post-modernity

On the need for subversive ideologies

Australia’s Gospel Coalition CEO, blogger, and genuinely nice guy Akos Balogh is currently working on a series over on his blog about critical theory titled ‘Are You Being Shaped By This Subversive Ideology.’ Part 2 leads off with a quote from Hebrews, “‘Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.’ (Hebrews 13:9),” this could just have easily have quoted Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It’s a neat rhetorical trick to see Critical Theory as a ‘pattern of this world’ or a ‘diverse and strange teaching,’ but not to apply that same standard to the systems, patterns, and teachings that Critical Theory seeks to dismantle. For Christians, all systems of thinking and action — all patterns, political systems, and pretensions — whether whiteness or wokeness — are things we, at least, should be demolishing and bringing captive to Jesus (2 Corinthians 10:4), as we adopt a methodology or way of life that comes not from the world, but from Jesus, our king. This means Christians are actually called to be subversive.

Now, I’m not sure where Akos is going to land, whether or what insights from Critical Theory, or Post-modernity, and its critiques of modernity and power structures, he might affirm, but there’s something a little culture war-y about the posture of the series so far; and TGCAU has a little form here. If we’re not being shaped by ‘this subversive ideology,’ as Christians (or citizens), then might I suggest that we always need to be shaped by other subversive ideologies? Otherwise, without subversion, the status quo inevitably becomes enshrined as the default vision of ‘the good,’ and looking around at society, culture, and politics, I’m pretty sure we’re in need of some good old subversion, as I argued in a previous post, this subversion probably needs to be both conservative and progressive (mostly it needs to be wise and good).

Akos writes about the move from boring post-modernity, to a toothier ‘social justice theory,’ where the insights of post-modernity are turned into moral imperatives. He says “This desire to reorder society is incredibly moralistic: which is why so many students graduating from these ‘Social Justice’ type courses (women’s studies; gender studies etc) become activists.”

Now. We might be in real trouble if universities in Australia were pumping out graduates from these ‘social justice’ type courses (and, bear with me, ‘woke capitalism’ is certainly also a thing). That would be a status quo worth subverting. The ‘so many students,’ at least according to data on university enrolments from Australia’s Department of Education, is a subset of the 19.9% of university students who fit in the ‘society and culture’ segment of the university population, 25% of the student population are in ‘management and commerce’ degrees, 6% in Engineering or related fields, 7.9% in IT, 2.4% in Architecture and Building, 7.4% in Science, and 1.1% in Agriculture, add the 15.4% who are in Health, and that’s 65% of students who are in ‘modernist’ courses with a STEM flavour. That’s a pattern. That’s a system (the other 13.6% of students are studying Education or Arts). Drilling down into the ‘society and culture’ field of education, research conducted by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, says this sector includes “Political Science and Policy Studies, Studies in Human Society (History, Gender Studies, Indigenous Studies, Sociology), Human Welfare Studies and Services, Behavioural Science, Law Justice and Law Enforcement, Librarianship, Informational Management and Curatorial Studies, Language and Literature, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Economics, and Sport and Recreation.” Gender studies is there, but that’s a whole lot of other courses that aren’t necessarily producing activists committed to a social justice outlook. According to that same AAH paper (albeit a paper from 2014, using data from 2012) the ‘Other Studies in Human Society’ field, that includes Gender Studies and Indigenous Studies only accounts for around 12% of full time equivalent employees in the Society and Culture sector. Given that (according to the Grattan Institute) only 2 in 5 high school graduates enrol in university, the number of Aussies getting Gender Studies degrees and becoming activists is negligible, especially when compared to non-activist students who get jobs that plug them in to an economic and social machine that is more representative of a system or status quo or pattern of the world.

Perhaps these activists have a disproportionate impact on society and culture — perhaps they’re particularly effective online, and in a sort of ‘chattering class’ that cares about moral or ethical conversations (where plenty of Christian leaders find themselves engaging). Perhaps they even wield a disproportionate influence on western politics, especially on the left (though equally, they gain a disproportionate amount of attention from the Christian Right in these same online fora). But. Here’s a couple of caveats — perhaps the social justice activists from the Gender Studies departments, or Critical Theorists are actually right in some of their diagnoses about power, and systems and structures (but maybe sometimes wrong about their prescribed solutions to said problems), and perhaps, we Christians, aren’t so much at risk of being swept up by this ‘subversive agenda’ but not being subversive enough when it comes to the status quo that accounts for the vast majority of university graduates, and the 60% of Aussies who don’t go to, or haven’t graduated from, university.

