Sixsmith and Paul Rowan Brian have published a very interesting piece in Public Discourse and MercatorNet identifying “apatheists” as the most dangerous enemies of believers today. Christians and people belonging to other major creeds are “theists”, that is, believers in a divine Being, a God, a Theos in Greek. A-theists are those who profess that there is no divine Being, and no supernatural entity. “Apatheists” is a brilliant neologism which describes the increasingly common stance of those who don’t care whether or not God exists.
In Western societies, apatheists make up a substantial part of the population. We are all familiar with people who seem to be perfectly indifferent to the greatest questions of humankind, to that primaeval call to philosophy which is an integral component of what it means to be human. People who are reluctant to be drawn into meaningful conversation about transcendent topics, and whose greatest contribution to the reasoning on first things is shoulder-shrugging.
I fully share the article’s thesis and viewpoint and am grateful to its author for articulating them clearly and compellingly. To this, I would add a further reflection, provoked both by this article and by my recent reading of a beautiful book by and about Dietrich von Hildebrand (My Battle Against Hitler). Hildebrand contrasts the concept of community with that of mass. Writing during the horrible years of Nazism (and when Bolshevism was proving itself equally destructive and dehumanizing), Hildebrand was careful to distinguish between the alienated masses, whose rationality and free will were seemingly obliterated by totalitarianism and the positive power of communitas – of communities such as family and church.
In most Western countries, the feeling of community is thinning at worrisome speed. Families are shrinking numerically, both as to the number of families and the number of their members. Many of them dissolve quickly, with new bonds multiplying up to the point that – as I once heard a child telling somebody in a train – one can have eight grandparents (!). When families become so fluid they evaporate, and the strength they should contribute to society is lost.
Most people don’t attend church; and – speaking from the viewpoint I know best – even among practising believers it is only infrequently that one knows the other members of the congregation by name, let alone anything meaningful about them and their lives. We pray side by side, but I frequently doubt whether we really pray “together”, much less if we pray “as one”.
One of the many advantages of thriving and flourishing communities is that they work as supporting forces when one is in need, but also as networks protecting and promoting shared values. I’m perfectly aware that “social control” may degenerate into bigotry, and may create a world of “don’ts” and “can’ts” which can suffocate the initiative which ought to flourish in a healthy society. But if a community is really sane, it will tolerate the proper amount of novelty, and even a salutary drop of folly, at the same time exercising a positive check on those disruptive forces which undermine the community’s wellbeing.
This is not an altogether original idea. The American sociologist Robert Putnam has documented the erosion of social capital in his famous book Bowling Alone. Americans were no longer joining community organisations and were less engaged in politics; they were no longer a nation of volunteers. He thought that the engine for the change was technology. Television, increasing commuting time and the internet were making people more and more individualistic. And socially disconnected individuals are unhappier, less healthy, poorer and more prone to crime. Civic disengagement, he found, is toxic for civil society.
Today’s society, both in the dilution of its social bonds, and in the modern principle that individuals have the right of defining not only their identity but their gender, how and when to end their lives, their right to parenthood and so on, makes it almost compulsory not to care about what the other is doing. I think that most people are deeply disturbed by, say, the selling of human beings which characterizes commercial surrogacy, or feel ill at ease with protocols promoting gender “transitioning” for children and teenagers; but it is politically incorrect to voice these feelings, it is socially dangerous, and it is best to confine oneself simply to an “apatheist” attitude.
We don’t feel that our fellow citizens belong to the same society as us; we don’t think that to promote erroneous values, wrong beliefs and dangerous practices is something which endangers our own lives, our own present and future wellbeing, and the society we are building for the generations to come.
By losing the feeling of the small community, we have lost the possibility of caring for society as a whole. If we feel strongly about our family, if we perceive its unity as a body, it will be a solid brick which will contribute to the building of the common house. If we are pulverized, atomized, if our society is simply a casual collection of non-caring people, then we are as grains of sand, which nobody will be able to build anything with, except perhaps the most fragile of sandcastles.
We must learn to care again, to know our neighbours and to be concerned for them; to voice our worries for our society, to promote those values which are positive for making it healthy; we must make our social bonds solid, strong and powerful if we value communities as the habitat where humanity can flourish.
Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.
I was surprised to learn recently that being poor isn’t defined primarily by how much or little money a person has.
