Con­found­ing ex­pec­ta­tions

Roy Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Pic­ture: Corbis

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

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