We Christians could be a little more subversive when it comes to systems or patterns of thinking that are drastically shaping our conception of what it means to be human. Systems like liberalism and its radical individualism, or capitalism. Power structures like systemic racism or the patriarchy. This isn’t to say the answer is rushing out and subscribing to Critical Theory or getting a Gender Studies degree, but surely the same discernment we’re so willing to apply to progressive politics should be applied to the conservative realm and its patterns. The call to follow a crucified king in an upside down kingdom where the proud fall, and the humble are exalted actually requires a degree of subversion?

Akos suggests that the political principle of this ‘subversive system’ is “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how. This has also been retained. In fact, this is central to the advocacy of identity politics, whose politically actionable imperative is to dismantle this system (i.e. modern western society) in the name of Social Justice.” I won’t rehash the argument I made elsewhere about how the Biblical account of empire — whether Babylon, or Rome-as-Babylon, seems to fit with a belief that society is formed of dominion systems of power and hierarchy — but I will suggest, briefly, that identity politics is actually a product not of ‘social justice’ but of liberalism; and some unexpected consequences of Reformation Christianity and its emphasis on the individual (and a protestant work ethic).

Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his A Secular Age, traces the rise of what he calls ‘the age of authenticity’ to a protestant impulse to disconnect people from a previous social order, particularly an order where people were born into class systems or professions, this came with a disconnection from the idea that this social order was created and dignified by God (or a reflection of the supernatural realm in the natural order), such that, for example, kings were appointed by God. When we pushed that transcendent ordering of the natural world to the side, we were all left masters of our own domains, forced to construct our own individual identities, and, often, choosing to construct our identities through performative projections of our ‘authentic’ desires; our ‘id’ into the world — when we talk about identity politics, we’re really talking about id-entities — the idea that we as individuals create ourselves, that we need to be recognised by others to be legitimised, and that we can often construct this identity through consumer choice; either as we build our appearance and our connection to place, or as we associate ourselves to brands, sub-cultures, or tribes, in order to be understood. The system that we all operate in — whether plugging in to the economy as the quickest means to the sort of security that allows us to construct our ideal ‘id-entity’ through consumption or experience, or participating in woke capitalism, or social justice activism, or culture wars — is one built on this conception of the human. It’s a picture that needs subversion, or disruption.

Historian Tom Holland (not the Spider-Man actor) does a great job charting this in his book Dominion. He starts his exploration of the impact of Christianity on the secular west — or rather its formative and foundational role in the western world, with an exploration of the systems of dominion or domination ultimately replaced by Christianity, but maybe, following Taylor, that we might be returning to in the post-Christian west (as a result of some streams of Christian belief and practice).

He says, of the Babylonian and Persian realms, that they had a particular relationship to a conception not just of the universe and the ‘heavenly realm’ but the nature of the gods, “beyond the physical apparatus of the Great King’s vast empire, then, beyond the palaces, and the barrack rooms, and the way-posts on dusty roads, there shimmered a sublime and momentous conceit. The dominion forged by Cyrus and secured by Darius served as a mirror to the heavens. To resist it or to subvert it was to defy Truth itself.” The sort of power systems that led empires to crucify, destroy, or torture their enemies in order to promote or maintain power gave way in the west, at least for a while, to a thoroughly different way of operating; but this does not mean that ‘systems of power’ are a fiction; they are, instead, the very patterns the Biblical story emerges against — the patterns Hebrews and Romans call Christians out of as we pattern our lives on the cross. Holland says his ambition in writing  Dominion was to trace the course of what one Christian, writing in the third century ad, termed ‘the flood-tide of Christ’: how the belief that the Son of the one God of the Jews had been tortured to death on a cross came to be so enduringly and widely held that today most of us in the West are dulled to just how scandalous it originally was. This book explores what it was that made Christianity so subversive and disruptive; how completely it came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom; and why, in a West that is often doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of its instincts remain – for good and ill – thoroughly Christian. It is – to coin a phrase – the greatest story ever told.” Note that Christianity in its rejection of the sort of power structures of ancient empires was subversive and disruptive. 

