More on Manus

It’s been almost three months since the Manus Island crisis slipped out of the news cycle. But having written about the issue at the time, I now continue to reflect on it. Indeed, the plight of asylum seekers on both Manus and Nauru still impinges on my thinking, often making its presence felt at the borders of my consciousness. Some of my more recent reflections have been stimulated by reading works like The Undesirables: Inside Nauru, written by Mark Isaacs. With simple, powerful prose, Isaacs documents his time as a Salvation Army welfare worker on Nauru in 2012 and 2013. It has helped me to examine the issue anew, requiring me to approach the issue via the perspectives and experiences of the men who were first transferred to the re-opened processing centre. I hope to blog about Isaacs’ book in the future, but it’s first-hand accounts like his that have further nuanced my views on the matter. With that in mind, then, I want to re-visit what I wrote about the Manus Island crisis.

In my original piece on the subject, I focused on what I saw as a certain lack of subtlety in the way activists portrayed life on the island. I won’t really re-hash what I said there, except to say that such portrayals seemed designed, not to represent Manusian society with the appropriate shades of nuance and complexity, but to further a political-ideological goal. I still think that claims made by (some) refugee advocates are at least partly motivated by the desire to see a basic shift in Australia’s response to boat-borne asylum seekers. Whether the government would be right to undertake such a shift isn’t my point; nor would I wish to challenge activist claims with the equally simplistic assertion that the island is some kind of Edenic paradise. I merely wanted to highlight the inordinate influence such a goal appears to have had on the lurid assertions being made about Manus (and, by implication, local Manusians).

I myself tried to adopt a position that was more sensitive to the rolling complexities of the situation. But one thing I failed to properly appreciate was the role that past and ongoing experiences of trauma would have played in the men’s subjective perceptions of their own safety and wellbeing. It’s an important point to consider. Many of the asylum seekers have fled horrors most of us will never have to face. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how this might undermine a person’s sense of self, and shatter their trust in the world. Furthermore, the late Michael Gordon – who up until his untimely death was writing for the Fairfax papers – filed a report in 2016 about the deleterious mental health of asylum seekers on Manus. He wrote of the re-traumatising experiences some of the men have had whilst staying on the island. I think, for example, of the riots that have occurred at the (now-defunct) processing centre at the Lombrum naval base, or the handful of documented assaults on asylum seekers whilst they were outside the compound. For people who have already endured their fare share of suffering, such incidents were sure to have had a profoundly debilitating effect on their sense of safety and resilience.

This extends well beyond a handful of isolated incidents, however. The more mundane, quotidian aspects of life in the Manus Island compound have had their own effects. As I wrote at the time, the conditions in Australia’s offshore processing centres remain deeply inadequate (to say the least). Whatever success it may have had in helping to stem the flow of boat-borne asylum seekers, the system has been marked by chronic mismanagement, degrading conditions, and what appears to be an endemic, almost crushing, lack of certainty. All told, it’s quite clear that they have played their own, independent role in the deterioration of already fragile individuals. As Gordon noted 18 months ago, poor conditions, open attacks and pre-existing trauma have conspired to produce a pervasive sense of vulnerability among certain of the asylum seekers on the island. Moreover, there is likely to be a contagion effect under such trying circumstances. Living in close proximity with other “exposed” individuals is certainly going to heighten, expand and intensify feelings of insecurity, whether or not a particular asylum seeker has been subjected to violence or assault. Indeed, what may germinate with a handful of people initially can quickly spread, “infecting” much of the centre’s residents.

Of course, it’s not the case that Manus is awash with violent, unremitting xenophobia after all. As I have already said, despite the fact that the island certainly wrestles with its own share of anti-social behaviour (just as every community does), I remain convinced that some activists are determined to paint as bleak a picture as possible. Even so, it’s also true that the subjective perceptions of some of the men are likely to have been shaped by prior experiences of abuse. For example, interpretations of the wider significance of individual incidents of violence – brutal enough in themselves – are likely to have been viewed through the lens of past trauma. We’ve all heard of people who have been assaulted or robbed struggling with the residual consequences of such an ordeal, even long after the event in question. Objectively, the threat to one’s life may no longer exist, or is somewhat diminished; an acute sense of subjective vulnerability, however, may well persist for many years. This is consistent with clinical research, which indicates quite clearly that people who have suffered different kinds of trauma are more likely to experience the world around them as dangerous and threatening (again, regardless of what is objectively the case). Much the same phenomenon likely obtains here: concerns around safety (which are entirely legitimate) are undoubtedly going to be amplified, given the deep psychological wounds a number of the men have already been nursing. In fact, they probably have more reason to wrestle with an enduring belief that they remain at risk. This is due partly to the manifest inadequacies of their present living circumstances, and partly to the ripple effects of the contagion phenomenon I noted earlier.

Whatever the (more complicated) reality of Manus Island might be, then, it would make sense for many of asylum seekers there to feel unsafe — perhaps desperately so. It would certainly help explain the reluctance some men expressed last year when asked to move out of the Lombrum compound into new lodgings (of course, it’s also possible that others among them deliberately exaggerated such fears for their own gain, but I doubt this could ever be substantiated). Again, this doesn’t mean that the reality of life on Manus Island corresponds neatly to activist portrayals. It does suggest, however, that a significant proportion of the men have been shouldering genuine fears – borne out of past experiences, and compounded by present ones – that understandably colour their perceptions and magnify their sense of susceptibility to future acts of violence. Whatever else I may have got right in those earlier pieces, I should have been far more attuned to these particular facts from the beginning.


One Same-Sex Marriage, a Conscientious Objector, and Three Failed Arguments (Part Two)


A few weeks ago, I began a short series examining several arguments that have been put forward by Australian advocates of same-sex marriage, many of whom think that conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry should not be allowed to withhold their creative talents from a same-sex wedding. In my first post, I critically engaged the claim that a dissenting wedding operator is analogous to a racist business owner who refuses to serve certain people based on the colour of their skin. As anybody who read that piece will know, I found the argument sadly wanting, even as I acknowledged that efforts like mine to rebut it aren’t likely to make a substantial difference to the overall trajectory of the debate. Nevertheless, I continue in the hope that conducting discussions on the basis of a shared commitment to reason and civility — not to mention a sincere and open pursuit of the truth — remains a worthwhile enterprise. This is particularly so in a liberal democracy, which can only properly survive if such conduct is not just accepted, but practiced.

Religious Expression and Journalistic Fallacies

In this post, I want to tackle a slightly different attempt to legitimize restrictions upon dissenting wedding operators. Like the focus of my previous piece, this argument is based on the alleged analogy between opposition to SSM and forms of conduct that are widely (if not universally) condemned. Unlike the analogy between race and SSM, this one is concerned with narrower questions regarding acceptable (and indeed, unacceptable) manifestations of religiosity.

On the day the results of Australia’s SSM plebiscite were revealed, the journalist Michael Bachelard wrote a piece for the Fairfax press, in which he averred that “religious freedom is, and should be, limited”. This basic thesis formed the backdrop to his specific point: namely, that there is no reason to allow a wedding vendor to refuse service to a same-sex couple on the grounds of a sincere religious belief. In fact, he claimed that there are obvious reasons why such practices should be prohibited, and went on to cite several examples of religiously-inspired activity that is nonetheless deemed illegal. Among them were the Jesus People and Children of God (cultish groups that have engaged in the violent sexual abuse of women and children) and certain Muslim sects that practice female genital mutilation (hereafter, FGM). Bachelard seemed to think that because Australian law already prohibits sexual abuse and FGM — even if they are practiced by sincere religious individuals — there exists clear and principled precedent for restricting the ability of a religious wedding operator to refuse to service to a same-sex wedding.

At a glance, the argument appears to be quite persuasive. But looks can be deceiving. Beneath its superficial cogency lie several problems, which taken together prove to be fatal. Bachelard’s claimed analogies aren’t really analogous at all, at least in the relevant sense. Quite the opposite: as we shall see, there are a number of crucial differences between Bachelard’s selected examples, and the case of a dissenting wedding vendor.

Excursus: Pre-empting a Predictable Objection (Yet Again)

I will examine those differences shortly. But before I do that, I want to briefly highlight another erroneous element in Bachelard’s argument. At one point, he criticises the (since aborted) attempts by Liberal Senator, James Paterson, to introduce a SSM bill into parliament, which would have given conscientious objectors in the commercial wedding industry the right to refuse service to a same-sex wedding. Bachelard contends that everyone ought to abide by anti-discrimination laws, “in the name of a civilized society, in not discriminating against people for who they are” (emphasis mine). Bachelard wants to say that a religiously conservative wedding vendor who does not wish to service a same-sex wedding is in clear violation of anti-discrimination law — and is, to that extent, engaging in self-evidently unlawful activity, just as the abusive member of the Jesus People is when he molests children.

