Are you also wondering how to live faithfully in 2020? Or what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century? There are many challenges of Christianity in the modern world. We quite often hear people asking: What’s wrong with the church today?
In this article, Rob Hoskin, our dear congregation member, retired Uniting Church minister, a man having a very deep relationship with the Aboriginal community in the Kimberley and possessing many talents including writing, painting or music, shares his views on and experience with modern Christianity.
Christianity begins with the real
I see Jesus as a realist, very aware of the social context of his day, and energetically living in response to these challenges. Such challenges as the failure of the religious institutions such the Temple and the synagogues to care for the people, the oppression of Roman occupation and a patriarchal society that honoured the male at the expense of the female. His personal response and continuing care for the under-privileged of his society led to his death on the cross.
I reject the mindset that Jesus death was a contrivance of a God needing sacrifice to atone for humanity’s sin. This leaves me cold, with the thought that this Father God is not to be trusted, if he would allow his son to be cruelly put to death in this way.
So, the reality, for me, is the question, what does it mean to follow Jesus and live a faithful Christian life in the face of the social context of the 20th century? I want to be a contemporary Christian living a contemporary faith in a contemporary world, not bound into the thinking of the past.
The challenge of Christianity in the modern world
I am in my seventies which means that I have lived my three score years and ten. I have seen enormous change in my lifetime as set out in the following table, illustrating the pace of these changes. The book Future Shock was published in 1970, around 50 years ago. Its author Alvin Toffler argued that we as individuals were encountering too much change in too short a time. If he wrote that then, what would he say of our society now?
The following table sets out some of the profound changes that have occurred in my lifetime. These are but a few of the changes and challenges in Australia that beset human life and of course, modern Christianity.
|I began work as an actuary aware of life expectancy. We thought of the average life of a male around mid-70 and a female a few years later. Now we live on average to past the mid-eighties.|
|The church||Churches were seen as key institutions in society, now people are asking ‘What is wrong with the church’ rather than “what can it offer our lives?’|
|Ethnicity||I grew up in an Anglo-Celtic society, now very aware of our multi-cultural present.|
|Refugees||We welcomed refugees even boat people in the 1970s and 1980s, now we imprison them.|
|Ecology||We disregarded our impact on the environment, now we deal with climate change, and the huge impact of fire, drought and other disasters.|
And what of the plastic islands floating in the Pacific Island. We have generated so much plastic rubbish that we have created land masses. This is the observable plastic – the more worrying trend is the plastic fibre that is digested by marine life generally.
|Nuclear||The nuclear threat has been with us since Hiroshima but has proliferated with an uncertain future.|
|Gender||We used to think of the normality of male/female relationships in marriage, now have legalised gay marriage and are dealing with many definitions of gender.|
|Indigenous||I was born in the 1940s at a time when Aboriginal peoples were not included in the Australian census. It seems almost inconceivable to think that they who were the original Australians were regarded as no people. It took to 1967 for that to change and since then we have recognised them in many different ways. We thought in terms of Reconciliation in the 1990s but that faltered in the decade to follow as Prime Minister Howard brought political changes to the effectiveness of the Native Title achieved in 1992.|
As I say, these are but of a few of the changes to modern life that have occurred not simply within my lifetime, but since Alvin Toffler wrote his book in 1970.
Challenges (of Christianity and the world) in January 2020
As I write, huge fires threaten Victoria and New South Wales. While I have memory of fires, such as Ash Wednesday, these fires have occurred earlier in the season, and involve more fronts. Is this a grim warning for the future of our country and have we grown complacent with the thought that we could deal with the earth with impunity? What has this to do with contemporary Christianity?
A couple days ago, President Trump ordered a missile to take life of an Iranian General who was held responsible for the death of numerous service personal. The Iranians responded with missiles aimed at US sites in the Middle East. A casualty of this engagement was a Ukrainian plane carrying innocent civilians. The US now have added additional sanctions while the Iranians determine their next move. Are we at the edge of the apocalypse, or is this one small step toward eventual peace and understanding?
And not to forget the global web; the impact of the internet
I have not mentioned the impact of the global web and the internet. I took time out yesterday to be with my grandchildren. They, like all the new generation, have access to the web, and information in a way that I did not have as a child. I had to go to ask my parents or go to the library to find information. I wandered into my nine year’s old grandson room as he explored various topics on the computer.
