ABC’s Q&A on April 25 2016 discussed the relationship between the (Christian) church and politics and I’d like to make some observations from watching this. The panel consisted of:
- John Haldane, Visiting Professor and Catholic intellectual
- Julie McCrossin, (Uniting) Church elder and journalist
- Ray Minniecon, Indigenous Anglican Pastor
- Rev. Tiffany Sparks, Anglican Priest and representative for A Progressive Christian Voice;
- Lyle Shelton, Managing Director, Australian Christian Lobby.
So, there was a Catholic, a representative of the Uniting Church (UC), two Anglicans, and a person of undeclared denomination. No Church of Christ, Lutherans, Baptists, Seven Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses. At least protestants and catholics of some sort were broadly represented I suppose.
I suppose it was an interesting discussion, albeit within the narrow confines of the Christian church. John Haldane was easiest to listen and seemed the most lucid, ironic, given the evils of the Catholic church.
Julie McCrossin suggested that people of other faiths (e.g. Muslim people) should have been included on the panel and mentioned that her particular UC encouraged columns from other religions in their newsletter. I wonder whether pastafarians, adherents of Jainism (a gentler, saner religion than most), Hindus, Buddhists, Satanists, or Scientologists are also welcome to speak in such a column? Or aren’t they “serious” religions?
This inclusiveness struck me as both positive and odd at the same time. Positive because dialogue of any sort is better than none. Odd because it seems to suggest unitarian leanings. Just as I was once encouraged not to be a fence sitter, an agnostic at the time, and so found my way to atheism, I would have thought that people of faith should make up their mind what counts as valid belief and what does not.
How can inter-faith dialogue even at the highest level recognise world views that are fundamentally incompatible and in principle, immune to revision? The truth is it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)
What bothers me about such talk of inter-faith dialogue, and certainly as expressed on Q&A, is that secularists including atheists are often not mentioned at all or only in passing, as if they couldn’t be moral agents. True, secular humanists, atheists and agnostics are the odd ones out here. Still, inter-faith dialogue just seems too much like the blind leading the blind or at least, the biased leading the biased.
John Haldane challenged Ray Minniecon about the claim that aboriginal people owned the land before white settlers arrived. A sensitive topic. There is of course, a need to acknowledge the awful details of our white settler history far more than we do, not just the romantic versions of it, the ANZAC spirit, and so on. But honestly, we really all need to get a grip. The idea that any human owns a country, an area of land, is very odd, and arguably just an artefact of the world we have constructed.
I have great sympathy with the idea that generations of aboriginal or other can live on a landscape and develop a deep attachment to it; even a few days spent bushwalking can deeply affect you. But such experiences do not imply ownership.
Ray Minniecon made a reasonable yet familiar remark about white settlement having happened only a short time ago compared to the aboriginal settlement of Australia. I found myself puzzled by a follow-on comment from him about Christianity also being a blip in time compared to aboriginal settlement. It left me wondering why he was a Christian minister, given his apparently disinterested view of the importance of the appearance of Christ on Earth.
Of course, all human events are a blip in time compared to the age of the Universe. Again, we need to get over our pompous self-importance. In approximate terms, we have in reverse chronological order (and gap-riddled):
- White settlement of Australia: 200 years ago
- Birth of Christianity: 2000 years ago
- Aboriginal occupation of Australia: 50,000 years ago
- End of the reign of dinosaurs: 65 million years ago
- Formation of Earth: 4.5 billion years ago
- Big Bang: 13.8 billion years ago
I’ve always found the Cosmic Calendar quite compelling. Popularised by Carl Sagan on Cosmos, the whole timescale of the universe is compressed into 12 months. Nothing remotely human begins until late morning on December 31. The original settlement of Australia by seafarers didn’t happen until 11:58pm and the last few thousand years of human history occupies the last 30 seconds of the day!
The totality of human civilisation on Earth is indeed a blip on the cosmic timescale. Arguably the most important thing to have happened in that final 30 seconds of December 31 was the invention of the Scientific Method, the only reliable way to understand the world. Not faith.
One of the greatest challenges facing civilisation in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns, about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering, in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.
(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)