QUARTERLY ESSAY 22 Voting for Jesus



Peter Jensen

It’s hard to quarrel with experience, so I hesitate to take on many of the claims made in Amanda’s Lohrey’s testimony-based essay. She explains the reasons for this approach in her introduction and the desire to hear ordinary believers rather than religious leaders. Indeed, there is a moving, if brief, testimony to her own experience at the end of the essay. 

On the other hand, experience has its limitations. I can tell you all about a foreign place, but my perceptions are limited, especially if I do not speak the language, have little understanding of its history and am at the mercy of what the locals do and don’t tell me. Indeed it may well be that I have spoken to a very unrepresentative group. 

Lohrey, of course, writes for us about the experiences of others, especially the young and the disaffected. But at a deeper level her essay is the voice of an experience that she herself is having – the experience of grappling with a religious world-view. She has made a journey to an (apparently) unfamiliar place and is reporting what she has found. She is not unsympathetic to the inhabitants, but she is not going to dwell in their midst long enough to go native herself. The dogmatic trappings make that impossible. 

An experiential approach is not necessarily unreflective. On the contrary, it is quite possible to be properly critical of your own experiences, bringing intellect and experience together in a fruitful way. But it does not give primacy to the intellect in the way that other philosophies do. I think this explains my initial disappointment with Lohrey’s essay. My expectations were misplaced, through anticipating a discussion of history, theology and politics and an engagement with some of the really serious thinkers in these areas before turning to contemporary Australian practice. This was not to be. 

On the other hand, there are limitations to testimony, experience and personal reflection. This is especially evident in the section of the essay where Lohrey is laying the theoretical foundation of what follows, the section entitled “Imago Dei”. Even if you adopt an experience-based method, there is need to demonstrate a grasp of the subject at hand, despite the fact that it may be called “dogma”. Here Lohrey courageously gives her own version of what Christianity is about and what it means. But is that enough to illumine a subject as profound as “Christianity and Politics in Australia”? 

The problem is that for those seeking an intellectually credible account, her rendition of Christianity under the heading of imago dei bristles with difficulties. If we are dealing here simply with Lohrey’s testimony, I suppose we may leave her assertions – her own “dogmas” – without comment. But surely this part of the essay should contain an intellectual engagement with the realities of Christianity, rather than Lohrey’s unsympathetic account of her version of Christianity. 

For example, Lohrey makes creative use of the theological concept of imago dei, applying it at once to representations of the divine in religion. “Jesus”, she writes, “may or may not be the one true God, but he is not the only imago dei that the human imagination has given birth to. The Hindu pantheon alone has over 3,000 different god-images.” 

Now it is true that Jesus is referred to in terms of image in the New Testament. But in actual Christian theology, of whatever stripe, the imago dei is first and foremost God’s gift to every human being, for we are all created in the image of God. Whether there are 3,000 Hindu deities I do not know, but that there are at the moment something like 5 billion persons on earth who are in the image of God, I do know. In short, it begins life in the Bible as an anthropological term. Later it is applied to Christ, but in ways which rely on the fundamental “image of God” language of Genesis. 

That this illustrates a tendency towards a serious distortion of basic Christianity is at once apparent. Her versions of the fundamental Christian ideas are adrift. Is it true that “In Christian cultures there is a gap between God as a form or force beyond human understanding and God as accessible totem, and this is a gap that the Jesus figure has the potential richly to fulfil”? The audacity of leaving out the Old Testament conception of God, with its intimate portrayal of the covenant-making Lord who created and saved and spoke words of promise – a view which in any account is the bedrock of the Christian doctrine – is astonishing. The God of Christianity is built on this. He is no incomprehensible “form or force”. He is the loving Father.

Or, what of the reference to “the grubby world of the material”? The Christian account of the material world is not that it is “grubby” but that it is “good, very good!” (to quote God’s words in Genesis). Indeed, both the incarnation and the resurrection of the body are testimony to that positive attitude to the world of the material. 

Or, what of the sentence, “About the historical Jesus we know nothing for certain, other than that he was a young Jew who managed to aggravate the Romans sufficiently to crucify him”? If we wished to be truly sceptical, we could also doubt that he existed, or that his real name was Jesus, or that he was young, or that he was crucified. All these “certainties” have been questioned. I am not sure on what intellectual grounds Lohrey stopped being sceptical where she did. But, then, what is the point of being as reductive as this? 

