Sunday, November 27, 2022

NZ churches sliding, sliding, in bewilderment, into irrelevancy?

My former and very brilliant church history professor (when at Knox Theological Hall in the mid 1980s), Peter Matheson, has written a stirring column for the Otago Daily Times. (H/T Anglican Taonga for notice of the article).

Its heading is "Churches Must Rise to the Challenges of the Modern World."

He begins with a description of our sad state:

"It's an interesting experience being a churchgoer these days. We’ve been nudged to the periphery of society and lost out in numbers and influence.

Countless revelations about sexual misconduct by clergy have shaken public confidence. The accumulation of negative publicity in very recent times has been remarkable: Dilworth School, Gloriavale, Destiny Church’s antics, Arise Church’s leadership woes. The list seems endless, the latest issue being Simon O’Connor lauding the US Supreme Court’s verdict on Roe v Wade.

To any neutral observer it might well seem that the Christian churches stand for utterly regressive social and gender policies and all too often for the scandalous abuse of power.

So it’s been quite a turnaround for us churchgoers. In my student days at Otago the churches were at the forefront of radical action. The first anti-nuclear march in Dunedin was largely church-led."

He ends with some helpful suggestions:

"When talking with my non-Christian friends I often pose the question: where are we to get our values as a post-Christian nation?

The celebration of Matariki highlights a welcome awareness of what matauranga (Maori knowledge) has to offer us. We cannot, however, expect Maoridom to offer solutions to all the problems created by Pakeha: the stubborn indifference of suburbia to environmental meltdown, the worrying addiction of young people to social media

Maybe we need to pause, and think again about the rich resources that the Christian tradition of spirituality, theology and creative action has to offer.

As compassion fatigue looms, the churches’ discipline of daily and communal prayer for others is a crucial corrective.

The tough challenge, for sure, to the churches is to get their house in order, to package their transcendent message to meet the needs of the world of today. Reformata reformanda!"

Can any NZ reader here (or overseas observer) disagree with the thrust of what Peter is saying here, that "We’ve been nudged to the periphery of society and lost out in numbers and influence"?

To the degree that we have been nudged (or, indeed, nudged ourselves) to the periphery of society, there are definitely elements of (i) we deserve it (because of our failings), and (ii) we are bewildered - on which I offer some reflection in the next paragraph - and some timeout at the periphery could be valuable for sorting ourselves out.

A bewildered NZ church?

When Peter Matheson recalls church leaders at the forefront of (e.g.) anti-nuclear marches, the church in NZ was a simpler network of churches than today: the classic mainstream Protestant denominations, the Catholic church and some fledgling Pentecostal churches. And there was some good organisation of most of these churches, through the National Council of Churches. Church leaders could speak up and, more or less, profess to speak for the NZ church of God. Today, the NZ church is a varied, diverse bunches of churches, including not only many more Pentecostal churches, but also variants of the classic denominations (e.g. alternative Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches). This makes it harder to say, "I the leader of church X speak for all churches when I say Y." Not least, this is so, because in the expanding array of churches in our nation, there has been a growth in the conservative character of the NZ church, so the chances are remote that where social or political change is desired by society as a whole, then the church here would see itself as at the vanguard of change rather than at the forefront of resistance to change. Notably, during the Covid years, churches here found themselves internally stricken with division over vaccination.

There is one issue on which, just possibly, we are open to taking a lead, resistance to climate change, but this is a big, complex issue, and, apart from general messages about how we ought to resist climate change, coming up with particular initiatives is proving bewilderingly difficult.

How might we rise again?

To be frank, I do not know. 

But I like, very much, Peter's final point. In a post-Christian society which emphasises the "Christian" character of our nation by many beautiful acts of compassion, churches still have something to contribute by way of our spiritual treasures so that compassion fatigue is relieved and new vigour is given to the values widely espoused across our communities.

We are not finished yet!

But we will need to work on our relevancy rather than assume it.


Ms Liz said...

Bishop Peter, I have this feeling there's stuff missing here like what about non-clergy christian church-goers and what they're doing within their personal living-out of their christian faith? Some influential people publicly attest to their faith and its influence e.g:

Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Baptist/Presbyterian/Anglican. “Particularly that early part of my life in the Baptist church in Tawa deeply anchored my belief and values and my way of thinking about the world in Christian values,” Bloomfield said. ~Director-General of Health in NZ during Covid. Link:

[ps: just prior to posting I found Rev Bosco Peters has a post on Dr Ashley Bloomfield:]

Dr Jin Russell, Paediatrician, much loved on twitter during Covid and advisor in the media when called on. She's Anglican and I checked her twitter just now where she said in a 26 Dec 2021 tweet:
"In 2013, the Auckland Anglican Diocese received a letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu which said “You are wonderful, you are wonderful, you are wonderful.” The church had just voted to divest its funds from fossil fuels". Appears she and her husband were involved in leading the campaign. And "In 2014, the entirety of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia voted to divest from fossil fuels. We became the first province in the worldwide Anglican Communion to do this."

"When it comes to the issue of climate change, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia is showing how it’s done." ~a 2014 article about the divestment (which I got from Jin's tweet. Link:

I love it when christians tell and listen to stories, and we should celebrate them. The stories encourage us and we can learn much, and gain hope and guidance for what's ahead.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Liz
Yes, it is not all about the clergy leaders!!
And, also, yes, Peter's article and my post are relatively brief and things are left out.
Nevertheless, despite the admirable leadership of NZ Christians such as Ashley Bloomfield and Jin Russell, and good decisions of sunods, such as divesting from investments in fossil fuels, I am not sure that the average reader of our newspapers or viewers of our 6 pm news bulletins, would associate the church here with leadership on social issues of our day (compared - arguably - with yesteryear).

Ms Liz said...