Holland argues that the subversive and disruptive effects of Christianity served to overturn a certain ancient, and perhaps human-without-Jesus pattern of dominion; the same sorts of patterns that always sit latent in human hearts in a Christian anthropology — or that are always active in human hearts and actions without the influence and transformation brought by the Spirit, such that we should expect to see not just human lives given over to dominion (or being dominated), but human systems and cultures being built around the idolatrous use of power. These are the sorts of systems that Paul and the writer of Hebrews were worried might pull people away from the pattern of life found in the Gospel. Holland says the pattern that has shaped the western world, for good, is not one of dominion built on power, but rather, a culture built on the emptying out of power for the sake of the other; the power of the cross not just as a symbol but an ethic.

He says:

“If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution – a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead – then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth? A myth, though, is not a lie. At its most profound – as Tolkien, that devout Catholic, always argued – a myth can be true. To be a Christian is to believe that God became man, and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient implement of torture, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it – the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe – that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.”

That’s powerful stuff right there; and I’d suggest where cultures, including the west, are moving away from the image of a god dead on a cross, and towards systems of power modelled on different concepts of god (idolatry, including greed), we’re seeing returns to dominion systems that just go by other names, like capitalism. Now. Capitalism is a product, like much of the west, of Christianity — a product of the idea of property rights and a person owning ‘property’ in the form of their own self (thanks Locke), and a product of ‘the protestant work ethic’ and democracy, and some of this is good fruit from a good tree — but idolatry is where good things — created things — are taken, and instead of being received with thanksgiving, worshipped in the place of God; made ultimate. The Social Justice Movement, or Critical Theory, is its own power game (as I’ve argued elsewhere), and it is not immune from critique using its own framework of deconstruction and assessment of an approach to power — but its critiques of systems of power at work in the west aren’t all wrong; especially because Christianity has had an awkward relationship with state power in the western world. If the book of Revelation is a criticism of Israel and its harlotry — cuddling up to the beastly Roman empire and so executing Jesus and persecuting his church, then the church, too, has been guilty of cuddling up to beastly human power structures — dominion structures — and copping some ire from the people we were meant to serve for our failures, historically and presently, is part of doing the business of repentance for us Christians. We shouldn’t be surprised if those who are sensitive to systematised abuses of power also point the finger at us, we had a whole Royal Commission exploring some of the failures of the church in this area, but those aren’t all our failures — just our failures that broke the law. We’ve also failed in our calling to be those who stand not at the centre of society but for all those made to bear God’s image, our neighbours marginalised by dominion systems. If the church is so cosied up to worldly patterns — especially in the west, which still bears the hallmarks of the Gospel and is now enjoying the fruits, how will we be able to see where disruption or subversion is still required without voices from the outside?

If we assume the status quo is good and right, how will we avoid the ‘patterns of this world’ — and isn’t there a chance that sometimes things that challenge our comfortable status quo will feel like ‘diverse and strange teachings’ — much like the prophets calling Israel away from idolatry, or Jesus arriving in first century Israel felt to God’s people who had become too comfortable with the gods and systems of the nations? If we get caught up conserving the good things about the west to the extent that we don’t hear a call to ongoing progression or disruption don’t we run the risk of conforming to the patterns of the world? To systems of dominion or empire? Won’t we end up becoming vassals to the empire in ways that make it hard not to bow the knee, or kiss the hand, or bless the President, when he beckons to us, rather than ambassadors for Christ and ministers of God’s reconciling work in the world?

