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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, May 25, 2009

Currently reading: The New Puritans

I'm currently reading Muriel Porter, The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Anglican Church (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2006). This is an account of the conservative social and theological directions taken by the Sydney diocese of the Anglican church, especially since Peter Jensen took over as Archbishop of Sydney in 2001, with his younger brother, Phillip Jensen, becoming the Dean of St Andrews Cathedral in 2002.

The Jensen brothers have taken the already-conservative Sydney diocese in an increasingly evangelical direction, marked from the beginning of Peter Jensen's tenure as archbishop, when he announced in 2001 that the church would carry out a grand project, "the Mission", to get 10 per cent of Sydney's notoriously ungodly population worshipping in "bible-believing" churches within a decade (page 9). Porter sees the dominant theology of the Sydney diocese as a form of Christian fundamentalism, with its emphasis on biblical authority, doctrinal rationalism and purity, charismatic and authoritarian leadership, strict behavioural requirements, tendency to separatism, and commitment to male "headship" (pp. 23-32).

I must say that I'm actually bemused by some of this. To be fair to the Jensen brothers and their supporters, it's not obvious to me that any of Porter's claims add up to evidence of American-style Christian fundamentalism, with its anti-intellectual, literal-minded readings of scripture (imagined to be the inerrant word of God). When words such as "fundamentalism" are thrown around too loosely, they miss the point of what is specifically wrong about fundamentalism in the first place, as opposed to what tends to be wrong with all traditional forms of Christianity (for surely such things as male headship, behavioural requirements, and authoritarian leadership have been typical of Christianity for many, many centuries). The peculiar vice of fundamentalism is its resolute refusal to reinterpret its holy texts to accommodate facts about the world. It clings where it can to the literal words, even attempting to undermine well-established science where science and scripture clash.

It seems to me that the Jensen brothers are not fundamentalists at all, but they are certainly not liberal, or even moderate, religionists. By modern standards, they are hardline, conservative evangelicals who cling to the authority of the Bible, interpreted without the absurdities of true fundamentalists who take the Genesis myth literally, but still with a strong emphasis on specific chapters and verses of the supposed word of God, read at face value wherever this can be done. In particular, they emphasise salvation solely through faith in Christ's sacrificial atonement - but that's not so strange. It's pretty much standard evangelical doctrine, rather than something preached only by crazy fundamentalists.

While Porter sometimes appears to be reacting against evangelical Protestantism itself, rather than against anything especially extreme in the Jensens' version of it, Peter and Phillip Jensen are clearly taking the Diocese of Sydney down a doctrinally conservative and socially reactionary path. This is evidently achieving success in building church attendances, but it also demonstrates that even an apparently moderate religious institution, such as the Anglican Church, cannot be trusted to take modern, liberal stances on such issues as sexuality; the role of women in the family (and society as a whole); and the diversity of acceptable ways of life and views of the good. You might expect that, in a relatively laid-back society such as Australia, religion would be a low-key, harmless thing, thoroughly tamed by the Enlightenment, but that's not necessarily the case. Even here, it is always potentially dangerous.

As I say often, I don't consider genuinely moderate (or liberal) Christians and other religionists to be my enemies. Some may have only a miminal commitment to the existence of a deity, and may be able to interpret their traditions in ways that comport well with secularism. They may be tolerant, and politically progressive. Some of these people may be natural allies - on a wide range of issues - for scientific rationalists, and it would be churlish to spurn their friendship or refuse to work with them on issues of common concern.

However, when it comes to religion, it's never a good idea to grow complacent ... there is just too much in the core traditions of Christianity (and most other religions) that readily lends itself to socially reactionary interpretations.


Robert Byers said...

Australia needs puritan/Evangelicals to make a better Australia.
The modern world was in fact the result of the Puritan/Evangelical religious motivation that resulted in a rise in moral and intellectual standards in the protestant nations. Especially England and Scotland.
This was the actual drive behind the protestant reformation and its creation of modern man.
Likewise in America this was seen in the difference between the north and the south.
My point is that all good advances of mankind have come from the direct or indirect influence of puritan people and not from national identities.
Today the term is Evangelical but still the agent of influence for good.

Boz said...

lol, Robert Byers, you are bat-shit insane.

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