The Light Beer Apocalypse: 9 things a viral video reveals about the world

This week a Christian organisation, The Bible Society, hosted a civil conversation featuring political disagreement between two members of the political party who, at least in the short term, will be the people who determine the future of marriage in Australia. It featured some cross promotion with Aussie beer company, Coopers, who were going to release some special edition beers in support of the Bible Society’s 200 year anniversary. And the world exploded. Coopers backflipped on the deal. It’s a real brewhaha (sic).

Disclosure: I write for the Bible Society’s Eternity Newspaper. They’ve paid me for some stuff. I like them. I like the video (though I think it has some issues). I know the host, and like him. I think public civility is really important. 

You’d be forgiven, reading the response pieces around the Christian blogosphere (and the outraged responses in comments sections and the Coopers Brewery Facebook page) for thinking that the world as we know it is ending (or has ended), and that we find ourselves in some sort of (un)brave new world. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but I do think this episode is truly apocalyptic.

apocalypse (n.)
late 14c., “revelation, disclosure,” from Church Latin apocalypsis “revelation,” from Greek apokalyptein “uncover, disclose, reveal”

An apocalyptic text doesn’t really describe the ‘end of the world’ (not primarily), it reveals the world as it truly is. And that’s what has happened this week; the discussion around this video has been revealing both when it comes to the church, as we speak about issues our world disagrees with (and about our expectations about speech), and about our part of the world and its religiosity. Because what’s going on is really a clash between religious views of the world. A clash between the religious, the irreligious, and those who are fundamentally religious without realising it.

The religion of a section of the Australian left treats heretics with the same sort of sympathy that the church has, historically (when the church has been closely linked to the state and able to punish with the full force of the law); which is to say it seeks their utter destruction. Just ask Coopers (or read the one star reviews on their Facebook page, and see the pubs that are moving to quickly distance themselves from the company). And the thing about these moments of revelation is that they’re actually ‘apocalyptic’ in a true sense; they pull the curtain back and reveal the world as it really is, and give us a sense of the future as it could be. Stephen McAlpine’s posts on this story are worth a look (yesterday’s, and today’s), and ultimately his conclusions from the wash-up today look a bit like mine. Only I’m more hopefully optimistic about things than he is.

The conversation itself featured two politicians — a gay agnostic, and a Christian conservative. These white blokes trotted out well worn arguments for and against a change to the definition of  marriage in Australia over a light beer in a product crossover that has copped some flack. What was remarkable was that they were attempting to model civil debate, that they listened and disagreed respectfully. What is even more remarkable is what the fallout reveals about the end of the world as we know it. Twitter went nuts. Coopers was flooded with one star reviews on its Facebook page, accusations of homophobia (for a video they didn’t make, that featured a gay man who will potentially be the most effective advocate for marriage equality if the Lib/Nats move towards a free vote), and boycotts from individuals and pubs. Coopers released three statements; one in favour of dialogue on the issue, one distancing themselves from the video, and a third and final statement capitulating and signing up as paid up members of the marriage equality movement. They’re also pulling the release of the Bible verse beers… the Bible Society has been criticised for featuring two liberal MPs, but this criticism seems to miss the point that only Liberal MPs think this issue is possible to discuss anymore…

Personally, I’m tired of the idea that marriage is a zero sum game; that we (as Christians or conservatives) can only conceive of an approach to marriage that is a binary ‘no gay marriage’ or ‘gay marriage’ — this is where most of the anger seems to be levelled at us. Why we can’t do pluralism well and figure out ways to acknowledge the religious import of traditional marriage for some Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc, and protect that for both institutions and individuals within the community, while also acknowledging the religious import of changing the marriage definition for those who do not worship a god at all, but individual freedom, is beyond me. That’s my disappointment with the ‘debate,’ and why my position is closer to Wilson’s than Hastie’s.

Here are some things I think this episode reveals about the church and the world.

1. Our failure to practice listening as Christians means later attempts at ‘civil conversation’ fall on deaf ears

In terms of revelation, this reveals a certain degree of ‘out-of-touchness’ when it comes to Christians in Australia and our sense of just how distant our assumptions are from some people around us. That this video seems quite reasonable and good to us but to others is the stench of death (and the sort of thing that certain people believe should lead to the death of Coopers). If people are shocked by the vicious outrage in response to the video it probably represents how far removed some people advocating for traditional marriage are from the lived reality of those arguing for it.

There has been a tendency in some corners of the church — some that I move in — to suggest that we do not need to listen to, or understand, those asking for same sex marriage. Our job, we’re told, is simply to speak ‘God’s truth to the world’ not to listen to sinners or understand what they want; I can point to specific examples of this in the Presbyterian Church of Australia, and I’d say a new Sydney Anglican website on same sex marriage also does this when it employs slippery slope arguments and just generally fails to listen to what people on the other side are actually asking for and why, while ‘speaking faithfully’. The Bible Society is doing something different and commendable in this video, but it can’t escape the baggage of the Christian brand at this point.