In an essay titled ‘Woke Politics and Power,’ published in The Monthly, Australian academic and media personality Waleed Aly unpacks a way that the Critical Theory/Social Justice movements play power games via cancel culture. His analysis is well worth the time because he observes that underneath the Social Justice/Critical Theory movement is both a power game, or dominion system, and an animating force that is essentially the same as the forces animating capitalism (that also explains, again, why woke capitalism is a thing). It’s the same false fruit of Christianity (and perhaps particularly post-Reformation Christianity) behind the ‘age of authenticity’ and the pursuit of an id-entity that needs to be recognised by others (including the state) to be validated. He’s not the only one making this observation. The whip smart hosts of the podcast The Eucatastrophe have been banging this same drum for three seasons of their show now, and, really, Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, and William Cavanaugh have made similar observations (MacIntyre in After Virtue, Cavanaugh in many places including this most excellent essay about Amazon as a modern god). The issue is a version of liberalism, or radical individualism, built on a radical form of individualism that props up, and in a vicious cycle, is a product of a form of capitalism-as-empire. Aly examines wokeness, and cancel culture as an application of woke power, as a reaction to liberalism that doesn’t escape liberalism’s constraints. He says:

“But perhaps cancel culture’s most fatal problem is that while it intuits liberalism is insufficient, and seeks to dismantle it, it cannot escape it. In fact, it ends up imbibing several of its basic ideas. This isn’t immediately obvious due to liberalism and woke politics’ opposing focus on individual rights and collective identities, respectively. That seems completely incompatible until you recognise that cancel culture adopts a postmodern version of identity that becomes highly individualistic. So, on gender (though not on race) identity is largely determined by individuals who declare themselves into existence, then require society to recognise them on those terms. That is very different from pre-modern identities, which were overwhelmingly given to people by society, assigning membership of a collective, which came with established roles and obligations to other people. These collectives might variously be national, religious, gendered, class-based (or some combination of these), but they were not typically chosen. Collective identities effectively led people to ask themselves “What is required of me?” rather than “What does my identity demand of you?” Liberalism smashed that comprehensively.

It’s a major difference with major consequences. Pre-modern identities sat atop a shared, largely fixed morality, provided mostly by religion or a relatively homogenous culture. Liberalism assumes that some kind of common moral culture undergirds society, but it is largely amoral itself. It leaves moral judgement to the “market” of individuals, which will change it over time.”

It’s a really, really, good essay.

So how do we disrupt, or subvert, the worldly patterns, systems, and power structures underpinning both wokeness and whiteness? How do we challenge not just the ‘subversive systems’ that challenge the status quo and so feel like they’re challenging the things we want to conserve, but also the more invisible systems that we’ve become complicit in that still need to be challenged?

Well. I tried to unpack that in this earlier post, but it’s ultimately going to work with the same spirit that animated the west and subverted older models of idolatry or dominion, and that animated the Reformation itself, even if subsequent generations of reformed Christians created a dangerous emphasis on the individual in their deconstruction of ecclesial power structures — the cross of Jesus. Weakness. Power given for the sake of others, not for self interest.

More than that though it will have to come with two simultaneous convictions — the existence of a heavenly realm and a heavenly being who has some say in how human relationships and systems should look — and we Christians have that at the heart of our story of creation and redemption; a God who made heavens and earth that they might reveal his ‘divine nature and character,’ who sustains things by his powerful word, who uses the ‘wisdom of the cross’ to shame and defeat worldly empires and power structures, and whose ‘word-made-flesh’ taught us to pray that his kingdom might come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ — we need a re-enchanted sense of the world, and our place in it within a system, not simply as individuals, and we need a conviction that our personhood is given, not just self-actualised.

The first of these convictions is going to come through worship that rejects idolatry. In Romans, Paul describes the way cultures and norms are formed when we reject God as creator, and worship creation instead. There are plenty of religions-of-liberalism. Aly describes wokeness itself as a sort of religion — the kind philosopher Émile Durkheim described in his sociological definition of ‘a religion’ — Durkheim’s model describes how all sorts of things, from politics, to consumption, to sport, function as ‘religions’ in a post-transcendent, or disenchanted, world. There are plenty of corporations out there vying to fill the religious void in your life, and even to appear ‘enchanting’ — Cavanaugh’s essay on Amazon describes this, where he says “we continue to serve gods every bit as transcendent and irrational as the gods of old. The holy has not disappeared but migrated from the church to the state and the market.

Cavanaugh concludes, saying:

“Idolatry is embedded in whole economic and social and political systems that hold us in thrall. In an unjust system, we are all idolaters, and there needs to be systemic change to free people from false worship. If there is no true God, that task seems impossible.”