Such activity would of course be unjust if it were done on the basis of the italicised portion of the quote above. But is someone who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding really “discriminating against people for who they are”? As I sought to show in my previous essay, that refusal is grounded in one’s beliefs about the true shape and nature of marriage. It is not about the identities or attributes of the participants per se, but about the structure of the event in which they are participating. Indeed, as I also demonstrated in that earlier piece, the parties to an event and the event itself are logically distinct; to oppose the latter does not require a person to hold any animus against, or evince bad faith towards, the former. Dissenting wedding operators who have been hauled before judges and anti-discrimination boards have made it abundantly clear that they are more than happy to serve gay and lesbian couples for a variety of occasions. In addition, the recent ruling by a Californian judge in just such a case suggests that not only is a refusal to service a same-sex wedding not a genuine instance of unfair discrimination; being compelled to provide that service may actually constitute a violation of the rights of the wedding vendor in question. So it’s not at all clear that what Bachelard assumes (which is precisely what he does) is correct. This will be important as we proceed, lest anyone is tempted to rest on the facile riposte that conduct of this kind is unjustly — and obviously — discriminatory.

Same-Sex Weddings, FGM and Sexual Abuse: Some Crucial Dis-analogies

Let’s return, however, to Bachelard’s alleged analogies, and why they fail on multiple levels. To begin, there is a wide gulf in the degree of harm experienced by those who have supposedly been wronged. I would argue that the examples in Bachelard’s article are, in fact, vastly different in their effects. For example, a girl who endures FGM suffers injury in a way that a same-sex couple — who might be faced with the indignity of a religiously conservative florist refusing to arrange their wedding bouquets — does not. Apart from the excruciating pain of the procedure itself, a victim of FGM will likely experience a combination of some (or all) of the following symptoms, often for many years: painful periods, excessive bleeding, labour difficulties, infections, urinary problems, unhealed wounds, or even death.  Of course, a same-sex couple confronted with an unwilling wedding operator is likely to feel aggrieved and embarrassed. No one would want to deny that such an experience could well leave one feeling quite humiliated. Nor would one wish to trivialise such experiences. But the question of degree or proportion is paramount. Certainly, it’s difficult to equate that kind emotional hardship — which may be rather ephemeral, depending on the circumstances — with the acute, long-term physical and psychological suffering a young female experiences as a result of a forced clitoridectomy.  The severity of the one is, I would suggest, far outweighed by the other.

This is not to say that such differences are sufficient in themselves to secure dissenting wedding vendors a reprieve (even if they should give us pause to wonder whether Bachelard has been too hasty in grouping these examples together): if publicly manifesting one’s religious beliefs leads to harm (whether physical or emotional), then perhaps it doesn’t really matter how severe or enduring that harm is. One may argue that even if they do differ in degree, they might nonetheless fall under the same broad rubric of “harm”; as such (so the argument might go), they should be liable to penalties commensurate with the severity of the offence.

But in this instance, a difference in degree is accompanied by, and connected to, a qualitative distinction. Whilst measuring the harm experienced by the victim of FGM or sexual abuse is relatively straightforward, at least in legal terms, things are not so easy in the case of a same-sex couple claiming emotional or dignitary harm as a result of being refused service by a wedding vendor. The former case involves material injury to one’s person — in other words, harms that can be publicly identified and verified. They possess a tangibility that injuries associated with supposedly insulting conduct by another person lack. Indeed, the relationship between a certain act and one’s subjective experience of offence or emotional distress is more remote than the tight, causal connection between the practice of, say, FGM and the experience of personal suffering. Whilst the latter is, by its very nature, bound to cause harm, the extent to which the former causes injury is based on the internal states and perceptions of those who may be in a position to make such a claim. This renders the notion of dignitary or emotional injury far more slippery: whilst the consequences of FGM can be readily defined and substantiated, it is much more difficult to obtain proof of emotional harm that can be publicly countenanced.  This is not to say that it does not, in general, exist, or that those making such claims are lying. It is merely to argue that they are far harder to capture legally than actions that quite clearly violate the liberty of another individual by causing material — and, supervening upon that, psychological — injury.

This brings me to a further dis-analogy: that which concerns the distribution of rights and possible harms between the two parties. In the case of religious leaders practicing FGM or sexual abuse, there is a clear, even radical, asymmetry of rights or entitlements. The right of vulnerable individuals not to be violated by the activity of others automatically negates the alleged “right” of the person perpetrating those acts to manifest his religious convictions in this way. The sacrosanct nature of one’s person is part of the bedrock of our legal system. It is regarded as morally and legally inviolable, such that an act that attempts to impinge upon that status is necessarily deemed unlawful. Religious motivation, however genuine it may be, is irrelevant in these circumstances — as are any claims of “harm” that might be “suffered” by the perpetrator if he were compelled to cease his activity. Moreover, whilst the injuries associated with Bachelard’s examples are readily apparent in the case of the victims, corresponding claims made by perpetrators would be so intangible — so indefinable — as to defy verification.

However, there seems to be a much closer balance between the alleged rights or harms of a dissenting wedding vendor and those of a same-sex couple wanting to wed. Whatever rights a same-sex couple may claim in this context, and whatever alleged distress they may have experienced as a result of being rebuffed — these must be weighed against the rights of a person to maintain integrity and cohesion between inner conviction and outward expression. On the one hand, we have noted that claims of emotional injury or dignitary harm are theoretically problematic. Even on the assumption that such notions could be defined coherently and measured intelligibly, it does not follow that precipitating conduct should be penalized (in the way that conduct causing material or bodily harm ought to be). Indeed, as the American legal scholar, Andrew Koppelman (himself an advocate for SSM) has pointed out:*

“The dignitary harm of knowing that some of your fellow citizens condemn your way of life is not one from which a law can or should protect you in a regime of free speech”.

On the other hand, dissenting wedding vendors can also claim that they possess certain rights. Religiously conservative wedding vendors can assert that having to lend their creative talents to a same-sex wedding potentially violates their deeply-held convictions: engaging in activity that implicitly legitimizes a ceremony of which a person disapproves forces them to dis-integrate their views and their conduct. It is at least arguable that the religiously conservative cake-maker (for example) has the right not to participate in something he regards as immoral, in order to avoid complicity. We might recall what I said earlier about the Californian judge, who recently ruled that forcing a Christian baker to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple was a violation of her right to freedom of speech and expressive conduct. In addition, Bachelard’s argument ignores the possible harms such vendors may have to endure, regardless of the choice they make. Those who do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding are, in many instances, confronted with the prospect of two unwelcome alternatives: violate their consciences and sacred convictions; or succumb to often hefty financial and pecuniary penalties.

Active and Passive Manifestations of Religion: A Fundamental Difference

There is one final difference between Bachelard’s chosen examples, and that of the dissenting wedding vendor. It centres on the direction of activity between the two parties, and the asymmetry between passive and active manifestations of one’s (in this case, religious) beliefs. I have hinted at this difference already, in referring to the kinds of violations of which a practitioner of FGM is guilty, but which appear to be absent in the case of a religiously conservative wedding vendor. However, I think it important to flesh this out a little more.

In the case, say, of an acolyte of the Jesus People abusing a minor within their spiritual community, we have a clear example of one individual acting upon another, thereby curtailing his right to liberty and freedom from degrading treatment. Indeed, I think most would agree that the act, by its very nature, violates the victim’s person, and, in most cases, harms them materially. The religious believer in this instance manifests his convictions in an active manner; he commits a certain act against another individual, which necessarily restricts or smothers their rights. In that sense, it’s a zero sum game: the active party imposes himself upon a vulnerable, unconsenting or unwilling recipient, which entails the simultaneous extension and restriction of one’s freedom of action. As I have already noted, it is for this reason that such behaviour, whatever its inspiration, is rightly considered unlawful — and indeed, criminal.

However, the religiously-inclined wedding vendor who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding is engaged in passive abstention. Here, the question of (religiously-motivated) imposition is irrelevant, for it simply does not exist. The vendor seeks to preserve coherence between inner conviction and outward activity, whilst avoiding duplicitous, hypocritical or morally inconsistent behaviour, and does so by refraining from participation in the event. In other words, he merely omits to do something. As the American columnist David Brooks (another advocate of SSM) has recently written, religiously conservative wedding operators who refuse to participate creatively in a same-sex wedding aren’t trying to restrict others’ (in this case, gay) rights; nor are they imposing themselves on other people. They are simply asking not “to be forced to take part” — i.e., they seek leave to abstain from contributing materially to something with which they disagree. Where someone who practices FGM assumes an active, dominant role in the relationship with the victim of such a procedure, a Jack Phillips or a Barronelle Stutzman is simply “withdrawing” from certain activity. This does not affect the hypothetical same-sex couple in the same way that sexual abuse, say, affects its victim: apart from the relative difficulties surrounding the notion of dignitary harm, the couple in this scenario is not restricted or coercively acted upon, as the passive parties in Bachelard’s initial examples most certainly are.