It is possible that if the church continues apparently not listening our own speech will be treated the same way by those who disagree with us (and I think that’s happening), so it was nice to have this circuit breaker that said “hey, we’re not afraid to listen to a guy who disagrees with Christians, or even to give him a platform and share his thoughts with Christians all over the country”…

Our engagement in this debate as the church has involved a failure to listen, and so our arguments always feel like non-sequiturs, or nonsense, to the ears of people who have totally different understandings of what it means to be human. From where I stand, there has not typically been much sympathy for the desires of same sex marriage supporters or their view of the world; we’ve tended to impugn the motives of those asking for it, to see a bunch of other potential changes being ‘freighted in’, to be fearful of our own place in society, and there hasn’t been a real attempt, by Christians, to grapple with how our moral vision fits in a pluralist, secular, society where many of our neighbours don’t believe in God so reject the natural law arguments we serve up (Hastie offers a conservative, natural law, argument for maintaining the traditional definition of marriage).

This means it feels like we’re not interested in listening to, or understanding our neighbours, which means it seems disingenuous for us Christians to be making the case for civil discussions of the issue now. The great irony here is that we have a Christian organisation also giving a platform to a conservative case for same sex marriage from someone who is on the record as being sympathetic for a range of religious freedom concerns. If I was a non-Christian I’d be celebrating that a Christian organisation is providing a platform for that sort of view, and a conservative Christian politician is modelling actually listening.

2. The church needs to figure out how to operate in a pluralistic world… and fast

This video from the Bible Society was a nice example of a step towards pluralism. It doesn’t actually pick a side in the marriage debate, despite what those who’ve already settled on changing the definition of marriage might tell you. If we can’t figure out how to operate in a pluralist, secular, democracy then we can expect much more of the sort of treatment Coopers got from this video. And it’s not so much Hastie’s position (though he’s a Christian) that reveals the problem here, it’s a thoroughly consistent conservative position; it’s the ongoing sense that the future of the church’s witness, or our position in society, depends in some way on how this debate goes; it’s that the video presents the options on marriage as a binary choice between legislating same sex marriage, or maintaining the conservative position. This binary lacks imagination and backs us into a corner; if we can’t advocate a generous and pluralist solution to those opposite, then we can’t very well turn around and ask them for a pluralist solution (religious freedom) if/when they win. When it comes to same sex marriage it doesn’t have to be a choice between Wilson and Hastie.

Every belief about marriage is a position derived from a type of ‘religious’ conviction (a ‘theological anthropology’ even). A belief that there is no God brings with it a certain account of who we are, and opens up a range of potential visions of ‘the good human life’ — our ‘religious beliefs’ shape our understanding of what is and isn’t good for people. For the theist, the ‘good’ is the personification of the nature of God, for the non-theist the thing that acts as ‘god’ (a sort of organising force in the world) is the deification of the ‘good’ (in the case for same sex marriage the ‘divine good’ looks like love and individual freedom). We’re not good — many of us (Tim Wilson is an exception) — at accommodating different gods, or visions of ‘the good life’ in a shared political framework.

3. We need to be slow to overreach in our reaction to the reaction, because the outrage cycle is built on perpetual overreach

It’d be a shame to over-reach though, in terms of what the reaction to this video represents for us as the church. We’d need to do a good and careful job at parsing out exactly what people are angry at, and why, and whether they’re angry at Christians speaking at all, or angry because of the way Christians have spoken out on this… and we need to ask ourselves some pretty bracing questions if it’s the latter (and I think it could be, in part because as a Christian looking at how we speak about marriage, I think we’ve often got this wrong).

The thing about the outrage cycle is that it often involves a tit-for-tat ‘hot take’ driven over-reach, and there’s not always enough time given to that careful analysis of what is happening and why (this tends to be diminished the more somebody has been developing a systemised approach to understanding something more broadly, when it’s possibly a response to ‘data’ rather than anecdote).

We might be tempted to describe this as the death of free speech in Australia. It could be. Free speech is definitely under attack from a certain section of the Australian community; and the attackers do have some politicial clout. I’ll suggest below that Christians shouldn’t be into free speech, but costly speech, anyway… but I think it’s a mistake to think that the chattering class (who can be found writing opinion pieces, blogs, and comments below the fold on these pieces) represent the whole Australian landscape. It certainly doesn’t seem to value Tim Wilson or see his perspective as one shared by those outside a particular intellectual circle.  I spoke to someone yesterday who had reached out to Tim Wilson to see how he was coping with the fallout, and he’d remarked that the outrage simply proved his point. Not everybody in this world, outside the church, finds outrage appealing (just as not everyone in the church wants to join in the outrage but from the opposite end).

It’s possible that the hardcore, reactionary left is massively over-reaching in its response to this video (and Coopers is over-reacting, and responding far too quickly in response to this over-reach). I’ve written lots about marriage and same sex marriage, I haven’t hidden my Christian convictions, and yet I manage to have pretty robust and civil conversations with gay friends, my neighbours, my friends from the left, and friends from the right. The hard left gets a disproportionate and distorting influence on certain issues (including marriage) in the Labor Party, just as the hard right gets a disproportionate influence on certain issues (including marriage) in the Liberal Party.

