Will the real God please give us a sign

Sydney Morning Herald, Mar. 15, 2003
http://www.smh.com.au/

Phillip Jensen set off a major controversy with his first sermon as Dean of Sydney. Critics have found it strangely out of tune with a multicultural city. Kelly Burke reports.

Five days after Sydney’s new Anglican dean launched himself on the pulpit of St Andrew’s cathedral, the city’s religious leaders congregated at the Australian National Maritime Museum to launch another significant moment in interfaith relations.

As expected, Wednesday’s opening of the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews was a polite affair. So references to Dean Phillip Jensen’s sermon the Friday before could be heard only within muffled huddles – particularly the bit about other religions being “the monstrous lies and deceits of Satan, devised to destroy the life of the believers, to capture them into the cosmic rebellion against God, and to destroy the freedom they should have in Christ”.

Perhaps those gathered needn’t have been so diplomatic. Among the Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, Congregationalists, Lutherans and Uniting Church clergy, not a single representative from the local Anglican diocese could be found – unless you counted the federal Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, Gary Hardgrave, a former Sydney Anglican Sunday school teacher.

And he was hardly offering Jensen collegial support. “I’m actually quite stunned,” said Hardgrave after the launch. “It’s a throwback logic to the Middle Ages … to tear down somebody else’s religion to promote your own is really the lazy way. To break people off the block and to make them feel less than part of the whole is just not helpful, nor do I believe is at the heart of Christianity.”

Jensen’s assertion that Christianity holds an exclusive claim on truth is hardly new, and such a claim about Islam would not sound out of place in a mosque, or about Judaism in a synagogue. So what was it about his sermon that had much of Sydney crying foul and wondering who else might be on his hit list?

Professor Wayne Hudson, director of the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Griffith University, Brisbane, says Jensen should not be dismissed as a scholarly lightweight or fundamentalist zealot. And he agrees with Jensen that conservative Christians aren’t fairly heard in public debate.

It is not so much what Jensen is saying that is offensive, Hudson argues, but the way he says it: “He blurs the facts in an unscholarly way … he says true things in a way that is not consistent with the best standards of religious citizenship in Australia, because he does not exercise intellectual respect towards others he does not agree with.”

Given Jensen’s position as Dean of Sydney, says Hudson, the right to publicly assert his religious beliefs comes together with the duty to acquire a reasonable understanding of the world’s other great religions, which he clearly does not possess.

“He talks about other religions [in] the way Catholics and Protestants talked about each other in Australia in the 1950s,” says Hudson. “His take on Islam and Hinduism is monstrous. It’s grotesque. It does not represent what contemporary scholars will say.”

During his sermon, Jensen delivered an anecdote about a Hindu student from the University of NSW who came to him seeking information about Christ. But in the end the student chose to reject the truth, Jensen said, and retain his Hindu faith out of “family tribal loyalties”. The Hindu student posted a statement on Anglican Media Sydney’s website early this week, saying Jensen publicly misrpresented him. But yesterday, his statement was removed.

But the misrepresentation doesn’t surprise Hudson, who says Jensen has misunderstood the Hindu concept of god.

The Reverend Dr John Woodhouse is principal of Moore Theological College – Sydney’s training ground for Anglican priests and Jensen’s alma mater. Woodhouse insists that Jensen was not, in his sermon, attacking other religions. If anything, he was taking other beliefs seriously enough to evaluate.

“To insist that all religions are equally true, even if they contradict one another, is a trivialisation of religious claims,” says Woodhouse. “If the Koran says that Jesus lived but did not die, and the Christian Bible says that he lived and did die, anyone who respects both religions can investigate whether one or the other or neither is right at this point. But to say that both religions are equally true is disguised disrespect.

“It means that what they are both saying is not important enough to seriously consider … Religious belief cannot be reduced to pure subjectivism.”

Jensen, Woodhouse says, has criticised the secularist trivalising of religion and the resulting censorship of intelligent religious discussion in the media. “Much of the reporting of his criticism has confirmed its truth,” he says.

Dr Paul Gillen, who teaches comparative belief systems in the University of Technology Sydney’s humanities faculty, concedes that the issue of truth raised by Jensen is a perplexing one. “But the wise of all cultures and traditions have approached it with uncertainty and awe, not with dogmatism and disdain,” he says.

Maybe there is only one truth, true for everyone and always. And if that is the case, then it follows that not all religion can be right. But the difficulty of this position, explains Gillen, is apparent the moment we try to establish which religion is the right one. “It is not only the great traditions – Islam and Hinduism, or Christianity and Judaism – which contradict one another,” he says. “Christians have fought and often killed one another over which version of Christianity was the true one.”

Just which version of Christianity is “the true one” is something Jensen has previously considered. In his book Have Evangelicals Lost Their Way? (St Matthias Press, 1991), co-authored with Tony Payne, Jensen concluded that Catholicism was “sub-Christian” in its doctrine and practice and was an “unrepentant persecutor of the gospel”. Catholics, he wrote, are “discouraged from finding out the truth about their organisation lest they leave in disgust”.

The Reverend David Millikan is a Uniting Church minister who lectures on sects, cults and new religious movements at Charles Sturt University. But in a previous incarnation he was head of religious broadcasting at the ABC. And past encounters with Jensen, says Millikan, have led him to conclude that the Dean regards any step towards ecumenism as a “seductive and dangerous apostasy”.

Moreover, adds Millikan, Jensen’s views are merely an extreme manifestation of the general view held by conservative Anglican evangelicals in the Sydney diocese. “The Sydney diocese has been the great stumbling block in ecumenism in Australia,” he says. “It has stood like a rock in the midst of the stream of ecumenical endeavours in this country. It has been unmoving. And what you see in this behaviour is that it reflects a highly authoritarian view of teaching and truth.”

Of course, Christianity is not the only religion which claims a monopoly on truth. Jensen’s muscular affirmation of his faith – that he is right and thus it follows that all contradictory beliefs are wrong – is no more or less offensive than a similar statement uttered from the mouth of a rabbi or imam.

“Why, then, is it more offensive for a Christian to claims this than a non-Christian?” asks Anne Seitz, discipline leader of sociology at the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.

Fundamentalism cuts across all religions, but the important difference in fundamentalism is not the claim that only you have the truth. It is [the belief] you have a duty to force compliance with the truth on everybody else. And [Jensen] wasn’t saying that. He was saying there is a particular Christian truth. And on that one you can’t fault him.”

The issue at stake is to what extent one faith attempts to enforce its beliefs and practices on another, says Seitz. In the history of humanity, the relatively new concepts of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue are simply an invitation to participate in truth, without coercion.

The new Dean of Sydney may be reluctant to participate in dialogue with those who do not share his distinct brand of conservative evangelical Christianity. However, until he introduces forced mass conversions at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Australia’s treasured values of freedom of speech and religious practice are likely to remain secure.

Various religions’ exclusive claims to the truth pose no threat, says Seitz: “It’s what you do with the claim that makes the difference.”

And as for claims to the sole truth within the broad sweep of Christianity, the UTS’s Gillen suggests Jensen might care to ponder the words of George Bernard Shaw: “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: he is always convinced that it says what he means.”

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