Tag Archives: David Brooks


Christian, is there room in your church for an ____ voter? Would they feel welcome?

Our desire to verbal process the world, and our almost frictionless ability to process the world verbally in front of crowds of people on social media is a funny modern novelty. My wise old dad, he’s 60 soon, once said to me that for the vast majority of his life in ministry he’d have had no idea how his friends and ministry colleagues voted; politics just weren’t a thing that mixed with the pulpit.

How quaint, I thought.

And then I decided I’d dearly love to not know how a preacher votes. In a great twist of ironic fate, an article might come out elsewhere in a couple of days where I explain not ‘who I vote for’ but ‘how I vote’ (I’ve covered this in depth here previously). You may think you can guess how I vote from what I write, and what sort of moral matrix or grid I appear to filter things through, and that would, I think, represent a failure on my part. My prior training as a journalist, my career in a not-for-profit ‘apolitical’ lobby group, and my current vocation all require, I believe, a certain sort of objective detachment from the cut and thrust of party politics; a detachment that means it would be inappropriate for me to hold my job and be a member of a political party, or obviously partisan.

I’m not saying I’d love preachers and Christians to not be engaged in political issues — I’m with sociologist/theologian James Davison Hunter on the criticism of a modern attitude that leaves complex social and political issues to politicians and lawmaking; I’d love the church to be modelling an alternative vision for life together as the kingdom of God in this world, and for us to speak winsomely on political issues in the public square as ambassadors for Christ, trying hard to persuade our neighbours of the truth, goodness, and beauty of life with Jesus as king. I’d love us to be participating in, or creating, institutions that seek ‘political change’ or to impact the public, or commons, in positive ways as a way of loving our neighbours and testifying to the lordship of Jesus. I’d love us to speak widely, beyond just the few issues that seem to be identity markers for ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ politics to model what ‘Christ centred’ politics looks like; where there is no inch of life in this world that Jesus does not declare ‘mine!’

But I’m concerned, with James Davison Hunter, about ‘the culture wars’ (he coined the phrase back in 1991 in his book Culture Wars: The Struggle To Define America). He described these wars as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding” and emerging from opposing “assumptions about how to order or lives – our own lives and our lives together in this society.” It’s fine to morally disagree with people, across political, philosophical, and religious lines — the art is figuring out how to live in disagreement, and listen to the other, without adopting a winner takes all approach to wiping out those who disagree with you. Our desire to wipe out the other, the ‘culture war’ is a product of a polarisation that treats ‘other’ as enemy, and then justifies their extermination, or forced conversion via the threat of excommunication or exclusion from ‘society’.

Here’s what Hunter wrote in 1991:

But there is still another factor that contributes to the polarisation of public discourse and the eclipse of the middle. The polarisation of contemporary public discourse is in fact intensified by and institutionalised through the very media by which that discussion takes place. It is through these media that public discourse acquires a life of its own; not only do the categories of public rhetoric become detached from the intentions of the speaker, they also overpower the subtleties of perspective and opinion of the vast majority of citizens who position themselves “somewhere in the middle” of these debates…

“Middling positions and the nuances of moral commitment, then, get played into the grid of opposing rhetorical extremes.”

The problem with this last bit is that if this grid exists, and people place themselves in a position to listen to voices that reinforce their particular cultural convictions (including a position on ‘the other’), then nothing that is said, whether extreme or ‘middling’ is ever heard properly, it simply reinforces the polarisation. This is damaging for society at large, but it is even more deleterious to the project of unity in Christ within a church community. Is it possible for a church in this cultural climate to be a place where individuals from the left and right come together in fellowship, in a way that allows both left and right — all our politics — to be transformed by our union with Christ, through the Spirit, shaped by the ethics of Jesus’ kingdom as revealed at the cross?

What makes this vision for church community even trickier is when Christians leaders, or individuals, adopt combative positions in the culture war in ways that alienate the other, or worse turn the ‘other’ into an ideological enemy to be defeated rather than embraced.

What also makes this difficult is where the ‘culture wars’, politics, and the media have gone since 1991. Hunter describes the general tone of public discourse, in 1991, pre-social media as: “…elitist, sensational, ambivalent, suspicious of new voices, and intensified and further polarised by the very media by which such discourse takes place.”

This was before social media, which exists to serve up users more of what they want, which tends to be ‘more of what they have expressed an interest in’ that the algorithm can measure, which tends to be ‘more of what they already think but packaged in more sensationalist and titillating ways that retain attention by amplifying feelings (especially feelings of outrage)’… The mass media was bad for polarisation — targeted, algorithmically driven, social media that fragments right down to the individual level is worse. I wrote a series about social media, outrage culture, and virtue back here. Especially when the sort of positions that Hunter suggests represent the majority, de-escalate polarisation, and cultivate virtue and civility, the “middling positions’ that involve nuance take time and attention and space to think and process were hard enough in traditional media contexts, but are anathema to our infinite scrolling through social media newsfeeds.

Mark Zuckerberg once described the ‘self interest’ at the heart of Facebook’s newsfeed by saying:

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

This is also why you’re likely to see more online about New Zealand than about religious killings in Nigeria; this is the algorithmically perfected editorial policy of most major commercial news services — such services exist not for civic good, but for profit. Our media platforms serve up stories that appeal to their audiences. It’s now on us, the public, to cultivate the sort of consumption of media, and lives, that de-escalate the culture wars — especially those of us in churches where we’re first focusing on relationships in church.