I do think our problems, as the church, are more about a failure to listen, a failure to do pluralism, and some problems when it comes to what we say when we speak… I don’t know many people in the real world who planned to change their beer buying habits as a result of this campaign; I don’t know many people who have the sort of spare time that allows them to fill up the comments sections on different websites, or write one star reviews. We need to be careful not to over-react, in fear, to a noisy minority (while being careful in how we engage) because that actually serves to amplify the voice and impact of the over-reachers.

4. The new religion of the secular left learned how to treat heretics from the best… the church

In the 14th century there was a guy, John Wycliffe, who dared to translate the Bible into the language of the people. The church felt like its power was threatened by this dissenter. Sadly he died before they could kill him. So the church dug up his body and burned him. In the 16th century there was a guy named Servetus; his teaching was heretical and considered dangerous. Calvin reluctantly worked with the government of Geneva to have him executed. When religion co-opts political power, bad things happen to ‘heretics’… the state religion destroys them. The state hasn’t destroyed Coopers in this case (and the future of Coopers remains to be seen), but the treatment of the company, and its business, at the hands of their critics looked a lot like a witch hunt, a lynching, or a heresy purge. It remains to be seen whether Coopers’ repentance and contrition will save them — it would’ve saved a Christian in Rome, if they’d just chosen to bend the knee to Caesar… but it feels like the online outrage machine is less forgiving than Rome, and it’s certainly less inclined to forgive than Calvin was with Servetus. There isn’t much space for grace in the ‘gospel’ of the hard left. Just shame and destruction. The more we point that out not just by decrying it, but by modelling a compelling alternative, the better…

5. We need to tighten up our speaking; sometimes we can try to be too clever and homophonia gets us in trouble

The Bible Society has, for some time, had the slogan ‘live light’ as part of its brand. But its playfulness and lack of clarity about what ‘light’ is, has bitten pretty hard this week.

In its mission statement is says:

“Early in the life of Australia, passionate community leaders like Lady Macquarie created the Bible Society. They knew it wasn’t just government that could build a nation. It would need people of hope, people who live light.”

Indeed, its logo prior to this bicentenary celebration was this…


It’s not (though the tone of the video might suggest otherwise) really about treating the issue lightly (as though they don’t matter or should be laughed off); the two people conversing are very serious stakeholders in this debate mounting serious arguments for their position. It’s about bringing ‘light’ not darkness.

The bit of the verse featured on the Coopers carton in the picture above (a ‘light beer’) says:

“Whoever lives by truth comes into the light”…

That’s, of course, not the full story. It leaves ‘light’ a bit ambiguous. The verse that is, in part, featured on the Coopers cartons that support the campaign is John 3:21:

But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

This is about light as opposed to darkness; not light as opposed to ‘heavy’ (as in beer), or light as opposed to serious (as in discussion)

The context of this verse is:

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. — John 3:19-20

This verse is ultimately about Jesus. Coming to Jesus. Jesus is the light. He’s not darkness or watery beer.

Bible verses don’t work so well if we pull them apart and lift them from their context. And it’s especially dangerous to take a word like ‘light’ and be flexible with the definition for the sake of a clever campaign. Biblically, in the Greek, light in weight is ἐλαφρός while light as opposed to darkness is φῶς. It’s not a great bit of word play to let the definitions creep into each other. It’s confusing.

That the public conversation is now about how wrong it is for the Bible Society to treat such a significant conversation lightly shows that we have a real problem, in our culture, with homophonia. When words sound the same, we take the least charitable possible understanding in a way that serves our own purposes. But it doesn’t help when the people speaking are obscuring the charitable understanding they should be promoting… Sometimes we try to be too clever with slogans — so when we have ‘a light discussion about heavy issues’ in connection with a Bible verse about Jesus, that can catch us out. Mixing metaphors gets us into all sorts of trouble, and this campaign mixing a Bible verse, light beer, and a light hearted conversation is a bit confusing for all of us.

6. The Bible has useful principles when it comes to public civility; but its point is usually about something much more important than that

The video is meant to promote the idea that following the Bible’s advice when it comes to disagreement produces better outcomes (I think it does). It’s part of the Bible Society’s campaign to show how the Bible brings light to the world. What the video was meant to demonstrate, or reveal, is that it is possible that living in the light of the Bible, and its wisdom, produces better, more civil, conversations in public about significant issues. The way Wilson and Hastie attempted to model advice from the book of James does seem to demonstrate a virtuous type of public civility that I desperately crave in and for our nation. It’s not that the Bible alone produces this civility, Wilson isn’t a Christian, but the Bible does, or should, produce people who do this. The fuller context of James 1 says:

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

Now. I’m sure that being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry is good advice for civil conversation. But really… that’s not what James has in view — he’s writing to Christians (brothers and sisters) and the way we’re meant to approach speaking is connected to the ‘righteousness God desires’ and is meant to be about a connection between words and actions. There’s a lot more behind this verse than just a guide to civil conversation, and we’re not actually helping people see the value of the Bible by limiting its impact to ‘wise advice for everyone’… When Jesus talks about the Bible he says stuff like:

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me…” — John 5:39

It’d be interesting to consider how this shapes how we should speak about same sex marriage, or what our position we should be advocating with great civility.

