Books

Can God Return from Exile?

AS THE Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan has long looked upon the world as his oyster. In his latest book, God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, he extends his gaze to the “other world”.

This interest is in no way surprising. Readers of his previous book, When We Were Young and Foolish (2015), will know of his religious background, shaped by a staunchly Irish-Catholic upbringing in suburban Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s. But Sheridan is more than a cultural Catholic. He actually believes; and he is deeply conscious of the springs of conviction that lie beneath a higher faith. His family life and university experience gave him a grounding in and politics, which steered him into journalism (the setting in which, for the sake of transparency, we first met forty years ago, and have been friends ever since).

This review appears in the March edition of Quadrant.
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In God is Good for You, Sheridan sets out to explore the nature and impact of Christian belief in contemporary Australia. The book is highly distinctive in at least two ways—first, that the author is unflinchingly hopeful about Christianity, at a time when the culture is increasingly disenchanted; and second, that he reaches out in sympathy to the widest shores of religious tradition and devotion in Australia—Jewish as well as Christian, Evangelical Protestant as well as Catholic—while also wrestling with the new manifestations of unbelief, both passive and militant. His working principle is that what Australians hold in common is infinitely more important than what divides us, and that to transcend differences may be more feasible than trying to resolve them. 

The book is organised into two sections—the first, comprising five chapters, focuses on Christian belief and history; the second, of seven chapters, on the spiritual lives and initiatives of present-day Christians. This is a wise priority of arrangement. It makes clear that Christianity is, first and foremost, a supernatural faith based on a divine revelation. It finds expression in a set of truth-claims that give rise to moral imperatives which Christians—and non-Christians—have exemplified in their lives, or else abandoned and defied.

Sheridan begins with a fundamental question—whether God is dead, at least in the West, compared with the rest of the world that is ingrainedly religious. He examines how rapidly Australia is becoming a majority atheist nation, and how forcefully elite opinion—in educational and cultural institutions and the public media—has turned against Christianity. The loss of religious faith, he believes, will change Australia in ways we can hardly imagine, in particular threatening our sense of a common humanity in the midst of all our differences. His argument echoes the claim of Jean Daniélou, in Prayer as a Political Problem (1967), that “there can be no civilisation unless adoration finds a place in it”, and a culture without God is not fit for human beings and will finally become inhuman.

Various factors have fed into this process of decline, such as the fragmentation of the family and the technological advances that imply science can explain all of reality, not just processes of design and development, but also ultimate meaning and purpose; that it can answer the “why” questions about life, not just the “how” questions. Sheridan connects the crisis of faith with a crisis of knowledge. Those rejecting Christianity have learnt very little about it—the content of its doctrines, its historical trials and attainments, its cultural contributions—and, in today’s schools and universities, can readily form negative opinions which a hostile culture soon hardens into prejudices, making belief in God unappealing, if not untenable. 

Sheridan reserves special criticism for the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. He is persuasive in showing that the New Atheists are far more a cultural phenomenon than an intellectual force. Their arguments are commonly shallow and incomplete, and their criticisms tend to rely on special pleading, citing evidence selectively as though it were typical. But their fundamental problem is their unwillingness to confront the consequences of their own disbelief in God. They do not deal with the challenges posed by atheism, especially for Western culture—namely, what sources of individual hope and social inspiration and cohesion are available to a people once the roots of transcendental purpose and accountability have been allowed to wither? Have we, in the early twenty-first century, now drawn down most of the Christian capital of our past? Are we, as Sheridan quotes the French philosopher Ernest Renan, living on the perfume of an empty vase?

No doubt theism and Christian belief present their own challenges to the human mind and heart, such as the suffering of the innocent and the apparent absurdity of death. One of the most impressive chapters of the book is Sheridan’s ruminations on the Old Testament, notably the Book of Ruth and the Book of Job. Here his journalistic affinity with the ordinary reader is most in evidence. He recognises the power of a story to convey truths, and the extent to which the Bible resembles journalism in presenting specific characters with specific names. Citing the Book of Ruth as working “first of all as a short story”, he notes that the authors of the Bible “understood two of the great journalistic injunctions—humanise the story, and get the names right”. Thus these ancient Jewish works serve as inspiring literature for our culture, not in the sense of conjuring up something unreal, but in summoning all our powers, imaginative and rational, to come to grips with ultimate reality—to see what is actually there. For the Christian, as Sheridan argues, suffering builds on the experience of Job in the Old Testament to be fulfilled in the mission of Christ in the New. Christ resolved the problem of suffering by sharing it, a profoundly human act, and then converting it into an instrument of self-sacrificing love of eternal import.