In his Gifford Lectures, published as History and Eschatology, N.T Wright suggests that much of what might otherwise be called ‘liberalism’ is just a modern form of Epicureanism. Wright argues that this is built from a consistent atomisation, or individuation, of all parts of life, playing out in the way we approach systems — from the universe down, whether that’s in economics, politics, or anthropology. He talks about modern life as life in ‘Epicurean Babylon,’ and suggests that this Epicureanism has infected the church, including how we understand God as creator and redeemer, in a variety of damaging ways, and sees part of the way this atomisation has taken place being the destruction of the role of narrative — not just in post-modernity, but in western modernity as well (where propositional truth and a sort of ‘mechanical’ model of life and the universe were assumed, so that a ‘deistic non-interventionist God’ is assumed, and that isn’t so different from a disenchanted, materialist universe where secular and sacred are separate realms, rather than integrated or overlapping). In such a world material things become our objects of worship, or the ways we define our ‘identity’ — rather than seeing our humanity as something given to us with the purpose of reflecting the divine nature and character of God (or, bearing his image). This is to say that the current state of play in the West isn’t just a product of Christianity, as Holland suggests, but also the product of a turn to, or at times a synthesis of Christianity and, a sort of Epicurean cosmology that underpins liberalism and its understanding of the world, the economy, and what it means to be human.

For me the second task, rediscovering who we were created to be, means being suspicious of the word ‘id-entity’ as a theological or ethical category (and a preference for talking about personhood), and an avoidance of identity based politics, identity-construction through consumer choice (and, instead, an approach to formation and ethics based on virtue and embodying the narrative we’re called to live in by the God who made, and re-created us in Jesus, who is transforming us into his image). Id-entity construction is so often a product of idolatry — our hearts, that are factories of idols, are poor guides for what our humanity should look like, and we aren’t as in control as we think we are of our ‘identity’ if, fundamentally, we are worshipping creatures who become what we worship. Our transformation, redemption, or re-creation in Christ certainly involves transformed hearts — but this transformation, like our bodies that are born into a ‘story’ (our families, communities, etc) is ‘given’ to us in that it is brought about by the Spirit (see Romans 7 and 8). The whole exercise of talking about Christianity as an ‘identity’ that we construct lends itself to a sort of liberalism where our religious commitment ends up being a personal consumer choice and a bid to construct and have our heart-desires recognised in much the same way as a sports fan, or a member of a sub culture or community. The Biblical concept of personhood in relationship to God as creator and redeemer is, in many ways, the antithesis of liberalism and we should be really cautious in adopting the language, or anthropology, at the heart of the liberal system (or empire).

This attempts to re-understand humanity, or personhood, requires a commitment to discovering who we are in the Gospel, as the culmination of God’s story — or revelation of his character to us, and in our union with Christ and as his body in the world, and a commitment to the sort of worship, or liturgy, that forms us as the people who live this story in all of life. The stuff Paul says at the start of Romans 12 about true worship is the antidote to the false worship of Romans 1, and the basis of our transformation and the renewing of our minds and the not being conformed to the patterns of this world, and its the ‘offering of our bodies’ in view of God’s mercy to us in Jesus). As MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue, when examining the givenness of our personhood, and how that has been lost in modern constructions of identity (or how the modern bureaucratic state wants to educate/form us into particular identities within an economic machinary), ‘“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do? ‘ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”

Finally, because subversion requires challenging the status quo we need to not just hear political and social voices we might otherwise exclude. The prophetic voices calling for disruption, subversion, or Reformation. I fear that many of our conservative, institutional, voices would react to Luther the way the Pope did. The Protestant impulse might have led us to some interesting political and social positions where different sorts of idolatry were birthed, and it may have not just ‘re-ordered’ given structures that underpinned a sense of God’s providential ordering of the universe (like kings and popes), but done away with a link between the two in some profound ways, but it did get the emphasis on disruption or subversion — the church always reforming — right. Perhaps rather than dismissing voices that challenge systems and status quos as ‘diverse and strange teachings’ we might consider and discern whether we should be receiving them as a ‘voice calling from the wilderness’ encouraging us to make straight paths for the Lord. Our tendency, especially in a ‘liberal’ world that teaches us we are the autonomous authors of our own identity, is to be blind to the systems that are shaping us, because we believe we are in control.