If we judge things by the appropriate historical measure, we can, with great confidence, say much, much more about Jesus, not least about his teaching on the kingdom of God. Given the importance of this one biblical phrase in discussions of politics, should not Lohrey have paused to examine it? It is especially relevant to the discussion of church and state, and would have had explanatory power for the material which follows. Here is a startling omission, based on an impressionistic account of the current state of play in the study of the historical Jesus. 

Or, what of her reference (following Lakoff) to “a judgmental and punitive Judaic God” who sends Jesus as a Saviour from sins? Apart from this offensive and inaccurate reference to the “Judaic God”, why has she not mentioned that the model of Jesus as Saviour is what inspires the Christian affirmation that “God is love”, full of mercy and compassion, and hence a great deal of Christian public action? 

To express such idiosyncratic views of the fundamental Christian doctrines of God, of the human person, of the creation and of redemption, suggests a problem of understanding at a crucial point in the essay. Can it be that such an astute observer does not grapple with the intellectual side of the Christian faith because she believes that it either does not exist, or that it has been thoroughly discredited, or that no one from her point of view can take it at all seriously, indeed is not bound to try to understand it? I would be interested to hear what she has to say about this. We know that she has read at least one recent account of Jesus, and that may have led her to say more about his kingdom, for example.

Which brings me to the Boyer Lectures. It is an honour to be included in the Lohrey discussion and I hesitate to respond. But the editor has invited me to contribute, and so my response is largely limited to her interaction with my lectures. Let me say at once that far from being disappointed about the reception and effect of the lectures, I have been gratified. For example, I am informed that the first print run of the book has now sold out and that CD sales have been three times as many as usual for the Boyers. 

Part of the reason for this is that there is in fact a great deal more of Jesus in the national psyche than some commentators seem to realise. That they rarely think or talk about him is deemed proof positive that others do not either. I am concerned that a knowledge of Jesus is declining, but I am far from admitting that he has become an absentee. 

Now I am the first to agree that in a series of lectures such as these there are limitations to the scholarly apparatus which can be deployed. No doubt the same applies to Quarterly Essay. I was initially concerned to read that the lectures rely on “several logical and rhetorical sleights of hand”, but reassured when the sole example cited is so clearly a misunderstanding of what I actually said. 

I asked, “What do you do with Jesus? How do you explain his sheer historical importance while denying his divinity?” As a reference to my text will quickly verify, this is part of my discussion of a problem which confronted nineteenth-century European culture. The assumption of the centrality of Jesus was in force, while his divinity was being questioned. The two things are not logically connected (as Lohrey correctly discerns), but they certainly were historically (as she fails to acknowledge), and we are dealing here with a major revolution in human thought. I am sorry that she did not pick up my discussion on the kingdom of God in Jesus, rather than this marginal historical point.

She responds to my suggestion that we could do worse than once again appeal to the biblical history of Israel as a national mythos by stoutly defending the Anzac story as a replacement. To do so she says, first, that “only a minority of Australians declare themselves to be Christians”; secondly, that “There is more widespread and collective and individual feeling about young Australians who lost their lives in war than about the crucified Christ”; thirdly, that my attempt to move Jesus back into the “national debate about our lives” is odd, given my enthusiastic acceptance of the secular state enshrined in the Constitution. All this leaves me “stranded in a kind of no man’s land of his own making”. 

Well, opinions differ. I understand that at the last census a strong majority of people still identified themselves as Christian, a fact if true which actually reverses Lohrey’s argument. On the second assertion, I can only beg to disagree – and to make the point that the Anzac story was long ago incorporated into the Christian story at various levels. War graves are still marked by a cross (see George Mosse, Fallen Soldiers, Oxford University Press, 1990). Christ and his cross still animate the lives of millions in our country at various levels, every day and not just one day of the year. On the third point, Lohrey’s enthusiasm for politics clouds her vision. I am happy to live in the secular state; indeed, my theology helps lead to a secular state. But the state is not the nation. The nation itself has never been secular, despite the hopes of so many.

However inadequately, the Boyer Lectures are saying that the kingdom of God remains alive and well. It does not support any call to a theocracy. It does not create unanimity on the political issues of the day. But it has let loose powerful spiritual forces in the world, which can be used for good, not least when the individual politician consults his or her conscience in the light of the teaching of Jesus. This, rather than alarms about such ephemera as the Christian Right, is a matter worth consideration.


Peter Jensen is Archbishop of the Anglican Church, Diocese of Sydney, and Metropolitan of the Province of New South Wales. His ABC Boyer Lectures, The Future of Jesus, were published in 2005.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 22, Voting for Jesus. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 23, The History Question.


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