7. Talk is cheap, but public speech should be costly not free.

As Christians we signed up to the idea that speech should be costly when we signed up to follow the crucified ‘word of God’… Jesus. I don’t think ‘free speech’ in a political sense is dead; words have always had consequences because speakers have always been challenged to back up words with actions (cost), because without that you’re a blowhard or a hypocrite.

The problem with the virtual outrage machine is that clicktivism costs nothing. People are free to jump on to a business’s page and destroy its reputation without ever changing their actions. This is what some now call ‘virtue signalling’ — for talking about virtue to be real not just a signalling exercise, it has to be backed up with action.

Ethical speech should not be free for Christians. It should be costly. Political speech should also be costly (I fleshed this out a bit more in a thing about how to write to your MP). Words for Christians need to be underpinned by action. We’re meant to do what the word says (to quote James). Speech should at least cost us ‘having listened’… but it must cost us more than that. If we want our speech to have integrity we need an ethos that supports our logos. 

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” — 1 John 3:18

8. We should live light in response to this apocalypse (and this doesn’t mean light beer or pulling our punches)

 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him — John 1:4-5, 9-10

The last few days has revealed much about the church, and much about our ability to have meaningful conversations in Australia. It has revealed the gap between what we think and believe about humanity and the world, and what the ‘world’ thinks about humanity. People outside the church have taken offence at a Christian organisation appearing to support a conservative political position because it lines up with Christian moral convictions. They’ve called even talking about traditional Christian views offensive, oppressive, and hateful.

It seems the deck is stacked against us; especially if this is some sort of majority position. If this is the case, we may as well be bold and be offensive for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. If people are going to be offended and mock us whether we make conservative political arguments from natural law, or for approaching the secular political realm as people who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus (and that this should shape our own politics and how we think of sex and marriage within our own communities, and in terms of God’s design for human flourishing), then why don’t we bring the real light?

“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” — Matthew 10:22

Jesus says that’s what’s going to happen to us because of his name… and this isn’t some shibboleth test, but I’m not sure the name of Jesus got a mention in this little video. It might just be worth our while to be hated for living light — promoting Jesus in word and deed — rather than being seen to be pushing some sort of conservative political agenda according to the secular rules, or even to be seen to be advocating for the very good thing of public civility (as nice as that would be to see from my perspective as a citizen in the Australian public).

Here’s how this worked for Paul…

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God. — 2 Corinthians 2:12-17

If we’re inevitably going to be offensive, let’s be offensive for good reason (and we might just be the aroma of life for some people) rather than carrying the stench of stale light beer.

9. We need less ‘hot takes’ and more cold ones

Hot take (n.)

“a piece of commentary, typically produced quickly in response to a recent event, whose primary purpose is to attract attention.”

Cold one (n.)

“a cold beverage, usually a beer”

I’m reluctant to add this post as another piece of chatter on this issue from the chattering class. Another hot take in a sea of outrage. Another rhetorical ship passing other ships in the night. I’d rather be a lighthouse than a ship.

I’d much rather have a beer with my gay friends and neighbours and really listen to them so that together we might imagine better ways forward than either binary solutions, outrage, or totalitarian solutions that aim to silence those who disagree with us. My shout (let me practice costly speech). It probably won’t be a Coopers this week (I confess, I’ve never drunk a Coopers), and it certainly won’t be a light beer, because I don’t want to mix metaphors, nor do I want to drink light beer.

But this sort of conversation should shed light on life lived together in the world, and on where my hope for my neighbours and our society is really found. The one who didn’t just ‘bring light’ to conversations, but who is the light of the world.

I don’t think civil public discourse is served all that well by fast, attention grabbing responses and conversation by hashtag. I hate boycotts — whether it’s Christians boycotting Halal certified food, or LGBTIQA allies boycotting Coopers. Boycotts are self-serving and self-seeking; they are the worst form of virtue signalling. Imagine how much more effective and persuasive it might be to write to Coopers and say “I don’t like that you’ve done this but I’m going to keep drinking your beer because I value you, it, and your workers”… We Christians don’t change hearts and minds through hostility (even if Coopers has backflipped), but hospitality, love, listening, understanding, and then carefully speaking the Gospel as it relates to an issue.

