Why Christians must never acknowledge an altar to an unknown god
Mark Powell has responded to the responses to his piece about why Christians shouldn’t conduct acknowledgments of country. He’s responded, especially to Fr Daryl McCullough’s piece with the classic ‘double down.’
Mark confuses description from some quarters with prescription for all quarters on a couple of occasions; citing examples that back up his claims about pantheism and smoking ceremonies, and then drawing a long bow and shooting arrows into all versions of acknowledgments of country and symbolic uses of smoke. One hopes that he will consistently extend his logic to suggesting we shut down fellowship with the Anglican Church over its use of incense, and stop Presbyterian churches participating in ANZAC Day ceremonies, which are overtly religious and nationalist and just a tiny bit pagan in their remembering the sacrifices of our ancestors. Mark must, of course, be worried about the sort of syncretism that saw the discussion he mentions that happened at our General Assembly happening in a building decked out with the trappings of the ANZAC cult. Pretty much every charge Mark levels at acknowledgments of country can also be levelled at dawn services — so he might, for consistency’s sake, have to reject those syncretistic symbols.
Mark also thinks I called him white in my last post. Having known Mark since I was a kid, and having heard him describe his heritage and his family’s connection to the South Sea Islands during the Assembly, it would be very odd for me to assert that he was white. I didn’t. I said the courts of our church are typically white. I said his impulse to read indigenous practices through a western individualistic political lens was part of the colonial impulse. I hope that clears things up.
Needless to say, I don’t find Mark’s response to the responses very convincing (he has another drive by shot at me over suggesting that there’s a ‘sacramental’ element to nature; to be clear, I don’t think going to the beach is a ‘sacrament’ in the way that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are; but I do believe nature is oriented towards grace; and that the purpose of the natural world is to throw us towards the presence of God in all times and places as the creator who sustains all things by his powerful word. I don’t believe in a secular/sacred divide when it comes to time or place (1 Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:5-6, Romans 11:36). If all time and space is sacred, then recognising this, that the transcendent and immanent realities are always overlapping; not bifurcated; is very similar to what we do in the sacraments though those are particularly oriented to the saving work of Jesus (in the same way I’d say marriage is ‘sacramental’ but not a sacrament).
Anyway. My real beef is this.
Mark insists that acknowledgments of country are a protocol that is always inherently religious; particularly because of the claims made by one source on indigenous spirituality. He says this idolatry disqualifies Christians from using the forms of the protocols because to do so is to invite judgment on our heads.
Someone shoulda told Paul.
Eating food sacrificed to idols or acknowledging that unknown God in Athens are the worst forms of idolatrous syncretism Mark can imagine.
There’s two places one might go to engage with Mark’s argument here; one is in Paul’s treatment of food that had been sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy 4; in 1 Corinthians he says ‘the idols are nothing,’ and ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (he does warn about sharing in the cup of demons in 1 Corinthians 10:14-19). Now. If Mark is right and an acknowledgment of country is always idolatrous such that to participate in a prescribed form is to participate in idolatry, then the cup of demons paradigm might apply. If an acknowledgment of country is always to partake at the table of pantheistic indigenous theology (and if all indigenous theology is pantheistic), then we cannot participate. For Mark this idolatry seems to take the form both of indigenous spirituality and the woke, progressive, lefty politics he hates so much… and the same rule probably applies, if participating in a civic protocol is necessarily to be a woke, progressive, lefty, and so cause division in the church with those who don’t share that ideology, then Christians shouldn’t do it for the sake of Christian unity.
But Mark is self-evidently wrong because he admits that the protocol for an acknowledgment of country is not really established; that the first one was a quasi-spiritual welcome put together by Ernie Dingo; and this is exactly what aboriginal Christian leaders are saying — there is no recipe for a welcome to country; no particular spirituality to be ticked; no formula in the words used for the speech-act to have taken place; the fundamental element of an acknowledgment of country is truth telling about our nation’s past (Mark seems to keep wanting to offer an alternative narrative here with his doubling down on wave theory, but we’ll leave that for now). That some acknowledgments of country are idolatrous does not make all acknowledgments of country idolatrous; and that some are idolatrous does not prevent Christians adopting and adapting the forms to align them with Biblical truths.
Mark seems to believe that all the meaning of a protocol is caught up in one particular form, and one particular sort of content, and that you can’t adapt those forms. Which would be news to the Israelites who melted down gold from Egypt to furnish the temple; and Solomon as he copied and pasted a bunch of Egyptian proverbs bracketing them with the phrase ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’… both the gold, and the proverbs, had particular idolatrous meanings before Israel co-opted them; just as meat did in Corinth.
