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'How Christianity can grow again in the West'


When I saw the title of Greg Sheridan’s Easter article in the Weekend Australian I confess that I was tempted to pass it by. When the West and Christianity are linked in public discussion Christianity is often reduced to its political dimensions and the West to a homogeneous mass. The conversation then descends to a binary conflict between abstractions.

I admire Sheridan, however, for his exploration and commendation of Christian faith in the public sphere. On reading his article I found that the title did not do it justice. Sheridan’s exposition of Christian faith, particularly in Jesus’ Resurrection, was exploratory and well informed, and he emphasised how countercultural it is to base one’s view of the world on belief in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. His article avoided polemics, recognised the importance of social justice as well as orthodoxy in Christian faith and came to a very personal and moving conclusion in describing with great affection his sister’s painful terminal illness and death. He quotes at length from the long letter sent by a pastorally gifted priest who attended her in her dying and the importance of her receiving the Sacraments for the sick. Her long illness and the peace that she found in dying echoed Sheridan’s focus on Jesus’ death and rising.

Sheridan claims that to preach the message that Christ rose physically from the dead after being executed has a better chance of winning people than a more accommodating version of faith. In this he echoes Tertullian, the contrarian late second century Christian rhetorician.


The Son of God was crucified: that does not cause shame, because it is shameful.

And the Son of God died: that is totally credible, because it is absurd.

And after being buried he rose again: that is certain, because it is impossible.


Sheridan echoes Tertullian’s spirit, if not his verbal excess:


Christianity is a supernatural religion, with vast spiritual and eternal claims. Everything about it is radical and a bit wild. Christianity is a faith that offers comfort and acceptance, but it is also a faith of repentance, commitment, life change, prayer and forgiveness, and the unnatural practice of putting others first. It provides space for all the passionate heroism, meaning and destiny. It is bold, not bland.


At the heart of this wildness is the grounding of Christian faith in a man who was the Son of God, crucified for sedition and blasphemy but who rose from the dead to ground believers’ hope in life with God after death and their companionship with Christ in selfless living. That faith has been and remains confronting to any culture and society. If it is especially challenging to the contemporary West, that is due to the widespread assumption that there is no reality beyond the empirically verifiable, with the result that any belief in God or in a man who rises from the dead is incoherent. The relationship between Christian faith and the West cannot be parsed by associating the spirit of the West with true Christianity. The overriding primacy given to economic settings and to individual choice flow out of the reduction of reality to what can be seen, touched and counted.

Sheridan’s evocation of the wildness of Christian faith also makes it unlikely that the apparent incredibility of the Easter story alone will win people to the persons and churches that proclaim it. It may form an attractive kind of faith but not one that will be popular. To be persuaded, observers will need to see something attractive in the life of people who believe the story and belong to the churches. Not only the belief but the adventurous and generous life that embody it must be wild and attractive. This is the theme of many stories of the early Church that emphasise the courage, generosity and prayer of Christians. They honoured especially the courage with which the martyrs followed Jesus in enduring dehumanising deaths. These stories of small, brave communities joined by faith and love and attention to the needs of the local people, formed an attractive picture.

As the churches grew, however, Christians had to come to terms with the faults as well as with the virtues of their members. In the systematic persecutions of the late third century many people, including clergy, sacrificed to the Roman gods to escape torture and death. When the church was legalised it had to decide how to treat those who had betrayed Christ and to accept people with dubious motives for joining. After an acrimonious debate it opted for generosity over purity, allowing St Augustine to describe the church as a school for sinners. Christ calls people and over time forms them into disciples. In this story the Church is distinguished by forgiveness.

That tension between the high ideals of the Church of Jesus’ followers and the everyday reality of failure, forgiveness and generosity recalls Groucho Marx’s quip about not wanting to join any club that would accept him as a member. To commend Christ risen can be done only through a community of faith. But in its life that community will often hide the face of Christ.

Christians and their communities are always caught between faith and doubt. Not only observers but Christians themselves need to find the wild and the surprising face of Christ in one another’s life. Greg Sheridan’s story of his sister’s last days, told with love and acceptance, points to that deeper reality. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Andy Warhol, The Last Supper (detail), 1986, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Greg Sheridan, Christianity, Church, Easter, West



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Existing comments

All cultural vehicles will manifest the best and worst of humans who bear responsibility for their propagation, the West and the Church in history being no exceptions.
However, in our times, media attention and coverage - and even education - more often than not fixes its focus on the evils, past and present, of the West and the Church - with little acknowledgement of the humane and constructive contributions of both to our world. Regarding West and Church, "deconstruction" appears to have become the by-word of the day.
In this decidedly critical context, it is refreshing to read in both Greg Sheridan's and Andrew Hamilton's articles public affirmation of the basis of Christian belief - indeed, its very heart - in the resurrection of Christ, and the transformative hope it inspires in everyday living, personally and socially, among believers throughout the world.