What saddens me is that as much as this has been a useful revelation about the state of public discourse in Australia, almost all of my Christian friends (myself included) have spent the last three days talking about beer, same sex marriage and civility, when we could’ve been talking about Jesus. Let’s aim our ‘living light’ or ‘keeping it light’ at that goal, even if apocalyptic moments like this one keep revealing that the world can be a pretty dark place.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. — 2 Corinthians 4:1-6

Who do you believe you are? Why our ‘theological anthropology’ shapes how we do politics

I’ve spent lots of time (and poured lots of words here) trying to figure out why so many public Christian voices resort to making the case for Christian morality by appealing to nature, rather than the Gospel of Jesus. Whether these voices are trying to shape secular legislation according to the Christian view, to persuade, or simply to have a Christian position accommodated in a pluralistic democracy, the idea that somehow we’re better off making natural arguments than super-natural arguments has always struck me as odd and self-defeating, and, theologically speaking, pointless. I had an epiphany recently when I realised what’s going on is not just a question of different strategies for operating in a secular democracy (though for some this is a strategic decision (see the opening of this recent post)), what’s going on is a fundamentally different understanding of who we are as people and what makes us tick, and, from a Christian position, what is required to convince someone to live according to God’s design.

Our theological understanding of what it is to be human (anthropology) will shape our approach to politics (this is actually true even for those who think they don’t have a theology — what we think of the question of God, whether it’s the God of the Bible, the gods of other religious and philosophical systems, or the things we’ve replaced belief in gods with thanks to ‘enlightenment’… politics is a reflection of a theological anthropology.

Scarecrow or Tin Man? Are we shaped head first or heart first?

What’s going on in these differing approaches to the public square, particularly to politics, is a bit of a Wizard of Oz scenario. It’s like people making natural law arguments assume people around us no longer seem interested in a natural ordering of things because they are like Oz’s Scarecrow. Befuddled. In want of a brain; or at least, in want of right thinking. So the answer is to argue people into right thinking. I’m going to suggest below that we’re all more like Tin Man. The human condition is to be driven by the heart; specifically a heart beating for some ultimate love; a heart shaped by worship. I think this is a better accounting for why natural law has appealed, historically, when most people had some belief in a god (and where nature reflected that god), and for why natural law no longer has quite the same cachet in modern moral arguments; because we’ve filled that ‘heart slot’ with things other than God, or gods, and the things we fill that slot with shape the way we approach the natural world. Our ‘heart’… our ‘loves’… our ‘worship’… programs our actions and orients us to a certain way of seeing the world (and seeing/believing truth). When we make natural law arguments, we’re approaching Tin Man as though he’s actually Scarecrow.

The ‘Scarecrow’ view: moral problems are the result of wrong thinking about nature, so the answer is right arguments from natural law

I could while away the hours, conferrin’ with the flowers
Consultin’ with the rain.
And my head I’d be scratchin’ while
my thoughts were busy hatchin’
If I only had a brain.
I’d unravel every riddle for any individ’le,
In trouble or in pain. — Scarecrow, If I Only Had A Brain, The Wizard of Oz

Just over a month ago I had dinner with someone from the Australian Christian Lobby; I’ve long been at odds with the way the ACL approaches politics in Australia as a Christian voice, and I’ve long suspected this difference is the product of a different view of where humanity is going (in theology this is called a different ‘eschatology’). What became clear in this conversation is that the gap between what I think political engagement in a pluralist, secular, society should look like as Christians (and what might be effective) and what this new friend thought would be effective is actually the product of a fundamentally different view of the human person. A different sense, if you will, of what it means for us — and our neighbours — to be made in the image of God. It turns out how you view us as people, not just how we understand ourselves as re-created/re-born Christian people, but how we understand how humans tick, profoundly shapes the way you enter the political fray.

This seems obvious now, because at its most basic level, politics is about the organisation of people into life together in a polis (originally a city-state). How you understand people and what makes them tick will be

More recently I was discussing some politics stuff on Facebook with a very prominent Sydney Anglican who appeared to be arguing that Christians should take a natural law approach to arguing for a ‘classical’ definition of marriage in a secular context (he says his ‘classical’ approach is not a natural law approach, though I’d counter that any ‘classical’ approach from Aristotle to Aquinas looks and feels very much like natural law). When it comes specifically to this political question at hand he says:

“…the Creator plays no functional part in my case for classical marriage, other than that I happen to think that the way things ‘are’ is due to his good design, just as the fact that we can argue rationally is also merely because we are rational’

I’m not going to name them here, for to do so would distract from the point of this post, this isn’t a witch hunt, or a case of ‘discernment blogging’ or whatever people do these days when they disagree with someone… ultimately it’s an attempt to persuade them, and others, of the problems with this approach, or rather with this theological anthropology.

The approach taken by both this Anglican, and this member of the ACL’s team, is driven by a shared theological conviction about what makes people tick; one that looks very much like the Catholic conviction (perhaps best modelled by Aquinas) that reason itself will unlock, or appeal to, the image of God in all of us and allow us to know true things about nature and to act morally. Neither the ACL rep, nor the Anglican, sees this moral action as a saving work, but rather an action in line with God’s design for humanity.

This comes from a sense that a large part of how we are made in the image and likeness of God is reflected in our ability to reason. Here’s a section from the Catholic Catechism (Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 1, Article 1), titled Man: The Image of God:

“The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection “in seeking and loving what is true and good.”