Indeed, whereas the individuals in Bachelard’s opening examples necessarily violate the integrity of another’s person, the same cannot be said of the hypothetical wedding vendor. In arguing for limits to expressions of religious belief, Bachelard presumes that anything less would lead to the unwelcome expansion of pernicious activity, under the guise of maintaining religious liberty (Bachelard even dismisses countervailing calls as “bogus”, clearly implying that those who advocate in this direction are cynically using religious freedom as a veneer to advance oppressive practices). This, of course, would explain why he has framed the debate with examples that most people are likely to see as clear and violent threats to civil liberties. But again, he overlooks key features of the active-passive distinction I have tried to highlight. Religious practices such as FGM and cultish sexual abuse are what we might term inherently “expansionist” — that is, they expand the range of the perpetrator’s activity at the expense of his victim. By contrast, the actions of conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry are “preservationist”: as Brooks’ earlier observation suggests, they seek merely to preserve what they believe could be undermined through participation in an event that contradicts their basic convictions. Limiting freedom of religion in the former instances goes without saying, given their active tendency towards the suffocation of rights and the generation of suffering. The notion that similar restrictions should be applied to the latter is, at the very least, a contestable proposition.

Final Reflections

Bachelard’s argument is likely to appeal to those who already agree that withholding commercial wedding services to a same-sex couple is an egregious example of invidious discrimination. It’s also bound to appeal to many of the uncommitted, who aren’t likely to ask whether his contention has any merit, or whether it’s fair to group an unwilling baker (say) with child rapists and mutilators of the flesh. In that sense, Bachelard’s not unlike the targets of my last piece on this topic, since they also sought to draw connections between superficially similar acts. Intentional or not, his rhetoric has the effect of circumventing a person’s critical faculties: having first been confronted with examples of religiously-motivated violence, the unwary reader is lured into docile acceptance of the proposition that the sacred convictions of religiously-sensitive wedding operators should be met with the same kind of righteous fury. This is simply guilt-by-association, but without the label.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not arguing that there should be no limits on alleged expressions of religious belief. What I have written here should make that clear. But I also think that there are principled reasons for allowing some religious freedoms whilst disallowing others. That, too, should be clear from what I have written. But the problem, as I see it, lies in the basic orientation of a piece like Bachelard’s. Underlying the words themselves is the fundamentally negative belief that religion is, and has been, a largely malignant influence on society. Whether one is referring to an imam who mutilates young girls or a dissenting wedding vendor, it is important that manifestations of religious or spiritual belief — especially those in the public arena — be kept on a taut leash. That leash, of course, is to be held by the secular state, which (to change the metaphor) must corral such expressions so that the baleful forces of superstition and religious bigotry do not corrode our modern, progressive way of life. If anyone objects to this project, their claims can safely be dismissed as a rear-guard action, aimed at  shoring up the last vestiges of religious privilege. Or so the assumption goes, anyway.

But it’s time to conclude. Despite his own certainty on this question — one might call it a kind of secular zeal — Bachelard’s claimed analogy breaks down at almost every relevant point. He is left with the mere shell of an argument, which not only fails to advance a good-faith dialogue, but positively frustrates it. Unfortunately, given the times in which we live, his offering is likely to fuel efforts that further restrict the right of religious conservatives to live in harmony with their deeply-held convictions.

*Please note that the article to which I have linked was not penned by Koppelman, but by the legal academic, Sherif Girgis, who quoted the same excerpt that I did. It appears the original piece is no longer available for viewing online (it was originally published in the Southern Californian Law Review).


Worshiping the “God” of MTD: Modern Idolatry, Ancient Roots

This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for a certain magazine, but it was not published. So you, dear readers, may enjoy it now. 

A little over a decade ago, the sociologist of religion, Christian Smith, examined the lives of religious contemporary American teenagers, interviewing, among others, young Christians. What he discovered was very revealing.

According to Smith, most of those he spoke with held views about God and their relationship to him, which, whilst bearing a faint resemblance to the religion in which they had grown up, were, in many ways, dramatically different – owing more to contemporary cultural and spiritual norms than to ancient religious traditions. Smith argued that these beliefs formed a kind of spiritual ‘complex’, and was the de facto (and dominant) religion amongst teens in the United States. Smith christened this phenomenon, ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ (or MTD for short).

The concept of MTD needs some unpacking. Smith contended that religious teens held to several fixed points in their creed: God, generically defined, wants all people to “be good, nice and fair to each other,” with goodness here being defined in a vague sort of way; God also, governs the world at a distance, though he might not intervene all that frequently; when he does intervene, it is to help people solve problems that confront in their lives; the chief aim in life is to develop a positive self-image – something that God is supposed to guarantee; and that ‘good’ people will go to heaven. For the teens Smith interviewed, these elements were axiomatic, amounting to belief in a laissez-faire god, whose interventions are chiefly therapeutic, who asks people to practice a fairly banal kind of morality, and who guarantees – based upon adherence to that morality – a place of enjoyment in the hereafter.

What was really astounding was Smith’s discovery that most of his subjects had not developed their ideas independently; rather, they had imbibed them from the religious communities of which were a part. This led Smith to contend that they were simply reflections of a wider phenomenon, prevalent in mosques, synagogues and (importantly) churches. If that is so, then MTD encompasses many more people, not just those Smith interviewed.

* * *

Whilst the modern world – with its consumerism, deep individualism and transactional view of so much of life – is particularly conducive to the propagation of something like MTD, we should not make the mistake of thinking that some “golden age” of religion lies somewhere beyond the range of our own historical grasp. And, more to the point, neither Christians individually, nor the church corporately, has been immune to the phenomenon. I am reminded, for example, of the great popularity that the Prosperity “Gospel” has achieved in many putative Christian communities: trust in God, and all your (material) dreams will come true! A generation or two ago, families may have gone to church, not because they discerned a divine summons to be a part of a new, spiritual community, but because of cultural constraints. The real goal, it seems, was not obedience to God, the ground and centre of all that is, but cultural integration and local respectability. Similarly, when Christianity was the dominant civil religion in the West, developing contacts within a local church community could do wonders for an aspiring businessman. Again, God was seen an instrument, and religion merely functional – lacking, perhaps, truth and significance in itself, and reduced to a means towards a more fundamental (in this case, economic) end.

Such a phenomenon stretches back even further, all the way to the very dawning of Christianity. About two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul had to wrestle with a raft of problems besetting the church in Corinth. Called to live out a life of holiness and obedience before the God that had liberated them, the Corinthian Christians had tried to fuse the Gospel with pagan ideas of religion and spirituality. Far from seeing the Gospel – and the God who stood behind it – as something to which they were called to yield, the Corinthians viewed it as something that could be used to get ahead. This is reflected, amongst other things, in what Paul says about personality cults (1 Cor 1:10-12, 3:1-9), sexual immorality (5:1-6), and self-aggrandizement through the exercise of spiritual gifts (Chs. 12-14). In all these ways, the Corinthians had fallen into the trap of treating God as secondary, as little more than an instrument that could be manipulated for other ends.

It is for these reasons that contemporary individualism can only ever function as one type of explanation for the phenomenon of MTD. Sure, it can well flourish in such an environment: a spiritual creed that emphatically places the individual at its centre certainly plays well to our present age. But if what I have said is true, then using God, or the divine, for oneself is not merely the preserve of the modern age; using God as an instrument – a kind of secondary tool – is something to which people in every age are prone. Perhaps, beneath the varied manifestations of superficial spirituality and counterfeit piety lies the primal reality of the humanity’s propensity towards idolatry – of reducing the transcendent God to a human fabrication, which can then be tamed and exploited. Paul, of course, knew this well, when he excoriated humanity for its tendency to exchange the glory of the immortal Creator for bits of his creation (Romans 1:20-23, 25). Even the Corinthians, living so soon after the events of Easter, had constructed for themselves an idol that bore only faint resemblance to the God of the Gospel that Paul preached. Whether it’s in its ancient or modern guise, idolatry succeeds in turning God – and the spirituality that flows from him – into a mere function of a person’s own psychological interests and desires.