Yes I see, thanks Bishop Peter. Before I re-engaged with christian things it's true the ongoing news about abuse in various denominations created a big barrier to returning to church, and the constant discord over That Topic. I have to wonder if the church *was* better back then than now. Perhaps it had a better profile in *some* ways but also a dark underbelly that's since come to light. I hope I'm right in thinking the church's making significant progress in confronting abuse and racism for instance ... and I really like this from what you said in your post:

"some timeout at the periphery could be valuable for sorting ourselves out"

Anonymous said...

"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for so did their fathers speak of the false prophets."

St Luke vi 26


Anonymous said...


""I just don't love him anymore."

"But he would do anything to make you happy! Remember how, despite his fear of heights, he took up skydiving so that you would not be doing it alone?"

"True, he is completely devoted to my satisfaction. I could hire him to walk my dog or fix my car without a worry in the world. But that's not a reason to love someone."

"His devotion doesn't move you at all?"

"Yes, he does takes up my hobbies. Every single one of them..."

"You are so lucky!"

"...because he has no hobbies, no interests really, of his own. There is nothing inside him."

"You don't think that he gave up some of his own passtimes to accompany you in yours?"

"No, I think he was so afraid to be alone with himself that even jumping out of planes seemed safer to him as long as he had company."

"'Hollow' is pretty strong. What makes you think that?"

"Prove to me that he isn't! In all the years we've known him, what unpopular thing has he ever done simply because he followed his spiritual compass to his own true north? When has he ever taken a risk for something simply because his own inner life demanded it? When has he even opened up to describe a dream that he had or a solution to a hard problem that he found?"

"Well, souls do not have windows, dear. It's not civil to judge..."

"That's so shallow. Can't you see that love is more than mere civility. In matters of the heart, we absolutely must judge others! If we do not, we are just deceiving our own selves and theirs. Nobody can give back the years that we -- and they!-- lose in cowardly evasion."

"He will be devastated when he hears the rumours that you have... moved on. Couldn't you have that conversation with him?"

"If only he could understand a conversation like that, I would not have left him! You know how it would go. He would just keep asking in a thousand ways what more he needed to do for me to give up my new life, dust off my old one, and let him back into it."

"Of course he would."

"But to have a dialogue, I need to hear a voice, not an echo. He needs to be something in himself that I am not. On so many levels, that's the problem. He can't or won't hear that."

"You will miss him."

"I already do. But I will never miss the relationship we had, or be sorry to be in a more complete one."


Anonymous said...

This was something of a glance down memory lane for me, as I did some study once at Knox Hall as a private student. This was before Matheson's time, when Ian Breward taught Ecclesiastical History and Maurice Andrew, Frank Nichol and Evan Pollard were on the staff. Knox was a liberal college then (the long shadow of Lloyd Geering?) and only Breward was basically evangelical in outlook. What I don't see much of in this article is the recognition that New Zealand has become pronouncedly agnostic or non-religious in the past generation such that self-described "Christians" are now a minority in NZ; and the decline of Anglicanism, Presbyterianism and Methodism has been very sharp.
Does Matheson anywhere seek to explain this precipitate loss of (nominal?) faith in the under 40s? The last census showed that Catholic numbers were holding up (just), as were evangelical and Pentecostal numbers but oldline Protestantism had lost its appeal. Yet oldline liberal Protestantism is the very kind of religion that closely tracks secular liberalism. Is this a rock of stumbling for Matheson's own leftist sympathies?
The Dilworth story is horrific - even worse than the Catholic stories I could tell - and points to the cultish behaviour of sexual abusers in institutions. How did so many sexual abusers end up in this boys' school and what did the bishop know (if anything) of the chaplain's conduct?

Pax et bonum,
William Greenhalgh

Father Ron said...

Dear Bishop Peter; I note, specifically, this statement of your former lecturer, Peter Matheson, if Knox College:

"The tough challenge, for sure, to the churches is to get their house in order, to package their transcendent message to meet the needs of the world of today. Reformata reformanda!"

Indeed! Even Blessed Pope John XXIII recognised this need at his instigation of VATICAN 2 in the early 1960s. His cry was 'Semper Reformanda" - constant reformation, which surpasses the early European Reformation. In championing the cause of his predecessor, Pope Francis has already recognised the need for more work of the reconciling of the mission of the Church to the needs of our contemporary world. As a consequence, he is meeting great resistance from his fellow Catholics in North America, at least.

As with the Galileo Galilei recognition of a new cosmology; the Church still lags behind the contemporary revelations; e.g., of scientific and social discoveries about gender and sexuality - to the point where the Scriptures are (once again) cited as proof against any such new discovery. Until the Church uses the God-given gift of REASON to complement its Scriptural 'proof-texting', the world, sadly, might just pass us by, as no longer relevant.

Ms Liz said...

Given I've not often attended church, amazingly I've heard Peter Matheson on "Reformation Sunday" in 2020 at Knox Church in Dunedin and I have the pdf of his sermon.. a short quote:

"Luther put it this way: we are chronically turned in on ourselves, incurvatus in se. So the ancient image of taking off your shoes when you enter holy ground is relevant. If faith means anything at all, we have to take off our old hiking boots, our flash new loafers, sandals, pumps whatever. Metaphorically we have to walk barefoot. Be open to re-inventing ourselves."

Mark Murphy said...

I always take my shoes off in church, though it is often regarded as so out of place people sometime ask me what I'm doing, or assume I'm Buddhist!

There is *so much* good work - a whole peaceable kingdom's worth - good work that goes on each hour each day by Christian orgs in society, both liberal and conservative. The world never knows. But that's not unique to Christianity. Of course I agree with Father Ron that the mainline churches have sadly discredited themselves for many with their regressive views on sexuality, gender, and authority. Aussie Rugby League Clubs are further on in this regard.

But if Peter Mathesan is after more bang for our buck, what about thinking about Church leadership. Even traditional churches managed to produce a Desmond Tutu and a Jose Bergoglio. You can't "plan" to produce such people, can you?...they don't come out of policies and synods...