In a 2018 interview about where these wars have gone since Hunter coined the term, he said the cultural conflicts in this war have amplified and intensified, and this is because ‘culture’ is actually profoundly important — it sits upstream from politics and law because it shapes our moral imagination.

“That’s because culture is not a marginal concern, as many educated people profess to believe—even as they often espouse their own dogmatic cultural positions. Rather, culture is “about systems of meaning that help make sense of the world,” Mr. Hunter says, “why things are good, true and beautiful, or why things are not. Why things are right and wrong.” Culture “provides the moral foundation of a political order.”

It’s not just Hunter who predicted the culture wars in ways that seem prophetic now, especially with the addition of social media.

Back in 2006, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a prescient piece about the polarised nature of two-party politics, and how the two parties rely on such polarisation fuelled from within, and by a war footing of sorts, to continue to exist. This leads to the destruction of public, political, conversation — and especially shapes how we see ‘the other’.

“The flamers in the established parties tell themselves that their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious too. They rationalise their behaviour by insisting that circumstances have forced them to shelve their integrity for the good of the country. They imagine that once they have achieved victory through pulverising rhetoric they will return to the moderate and nuanced sensibilities they think they still possess.”

Sadly, he predicted what might happen if his invented ‘moderate coalition,’ the ‘McCain—Lieberman Party’ (Republican senator John McCain and Democrat senator Joe Lieberman), did not get ‘absorbed’ into the policy platform of one of the major parties. This was pre-Obama, and certainly pre-Trump.

“The McCain-Lieberman Party … sees two parties that depend on the culture war for internal cohesion and that make abortion a litmus test. It sees two traditions immobilized to trench warfare.

The McCain-Lieberman Party is emerging because the war with Islamic extremism, which opened new fissures and exacerbated old ones, will dominate the next five years as much as it has dominated the last five. It is emerging because of deep trends that are polarising our politics. It is emerging because social conservatives continue to pull the GOP rightward (look at how Representative Joe Schwarz, a moderate Republican, was defeated by a conservative rival in Michigan). It is emerging because highly educated secular liberals are pulling the Democrats upscale and to the left. (Lamont’s voters are rich, and 65 percent call themselves liberals, compared with 30 percent of Democrats nationwide.)

The history of third parties is that they get absorbed into one of the existing two, and that will probably happen here…

But amid the hurly-burly of the next few years… the old parties could become even more inflamed. Both could reject McCain-Liebermanism.

At that point things really get interesting.”

And, so, Brooks predicted Trump. The collapse of the political middle into a zero-sum culture war that sees the ‘other’ side as an enemy to be polarised, whoever or whatever the other side stands for. A politics filled with political actors who’ve lost touch with the ‘moderate and nuanced sensibilities’ that produce stability and a ‘commons’ of sorts between right and left, in exchange for an entrenched flame war.

And here we are 13 years on from Brook’s piece. And the flames are burning. And violent political language and battlelines being drawn begets violence in the real world. I highlight that link only because it was particularly pugilistic, and it appeared in my Facebook feed for no reason that I could fathom. You might say ‘that’s just hyperbole’ — but it’s hyperbole that fits a trend that has been recognised and described for some time, and while it’s the nature of the business of Aussie politics, with our two party system, for politics to involve a certain sort of adversarial ‘theatre’ and an ‘us v them’ mentality, in order to divide and conquer… that’s not the business of the Aussie church.

Political idealists, especially partisan ones, whether left, or right, are now turning on the centrists — those who try not to play the culture war, or who seek moderation in all things — idealists on the extremes are increasingly suggesting that to adopt a ‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical’ stance on an issue — to not speak or act — is to adopt the status quo. This is not just a new type of ‘culture war’ against the middle, which was previously just eclipsed (Hunter) or encompassed (Brooks). It’s a deliberate move to exclude the middle in the name of the greater ideological conflict between the poles.  It’s an insistence that to be moral one must pick side, and that to be a moderate is to attempt to sit on the fence on all things. It is to insist that the ‘other’ is evil or complicit, and to stay on the fence makes one complicit too. This classically works better from the left, who tend towards systemic views of evil, and to annoy the right, who tend to see evil as an individual, personal, choice — where if you aren’t making it, you aren’t evil… but that’s changing the more the conflict ramps up, the more there’s an apparently clear ‘us’ and ‘them’… Quite apart from this turn towards resentment of the moderate position being a damaging move when it comes to individual conscience (you ‘must’ choose a system that tells you how to think), and our creatureliness (we must act on every injustice to be moral, if to not act is to participate in evil), and our limited ability to know and form thoughtful positions on many, often competing issues (ideology is a nice shortcut to deal with this), these idealists would say (and do say) that to listen to the concerns of the ‘other side’ is to legitimise those concerns (not simply to see the ‘other’ as a human worthy of love, attention, and understanding). This move is a move to dehumanise or dismiss every other who does not share your convictions. Christian idealists of any variety — those who ‘baptise’ a particular political stance as representative of the kingdom — would have us eradicate political difference as part of the kingdom of God; this makes Christian ‘how to vote’ cards, from the left, or the right, very simple to produce because voting as a Christian, and participating in the polis as a Christianis quite simply a matter of adopting the ideological platform, and fighting the opponent. I think this approach is wrong for a bunch of reasons alluded to above — but I think it also reinforces the culture war by amping up polarisation — the way to minimise the rapid run to the poles is to resist those forces that fling us there. It’s to engage in careful listening; to pursue understanding, and to arrive at conviction making sure you’ve charitably understood the position of the other. This is where the best sort of disagreement is possible, the sort that actually has the possibility to persuade the other, not just to re-convict them of their prior convictions (in other words, it’s not just a more virtuous, less vicious, strategy, it’s also more effective). Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, talks about the polarisation of left and right and how each group tends to assess morality using different categories and frameworks that mean we often use the same words to talk past one another. He talks about how we humans are less purely rational and in control of our decision making than we might think, and how ‘wars’ and ‘tribalism’ feed our decision making instincts, which are profoundly ’emotional’ — he talks about our emotions as a rampaging elephant in our decision making and our reason as the rider trying to tug on some reigns.