* * *

How different this is from an authentically Christian view of God and ourselves. As I was thinking about MTD, three main differences stood out, which together have profound implications for the construction of a genuine Christian spirituality. First, MTD seems to reflect a very ego-centric view of spirituality and religion, and is to that extent well-suited to our present, individualistic age. This is seen particularly in the way it shapes a person’s ethical outlook. Whilst MTD makes room for fairness and niceties, it promotes a kind of ‘no-cost’ morality, which will only go so far as the needs and interests of the individual will allow. As Smith discovered even this system of morality was, for many of his subjects, another means of attaining subjective wellbeing: ‘do good, feel good’, in other words. Neither (divinely-mandated) goodness, nor the image-bearing objects of that goodness, are ends in themselves; on the view of MTD, they are instruments for the more self-centred goal of bolstering personal self-esteem.

Christian ethics is much more radical than that, for two main reasons. On the one hand, it is founded upon the figure of Jesus himself, who gave us a model of sacrificial service before God and others. Where MTD uses the self as the yardstick of what is right and good, for Christian spirituality, it is the character and life of Jesus that grounds all ethics. Similarly, where MTD is focused primarily upon the individual, Christianity is focused, in large part, upon others. Many of Jesus’ parables have this flavour about them. He talks, for example, of the “wise and faithful” person as characterised by a willingness, in deference to God, to serve others with what he or she has (e.g., Luke 12:42ff).

It’s hard, too, not to think of what Paul says when he writes to the church in Philippi. The believers there should adopt an attitude like that of Jesus himself, who “made himself nothing”, “taking the…nature of a servant”, and “humbling himself…to death…on a cross” on behalf of others (Philippians 2:5-8). This represents a far more comprehensive, far more sweeping, approach to the ethical – indeed, the righteous – life. It is a life that revolves, not around the needs of self, but around the needs of others, even if that means sacrificing what is cherished or treasured. True Christian spirituality asks a person to order his or her life around an enduring commitment to the needs of others. Indeed, Paul’s exhortation in Philippians points to the dramatic nature of this commitment, as the Christian seeks to emulate Christ: it must lead to an imitative willingness to put aside any claims one might have, whether those claims relate to one’s status, possessions, comforts – even, according to the passage, one’s own life.

On the other hand, the kind of ethical change that authentic Christian spirituality demands – indeed, enables – moves far beyond the essentially affirmative formula of MTD. Given that MTD rests on the individual’s moral estimations for its ethical centre, it can never be truly transformative. Jesus’ well-known exhortation that one must be “born again” in order to “see” God (John 3:3) points subtly in this direction: the present, transient world can never provide the resources for a genuinely spiritual life; one must “begin again”, as it were, with the life of the Christian representing such a break from the past that it can be described as a new birth. In this, we must remember the centrality of the figure of Christ: he functions, not only as the paradigm for authentic Christian living, but as the foundation making it possible in the first place. Christian orthodoxy calls for a complete re-ordering of a person’s life, ethically and spiritually, as a person’s old nature is left behind, and a new nature is adopted (Col 3:5, 10). And this can only come about because of the pioneering work of Jesus himself. It is, of course, through him that one may undergo that change, as one is taken from the realm of sin and death and corruption, and placed under the aegis of him who sets the pattern for true, image-bearing living. MTD, by contrast, makes no room for the fundamental renovation of a person’s nature, nor can it; it can only encourage superficial change at best.

The second main difference I discerned is deeply related to the first. The ego-centric nature of MTD implies that God is also treated as a means to an end. God is reduced to a kind of “cosmic butler” (Smith), there largely to satisfy our wants and resolve our problems. God is ‘consumed’, so to speak, providing a product – in this case, spiritual harmony and psychological peace – to people whose main concern is to derive from religion whatever they can to help them along in life. Again, it’s difficult to overstate the difference here from a genuine Christian view of God. If true religion calls for service to others as a clear demonstration of piety, then it also sees obedience to God – from which flows the call to give of oneself to one’s fellows – as the greatest good. What the Gospel does is upend our relationship to the transcendent. God is not a “cosmic butler”, but the Lord of the cosmos; Christ, as the one who uniquely reveals this God, is the master; his claim over our lives – leading inevitably to the summons to self-giving love – is total and comprehensive. Moreover, he is not some kind of instrument, or the means to a more fundamental end, precisely because he is, in himself, the ultimate end and fulfilment of all things. He is utterly transcendent — sovereign over everything — whilst also constituting the existential ground of all that is. As Paul put it, when he preached to the pagans of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Christian spirituality remains adrift unless it is tethered to an acknowledgement of God as the One upon whom everything exists, and from whom all life flows. He is the beginning and the end, the source and the summit, of all existence. Trying to use God to reach something that one sees as the ultimate goal (as MTD implicitly does) is like a person who, having lost a torch in the middle of the day, decides to use the brilliance of the sun to search for it – hoping then they will be able to find that little source of light, and use it for the illumination they so desperately seek.

At any rate, the deism of MTD ironically undercuts whatever comfort one might seek from this kind of god. He is a distant deity: neither greatly concerned with the world’s affairs (save for wanting to guarantee psychological stability in certain people), nor driven to do anything, fundamentally, about it. He is the absentee-landlord of eighteenth-century deism, with a little bit of Oprah-inspired therapeutic wisdom thrown in for good measure. This brings me to the third main difference between the creed of MTD and authentic Christian belief. Whilst the God of Christian theology and tradition is transcendent, he is most certainly not distant. For it is in his transcendence – his freedom from all constraints, both material and metaphysical – that he is able, at the same time, to be intimately involved in the affairs of his creation. Reading through, say, John’s Gospel, shows us the twin truths of God’s supremacy and closeness, upon which a robust Christian spirituality may be built. He is, on the one hand, the Creator of all things, who through his Word has fashioned and animated this world (John 1:1-3). But he is also the heavenly Father, who condescends to those who are his, welcoming them into the intimate fellowship of the Trinitarian community (John 14:23; 17:26). What follows is an abiding, deep-rooted joy, based upon the enduring presence of the Creator himself. It is, in other words, the goal and focal point of true spirituality. With its offers of superficial succour, tied as they are to the vagaries of a person’s psychological state, the God of MTD represents a parody of what union with the divine is meant to look like.

* * *

MTD, then, is simply the latest in a litany of creeds and spiritual ‘packages’ offering the mirage of piety and religious devotion. At any rate, if we were to follow its underlying logic, we’d be left with a domesticated deity, denuded of his sovereign majesty. Any claim he might want to make upon us would be empty, since we would ultimately be at the centre of our spiritual lives. Such a relationship appears to be a far cry from what both Scripture and Christian tradition have affirmed about the Creator: he who brought the worlds into being with his command, who declared that he is the self-existent “I AM”, and who confronted Job in the storm. The temptation towards idolatry which confronts every age is something that also confronts the church as it seeks to represent God faithfully and genuinely.

The challenge for us, I suppose, is to humbly yield to the God who has created us, and upon whom we utterly depend. We must allow ourselves to be shaped by this God, who calls us – summons us – to be his. We cannot afford to fall into the trap of trying to look beyond him for whatever he can provide for us. He is, as I said, the ultimate foundation of everything else, such that there is no ‘beyond’. That way lies the false gods of human imagination, as do all efforts to ‘massage’ our image of the divine according to whatever cultural trends may presently be in vogue. The God Christians are called to follow cannot be tamed by human designs, or be made to fit into convenient packages, for the very reason that he is the One within whose plans and purposes we are called to fit. Such an acknowledgment is part of the very fabric of authentic Christian spirituality. Being a Christian, and pursuing a life of discipleship, requires the willingness to enter into a narrative that is not of one’s own making, one that has been opened up by the epochal work of Christ: a “world” that establishes the boundaries of truth and reality, morality and holiness. It can be difficult and demanding, in that we are not the ultimate legitimators of what constitutes the good. However, with that acknowledgement comes the opportunity to reflect and embody the ultimate Ground of all goodness – to live and act according to our (divinely-intended) natures.

To embody a fully-orbed life of Christian faith, we cannot fall into the trap of ‘consuming’ religion in order simply to satisfy some kind of spiritual dimension. As we approach God – as we approach the crucified and resurrected Christ – we are confronted with One who upends our assumptions about our relation to the divine, and subverts all of the idols that we may have constructed. For God is the One over every dimension, public and private, which compose the rather messy projects we call our lives. When we adopt this kind of posture, and clothe ourselves in this kind of thinking, we will find that those longings for fulfilment, transcendence, completeness and calm – all worthwhile and legitimate in themselves – are paradoxically met. It is a life of death and resurrection, of radical transformation, where one’s old existence is swallowed up by newness of life (cf. 1 Cor 15:53-54). It is something that contemporary constructions of spirituality, reflecting as they do the strictures and finitude of the present world, could never hope to emulate.

