When the first convicts stepped onto Australian soil they faced the harsh realities of a strange land far from the familiarities of home. Dispossessed and disinherited this disparate and unlikely collection of soldiers and convicts met these unwelcomed challenges by doing all they could to dampen their effects.
Gambling, alcohol, sport and illicit sex became standard obsessions, becoming the foundation of a new nation that slowly grew out of the penal settlement. The “pursuit of pleasure” had “become the highest value and the avoidance of suffering the most vital of stratagems, in Australian life” (Ronald Conway, The Great Australian Stupor, 1985).
Given the beginnings of white settlement in Australia it is not hard to see why following Jesus has never been attractive in our country. “The greatest happiness of the greatest number” is the axiom we live by. As Ronald Conway puts it, “Material Wealth = Pleasure = Happiness = Reason for Living.”
So despite the lament many Christians voice over the decline of Christianity in Australia the reality is there was never much of any size to decline from. While the winds of culture may throw up great numbers of “Sunday Christians” from time to time there is little evidence to suggest a deep and practical faith has been in practice by more than a small minority.
The majority of Australians practice a form of “utilitarianism.” It proposes that in any situation the worth of an action is to be determined by its outcome, and the outcome is measured in maximising happiness and reducing suffering. Australians are not unique in this, in fact utilitarianism is the default moral position in the Western world, but it does take on a rugged and confident form within Australian culture which is often the envy of many across the world.
Given the strength of these elements in Australian culture it is no wonder that the Christian way of life has always been seen as somewhat irrelevant and inhibiting. The caricature of the church is that it declares evil all those things Australians desire for pleasure. Its concern is not conversion, but conformity. As a result the church has been pushed to the periphery, declared out of touch, and discarded as a dangerous relic from the past.
While Pontius Pilate asks, “what is truth?”, Australians ask, “will it work?”
Here is a clash of world views. While Pontius Pilate asks, “what is truth?”, Australians ask, “will it work?”, and we Christians will ask, “what is faithful?” We are called to be witnesses to the love of God and the compassion of Jesus. We are called to the task of reconciliation (2 Cor 4). However, as we endeavour to do this it is not surprising we have to reject the Australian pursuit of happiness as the main goal and objective of our lives; despite how tempting and attractive it might look for us Australians.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed that we are to be in the world we are but not of it (Jn 17:15, 16). Our task is to live a ‘counter’ cultural life. We do not look to the world for suggestions as to how we are to be the church; we look to Jesus and the work of his Spirit. We are not surprised when the world around us finds us strange and threatening. That is not to say that we give up trying to relate. Rather that we do not ask the question of others “will it work?” but switch to asking, “what is faithful?”
May God grant to us his church the strength, grace and will that Jesus had; and the ability to live fully in this world as his witnesses even when our communities, work colleagues, school mates and even family members struggle to understand us.
Stephen L Baxter