He says, in The Righteous Mind, “the persuader’s goal should be to convey respect, warmth, and an openness to dialogue before stating one’s own case,” he says our inability to understand another person’s point of view, to see the world their way, is at the heart of the polarising force of our political ‘culture war’ — suggesting we should seek this as a baseline for political and moral conversations, or arguments.

“It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.”

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathise across a moral divide.

It is very difficult. Imagine being called to not just ’empathy’ but to ‘having the same mind’ or ‘the one mind’ or the ‘mind of Christ’ with people where there’s a moral or political divide (ala Philippians 2:1-11). Imagine having to navigate that! Haidt even envisages the goodness that such a community might bring to this fracturing world, he’s not specifically describing the church, although he kinda, sorta, is.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

I think it’s very possible to be partisan and a Christian. I’ve often suggested one of the best things individual Christians can do to embrace James Davison Hunter’s motif of ‘faithful presence’ is join a, any, political party and then be part of policy discussions. I just don’t think the church — be it a denomination, institution, or local gathering — should be marked by a partisan approach to politics. And I fear, because I know how too many leaders of churches vote (both on the left, and on the right), that we are buying in to culture wars in a way that buys into the devil’s hands. The best form of Christian community is one where partisan Christians who are seeking to maintain a faithful presence in our political and cultural institutions shaped by convictions about Jesus and his kingdom, and personal convictions about how that plays out within and against these institutions, whether on the right or the left, can come together in fellowship in a way that models the way forward outside the community of believers — our ability to unite, to listen, to co-operate, and to disagree with one another with love and charity might be a beacon and a blessing to our neighbours. And yet, there seems to be no will to extricate ourselves from the culture wars — especially when it comes to the way Christian leaders (myself included) use social media. This is the sort of time when people say ‘you’re talking in generalities, prove it’ — and at this point I’d suggest that our denomination’s recent statement on abortion, while it adopts a position I agree with, had the unfortunate effect of equating a vote for or presence within the Labor Party as being a participant in evil, and I’d point to this cultural warrior, a Presbyterian minister, who wages the culture war in a media channel that is famously partisan, and I’d ask — could anyone outside the hard right comfortably attend a church where such views are linked inextricably to the pulpit?

Is this what we want?

I am certain that I’m perceived by many to be partisan when it comes to politics; I’ve been described by a dear Christian brother as ‘the left’s form of the ACL’. I felt misrepresented (if the interview I mentioned up top gets published you might see why), and like I was being interpreted through a particular grid, at that time, but I certainly do embrace issues and positions championed by the left (I’d like to think I also do that with the right). I’m distressed that taking a position, a political one, on an issue — even a moderate one — is seen as divisive and a reason for breaking fellowship. And I’ve experienced this as people exited our church community over my (and our) stance on the postal survey. Other friends who don’t buy in to the culture war have experienced a similar ‘exodus’ — these exoduses always end up creating little tribes within our church networks; little homogenous political communities, or demographics, that don’t have the opportunity to be the alternative polis modelling life across divides that we so desperately need. So I apologise and repent for those times when my rhetoric has fuelled partisan division, rather than calling us to a better conversation (note, I’m not apologising for convictions on issues, or for saying things people disagree with).

I fear that part of the alternative community that the church offers to the world is a community where people come together from different positions and backgrounds, with different convictions about political problems and solutions, and find unity in a king.

I fear that church is meant to be a community where people can belong and find their commitment to certain civic goods re-shaped, re-ordered, and transformed by the king — in ways that simultaneously affirm and invert good and not so good things about ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ solutions.

I fear that the church is meant to be a place of re-imagining and re-imaging life in ways that might re-animate our political right, political centre, and political left, and yet we are a place that too often has our imagination co-opted by a political ideology from the world, rather than by the life, death, resurrection and rule of Jesus.

I fear that our rhetoric and culture war fighting as ministers, preachers, or vocally partisan Christian punters fuels the division of our society into tribes even as we call people to follow the king of the universe.

I fear that whether a church leader is known for being partisan in any political direction, that the climate that creates is a drawing in of people who agree with that stance, at the exclusion of those who disagree.

And yet, I am also hopeful.

I hope that church communities can emerge that are the sort of communities Haidt describes — committed to truth, and to listening to the other.

I hope that our churches might be communities that are not ‘apolitical’ or defined by a particular partisan outlook — but rather be models of places where people can come together finding unity in Christ and his kingdom, to be sent as ambassadors into the institutions and political parties of our world.

I hope that we can lead the way for our wider community who so desperately need models of rich, loving, disagreement and co-operation around what we hold in common.

I hope that we can practice listening not just to one another, but to our neighbours who are not like us — that we can model ‘loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.’