The telling of the Christian story as a counter-narrative to the stories of the world is one way that should open our eyes, but we probably also need to hear the Christian story as told by non-liberal (non-western even) Christian voices to examine where our version of the Gospel might have been colonised, or where a worldly dominion model might have crept in without us noticing (or worse, with us noticing but not caring because that’s more effective, or comfortable). One example of this that I’ve come across recently is this application of something like ‘critical race theory’ to ‘whiteness’ in the church, or more particularly, in the Christian academy by Ekaputra Tupamahu. This article’s insights into how liberalism, particularly in the form of property rights (starting with the self, or the body, as autonomously governed personal property) and then copyright are particularly ‘white’ western phenomena (made evident, historically, by colonialism in the west, and white ownership of non-white persons as slaves). The application of ‘property rights’ — an expression of liberalism — to the field of Biblical studies, and specifically, to a problem in New Testament studies known as ‘the synoptic problem’ is a fruitful example of listening to voices from outside of the liberal western world and allowing those voices to lead us in a task of subverting some damaging assumptions.

Brian Walsh, the author of Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in Dangerous Times, which explores, for the most part, an Old Testament Babylonian context and the way Israel’s creation narrative called them to be a subversive people who believed something different to the sort of idolatrous capitalism and environmental (and human) destruction at work in Babylon’s dominion-based empire, in order to map that on to a call for those bearing God’s image in a new Babylon, also wrote Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empiredemonstrating (as Tom Holland does) a shared philosophy of dominion or domination at work in Babylon and Rome, seeing these as the backdrop for Christianity and its subversive politics — namely, the kingdom of God, centred on a crucified king. In it he said:

“What was true of an ancient community of Christian believers struggling with a powerful and appealing philosophy is also true for Christians in a postmodern context. Arguments that deconstruct the regimes of truth at work in the late modern culture of global capitalism are indispensable. So also is a deeper understanding of the counterideological force of the biblical tradition. But such arguments are no guarantee that the biblical metanarrative will not be co-opted for ideological purposes of violent exclusion, nor do arguments prove the truth of the gospel. Only the nonideological, embracing, forgiving and shalom-filled life of a dynamic Christian community formed by the story of Jesus will prove the gospel to be true and render the idolatrous alternatives fundamentally implausible.”

The trick is to not embrace deconstruction (alone) or dominion-style power games as we listen to these voices, but to embody a subversion built on hope, and joy, and eschatological anticipation of the renewal of all things, and so to work towards reconstruction of our own systems aligned to the Gospel and the kingdom of Jesus. It’s actually these voices from the margins — or the wilderness — speaking out against empires, dominions, or domination systems — that are echoes of the voices of the prophets; the voices that are indispensible for our task of being disrupted to our own personal transformation, and to the transformation of the world around us, or at least our anticipation that the one reconciling all things to himself will one day return to make all things new, but it’s the voices of those pointing us to Jesus that are the ones offering us not just diagnosis, but a way forward.

On seeing… clearly (or “how I found out I had ‘presbyopia’ and used that as a metaphor for talking about the Presbyterian church)

My recent trip to the optometrist also included a routine check up, where, it turned out my eyes are aged the same age as the rest of my body. Older. And so, I have ‘presbyopia’ — which is a apparently very common condition, but brilliantly named given my occupation as a Presbyterian minister.

Presbyopia has the same greek root as Presbyterian — ‘elder’ — I have elder eyes.

Eyes that according to the diagnosis are suffering from a physiological insufficiency of accommodation associated with the aging of the eye that results in progressively worsening ability to focus clearly on close objects. Symptoms include difficulty reading small print, having to hold reading material farther away, headaches, and eyestrain.

Inflexible. Unable to focus on close objects. Tired.

Sounds like the Presbyterian Church alright…

I’ve written a couple of recent pieces about the pastor drought and what might be causing it in our neck of the woods, and about why I’m (still) a Presbyterian anyway, and in some ways I wish I’d had this diagnosis, and so, this language, earlier. 

We Presbyterians have presbyopia.