Poverty is about how dysfunctional or broken a person’s matrix of relationships is – with family, government, community, neighbours, those in authority, God.
The resulting isolation excludes them from all things that bring meaning and life and hope. Of course resources and money are part of this, but not the sole or even main driver of what we describe as poverty.
I’m often disappointed to see Christians and churches supporting apparently worthwhile causes that I know address only a narrow range of factors in the matrix of dysfunction. Too often we go for what is “sexy” and has a high “feel good” factor, and allows us to feel as if we are making a difference, rather than a project that has a longterm sustainable approach to addressing the range of issues that allow people to become more human.
My intent and prayers for Just Church, a March gathering at the intersection of faith, justice, worship and arts, is that people will leave the South Auckland venue knowing that God has spoken to them; that they know where to find the resources to guide and sustain them in their engagement with injustice globally, locally and personally; and how their community of faith can build for the Kingdom.
Just Church has no high-profile imported speakers. It has a wide range of local people with loads of knowledge and experience, some artists and poets, a group of Kiwi worship curators doing worldclass work in public places and in church worship, all of whom will be available for engaging with and questioning.
I’d love to meet you and to have you contribute to the conversation.
Mark Pierson – Worship Curator, ex-school teacher, ex-Baptist pastor, author (The Art of Curating Worship, The Prodigal Project, Fractals for Worship), writer, speaker on things worship and the arts, currently Christian Commitments Manager World Vision NZ, sustained by the community at The Upper Room, Auckland.
Many readers will be familiar with the name Keith Newman, author of Bible and Treaty – a book we’ve been encouraging people to read in the lead up to 2014 – the year we mark 200 years since Samuel Marsden first preached the gospel in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Keith has recently released a new book called Beyond Betrayal, and was interviewed by Chris Laidlaw on Radio New Zealand, Sunday 29 September.
As Keith talked about the important role played by the missionaries in New Zealand, and especially by Maori believers, Chris Laidlaw asked “Has NZ history sold Christianity a bit short?”.
Keith’s answer will not be a surprise to most readers but the examples he gives and the stories he shares are well worth listening to.
Chris Laidlaw challenged Keith about claims over the years that evangelical Christianity had undermined the very essence of Maori culture and that in effect the decision to send missionaries to countries like NZ was a form of spiritual assimilation?
Keith’s reply was that the role of the missionaries had been quite misunderstood. He said that the missionaries had to learn and speak the language, to live among the people, learn their customs, “and of course they were working very hard to undermine some of the nastier elements of [the culture] cannibalism, utu, and bring ideas of forgiveness. But once Maori got this they realised that this was a very important change for them”. He went on to talk about how the constant utu, battles, and so on, were decimating the tribes and undermining their ability to survive and trade.
It would appear that a huge majority of Christians do not read the Bible each day, let alone read a reasonable portion of Scripture daily or study God’s Word regularly. If you watch an hour of TV at night, during that hour you will probably watch 15-20 minutes of advertisements. In 15-20 minutes you can easily read about 4 chapters of the Bible!
So how come many Christians are “too busy” to read the Bible, study it and apply it, while they have time to watch TV and TV ads? If we don’t read God’s Word and listen to His voice speaking to us, how can we call ourselves Christians – His followers or disciples? It is no wonder that there is such confusion in the church about so many issues (e.g., moral issues) and that the church often appears as worldly as the unbelieving world around us.
Please pray that all true Christians will return to reading and studying God’s Word, listening to His voice and obeying Him. Pray that churches which are not preaching and teaching God’s Word, and those which openly contradict what God has said in His Word, will repent and turn back to Him and His ways!
This is urgent and serious! If the world sees no difference between us and them, why should they become Christians? Untold harm is done by parts of the “church” which are apostate (or almost so – if that is possible!) “The time has come for judgement to begin with the Household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the Gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).
We need to see God’s judgement as a positive thing – God’s desire to bring us back to righteousness and blessing, instead of going down the path of evil and, ultimately, destruction. Pray for the Church! Pray for all Christians! Pray for our society and the nation!
May God have mercy on us, and restore us through our repentance and our turning back to Him and His ways!
Intercessors for New Zealand was started by Brian Caughley in January 1972, after receiving a word from God to call Christians to “Pray for the Nation”.
IFNZ specifically aims to encourage prayer, and present Bible teaching, which exhorts Christians to pray regularly and specifically for their nation – for revival and evangelism, the Church, the Government and the Nation.