By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an “outstanding manifestation of the divine image.”

Or as Pope John Paul II expressed it in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (a papal treatise basically on how natural law, revelation, and the image of God imprinted on us, must keep shaping our response to moral challenges of our time):

The moral law has its origin in God and always finds its source in him: at the same time, by virtue of natural reason, which derives from divine wisdom, it is a properly human law. Indeed, as we have seen, the natural law “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation”. The rightful autonomy of the practical reason means that man possesses in himself his own law, received from the Creator…”

And then:

“But God provides for man differently from the way in which he provides for beings which are not persons. He cares for man not “from without”, through the laws of physical nature, but “from within”, through reason, which, by its natural knowledge of God’s eternal law, is consequently able to show man the right direction to take in his free actions. In this way God calls man to participate in his own providence, since he desires to guide the world — not only the world of nature but also the world of human persons — through man himself, through man’s reasonable and responsible care. The natural law enters here as the human expression of God’s eternal law. Saint Thomas writes: “Among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in the most excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of providence, being provident both for itself and for others. Thus it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end. This participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called natural law.”

The Church has often made reference to the Thomistic doctrine of natural law, including it in her own teaching on morality. Thus my Venerable Predecessor Leo XIII emphasized the essential subordination of reason and human law to the Wisdom of God and to his law. After stating that “the natural law is written and engraved in the heart of each and every man, since it is none other than human reason itself which commands us to do good and counsels us not to sin”

Let’s call this a Scarecrow view (though I’m trying very hard not to argue with a straw man). In this view the image of God is closely tied to our capacity to reason and understand nature or ‘the order of things established’. And the image of God in us means we can think our way from nature to truth. We think, therefore we are, and when we think right we become more godly. This is why Catholics love the idea of natural law and natural revelation; because they truly are a path back to God (not simply evidence of God’s divine nature and character that should point us to God, but ultimately convict us for our failure to see and worship him (Romans 1:20-25)). In this view, a political issue like marriage, a ‘moral issue’ about how we approach the ordering of things (or people) in this world, is held to be more like math than music, such that its reality should be self evident, as indeed it has been, ‘classically‘… and the best strategy to argue for marriage, in this anthropology, is the way the ACL and this Anglican approach it… with good natural arguments. In sum, it’s the belief that right thinking about nature leads to moral action, and right thinking is possible for all of us because we’re fundamentally rational and reasonable beings. The anthropology at play here is essentially the anthropology of Descartes; we think, therefore we are (and we do). Our conscious, rational, reasonable, brains are in the driving seat and lead us towards right actions when logic and true thinking take over.

And this presents a challenge. Not just to smokers, drug junkies, and porn addicts who know what they do is wrong but do it anyway… but to those trying to make a classical case for marriage from natural law and failing. This is what the ACL does, what this Anglican does, and what other supporters of classical marriage keep doing. They argue for classical marriage on the basis of natural truths like men and women are different, and that difference produces children, and children have both a mother and a father, and marriage is the context that brings those things together… and those things are naturally true and yet thoroughly unconvincing for whole cultures of people who no longer believe that what is natural ought to be what we do as people. In fact; not only are they not convincing, but the very act of trying to articulate a natural law argument is howled down as hateful. Mounting a natural law argument earns you the sort of treatment typically reserved for heretics in theocracies (only we have laws against putting people to death in Australia… we are quite prepared to kill companies though… just ask Coopers Brewing).

The limits of a ‘Scarecrow’ view

This idea that nature reflects God and so understanding nature is possible for us as God’s creatures isn’t just a Catholic view. It is, as this Anglican calls it, a ‘classical view’ in that it’s a Roman view, or an Aristotelian view. It could just as easily be from the pages of Cicero’s On The Nature Of The Gods. But here’s the thing. We aren’t in classical Kansas any more. Natural law — the idea that there’s an ordering of things, and that this order, this ‘is’, ‘ought’ to shape how we do things — is fine in a context where people are theists who share ‘classical’ views about the relationship between nature and God (or gods), but post-Hume (who said that such ‘naturalistic’ thinking about morality is a fallacy), and in this ‘secular age’ where simple ‘belief in god’ (a default in a ‘classical’ age) is contested — natural law, or natural theology, just doesn’t cut it in politics. It’s a totally different language to the one people are speaking.

Natural law arguments have been compelling for much of human history, that’s why they’re the classical approach. But I’d suggest that’s, in part, been God’s common grace on display (including some part of the image of God still being at play in the hearts and minds of every human), and that it is, in part, that our rationality and the ordering of the universe is a reflection of who God is. It is true that we are capable of seeing truth about the world and behaving rationally (and we do this lots in science, or mathematics), but we seem, as humans, to be inconsistent in our approach to nature when we move beyond these ‘pure’ types of observation and into their application (like in the development of technology, and economics). When we start being able to be self-interested, rather than rational, with these natural laws we start putting ourselves in the driver’s seat, and shaping nature according to some other conviction.