As a denomination we’re increasingly unable to recognise what we’re not seeing because we’re old, inflexible, and tired. Incapable of seeing what’s right before our eyes, and, like me, unaware of what we’re missing. We’re probably not good at reading small print either… 

For various reasons our denomination in Queensland is at something of a cultural crossroads. The ‘pastor drought’ is biting, so there are vacancies popping up all over the state, and filling those vacancies from within the state will perpetuate the problem. There are good things happening in some healthy churches, but some of our larger churches have grown beyond the size our system is capable of accommodating and beyond the size that most pastors are equipped to lead. We, as a denomination, have been wedded to pragmatism in our ‘business meetings’ and even in local congregations, outsourcing theological thought to committees who then deliver reports that most of us are too busy to read or engage with properly, and we haven’t made great business decisions because very few office bearers in the denomination, or members of the courts of the church have been trained or equipped to operate businesses — most of us have been trained to exegete the Bible, and some of us have vaguely relevant pre-Bible college experience that is rapidly fading in the rear view mirror, the elders who could be joining our business meetings as a denomination — those with business acumen — are excluded as a function of our meeting times, and our operating rules haven’t found ways to both affirm a theology of male eldership and broaden these courts to consistently include the voices and wisdom of the other 50% of the population. We’ve become stuck in our way of seeing the world, and the world is changing. We’ve lost focus. 

Presbyopia. 

Recent events have been a bit like the eye tests you do at the optometrist where you suddenly realise you’re not seeing what you should, and so we’re conducting ‘reviews’ and ‘think tanks’ and bringing in ‘fresh eyes’ to set ‘new directions’ (the previous ironic title of our denominational rag). But how can we be sure this won’t be a case of the blind leading the blind?

If, and let’s stretch the Presbyopia analogy just a little further for a moment, if the phenomenon of ‘old eyes’ kicks in at around 40 (you know, around my age), then seeing clearly might not just involve people in their late 60s (boomers) inviting people in their 40s (xers) to the table. It’s quite possible those ‘younger’ elders won’t just bring the wisdom of age and experience, but eyes that are already becoming inflexible precisely when we need to shift our focus. 

There are things that are good, true, and beautiful that come from having a denomination where age and experience are valued; elders are an essential part of any community (and family). But there comes a point in the life of a family not only where we don’t let grandpa drive the family car, but when a parent turns to their kids knowing that their eyes might see things with a little more clarity. 

Let me just make some bold assertions (propositions even) for a moment, and feel free to push back if you think these are unfounded. 

Pragmatism of the sort that is producing problems at a local church level and at an institutional level is wedded to a certain sort of modernism; especially a modernism connected to technology and technique. The cultural dilemmas facing our denomination are fundamentally an outworking of an uncritical adoption of modernity not just as a framework for assessing and talking about truth and morality, but for operating in the world. 

1. The shifting cultural landscape and the erosion of the church’s place in society is a product of both our uncritical embrace of modernism, and the failure of modernism to win the hearts and minds of the culture (and, perhaps even the failure of modernism to present a fully orbed understanding of what it means to be human, or to have meaning, or to know truth).

It’s not just that the culture has shifted way from truth (and by that we mean become post-modern and post-Christian), it’s that the shift to modernity was already a destructive shift away from truth and we didn’t see it while we were making the shift (think the disenchantment of Christian belief, where we’re blind to the spiritual realm, and our becoming wedded to pragmatism in our ethics, rather than, say, virtue or working from principles that might produce an action that was ‘right’ but less immediately effective).

An example of this is that modernism is big on authoritative institutional voices, so, we adopted this posture and voice as Christians, specifically as conservative church institutions (not just Presbyterians), when speaking to the world about moral, political and social issues. These areas of life are typically not reduced simply to pure rationality or propositions about science/nature/natural law (like marriage), but that’s the posture we adopted — and people were keen to take away our drivers license because we looked like the equivalent of a 95 year old escapee from a nursing home stealing a car and rampaging through the streets at 10 kph. We did this while simultaneously undermining our institutional credibility (around, say, institutional child abuse and even church finances). Then, as we realised the shift was happening we doubled down on pragmatism. The ‘culture wars’ approach to politics is this paradigm taken to extremes; where suddenly it doesn’t matter what action we take, so long as the outcome we believe is ‘good’ is achieved. Within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland this pragmatism plays out both in terms of how we typically talk about achieving ministry success (more bums on more seats in flashier buildings with better AV capacity), and in how we approach decision making in our courts where questions tend to be about methodology, resource distribution, and wisdom rather than about theological consistency, and where theological thought when it does happen is outsourced to an increasingly smaller group of experts because we don’t have time for that in our ‘business meetings’.

