Rev’d Dr Andrew Cameron, Director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre
I put it to you that Australia is in a bit of trouble
Pretty much every human society is in some kind of trouble, and Australia is also a spectacularly great place to be in some respects too. But there are some difficulties upon us. We’re seeing that surge in extraordinarily unprincipled behaviour in politics, in corporate life and perhaps even in individual lives.
If human beings have evolved only to care about each other when there is something in it for us, at a large scale that gives us nationalism (where my tribe is better than yours), and at a smaller scale, the endless cycling through broken relationships characterised by using one another and the hostility that results when you don’t give me what I want.
Or, if all we have are assertions of my own ‘identity’ against that of others, then all we have are an endless war of special interest pleas, and no ‘common good’.
And as the populace stops believing in the intrinsic preciousness before God of each other, we see a society loaded with loneliness, and older people and indigenous people and disabled people and met with the most grudging minimum standards of so-called ‘care’.
As people in churches forget their core heritage, we see wings of churches at war with each other over increasingly abstract issues, or just mirroring the culture-wars seen more widely.
One of the thinkers I like has said that our conceptions of human worth are ‘irreducibly theological’. That’s a fancy way of claiming that without the news that God estimates humanity to be very precious, there become not many reasons to believe that others are precious, except if I am attracted to them, or can use them. The same applies to the natural order: without the news that God estimates the natural order to be incredibly precious in and of itself, it devolves into something that is only ‘good’ if I can feel it or mine it for human purposes, or if I am attracted to it.
Of course there are plenty of people who don’t believe in God who think humans are precious, and who think the natural order matters. What I am saying here is a bit complex: they can think and feel that because these things really are precious, in and of themselves. So good on them for noticing. But at the same time, something about God having a say on human affairs has created a momentum, over several thousand years, in helping us to see it that way.
And St Mark’s exists to amplify and continue that ‘something’.
Here is an example from the Bible of how that works. I have always been struck by the ongoing currency of an almost throwaway line in a late New Testament letter (Titus, ch. 3) that tries to sum up how humans usually go about their business:
‘ … living in malice and envy, hateful, detesting one another’.
That right there is a serviceable description of Twitter, of politics, of the identity wars, of culture-wars, even (alas) of church politics. You only get ‘envy’ driving this kind of hatred when you are convinced that someone else has something you must have, which is how the author expands this diagnosis—that humans are :
‘enslaved by various passions and pleasures,
living in malice and envy, hateful, detesting one another’
… forms of just self-focus, as it were, that keep us locked into our own tiny worlds at the expense of each other. The whole quote is that
‘For we too were once foolish, disobedient,
deceived, enslaved by various passions and pleasures,
living in malice and envy, hateful, detesting one another.’
‘Foolish’ and ‘deceived’ point to that ever-present human problem of not knowing what we don’t know, and getting bogged down in delusions. I think of the endless slew of mad conspiracy theory and destructive ideologies that people seem to be increasingly enmeshed in when I read that.
‘Disobedient’ probably points to something about God here, but even just at the level of thinking that I can forge my own destiny without reference to others, it says something about how we’ll obstinately forge ahead doing whatever, even when those next to us can see that we’re totally misguided.
So this sentence is a picture of the human condition. But in its context, it’s not intended to be damning. It’s the backdrop for the recognition that part of what we don’t know, is how much God actually loves us, as the author goes on to say:
‘But when the goodness of God and His love for humankind appeared …’???????
The ‘theology’ in ‘theological centre’ just means stuff about God, and before this sentence even completes, there is a clue of something completely unexpected and unlikely: that the good God loves the humankind who hates, detests, are enslaved, and so on.
So in other words it just doesn’t matter how mad or bad a human community gets: God keeps on loving, and appears that anyway. It continues that:
‘… He saved us—not by works of righteousness that we had done,
but according to His mercy’.
In that moment is expressed what Christians call ‘the gospel’, this assertion that God is not in the business of calculating all our bads against all your goods and then deciding if you are OK (like the ancient Egyptian god Osiris was believed to do). Rather, the good God who loves simply steps into the mess of human affairs, and has mercy.
There is just always this hope beyond human depravity—hope of mercy, and of rescue, or ‘redemption’ or ‘reconciliation’ as theologians call it. This section has become a go-to part of the Bible for me because it asserts that the good God remains actively engaged, in every time and place, to pull us out of our mess.
This author goes on to point to the work of the Holy Spirit, and of Jesus Christ, as God’s means of doing that. I won’t unpack that here, but unpacking that is precisely what we do again and again in our subjects and in our worship at St Mark’s.
And St Mark’s, for all our shortcomings and foibles and failures, exists to keep witnessing to the good God who has not given up on humanity, seeking to align human affairs to the goodness of that God.
There are other places around the country and the world that do what we do, and more power to them. But we have a unique and special calling in the city of Canberra and the surrounding regions of NSW.
The city of Canberra is so completely secularist, and likely to think it doesn’t like what we do—until people get a sniff of it. Again and again I find people in our city who are interested in these ‘spiritual’ things, almost despite themselves. We sense their vibe, and can speak to it.
Obviously too, this city in several ways sets the conditions for all manner of life in this country. The ideas people have in this town will affect others in Australia in subtle ways.
Old white men have, by and large, made a complete hash of representing Jesus Christ. Christianity is up against it culturally because of the awful history of sin and folly by my gender. I grow increasingly convinced of the need for intelligent Christian women to carry the message forward, and St Mark’s has pioneered that in Australia.
We’re also up against the struggle of people in rural areas just to navigate life, let alone study theology, let alone run healthy churches. St Mark’s has a history of being tuned into that. There are a hundred questions surrounding what I’ve said about Christianity. But sustained theological study sets up a clear time and a safe space where people can delve into the wisdom of saints past, and hear from our faculty, and pray, and learn, and it works. We’re seeing people go back into those rural communities, city workplaces, chaplaincies and churches, and making a ripple in modern Australia.
It’s never given to us to know the ultimate effect of our actions. God is not in the business of totalling it up and telling it back to us. So some days, what you will do here will seem quite small and invisible.
But Australia would be a vastly worse place if generations of Christians were not witnessing to the God who loves wayward humans, showing what it looks like to live mercy, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation. Jesus called this a preservative function, like salt, that helps stops communities going rotten. And that is what we are here for.