When it comes to marriage, this classical ‘natural law’ model describes the approach taken to the world in many human cultures throughout history, but it doesn’t describe all of them, and it doesn’t account for what is happening now in the secular west. And, I’d argue, any theological anthropology worth its salt will account for human belief and behaviour everywhere and everywhen. 

Whatever model we adopt for understanding the human person, it needs to be able to account for human reality. Both human behaviour as we observe it at present (and through history), and for why natural law arguments — classical arguments — were once convincing, but no longer seem compelling or convincing for so many in the modern west. Why these totally coherent arguments, convincing for so long, now fail. I’m not totally sure this can be attributed to a failure to reason, or even a failure to understand (as though understanding the argument would be definitive and convincing because that’s how natural law works). The prominent Anglican making a rearguard case for ‘classical marriage’ said, with regards to a piece he is writing (this is part of the opening):

“The case for maintaining the traditional understanding of marriage is neither dumb nor mean, and nor does it depend on religion. But given the passionate nature of the debate, that case has rarely been understood before it was shouted down… I offer here my ‘eulogy’ to a venerable old argument that lost without ever really being understood.”

In this Scarecrow account, the problem with the case for ‘classical marriage’ is not inherent in the approach itself (and the underlying anthropology) but in the reception of the argument (or the coherence of the argument). Our problem has been a failure to make a rational case. I don’t believe this is true. It’s interesting that these words actually do hit the nail on the head when it comes to why the argument has not been received when it identifies ‘the passionate nature of the debate’… somehow our passions drive us more than our intellect.

The rational natural law case for marriage is basic biology (the anatomical difference between genders), and sociology (the relationship between marriage and ‘natural law’ families)… and if all we are is thinking creatures it should be an easy case to make. It has been an easy case to make, historically, when people have typically been theistic in their outlook, but has also, at least according to the Bible, not been so straightforward in times when that theism has looked like idolatry. There are a couple of pretty clear examples of the relationship between wrong worship and a rejection of the natural order of things in the Bible. First, in Leviticus 18, and then in Romans 1.

Both of these passages describe the utter rejection of natural law norms (sexual and otherwise) that come when people reject a God who orders things in the way the God of the Bible, and the gods of Aristotle, Cicero, and Islam ie the ‘classical view of God’ orders nature.

It seems to me, when it comes to marriage, that the problem isn’t that our arguments are incoherent or misunderstood, instead, that there’s some underlying change that has happened before we even get to the stage of engaging reason to begin with; natural law seems to be ruled out before arguments are even mustered, and I’d suggest this is because somehow in our belief about who we are as humans we are no longer simply subject to nature, but masters of nature, and natural laws can now be broken to deliver us our wants and desires. If Charles Taylor’s account of the place of religion in the public/political sphere in the secular west is right, then the classical view itself is now contested, and the starting assumptions in our political discourse are very different indeed.

What’s gone on… what gets us to where we are… is, I think, described by a different theological anthropology. A different understanding of who we are as humans and what makes us tick; one that explains both the power of natural law, and the strident and visceral reaction against natural law arguments in the modern west; one that includes reason, but sees our reasoning about the ‘order of things’ shaped somewhere before we engage the rational part of our brains. While this prominent Anglican pushes us towards a ‘classical approach’ to marriage drawing on Greek and Roman philosophy, and the theology of thinkers like Aquinas (a genuine philosophical and theological giant writing in a time when belief in a God underpinning nature was uncontested), and while this member of the ACL’s team builds his political strategy (making sound natural law arguments) from a Catholic anthropology, I’m going to suggest there’s a fuller picture of who we are as people that should be shaping our approach to politics (and this also underpins why I think playing secular politics by secular rules is a bad idea for Christians).

Where I think this view fails is that our approach to nature, at least according to the Bible but also in my humble estimation of reality, is twisted. We don’t look at nature and so see God. We look at nature and want to play god (pushing God out of the picture), or we look at nature and want to make it god (pushing God out of the picture). Natural Theology will fail us so long as we’re worshipping wrongly before we think about the ‘order of things’…

Ultimately, I think the problem with the Scarecrow Approach is that it does the same thing with ‘created things’ that the idolater in Romans 1 does. It looks to the natural order rather than the orderer of nature as the basis for understanding right living; there’s certainly, if we were blank slates, a reason to connect the natural order with the natural orderer (Paul explicitly does this in Romans 1), but the path back to Godliness or morality is not nature but God. At least, that’s the logic of Romans.

The Tin Man model

When a man’s an empty kettle he should be on his mettle,
And yet I’m torn apart.
Just because I’m presumin’ that I could be kind-a-human,
If I only had heart. — Tin Man, If I Only Had A HeartThe Wizard of Oz

So what if the Scarecrow model is actually inadequate; that our brains actually kick into gear not as the primary function of who we are, but as a secondary thing. What if we’re not first rational creatures (though we are rational), but rather passionate creatures. What if it’s our capacity to love and to sacrifice for that love, and to approach the world through a grid created by that love, that makes us truly human. And what if that love is actually first, and ultimately, a question of worship.

