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by Rev Robert Griffith

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by Rev Robert Griffith

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Christmas – Then and Now

by | Dec 23, 2021

A confronting but important article by Stan Grant – ABC News Channel Presenter
(first posted 19 December 2021)

With Christianity receding and many abandoning hope, today’s Christmases are not like those of my childhood. Like many, my best Christmas memories come from childhood. Endless hot summers, the river, food and family. And faith. I come from a big Aboriginal family. There’s no Christmas like a black Christmas. There was never much money and presents were few and modest, but they were treasured. One year I got a book of Greek myths that opened a world of wonder and ideas that have stayed with me a lifetime. We played cricket with a homemade bat carved out of an old fence post. Our ham came from a tin and chicken substituted for turkey. But we were blessed. Christmas was a time of prayer and hope. My uncles were pastors in the Aboriginal church. They looked to the black church leaders of the United States like the reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

The Aboriginal civil rights movement had grown out of the church. Men and women of profound faith who demanded Australia recognise our God-given equality. These people had been forged in the furnace of the worst of Australian racism. Yet they refused to yield. Victimhood was not for them. I am dismayed today at what I see as a rising pessimism among a new generation of Indigenous people. Amongst some there is an abandonment of hope. I’ve even heard some say hope is for white people. Really? Tell that to the people of my grandparents’ generation.

The tension between secularism and faith

It is incongruous that a generation who have enjoyed rights and privileges unknown to their grandparents have surrendered hope. Of course, much of this pessimism is just theatre – a performative pessimism. This is the politics of posturing. Juvenile angst. But it also reflects something more insidious, a cynicism that has pervaded society and has fractured bonds of tradition and family and community and faith, particularly Christian faith. It has taken root in Western society which has undergone a profound and what appears to be irreversible shift. In the words of the late sociologist, Phillip Rieff, we have swapped a sacred order for a social order.

In his book ‘Is Europe Christian?’ French scholar Olivier Roy charts this tension between secularism and faith. It has defined the emergence of modern Europe: From the reformation to the Thirty Years War, the Treaties of Westphalia and the birth of the nation state through to the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community, and later the social revolutions of the 1960s and Vatican II, which sought to adapt the church to a secularised 20th-century world. The 17th century Enlightenment was critical in beginning to elevate reason over faith. Foundational thinkers like Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant and David Hume sought to redefine morality and ethics, questions of truth and what it was to be human that challenged the church.

The seeds sown during the Enlightenment (which it must be pointed out was not uniformly anti-religion; there were different and competing Enlightenments) gave rise to thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously declared God is dead and we have killed him. Later, critical theorists — notably the Frankfurt School — arose between the two World Wars. Marxist and Freudian philosophers like Walter Benjamin, who saw history as an unending catastrophe, or Theodor Adorno, whose pessimism rejected ideas of human progress, leaving little room for beauty or poetry. It wasn’t that the Frankfurt School was entirely anti-faith. Max Horkheimer argued that the loss of religion eroded meaning; he said he could not accept any philosophy that did not include some theology. Yet overwhelmingly these counter-Enlightenment philosophers set the tone for a more dispirited age. They were brilliant minds who raised important questions about the nature of truth and justice, but their ideas are a dismal basis for society.

What sort of society do we have now?

This is all part of the centuries-long trajectory of the rise of secularism and the erosion of faith. And the more recent revelations of widespread sexual abuse have also contributed to a loss of trust in the church. Olivier Roy says that secularisation “has given way to large-scale dechristianisation”. There is now “a serious crisis surrounding European identity and the place of religion in the public sphere,” he says. It is felt in Protestantism but Roy says it is much more pronounced among Catholics. The fault lines have been issues like divorce, abortion or same-sex marriage. Traditionally deeply Catholic countries like Ireland have undergone a dramatic shift. As Roy says: “Little by little, the very definitions of sexual difference, family, reproduction and parenthood have been redrawn.” Personal freedom, Roy writes, “prevails over all transcendent standards”. Society is now ordered on “new values … founded on individualism, freedom and the valorisation of desire”. Of course, this reflects social change and the struggle for equality, and an end to discrimination.

The question Olivier Roy poses, though, is what sort of society do we now have? As he shows, it is not one where faith is central. Many people may still identify as Christian yet reject the church’s fundamental teachings; few are regularly practicing or attending church and the number of people entering the priesthood has stalled. Australia is the same. According to the census, Christianity remains the dominant religion, with around 12 million people identifying as Christians. Still high, but it is dropping. Roy Morgan research shows that in 2003, 68 per cent of people described themselves as Christian; by 2020, that had fallen to 44 per cent. In the same time those claiming to have no religion has jumped from 26 per cent to 45 per cent.

The end of Christianity?

As Christianity recedes in Europe and other parts of the West, it is rising in the global south: Africa, South America, the Pacific. Christianity is booming in Communist Party-controlled atheist China. But elsewhere, Christians are under attack. In her recent book, The Vanishing: The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East, veteran journalist Janine di Giovanni chronicles the end of Christianity. Violent Islamic fundamentalist groups like Islamic State have persecuted Christian communities. She says they have been “brought to the verge of extinction.” In Egypt, Di Giovanni says, Christian Copts face legal and societal discrimination. In Gaza, which in the fourth century was entirely Christian, she says, “fewer than a thousand Christians remain”. Di Giovanni has covered the worst of the world’s conflict zones. Like me, she has seen too much war and suffering. She has also looked to faith and prayer to get herself through. She says her book “is about how people pray to survive their own most turbulent times”.

What a contrast: Europe becoming de-christianised while Christians fight to hold on in the Middle East. Olivier Roy and Janine di Giovanni’s books are important contributions as we ponder the state of our world during the holy celebration of birth of Jesus. In a pluralist, secular, democratic society, the role of religion — especially in our public life — is always contested. Yet it isn’t the formal separation of church and state that challenges us as much as what Olivier Roy calls “the disappearance of religion as the focus of social and cultural life”. This is what he calls “the de-christianisation in Europe.”

What are we left with? A society obsessed with cartoonish cancel culture, debilitating contests for recognition and poisonous identity wars. All of it like a cancer eating democracy itself. There is little transcendence, just inherent pessimism and hopelessness. Roy says: “Today’s crisis is not simply a crisis of values, but of referring to values at all.

My Christmases are sadder now that my grandparents, uncles and aunties are gone. Our world is immeasurably poorer for the loss and derision of faith and the substitute of cynicism.

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