An acknowledgment of country, because it can mean something different at each different table where it is offered, by each different host, seems to be much more like idol meat — sure, there might be idolatry involved in some of the application of the protocols (and this is also true of smoke ceremonies), the question is whether the symbolism might be re-appropriated and used to preach something true (like ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’) that invites us to love and serve our neighbour. When Paul writes to Timothy about people wanting to forbid different foods, or practices, on the basis of idolatry, he gives this principle for dealing with created things (particularly things created by God), and their redemption.
“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” — 1 Timothy 4:4-5
But wait… you might say… this is about food and marriage; things that God created. Sure, it’s obvious that we can redeem those by consecrating them (a sacramental approach to created things if ever there was one) and receiving them with thanksgiving… and acknowledgments of country were created as a civic protocol, not by God. There is a spirituality attached to some versions of both acknowledgments and welcomes to country, and smoking ceremonies (just as there is idolatry attached to Anzac ceremonies, and a political mythology too). The question is whether that spirituality is definitive, and inherent to the practice, or whether they might be re-framed by Christians to bridge the gap to God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now. If only we had some example of man made, civic, religiosity, being redeemed, and reframed, to connect people to their creator.
Mark seems to believe that any adaptation and reframing of an idolatrous activity or ‘cultural text,’ such as a smoking ceremony necessarily leads to syncretism. So. I’d like to introduce you to the Bible’s chief syncretist. The Apostle Paul.
Mark says “Aboriginal smoking ceremonies are clearly spiritual in nature. Their goal is to explicitly ward off evil spirits.” I’d suggest this is equally true of the altar Paul found on the streets of Athens to “an Unknown God” — an altar the Athenians used to cover all their spiritual bases and explicitly avoid offending any god they’d accidentally missed. A piece of religious superstition; clearly spiritual in nature. Paul, of course, as a Pharisee, knew what idols were — abominable departures from the truth about God; that when Israel occupied the promised land they were meant to destroy. And yet Paul, in Athens, does not pull out the sledgehammer and condemn the Athenians for their misplaced spirituality; he uses that spirituality, and that altar, to build a connection to the God he knows. The God who created all people; even the Greeks, and who appointed them (and those before them) to live in and occupy their lands. Mark doesn’t believe simply conducting a smoking ceremony — using the burning of a created thing as a picture of God’s goodness — in worship ‘sanctifies’ the act of burning; he says “Just because they are done in the context of Christian worship doesn’t sanctify them.” I’d suggest the reframing offered in the context of Christian worship might explicitly be the sort of ‘consecration’ that Paul talks about in 1 Timothy. Mark also rejects the idea that we might use our indigenous neighbours’ previous beliefs about an ‘All father’ Creator Spirit’ to proclaim the God of the Bible, because that would be ‘precisely what syncretism is’… the problem is Paul’s explicit example in Athens. Now. Mark will appeal to the regulative principle and the nature of Christian worship here, perhaps, but I’m in a slightly more maximalist camp on the question of worship than Mark within our denomination (Romans 12:1). And the issue here is that nobody in our denomination is currently suggesting Acknowledgments of Country happen in worship (ie between a call to worship and a benediction in a Sunday service); the question has been whether we can conduct them at all as Presbyterians. Mark objects to any reframing of the civic protocol because he believes all versions of the protocol are idolatrous syncretism, what he defines as the “fusion of diverse religious beliefs and practices!”
Someone should tell Paul that he got it wrong. I mentioned in my last piece that this section at the Areopagus also involves Paul deliberately following the conventions of that court for introducing a new God into the life of Athens. Syncretism. He also favourably quotes their religious philosophers, he, for example, alludes to Zeno the Stoic, who said that the true God doesn’t dwell in a temple, and directly quotes Epimenedes Cretica, a hymn to Zeus, when he says “For in you we live and move and have our being.” Syncretism baby. Pure syncretism. Paul takes the content from a hymn to an idolatrous God, and uses it to proclaim truths about the God of the Bible who reveals himself in Jesus. Syncretism! Or… Pure Gospel proclamation using created things and the humanity of the people he is seeking to reach with the good news.
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:22-31
How could Paul get it so wrong. Doesn’t he know he is inviting God’s judgment on himself by affirming truths that he found with pagan roots?
The test for whether or not acknowledgments of, or welcomes to, country are ‘pagan’ or idolatrous or not is not ‘what are their origins’ but ‘are we speaking God’s truth,’ and the benefits are ‘are we speaking such truth in a way that invites people to know the God who is just, and a father of all nations, who invites us to come home to him through Jesus; the resurrected king.