Addresses and Statements

Faith, Hope and Love: Unchanging Virtues for a Changing World
Lecture 1: Faith in a Secular Society

24 Sep 2019

New College Lectures 2019 with Archbishop Glenn Davies

New College, University of New South Wales

Thank-you Meredith. Might I begin by thanking Dr Peirson and all at New College for inviting me to join in conversation with my friend Archbishop Glenn Davies for this year’s New College Lectures. I think it a great honour and a tribute to the ecumenical generosity of the Anglican Church and New College.

New Year’s Eve 2015 was my strangest ever. I drifted in and out of consciousness as I lay, almost totally paralyzed and in great pain, in an intensive care bed in St Vincent’s Hospital. Around Christmas I’d contracted the rare and grave auto-immune disease, Guillain-Barré Syndrome. A friend fed me French champagne through a straw from a paper cup, and for a brief few moments the half-light and monitor-beeps of ICU were masked by the Sydney harbour fireworks on TV. Then the nurses turned up the morphine and I went back to sleep…

Something had provoked my immune system to attack my own peripheral nerves. I spent five months in hospital, gradually repairing my nerves, rebuilding wasted muscles, being relieved of neuropathic pain, and learning again to walk, climb stairs, hold things, write. It was a sometimes terrifying and agonizing experience, if also, I trust, a time for a little ‘getting of wisdom’, humility and compassion for the weak.

When people asked what sense I made of it all, I groped for answers as anyone would, and fell into silences as everyone should. My reaction was significantly shaped by the friendship and care surrounding me, by the wisdom traditions I’d been immersed in since my birth, and by the examples of suffering well and healing well I’d personally witnessed. Blessed with the gift of faith and many years of reflection on the mysteries of life and death, sickness and health, I was as well-equipped as one could be to approach my unnerving condition. But faith and philosophy don’t take such suffering away…

Given the season, I meditated upon the sheer helplessness of the Christmas babe. God-become-baby lies not just in some romantic Christmas crib but alongside each of us at our most vulnerable: when we are unborn, disabled or dying; abused, unwanted or detained; sick of body, heart or spirit. To the defenceless He lends His power, to the voiceless His words, to the victims His healing mercy. Faith, as I experienced it on my hospital manger, is belief in God and His revealed purposes, but also my free response,[1] recommitting myself to Him and His plan. Without faith I might have found no meaning beyond laws of biology, bad luck and a chance for self-motivation. But faith offered me some meaning, comfort and hope, without quarantining me from life’s challenges or making everything simple.

Faith, hope and love are rich subjects whose surfaces we’ll barely scratch in three nights. One aspect of them to which our series title draws attention is that they are virtues, not just values or quirks: theyare personal qualities or excellences that by divine grace, human education or personal cultivation become ‘hardwired’ into our character, directing our emotions, guiding our conduct, facilitating our giving our best selves.[2]

Secondly, they can be natural or human virtues. Everyday belief is trust or confidence in something or someone; everyday hope is desire or expectation about some future positive outcome; everyday love, a strong interpersonal affection. But supernatural or theological faith, hope and charity have God for their origin, motive and object. They animate Christian life and can inform everyday virtues (cf. Mt 17:20; 21:21). As Archbishop Davies put it: “Faith is trust in God’s promises.” (cf. Heb ch. 11) Faith develops knowledge of and relationship with God in this life and the next;[3] hope helps us to rest confidently in that knowledge and relationship, while striving for the kingdom of heaven; and love makes us want that God and life more than anything, and express it in service of others.[4]

Thirdly, Archbishop Davies has given us reasons to consider that faith is not irrational, that it has some rational if also super-rational warrant, and that some ‘otherworldliness’ can be an asset rather than hindrance in day-to-day living. Building on his remarks on faith in a sceptical society, I’d like to say a little about faith in a secular society. The secular marks out a non-religious sphere, with its own particular goals, principles, methods, actors and institutions. We find it in Christ’s command to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mt 22:5-21). Yet that distinction does not entail a sharp separation, as if the same person could not operate in both spheres or as if no collaboration between the two were possible. How sacred and secular relate is complex, and varies with time and place.[5] 

In Australia, for instance, Church and state mostly leave each other well enough alone; where they intersect, they’re sometimes rivals for people’s loyalty, sometimes each other’s critics, but more often find common ground and ways to collaborate (e.g. in education, health, welfare). Recently, however, we’ve witnessed a more doctrinaire secularism that would exclude faith and the faithful from public life, confining faith to a narrowing field of private life. Believers are pressed to renounce their most deeply held beliefs, remain silent about their dirty little secret in the public square, or adopt a kind of dual personality. Absolutist secularism resents its Christian heritage and is determined to end its mother’s influence. Of late this has played out in: well-publicized cases of discrimination against people of faith and proposed laws to address it; abortion and euthanasia legislation denying conscience rights to health professionals and church hospitals; state interference in the Sacrament of Confession; a push to exclude churches from education funds, charity status, tax exemptions and government tenders. As a Christian leader I protest discrimination against people of faith, insist that they have an important part to play in our culture, and seek to demonstrate the good churches do for the whole community.[6]