He showed us some novel Lego models beginning with the Lego paper shredder and then proceeding to a youth who had made an arm support, not dissimilar to those mechanical arms used for disabled people. The next excursion was of more concern. It was a tiny gun made of plastic, able to put a hole in a coke can. I thought, what is this world up to when the new information, accessible even to my grandson, can promote destruction.
How then to live faithfully in this new decade of the twenty-first century?
I answer this question by considering the life and witness of Jesus, as I have in other decades of my life.
Jesus as the master of the inner life
I used to think that a Christian should work on themselves and be as mature and aware as they were able to be. I took heart from the insight of Carl Jung and his understanding of individuation. By individuation to find one’s unique person in relationship with the collective and world at large. In other words, being an individual was important, but in relation to the world of which we are part.
In this respect, I see Jesus as a master of the inner life, not unlike the masters from the East. The Gospels show that he continually used symbols to sidestep the judgmental attitudes of his critiques. Jesus spoke in terms of parables calling out people’s heart as well as their intellectual response. To be able to live faithfully in 2020 and beyond means following and trying to understand Jesus’ story.
Jesus who lived a balanced life, calling women and men to be disciples
He lived a balanced life, balancing what might have been called masculine and feminine qualities of life. We are less constrained by gender characteristics so many people do not think in these terms. Despite the distortions of the later Church, Jesus encouraged women to be disciples, particularly Mary Magdalene whom he described as a tower (the meaning of the related word Midgal), to complement Peter as the rock.
Jesus the man of the earth
I also see Jesus as a man of the earth, not unlike the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley, with whom I have worked for twenty years. We in the Western church refused to see this quality of Jesus as we contrived a faith to be separate from the earth and our relationship with the creatures of the earth. It is regrettable that it has taken two thousand years for this to be seen by Christian leaders. I applaud Pope Francis’ encyclical: Laudato Si.
His insights which include arguing that Christians need to consider what humanity has and continues to do to the environment are well overdue, given the ecological emergency facing our planet. His words, though insightful repeat what my church, the Uniting Church in Australia, has been saying for decades, and the words of growing concern within our community. To be a Christian is to seriously take interest and action in preserving our planet, in ways within our reach. This means that I need to be mindful of recycling, avoid plastic straws and bags, and consider my carbon footprint.
I have included other significant changes that have occurred in my lifetime. These affect my stance as a Christian in the 21st Century. Looking down the above list:
Jesus who calls women and men into his service
I will hopefully have an extra ten years of life. This does not mean that I simply retreat into a playful retirement. Indeed, I refuse to accept the word retirement is pertinent to the faithful Christian life. I will continue to engage in meaningful relationships and activities, striving for justice. In my case, I have spent the past twenty years relating to an Aboriginal community in the Kimberley on the basis that this is a personal and practical response to Reconciliation.
Jesus the critic of the established religion
The society’s attitude to Christian churches has changed over my lifetime. Established churches such as the Uniting Church suffer from severely reduced congregations. Surprisingly, conservative churches such as Hillsong are on the increase. For me, I take what might be called a more liberal approach to the faith and refuse to retreat to a fundamentalism which often takes the Bible literally and tries to impose a faith from another day and age. I could be caught by the question, what is wrong with the Church, but that for me is a distraction. I belong to a church at St Kilda Uniting which is seriously trying to explore the relevance of scripture within our contemporary life. We might suffer from low attendance, because justice-seeking doesn’t always bring a huge following, but it is important to be part of a congregation that is seriously struggling with contemporary faith.
Jesus who lived in a multi-cultural society
I live in a multi-cultural society and this radically affects my faith. I would honour and respect those from different faith and cultural backgrounds and celebrate an ecumenical relationship, not only with fellow Christians but people of other faith backgrounds.
Jesus the peacemaker
I can do nothing about the nuclear threat, but I do not see this or any other apocalyptic scenario as the action of God, as some Christians believe from their reading of the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic writings. Such tragedy is man-made and as such can be averted by people of good faith. It is important as a Christian to work on the factors that would produce such destruction: countering the fear and prejudice endemic in our society, working for peace and those acts of charity and understanding that produce peace, I would continue to hope, rather than be caught by depression in the face of fear.
Jesus the true host: accepting people as they are!
I allow people to make their decisions regarding gender and relationships and accept that some people express their sexual preferences differently to what I would consider normal and natural. I think that following Jesus is accepting people with love and compassion rather than judgement and exclusion. I take seriously the words of Henry Nouwen who speaks of hospitality;
Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines… The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adore the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.
Author: Rev Robert Hoskin