Faith Talk: Aussies on faith (a work in progress)

Faith Talk: Aussies on faith (a work in progress)
Q&A 'A Spiritual Special' panellists John Safran, Eva Cox, Dr John Lennox, Susan Carland and Dr Jacqueline Grey
I watched last Monday's Q&A on the ABC – which is on after my usual bedtime, I confess (more on confession soon) – with great interest. As someone who grew up in a home with some Catholic/Protestant antagonism playing out around the dinner table, I love to see a bit of spiritual vigour in Australian public life, as religion tends to sit on the periphery rather than at the centre of activity and discussion in our country, while media debate tends to focus on politics and sport and, currently, the media itself.

Jesuit priest Father John Reilly put it succinctly when he paraphrased Manning Clark in a discussion on ABC radio recently, saying that for most Australians, God is a "shy hope in the heart", whereas in places like India, where he served and studied for many years, religion is at the absolute centre of life. It's the same in many developing nations, where I feel that there are far fewer obstacles between people and God – such as money, material things, home renovations and careers.

An American exchange student I met recently was also surprised by the lack of natural dialogue about God and belief in our country, and was eager to chat to someone – anyone! – about Rob Bell's controversial new book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, of which MSNBC's Martin Bashir questioned, "What you're doing is amending the Gospel, the Christian message, so that it's palatable to contemporary people who find, for example, the idea of heaven and hell very difficult to stomach."

The old church/state division is entrenched in our culture, and perhaps rightly so – talking about one's beliefs is akin to talking about your salary. But over recent years there's been a slight shift, particularly since 9/11 and the resurgence of the eco movement, towards thinking of ourselves as part of a collective human race, which I think has given people cause to think about the part they play in the grand scheme of things, our finite amount of time on earth and the kind of legacy – and foundations – we want to leave for our children.

Pop culture has anticipated the mood. There was Eat, Pray, Love, in which Elizabeth Gilbert, opened with a passage describing herself on the bathroom floor crying out to God (and her follow-up, Committed, which looked at marriage in a spiritual context), as well as the church of Oprah and her new-agey brand of spirituality, which has spread through her pop-culture dominance. For younger people, it is seen in the power of Harry Potter, which drew many people in as much for J.K. Rowling's incredible storytelling abilities as the sense that there is an overarching narrative that we can all participate in.

This Wednesday, Aussie comedian Judith Lucy is taking to our screens in Judith Lucy's Spiritual Journey (ABC, July 27, 9.30pm), and last year Melbourne comedian Lily Bragge described her metamorphosis from heroin addict to born-again Christian in her memoir, My Dirty Shiny Life, after Gretel Killeen contemplated the meaning of life in her own memoir, The Night My Bum Dropped (followed by her discovery that love as the answer to all in last year's Jimmy and Gret Don't Do Sex).

Those followed Andrew Denton's 2006 documentary, God On My Side, which looked at the extremities of faith (Judith Lucy told Mediaweek that in making her show she was, "Impressed with people's faith, more than anything, even if what they believed in I thought was completely fu#$ing crazy").

We are skeptical but questioning. Things are happening. And people want more, but many are not entirely sure what. We've seen through the gossip magazines that celebrity fame isn't it; we've seen through the GFC that money isn't it; we've seen through sordid footballer tales that sport isn't it. Maybe it's Gwyneth's GOOP? Maybe it's spirituality without religion, as the popular box ticked on the Australian Bureau's survey suggests?

For me, it's God in the morning when I wake up and say, "Thanks", or "Please forgive me, Jesus, for that massive stuff-up". It's God when I open my inbox and read The Word for Today email I subscribe to. It's God when I go out into the community with an open mind and heart for people. It's God when I write. It's God when I pray with my husband before I go to sleep at night. It's God when I decide how to use my money and time on any given day. My faith isn't just something for Sundays; it lives, breathes and gives me the greatest of pleasure and comfort because I can tune into God wherever I am. It grows, deepens, matures, like a bottle of wine, but leaving it on the shelf doesn't make sense to me.

But I get it. I so get why people don't want a bar of religion or church or Christianity and are just fine without it, thank you very much. Put off by the atrocities committed behind the closed doors of many churches, we're gun-shy of God. Mary MacKillop herself, our first ordained Catholic Saint as of last year, had her share of run-ins with the church, too. As a member of a church who hasn't always agreed with the decisions made by the leadership group, I can understand people's apprehension and their anger. I have read many accounts of people who were scarred by convent schooling. In his memoir, Mum had a Kingswood: Tales from the Life and Mind of Rosso, Tim Ross writes of a crazed summer-camp-style evangelical who pushed so hard he walked out the door.

I'm sure it grieves God no end to think that His church, where people should seek solitude, comfort and community, where people can freely worship Him and feel close to Him and contemplate Him, has been the cause of so much hurt and pain. The only way I can reconcile that is the belief that churches are made up of people – broken, wrong, sinful, weak, strong, pig-headed, insecure, but often delightful people – and sometimes people get it terribly, devastatingly wrong. And when those wrongs are hidden, it's God's way to see that they eventually come out into the light.

There's an understanding within Christianity that people will have struggles and are by nature sinful, unless they're walking in the grace of God and serving Him wholeheartedly, which includes abiding in His ways, being led by His Spirit and committing to be more like Christ. At the end of it all, I believe we'll have to give an account of what we got up to here on earth, and God's amazing grace isn't always a scapegoat, though I believe it has the power to turn a wretched person (like me!) or situation around.

