The Future of Jesus: Does He Have a Place in Our World? By Peter Jensen Matthias Media, 127pp, $ 22.95
PETER Jensen, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, has an image problem. His reputation among many secular Australians — those who have heard of him at all — is of a stuffy, hidebound old churchman. Among self- styled progressives, including some from our more liberal churches, his name is synonymous with reactionary religious cant.
These lazy and unfair misconceptions say much more about 21st- century Australia than about Jensen. But for public figures, image is important. I must confess that in 2005 I paid insufficient attention to Jensen’s Boyer Lectures, which have been republished here with minor updates and adaptations’’.
The Future of Jesus is not the book I expected it to be. There are only glancing references to the issues of sexuality and sanctity of life that so bitterly divide conscientious people. And Jensen puts aside the ugly doctrinal disputes that, in recent years, have distracted so many in the Anglican Church hierarchy ( including him).
It is well known that Jensen’s views on these matters are deeply conservative. But he recognises that labouring them would not advance what he calls his chief aim: to inspire widespread, adult reading of the New Testament Gospels’’. The Gospels attest that the two prime concerns of Jesus of Nazareth were personal faith in God ( repentance) and social justice on earth, in that order of importance.
Jensen sticks to these basics and in the process delivers a measured and incisive indictment of neo- liberal Western society.
It soon becomes evident that Jensen is not an anti- intellectual primitive or a rigid biblical literalist. He understands that faith and reason are indispensible allies’’. He appreciates the vital importance of free speech and religious tolerance. He lauds multiculturalism (‘‘ the new and different Australia is a wonderful place’’). He denounces anti- Semitism (‘‘ utterly reprehensible, tragic and unhistorical’’). He supports fully the separation of church and state, while recognising the crucial distinction between freedom of religion ( a basic right) and freedom from religion ( a postmodern idea).
The people who will disagree most strongly with Jensen are libertarians and free- marketers. Perhaps the most radical assertion in the book is that the philosophy of individualism is just as great a danger to our true humanity as the
I want to encourage secular Australians, especially those on the Left, to read Jensen’s book
collectivist spirit of Marxism proved to be’’.
Jensen is saddened that the expansion of wealth seems to have become the lode- star of public policy and personal ambition. He grieves for people enslaved to work’’ or addicted to shopping’’. He dreams of an Australia that honours the primacy of love’’ and celebrates mutual dependence’’. Commenting on some free- market rhetoric uttered by Malcolm Turnbull in defence of Work Choices, Jensen states flatly: I think Jesus would dispute all ( Turnbull’s) positions.’’
Theology aside, there’s little in these pages that would not be endorsed by our leading commentators on the Left: Robert Manne, say, or Don Watson. Or Adele Horin or Ross Gittins or Bob Ellis. Or even Clive Hamilton, the long- time former director of the Australia Institute. ( Jensen quotes from one of Hamilton’s speeches, Can porn set us free?’’, and calls it brilliant.)
It’s worth noting that, at various times, Jensen also spoke out against the Howard government’s policies on climate change, Iraq, asylum- seekers and David Hicks. It’s to the credit, then, of Donald McDonald, John Howard’s appointee as ABC chairman, that he asked Jensen to deliver the 2005 Boyer Lectures.
I have laboured these matters in rather simplistic political terms because I want to encourage secular Australians, especially those on the Left, to read Jensen’s book.
Jensen is not interested in playing party politics. He is certainly no supporter of the permissive cultural Left.
Fulfilment, he insists, does not come by casting off the fetters of career and family’’ or divorcing rights from responsibilities. And he rightly deplores the widespread ignorance about Christianity in our society, which deprives many otherwise well- educated people of a full under- standing of world history and current affairs ( and especially, love it or hate it, US foreign policy and its theological underpinnings). Jensen’s goal is to explain in Christian terms the deep connection between freedom, selfdiscipline and goodness’’. This, he contends, could be the value of Jesus for today’s unbeliever.
Christians who have read this far may well raise an objection: Jesus’ teachings about freedom are worth knowing only if you believe in the ultimate authority of the teacher. Don’t worry: Jensen is acutely alive to this critical consideration. He devotes a lot of space to arguments for Jesus’ divinity, including the reality of his miracles, the ( bodily) resurrection and the early history of the church.
These explicitly theological sections are thoughtful and eloquent, and it is to be hoped that some readers will be persuaded by them. But I suspect they will not be the initial hook for most Australians today.
The book’s potentially broad appeal lies in its capacity to confound expectations.
Timeless message: An image of Jesus Christ from the 10th- century Church of Saint- Martin d’Ainay in Lyons; Peter Jensen argues for the place of Christ in the 21st century