What is Free Speech? Don’t Ask Peter Van Onselen

I like reading The Australian newspaper, but whenever I come across an article by one of its star columnists, Peter Van Onselen, I always find myself having to remember that he has a PhD. Why must I do this? Because I naively believe that possession of a doctoral degree means that a person is capable of engaging in subtle thinking, and rendering sound judgments based on fine distinctions — skills that Van Onselen consistently, and conspicuously, fails to practice.

Recently, I highlighted Van Onselen’s rather facile (and erroneous) equation of religiously conservative wedding operators who decline to lend their creative talents to a same-sex wedding, and racist business owners who refuse to serve someone because of the colour of their skin. Last weekend, he committed another grievous sin against clear-headed thinking (article paywalled, unfortunately). Speaking about the recent furore surrounding the date of Australia Day, Van Onselen argued that conservatives who doggedly oppose Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act are guilty of high hypocrisy for supposedly “shut[ting] down debate about whether Australia Day should” be shifted to another date. After caricaturing the views of S18C’s opponents — it is quite misleading to say their goal is that “humiliating and intimidating rhetoric should prevail” — Van Onselen suggests that their dismissal of such discussion amounts to “mind-boggling” sanctimony. He gleefully thinks he’s exposed an egregious example of moral posturing by political conservatives: of individuals hobbled by unacknowledged double-standards, whose apparent devotion to principle masks a willingness to censor others if their own sacred cows are at risk of slaughter.

To be sure, Van Onselen does make a number of pertinent points later in the article. But when it comes to the alleged inconsistency of free speech advocates, he only manages to cite one example of the phenomenon he claims to have uncovered. In the first couple of paragraphs, he makes passing reference to Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge, who apparently labelled calls to change the date of Australia Day as “ridiculous”. If this is the most troubling instance Van Onselen can find to substantiate his argument, then I’d say the prospects for the Australia Day debate are pretty healthy.

Let me put this as plainly as I can. Whatever one thinks of changing the date of Australia Day, or of dismissive responses to such calls, there is an entire world of difference between criticising another person’s view as “ridiculous”, and deploying the apparatus of the state to silence individuals — on pain of financial penalty — who utter views that are deemed unacceptable. This is precisely what happened to a group of university students at the Queensland University of Technology a few years ago, under the auspices of S18C. It dramatically highlighted the problem with the law, and why so many conservatives have opposed it as an affront to free speech. If Van Onselen can’t distinguish between this and the (robust) dismissal of a view with which one disagrees, I’m not really sure what else to say.

But say something I will. Just so there is no misunderstanding, free speech advocates — and in particular, advocates of the repeal of S18C — do not argue that a person ought to be immune from criticism, or even ridicule. In fact, advocacy of free speech demands that all ideas be exposed to such scrutiny. Nor does it mean that one is obliged to listen to, or entertain, an idea that another person propounds. What the so-called “hairy-chested warriors” for free speech (Van Onselen’s words) argue for is the freedom to speak one’s mind without fear of censorship or punishment — especially when it is practised by the state.  As an embodiment of this kind of legalistic restriction upon freedom of speech, S18C represents just such a threat. There is absolutely no weight to the charge of hypocrisy that Van Onselen levels at political conservatives (who, aside from Tudge, remain curiously anonymous). They oppose S18C as a corrosive element in a modern liberal democracy, since it hampers the free exchange of ideas. But again, this in no way entails that ideas should remain quarantined from either critical examination or blunt rejection. Meanwhile, calling an opinion “ridiculous” hardly qualifies as “shutting down” debate, whatever Van Onselen thinks. A sense of proportion would certainly go a long way.


I said earlier that having a PhD should mean that one is least able to demonstrate a commitment to fine-grained thinking. But it now seems reasonably clear that the distinctions Van Onselen fails to recognize aren’t fine at all. Rather, they’re quite obvious — so obvious, in fact, that someone without an ideological axe to grind, and without a penchant for trying to humiliate so-called “reactionaries” in every article,* is able to see it quite easily.

*Just Google “Peter Van Onselen” and “reactionaries”, and observe the results.

Meaning and God’s Attributes

My last few blog posts have tackled some fairly controversial issues, which have a habit of arousing very strong emotions. The intensity of those debates can tax both the mind and the soul, so every once in a while a change of pace is warranted. This brings me to the topic of the present piece, namely, the nature of God. Lately, I have been reflecting on some rather thorny questions concerning God and certain of his attributes. Some may think this a rather boring, irrelevant or altogether esoteric matter. However, if (as I believe) God is the very foundation and source of all there is — the ground of all being, as it were — then it’s difficult to think of anything more exciting, or important. Moreover, as a Christian, it is my duty (and indeed, a rare pleasure) to try and develop as clear a picture of the Creator as my finite mind will permit.

I don’t intend to examine the existence of God per se. Instead, I want to explore two related features of the Christian conception of God, the problems they can pose for understanding, and the means by which they might be illuminated in new and fresh ways. I am referring, on the one hand, to God’s dual nature — at once transcendent and immanent — whilst on the other, to the uniquely Christian declaration that Christ is the principle of unity within creation. These are heady concepts, to be sure; a word about each is therefore in order.

To begin, Christianity insists that God is simultaneously transcendent over creation and immanent within it. Other monotheisms — Judaism, for example — share this way of talking about God, though the way the doctrine is expressed and extrapolated in those traditions may be somewhat different. Christians consistently affirm God’s complete and utter sovereignty over the creation; creation itself relies on his conserving activity to remain in being, moment-by-moment. Given he is the metaphysical ground of all there is, God is not confined by what he has created: he is not limited by it, or susceptible to its influences (unless he deigns to be so influenced). He is radically distinct from the world he has fashioned, operating, if you like, on his own, unique plane of being. Additionally, God is neither exhausted nor fully comprehended by our conceptual categories; the frames of reference we may have devised to understand him are necessarily limited, for their “object” transcends them all. Indeed, for all their intellectual and theological value (and they can be very valuable, indeed), those categories cannot possibly capture a being — Being itself — who is by nature completely unbound by finite reality.

At the same time, God is no absentee landlord; rather, he deeply involved in this creation. The world over which God presides is filled at every point by the divine presence; God’s immanence means that he is intimately related to  it, permeating every nook and cranny so that creation brims with his essence. This dual nature is beautifully captured by Isaiah 55:9-11, which speaks of Yahweh’s purposes being higher than those of man — “as the heavens are higher than the earth” — even as he sends out his word, his wisdom, into the world to nourish his works. It is also why the Apostle Paul can declare in Ephesians 4:6 that God is not only “over all”, but “through all and in all”.*

The second attribute is, to my mind, probably more difficult to comprehend. It is the somewhat astounding theological claim that Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, is the principle of unity within creation — that is, the One in whom “all things hold together”, as Paul declares (Col 1:17). The doctrine bears some resemblance to certain strains of Greco-Roman philosophy, even if its formulation under the aegis of apostolic and patristic thought was quite unprecedented. Like the ancient Stoics, the writers of the NT held that the phenomenal world is not simply a random, unintelligible mass: they affirmed the belief that it is an ordered place, pervaded by a principle of rationality which bequeaths to it unity and coherency. For the apostolic writers, this principle has an intrinsically personal — indeed, relational — dimension. Whether this was expressed in the Johannine concept of the incarnate Logos (John 1:1, 14), or by way of Paul’s wisdom Christology (e.g., Col 1:17), the writers of the NT declared that the world is pervaded by the cosmic Christ — God’s very word, wisdom and mind. Borrowing ideas from the OT’s wisdom tradition (e.g., Prov 8:22ff), they claimed that Christ is just that principle of rationality to which the Stoics and others referred. As the medium of God’s creative prowess, he provides the unifying structure for what would otherwise be a fragmented or chaotic realm; he draws together the various members of the created world into a harmonious whole, “sustaining” it in power (Hebrews 1:3).

It should be noted that these doctrines are deeply intertwined. Christ’s role as the principle of unity within creation presupposes a God who is both intimately involved with it, whilst remaining utterly sovereign. Indeed, if Christ, a reflection of the divine character, was not transcendent, then he could not be the sustaining, unifying cause that underlies creation; he would simply be a finite part of it, as little able to govern all things as we are. If he was not immanent, he would not — could not — be the principle of unity holding the disparate parts of creation together. He could not be the metaphysical “cement” that inheres, and adheres, all things. Conversely, God’s dual nature comes to full expression in the cosmic Christ’s powerful conserving activity, as he penetrates and upholds the created order. His immanence is not amorphous — a vague and nebulous presence — but guarantees the wise and ordered nature of the world we inhabit. Similarly, his transcendence does not entail distance, but omnipresence, so that everything is imbued with, and held together by, his own effulgence.

