Walking into the John Paul II Institute for Marriage & Family for the first time for the launch of the book with a very long title, ‘Justice Unity and the Hidden Christ: the Theopolitical Complex of the Social Justice Approach to Ecumenism in Vatican II’ by Matthew Tan was a little out of the ordinary.
Perhaps I am not ‘one of the usual suspects’ in attendance. You see, I have spent a good proportion of my life working for social justice from a Christian perspective, drawing particularly from Catholic Social Teaching and working for a significant period, until recently, within a Reformed denomination. This work has involved engaging in coalition with non-Christian groups that share a common concern about issues relating to poverty and injustice and advocating under a common banner. It often requires using accessible language which is acceptable to a wide range of people concerned with social issues. Perhaps it was people like me that Dr Connor Sweeney was referring to in his launch of the book, i.e. those who ‘cloak … [Christian] claims in the idioms and framing of secular discourse’.
While this ecumenical, multi-faith and community-coalition work has been valuable (and groups like Citizens UK and Sydney Alliance continue to provide inspiration in this space), over time I have come to a similar conclusion to Dr Sweeney; i.e., the discourse of modern liberalism often used by Christians to advocate for social justice is not neutral. Sometimes the uncritical use of ‘secular’ social justice concepts can change the way Christians act. One only has to think of difficult conversations about euthanasia and the uses of the words like ‘dignity’ and ‘justice’ to get the gist (people can use the same words but advocate for very different things). This particular statement by Dr Sweeney on the nature of modernity had particular resonance:
Once we realized that Modernity was in fact always a particular narrative account of the person, and not simply some distillation of universal human values from a neutral point above culture and tradition, the whole project of correlating Christianity with Modernity descended into crisis, something that thinkers of all stripes and colours have recognized in the past few decades.
Indeed, ‘thinkers of all stripes’ have come to this conclusion, including those mentioned by the author Dr Matthew Tan at the launch: a late theorist with a penchant for sado-masochism arguably laid some of the groundwork; and a Slovenian Marxist, as well as a prominent Anglican theologian have been making waves with their analysis and critique (these would be Michel Foucault, Slavoj Zizek and his sometime sparring partner John Milbank).
While Dr Connor sailed a little too close to a hermeneutic of discontinuity in his analysis of the changes in the Church pre and post Vatican II in my view, I thought his speech was the best I have heard of its type. Clearly, Dr Tan is held in very high esteem by the JP II Institute. That’s got to be a good thing because after all his middle name is ‘John Paul’.
Now to the book.
The focus of the book is to investigate the nature of Christian action. This focus prompts some key questions. What are the differences between Catholic action, ecumenical Christian action and when Christians act with non-Christians? What happens when this work for social justice is underpinned by the concepts of liberal modernity? Does this matter? These are very important questions to ask.
In a recent interview Dr Tan states that his book isn’t about making a yes/no claim in relation to these questions but instead he makes:
a yes/but sort of claim, in the sense that social justice can build greater Christian unity; however, that is dependent upon a whole range of un-articulated claims, institutions, practices, that form the social and cultural and political contexts within which the act of social justice takes place.
In relation to Christian engagement with political economy and civil society these are important issues to unpack. Dr Tan is making a play to get these hitherto ‘un-articulated claims’ out in the open and his critique will appeal to as much as it will challenge those from across the political spectrum who are engaged in Christian action.
In both his blog (The Divine Wedgie) and in person, Dr Mathew John Paul Tan is a dry, self-deprecating presence. Describing himself as a bit of an outsider without a ‘polis’, his experience of being a ‘South East Asian Catholic’ in Australia, originally from Singapore, has gifted him a certain self-described ‘angst’ fueling his writing.
Dr Tan puts this outsider angst to good purpose. He gets underneath the tiresome secular vs religious divide and is slowly re-framing the debate. Dr Tan does this by following on from the critique of John Milbank to make the point that the more liberal modernity tries to ‘cleanse’ the religious from the public square, the more quasi-religious our so called secular space becomes, via what he describes as ‘smuggled theological claims’ entering our discourse. Examples cited by Dr Tan included sporting participants being described as ‘Gods’ by Fox Sports, and engagement in war being described as contributing to ‘something greater than ourselves’.
So far Dr Tan has articulated the problem well. There is some way to go to practically find a way forward for a range of Catholic and other Christian groups to speak and act in the public sphere with integrity in new ways without being misunderstood and/or needlessly politically marginalised in the process. He is wisely not calling for Christendom mark II. I think he is, however, calling for the realms of Christian worship (leitourgia/doxologia), communion (koinonia), proclamation (kerygma), service (diakonia), witness (martyria) and teaching (didache) to cohere (go here for an interesting ecumenical dialogue about these terms).
For a fellow with a humorous glint in his eye and ability to fire off some good one-liners, he has a seriously long title for a book (perhaps it was apt for his PhD); but don’t let that put you off. This is a very important work for Catholics and other Christians concerned for social justice.