I hope that we can steer clear of playing the culture war and power politics game that so defines our civic life now, in favour of patient listening and the pursuit of nuance and wisdom.

I hope that we can look to voices not just explaining the cost of extremes, from the other side — ie listening to those voices we most naturally exclude, but also that we might listen to those voices who are pushing back against the idea that understanding the other is evil, unnecessary, or to be complicit in some horrid status quo (the status quo that conservatives are inherently seeking to uphold and defend).

I hope that we Christians can affirm that there are good things in creation, and in this status quo, things that have been hard won through the influence of Christians in our politics (both on the left and the right, and for progressives and conservatives). I hope that we can also admit that there are areas where progress towards our vision of the good, true, and beautiful — towards the kingdom of God, or shalom, are still possible and that the way forward isn’t simply to shift to maintain some vision of political utopia that we achieved in the past.

I hope that as well as listening to the voices we might normally exclude from our thinking — the voice of ‘the other’ — we might listen more to voices like James Davison Hunter who diagnosed and predicted this cultural problem almost thirty years ago. Here’s something he wrote in his more recent To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World:

 “It isn’t just the Constantinian temptation the church must repudiate but, more significantly, the orientation toward power that underwrites it. The proclivity toward domination and toward the politicisation of everything leads Christianity today to bizarre turns; turns that, in my view, transform much of the Christian public witness into the very opposite of the witness Christianity is supposed to offer.

A vision of the new city commons, rooted in a theology of faithful presence, certainly leads to a repudiation of ressentiment that defines so much of Christianity’s contemporary public witness.

Yet it also leads to a postpolitical view of power. It is not likely to happen, but it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilisation. This would not mean civic privatism but rather a season to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better.”

Why generous pluralism is a better ideal than idealistic purism and provides a better future for our broad church (or why I resigned from GIST)

This week I resigned from a committee I’d been on since 2011, I was at the time of resigning, the longest serving current member. I resigned because I did not and could not agree with the statement the committee issued on the same sex marriage postal survey, and I wanted to freely and in good faith publicly say why I think it is wrong, and to stand by my previously published stance on the plebiscite.

Our two-fold purpose is to equip believers in Presbyterian Church of Queensland congregations to:
a) live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society and
b) engage in gospel-hearted apologetics that point to the great hope we have in Jesus.

The Gospel In Society Today Committee’s statement of purpose,

In short, I did not think the committee’s paper fulfilled either aspects of its charter — it is not ‘Gospel-hearted apologetics’ in that there is nothing in it that engages particularly well with the world beyond the church in such a way that a case for marriage as Christians understand it might convince our neighbours of the goodness of marriage, or the goodness of Jesus who fulfils marriage in a particular way; nor do I believe it effectively equipped believers to live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society; instead, it equipped believers who were already going to vote a particular way to keep voting that way and to have some Gospel-centred reasoning to do so. I’m not convinced the way it encourages people to vote or speak about that vote, or understand the situation grapples well with our secular context; as someone not committed to a no vote already, I found the paper unpersuasive even after a significant review process.

But there was also a deeper reason for my resignation (resigning over just one paper would not be a sensible course of action) — this paper reflects a particular approach to political engagement in a fractured and complicated world that I do not support, and there was no evidence the committee would adopt an alternative strategy. I resigned because the committee failed to practice the generous pluralism that I believe the church should be practicing inside and outside our communities (on issues that aren’t matters of doctrine — there’s a difference between polytheism and pluralism). I had asked for our committee to put forward the views of each member of the committee rather than the majority, because the committee’s remit is to ‘equip believers in our churches to engage in Gospel-hearted apologetics’ and ‘to live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society’ — and I believe part of that is equipping believers to operate as generously as possible with people we disagree with in these complicated times.

The statement issued by the committee is no Nashville Statement; it is an attempt to be generous to those we disagree with, without offering a solution to a disagreement that accommodates all parties (or even as many parties as imaginable); it is also an idealistic document, and so as it seeks to push for an ideal outcome it represents a failure to listen and engage well with other people who hold other views — be they in our churches, or in the community at large. It is this failure to listen that led me to believe my energy would be better spent elsewhere, but also that leads me to so strongly disagree with the paper that I am publishing this piece.

This is not, I believe, the way forward for the church in a complicated and contested secular world; it will damage our witness and it represents the same spirit to push towards an ideal ‘black and white’ solution in a world that is increasingly complicated. I’m proud of this same committee’s nuanced work on sexuality and gender elsewhere, and don’t believe this paper reflects the same careful listening engagement with the world beyond the church and the desires of the people we are engaging with (and how those desires might be more fulfilled in knowing the love of Jesus). By not understanding these desires (not listening) our speech will not be heard but dismissed. This paper is meant to serve an internal purpose for members of our churches (so to persuade people to vote no), but it is also published externally on our website without any clarification that it is not to be read as an example of Gospel centered apologetics, so one must conclude if one reads it online, that this is a paper that serves both purposes of the committee.

