Same message: a different tone

An introduction to the Inaugural St Mark's Lecture for Faith in the Contemporary World, 15th May, 2014.


You'd have to be blind Freddy not to recognise that the place of faith in the contemporary world is certainly under question.

I was recently on a panel which included a lapsed or lapsing Catholic, a convinced atheist, and a man who would describe himself as ‘spiritual, but not religious’, and who gave one of the best defences of the existence of a transcendent God that I have heard, while the same time bagging out ‘the church’. Clearly, I was there as the religious nutter.

This make-up of this panel intrigued me as being representative of the state of faith in contemporary Sydney. The rumours of the demise of faith have clearly been exaggerated by the New Atheists, who are after all more than a little prone to exaggeration.

But faith is a more complex thing for contemporary people than it used to be. Believing takes place under somewhat different conditions than it did even a generation or two ago.

It is no longer a given that religious faith in general and Christian faith in particular have a role in contemporary society, and in the lives of contemporary people. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues that, like our exercise regimes, our careers and our iPod playlists, religious faith has become another option which we may choose: another avenue for expressing my inner self. 

The contemporary person may say ‘I am not religious’ as a simple way of saying ‘I don’t identify myself with any particular church group’ - ‘it is simply not part of my self-understanding to say ‘I believe’. Yet that doesn’t mean that they are simply an atheistic materialist – far from it. While some certainly are, many are not. What they have rejected is the institutional church, as they perceive it – and they have chosen to relate to the spiritual, or the transcendent, on their own terms.

And let’s face it, in many instances, the institutional churches have failed. We have failed to preach its message in a way that captures the imagination of many people; and, despite the massive amount of good work that church groups do providing an indispensable social capital, we have lost some of the trust of the community because we have not been attentive to the heinous evil of child abuse in our midst. We have taken our privileged position as the spiritual guides of the community for granted. We have failed to persuade in word and in deed.

If there is a loss of faith, then, it is a loss of faith in the churches, rather than in the idea of a divine being, or even necessarily in the Christian message itself. Certainly, Jesus himself remains popular; his followers not so much.

But what the churches have Sydney cannot afford to lose. Inventing a language with which to speak about God and a way to think about him is harder work than we imagine. The churches have words with which to speak about God, and to God. And more than that: the churches are the creatures and the custodians of a Word from God himself.

And without that language, there is a vacuum. That is why we still hear the echoes of the Bible resound throughout our culture – on the lips of politicians and sports commentators, in the practice of law and medicine and education, in the playground and in the pub, though many of us think we are quoting Shakespeare or Nelson Mandela or something. There’s a kind of nostalgia for the old book that is hard to shake

It is into the vacuum into which the St Mark’s lecture is addressed, with the firm conviction that the Christian gospel is as relevant as it always was, but that that the churches need to find new ways of speaking it.

We need to find perhaps not new words, but a new tone of voice: for the old way of speaking now sounds smug, slightly bossy and more than a little entitled. A new tone of voice must be found which is at once gracious and provocative, humble and courageous, and forthright and winsome; a voice which, as it turns out, matches the tone of the Saviour himself.

This will be heard by some as a 'watering down of the gospel', but it is not. It is an attempt to more faithfully and more clearly communicate the great truths of God, that many will hear, and glorify him.