I'm not a robot

Anonymous said...

The book reviewed in the blog TheOtherCheek, “Biblical Critical Theory” by Christopher Watkins looks at how the unfolding story of the Bible interacts with modern culture. It includes what we need to fight and what we need to appreciate.It might be worth investigating for ADU readers.

Ms Liz said...

Confession: I've a perfectionist streak. When it dawned on me the Church is very divided over That Topic, I was torn. The turmoil's a far cry from my vision of the Church.

But Bowman [24 Nov] offered another view: "It could be that the Protestant world is in transition from a pile of pieces to two nearly finished jigsaw puzzle pictures. If Anglicans were in both of them, that could be a very good thing."

I thought of well-known lyrics ~Leonard Cohen/"Anthem":

The birds they sing, at the break of day
Start again, I heard them say.
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

I've found comments Mr Cohen (may have) made.. an excerpt:

"And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together: Physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things."

Finally a line from a favourite article (about Heidegger's Ways of Being but please note I haven't studied philosophy).

"Being duly ‘cleared’, for Heidegger, is a freeing process, in which Dasein becomes ‘unlocked’ (p.74), able to claim its Being-in-the-world-with-others.

I feel more positive. How many times have I heard, "No pain, no gain" !!

Mark Murphy said...

I like Heidegger. Especially his concept of The Clearing. But if I read too much I get confused, drowsy, and fall asleep.

I appreciated your response, Liz. She's a hard road to find the perfect church, as a southern man might say.

Here's my favourite quote on Anglicanism that others know and have heard:

"While the Anglican Church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to the gospel, to the Church and to sound learning, its greater vindication lies in pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy; it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as the “best type of Christianity”, but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.”

– Michael Ramsey, later to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, in ‘The Gospel and the Catholic Church’ (1936)

Mark Murphy said...

Sometimes I need to become 'unlocked' from my fantasies about how the church should be, and pass through a 'dis-illusionment' phase to accepting and enjoying how it actually is.

And sometimes I need to follow my yearning out the door.

Ms Liz said...

Great to catch up on a quote I wouldn't have come across otherwise Mark.. and a great twist at the end!

I didn't link to the Heidegger article but I'll remedy that here:

~his method helps me hold my 'thinking about me' at an arms-length from 'real me' when I'm trying to figure things out :)

Father Ron said...

Dear Bishop Peter I was looking in, this morning on a Report from the recent North American Roman Catholic Bishops' Meeting by 3 of the observers, who discuss their observations with the Editor in Chief of the National Catholic Reporter. From their reports, it has become obvious how the U.S. Catholic Bishops conduct their meetings - some in private with no public viewing, which seems to have strongly influenced what they are afterwards able to exhibit to outside reporters like these from NCR. It is worth hearing how the U.S. Bishops have come to their decision to appoint an 'anti-Pope Francis' Bishop as their new Head of the Bishops' Meetings. At least, we Anglican don't have this hierarchical mentality:

From this video, it has become pretty clear that the U.S. Bishops are not keen on Pope Francis' bid for lay representation at the new Synodical gatherings of the Catholic Church.

Jean said...

Cont.... If my little synopsis which of course leaves out much has any grain of truth to it then it is little wonder the Church is seemingly irrelevant at first glance as it carry’s a message that contrasts significantly to what present day generations have grown up looking to as the way of living the modern life. And yet I believe this is actually why the Church is so relevant today. It still offers the ‘treasure beyond all price,’ a relationship with Jesus Christ, the gift of forgiveness, and with it a worldview and a way of life that gives meaning and purpose beyond what a lot of people caught up in the social dysfunction and ethical chaos of our current environment I think if even unconsciously crave.

I do not believe we need to change Christianity to be relevant although there is merit in having contemporary music, services when people who are working shift-work can attend, engaging with the community etc etc. I believe those of us going to churches need to find a way to become bolder in talking about our faith in everyday ways, in offering to pray for people, in inviting people in.... in offering healing and a different way to those whose lives have gone pear shaped with societal breakdown. Dan Brown of ‘She is not your rehab’ is a stunning example of this.

I do get a little distraught when I encounter the familiar refrains when church growth comes up of ‘we used to have a choir we need a choir,’ ‘we need more young people,’ ‘we need to ...’. Actually I believe we need to work on meeting people where they are at young, old, and the inbetween, our neighbours. Introduce people to Jesus and the transformation of lives begins and when this happens and all else belonging to God’s Kingdom flows out of it - social justice, care for creation..... In my second church home a man attended for ten years before standing one morning to announce from the pulpit that he was doing what he never thought he would ever do and that was to say that yesterday he believed in Jesus - he had worked as a police offer in the anti-terrorism squad in Ireland, that plus having a close friend in University killed by a bomb had been stumbling blocks to his belief in a good God.

When the church was more mainstream did we loose the art of speaking of and about Jesus and cling to closely to the reputation of church?

Anonymous said...

Hallelujah Jean I am with you! Speaking of and about Jesus is the key, even though I don’t do it very well. It is called the dreaded e-word in the five marks of mission and that immediately has associations of Bible-bashing, moralism and more. But when people are really connected with the living Jesus then the other marks of mission will arise naturally as people contribute their different gifts and interests. I don’t think we have to reinvent the gospel!

MsLiz said...

1. Part of quote shared by Mark Murphy (1:05) >>

"... to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.”

2. Words re-found that I recently highlighted from *'The Magnificent Journey' >>

'As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said bluntly, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”'

*Book : Smith, James Bryan. The Magnificent Journey

Ms Liz said...

PS : "Reconciling All Things" ~ aka Ms Liz. That was a mistake! Yes, I'm working on putting together a "Blogger" blog :)

Ms Liz said...