I’m not the only voice speaking out in favour of pluralism, nor am I claiming to be its smartest or best spokesperson. John Inazu’s book Confident Pluralism and his interview in Cardus’ Comment magazine gave me a language to describe what I believe is not just the best but the only real way forward in what Charles Taylor calls our ‘secular age’ — where the public square is a contested space accommodating many religious and non religious views. If we want to resist the harder form of secularism which seeks to exclude all religious views from the public square, it seems to me that we either need a monotheistic theocracy (but whose?) or a pluralistic democracy that accommodates as many views as possible or acceptable; and this requires a certain amount of imagination and a sacrifice of idealism. The thing is, for many of us who’ve been brought up in an environment that defaults to the hard secular where the sexual revolution is assumed (ie anyone under about 38, or those who are a bit older but did degrees in the social sciences), we’ve already, generally, had to contest for our beliefs and adopt something like a pluralism. There are ways to prevent pluralism — like home schooling or insularly focused Christian education, but if people have grown up in a ‘public’ not stewarded by a particular stream of Christianity that deliberately excludes listening to the world, or if they are not particularly combative and idealistic types who have played the culture wars game from early in their childhood, then they are likely to have adopted something that looks pluralistic.

Here’s a quote from John Inazu’s interview with James K.A Smith, from Comment:

“JKAS: What have you learned since your book has come out? Would you already do something differently based on how it’s been received, whether by religious or non-religious audiences?

JI: What’s particularly true of millennial audiences, whether religious or secular, is that, as a descriptive matter, the reality of pluralism is already well-ingrained in their lives. This is their existence, so it’s not surprising to them that we have deep differences and we encounter people who are quite unlike us, because that’s how most of them have lived their lives. That’s less true with older generations.

Where I’ve seen the most resistance from the religious side of things is with a concern about getting too close to people who don’t share our values. That has always struck me as odd because the gospel example here is Jesus going into very messy spaces and being the light in those spaces.”

But it’s also not just Inazu who has spoken of pluralism; it’s also John Stackhouse in a recent piece for the ABC Religion and Ethics portal. In a piece titled Christians and Politics: Getting Beyond ‘All’ or ‘Nothing’, Stackhouse says:

“In the light of this reality, we can see now that there are three kinds of people who undertake political action.

The ideologue has it easiest. He simply asks himself, in any situation on any issue, what’s ultimately right. Then he does everything he can to realize that ideal. That’s the way many Christians today are engaging in political action, whether on the left, right, or whatever. If we believe that abortion is wrong, then we work to outlaw it. If we think that gay marriage is consonant with Christian values, then we should make it legal. Graphic movies, globalization, immigration, climate change – whatever it is that we believe is right on any issue we simply seek to universalize by whatever means are available.

The pragmatist also starts with the question of what’s ultimately right. But then she carefully appraises the situation and works for what she deems is currently possible. If abortion is wrong, but the best she can do is get a ban on partial-birth abortions, she works for that. If gay marriage is wrong, but the best she can do is see “civil unions” instituted instead, then that’s what she aims at.

The pluralist asks about what’s ultimately right and what’s currently possible. But he interposes a third, admittedly odd, question between those two: What is penultimately right? Might it be God’s will that what is ultimately right not prevail immediately? The pluralist Christian might have strong views about x. He also is pragmatic enough to know that a total ban on alternatives to his views of x is politically inconceivable in his society. But he is also willing to consider the possibility that in God’s providence, it is better for there to be more than one view of x allowed in society. He might see that, yes, ultimately God’s will is to get rid of this or that, but penultimately it serves God’s purposes for society to allow this or that to remain. He doesn’t always come to that conclusion, to be sure, and often acts just like the pragmatist. But he at least asks that question, and sometimes acts differently as a result.”

Now, it’s interesting to me, particularly in the process that led to my resignation from the committee to consider how the dynamic between these three camps plays out within Christian community (it’s also interesting to consider how these three categories mesh with three I suggested using the metaphor of hands — clean hands, dirty hands, and busy hands in a post a while back); I’ll go out on a limb here and say idealism is always partisan, and so we need to be extremely careful when speaking as an institutional church if  we choose to pursue idealism in the secular political sphere (especially on issues of conscience where there are arguably many possible faithful ways to respond to a situation with an imagination that rejects the status quo served up to us by others); while pluralism is the way to maintain clean hands as an institution in that model.

The idealistic stream of Christianity will see the pluralist as not just compromising politically but theologically, because while the pluralist will be operating with perhaps something like a retrieval ethic, the idealist will operate with something more like a creational ethic or a deontological ethic or a divine command ethic and so see their path as clearly the right way, and thus other paths as wrong. The pragmatist will have sympathies in both directions, and the pluralist will seek to accommodate all these views so long as they still recognise the truth the idealists want to uphold (if they don’t they’ve become ‘polytheists’). I predict the church, generally (and specifically in our denominational context) will face a certain amount of problems if not be damaged beyond repair if we put idealists in charge and they tolerate pragmatists but exclude pluralists — especially if those who have grown up needing to be pluralists to hold their faith. A push to idealism rather than confident, or generous, pluralism, will alienate the younger members of our church who are typically not yet in leadership (and this dynamic has played out in the Nashville Statement), and it will ultimately lead to something like the Benedict Option, a withdrawal from the pluralistic public square into our own parallel institutions and private ‘public’.

It’s interesting to me that GIST fought so hard against withdrawing from the Marriage Act, because, in part, the government recognises marriage contracts entered into by the parties getting married and conducted by a recognised celebrant according to our marriage rites — so there is already a difference between how we view marriage and how the state does — pluralism — but has now reverted to arguing that the government doesn’t just recognise marriage according to a broader definition than we hold but promotes and affirms particular types according to a particular definition. I know that was our argument because it was the one I spoke to in the discussion at our General Assembly.

