Emails and text messages can be dangerous things. That’s one of the unpleasant facts that I discovered after only a short time on the internet. It is too easy to misinterpret what is sent. The sender may think they are making a light-hearted comment. The recipient may read the message in another light. Mostly, that is because there is a tendency to approach emails casually, as if they were face to face conversation. However, they are not. In a conversation, facial expression and tone of voice are immediately present. Not in an email. Calling someone a “dirty rotten sod” (or something stronger) in your best Little Ned or Basil Fawlty voice is allowable; writing it less so. The cultural distance between sender and receiver matters.
In recent times, the distance between a Christian worldview and the society around us has increased. Communication has slipped. My favourite example of this is the use of the term “sin” and related words. Inside the Christian community, it describes a deep truth about the reality of human existence and its imperfections. Outside, it is at best meaningless, or perhaps a synonym for something that is enjoyable. When Christians use it in communicating with someone outside the church, all that is heard is an emotional content of superiority, judgement, disdain and rejection.
How does our culture, outside of the church, articulate faith?
Recently, Hugh Mackay visited Adelaide and presented some talks on his work and thinking. I had the opportunity to meet him and listen to him. Hugh is a social researcher. He catalogues observations based upon listening to what people say, rather than, say, genetic research or economic rationalism or philosophy. In particular, he has observed and listened to Australian culture in relation to religion and belief.
He has concluded that the urge to believe is innate in humans – just as physiologically the human norm has lungs, blood and so on, so psychologically, humans have a natural desire to believe, along with other desires, such as to belong, to have a place, to connect, to be useful, and to have love. Many of these desires match belonging to a church community. However, other factors have turned many off church attendance, perceptions of rigidity and loss of integrity being two major ones. (Curiously, 90% of non-church goers preferred living in a neighbourhood with a church, even though they don’t attend.) Put the two trends together and there is a growing group of people who could be categorised as spiritual (that is, believing that there is a non-material side to existence) but not religious (that is, not attracted to an institutional form of expressing faith in the non-material). Such people look for a non-traditional way of thinking about God, for instance, emphasizing God as a spirit of love and goodness within us and around us, exhibited in compassion for others.
What might this mean for us, who form the community of Scots? For one thing, we are part of the wider culture. Our church community is more like a sandbar than an island. So, Hugh’s reflections on what is going on in Australia in terms of belief are likely to echo some of the ways we are thinking about God and church. They can help us understand our personal faith, realise that it is a valid faith and not feel guilty (“sinful”?) if some traditional beliefs do not fit. As well, laying out the sort of language that is being used for spirituality in our wider culture can help us in the task of communicating with those who pass by our street corner.
Hugh noted that there is a growing feeling of fragmentation among members of society (resulting from factors like prioritising the individual, “ME generation”, mobile population, smaller households). We may feel some of this ourselves. However, we also have here at Scots a functioning community – we have decades of practice at caring for each other and maintaining meaningful relationships in a group that has diversity and disagreements. This experience and this care is something we can offer to others, regardless of their belief about God. In the old language of the insider, we talk about being part of the Kingdom of God and proclaiming that Kingdom.
What we really mean is that we belong to a community of divine love that welcomes others.
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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