At this time of year, like many of you, I reflect on what I call my epistemology – my understanding of the world and my place within it.
As a Christian I believe that God created this wonderful causal Universe in which we all exist. I say causal because from its mysterious beginnings to its present to its future everything in our universe is subject to the laws of cause and effect.
But there is one exception. That exception is the enigma, counterfactually expressed, of our own free will. Within my own Orthodox religion this is said to be our greatest gift from God. Christ showed us forgiveness, charity, and care as the way, but it is up to us to choose it.
But Christianity is on the decline in Australia. The number of people affiliated with Christianity decreased from 12.2 million (52.1%) in 2016 to 11.1 million (43.9%) in 2021. The largest decrease was amongst young adults (18-25 years). I think this decline represents a shift where young people are looking to different sources of meaning and are driven by new visions for changing the world. The decline in Christianity amongst young Australians coincides with a decline amongst the young of support for the major parties. For the Liberal Party this is now less than 20%.
One of my observations during the recent State election was the extent to which so many young people were engaging with the community on behalf of Victorian Socialists and to some extent the Greens. To me their enthusiasm appeared almost like religious fervour. Their beliefs clearly give meaning to their lives and oblige them to save the world in the image of their “ideological gods” – whether they be in the form of a Socialist Utopia or a Green Planet Nirvana.
If it is to survive in the modern world, Christianity must reclaim the moral ground as an active participant in determining our future. It must engage the young by revealing our free will as God’s gift and how with it we can both destroy or save our planet, we can fight tyranny or succumb to it, we can fight poverty or contribute to it.
There is a whole branch of philosophy – metaphysics – which tries to explain what appears as the logical impossibility of free will in a causal universe. One of my favourite philosophers, Jean Paul Sartre argues that free will is existential in that it is embedded in our very existence as conscious humans. Even when we say that we had no choice when confronted with coercive power we choose whether to succumb to it.
If Christianity is to grow and appeal as a source of meaning to the young, free will as God’s gift to humanity must be central. It is not only empowering but also a call to action for the young in holding Governments and politicians to account. Young Christians will not accept being shepherded into an apolitical cocoon as law abiding citizens. Such a formula will push them away. They must be allowed, even encouraged to challenge unjust laws and regulations and politics like other non-Christian youth – indeed like all of us should.
As a Christian I believe that it is our decisions, individually and collectively, through the gift of free will, that shape our future. We are therefore also responsible individually and collectively for that future. When an autocrat like Vladimir Putin sets the coercive power of police and army against his people, he calculates that enough will choose to obey and that they will greatly outnumber those who choose not to bend.
Most recently this now includes the use of the Russian people’s own religion. As an Orthodox Christian I am ashamed by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill’s support of a war that is killing the innocent including children. Surely in Gods eyes the free will granted to this Patriarch will be seen as being employed against the very teachings of Christ.
Fighting this unjust war has engaged many brave Christians in Russia who are opposing Putin, and Patriarch Kirill as well as the Ukrainian people themselves. But the responsibility to fight this unjust war also rests with us – and not just with the politicians that govern us. For Christians who can see better than most the immorality and injustice perpetrated by Putin and his compliant Patriarch that responsibility is immanent.
But it is not only in war and the fight against tyrannical leaders that our God given free will demands of us that we take responsibility. Increasingly it is evident that our daily ongoing choices are responsible for climate change, and this is leading to the destruction of the natural world. This is another area in which Christians need to take responsibility and claim the moral ground. This does not mean blindly accepting the formulations to save our planet of politicians, it means questioning the viability of their proposals and demanding real solutions.
Sacrifice for the greater good is a great Christian axiom. Our free will increasingly confronts us with choosing sacrifice if we are to save our planet from tyranny and climate change. I think a Christian narrative based on our responsibility to demand real solutions even if these include significant sacrifice would appeal to the young far more than the Greens dishonest claim that all can be achieved without any sacrifices including in high energy prices.
If Christianity is to survive in our modern world it cannot do so by simply preaching the gospel to an increasingly disinterested youth. Important as this is the young are also searching for guidance from Christianity of how faith and God’s gift of free will empowers and obliges them to make choices and sacrifices and mobilise to save our world and its peoples.
Theo Theophanous is a commentator and former Victorian Labor Minister.