Here’s my last smarter person that me making the case for pluralism in these times, New York Times columnist David Brooks in his review of the Benedict Option. He opens by describing two types of Christians not three — and Stackhouse’s pragmatist and pluralist categories fall into the ‘ironist’ category.

“Faith seems to come in two personalities, the purist and the ironist. Purists believe that everything in the world is part of a harmonious whole. All questions point ultimately to a single answer. If we orient our lives toward this pure ideal, and get everybody else to, we will move gradually toward perfection.

The ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one. In this world, the pieces don’t quite fit together and virtues often conflict: liberty versus equality, justice versus mercy, tolerance versus order. For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs. There is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living. For the ironists, like Reinhold Niebuhr or Isaiah Berlin, those purists who aim to be higher than the angels often end up lower than the beasts.”

If the purists run the show we’re going to end up with a very pure church that ultimately excludes most impure people ever feeling loved enough, or understood enough, to bother listening to what we have to say. Purists are necessary though to keep us from polytheism or losing the ideals. Here’s more from Brooks:

“My big problem with Rod [Dreher] is that he answers secular purism with religious purism. By retreating to neat homogeneous monocultures, most separatists will end up doing what all self-segregationists do, fostering narrowness, prejudice and moral arrogance. They will close off the dynamic creativity of a living faith. 

There is a beautiful cohesion to the monastic vocation. But most people are dragged willy-nilly into life — with all its contradictions and complexities. Many who experience faith experience it most vividly within the web of their rival loves — different communities, jobs, dilemmas. They have faith in their faith. It gives them a way of being within the realities of a messy and impure world.

The right response to the moment is not the Benedict Option, it is Orthodox Pluralism. It is to surrender to some orthodoxy that will overthrow the superficial obsessions of the self and put one’s life in contact with a transcendent ideal. But it is also to reject the notion that that ideal can be easily translated into a pure, homogenized path. It is, on the contrary, to throw oneself more deeply into friendship with complexity, with different believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, the dissimilar and unalike.”

Brooks uses ‘Orthodox’ to qualify pluralism, Inazu ‘Confident’; I’ve settled on ‘generous’ (see my review of the Benedict Option for why).

If our denomination puts the idealists/purists in power without an ethos of including the pluralists (a functional pluralism) they will always by definition exclude the pluralists; whereas if we adopt a pluralistic approach to the public square (and to how we give voice to those who disagree with us within the camp of orthodoxy) then we will necessarily also give space to the pluralists. The choice we are faced with is a choice between a broad church and a narrow one. What’s interesting is that pluralism actually becomes an ideal in itself; one of the reasons I resigned is that I am fundamentally an idealist about pluralism, once it became clear this would not be our posture or strategy, I could no longer participate (because I was excluded, but also because I am an idealist and saw the purist-idealism as an uncompromising error).

So this is a relatively long preamble to establish why I think the position adopted by GIST (idealism/purism) and how it was resolved within the committee (idealism/purism/no pluralism) is deeply problematic and a strategic misfire in our bid to engage the world with ‘gospel hearted apologetics’.

Generous pluralism and ‘living faithfully for Jesus in a secular society’ and ‘engaging in gospel-hearted apologetics’ in a polytheistic world

GIST’s philosophy of ministry acknowledges that we live in a ‘secular society’ but maintain some sort of difference from that society by ‘living faithfully for Jesus’. The idealism that Stackhouse speaks of, or purism that Brooks speaks of, will fail if society is truly secular.

Idealism will fail us because at the heart of idealism is not simply a commitment to monotheism as the option we faithfully choose amongst many contested options in the broader public, but as the option the broader public should also choose as the temporal best (following Stackhouse’s definitions). So we get, in the GIST statement, sentences like, which holds out a sort of ideal around marriage (rather than a ‘faithful life’ within a secular society):

“Ultimately if we want to see our society return wholeheartedly to God’s design for marriage, we need people to embrace God’s solution to the sin which has led society away from it.” — GIST Statement on Same Sex Marriage Plebiscite

It seems unlikely to me that this ideal of society returning wholeheartedly to God’s design for marriage (essentially a Christian society) is possible this side of the return of Jesus (which is why I’m a pluralist), and I am confused about this being an ideal that we are to pursue as Christians.

Here’s why. I think this sort of wholehearted pursuit of God’s design for marriage was an ideal in Israel (but the sense that the ideal is not actually possible is found in God’s accommodation of divorce in the law of Moses, though he hates it and it falls short of the lifelong one flesh union). I think this ultimately is a form of the pursuit of monotheism for all in society; a noble ideal formed by an eschatology where every knee will one day bow to Jesus (Philippians 2). Israel was to pursue a sort of societal monotheism — this is why they were commanded to destroy all idols and idolatrous alters — utterly — when coming into the land (Deuteronomy 4-7) and to keep themselves from idols. There is no place for polytheism — or idolatry — within the people of God (and yet the divorce laws recognise there is a place for ‘non-ideal’ broken relationships and dealing with sin to retrieve certain good outcomes). Israel was to be monotheistic and to guard the boundaries of monotheism within its civic laws. We aren’t in Israel any more — but the church is the kingdom of God, and we as worshippers of Jesus are called to monotheism in how we approach life, this is why I believe it’s important that the church upholds God’s good design for marriage in a contested public square as part of our faithful witness to God’s goodness.

