Flourishing Together – A Response to Steve McAlpine

I very much enjoyed Steve McAlpine’s article The Slippery Slope was a Precipice After All. As an Australian Christian, there was much I agreed with. As a semi-professional Christian apologist, there were a few things I’d like to open for more conversation. Two things in particular are, I think, worth chasing further.

First, I agree that the SSM debate has revealed a quantum shift in Australia’s public ethics. At least for my lifetime we’ve been a utilitarian society seeking the most good for the most people. It’s just that now we’ve seen a radical and rapid shift in just what the “good” is. We’ve gone from a social conception to a radical individualist conception. In this new ethic the ultimate good is personal autonomy and the only concession to a social ethic is the thin idea of not harming anyone, if possible, in the process of exercising that autonomy.

Strange Flourishing

However, I disagree that this means Christians don’t share in the common pursuit of human flourishing. I can’t see how Charles Taylor is right in thinking that only moderns seek human flourishing. Yes, like any good, human flourishing is a poor idol when taken as an absolute apart from God. And yes, many moderns do idolise their personal flourishing. But the Bible is oozing with God’s loving desire for us to flourish, both individually and socially, in Him. From the Garden in Genesis to the City in Revelation the imagery is all about human flourishing. Moreover, again and again Jesus couches his call to follow in terms of its benefit to us becoming fully human – most obviously in John 10:10. As moral creatures of a good God, the pursuit of the good life is simply and properly built in to all humans. It’s just that Christian have an increasingly strange vision of just what that involves.

From the Garden in Genesis to the City in Revelation the imagery is all about human flourishing. It’s just that Christian have an increasingly strange vision of just what that involves.

Second, I also agree with Steve that there’s little value in Christians trying to cling to the old entitlement paradigm about how we engage on ethics in the public square. That ship has well and truly sailed. We will need to rapidly come to terms with just how out of step our social ethic really is with the prevalent voices in the public square. And Steve is correct to call us to fully take on board Jesus’ challenge that being salt and light will increasingly result in persecution and slander.

An Apology for Apology

Where I’d push back here is whether apologetics has any useful role to play in this new moral economy. Of course, this partly hinges on just what we think apologetics is. I wouldn’t have thought that proper Christian apologetics was ever about simply trying to make out that we’re not weirdos. Clearly, we often are – or at least should be.

Nevertheless, I imagine that every reflective Christian would want to say that there was reason in our weirdness. Sure, many of our beliefs are counter intuitive and counter cultural. But don’t we also think that, upon reflection, they make the best sense of reality? Given this, I’d rather say that apologetics was fundamentally about arguing for, and living out, just how and why our apparently bizarre social ethic really is good. Granted, this is becoming harder and harder. Perhaps Steve is right that our opportunities to argue along these lines in the public square will diminish. But they haven’t yet. And in any case, they will never disappear in the context of local community.

Now I don’t think Steve and I are very far apart here. My hunch is that the “creative” in his idea of the church as a creative minority is easily described in apologetic terms. Indeed, creativity is precisely what is needed in doing moral apologetics in a rapidly shifting ethical landscape. The deep challenge we are facing is that we are trying to introduce Jesus to people who do not have the moral imaginations to recognize either their failings before him, or the goodness of his good news. It will take great creativity to present Christ in ways that expand people’s ethical imagination enough to see him as the key to eternal flourishing.

Perhaps ironically, Steve landed with just such a creative. C.S. Lewis was the arguably the greatest exponent of creative moral apologetics in Christian history, with Narnia the jewel in his crown. Narnia has shaped the theological and apologetic imaginations of generations. In this new world, new creatives will need to step up to the plate and take up his mantle.