And yet, while the bearing of suffering for the sake of others is central to the Christian experience, there has also been the imposition of suffering by Christians. Scandals, such as the horrendous incidence of clerical sexual abuse, test our capacity for hypocrisy. Sheridan devotes a chapter to the sins of Christians, which he deals with candidly. He points out the distressing truth that the problem of sexual abuse in the Church, and among human beings in general, is perennial—abhorred by Christian writers throughout the ages, such as St Basil in the fourth century and St Peter Damian in the eleventh. But he points out the new and disturbing tendency as we try to confront this and many other evils, and that is medicalising them into illnesses, and thereby obscuring the role of moral choice and responsibility.

At a time when Christianity is pictured so negatively, Sheridan offers important reminders of its comprehensive legacy to Western culture. He highlights the political significance of the idea of the individual, and a belief in universal human dignity that emanates from the Christian ennoblement of human life—of every person seen as sacred on account of their carrying the image of their Creator. This exalted understanding has supplied the intellectual and spiritual basis of human rights in the West, now so readily taken for granted. It has secured the fundamental distinctions we draw in our culture, such as between church and state (captured in the revolutionary injunction, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”) or between governmental power and the conscience of the ordinary citizen. Sheridan draws on the historical insights of the Oxford scholar Larry Siedentop—notably in his book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014)—to stress the crucial role of Christianity, both as a religious faith and a cultural dynamic, in the creation of modern Western politics. He rightly laments that this realisation has now virtually been erased from the consciousness of the West, even among the most historically literate of our citizens.

What of the future of Christianity in Australia? The second part of God is Good for You looks at various individuals and movements that represent a picture of promise. In one chapter, “Ordinary Extraordinary Christian”, Sheridan relates the story of Rod McArdle, a Melbourne-based Anglican vicar who, with his wife Sheryl who subsequently died of cancer, raised a severely disabled son, Brendan. Sheridan’s account is moving, but it avoids sentimentality by being resolutely realistic. He shows how Rod McArdle’s experience of Christian faith, sustained by his belief in Christ’s resurrection, brought higher meaning and inspiration to his life; and further, made a deep impression on many other lives. As the English writer Arnold Lunn once noted, sublime goodness—or, in Christian terms, holiness—is a force as real as electricity; and like electricity it can be recognised by vivid results in our ordinary material lives.

Another poignant episode in the book is that of Mary Easson, who held the Sydney seat of Lowe on behalf of the ALP in the 1990s. In 2009 Mary suffered a grave illness and spent long periods in intensive care. Her life hung in the balance more than once. Then there were months of rehabilitation. Sheridan reveals the serene maturity of her faith as she faced the likelihood of death, and how her Christian spirit of resignation and hope helped her to prevail. By themselves, the stories of Rod McArdle and Mary Easson make this book worth reading.

The most publicised portion of God is Good for You is the two chapters devoted to Australian political figures, both current and retired. Sheridan interviewed fourteen politicians representing various points on the political spectrum; not only those recognisably Christian (such as Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd), but many who have not sought to highlight their Christian allegiance (such as Penny Wong and Kristina Keneally). Perhaps the most remarkable interviews are those with senior practising politicians, such as Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull (at that time Prime Minister), not because they are overly revealing, but because they took place at all. Politicians in present-day Australia have much to lose, and little to gain, by talking openly about their Christian faith. American-born Kristina Keneally pointed out to Sheridan a paradoxical difference with American public life: our politicians are much more likely to have a religious involvement than the average Australian, but the mass media which report on politics are much less likely to be religious. It is a testament to Sheridan’s reputation as a trusted journalist that he was able to persuade such public figures to discuss their inner life, and be confident that it would be faithfully represented in print.

The chapters on Australian politicians underline Sheridan’s approach in writing the book, and that is, blending personal testimony and objective analysis. Works of Christian apologetics (as they used to be called) can err in two ways: on the one side, presenting rational arguments as if they were complete and unassailable, and on the other, producing personal witness that is not easily shared. Sheridan manages to bring these approaches together into a credible narrative. As a seasoned journalist, he knows how to write for the ordinary reader. He can explain deep doctrines and dense theories and intricate traditions in intelligible language, and he affirms the right of the generalist to interpret reality on the basis of facts and insights that the specialist provides.

Apart from the individual stories, Sheridan reports on a number of Christian movements in present-day Australia—from the seclusion of monastic life in rural parts of Tasmania and Victoria to the lively Christian worship of Melbourne’s largest Pentecostal church, the Planetshakers; from the Catholic women’s organisation Focolare, founded in the Second World War to resurrect the spiritual and social life of a devastated Europe—and now active in over 180 nations, including Australia—to the offering of a Catholic, classically based education at Campion College in Sydney. He picks out the qualities of each movement that offer wider promise for a revitalisation of religious faith. He commends Planetshakers, for example, for their inventive use of social media and the ways in which they integrate fresh music into their worship; and Campion College for finding a way to pass on the tradition of Christian learning and culture to a new generation.