Intertwined, complementary…and also rather arcane**. However clear these summaries may be, they do not change the fact that we are handling some very enigmatic ideas — ones that have caused an endless parade of philosophers and theologians (not to mention laypeople at large) a great deal of intellectual angst. The fact that God is not an object of sense experience, and so is not susceptible to empirical observation, makes this task even more vexing. Trying to comprehend such stubbornly elusive concepts is like attempting to grasp the rapidly fading tendrils of an early-morning mist. For instance, I’ve tried to offer an intelligible snapshot of the doctrine of Christ as the principle of creation, but how can we understand the truth that lies behind it? In what way does the invisible and immaterial God hold material things together (that is part of the larger question of how an immaterial God interacts with materiality)? How does one actually conceive of the Christian’s claim that the apparently disparate elements of creation find coherency as they are drawn together by, and in, the divine Logos? As for God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, this has been a stumbling block to many people, and can appear at first glance to be inherently, embarrassingly, contradictory. As just one example among many, the atheist blogger Austin Cline has argued that at an “irresolvable tension” exists between these two poles of the divine nature. He is of the opinion that something simply cannot be transcendent and immanent simultaneously, and that any affirmation to the contrary forces one into an intellectual muddle.

Theologians and philosophers of a theistic bent have tried to offer solutions to these problems over the centuries. For example, Thomas Aquinas wrote that God’s transcendence actually entails his immanence. Far from being irreconcilable or contradictory, Aquinas argued that they are, in fact, complementary attributes. Because he is the sustaining cause of all that exists (and as such, transcends all things), God must be present — that is, immanent — in order to uphold the entire cosmic production. Moreover, because being is, according to Aquinas, a thing’s fundamental quality, then God must be present “in all things innermostly”. I, for one, think this is quite persuasive. I am also persuaded that, however difficult it may be to think of the world as pervaded by a kind of cosmic rationality (understood in personal terms by Christians), it seems likelier than the atomistic, mechanistic picture favoured by many moderns. At the same time, I also recognize that formulations like Aquinas’ are bound to strike some as recondite as the (apparent) conundrums they are designed to unravel. Is there any way of making these doctrines a little more intelligible? A “real-world” analogy, perhaps, that concretizes what might otherwise appear to be abstract and vaporous? I think there is.

Meaning as an Aid to Understanding

The concept of meaning can act as an aid to understanding as we grapple with the aspects of God’s being (as conceived by Christians) that I have outlined. It can shed light on how God can be simultaneously transcendent and immanent, whilst illuminating the view that there exists a (personal) principle of order and rationality that permeates the phenomenal world. But what do I…er…mean by “meaning”? Simply this: meaning could be described as the “aboutness” of something, be it a sentence, a picture, or a facial expression. For something like a sentence, meaning is the message “encoded” in the combination of words the author or speaker has chosen to use. It is the information that the user (broadly defined) intends to convey in his or her message. My writing this blog post is designed to communicate certain propositions, thoughts, etc., which are reflected in the words I have chosen to deploy.

The above will suffice as a good, working definition of meaning. Let’s see, firstly, how it can help us understand God’s dual nature. Take the following sentence: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. If you’re a competent user of English, you’re likely to recognize the scenario the sentence is about — that is, the event to which it points. It will inevitably conjure a particular image, consisting of a male child using a casting action to convey a spherical object (often of recreational value) to a female child. The marks that compose the sentence will be readily understood as constituting an intelligible message. Indeed, the message is immanent within the sentence, in that the latter is “invested” with the former. Meaning is also immanent within individual words. By means of physical markings, “boy” means, points to, or represents a male child (usually under 18). Going back to the level of syntax and sentence structure, it would seem that not only does a message somehow “infuse” the physical marks one might use to communicate it; as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, author of the stimulating book, Is There A Meaning in This Text?, has argued, meaning “cannot grasped apart from them [i.e., those marks]”. As he goes on to say, the intangibility of meaning is known through the tangibility of written characters (or, alternatively, audible sounds).

And yet, meaning is not confined to a particular collection of markings. It’s not “shut in”, as it were, but transcends any one set of words. “It is more than vocabulary and syntax”, as Vanhoozer observes. It may pervade those markings, but is neither restricted nor reducible to them. Indeed, the meaning of a sentence is more than the sum of its constituent parts. We might think about it this way: whilst I can write “the boy threw the ball to the girl”, and successfully convey my intended meaning, this in no way precludes others from simultaneously doing the same thing. Conversely, their writing the same sentence does not evacuate meaning from my own scribblings. We can all successfully “point to” the objects that are represented by the words we are using, even if the sentences we write are identical. If meaning were to be tied to words in a non-transcendent way, this would be impossible. As it is, whilst meaning and words are intimately related — such that it could be called a relation of “immanence” — it does not exclude the former’s capacity to outstrip the limits of the latter. In fact, being able to convey the same information, using the same words as other language users, presupposes it.

Like God, then, meaning bears a dual nature: transcendent on the one hand, immanent on the other. As we have seen, these qualities are not contradictory; rather, they are complimentary, and necessarily so. If something as mundane as the meaning of words and sentences can be understood in this manner, then whatever other difficulties attach themselves to grasping the divine nature, the simultaneity of his transcendence and immanence should not be one of them.

So much for that conundrum. What about the idea that, for Christians, there exists a principle of order or rationality within creation, one that is identified with Christ, the very wisdom of God (cf. John 1:1-4)? Again, meaning provides a model for comprehension. As we have seen, the meaning of words invests them with intelligibility, whilst the principles of language supply shape and coherency to an otherwise random assemblage of markings. Of course, this is not the whole story. As Vanhoozer (among others) has noted, meaning is as much a verb (something that results from human action) as it is a noun (something that is “embedded” in words). The principle of unity is ultimately sourced in the intentions of the speaker/writer. Nevertheless, meaning acts as the proximate principle of unity, order and rationality for a chain of words a language user may string together. We may use our stock example once more: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. Each word is imbued with its own meaning, such that the marks are no longer unintelligible etchings, but vehicles of representation that can be understood by other language users. Similarly, the sentence as a whole is ordered by those same principles of intelligibility: the words that compose it are rationally related, in that they are arranged in a given sequence to communicate a particular message. Meaning, though immaterial, is a substantial reality, and is mediated through the variety of linguistic combinations (“deeds and events”, as one literary theorist put it) to which it bequeaths order.

Hopefully, you can see where I am going with all this. Christ, the divine Word, permeates the created world, supplying it with a kind of order that resembles meaning’s relationship to words and sentences (incidentally, the example I am using also offers us very rough analogy as to how something immaterial [meaning] can exert some kind of influence over something material [written or spoken words]). Like meaning’s role in structuring the sounds and signs of which a  certain message is composed, the divine wisdom structures this world in a way that ensures its rational intelligibility. It is a world of reasoned cause-and-effect, of patterned beauty, which is (in principle, anyway) susceptible to rational, scientific explanation. Both meaning and divine wisdom act as adhering agents, cementing the various constituents of their respective worlds — one linguistic, the other phenomenal — in a comprehensible way.


My aim in this essay has been to show that certain Christian doctrines, whilst apparently guilty of incomprehensibility, can in fact be readily understood. If I am right, there is no need for special pleading here: the common example of meaning’s relationship to words — something of which we are all intuitively aware — suggests that superficial contradictions regarding God’s nature, or allegedly esoteric claims about cosmic principles of rationality, have analogues in the world of everyday material things.

*Yes, I am aware that some scholars dispute Pauline authorship of Ephesians. I myself think that Paul wrote the letter, but I acknowledge that not everybody sees it that way.

**Of course, this is not the same as saying they are untrue.


One Same-Sex Marriage, a Conscientious Objector, and Three Failed Arguments (Part One)


They say that history is written by the victors. In the case of same-sex marriage legislation in Australia, it seems that the victors seek to write the future as well. Not content with the passage of SSM into law, advocates on both sides of the political aisle voted down a number of amendments that sought to protect the rights of dissenters from the new orthodoxy. For many of them, mere change of the marriage act was insufficient; complete public conformity now has to be enforced, underwritten by the imprimatur of the state. To be sure, some politicians who voted for Senator Dean Smith’s marriage bill unchanged claimed several substantive arguments in their defence. However, I cannot escape the feeling that for many parliamentary supporters of SSM, a desire for total victory was the primary driving force. That, and a sense of urgency induced by the approaching festive season, ensured that most of the proposed amendments received little more than cursory consideration.