".. the chances are remote that where social or political change is desired by society as a whole, then the church here would see itself as at the vanguard of change rather than at the forefront of resistance to change." ~+Peter

I've re-read this part of your post Bishop Peter. Wow, you'd know! Although I'm not in church, it rings true for me.

The reason I came back to it is that I read an excellent article this morning by Jemar Tisby - his response to a historian who portrayed him as an "Emancipatory Maximalist".

Jemar's article is titled "Maximalists for Love", it's thought-provoking and (imho) provides a powerful response to those who would like to label what I regard as working toward positive change and justice, as "woke".


Anonymous said...

There is a mission organisation I have a connection with called LiveDead! It is working in a number of dangerous places, very effectively, sharing Jesus.

Ms Liz said...

Live Dead is an interesting name, Moya! I found their website and had a brief look.. it's well presented. I briefly checked out their blog and on a topic I thought I'd find things I disagreed with, I didn't! Cool.

John Sandeman said...

If "irrelevant" means "unpopular" then perhaps the Bishop has a case. An unpopular, or possibly less popular group of people will find it hard to grab attention. They may, for example, be inclined to compensate for their unpopularity by starting to talk among themselves. is this us?
From the West Island I am with Jean and Moya. God's news values, his sense of good news might be different from society. He will rejoice over one lost sheep.
But like the exiles in the old testament, we should seek the good of the city we find ourselves in, resisting any resentment that might come from being seen as irrelevant. In particular, we should avoid the lure of "Christian Nationalism," modern fundamentalism, that is born out of Christians thinking they should be in charge.

Anonymous said...

Martin Doblmeier's documentary on the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is free on YouTube.


Anonymous said...

"US Catholic bishops conduct their meetings in private with no public viewing"

Rumours say they also burn wet or dry straw in an old stove to order in pizza with black smoke (pepperoni) or white (meatless).

Is there anything wrong with that?


Ms Liz said...

"life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer"

Interesting link Bowman! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Some mindsets are more versatile than others. Robert Kegan (an old teacher of mine) explains ** that many competent people of good will cannot change their ways because they have not grown into a mindset that supports the desired change.

If they try to imitate others who do have it, these usually proficient people will fail in maladroit ways that embarrass them and often annoy others. If they refuse to try, then they may do so because they reasonably anticipate this result.

Either way, an unchosen constraint inhibits their compliance. This constraint is not dissolved by public or expert opinion on old ways and new ones.

Any Society or society prefers some ways to others, of course. But if it wants intelligent inclusive participation, it is wise to note the unreason of demanding every virtuous change that it may desire.

** His least academic discussion of this *Immunity to Change* is in a business book of the same name. He explains the underlying theory of adult development in two earlier books The Evolving Self and In Over Our Heads.


Ms Liz said...

Just listened to part of a talk by Alastair McIntosh [YouTube] and he poses questions I found helpful. These are my notes (not verbatim, not complete).

When Jesus sees Peter and Andrew following him...
~What are you seeking?
~What are you yearning for?
~What is your desire?


Ask yourself...

Is this spiritual community or organisation that I'm involved with leading me into a deeper life? Is it leading me into union? Into becoming an undivided or integrated person?

Or .. is it no longer serving me like that?

He explains that he thinks of it as stepping stones across a river and recalls that Ram Dass said the method will always take you to the next step.

But .. remember the method is also a trap.

If you stay too long on a stepping stone in the middle of the river then you'll get swept away in the flood.

Keep moving, keep testing, what you are in.

Does it give life?
Does it serve love?
Does it build community that brings others into that freedom?

... or does it subtly enslave us?

Alastair McIntosh: What Brings Nature into Being? [YouTube]
~ [29:30] at

Father Ron said...

'Kia ora, John. You wrote:

" In particular, we should avoid the lure of "Christian Nationalism," modern fundamentalism, that is born out of Christians thinking they should be in charge."

I couldn't agree with you more, John. Sadly, this is what appears to be happing in the U.S.A at the moment with the 'Religious Right' They seem to want, with former President Trump, to be intent on 'Making America Great Again' a polity that speaks to of Christian White Supremacy at least, I have only too recent a memory of the Third Reich.

Anonymous said...

I am no longer a Christian, my reasons are vast and numerous. In the main I cannot reconcile sin with Darwinian evolution and natural selection. I also find the idea of vicarious atonement ethically appalling in the context that the Church presents. Anyhow, from where I stand now, it’s actually a strange practice to ask people who don’t hold the same beliefs as you to conform to your morals because you quoted a book they have never read. My secular friends have never tried to force their morality on me, this is actually an odd practice in Christendom when you think about it. From what I can tell, Jesus didn’t blame pagans for acting like pagans. Yet, many Christians insist their beliefs apply to the culture at large even though most don’t share the same beliefs. Christians in the ilk of Mr Tamaki et al rage about how the government is forcing their beliefs on them and how they were no longer allowed to have theirs anymore. No, it was Christians who forced their views in the public forum (over the centuries) by putting the 10 Commandments there first (if we look at it objectively) never mind that Evangelical Christians care more about people’s sexual orientation and bed time activities more than what their sacred literature teaches. Yes, Christians need to face the fact that public perception has shifted. We live in post-Christian NZ where there is no relevance to the culture at large. Whatever influence Christians used to have, much like a sand fly trying to reconnect to its host for fear of dying, many Christians are thrashing about trying to create waves and convince people they are relevant within our culture. But sadly, instead of men and women looking like Jesus there are a lot of talking heads along with a healthy dose of condemnation. They seem to love being “right” instead of the hard task of humility.
Is it any wonder there is no relevance?

Mark Murphy said...

Thanks Liz. What you quoted is really speaking to me in my present dilemma of church membership well as relevant to some of the clients I work with as a therapist. I'll definitely look up the YouTube clip.

Ms Liz said...