The movements are diverse, but Sheridan discerns common elements of religious leadership which enable them to convey their message and attract followers. One is an intensity of conviction; a second is boldness in communicating their core beliefs; and a third is the building of a cultural milieu that is coherent, and brings together such qualities as intelligibility, sympathy and beauty.  

These marks of leadership will be even more decisive in the future as the cultural collapse of Christianity deepens. In his final chapter Sheridan makes a number of recommendations to Christian leaders. His advice is that Christians accept the practical reality that they are now a minority in Australia. But this should not mean being timid and anxious to avoid controversy. On the contrary: “Being a self-recognising and self-declaring vigorous, bold, self-confident minority will actually be a liberating experience for Christians.” It will strengthen, he argues, their psychological security and tactical flexibility.

He offers various concrete suggestions—for example, that, while the Catholic Church presides over an extensive school system, the bishops have not been effective in navigating today’s social and political environment. The Church’s media footprint is almost invisible: no television station or active use of social media; no national spokesperson to comment on the issues of the day; and no appreciation of the need to respond to breaking stories within, not after, the news cycle.

Is Sheridan overly optimistic that Christianity can make a comeback in Australia? His book has enjoyed impressive sales and media exposure, and it has had the notable effect of authorising, for the first time in many years, a positive discussion of Christianity in the Australian public square. Finally, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Sheridan’s reason for writing the book reflects the hope of the Gospels—a hope that is distinctly different from optimism. G.K. Chesterton thought this was an irresistible reason for believing in Christianity—that over two thousand years it had died many times and risen again, for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.

God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times
by Greg Sheridan
Allen & Unwin, 2018, 358 pages, $32.99

Karl Schmude is a co-founder of Campion College and was previously University Librarian at the University of New England in Armidale.

 

4 comments
  • Wyndham Dix

    The question is, surely, Can We Return from Exile?

    As did the ancient Israelites for hundreds of years, we in the now post-Christian West have whored after other gods, notably materialism in our case, and abandoned God in so doing. It is we who live in self-imposed exile, not God. But just as He did more than 2,500 years ago, He will preserve a contemporary remnant, some of whom inhabit this site I venture to suggest.

    God has not moved from being everywhere present but nowhere local. He continues to sustain His creation. Among many other things, He continues to cause the Earth to rotate daily on its axis, giving us day and night, to orbit the Sun elliptically every 365¼ days, giving us the seasons, and through the carbon cycle and photosynthesis to produce food and oxygen for us and the animals.

    One day we will all acknowledge these and other endowments. Notwithstanding the knowledge science has given us about the way our world and the universe works it has created nothing. It has merely discovered that which God has chosen to reveal to us, including how to rearrange matter.

    Doubtless, we have abused some of this knowledge, including that which today passes as climate science, positing that we will fry or drown unless we reduce emissions of the much-maligned gas of life, carbon dioxide. It is sheer hubris to presume that we have such power over God’s creation.

  • Gary Luke

    The same era that casts God out of public life, calls carbon dioxide, the foundation of life, evil. Is this a coincidence?

  • Gordon Cheyne

    Can God Return from Exile? Maybe, but which god? There are so many to choose from. I personally like Ganesh: you know, the Hindu god with the elephant head. Seems like a fun guy.
    Just imagine what the world would be like without him. And all the others.

  • Alice Thermopolis

    When on a Sunday morning we hear the bells ringing, we ask ourselves: it is possible! This is going on because of a Jew crucified 2,000 years ago who said he was the son of God. The proof of such an assertion is lacking. In the context of our age the Christian religion is certainly a piece of antiquity intruding out of distant ages past, and that the above-mentioned assertion is believed is perhaps the most ancient piece of the inheritance. A god who begets children on a mortal woman; a sage who calls upon us no longer to work, no longer to sit in judgment, but to heed the signs of the imminent end of the world; a justice which accepts an innocent man as a substitute sacrifice; someone who bids his disciples drink his blood; prayers for miraculous interventions; sins perpetrated against a god atoned for by a god; fear of a Beyond to which death is the gateway; the figure of the Cross as a symbol in an age which no longer knows the meaning and shame of the Cross-how gruesomely all this is wafted to us, as if out of the grave of a primeval past! Can one believe that things of this sort are still believed in?
    Human, All Too Human
    Nietzsche Quotes

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