John RD | 18 April 2023  

Christianity won't regrow if the cornerstone has been rejected.
"To study the historical timeline is to see that religious vibrancy and family vibrancy go hand in hand. Conversely, so do religious decline and family decline." (Mary Eberstadt)
The family has been devastated by the 60s Sexual Revolution with declining marriages, fewer children, no-fault divorce, abortion-on-demand, homosexuality and transgenderism now norms. Fatherless children abound: "How can one even explain God the benevolent Father to a teenager who has never known such a figure?" (Mary Eberstadt)
The Sexual Revolution has also polarized churches from within: "For Episcopalians...the paramount issues are sex and sexual expression" (William Murchinson); "progress always boils down to sex" (Russel Moore, Southern Baptists); "The real religious divide is between Catholics who want powerful secular trends to influence and transform the Church, and Catholics who do not." (Mary Eberstadt)
Yet the fastest growing entity of faithful Catholics in USA, Traditional Latin Mass attendees--250,000 attend Sunday mass with 98% of 18-19-year-olds attending weekly mass and only 1-2% approving of abortion, contraception and gay marriage--are the ones being suppressed by Rome.
It seems that for many, the wide gate is now preferred over "the narrow rugged path Thyself hast trod." (Cardinal Newman)

Ross Howard | 18 April 2023  
Show Responses

"How can one even explain God the benevolent Father to a teenager who has never known such a figure?" or to a child/teenager who has a father who is distant and abusive?

Janet | 20 April 2023  

Though there's no substitute for one's own father, encounter with other children's fathers who are present and loving to their families can provide a desirable analogical corrective to distorted images of God. Neglectful or abusive fathers don't necessarily demand the abandonment of the Christ-revealed nature of God.

John RD | 25 April 2023  

Belief in the risen Christ is a big, serious leap of faith. It must be that way. Christians are required to be never running back to the old life but always leaping into the new life. Very much not easy. Greg Sheridan’s writing in the public square about Christianity is one of those leaps. How does the Church today appeal to people? I think of the change brought about in the lives of a group of ordinary people who were transformed into a cohesive, driven church. And of a zealot who persecuted this group and through a supernatural intervention became The Apostle who wrote 1 Corinthians 15. Wild? Of course.

Pam | 18 April 2023  

Christianity may take a long time to grow again in the West - possibly some hundreds of years. The report of Pope John XXIII's exhortation on his death bed to disband Vatican II was indeed visionary or prophetic in view of the disastrous consequences that have followed this alleged re-enlightenment. Generations purporting to be Catholic will continue to be lost. thank goodness for the Orthodox churches which have remained faithful. Any re-enlivenment of devoted Christianity is more likely to depend on tHem rather than the more convenient self-serving brand of Roman Catholicism we have seen since Vatican II.

john frawley | 19 April 2023  

My best friend is a great aficionado of Greg Sheridan's and always draws my attention to the latter's published articles. He even sent me a book of Greg's. These days the contemporary Christian author I respect most is the late Blessed Seraphim Rose (1934-1982) who would take a very different tack to Greg. Fr Seraphim was a native Californian who had gone through Asian religion, such as Zen with Alan Watts, until he fortuitously found his way to the Russian Orthodox cathedral in San Francisco, where St John of Shanghai and San Francisco (1896-1966) was Archbishop. It is very rarely one is fortunate enough to meet a real saint, especially one who lived through the time of the Russian Revolution. The Russian Orthodox Church has seen Christianity persecuted and supposedly 'destroyed' to rise again. Fr Seraphim was both Patristic and a cultural scholar and saw Nihilism, based on Marxism, as the greatest danger Christianity would face in the West. We are facing that danger now. With all due respect to Greg and I have had to face my own recent tribulations with my late wife's long suffering with Alzheimer's, I think this cultural threat we face now dwarfs our individual sufferings. I am unsure Greg presents a way of combatting this. Fr Seraphim did. I wish he were better known to Australian Catholics and other Christians.

