Research in the 'soft' sciences seems to be treated with great suspicion in Sydney Anglican circles. For example, Sola Panelist Paul Grimmond recently called statistics a 'false authority' when it comes to shaping our behaviour.

"Without God, we turn to statistics to tell us what to do. But statistics only tell us about what is," Paul Grimmond writes. "Statistics are no basis for a system of government! (Or for deciding questions of morality.)"

I asked Paul what he meant by this via email, and in somewhat of a rush, he explained to me that he was attacking modernist thinking that links ethical arguments to facts.

Maybe I misunderstand him, but I’m not sure how any of this helps us to engage in public debate, given that very few people really believe in post-modern epistemology. (Hence the constant appeal to the sciences.) And I’m sure Paul Grimmond isn’t suggesting that Christians push for Australia to be run as a theocracy. 

As someone who has worked first hand with statistics, I am well aware of the dangers of false methodology and interpretation. And Grimmond is certainly right to warn us to be humble about our knowledge and that God's Word is our ultimate moral compass.

But surely total human depravity does not mean we have no basis to learn truths from our world?

Sometimes 'what is', is extraordinarily profound. For example, I worked on research that found that contract workers have high levels of work-life stress and this correlates with insecurity in spousal relationships. Given the complexities of modern work practices unknown in Bible times, this research helps us to relook at the Scriptural teaching on work and family afresh.

So I do worry Grimmond's line of thinking merely leads evangelicals into an anti-intellectual dead end. Where does godly wisdom come in? Wise behaviour is not shaped merely by regurgitating moral principles, as if the Bible is applied in a vacuum. If I want to work out a godly approach to alcohol, should I do so on the basis of theology alone? Or with an awareness of health and social data?

I think our theology is better informed when it takes account of research. Yes, the Bible is the starting point and the end point - it gives us the ethical outlines. But it can't colour in all the details. That is the role of wisdom.

It is was with these thoughts that I dragged myself out of the avalanche of sad news across my desk to relook at important new research from a Deakin University psychologist.

Some Sydney Anglican bloggers have already commented based on media reports.  But amongst those relying entirely on either the Sydney Morning Herald  or ABC versions, I noticed some of the commentary was woefully misled.

Taking on board Grimmond's warnings, I offer one tentative observation (although I have more observations on the ministry implication of the research if you ask me politely).

I offer this example to demonstrate why I think Grimmond’s approach doesn’t really work when it comes to engaging with real-world public policy issues.

1. 'Multi-faith' Sydney a mess?
Well aware of the Herald's habit of twisting stories so they better capture its cherished inner-city readership, I was immediately suspicious about the lead paragraph: "The trendy inner-city suburbs of Sydney are full of gloomy and miserable people - and they have been that way since before the economic turmoil began." 

Picturing the inner-city as wealthy, this somewhat misleading copy led some to point the finger at the emptiness of materialism. The research does not bear this out.

The research actually found that residents of Fairfield-Liverpool are the unhappiest and most insecure in the nation because their sense of belonging is impoverished by a weak community life. Those living in inner-city Sydney come in after similarly trendy south Canberra.

In a finding that may not suit the Herald politically-correct scruples, the report actually shows that it is highly multi-cultural and cosmopolitan areas characterised by high-density living that have the poorest sense of community.

In fact the report says 'the strongest demographic factor' in explaining the differences in well-being between suburbs is high migration levels. The survey shows lower rates of wellbeing in communities where more than 40 per cent of residents were born overseas.

As a result, people in Sydney's south-western 'migration' band, including Auburn, and spreading out from Canterbury-Bankstown through Fairfield-Liverpool, to Campbelltown, have lower well-being. This is multi-faith Sydney.  I would imagine that within certain religio-cultural groups (Lebanese Muslims, Indian Hindus, Vietnamese Buddhists, Greek Orthodox, even Anglo Anglicans) community life is very strong. But this research suggests that in terms of a shared common community life, the scene is not as healthy as it should be. (perhaps readers from these areas would like to comment?)

More profoundly, this research helps remind us something most Sydney Anglicans seem to forget - multiculturalism is opposed to the Bible's answer to social harmony. Indeed if you trace multiculturalism's history, you will note that it is one of the biggest drivers of moral relativism in our culture. In contrast the Bible's recipe for harmony is reconciliation (in Christ).

(NOTE: reconciliation critiques both public policy approaches implemented post-war in Australia - multiculturalism and assimilation. But that is a discussion for another time)

My point is here is that the Bible provides teaching on social harmony that helps Christians critique their own adoption of secular beliefs eg multiculturalism. But as a starting point for dialogue with a secular government on public policy, the theology by itself is useless. It is utterly absurd for Christians to expect our secular Government to adopt a public policy position (reconciliation in Christ) that ultimately requires the proselytising of non-Christians.

However, armed with research, the biblical critique of multiculturalism starts to seem less naive.

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