First published in The Spectator, 4 August 2018
This is Greg Sheridan’s best book because it is his bravest. He tackles an important subject in a challenging way and breaks cover about the things that really matter to him. Journalists, even those who mostly write commentary, normally retain a critical detachment from their subject matter. Plainly, Sheridan cares about the decline of religion, and the collapse of the church’s institutional self-confidence; not to the point of being blind to its failings but enough to make a personal stand.
Good on my friend since Uni days for taking upon himself the task of explaining and justifying Christian faith. Our society is unimaginable without a deep sense of the dignity of every person; without the conviction that we should do to others as we would have them do to us; and without an ingrained sense of our duty to protect the weak while encouraging the capable. All these have a Christian inspiration. Societies without Christian roots don’t have such characteristics, at least to the same extent. But can our civilisation survive the collapse of the belief system that spawned it? That’s the question at the heart of this book. The fact that there has, as yet, been no Australian bishop, priest or theologian that anyone would notice, to remind us of our mighty inheritance, shows how far things have slipped. How can it be that journalists and politicians must become the keepers of faith too?
As a society, we haven’t just lost our religious faith; we’re on the verge of losing even our Christian knowledge. And that means that our country is at grievous risk of becoming culturally adrift. The official national curriculum that’s supposed to guide the intellectual formation of every Australian school student stipulates that all subjects must be taught with an indigenous, an Asian, and an environmental perspective but almost nowhere does it mention Christianity or the consequent Western civilisation that shaped us. If we took other cultures as much for granted as we do our own, the politically correct would be outraged. But how can we really understand anything if we don’t start with ourselves?
Last year’s same sex marriage plebiscite highlighted the gulf between contemporary thinking and what had until very recently been all-but-universally accepted. As late as 2004, the Australian parliament had all-but-unanimously passed an amendment to the Marriage Act stipulating that marriage was between a man and a woman. Admittedly, this had only become relevant because the Australian Capital Territory wanted to institute same sex marriage. Until that time, no one had ever thought it necessary to define legislatively what had always been beyond question. The fact that a definition of marriage, that had stood since time immemorial and had been confirmed in law scarcely a decade earlier, was rejected roughly eight million votes to five million (with Sheridan himself reluctantly on the side of change) shows how tenuous our cultural underpinnings have become.
There’s no doubt that a case for same sex marriage could be founded on our long tradition of individual freedom and personal choice. It’s just that no such case had ever previously come close to being accepted. Now that marriage between “any two persons” is the law of the land, my hope is that the state will continue to acknowledge the church’s right to marry exclusively one man with one woman. Still, the fact that the parliament could not make explicit this religious freedom bodes ill for the future.
Sheridan makes a sterling effort to show that religious faith is at least as plausible as atheism and along the way shows an admirable familiarity with the great books that our schools and universities now generally ignore or scoff at, and with the prodigious works of Christian charity that so impressed the pagan world and that persist even now. Then he recounts the religious dispositions of some key politicians: Malcolm Turnbull, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, me, Bill Shorten, Kim Beazley, Peter Costello, Mike Baird, Kristina Keneally, Penny Wong, Michael Tate, Andrew Hastie, Peter Khalil and Mary Easson. Howard has the best line when he observes that, the last time he’d checked, “God voted neither Labor nor Liberal; he certainly didn’t vote Green”.
Sheridan makes the interesting point that politicians are probably more religious than the average Australian; but are reported upon by journalists who are vastly less than averagely interested in God. Certainly, none of them (myself included) would campaign for election as guardedly as they opine on religion! At least as recounted here, Easson seems to have the most forthright and uncomplicated faith, perhaps due to having stared death in the face. The book might have been stronger had Sheridan also covered those whose doubts have defeated faith (such as Bob Carr) or whose faith had more obviously survived breaking its rules (such as Barnaby Joyce). After all, “it’s a church for sinners” as Johno Johnson liked to observe, doubtless to cheer up the rest of us!
Why the sea of faith’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”? When science explains so much, perhaps there’s less need for faith. When death mostly happens to old people in hospital, there’s less obvious mystery to ponder. Mostly, I suspect, Christianity has lost its lustre because Christians have lost their distinctiveness. Why should people take something seriously when it doesn’t seem to matter all that much to those who profess it?
I’m not persuaded by Sheridan’s advice that bishops should campaign for their faith with more of the paraphernalia of political parties contesting elections. The point, surely, is that we Christians have been so determined to accommodate the world that we have tended to get lost in it. On the other hand, he’s right to suggest that Catholic schools take a much more systematic approach to our articles of faith, a much more rigorous approach to the Western canon and renew their insistence on mass and the sacraments because what’s their point otherwise.
Sheridan finds encouragement in the strength of gospel-rock churches, grass roots lay Catholic movements and signs of a revival of monasticism. I wish I could share his optimism. For me, his book is a poignant reminder of just how hard it is to be indifferent to the things of this world and especially to love one’s enemies. Still, buy it; read it; and strive to be better. As each generation of Christians has known, some causes are worth failing for.