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Hold Your Nerve And Do Nothing

Tuesday, 31 July 2012  | Steve McAlpine

Of all the strategies Christians have been urged to adopt recently in response to the rapid and bewildering cultural shifts in the West, the one least explored, if book titles are any indication, is the strategy of taking a deep breath, holding our collective nerve and doing nothing.  

Faced with Helen Lovejoy’s anguished “Won’t somebody please think of the children!”, Christian guardians and iconoclasts alike have rushed to presses and blogs breathlessly proclaiming solutions to what is wrong.  After all, there is no Amazon best seller flag or Christian Book of the Year sticker for tomes such as Steady as She Goes, Take a Christian Chill Pill, or Everyday a Hump Day.  Something, as opposed to Nothing, ‘has to be done’ if Christianity is to survive in the West.

Despite all the virtual ink spilt, however, the only thing socially conservative and radical Christian bloggers seem to agree on is that roasting your own beans is preferable: a likemindedness akin to the cessation of hostilities in World War 1 to host a football match in No-Man’s-Land.  

Now, I am not proposing a laissez-faire attitude to the changing culture—far from it.  In fact, holding our nerve and doing nothing requires a bravery and single-mindedness beyond the ability of most in our Twitter age: saying something has now overtaken doing something as the ultimate proof of concern.  No, what I am proposing is a return to the confident assurance of the New Testament writers who neither experienced a golden age of Christian virtue nor expected it. Their understanding of this age was that it had been declared obsolete by the age-to-come through the reality of the Resurrection. The future had broken into history and changed everything, and would continue to inexorably change it until history was swallowed up by the future 

A return to such confidence would not go astray again, and is exemplified by Moltmann—no stranger to turbulent times—in Jesus Christ for Today’s World: 

People who hope for God are not optimists. They don’t need the power of positive thinking. People who hope for God are not pessimists. They don’t need the logic of negative dialectic. People who trust in God know that God is waiting for them, that God is hoping for them, that they are invited to God’s future, so that they are holding in their hands the most marvelous invitation they have ever had in their lives. 

How would such confidence compel us to ‘do nothing’ today? The rare air of the New Atheism debate is a good test case. In a modern day Clash of the Titans, theological and  philosophical heavyweights thrust and counter-thrust arguments in book, blogs and live debate. As spectators it was end-to-end stuff, the most exhilarating being the Premier League encounters, such as that between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson in the documentary Collision, which despite my Christian proclivities, still felt like watching an imperious Manchester United take on a well-drilled, but less talented Fulham.  

But the ‘rare air’ of the Premier League is rare for a reason.  We watch the super-talented, not because we can emulate them, but because we cannot. Like children playing football in the park wearing “Messi” or “Rooney” replica shirts who wheel off to celebrate, shirt over head, the debate has allowed us to live vicariously. “Dawkins!”, yell our opponents, arms outstretched in ecstasy.  “McGrath!”, we counter, running to the corner flag to celebrate.

Now, at one level we need to know the arguments, but in the vast suburban landscape of Australia, few are either interested or convinced by one side or the other.  It all looks too zealous, and we are not a zealous lot.  Most Australians—Christian or otherwise—have lives that, on the surface at least, look pretty much the same. Soft secularists have no problem with theists or atheists: it is insecure fundamentalism that worries them.  Witness the bewildered look on Richard Dawkins’ face when, live on the ABC’s QandA, his response that he didn’t know how the universe started but he was sure it wasn’t God, drew derisory laughter. How could he be so sure about that? How could he so sure about anything?  

So, now that the dust has settled, who should come walking down main street to both steal and save the day? None other than “the people’s philosopher” Alain de Botton, wielding Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Use of Religion. “Real” philosopher A. C. Grayling, pouring scorn on de Botton, said recently “He’s a perfectly nice fellow, but it’s not philosophy. It’s cream-puff stuff.”. But cream-puff or not, there is a deep emotionally intelligent humanness about de Botton who states: 

This book... attempts to burn off religions‘ more dogmatic aspects in order to distil a few aspects of them that could prove timely and consoling to sceptical contemporary minds facing the crises and griefs of finite existence on a troubled planet.  It hopes to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true.  

