concern for doctrinal purity can become almost paranoid. It can result in cloak-and-dagger tactics, whereby a wayward individual is dealt with by winks and nods and whispers rather than by honest and open disagreement. It exhibits itself in the way relatively trivial points of Christian teaching become shibboleths for certain groups. Every error must be corrected. It sees society’s disapproval as almost a sure sign of the rightness of the cause.

The second response is the mirror of the first. There’s a felt anxiety about society’s disapproval, much like the first group. And so there’s a desperate attempt to recapture society’s approval, by showing how the Christian faith matches with what our society feels is right and wrong. We are nice, really!

What is traded away here is, at least potentially, everything that is distinctive about the Christian faith. Jesus starts to look less like Jesus and more like Richard Di Natale.

What we need is to become a non-anxious presence in our chronically anxious world.

If you don’t believe me about this anxiety, you need to engage in Facebook discussions among Christians more! The two responses to anxiety show a mutual incomprehension – and a mutual dismay at the response of the other side.

This came out during last year’s same-sex marriage debate. Some of the rhetoric coming from the No campaign was apocalyptic. The advice from the campaign strategists was, no doubt, that you need to play upon people’s fears to succeed. And that’s what occurred. It sounded anxious and fearful.

But there was also a group of Christians who advocated Yes because of their equal and opposite fear that to say No, even though this is often what they themselves believed, would lead to our ostracism from the community entirely. This response was saying “we have to look compassionate or they won’t like us.”

Was there not a third way?

Is there not a third way for the Christian community in our nation to take?

I very much believe that there is.

What we need is to become a non-anxious presence in our chronically anxious world. Christians of all people have reason to be non-anxious. We believe that God is sovereign, the mighty Rock who is a stronghold against every threat. We believe we have even our sins dealt with, so that we need not worry about them any more.

We have the resources in our faith to be an island of peace in a world that seems to be constantly in turmoil.

What a witness to the power of the risen Christ this would be!

Take the truth with the utmost seriousness, but patiently listen to others who have a different take.

So how are Christians going to become this non-anxious group? I think it’s largely about the ability to non-anxiously disagree – with seriousness and passion where necessary but without radiating paranoia throughout the system. This is calming – and unifying.

It is amazingly powerful when this safe disagreement is demonstrated because our world has lost the ability to do it well. We take the truth with the utmost seriousness, but patiently listen to others who have a different take. This takes courage and kindness. It takes time.

And we need to recognise leaders who are able to subdue the wild emotions that flame out from these anxieties, rather than amplify them.

Two leaders who embodied this non-anxious presence in the 20th century were John Stott and Billy Graham.

Both of them were able to transcend denominational boundaries for the sake of the gospel because they were so still and centred. They were utterly grounded in the goodness and strength of God. They had a great sense of what mattered, and what didn’t. They had the courage to disagree. They had their critics within the churches, but they did not hide what they thought.

We do not have to reflect the deep anxiety of our host culture

You could never accuse them of wavering on doctrinal convictions! And yet, when Billy Graham arrived in Australia, the Protestant churches united behind him, and the gospel of Jesus was preached to our nation as never before or since. John Stott gave his life to encourage Christians who were not just Anglicans in London but charismatics in Macedonia and Presbyterians in America and Baptists in Uganda. He is remembered everywhere as “Uncle John” for his quiet and humble service of Jesus.

I pray for a renewal of a sense of mission among Australian Christians – and for a sense that we do not have to reflect the deep anxiety of our host culture, but rather have the blessing in the gospel of Jesus Christ of a deep reassurance and a complete security.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.

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