Move beyond ‘head-counting’ to engagement, says World Vision CEO

FaithPeople of faith must develop theological, cultural and pastoral responses to a globalising world, says the Revd Tim Costello.

By Mark Brolly

September 6 2015Christians must move beyond “the head-counting calculus of church membership” to embrace and engage with the whole community and become more sophisticated in understanding the spirituality of the non-religious, according to leading Australian churchman the Revd Tim Costello.

Mr Costello, World Vision Australia’s Chief Executive, said faith could not only survive and remain relevant but contribute to a restoration of purpose, the renewal of belief in the possibility of progress and a more just and peaceful world that would enable more people to share in rewarding and satisfying lives.

Delivering the Victorian Council of Churches’ Annual Oration on “The Challenges for Faith in a Globalising World” on 4 August, he said churches and people of faith “must be strong at the core, yet open at the edges”.

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The oration, in honour of the council’s former general secretaries, was held as part of the VCC’s mid-year conference at Melbourne City Mission’s headquarters in South Melbourne.

Mr Costello said people of faith needed to develop theological, cultural and pastoral responses to a globalising world. They could not authentically speak of whole world systems if they disengaged, nor could they speak from a position of spiritual absolutism.

“It is not about asserting authority or reasserting real or imagined cultures of the past,” he said. “Old ‘Christendom’ cannot be restored any more than old caliphates. It is not about finger-wagging moralism that says, ‘We have truth and you better conform to it’.

“This is very much about new paradigms among the young, and it may well be that it is younger people who need to do some serious cultural introspection and exploration.

“We need to reflect and define our theological comprehension, even as we open ourselves up not just to dialogue but to authentic, deep engagement with others.

“Theology grounds us; culture challenges us; a pastoral framework is the arena of work that turns our thoughts into actions (and) changes us from observers to participants, from change-takers to change-makers.”

Mr Costello said when Canadian communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) coined the term “Global Village” in 1962, he foresaw with remarkable accuracy how information technology and instant communications would revolutionise life and culture.

“It is worth remembering, though, that he did not think the consequences would include greater uniformity or greater tranquillity... McLuhan argued that the Global Village would actually stimulate greater discontinuity, division and diversity.

“He later substituted the term Global Theatre, which perhaps more accurately describes today’s state of affairs.”

Mr Costello said people were not seeing events such as the rise of China, climate change and the Islamic State through a single pair of eyes or processing them with a single mind. Cultural, economic, political, language and religious differences had not disappeared and a “new tribalism” had emerged.

“Above all, our world is characterised by the paradox of extraordinary achievement and unparalleled prosperity, while at the same time the systems that sustain our civilisation are under enormous strain and popular faith in systems and institutions is under serious challenge.

“There is a basic tension – never entirely resolved – between the principles of community and solidarity on the one hand, and liberty and individualism on the other.

“The Global Financial Crisis brought much of this disenchantment to a head, be it the fury of British taxpayers at bailing out failed banks at the same time that executives continued to take massive bonuses or in the Occupy movement that first began on Wall Street and then flickered intermittently around the world.”

Mr Costello said people of faith could take a disengaged approach to the world’s problems by retreating into pietism or quietism; turning to “hard”, literalist or fundamentalist forms of faith; or by adopting an engaged approach that sought a new concept of progress through deep theology, close cultural engagement and strong pastoral commitment.

He surveyed three “corners of the Global Theatre” – Europe, Uganda and Australia.

Europe, he said, was “caught up in a kind of turmoil, both physical and spiritual, and with divided and conflicting ideas about identity and direction”, while Uganda was very engaged with faith “in a lively, diverse, even chaotic way”, but the people there were also very engaged with the idea of progress (“Their faith and their life experience drives them to the view that life can be better, and the sooner the better.”). “We need always to remember that for the majority of the world’s people, religious faith and the aspiration for progress remains very real, and are closely intertwined.”

For a nation of optimists, Australians had had an awful lot of negativity and gloom to endure.

“… The risk of permanent injury to our faith in progress is real,” Mr Costello said.

“I certainly think that people of faith and communities of faith have to engage with this, not in the adversarial mode of a culture war, but in seeking to breathe life into the optimism and sense of possibility that exists, while also being part of a conversation that redefines what true progress is.”