As a consequence, only the most narrow of exemptions — touching directly on ministers of religion or religious institutions — remain in the bill. As for those who do not benefit from the protected sanctions of a recognized denomination, they may well find it difficult — perhaps exceedingly so — to preserve the integrity of their convictions in the face of demands to acquiesce. Photographers who decline to capture a same-sex wedding on film; a civil celebrant who does not wish to preside over a wedding ceremony centred around a same-sex couple; or a parent who does not want to expose her child to sex education that promotes a conception of marriage that contradicts her beliefs: in each case (and unless future amendments are accepted), the conscientious objector in question will have little recourse if they wish to retain the purity of their convictions. Since most opponents of SSM — or, to put it more positively, supporters of traditional marriage — are likely to oppose the change on religious grounds, any confrontation between the new regime and lingering dissent will raise burning questions concerning the legitimate scope of religious liberty in a secular society. If recent flashpoints in other countries are anything to go by, they’re likely to be rancorous affairs — deepening further the fissures that already exist between religious and secular, conservative and progressive.

Of course, for many advocates of SSM, both here and overseas, stringent limitations on a person’s ability to publicly express his or her (religious) convictions in this area is only just: true equality does not exist if even a few, lonely holdouts are permitted to maintain so-called “bigoted” attitudes beyond the citadels of their minds. This is certainly the case where commercial wedding vendors — specifically, those that directly contribute to the celebratory nature of a same-sex wedding — are concerned. Whether some Australian wedding operators may decline to provide services to same-sex nuptials remains to be seen; SSM was only legislated a month ago, and the first such ceremonies won’t be taking place until some time next month. However, the issue has been playing out in various locales across the United States, pitting religious conservatives against same-sex couples and their allies in state bureaucracies. As in so many things, US developments in this area could well be a harbinger of things to come here.

At any rate, whilst there may be a diversity of views on other questions, most SSM advocates (and even some opponents) are convinced that refusal to lend one’s creative talents to a same-sex wedding is manifestly unfair. For many of them, the alleged obviousness of their position means that it needs no discursive or articulated foundation. Still, some supportive politicians and commentators have tried to buttress it by proffering a series arguments that purport to demonstrate the illegitimacy of public opposition to SSM within the commercial space — particularly where it is inspired or driven by religious belief.

Three such approaches have recently caught my eye. All of them bear directly upon the issue of conflicting beliefs within the context of commercial transactions, and could be said to have implications for religious expression, conscience and intellectual liberty. Given the limits of space (which I have no doubt already pressed), I shall concentrate on only the first of the three arguments I have in mind. I’ve had reason to touch on these issues before, but recent events in the United States — where a dispute between Jack Phillips, a religious cake-shop owner, and a same-sex couple has made its way to the Supreme Court — mean that they still possess sharp currency. Despite claims that unwilling wedding vendors are likely to be a minor matter (and therefore of little significance), I incline to the view that if a political right is legitimate, it hardly matters how many people might be robbed of it by an overweening state. Furthermore, I think it important to answer advocates who would seek to ensure universal submission to the reality  of SSM, and to expose the shallowness of their arguments. A Sisyphean task, perhaps, but necessary nonetheless.

Race and Same-Sex Marriage: a False Analogy

Here, I want to examine a depressingly common justification for refusing to allow a dissenting wedding vendor to refrain from contributing materially and artistically to a same-sex wedding ceremony. I say “depressingly”, because the argument’s ubiquity is matched only by adherents’ rather thoughtless devotion to it. Some proponents of SSM have asserted that a wedding vendor who declines to provide his or her services to a same-sex ceremony is akin to commercial operators of a previous era placing signs in their front windows signalling their refusal to serve people of a certain “race”. If this sounds like an exaggeration — a caricature of an opponent’s point of view — then here is the ALP’s Penny Wong, staking out her position in response to the tabling of Liberal Senator James Paterson’s rival SSM bill:

“I thought we had gone past the point in this country where we had signs that said ‘We don’t serve Jews, we don’t serve blacks'”.

Senator Wong is hardly alone in thinking this way. During parliamentary debate on SSM and related amendments, Wong’s colleague, Linda Burney, asserted an equivalence between wedding vendors who decline to service a same-sex wedding, and racist business operators. And what about The Australian’s Peter Van Onselen, who lazily conflates the two actions? Their views simply reflect a great swathe of public opinion.

Unfortunately, the argument itself is deeply — indeed, corrosively — fallacious. To be sure, there are some superficial similarities between the examples cited by those above: in both activities, a kind of discrimination is taking place. But it should also be noted that not all such forms should automatically be construed as unfair or illegitimate. Discrimination takes place all the time in a myriad of settings, and it is even seen as virtuous in certain contexts. For example,  we do not fault an employer when he “discriminates” between the relative abilities of two candidates vying for a position at his firm. Quite the opposite: he is doing what is required of someone looking to enhance the profit-making capacity of his business. As such, there are times when a discriminatory outlook is not only warranted, but encouraged.

Wong, Burney, Van Onselen and their ilk are operating with a deeply confused understanding of what counts as unjust discrimination, illegitimately eliding real, invidious instances of discrimination with those that are only apparent. Refusing to serve someone based on their “race”, and declining to lend one’s creative talents to a same-sex wedding, are dis-analogous in a number of crucial respects.  At base, it is the difference between prejudicial treatment grounded in a person’s innate features or characteristics, and distinctions made based on a desire to avoid complicity in an event, ceremony or process with which one disagrees. As Senator Paterson — who is himself a supporter of SSM — has pithily said, “It’s not about the person, it’s about the event”.

It’s worth exploring these differences in a little more depth. On the one hand, commercial discrimination against someone based on race or ethnicity is rightly viewed as unfair, because it is grounded in (a) innate characteristics of an individual (as opposed to an event distinguishable from said individual); and (b) consequent considerations that are irrelevant to the transaction in question. The provision of housing cannot be withheld from, say, Indigenous folk, because no rational relationship obtains between (in this case) Aboriginality and accommodation, and no rational distinction exists between an Indigenous man and a white person. Such actions attack the person qua person, and serve simply to undermine their position as an equal member of society. Some academics have theorised that this is part of a wider system of racial domination, by which the dominant group seeks to reinforce the inferior status of the subordinate group. As a manifestation of that system, refusal to accommodate certain individuals on the basis of race targets certain intrinsic features which — once more — have no material connection to the goods and services they wish to access. That is why they are (justly) seen as bigoted or prejudicial.

On the other hand, there is a rational relationship between a wedding ceremony (in this case, a same-sex wedding ceremony) and the provision of wedding-related services. To provide such services just is to make a contribution to a same-sex couple’s nuptials. Here, the question of the shape and nature of the marriage in question becomes supremely relevant, at least for those who hold to a traditionalist view of marriage. This does not centre on a person’s sexual orientation (in the way that a bigoted hotelier’s refusal to serve African-Americans is intrinsically about one’s racial identity). Rather, and as Senator Paterson noted, the source of the vendor’s objection is the possible contribution to, and participation in, a particular event. Those wedding vendors who object to lending their services to a same-sex wedding do so, not because they refuse to serve LGBT people, nor because they wish to communicate a message of dominance to a supposedly subordinate group, but because they do not wish to participate in a ceremony that contravenes their conception of marriage.

Religiously conservative business owners who have  declined to render their services to a same-sex wedding have made this very point when hauled before state judiciaries. The separate experiences Baronelle Stuztman, a florist, and Jack Phillips (noted above) are instructive. Having been subject to legal sanction for their dissenting behaviour, both Ms Stutzman and Mr Phillips have stated clearly their willingness to serve gay couples for a variety of occasions. In fact, Ms Stutzman was sued by a gay couple she had willingly and cheerfully served for approximately a decade before running afoul of Washington State’s anti-discrimination statutes. However, she and Mr Phillips draw the line at making a material, artistic contribution to a same-sex wedding. In doing so, they are holding precisely to the distinction between persons and events that I have outlined. I’ve already written about Ms Stutzman, but it’s worth recalling the following words, since they can be applied to the issue more broadly (the brief excerpt within the quote comes from Ryan T. Anderson’s Public Discourse piece on this topic):

“In the case of Ms. Stutzman, her decision ‘did not spring from any convictions about people who identify as LGBT’, and had nothing to do with making distinctions based on a person’s sexual orientation; rather, it was rooted in what she believes to be the true shape of marriage”.

What proponents of the countervailing argument fail to realize is that there is actually a logical distinction between the sexual orientation of a person, and one’s definition of the institution of marriage. One may, for example, hold to a neutral — even positive — position on same-sex erotic relationships, even as they remain convinced that marriage is fundamentally a dyadic union of sexual complements. A quick thought experiment might help to make this distinction clearer. Imagine, if you will, a same-sex marriage composed of, say, two heterosexual women. Unlikely? Yes, but it is entirely conceivable.* Conversely, one may also imagine an opposite-sex marriage, composed of a gay man and a lesbian woman. It is therefore possible to separate the shape and nature of the event from the sexual identities of the participants involved. Assuming a religiously conservative cake-maker (for example) is consistent in his or her convictions, he or she will oppose the first union, but happily participate in the second. What these hypothetical examples do is dramatize the crucial difference between orientation (a feature of the person) and the structure of a marital relationship (an institution external to that person). That is why Ms Stutzman and Mr Phillips could, without a whit of inconsistency, serve LGBT people in a variety of contexts, and yet refuse to lend their artistic talents to a same-sex wedding.