Edward Fido | 19 April 2023  

"Christianity, is a supernatural religion" calling for action in a non supernatural world. The stairs to heaven are situated right here on Earth. "To be persuaded, observers will need to see something attractive in the life of the people who believe the story and belong to the churches." We have many such people including Mother Theresa and Fr Bob. We also have many "Christian" people ["by their actions you shall know them"] who have not graced the inside of a church building.

Michael James LOWRY | 21 April 2023  

I have read Greg Sheridan for many years and always I find it hard to reconcile his hawkish view of our foreign policy with his professed faith. Perhaps he could speak to this sometime in your publication.

Graham Warren | 22 April 2023  

Sheridan is a polished writer; but whom he writes for may assist understanding of Andy's take, given the polite but predominantly unhappy response that Andy triggers here.

Sheridan writes for Murdoch Press, which promotes a view of the world that presumably garners support from quite a few of those who post here.

It occurs to me that Sheridan is charged with promoting a narrative in which conservative religiosity and, inter alia, conservative persons who call themselves Catholic, can be drawn to supporting a narrative in which their lens on politics and faith align.

I'm pretty certain that the same applies to those like me who see the West as responsible for many injustices that have earned the opprobrium of those who follow Jesus. Inferentially there are some on the Left who also seek to align our politics with our faith.

Both inclinations can be flawed if pushed to extremes, not because there's virtue in pursuing an 'other-worldly' neutrality but because politics on both sides is driven by ideology whereas Jesus was driven by Love.

Good on you, Andy! Keep on writing, both insightfully and critically, as well as with generosity which you demonstrate in abundance in your reading of Sheridan.

Michael Furtado | 28 April 2023  

Greg Sheridan - like Tony Abbott - was an old-fashioned cultural warrior a la Bob Santamaria long before he joined the Murdoch establishment, Michael Furtado. As someone who knows a little about world politics and national defence, I have strong reservations about his commentary there. Religiously he seems to hark back to the supposed Golden Age of The Church Triumphant, which may never have actually existed. The greatest saints of the Church always seem to me to be those calling on Christians to repent - which in earlier times meant to return to Christian Truth. There was something of the bluntness of the desert about them. Jesus brought that from his Forty Days in the Wilderness where he was sorely tempted by the Devil, who placed Jesus on the pinnacle of the Temple and offered him the kingdoms of the world if Jesus bowed down and worshipped him. There is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution a la Sheridan to the ills of the world. That requires major structural reconstruction. I find Peter Hitchens far more on the ball than Greg Sheridan. However, I do not follow him mindlessly. Ultimately all of us have to find our own way to the Celestial City alone and in the seeming darkness.

Edward Fido | 02 May 2023  

If I were to ask ES readers to tell us ‘How Buddhism can grow again in India’, I wonder what sort of responses we would receive. Some might focus on a return to fundamentals, some might emphasise organisational reform, some might stress the importance of the laity, some might say it’s not possible, others might ask whether it really matters.

Greg is not the only person to address this important question: others have also tried and often come up with different solutions. That's not surprising given that Greg and the others have 'skin in the game' and try as they might to avoid that skin inevitably means baggage too.

I pose the alternative question because it’s not unlike the one that Greg has addressed. It might be easier for both committed and cultural Christians to address because they would bring little or no personal or historical baggage to the problem.

To do the subject justice would, of course, require us to look the history of Buddhism both within and beyond India, and at the history and cultural development of the various societies in which it has waxed and waned. And at the end of our investigations, I would be surprised if the answer was simple and straightforward and universally applicable.

Now I'm not really suggesting that ES should commission an article entitled 'How Buddhism can grow again in India’, but rather I'm trying to illustrate the difficulty anyone, especially an insider, must have in addressing the question that Greg has tackled.

Ginger Meggs | 09 May 2023  

Instead of Greg, committed and cultural Buddhist, why not begin by talking to Buddhist who have walked out on Buddhism? We may need to leave out the Buddhist Eureka Street in Ginger’s thought experiment, though. The walk-outs will turn off contributing after censored comments and “but your no longer a Buddhist”. Although I could be wrong: Buddhist Eureka Street may be more honest than the Catholic version!

Fosco | 10 May 2023  

Exit interviews ? I suspect that the jury is still out on their effectiveness, Fosco. Why would the views and insights of anyone carry more weight after they've left an organisation than when they still belonged ? If their voices weren't heard when they were members, why would they be heard when they'd gone? In my experience, the outcomes of exit interviews usually identify the shortcomings in the leavers that prevented them fitting in rather than the shortcomings in the organisation that drove them out.

Ginger Meggs | 17 May 2023