"But sadly, instead of men and women looking like Jesus there are a lot of talking heads along with a healthy dose of condemnation. They seem to love being “right” instead of the hard task of humility."

Dear Anonymous, I grew up in an evangelical church in NZ and I've witnessed this type of behaviour.. I became disillusioned and disappointed, not least with myself. Decades later I'm journeying into a new understanding of faith.

This journey is expressed beautifully by Jake Owensby (bishop in The Episcopal Church) in his recent book "Looking for God in Messy Places"...

"The spiritual challenge, then, is to become aware of God’s presence— especially in messy places— with such vulnerability, humility, and yearning that God’s love for us transforms who we are. That love shapes our habitual way of being in this world into the way of love: Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love that makes life worth living. Love that leads us to hope."

I also hold on to this quote from Richard Rohr: "The people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers."

Alastair McIntosh in the YouTube video I gave a link for (above), reminds us of Jesus speaking about himself as the Vine and we are the branches. Alastair imagines the church as the trellis, a somewhat broken trellis. I can't remember what else he said but the imagery resonates and it reminds me that our main sustenance comes from the vine, not from the trellis! At the personal level I'm exploring how to "abide" in the vine while also studying the state of the trellis and hoping to find a sturdy section!

Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

No, emperors are not asking us to save the Empire. Kings are not even asking us to secure the loyalty and cohesion of their subjects.

The Grand Topic has all along been, still is, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be--

What is Christianity after Christendom?

Is it--

Fighting to bring the Empire back?

Fortifying its remnants for a militantly secular age?

Returning to a Way not taken?

Reasonable and faithful people are choosing different answers and making the usual miscalculations in practice.

Can they collaborate?


Mark Murphy said...

Hey Anonymous

Liked the image of the sandfly looking for the flesh of it's host to suckle onto. Bloodsuckers!

Vicarious atonement is sadistic; sin as moral wrongdoing is pretty shallow; there is so much suffering in creation/evolution it is so horrible; I don't distinguish between my Christian and non-Christian friends - they're all lovely and difficult; sometimes churches look no different to gang pads to me - just a tribal place to belong and gripe, as well as to evacuate resentment and powerlessness onto minorities, like LGBTQI folk...

I'm really happy for our society to be 'post-Christian' if that means no longer living under the assumption of a dominant Christian narrative that everyone has to follow, regardless of choice, and then gets curated by various self-appointed church authorities and institutions.

To be honest, the word Christian doesn't mean much to at least (in somewhere like India it might).

And I do still believe and hold to 'the light that enlightens everyone coming into the world', and open to it for infinite refreshment. And I greatly treasure the sacred narratives and memories we have of how that light has come to be known, and come to transform our suffering world, and the great invitation and reminder to connect with it, her, him, within and without.

I don't like the idea of a post-Christian society if it means losing the richness of our wisdom traditions, and the holy madness of our prophets and gospels.

Anonymous said...

And having found a relatively sturdy section, we hope, a further question might be: how does my presence in this community help others’ journey of faith?

Anonymous said...

True or False?

Male commenters at ADU nearly always discuss Christianity as a social force, but females here mostly discuss it as a personal path. Same Jesus, same OPs, same threads, different sensibilities.


Mark Murphy said...


Ms Liz said...

Christianity as a "social force"? First thing that sprang to my mind was Christian Nationalism and Dominionism (big concerns of mine) but I don't think that's what you mean! I'm too much of a newbie here to choose T/F but generally speaking I think differences between individuals as "people" (people groupings I guess) are way bigger than those solely based on gender.

Jean said...

Good morning : )

I have never looked at comments re personal or social contexts BW - perhaps : ) ... my comments tend towards the personal as a way to relate to others.

Christianity as a social force Liz, because a number of Western countries have christian origins many social mores such as our legal system were originally formed around christian principles, also our social welfare system, education system etc. At the level of social engagement many movements have come about due to faith based individuals/groups wanting to live out their faith such as, ‘love one another as I have loved you’ ‘mercy triumphs over judgement’ ‘each person being of unestimatable worth because they were created in God’s image’ - this is why a number of familiar to us social services have christian roots - barnardos, save the children, nurse Maude, restorative justice, prisoners alongside social justice activity such as anti-apartheid protests, the Hikoi of Hope etc.

Anonymous, a lot of the attention Christianity gets in the media will be negative. This is not so unusual and applies to a lot of other groups too.... There are for sure and for certain not so great things said or done under the umbrella of Christianity, there are also some very commendable things. A personal litmus test of whether Christianity is true requires going beyond to a seeking of whether God exists, Jesus died and rose again and an examining of the tenants of belief. True Jesus did not expect pagans to act like those who believed yet many once they met him believed and transformed their lives. C.S.Lewis also has a famous quote saying one should not expect non-Christians to act as if they were Christians. There is a subtle difference to reference between people thinking their ‘belief’s apply’ to everyone and your other reference of trying to ‘force morals’ on others. I think you will find the majority of people if they were honest would think their beliefs apply to everyone (as a question do you believe that everyone should respect others moral values and not attempt to influence others to consider other opinions?)...... whereas the use of force implies people are given no choice to voice their own thoughts or to simply walk away. Mr Booth of Salvation Army fame spent his life combating the social destruction caused by alcohol by preaching to and offering practical help to those whose lived their lives in its shadow. Was his preaching of the message of Jesus and helping people who were struggling applying his moral beliefs to others - yes. Was it forcing it on them? Looking at his ministry was the fruit good or bad?

Food for thought....

Mark vicarious atonement sadistic; sin as moral wrongdoing shallow....

Anonymous said...