But to my shame my own church has at times in history engaged in totalising, violent or exclusionary behaviour similar to that of radical secularists today. We have also sometimes failed – even catastrophically – to provide the safety and direction which people rightly expected from us. I repent and apologize, determined that my church not repeat these mistakes and resolved to do better. Only with humility and hope can I plead that our community help us clean up our act, while continuing to allow a generous space for faith and the faithful in our community.

Why does it matter? There are many reasons to think that human beings are by nature religious beings – coming from God, tending toward God, living best in communion with God. Faith fulfils an important part of us. Some seek to substitute a ‘spirituality’ or faith lite, aesthetic experiences or ascetic practices, fitness, action for justice, peace and ecology – much of which I share. Some search for transcendence in less healthy places. Some compart-mentalize their Sunday selves from their weekday, mostly living as practical agnostics. But such spiritual thinning and psycho-logical bifurcation does not satisfy and may well be unsustainable.

Likewise for societies: it is telling that radically secular communities often seem unable to let go of religion; they either keep protesting against something they tag irrelevant, or invent an alternative cult to Lady Reason, the Führer or the Ideology. Meanwhile, even secular institutions and culture rely for their underpinnings on virtues, values and practices inherited from Judeo-Christianity: we might consider faith’s continuing contribution to education, health and aged care, and social services; to our common morality, arts and sciences, and practices of celebration and mourning; and to the ideas that ground our politics, law, culture and conversation.[7]

Faith, then, is divine promise and knowledge, sacred invitation and response, transcendent relationship and commitment. The life of faith and the faithful has contributed to our community in many positive ways. A healthy secularity will allow both Church and state respectful spaces to do their own thing, as well as opportunities to collaborate and critique. Faith remains a crucial virtue in a changing world. In the words of that great theologian, George Michael, ‘I gotta have faith, faith, faith’.[8]

[1]    Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (Ignatius Press, 2011), p. 49: “No one who believes must believe; belief is by its nature a free act… The believer, therefore, in that he believes, is always free.”

[2]    Catechism of the Catholic Church 1803-45.

[3]    Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, p. 57: “Deo credere means to believe that what God says is true; thus we also believe a man, whereas we do not believe ‘in’ a man. Deum credere means to believe that he is God. In Deum credere means believingly to love, believingly to go to him, believingly to cling to him and be joined to his members. […] These are not three different acts, but one and the same act, in which man believes God (Deo, Deum) and believes in God (In Deum). This, then, is the basic structure of the act of religious faith.”

[4]    Archbishop Glenn Davies, “New College Lectures 2019 – 1. The place of faith in a sceptical society,” New College, University of New South Wales, 24 September 2019; Dt 31:6; Ps 20:7; Isa 40:28-31; Mt 17:20; 19:26; 21:21; Jn 14:27 etc.; Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi 7; St Thomas Aquinas, ST IIa-IIae; Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, p. 33.

[5]    Anthony Fisher OP, “The Godless Country? 1. Post-Christian Australia” Scholarship at the Cathedral Series, St. Mary’s Cathedral Crypt, 30 May 2018; “In Sæcula Sæculorum: Secularism and religion today,” Annual Warrane Lecture, Warrane College, University of New South Wales, 15 August 2018.

[6]    What’s more, while I recognize that secular modernity has many advantages, including affluence, opportunity and rights, rising faithlessness has its downsides too: political correctness, identity politics, narcissism, and the faux outrage of trolls and hash-taggers are no real substitute for Christian morality. The loss of the sacred can play out in family breakdown, mental health issues, addiction to drugs, porn, apps and other reality substitutes, the loss of some helpful social- and self-restraints, decline in a sense of identity, community and destiny. Much hurt to individuals and communities follows. See Anthony Fisher OP, “The Godless Country? 2. Christian Australia” Scholarship at the Cathedral Series, St. Mary’s Cathedral Crypt, 7 March 2019.

[7]    Anthony Fisher OP, “The Godless Country? 3. Pre-Christian Australia” Scholarship at the Cathedral Series, St. Mary’s Cathedral Crypt, 22 August 2019.

[8]    George Michael, “Faith” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Cs3Pvmmv0E.

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