Now, while an Israelite was to destroy idols when coming into the land, and Christians are to ‘keep ourselves from idols’, outside of Israel our monotheism as Christians manifests itself in the Great Commission — the pursuit of worshippers of God — disciples — through worshipping God. When Paul hits the polytheistic city of Athens as a monotheist he adopts a pluralist strategy; one based on listening to the views of the people in Athens, on understanding their idolatrous impulses, and of confidently redirecting those impulses to the true and living God. His confidence is that when the Gospel is presented as a monotheistic truth in a pluralistic culture God will work to draw people back to his design for life.

Societal shifts towards God’s design have happened historically (think Constantine and Rome), and they do happen through Christians living and proclaiming the Gospel, but I’m not entirely sure that a Christian society should be our aim rather than a society of Christians (and the difference is how people who aren’t Christians are accommodated in the laws and institutions of each — ie whether the culture is pluralistic or monotheistic). Ancient cultures were also profoundly different to our individualistic, ‘democratised’ age in that the way to convert a culture was either to conquer it (think Babylon and Israel — or the spread of Babylonian religion to the hearts of most of those they captured (but not all Israel), or Rome and the imperial cult), or to convert the king. Kings functioned as high priests of the civic religion and the very image of God, and so to convert a king was to turn the hearts of the people to a different God (think Jonah in Nineveh, or Nebuchadnezzar’s response and edicts after witnessing God’s work in Daniel, and to some extent, Constantine in Rome). It is pretty unlikely that a society wide shift like this will happen when there isn’t a close connection to the ‘civil law’ and the religion of a nation.

“How then should Christians seek to influence the laws of the state in this area? In terms of voting the answer to this seems relatively straightforward. Since we’re being asked by the state what in our view would be best for our society, and seeing as God’s good design for marriage is best not just for Christians but for all people and for our society generally; we are encouraging Christians to vote ‘no’ in this plebiscite.” — The GIST Paper

I would argue this approach to voting is only straightforward if you adopt a purist-idealist position and reject pluralism as a valid good. That it isn’t actually straightforward that the best thing for our society is that non-Christians be conformed to our vision of human flourishing, and so our definition of marriage, without the telos — or purpose — of human flourishing and marriage as part of that being established first.

I’d also say this is an odd interpretation of what we are being asked. The question is not ‘what would be best for society’ — to approach it that way automatically leads to adopting an ‘idealist’ position; it begs the question. What we are being asked, literally, is “should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” In a secular society that’s an entirely more complicated question about what communities and views a secular government should recognise in its framework. The government’s responsibility is to provide the maximum amount of compromise or breadth for its citizens that can be held by consensus. It’s a tough gig. The government’s definition of marriage, including no-fault divorce, is already different from the Christian view. I marry people according to the rites of the Presbyterian Church which includes and articulates a vision of marriage connected to the telos of marriage — the relationship between Jesus and the church; the government’s definition of marriage is broader than mine, but includes mine.

This is the point at which I disagree significantly with the paper (I also disagree with the way it treats recognition as affirmation, fails to listen to, understand, and respond to the ‘human rights’ argument for same sex marriage by simply blithely dismissing it, and how it sees secular laws as establishing ideals rather than minimums (the state can and does pursue ideals through incentives and campaigns, but there are no incentives being offered to gay couples to marry that they do not already receive). The law is a blunt instrument that recognises things held as common assumptions of the minimum standards of life together, like ‘robbery is wrong’ and governments can incentivise not-robbing with welfare payments, and prevent the evil of robbery by incentivising or subsidising local governments or businesses introducing better lighting and security. Ethics aren’t formed so much by law but by the development of ideals and virtues (and arguably this happens through narratives not law, which is why so much of the Old Testament law is actually narrative even in the little explanations of different rules).

Generous Pluralism, the GIST Paper, and the Priesthood of all believers

This GIST paper was adopted after a lengthy review process, and through much discussion including three face to face meetings and deliberation by flying minute. Throughout the course of the discussion (and before it) it became clear that there were different views about what ‘faithfully living for Jesus in a secular society’ looks like; and so what equipping believers to do that looks like. I suggested we put forward the best case for different responses (an alternative to the majority view, and for it to be clear who held it and who did not, on the committee. In the discussions around the paper the majority of the committee held that we did not want to “give credence” to views other than the no vote being what equips believers to live faithfully for Jesus; even while acknowledging that my position was legitimately within our doctrinal and polity frameworks. This was ultimately why I resigned.

I don’t believe this decision to exclude a possible way to live faithfully for Jesus (and what I think is the best way) fulfils the committee’s charter if there are actually legitimate faithful ways to abstain or vote yes.

I also this fails a fundamentally Reformed principle in how we think of believers, and this principle is part of why I think a confident or generous pluralism within the church, and within the boundaries of orthodoxy, is the best way to equip believers. A confident pluralism isn’t built on the idea that all ideas are equally valid, but rather that we can be confident that the truth will persuade those who are persuaded by truth. That we can be confident, in disagreement, that a priesthood of all believers do not need a priestly or papal authority to interpret Scripture and the times for them. Believing that such a committee writes to equip such a priesthood of all believers (those our charter claims we serve), and that they should apply their wisdom, submit to scripture, and participate in the world according to conscience is the best way to equip believers to live faithfully.

A position of generous pluralism applied to a secular society outside the church probably leads to abstaining, and possibly to voting yes, depending on your ethic (how much a retrieval ethic plays into your thinking and how much you think the law affirms or normalises rather than recognising and retrieving good things from relationships that already exist (where children already exist).