I thought Jean was going to comment on ‘vicarious atonement is sadistic; sin as moral wrongdoing is shallow’ and I hope she does. It seems to me to say vicarious atonement is sadistic requires torture inflicted on an unwilling victim by another brutal party, neither of which is true of Jesus’ death
He saw throughout the Scriptures he knew and the history of the people of Israel that the whole great plan of salvation hinged on a willing sacrifice for sin by one who lived up to the law of God. He chose that calling and alluded to it a number of times and not only the death but the manner of it. I think he would have been tempted in Gethsemane to accuse the Father of sadism but he held to his freedom to choose to die. He was clearly the only one who saw this plan in its fullness but the gospel writers all point to Jesus’ death as the culmination of his life.
And God was equally involved in his death as he is in the suffering of all creation. Paul says, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’. Furthermore Paul tells us that all creation with all the suffering that evolution has endured is going to be redeemed. The cross is the central act for the re-creation of whole universe in a way we can never understand. I think much of the trouble people have with Christianity is because the picture given is far too small for who God is. But I might be wrong! Thanks people for your input.

Father Ron said...

Well, Folks, it is God's Church, after all. In the Season of Advent, we are all prepared to meet our Blessed Lord at any time. I am acutely aware of the imminence of my own transition, so am especially careful to heed the message in the readings for ADVENT. Also, the Advent Prose, which helps us to express our sorrow for past failings, also reminds us of the Joy to come. Sometimes - in our modern-day frenetic world - we so concentrate on the mis-steps of other people in the community that we forget the Gospel message. We are meant to be 'leaven in the lump' - not prophets of doom. GOOD NEWS for ALL who can be encouraged by us to listen.

Ms Liz said...

"I think much of the trouble people have with Christianity is because the picture given is far too small for who God is." Awesome.. thank you Moya!

Jean said...

Hi Moya.... I was and then I ran out of time : ) ... and cringed when I saw I had left the words I had typed to remind me to do so at the bottom of the post (for the second time running!)...

Mark your comments indeed about vicarious atonement being sadistic and sin as moral wrongdoing being shallow did indeed intrigue me. I was at a dinner once where a Muslim member of our party voiced their horror at the ‘christian’ God who killed his only son and I suppose if viewed that way Jesus’s death would be seen as sadistic. It has always been apparent to me that Jesus had a choice from scriptures, for example where he challenges his supporter who cuts off the Priests ear by saying, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” And words such as “I lay down my life of my own accord,” followed by “I have authority to lay it down and to take it up again.” The atonement to me is the most all encompassing act of mercy, “for the joy set before him he endured the cross.” The realisation that joy was that we through having our sins forgiven by his actions may be with him always is humbling, that we were that joy. And my favourite Shakespeare quote, “If justice be thy plea consider this that in the course of justice none of us shall see salvation.”

Sin as moral wrongdoing. Again I have no issue with being a sinner and I am fast thinking I might be the odd one out lol. My issue is that I can never erase the things that I have done wrong, take them back or stop them from having hurt someone, even if I uttered something without thinking. So for me accepting some things I have done as being morally wrong is not a hard thing - accepting that I can be forgiven, that I don’t have to live in the mire of guilt that for me is a harder truth to accept. From my vantage point I have also borne the weight of the consequences of the moral sin of others... my birth father may have been too young and messed up to realise what affect his actions had on my life but they were very tangible. Jesus gift of the cross is the only thing that makes sense to me for by taking the consequences of sin upon himself there is offered in him both forgiveness for the sinner and healing for those sinned against. It may be that some people wield a moral sin banner against others as a way to prove they are ‘holier than thou’; in my orbit however my desire to see less moral sin (for the sake of consistency lets take drunkenness as an example) is not to judge people but because it damages people, it hurts people, often the one who does it and the one who is on the receiving end of it’s affect. I once had the privilege of praying for someone struggling with alcoholism who described a horrific childhood growing up with the same, he was seeking healing and change. He commented he didn’t think his children were affected but the unspoken question lay heavy in the air.

I have chosen Jesus’s example and the Bible’s guidance as my discernment of what is morally ethical but of course other people will choose different compasses. My reason is I trust God’s wisdom more than my own biased viewpoint in such matters. Left up to me vengeance would be quite appealing at times.

Mark I would be really interested to hear how you view atonement and moral sin.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Here up yonder, it's what merchants call the Holiday Season, so there are parties to celebrate... whatever. Last night, in the midst of this mirth, a guest who had thoroughly enjoyed our host's whisky began to denounce the wickedness of *election denial*. (Here up yonder we have a faction that says that elections are valid when they win but invalid when they lose.) We looked around the room for election deniers. Seeing none, we wondered why he was carrying on like that.


Mark Murphy said...

Ata mārie Moya,

The first theology of the cross, as I understand it (and Peter and Bowman will know so much more than me about this), is the 'Christus Victor' model, which seems to have been the dominant way of seeing things until the Middle Ages/Reformation.

In this way of seeing, Jesus's death represents a victory over the forces of evil. As Tom Wright describes, using imagery akin to Aslan in Narnia, it's as if the forces of evil, darkness, and death were drawn up onto the cross, onto Jesus's body, and cornered defeated by his death and resurrection.

Christus Victor reveals a God who never abandons his creation, who gets stuck in and places himself at the very centre of suffering, in the midst of our own experience of a godforsaken world. God's response to this is truly shocking: he doesn't try to defeat evil with military force, but, paradoxically, weirdly, wonderfully, through 'closeness' (to quote Pope Francis), solidarity, and surrender.

Vicarious atonement, on the other hand, reveals an all-too-human "God" who demands a blood victim to satisfy his "justice". It is sick, heavily legalistic, and has been responsible for justifying murderous religious violence down the ages. What sort of God kills his son to placate his wrath? What sort of justice is this? Why would I want a personal relationship with such a vengeful, mechanistic being?

It goes without saying these are just my words and thoughts!

Mark Murphy said...

Ah Bowman you are a subtle one.

(I'm taking your comments personally rather than socially!)

I think you might be saying: why protest against vicarious atonement when no one believes or preaches it anymore?