Beautiful, touching and wise. De Botton has belled the cat: The enemy in Western culture is ugly, unfeeling and foolish dogmatism, not religion. Notice too the moderating “seems” in front of “true”? Such a little word, but so revealing. It exposes the hubris behind Grayling’s most recent title: The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.  Bibles are for believers aren’t they? Guides on the other hand… Everyone on a journey needs a guide. De Botton is a far better reader of our culture than Grayling’s “real” philosophers by a long way.

Of course, the challenge this presents us with is that de Botton’s argument maintains the status quo; namely an anemic, moldable, low-bar, utilitarian ethic strained of the gospel and, therefore, ultimately, impotent to bring about personal and societal transformation.  Yet it is an attractive apologetic appeal nonetheless, and with a noble aim.  Dawkins could argue all he liked about how getting rid of religion would usher in a greater age, but he simply wasn’t a good enough advertisement for his product.  A Dawkins-esque future would be stuffy, grim and smell slightly of damp corduroy.   

So in what way does de Botton’s approach inform the way we can ‘do nothing’ in a significant way in a resistant culture? Firstly, he gives off an air of sanguine patience towards the protagonists. By not jumping in boots-and-all, by keeping his powder dry, he avoided the off-putting franticness of so many. I believe that we have become too frantic; too frantic to close all the loopholes; too frantic in getting our response to the latest fad published and announced; too frantic to be seen to be right.  There is something deeply attractive about a long-term consistency that, when the smoke clears, has not altered course, or chased something down a rabbit hole.  The last three decades of rapid, discontinuous change has both wearied Christians—who have had to be seen to be doing something—about it, and has made people wary of Christians and their reactionary tendencies. Witness the embarrassing—in retrospect—spiritual fads at which Christians have flung themselves, only to quietly move them to one side when they failed to be the panacea or silver bullet they claimed to be.

Secondly, and most importantly, we can be what de Botton wants for the world but cannot deliver through mere secularism. Consider Ephesians 4:17-5:21.  Paul describes the pagan culture as “futile“, “darkened”, “alienated from the life of God”, “callous”, “given over to sensuality” and “every kind of impurity”.  By contrast, the community of Jesus, in “putting on the new self”, speaks truth to each other, labours honestly, deals gently, encourages verbally, demonstrates kindness, tenderheartedness, forgiveness and love.  It is sexually pure, thankful, content and sober.  How else might we describe such a way of life? Beautiful, touching and wise, perhaps?

My recent experience, where a young married couple with three children came to Christ from no church background at all, verifies just how powerful an apologetic Christian community can be.  In a time when we almost expect the church to be pilloried not only from the outside, but from the inside also, their response seems remarkable.  It was Christians doing ‘nothing’ except daily putting on the new self that convinced them. What, in our culture, seems no longer true, suddenly became to them so clearly true that everything else looked fake. They measured the lives of those without Christ against the lives of those with Christ and it was a no-brainer. Of course we had to say something: we told them the gospel.  But for a Christian group finding evangelism hard in secular Perth, we are slightly bemused at how astonishing they find us.  Are we not just ‘normal’?  Are we not just ‘doing nothing’ except living slightly busy, slightly tired, suburban lives? Apparently not. Apparently we are the most amazing group of people they have ever met, the only people not to play quid pro quo with their friendship, yet who are honest about our weaknesses and failings, and who are living for something other than the superficial stuff of here and now.  The community of Jesus actually looked like they hoped it would.  It makes me want to get up tomorrow and ‘do nothing’ all over again.



Chris Mulherin
August 7, 2012, 8:10AM
Thanks, Steve, for a good reminder that the Church is God's and the gates of hell won't prevail...

But I'm not sure de Botton is so innocent as might be assumed from your article: his Religion for Atheists panders to the relativist 'make up your own religion/worldview as long as it's nice' sort of approach.