Because a confident, or generous, pluralism relies on the priesthood of all believers and trusts that Christians should come to their own position assessing truth claims in response to Scripture I’m relatively comfortable with space being made for people to hear views other than mine. An example of this is that I host the GIST website, free of charge, on my private server at my cost. People are reading their views at my expense, and I will keep doing this as an act of hospitality though I believe their views are wrong. I also host and only lightly moderate comments and critical responses to things I write. This is a commitment I have to listening, to dialogue, to hospitality, to accommodation of others, to the priesthood of all believers (and a confidence that the truth will persuade those who it persuades), and to pluralism — and the lack of this commitment from others on the committee is in favour of purism-idealism, is fundamentally, why I resigned from the committee.

While the GIST paper tries to hold the created order (or ‘marriage as a creation ordinance)’ in tension with the resurrection; following the Oliver O’Donovan ‘resurrection and moral order’ model (and this was part of our discussions as a committee); the problem with creational ethics (or arguments from God’s design/natural order) that establish a universal good for all people, even non-Christians, is that they do not, in my opinion, sufficiently recognise the supremacy of Jesus or how Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets (because ‘moral law’ is still law we find in the written law of Moses that Jesus claims is written about him). This is a point at which I diverge slightly from the capital R reformed tradition, but where I think I am probably prepared to argue I’m standing in the traditions of the Reformers (sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers).

Turning to the Reformers for a model of a political theology from our secular context is interesting; the governments operating around the Reformation (for example the German nobility, or Calvin’s Geneva) were not secular but sectarian; and, for example, Luther wrote to the German nobility to call them to act as priests as part of the priesthood of all believers, rather than be led by the pope (a vital thing to convince them of if he was going to make space for the reformation). It’s fair to say that Calvin and Luther weren’t pluralists, they played the sectarian game at the expense of Catholicism or other forms of later Protestantism (see Luther’s Against The Peasants, and of course, his awful treatise on the Jews). When someone claims their political theology is consistent with the Reformed tradition and seeks to apply it to a secular democracy, I get a little concerned.

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people…

Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood, as St. Peter says in I Peter 2:9, “Ye are a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom,” and the book of Revelation says, Rev. 5:10 “Thou hast made us by Thy blood to be priests and kings.”

This is an interesting paper from Luther in that it doesn’t provide any sort of model for interacting with a government that is secular or not as faithful as any other members of the priesthood of all believers — instead what his political theology in his context is about is a government he treats as Christian being coerced by a church he holds to be the anti-Christ.

The Reformation was built on an epistemic humility that comes from the challenging of human authority and tradition. Where the GIST committee, in its deliberation, appealed to the Reformed category of a ‘Creation Ordinance’, I’d want to appeal to the Reformed approach to scriptures that sees everything fulfilled in Jesus — even the creation ordinances like work, Sabbath, and marriage. It’s reasonably easy to establish that Jesus is our rest and Lord of the Sabbath, that his resurrection restores our ability to work in a way that is no longer frustrated (1 Cor 15:58, Ephesians 2) — that there’s a telos or purpose to these creation ordinances that is best fulfilled in Christ, so that they can’t universally be understood by idolatrous humans without Jesus, and yet our arguments about protecting marriage or upholding marriage is that we are upholding God’s good design for all people. GIST’s paper is infinitely better than anything the ACL or the Coalition for Marriage is putting out that only argues from creation, in that it includes the infinite — by incorporating the resurrection; but the idea of a creation ordinance that should push us away from accommodating others via a public, generous, pluralism is an idealism that I would argue fails to accommodate the relationship between creation and its redeemer, and the telos of marriage (which doesn’t exist in the new creation except as the relationship between us and Jesus) (Matt 22, Rev 21).

A Confession

I’d served this committee for seven years. In the first two years I was in a minority (with another member) with a majority holding to a different sort of idealism; an idealism not built on the Gospel, but on God’s law or the ‘whole counsel of God’ (with no sense of how God’s whole counsel is fulfilled in Jesus). We orchestrated a changing of the guard on this committee that was not generous or pluralistic; we excluded a voice from the committee that was a legitimate representation of members of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

We pursued a platform narrower than the breadth of the church and so alienated a percentage of our members; I’ve come to regret this, while being proud of our record (and despite the committee being returned unopposed year on year since). I don’t think excluding voices is the best way to fulfil our charter, but rather a poly-phonic approach where a range of faithful options are given to the faithful — our priesthood — in order to be weighed up. This will be a challenge within the assembly of Queensland where there is a large amount of accord, but a much larger challenge within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, which is broader (and more fractured).


At present in the Presbyterian denomination our committees are operating like priests or bishops; sending missives to our churches that carry a sort of authority they should not be granted in our polity; I understand the efficiencies created by governance and operations via committee, but if Luther’s priesthood of all believers is truly a fundamental principle of Reformed operation in the world we should be more comfortable and confident that people being transformed by the Spirit and facing the complexity of life in our secular world will act according to conscience and in submission to God’s word, but might operate faithfully as Christians anywhere between idealism, pragmatism and pluralism, as purists or ironists; and if we put the purist-idealists in charge (or our committees function from that framework) we might significantly narrow the church and limit our voice and imagination; cutting off opportunities for Gospel-hearted apologetics from those who might walk through our idol-saturated streets and engage differently with our idol worshipping neighbours.