By contrast, there is simply no parallel in the case of a business operator refusing to serve a customer because of the colour of their skin. Unlike the person-event distinction that obtains in the case of a same-sex couple wanting to marry, it is impossible to imagine a black person without reference to his or her ethnicity. Discrimination concerning race is inescapably grounded in certain, innate features of an individual; racially supremacist behaviour cannot be divorced from the prejudicial beliefs which underpin it, and is reducible those attitudes in a way that opposition to SSM (at least in some forms) isn’t. A distinction between neutral or positive regard and differential treatment — similar to the possibility that exists between one’s attitude towards homosexual relationships and a wedding vendor’s refusal to contribute to a same-sex wedding — is impossible where race is involved. A local publican’s turning away, say, an Indigenous man from his pub is simply the product of racial animus. The one is an expression of the other, such that in the absence of a personal attitude or belief concerning racial differences, a public display of racially-tinged discrimination would not — perhaps could not — exist.

Concluding Thoughts

The distinctions I have tried to highlight here are subtle, to be sure. But they are no less significant for all that. Sometimes, a fine-grained analysis is necessary, if only to expose the hollowness of an argument masquerading as self-evident truth. I remain convinced that this must be prosecuted, in order to make the case that it’s still possible for reasonable people to disagree. Of course, I fear that however strong my position is (and some may think it very weak indeed), it is likely to fall on a multitude of deaf ears — ears which belong to people who are already convinced that a Baronelle Stutzman and a proud segregationist dwell on the same moral plane. Indeed, the ease with which some progressives conflate the two leaves me doubtful about the prospects of détente or rapprochement on this issue.

As commentators like Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat have observed, if the analogy examined here continues gain acceptance, then dissenting photographers, bakers, etc. will likely suffer the same kind of ostracism that Jim Crow advocates (quite rightly) experience in the US. It will mean that those who dare to object to the new orthodoxy will likely see their views de-legitimised before they have been given a fair hearing. After all, would we be willing to sympathetically enter into the emotional and intellectual world of a person who thinks that African-Americans are inferior to whites, and that their economic and social subjection is simply part of the natural order of things? Would we be willing to sincerely consider their point of view with any degree of openness?

This phenomenon goes well beyond commercial wedding vendors. As Douthat notes, positions on SSM that were taken by left-leaning politicians just a few years ago are now condemned as the “purest atavism”. The experiences of unwilling wedding operators may therefore prove to be a barometer of things to come, both here and overseas: the alleged parallels I’ve examined are now frequently deployed at a more general level to tar all opponents of SSM, regardless of whether they are in a position to refuse participation in a same-sex wedding.** If the analogy between race and SSM does hold (socially, if not logically), then there’s no real reason to restrict its application to those operating in the commercial wedding sector. Needless to say, none of this bodes well for the future of religious and intellectual liberty.

* Legally speaking, I mean. This is not to say that a same-sex marriage is metaphysically possible.

** As an aside, I remember speaking with a colleague just after Ireland voted to legalize SSM in 2015. I distinctly recall him saying that in time, opposition to SSM (broadly conceived) will be viewed in the same way we now see racist beliefs. He himself is a supporter of SSM, and he didn’t sound overly concerned by such a possibility. In fact, he seemed to think that it represented the natural extension of our culture’s current journey of progress. I doubt very much that the opinion was either original or unique to him.

Manus Island and Misunderstanding: Some Clarifications

Well, it seems that my article on Manus Island has generated a fairly robust response: one commenter in another forum even accused me of justifying torture. As if on cue, my point about the “riven nature” of this debate — where people on both sides throw sobriety to the wind — was proven quite emphatically. If I were being facetious, I would say that in order to justify torture, one would first have to admit that it was happening — something that I never did in the course of writing my essay. I’d also point out that condemning my view as an apology for torture is about as insightful (and helpful) as arguing that a person who supports a relatively lax approach towards asylum seekers is thereby complicit in the drowning of innocents.  This is hardly a meeting of minds; entrenched estrangement is more likely, I think.

Nevertheless, I’ve re-read the article to try and see whether anything I’ve written could be (mis)construed in that fashion. Honestly, I am at a loss as to how a person could place that interpretation on my piece; it certainly wasn’t something that I was wanting to convey (one would think this doesn’t need to be said — “No, no, I’m actually not defending torture”). But so that there are no misunderstandings, I think it worth my while to clarify a number of points I’ve already made.

  • Even though my essay on the Manus Island saga could be construed as relatively conservative, I am not interested in providing a blanket defence of the federal government’s offshore processing regime, or its approach to boat-borne asylum seekers generally. This is something I tried to make clear from the outset, as I focused on one particular strand of this debate. In fact, I think it’s quite apparent that there have been a number of serious and significant failures on both Manus Island and Nauru, exacerbating whatever trauma the men, women and children on those two islands may have already suffered. This needs to be admitted without reserve: whether one is referring to medical or psychiatric services, physical facilities, the supply of food and water, or basic amenities, it’s reasonably clear that the centres have fallen short — far short — of the standard of care one would expect a wealthy, developed nation to provide. Where failures have been identified or exposed, they need to be rectified with as much alacrity and efficiency the government can muster. My point is that I am not concerned to downplay the wider issue concerning conditions in these environments, and nothing in my initial piece should be interpreted otherwise.
  • One complainant expressed incredulity that I could call footage purporting to show PNG authorities beating the men who remained in the Lombrum processing centre “inconclusive”. As a result, I have gone back and watched the footage a few more times. (I should apologise, since I initially failed to provide a link to the video in question. In addition, I can only find one such recording purporting to show local police assaulting asylum seekers. If any others exist, I would want to view them also). I have tried to watch the footage with an open mind, and in good faith. And yet, I still come away with much the same assessment: it is exceedingly difficult to tell what is going on. The video is at times pixelated or out of focus; a metal frame (possibly a bunk bed) and what appears to be a towel succeed in obscuring the events from full view; and the footage only lasts for about 30-40 seconds. In that time, I can see one PNG officer picking up a blue swag. Two others are brandishing long poles, and have raised them in an offensive manner. The asylum seekers in view are mostly sitting down, trying to avoid the guards. At one point, one of the guards lowers his pole, as if to touch or strike an asylum seeker on the ground. However, he is almost completely concealed by the offending towel. Consequently, it’s impossible to tell whether he struck the man, or simply threatened him. This is what I meant when I described the footage as “inconclusive”. I did not attempt to mislead or downplay the events in question, but commented on them as accurately as I could.
  • When I referred to multiple criminal allegations being levelled at the asylum seekers on Manus Island, I did not intend to imply that all were guilty of criminality. I certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of tarring every asylum seekers with the same brush. However, I probably wasn’t clear enough in my language, and could have given the impression that I was criticising or labelling the asylum seekers en masse. It’s true that there appears to be a significant criminal element within the cohort of men on Manus — an element which has probably contributed to the rising tensions between them and local Manusians (see below) — but they likely constitute no more than a restive minority. I would imagine that most of the asylum seekers housed on the island are simply looking for a better life, and are no more prone to criminality than I am.
  • I’m willing to admit that someone reading my comments about criminal acts perpetrated by asylum seekers, and their role in fuelling tensions between the men and PNG locals, could come away with the impression that I am excusing the violence some asylum seekers have suffered. But this was not my intention at all. Rather, I sought to provide an explanation, or framework, within which antipathy towards the men might make sense as something other than irrational, visceral xenophobia (the narrative some advocates appear to be operating with). That is what I meant when I talked about such attitudes being “comprehensible”: not that every manifestation thereof could be excused, but that they did not occur in a vacuum. Where an asylum seeker has been attacked, such brutality is to be condemned in no uncertain terms. But having said that, those actions, reprehensible though they are, could be seen as part of a wider cycle of tension and criminality — one that may have been generated, in part, by the actions of asylum seekers themselves. To take an analogy: we might understand how a young man, having grown up in a broken home, could turn to a life of drugs and petty crime. One doesn’t condone those choices, but they are hardly beyond the reach of explanation. The same goes for local attitudes and (some) actions on Manus.

At any rate, I hope this helps bring some clarity to the original piece. More than that, I hope that where people disagree on certain issues — even emotive issues like this one — we can all learn to truly, genuinely, hear one another, and conduct our debates in good faith.