And regarding your second last paragraph, which starts with de Botton and finishes talking of sexual purity: I know your comment about purity referred to a Bible view not de Botton but the impression could be that de Botton is promoting such purity. That would be wrong as evidenced by his promotion of the occasional orgy in Religion for Atheists.
Liz Butcher
August 7, 2012, 9:20AM
This is a more suscinct way of expressing what I was trying to say before. Forget all the bells and whistles to 'lure' people into the door and then try to dazzle them with righteousness. Aren't churches filled with seekers hoping for something more than the latest fad? If they wanted that they just need to turn on the telly and watch Gruen Transfer or Gruen Sweat (great show, btw).
Aren't children most secure when their parents are consistent in the message they are giving yet understanding and loving at the same time, knowing that fads will come and go and we are all just trying to work it out.
Do you think that where it all goes wrong in trying to stay consistent and hold firm to a belief without apologising, is that many then use that as a reason to feel superior to those who haven't yet 'got it'. Kind of like an ex-smoker who is more anti-smoking than a non-smoker. Zealots in the form of Dawkins or those who scream at a young girl walking into an abortion clinic look no different to a seeker.
Geraldine Gibbes
August 7, 2012, 10:52AM
Sound like "resting in God" & "Be still & know that I am God". Stop striving and let Him live through us. Not so easy - takes time. but the lives of people who seem to have achieved it are attractive. Please Lord make us more like Jesus.
Stephen McAlpine
August 7, 2012, 1:51PM
Hi folks - good thoughtful responses.

Yes, Chris, wise words. I concede your points about de Botton. Trying to find common starting ground seems to be the issue. I guess I don't view him as "innocent", but more attractive to the status quo, problematic in itself. Most relativists are not so by conviction, but by laziness, so de Botton taps into the lowest common denominator here. However the "lowest" is also the "common". As Christians it's just hard work seeing the world from the eyes of the average person who is not Xn - I find it extremely hard anyway and have to work at it. Could it be an Acts 17 thing that I am getting at? Take de Botton's language/tone and usurp it? Still trying to figure that out!

Hi Liz - yep - I think we assume that we are less ranty than Dawkins (in our eyes at least, just as he considers himself the model of cool, smooth consistency!) Interestingly an atheist friend of mine read both Dawkins and Tim Keller (Reason for God), and while she sits in the Dawkins camp, it was Keller's tone that attracted her despite herself.

And Geraldine - as a breathless activist from the womb I need to heed your advice!
Isaias Del Rosario
August 10, 2012, 5:40PM
Thanks for this Steve. An excellent read of today's prevailing culture and as one who loves to immerse himself in such discussions and debates, a timely encouragement!

It's interesting that you mention Keller's book as I'd already decided to bring it up in my response, and your anecdote only serves to bolster my point! I think there is still a need for there to be apologetic voices out there, but definitely more along the vein/tone of Reason for God than the majority of acrimonious fundamentalism (from both camps) that we see.

I wonder how much of the Christian apologetic zeal that we witness on the blogosphere and elsewhere is birthed out of a very American fundamentalist Christianity? The more I find out about Christianity over there the more I am surprised at how interwoven it is into the sociocultural fabric and how there are more factors that impinge on their motivation to defend than perhaps in other nations. It would be interesting to see what Christian apologetics looks like in a completely different sociocultural setting (e.g., China, some parts of Europe, Africa, etc.).
Mick Porter
August 17, 2012, 8:42PM
Hi Steve, great article!

Your thesis is a very good one, although of course it's not really about "doing nothing" at all, is it? Living out the "new self" in Christian community is a very deliberate action, just a counter-cultural one (even within the church).

We had a recent small group discussion around the "love your neighbour" theme of Leviticus 19, Isaiah's vision of restoration in ch 54 and 55, and the trajectory of a community living in light of resurrection, Colossians 3. Some long-term believers were totally surprised at the content of Lev 19, the whole group left wondering why we don't hear much in sermons, or in the "noise" in the blogs, about simple Christian living in community.

My Muslim neighbour came over in tears yesterday too. They are ageing and her husband is in hospital. She was astounded that I had cooked her a traditional dish to be eaten during Ramadan, and had sourced Halal meat for it. Her sons were amazed too, and came it eat it with her.

As I say, it's certainly not really about doing "nothing", but it's a whole lot more meaningful than ranting, opposing, lobbying, and power-brokering.

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