Are We Now In a Post-Post Christian Pagan Australia?

The redefinition of marriage is a signal of wider cultural changes. Such changes have been developing for the last 50 years, and longer.

And yet, the redefinition of marriage is also a ‘landmark’: a place where we can pause, and carefully look around at what is going on in our cultural landscape. As we look around, we can see the rise of a ‘post-post-Christian’ pagan culture.

Post-Post Christian Paganism

Australia is increasingly becoming a ‘post-post-Christian pagan’ nation.

I grew up being told that Western culture was trading on a Christian heritage without appreciating it. That is still true in terms of the structures and institutions of society. But it in terms of worldview there is almost nothing left on which to trade.

Australia is increasingly becoming a ‘post-post-Christian pagan’ nation. In terms of worldview there is almost nothing left on which to trade.

Most of the opinion leaders and culture shapers in the West are not reacting against a culture which has been shaped by Christianity; they, largely, know nothing about the Christian past. Our society, at least on cultural leading edges, is post-post-Christian.

And by ‘pagan’, I mean that people operate without any overarching, coherent, religion or worldview.

In a chapter discussing the nature of ancient paganism, J. North gives the following description.

[T]he pagans, before their competition with Christianity, had no religion at all in the sense in which that word is normally used today. They had no tradition of discourse about ritual or religious matters (apart from philosophical debate or antiquarian treatise), no organized system of beliefs to which they were asked to commit themselves, no authority-structure peculiar to the religious area, above all no commitment to a particular group of people or set of ideas other than their family and political context. [1]

That description sounds familiar!

Australian mainstream culture has no real underlying tradition. It is pluralistic and relativistic. Just about anything goes, and diversity is celebrated above everything. Like the ancient pagans who worshipped many gods and so had no unified ethic, we have no consistent point of view which commands loyalty.

The result is that we live a an ethically erratic era. The #MeToo movement has developed in the industry which has always pushed the boundaries to sell sex. We spend huge amounts of money to save the lives of premmie babies (for which I am glad) while doctors recommend terminations for embryos which may have a defect. We campaign against suicide and adopt Physician Assisted Suicide. This is the deep confusion and inconsistency of modern paganism.

If there is any consistency at all, it comes from a commitment to individualistic hedonism. We pursue pleasure; and I chase my pleasure.

The Christian message that Jesus is the redeemer and Lord of the whole universe,  and of every life: life is about him, not us. It doesn’t fit modern paganism at all.

What are the implications for our culture?

1) Our Christian heritage is largely forgotten

We operate in a culture in which most people, certainly most younger people, know almost nothing about Christianity. They are not familiar with the Bible, and are unlikely to recognise allusions to the Bible, or basic Christian claims about the nature of God. The idea that Christian convictions will shape our view of ethics is deeply shocking to them.

We operate in a culture in which most people, certainly most younger people, know almost nothing about Christianity.

We know this in evangelism. Nothing can be assumed. Every biblical idea must be unpacked and explained — and probably defended.

It is also true ethically. We face a culture which is superficial, selfish, with no consistent worldview; and the shreds of Christian heritage are largely lost now.

2)     The Christian ethic, especially sexual ethics, is suspect

Most of the major obstacles which stop Australians considering Christianity are moral.

Christian moral orthodoxy is rejected and critiqued. Our views of sexuality, and of life and death, are considered false and dangerous. For many of our non-Christian neighbours the conviction that the marriage is life-long commitment  and that sex is only for marriage seems bizarre, oppressive and abusive. Religious education teachers are instructed to not present Christian sexual morality in school classes, because its ‘judgementalism’  is potentially damaging to students.

This ethical suspicion is amplified by accusations of obvious moral failings. Church life is under suspicion for child abuse and harbouring domestic violence. Biblical Christianity is accused of being misogynistic and homophobic.

We need to take these accusations seriously. We need to ’get’ the objection and understand its power. We have to face up to the fact that Christianity is not seen as the source of good moral direction, often it looks like just the opposite.

3) Living as a Christian is a more obviously difficult calling

Living as a Christian is always a difficult calling; but the more clearly we are out of step with our society and under suspicion, the more obviously difficult it is. Christians are seriously wondering if they can be open about their convictions and work in the public service, big corporates, the wedding industry, medicine and education (to list just a few).

I can remember preaching on persecution passages in the New Testament 30 years ago and puzzling over how to apply them to Australian Christians. We could acknowledge the cost of following Christ in families and sub-cultures in Australia, and remind people to be thankful that they didn’t face the persecution experienced in other parts of the world. N

Now, while there is no general ‘persecution’, there is real pressure. There are demonstrable costs to living for Jesus in mainstream Australia. The persecution texts feel far closer to home for the average Australian evangelical.

Recently a minister told me about a migrant family, who had been coming along to church, and seemed interested in gospel, but suddenly stopped. When he followed up with them, the mother was clear about the reason they were not attending: “I don’t want my kid’s to become Christians. It will make it harder for them to get on in life”.


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[1] J. North, “The development of religious pluralism”, in The Jews among Pagans and Christians (1992), 187—88.

(This is an edited copy of part of John McClean’s address at the recent ‘Navigate’  conference, run in partnership with TGCA and the Gospel, Society & Culture committee of the NSW Presbyterian Church.)

 

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