True, and then sometimes it pops out of our bones, our crypts. I hear it at work and very occasionally in church circles

Personally speaking, my parents never believed this or raised me with this understanding. But then I'd get confused to when I'd hear certain preachers preaching it. And the larger window of puzzlement for me is: what do I do with all those violent images of God...crushing the bodies of his enemies etc...that we/I come across in chiefly the Hebrew Scriptures. I think Origen...Origen?...had the best and earliest answer to that.

Mark Murphy said...

Sin as moral wrongdoing....

I don't know about the rest of you, but I can't take another sermon telling me to be a better human being!

Of course the moral dimension of life (and theology) is non-negotiable and important, but sin goes much deeper than our moral behaviour, doesn't it?

The Garden of Eden is not so much a tale of humans doing wicked things (those are still to come) but a story of our radical separation - our alienation or estrangement - from God....and also, interestingly in terms of present concerns, our separation from the natural world too. It is a story of how we've come to feel ashamed of our "nakedness" - before God, nature, each other and ourselves.

In contemplative thought there is a lovely term: "the separate self sense". It's the idea and existential-psychological project that we can and indeed should exist apart from from God, our true self, nature, and source.

Now, some transpersonal psychologists (such as Michael Washburn) believe that this development of the separate self sense or ego is a natural part of human development. We *all* begin life in Eden, in a state of oneness with "the dynamic ground" of our being, and "leave" through developing an ego that allows us to differentiate and become thinking, self-conscious (and vulnerable to shame) adults. In this period, "the ground" can feel full of thorns and thistles, requiring much labour and effort to till.

But for our wholeness we need to find a way to reunite with *the dynamic ground*. This transpersonal theory might in fact have its roots in the Christian narrative - and/or the way of Christ offers us a detailed, resonant path to wholeness in which God is an active player in this drama.

Anonymous said...

So to the question: is society sliding into irrelevance to the kingdom of heaven? Could such a thing even happen?

Never, if the kingdom just is an alliance to fix broken societies. In that case, the search for something social to fix-- school curricula, building codes, traffic lights-- is neverending. The only threat to the kingdom itself is a stable, competent, tolerably unfair society.

But yes, obviously a society could slide off the kingdom's agenda, if the kingdom was actually about humanity in relation to God. By that definition, a day could arrive when The Secular City was so good-- or at least vexed by problems not solved by religion-- that all that intelligent disciples could do is thank God for that triumph of *common grace*, tend to those lost in the cracks, and maybe quibble with regulations gone metaphysically astray.

When I was just learning to read, mainstream Protestant theologians here up yonder thought that they were living in a society approaching perfection. In fact, a young Harvey Cox's book The Secular City was such a bestseller that even a country preacher like my grandfather had copies not only of it but of the replies written to it.

They saw problems, of course, but those were either yielding to state solutions or were otherwise beyond the reach of churches. One can always pray for a better world or help someone in need, and every society will have occasional dire crises, but the grand Reformation project of fixing medieval society had finally slid through modernity into irrelevance. Religion that is purely about Society is otiose.

"There is nothing new under the sun." In the M1 there was a certain divergence among the fathers that was later to perplex medieval scholastics and ADU commenters even today. Simply: was the Incarnation only a response to human sin after the Fall or had God from before the Fall planned it as an upgrade in humanity's relation to himself? Yeses to the former and to the latter lead to different yet well-grounded christianities. Unwittingly, the young Harvey Cox, the *death of God* theologians that followed him, and most commenters here at ADU were or are exploring a culmination of the former.

So what's a church to do when all it has left on the agenda is being human with God? By the time I was seriously reading theology, most of my Episcopalian classmates were settling into moderately liberal Republican politics on social questions and groping toward a contemplative spirituality in church. On their own time, everyone had read C S Lewis, T S Eliot, Simone Weil, Jacques Ellul, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Book of Kells. The guesthouse of the Trappist monastery in Berryville became used to hosting young Episcopalians.

Their parents disapproved. That agnostic generation would probably have skipped church altogether if the grandparents had not demanded that the grandchildren be taken there. My classmates introduced us without mentioning church.

After war, demobilization is hard on warriors. In fact it is so hard that some deny that it is over. Fanatics defended Japanese isles from cruise ships decades after the end of the Second World War.

There are, and may always be, churchfolk like that. Flag-wavers and fist-shakers. Their temperaments are so civic, even political, that engagement with their societies and even their governments is presumably what God calls them to do. Like those in every other vocation under heaven, they need chaplaincy and maybe spiritual formation and direction for its challenges and their sins.

But the Tree of Life stood in Eden because God all along desired a relationship with humanity beyond pragmatic problem-solving. We live in the *overlap* of two aeons.

If God were to start reshaping the Body in the West to focus less on saving the Roman Empire and more on another materiality with deeper communion in him, what would that look like? It would look like our present.


Anonymous said...

Daniel vii 13-14. I don't often proof text, but a few verses (eg St John i 9, Romans v 12) have cast such long shadows down centuries that one cannot get the state of a question right without them.

Some monotheists see divinity mainly as transcendence of the human. Hellenistic philosophers, Muhammed, Islamic philosophers, Enlightenment rationalists, and most postmoderns are all among them.

Demonstrably, the Jews of Jesus's day were not. Apart from the canon, there are several non-canonical apocalyptic texts from that milieu that describe divinised humans and angels. The famous rabbi Akiva describes the messianic rebel bar Kochva, a contemporary he knew, in terms that the apostles might have applied to Jesus.

If you can't imagine-- that's the right word-- Jesus as YHWH, then you can't imagine-- still the right word-- that anything that he did effected human-YHWH reconciliation. For this reason, at least some thinkers in all the other categories listed above have stumbled over what theories of atonement interpret-- a transaction internal to God that somehow has a human mixed up in it-- before getting to any particular theory of that.