2. Pragmatism, as an outworking modernism, that mostly looks like finding the right lever or silver bullet or ministry model isn’t going to fix this shift.

It won’t fix our internal issues if our internal issues are, in part, that we are institutionally wedded to modernity and to pragmatism, and it won’t fix our external issues if we think the way to respond to the shifting culture is to simply present the unadorned propositional truth of the Gospel (or if we do adorn it, to think that the best way to adorn the Gospel is in pragmatic ways that imitate the ‘excellence’ we find in business and marketing manuals with good technology and technique). 

3. Embracing post-modernity, especially its suspicion of institutions and its paradigm of deconstruction of institutions where reconstruction work is typically aimed around the subjective experience of an individual, isn’t the answer either.

Institutions are good and necessary. Individuals suffer from presbyopia (or plenty of other conditions that limit true seeing of the world). There is truth at the heart of Christian belief that can be expressed propositionally (just not exclusively propositionally). Narratives are powerful, but not only subjectively so. This is where maybe a shift to meta-modernity (or post-post-modernity) would be an interesting step to embrace institutionally.

4. The children are our future (and also our present), and so are adults without presbyopia, maybe they should help set our direction, especially if they can see more clearly than we can.

Our church structures are set up to be conservative (and there’s some wisdom in that so long as we’re conserving the right things), but one way this plays out is that the ‘rooms where it happens’ to borrow from Hamilton typically exclude anyone at low risk of actual presbyopia, and probably also anyone at low risk of metaphorical presbyopia as well (not to mention, in the main, that they also typically (though not in all cases) exclude women of all ages).

There are now a couple of generations below Gen-X who’ve been grappling with cultural changes, and some people in these generations are exceptionally thoughtful and committed Christians who’ve navigated the challenges and tensions in their own lives that we’re now trying to recalibrate our denomination to respond to because we’ve realised we’re not seeing as clearly as we should. Any review process worth its salt won’t just include the next generation down — those who’ve been waiting patiently to become the establishment — but all generations. Instead of viewing these younger generations with suspicion, as though anybody not wedded to the methodology of modernism (propositions and pragmatism) has become worldly (without critically assessing our only ‘becoming worldly’ as an institution that is thoroughly modernist), maybe we could listen to them. One way this ‘suspicion’ plays out, like so much else, is when the modernist v post modernist thing kicks in in debates about sexuality and, for example, the language used to describe one’s experience, where anything ‘post-modern’ is dismissed as squishy or dangerous theological liberalism, when what is possibly happening is a shift in how language is used from prescriptive to descriptive. There are other ways too, but I feel like I need some evidence to support these assertions and one of the first places I think this modernist/post-modernist schism became apparent to me was in the furore surrounding a review posted here some time ago about a thoroughly modernist book tackling sexual ethics produced by another thoroughly modernist institutional Christian publisher.

We need grandpa no longer in the driver seat, and the fresh eyed learner driver to navigate this road trip and keep the car from breaking down or crashing.

5. If we’re serious about a cultural review and ‘think tanks’ and substantial institutional change we need to invite people who are clear eyed (and so under 35) into our processes, and these discussions.

Otherwise we’ll have the blind leading the blind to more of the same, but also, in my own actual (and metaphorical) experience, it’s energising to see the world through fresh eyes. The optometrist was right that my tired eyes were making the rest of me tired too. It’s invigorating both to get glasses that correct your vision and take up some of the strain, and to hear from voices younger than you who help you see the world with a little more clarity.

Two of my favourite parts of the last two years have been regular catch ups with my ministry trainee, Matthew, who consistently probes and prods me to see the world differently, and reading his blog as he’s ventured into publishing some of his thinking for a wider audience. I trust I’m also operating as ‘an elder’ for him, but he’s navigating a thoroughly different world to the one I knew in my twenties. For another eye-opening experience, get a hold of Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites for an account of the way the spiritual and cultural landscape has shifted past the kinda hard secularism and skepticism that so much stuff by people over 35 (me included) assumes is the default paradigm, into something quite different.

Scroll to Top