Address given by Archbishop Denis Hart at the Launch of Gesher 2003


The Journal of the Council of Christians and Jews

October 30, 2003

My dear Friends,

I am with you this evening above all to pay a deep debt of gratitude to Jews and Christians, who have shared with such dedication and eloquence in the cause for truth, which the Council has embraced in our city and state for many years.

As a comparative newcomer President, I am delighted on this occasion to be associated with Rabbi Phillip Heilbrunn, Rabbi Fred Morgan, and my Christian colleagues, who are present to recognise the lifetime contribution of others, such as Rabbi Dr. John Levi, the Honourable William Kaye, Dr. Davis McCaughey, Professor Robert Anderson and Sister Shirley Sedawie.  Those who have given their time as members of Executive Committee, Editorial Board or Advertising Committee, or in other capacities have always ensured that Gesher is a thought-provoking and encouraging journal, which fulfils the objectives for which it was founded.

In particular, I thank the Editor, Mr. Gad Ben-Meir, who has worked so hard towards another successful issue.  His generosity and skill over many years are deeply appreciated and I congratulate him on behalf of all of us.

Twelve months ago I read with fascination the many articles on the encounter of Jacob and Esau, our relationship with Islam as the third great monotheistic religion and the positive contribution which these articles made to our common search for a humanity seeking to understand the riches and wonder of God and to live and work in his presence.

I must confess to not a little holy envy of what Dr. John Levi and Professor Robert Anderson admired in Judaism and Christianity respectively.  It did illustrate to me that our own association is a great enrichment and an exploration of a world in which human beings are made as the crown of creation called to endless life.

It was with similar interest in this year?s issue that I noted the focus on our common heritage in Abraham and his descendants to bring the name of God to the nations.  During his visit to Israel in March 2001 Pope John Paul II promised to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.

This was picked up this year in the Report of the Robert Anderson Oration given by Reverend Professor John Pawlikowski.  Professor Anderson?s response sees how we must ?work together to shape the public and private values of this new society that is being born in our midst.”

I was privileged to be present at the Conversation with Professor Waller and Cardinal Kasper on 13th July, which is so well reported, together with the contributions on Theology, Psychology and Science by John Polkinghorne, Dr. Gordon Preece and Dr. Mark Lindsay.

One of the fundamental challenges of today?s modern world is the dialogue of faith and culture and the ongoing challenge by which we seek to live a life-giving faith.  I am indebted to Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago, for his reflection on faith and culture shared with the American bishops last year.

Such dialogue between faith and culture is necessary because both are normative systems telling us what to do.  Children say to their parents ?everybody is doing it?, especially when they are young teenagers, and the ?everybody? is the culture.  The culture tells you what to do.  So is the faith.  If the faith and culture clash or disagree it is because faith is a gift from God and culture is a human construct.  This can then create a tension inside us because both faith and culture are integral to us.

Sometimes this clash will result in harassment outside of our immediate faith community.  Sometimes imprisonment and if the clash is deadly, martyrdom.  Sometimes it is ethical and moral in issues to do with life and death, marriage, remarriage, or business practice.  We see what the culture permits and what the faith imposes and it is clear that the two disagree.

But behind these incidental matters is a double way of seeing things, which is a double way of thinking about God.  Whether we speak of God in whose presence our Fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, ?God who has been my shepherd from my birth until this day? (Genesis, 48:15), or begin the Christian Profession of Faith, ?I believe in God the Father Almighty?, we proclaim that God is a powerful God, who makes us from nothing and carries us in the palm of his hand.  Yet the secular culture says that since freedom is our primary cultural value, claims that God has power over us are very problematic.

Indeed, the secularisation began in the sixteenth century, by which we started to clothe ourselves with the attributes of God.  We make him an arbitrary power in the lives of human beings, bringing it into human control and denying the loving power of God as he reveals himself in history.

It is not surprising that if God is a threat he has to be done away with, so Nietzsche kills God and God is denied.  Just as insidious is the soft way which seeks to reduce God and tame him.  We make him the name for everything we cherish, like a pet brought out for our enjoyment.  We cannot permit him to have power or we will lose our freedom.  If God makes no demands then religion is necessarily a hobby. In a culture where both parents must work very hard for five days of the week they cherish the two days to be with their children and look for these as times of self-expression.  Neither religion nor Church nor God can make demands on what you do in your leisure time.  Religion is a leisure-time activity, not a way of life.  Religion is made useful for celebrating, but not changing everything.  Religion can be a source of individual comfort if you find your comfort there.

The insidiousness of this approach means that religion cannot make truth claims and the exercise of religious authority is in itself offensive.  It provokes a crisis in the belief of any kind of true authority, but it is really a crisis of belief in the all-powerful God and a loss of conviction that the Spirit has power.

I believe that one of the great mistakes of our modern society is to deal with God, to tame him by making him powerless and religion a hobby.  Or to put it another way we have lived with the idea of an unwanted child, which must be an affront, and done away with.  There can be no accidents that cannot be righted by the culture.

Authorities are expected to reassure us after some horrible event that everything is the same and will be restored to what it was before.  This is difficult after September 11th and after Bali.  A great percentage of our assets is exhausted in insurance, in litigation, in development of our own security in all its forms, until we become prisoners ourselves.

I submit that we have to look at what we are up against.  We must deepen our call to be obedient to the Lord, to come to the Lord of tenderness and compassion by a true conversion, which means that we do not have an investment in ourself, but in what is the Lord?s plan for us.  We have to love the city, not to possess it, but to perfect it for the Lord.

The challenge is to allow the lordship of God to be the one great thing that matters.  While the legal system, the political system, the economic system and the media are based on conflict where there must be a difference of opinion or a clash of personalities, we must seek to love the city, our culture, its people, and yet to remember that our distinctive way of life is life-giving.

The position which Catholic churches had after the Vatican Council, that we had to catch up to the world, is a real dead end.  The answer to the inquirer is, ?you should follow the Lord because that is his will for you?.  He is active in the world, he is powerful, he sets us free and he wants us to be people of his will.  After all, why shouldn?t he – he is God and we are not.

We have to work in the world in the name of God and with his authority and to be accountable in the world.  ?We live under the power of God, who has been our shepherd from birth until this day.?  (Genesis, 48:15)

In a world of these challenges our dialogue on matters of faith and culture, a realisation of the ways in which we can enrich each other is truly significant.

On this night and with gratitude to the Editorial Committee and to the writers, I therefore declare Gesher, Volume 2, No. 6, launched and I commend it to your study and reflection.

E Denis J. Hart is Archbishop of Melbourne