Forgiveness, as mathematician and Pastor John Lennox said on Q&A, is a hallmark of the Gospel, and we all get it for free if we accept it. But we have to make choices. God gave us a free will, so that our love for Him would be genuine, not controlled. In my personal spiritual journey, I've seen how God's stepped in time, after time, after time again to clean up my mess, and blessed me beyond all measure, but that He's also no softie: when push comes to shove, it takes discipline to remain faithful and obedience to abide in the Gospel.

Last week I attended a talk at my local Presbyterian church (I attend a Baptist church and attend Catholic church with my mother on occasion, but the Presbyterians do amazing things in my community) given by Dr Daniel Shayesteh, a former Islamic extremist who converted to Christianity, who impressed upon us all that it is more important now than ever to be certain in our faith – to not be wishy-washy or timid, but to make it the absolute core of our being, as well as the vision we have for our country.

There are many heated issues bubbling to the surface right now, including the presence of chaplains in public schools and gay marriage and the carbon tax debate, which require thoughtful contemplation through the framework of not only the media's accounts, but on a personal values basis. I'm reluctant to be drawn on the issues, as to be completely honest, I'm not qualified to make a judgement call. All I can do is dedicate myself to observing the practises of Christ, and adapting His ways to my life. "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (John 3:17)

That might seem like the easy street. But even Jesus' disciples were challenged when they made efforts to do the right thing. "Why this waste?" they chastised the woman who dared to lavish perfume on Jesus instead of selling it to give money to the poor. He was quick to correct them: "Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could."

While I can personally do my best to be a tiny part of the furthering of Christ's work on earth, and have seen the power of the Gospel in transforming my own life, I believe we've been given spiritual leaders who have a relationship with God particular to their situations and responsibilities to rely upon for guidance. And I have to hope that their discernment of God's will is good and true, unencumbered by personal prejudices or beliefs stored up in the wells of their own experience. That is part of having faith.

Catch up with last night's Q&A 'A Spiritual Special' here:
Check out Rob Bell's Love Wins video here:
Listen to Father John Reilly here:

Girl With a Satchel


Sarah Ayoub Christie said...

Wow, Erica! The Lord works in mysterious ways, as I discovered twice this weekend. The first time was in the Homily/Sermon at Mass, where the priest was speaking of Simon Peter being given the keys to Heaven - I love it when Christ says "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it". That passage is my ultimate comfort when I dismay about the lack of justice in the world (as are the Beatitudes, but that is another story)- however, this time, it was not that part but the one that followed it that really opened my eyes to why I don't just need God, but the Church - "Whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loose in Heaven". For some reason, that sentence answered something that had been plaguing me internally for a while and I teared up! The second thing happened on Sunday morning when I opened Sunday Life and saw your piece. I loved it, but recognised it as a more 'tamer' version of your faith writing. I remarked that I'd wished it was longer - there was so much more I could have read and lapped up. And alas, here I am, visiting GWAS and I get to read the original version in its entirety. Despite this, I still enjoyed reading the original, and was really glad for the way you described our current state. Cudos to you for acknoweldging error, like the sexual abuse instances in the Catholic Church, but also recognising that these are not the true representation. As a non-Catholic once told me, true priests don't become peadophiles, but peadophiles become priests. As these instances of my weekend show, sometimes the most limited number of words can provide the most understanding. "Preach the gospel always and if necessary use words", a quote by St Francis, epitomises this. Sometimes all the words in the world are not enough, sometimes, a small number of them can outdo the power of the most comprehensive theological doctrines. Thanks be to God for His nourishment, which this weekend proved to me comes at the starngest times, and in many many forms.

Anonymous said...


It can be proven the unseen exists, currently there has been a submission for peer review of the method. The question is how is the world going to respond when it is confirmed the unseen exists. Do each of us pray constantly or do we talk of the many entertainment things God has provided for us. God has always been there, and life has gone on, but now the world is on the verge of knowing life exists afer death. We each have to do much as we always have done. Governments have to make decisions, leaders have to make decisions only now those decisions will be made in the knowledge a God exists and there will be repercussions from not doing the right thing. At this point Ethics classes are needed more than ever to teach what is the correct thing to do so people stay in favour with God.

Scarlett Harris @ The Early Bird Catches the Worm said...

Congrats on the Sunday Life piece, Erica!
While I don't agree with your stance on religion (I identify as agnostic), I must say I enjoyed your article, especially, like Sarah wrote above, the extended, GWAS version :)

Anonymous said...

I have only felt happier once leaving the Baptist church I was involved in. I didn't like the way that I HAD to believe what the church told me. Apparently my uncle is going to hell because he's gay. Oh really? "If there is a hell; I'll see you there" is what the 16-year-old Nine Inch Nails listening teenager thought to herself!

It drove me mental. The obsession with marriage, the anti-gay stance, the sceptical beliefs regarding climate change, the archaic ideas about women (submission, no authority permitted), the our-way-or-the-highway (ie. HELL), just became too ridiculous to even fully believe.

Also I noticed that you refer to God as a "He", for me it's a reminder of how the church pushes you to think about God in the male form. I once asked at a bible study whether it was reasonable to refer to God as a He/She because God really isn't either. But of course this dissonance was not welcome.

The literal teachings of the bible lead many of it's members to become disenchanted, it's not so much the congregants that made me deeply cynical about the place. I could see that they HAD to believe the church's stance on the bible. If you want to be considered a Christian, ya gotta believe people will go to hell. Lots of them. What if I don't believe that there really was an Adam and Eve and PERHAPS it's a story? Well, it wouldn't be accepted.

Kudos to you for not judging though. I find it very hard to not judge most of the Christians that pop up on my facebook feed ranting about same-sex marriage and abortion and the like.