What if the best arguments for changed behaviour/morality are not rational arguments from natural law but arguments geared at our worship; arguments that challenge our affections; arguments that apprehend us with the nature of the divine and ask us to consider what we’ve popped into our ’empty kettles’ to push and pull us around the world. This isn’t to say reason isn’t part of reflecting the image of God, or part of how the world works and can be comprehended, but it does explain why when belief in God or gods (theism) is replaced with belief in the self (or gods of sex, pleasure or freedom) natural law goes out the window. It does explain why, in Romans 1, Paul describes the exchange of God for idols as resulting in our thinking shifting so that we perceive the natural as unnatural and the unnatural as natural… this comes because we first see ‘created things’ as the things to pop into the driving seat of our lives (and our thinking).

Natural law made sense in the context of widespread theism, especially monotheism (even in Plato with his ‘demiurge,’ and Aristotle with his ‘unmoved mover’). But people no longer recognise this ‘unmoved mover’ in the west; we are the movers and the shakers. We are in control. We westerners still worship, we are still driven by our passions, but our passions are directed at the things (and relationships) of this world; and this ‘religious belief’ includes the same sort of approach to heresy practiced by the church for many years. Heretics are dangerous, they challenge orthodoxy, and must be no-platformed, or destroyed.

Historically (and Biblically) when people worship idols they think wrong things about nature; they reject natural law (eg Leviticus 18 and Romans 1, which aren’t just about homosexuality, but about people moving away from the Genesis 1-2 ‘ordering’ of creation and relationships). According to the Bible (both in the Old Testament and the New) our failure to live according to the created order is the result of our hearts turning from God. The prophets (and Deuteronomy) anticipate a new heart that will allow God’s people to live right… not just the facts. This explains both the rejection of any sort of classical version of marriage, why ‘natural law’ arguments fail, and why there’s such an outcry when, say, the Bible Society teams up with a couple of Liberal Party politicians (one a gay agnostic, the other a natural law wielding conservative) and has them talk civilly about marriage as though it is even a legitimate conversation to be having.

While there’s a rich and coherent anthropology at the heart of the Catholic tradition that stacks up in a theistic environment, the protestant, reformed, systematic — the reformed anthropology — actually contains a fuller, richer, more compelling anthropology. It is more compelling because it sees us not just as computers who’ll function right with the right data fed into our brains, but as creatures who feel our way towards truth as well. It is also more compelling because it does a better job of describing what is real because it does a better job of understanding the relationship between image bearing and worship, and the relationship between our passions and our ‘rationality’. That before we are ‘rational’ beings we are ‘glorifying beings’ that we ‘have a God’ at the heart of our loves, and lives, and what we put in this slot shapes the way we think, and act, in the world. Romans 1 definitely has natural law or natural revelation (the sense that we can know about God from what he has made) at its heart; Paul is not just talking about morality derived from special revelation in Romans, and when he describes the corrupting power of a wrong natural theology (namely, the worship of nature) the way back isn’t just to look at the world right. In Romans 1 Paul says ‘the Gospel is the power of God’ and in Romans 8 he says (and just notice what he says ‘sets the mind’ here):

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. — Romans 8:5-8

The Reformed Tradition calls this effect of sin on our thinking ‘the noetic effect of sin’ — this is the idea that even our rationality is tainted by our desire to make things other than God ultimate things in our lives, the idea that we treat all things subjectively, rather than objectively. There are all sorts of models for what this looks like in real terms. I like the approach put forward by Swiss theologian Emil Brunner. I think this is a good explanation of why our ‘natural law’ arguments about ethical stuff falls flat, and why the solution is to see us as more like Tin Man — needing a heart correction — than Scarecrow — needing our thinking fixed.

“The more closely a subject is related to man’s inward life, the more natural human knowledge is ‘infected’ by sin while the further away it is, the less will be its effect. Hence mathematics and the natural sciences are much less affected by this negative element than the humanities, and the latter less than ethics and theology. In the sphere of natural science, for instance, as opposed to natural philosophy — it makes practically no difference whether a scholar is a Christian or not; but this difference emerges the moment that we are dealing with problems of sociology, or law, which affect man’s personal and social life.”

Our politics needs to grapple with this. Because at one level this is why we keep talking past each other if we’re relying on natural law and not connecting that the people we’re speaking to have fundamentally different ‘worship’ driven frameworks. Different ‘ultimate loves’…

If this is true then not only is engaging with the political realm with the Gospel a good strategy in a pluralistic democracy where it’s vital our views be properly represented in solutions that allow different communities to live well together, it’s also the best strategy to secure moral behaviour. Moral behaviour isn’t secured through reason unless people are bending the knee, and pointing the heart, towards gods that look much like universal reason and order, it is secured, rather, by the Spirit of God changing someone’s heart and kicking out other loves (what an old puritan preacher called ‘the expulsive power of a new affection). The Gospel is the wisdom and power of God; the message that invites us to apprehend the face of God displayed in Jesus, and so to worship him; and the thing that brings with it the expulsive power of a new affection)