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Peter Matheson warns we seem to have entered, culturally and spiritually, a new dark age, but also suggests there is a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.
On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. In 1799 this seminal blast against rationalist critiques of Christianity appeared in English, written by a German theologian with the improbable name of Schleiermacher, or veil maker.
It is ironic that we seem to be right back there today. And I’ve really had it. I’m sick to the back teeth of the casual denigration of Christianity, by folk who couldn’t distinguish Jeremiah from John the Baptist, and who seem to lack the slightest clue about our Judaeo-Christian heritage.
Most Christians these days are too nice to object, and appear resigned to trailing along to gormless funeral or wedding celebrations, as if this sort of cultural/spiritual vacuity is inevitable these days.
Well, not me. I’ve had it! Of course it’s true also that some of the cheap frothy religion around deserves nothing but the heartiest contempt, not to mention the occasional fundamentalist ravings about the right to conversion therapy and the like. Ugh! And then there’s the appalling revelations about sexual depredation and its clerical cover-up. But the old adage applies: "Abusus non tollit usum” — "the abuse doesn’t invalidate the use."
No, it certainly doesn’t. Nothing justifies this new descent into know-nothing secularism, with its arrogant dismissal of the Judaeo-Christian roots of our culture. We seem to have entered, culturally and spiritually, a new dark age. For who knows the Joseph saga any more, or is at home with the profound humanity of the Psalms or Job? What chance have we of pricking the Remuera bubble, of facing the scandal of child poverty and nightmarish housing conditions, when the prophetic thundering of an Isaiah or a Micah is a closed book?
What hope in hell do we have of confronting the real cause of global warming, our mindless obsession with economic growth, when the Kingdom values of the Man of Nazareth are dismissed by otherwise intelligent citizens? We live in apocalyptic times but still seem to imagine we can muddle through with the thin gruel of gradualist amelioration. Martin Luther King or Bishop Tutu could tell us a thing or two about that.
Fortunately, matters are not uniformly dire. A marvellous exhibition of Joanna Paul’s works is now showing at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, full of spiritual insights, and next month the Archibald Baxter memorial garden will be opened. Then again, Dame Anne Salmond’s splendid Artefact series on Maori TV highlights the passionate and costly commitment of Maori to their ancestors, their heritage, their wairua. But what leverage have our artists, poets, musicians, historians on our suburban obsessions?
Well there are, thank God, a number of young people who are swimming against the tide. Extinction Revolution may be discounted as irresponsibly radical by mainline opinion — which is anyway, almost by definition, mindless. It is, in reality, an impressively well-informed movement, with an edgy awareness of spiritual issues. Attentive observers will have noted, too, that the church landscape is shifting. In some quarters it is becoming more reactionary, but across quite a wide palette, from Elim to City Baptist, to the Quakers, to congregations such as Holy Name, All Saints, Knox, just to name those known to me, it is reaching out to meet the existential quest for meaning and a caring community life. Where would we be nationally, moreover, without the input of the Salvation Army with its crusading integrity on all the issues around poverty?
Maybe the cultural despisers of religion may need to wake up to these new realities. Nothing, of course, is simple. Schleiermacher knew that well in his time. Every congregation today faces immense challenges as it seeks to body out an authentic alternative to our individualist, presentist culture. At least, though, they’re trying. They should hold their heads up high.
- Peter Matheson is a Dunedin historian.