Flat White

Salvation in theology for Australia’s declining churches?

10 July 2022

8:00 AM

10 July 2022

8:00 AM

The lunatic left will rejoice at the results of a recent American Gallup Poll which revealed that belief in God in that country had suffered a six-point drop since 2017, with only 81 per cent now believing in the existence of God.

While the question posed by Gallup was of a generic God: ‘Do you believe in God?’ Fox News, a Murdoch masthead in the American media, assumed that it only applied to the Christian faith and interviewed four Christian leaders for an account of the decline.

As explained in another report: ‘Belief in God is highest among political conservatives (94 per cent) and Republicans (92 per cent), reflecting that religiosity is a major determinant of political divisions in the U.S.’

Only 72 per cent of Democrats believed in God. When the same question was posed in 1953, 98 per cent of Americans said they believed in God.

The four Christian leaders gave a number of different explanations for the decline to Fox News.

A Baptist preacher thought the cause to be ‘no time in life to stop and contemplate anything spiritual’; a Lutheran pastor blamed a ‘lack of dedicated spaces and time set aside, for that leads to the chaos that we see around us presently’; a Roman Catholic Bishop blamed the parents for ‘the attenuation of religious practice’; but only a Methodist Bishop thought the Church itself to blame ‘by not ‘nurturing’ young people in the faith’.

In this article, I shall refer to the Christian and Hebrew deity as ‘God’ and ignore the pagans and atheists.

What distinguishes this God from all others is the fact that He has revealed a lot about Himself and what He expects of us in a Book that claims to have been divinely revealed by Him. It is not a claim that is easily refuted; but if you read it like a history book, you will never understand it. 

If we accept Fox News’ focus on Christianity, the percentage of the Australian population that identifies as Christian dropped from 50 per cent in 2016 to 43.9 per cent in 2021, with falls in all major denominations. The fall was concentrated among the Protestant denominations with the Anglican Church losing 20 per cent of its adherents and the Methodist, 23 per cent.

The fall in Protestant belief is so significant and so rapid that the reasons given in America do not explain the disaffection. So, I would like to suggest that the theological message the Churches are selling is no longer convincing for the reasons I am about to give; and to turn it around, they need to stop simplifying the source and return to an original theology.

Perhaps our Churches have already started to think what they need to do to accomplish that turn around. If so, they are contemplating something good. Paradoxically, they have touched on the theological conundrum that is at the heart of their theology. 

That conundrum was the change in Christian theology influenced by a priest called Martin Luther which is known as the Reformation. Luther relied heavily on Saint Paul to argue that man was saved by faith alone by which he might obtain God’s grace.

Until Luther, the Roman Catholic Church had been persuaded by St Thomas Aquinas that the Gospel of John proved that God was reason: ‘In the beginning was the reason (ratio)…’ and as man was made in His image, God expected man to act reasonably. Man’s salvation, however, could be earned with good works. How would he know his works were good?

The greatest spokesman for reason, whose explanations of how the virtues perfected the human soul was the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and by relying on his supreme understanding of Aristotle’s works, St Thomas managed to synthesise reason with revelation.

While Luther’s thesis against the sale of indulgences by the Roman Church was correct, his reformation of Christianity was an attack on human reason which he called depraved, and man’s ‘good’ works, utterly worthless for his salvation. Luther detested Aristotle whose teachings had been synthesised with Christian theology.

Luther cites Scripture to show salvation by faith; but there are many other passages in the Gospels that praise virtuous deeds of the faithful in both the Old and New Testaments, suggesting that faith alone is insufficient. To be human is to make rational choices and every choice involves a deliberation about choosing what is best and avoiding evil. Perfecting the soul with virtuous habits makes such choices possible.

The Church’s reliance on good deeds taught their congregations the importance of virtue which also served an important function in the political life of the community. When Luther claimed that Christians are saved by their faith alone, he divorced Christian theology from Aristotle’s teaching about virtue and vice, which ultimately left the Churches irrelevant to the day-to-day life of congregants and the political life of the society.

That result was not immediate and has taken quite a few centuries to complete. The theological education of many generations of priests and ministers was one thing; but the resistance from congregants had also to be overcome.

The problem that Luther’s theory faces, however, is that it must withstand the criticism he makes of the earlier theology for which St Thomas (and Aristotle) were responsible. If the fall really did subvert human reason so that as Luther said ‘it is false to state that the will can by nature confirm to correct precept’ and Luther was born after the fall, then Luther’s reason is also subverted and he can never know whether his criticism or his theological statement is correct.

Luther’s assertion about faith is not significantly different from that of a Middle Ages Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali who asserted that everything that happens is the result of Allah’s will. That the rational order of nature by which Aristotle understood moral principles, did not exist. Everything depended on Allah’s will. Moral principles flow from Sharia, not from reason. Al-Ghazali concluded that if man is faithful to Allah, any actions he takes will be justified by his faith. Osama bin Laden agreed: ‘Terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s religion.’

Although he was a devout Christian, the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, drew on Hegel’s historical process to deny an investigation of Christianity by reason. Once the historical evidence showed that Jesus existed, a ‘leap of faith’ was all that was needed.

Most Christian denominations have found his leap of faith sufficient to confirm salvation through faith as the truth of the New Testament. It also avoids the need to worry if congregants are performing virtuous deeds.

In the place of virtuous deeds, Australian Christian churches by identifying God with love, substitute love for virtue. As the word, love, has almost limitless connotations and denotations, it has encouraged Churches to engage in numerous many social justice issues like Liberation Theology, Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, Native Title, and Climate Change, in the name of love even if otherwise vicious.

Remnants of a natural law teaching with an emphasis on good works can still be found in Roman Catholicism’s theology, but even there, Marxist ideas are gaining ground.

It was once customary in Anglican liturgy for the Ten Commandments to be recited, the first five explaining our duty to God the second five, our duty to our neighbour. That no longer occurs, having been replaced by love. Yet, every one of those Commandments, at least when they are known, is important to a good home and, therefore, to a good society. They were instructions on how to live our lives, here in the suburbia, with a weekly reminder from the pulpit.

In those long-ago times, the good works of many may not have fed the starving millions in distant lands, or eased the flooded towns of Bangladesh; but we were all better people for the little things we did for our neighbours and that’s what’s missing today. If there is a hereafter, perhaps those little works will earn us an Admit One ticket.

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