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Have we moved beyond Christianity as a culture, Peter Matheson asks.
The recent book by John Bluck, Seeking the Centre, Living Well in Aotearoa, based on his genial National Radio talks, paints an unforgettable picture of small town New Zealand life in Nuhaka during his childhood, "mucking around" with a freedom hard to imagine today in its creeks and hills and workshops.
By the age of 15 he was already steering one of his father’s 50 trucks around the region. John went on to a dazzling overseas career as a journalist, returning to be an innovative dean in Christchurch Cathedral and ending up as Bishop of Waiapu, where he led bicultural pilgrimages to the sites of what we used to call the Maori Wars. One sotto voce theme of his essays on rural life, on gardening, on reimagining our roads as dream territory, and on his tussle with cancer, is the cultural chasm between the Aotearoa of his childhood and where we are today.
The response of New Zealanders to the Covid-19 pandemic suggests how much of these cataclysmic changes were for the good. We now listen to the science. Some wayward types apart, there has been a remarkably coherent and positive community response to the formidable challenges posed by the lockdown. There’s been nothing comparable, certainly, to the breakdown in trust in government in the Philippines or in the United States. The flag of kindness has flown high and visibly and authentically.
And we seem to be actually winning the game.
There is surely something to be celebrated about all this. It would seem to indicate that we can draw on a deep well of shared and positive values. This is of particular interest to me as a religious historian and a practising Christian, because the leadership role of the Churches in this crisis seems, on the face of it, to have been fairly minimal. The words of church leaders have not gone beyond their own flock on the whole, and have in any case had little cutting edge.
It is true that here, as in the rest of the world, much ingenuity has been shown in developing virtual church services, which on occasion have drawn in considerable numbers. Phone networks have offered pastoral care. Above all, massive support has poured out to all sections of the community from the churches’ foodbanks. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen of the compassionate way in which such assistance is being delivered. The Salvation Army has also sounded the alarm at the growing social inequality revealed by the pandemic.
And yet, the overall impression might seem to be of a post-Christian society doing very well, thank you, without any input from the traditional faith of our ancestors. Part of me is entirely unsurprised by this. The churches have blotted their copy-book too often. Just yesterday, for example, I heard of a gifted minister under huge pressure to move on by Affirm, a theologically conservative group about gay issues. Many people have been similarly scunnered, turned off or disgusted, by their own personal experience of Christian intolerance. Churches today as a result face not only widespread indifference, but a degree of active hostility, and all tend to be branded with the same brush, whatever their stance on fundamentalism or bigotry in its multiple forms. “New Christians” sing an eloquent song about the abuse they can encounter from their peers. I continue to be amazed at the relief of those returning to church for a particular occasion that they are not encountering hell-fire sermons. It’s as if endless decades of critical biblical scholarship, the innovative theologies of a Bonhoeffer, or the moral leadership of such as Paul Reeves has not even scratched at the surface of popular misconceptions.
Certainly, on specific issues, such as global warming, or the care of the dying, there are flickers of awareness that spiritual issues need to be addressed. Our Maori and Pasifika compatriots, with their profound awareness of ritual, seem far ahead of us there. This current pandemic has also raised gaunt questions about our whole consumerist culture. I am struck by the almost total innocence, though, about fundamental Judaic categories such as penitence, so often confused with shame, or redemptive suffering.
These are all lost markers in the dark, and the blame for that must surely lie in part with the superficiality of generations of preaching and homilies.
So have we got beyond Christianity as a culture? In the thirsty desert, so the story goes, Moses tapped at the adamantine rock, and out flowed a stream of living water. Maybe we could risk a similar hermeneutical exercise, and try tapping a bit more sensitively at our Hebraic inheritance? Not to mention looking again at the unrivalled vision of a renewed humanity in Jesus’ teaching and living? Could it be that Covid-19 is nudging us to dig a bit deeper, to have a fresh look at our contested Christian inheritance, to wriggle our way out of our presentism, the convenient amnesia about our religious heritage?
A robust debate about all this could do no harm, and might surprise us all.
- The Rev Dr Peter Matheson is a historian and theologian and an honorary fellow in the University of Otago’s Theology Programme.