Conversely, believers like those here have the imagination to see a single God in each of the *equal Persons* that together effect the reconciliation. So analogies to *unequal relationships* between humans like sadism, child abuse, etc do not fit. As Moya, Liz, and Jean effectively point out.

Mark (gracias!) has made Gustaf Aulen's point (cf Christus Victor) that PSA is not the only or the original theory of the atonement. There is no ecumenical dogma on this matter. The cross is, well, crucial to the apostolic writings, but they and the fathers after them seem to have taught hybrids of Aulen's and other types.


The divine child abuse meme is a once-serious argument hardening nowadays into a dismissive bigotry. But under the smoke there is a fire that explains its spread.

The serious argument can be rescued from the meme by restating it as a dilemma. Did Jesus accomplish any reconciliation off of the cross? Hints: Christmas, Easter.

If so, then death=OT-blood-sacrifice-for-sin is too narrow to wholly explain that reconciliation. If not, then Jesus's life in Israel is being framed as human and creaturely to the exclusion of his also being the divine Creator. The theory is too small to account for an awful lot of traditional Christianity (cf Colossians 1).

Why is the fire spreading? Obviously, polarized churchgoers are imitating polarized politicians. This is odd to do when discussing the reconciliation of all things, but their silhouettes in the fog show where they've dug trenches through the no man's land.

Behind one trench lies what Dallas Willard disparaged as *sin management*. From within that practice, PSA is seen as keeping the Christ in Christianity at a time when others take their beliefs from Davos Man. Those madly in love with their societies find this suspicion of them very suspicious.

Behind the opposing trench lies nearly every other personal practice of life in Christ from oh contemplation to red letter discipleship to liberation to SSM to ecology to feminism to glossalalia. Each follows Christ into different aspects of his reconciliation.


Anonymous said...

I am interested in your heavily emotive description of vicarious atonement Mark. We have not been ‘under the law’ for two thousand years but the first Christians were Jews brought up with the law and the sacrificial system. Their history taught them that keeping the law was vital to avoid punishment by God (cf King Josiah, Ezra and the prophets). So, once they had overcome the stumbling block of the cross, Jesus as their atoning death, and as a legal transaction, brought complete freedom from the burden of the law as we see Paul in Galatians. So it was a matter for rejoicing! There was no sense of a vengeful God exacting the penalty on his son. What has been done with that doctrine since is not the fault of the doctrine but human misunderstanding of it. If I may add my personal experience (!) being brought up in a legalistic though loving household, I absorbed the rule of law completely and it was the grace of God that broke through that into an awareness of real sinfulness. But at that point I received the absolute freedom of forgiveness from Jesus though it has taken the last forty years to see the truth of the love of God. I guess my heart was a victim of a faulty view of God even as I rejoiced that Jesus had paid for my sin. Maybe my emotional view was nearer to your description Mark, I see as I write this… Bless you

Anonymous said...

Hidden With Christ In God

This interview with George Hunsinger on Colossians iii 3 is deep, but not at all technical. It touches ideas here and there in this and most threads.



Father Ron said...

We all need to remember that it was not God who killed Jesus. Jesus died at the instigation of a religious group who thought he was an imposter - an enemy of the kind of religion they thought that was pleasing to God. They were keener on a mistaken summary judgement than on mercy.

When any one of us does something good for another - at our own expense - we are emulating the sacrifice of Jesus. One such example was that of Blessed Maximillian Colby, who offered his own life in a Nazi prison camp for another man who had a dependent family.

Vicarious suffering is a selfless offering for others.

Jean said...

I appreciated reading your explanation of Christus Victor Mark & your comments B.W. And Moya and now Fr Ron.

I adhere also to the Christus Victor model as well as PSA it seems, I never was a good compartmentalist : ) ... Seriously though, God as always planning the redemption of mankind and coming into our world to Himself deliver humankind from evil is an M.O. for me which fits alongside vicarious atonement rather than as an alternative to it. As meshed together as both mercy (in the mercy seat of the tabernacle or the horns of the sacrificial animal sacrificed for sins) and justice (the demands of the law) are in the O.T. It is on the cross, when the law is fulfilled that mercy triumphs over judgement. As when in Abram’s dream the spirit of God himself walked between the parts of the sacrificed animal, God promises to fulfil himself the demands of justice.

I think you hit the nail on the head BW regarding your observations; indeed in my consciousness it is not a Father demanding a blood sacrifice of His son on a cross, it is God’s self plural (Father, Son & Spirit) inter-twined who have chosen to come in love to ransom humankind from the snares of the evil one by offering to pay the price for us. While I perceive Adam and Eve to witting or unwitting? actors in bringing sin and therefore death into the world I see Satan as the author of both sin and death.

Why justice at all? Why did the blood of Abel cry out for justice? Is this an immutable law of God? Is it unjust or unreasonable? A broad topic. I do know that my human heart, when I encounter situations, say just this year a young adult woman who unknown to her parents delivered drugs for a gang (in Australia) during her teenage years and was beaten regularly and had her family threaten to make sure she always complied, cries out for justice.

Moya yes I can relate it is difficult to grasp grace in an upbringing with a legalistic framework. I have struggled also to believe in God’s love for the same reason, especially so because of inconsistent ‘punishment,’ what was right one day could be wrong the next and vice versa. Perhaps also Mark this is a culture you have encountered in some churches where ‘law’ and ‘judgement’ have been emphasised over ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’? It is quite the juxtaposition isn’t it when to know true forgiveness necessitates an acknowledgment or conviction, to use your words Moya of ‘real sinfulness’ is present. I think you are right though when you say the people of the OT saw the message of atonement in Jesus as good news, a release from the burden of sin as opposed to viewing it as a vengeful act by God. I think that actually believing God also died for me is my struggle, ‘For fear has to do with punishment and those who fear are not made perfect in Love.’

Colossians - a beautiful verse BW. Dallas Willard & sin management, yes good stuff!