Book Review: God, Ethics and the Secular Society

Does the Church have a Future? by John Gunson

Just how much are we prepared to be challenged? How far can a critique of the Church as an institution rather than a community be explored? John Gunson takes the reader on a ride that calls for a total rethink of what it means to follow Jesus. This is a no compromise, no apologies, intensely argued case against religion and in favour of a Jesus movement that is centred on ecological ethics and shared responsibility for the future.

Like all great journeys it will stay in the memory and forever affect the subconscious of the reader. For John Gunson the key question is not ‘What is the meaning of life?’ but ‘How should we live?’.

A Jesus ethical ecology will always go further than living for personal meaning – it is to live primarily with ‘the good of all’ being the goal – a pursuit of the greater goal … ‘acting from the point of view of the universe’.

This is a comprehensive coverage of the evolution of religious and theological thinking that has grown around ‘theories of God’ and the parallel growth of scientific thinking that provides alternative answers to developing doctrines. The author is not soft on supernatural theism and also does not see ‘panentheism’ the favourite of many progressives, as the answer. He describes a ‘third way’ – ‘God’ as symbol for the highest and the best that we know or can conceive, a symbol of goodness, truth and love. In doing this he accommodates a scientific world view. He rejects a dualism of the sacred and scientific and sees integrity of personal experiences explained realistically rather than by ‘faith’ and ultimately asks whether Christian theology is worth keeping. What do we lose if we throw out orthodox Christian theology? Is the world any poorer by rejecting scripture as literal?

But John Gunson argues for the retention of much – our urgent and desperate need to overcome self-centredness; our embracing of the Jesus Way as freeing us from self and being for all; the Jesus community as agent for nurturing and sustaining life; a world society where we can live out Jesus’ way of love.

He conducts a splendid survey of contemporary scholarship about Jesus that reveals much that we never had access to in our learning of orthodox theology. He critiques Paul, the dogmas of the Church, the historical perspectives that shaped the Church and makes the case for ‘ethical ecology’ as a basis for constructive living – the core message of Jesus. Ethical ecology asserts that the rational person’s knowledge of the world, and of self, can lead to understanding that the good of each depends on the good of all, and that our capacity for love and good can direct our energies towards successful ecological outcomes. A Christian (or rather a Jesus ecological)ethic will go one step further – lead to living primarily with good of all as our goal, and will need us to sacrifice our own good in the pursuit of that greater good. He presents an Ethical Manifesto to support this argument.

is it time to discard ‘religion’ as a primitive stage of human development – to challenge human maturity and responsibility for all of life and walk softly on the earth rather than have dominion over it? This calls for a new way to be Church. When Paul wrote to various churches that he had founded in Asia Minor, he was addressing the small Christian communities or fellowships in each place – not referring to a building or an institution. The Church should be like these small communities – places for discussion about ethical ecology – the radical ethic of Jesus.

But we are still trapped in Platonic thinking if we think that goodness, truth and love are discreet realities, separate from our thoughts and actions. At the same time Cosmology as a philosophy has outlived its usefulness – so how do we understand the meaning of life? For John Gunson it is through psychology, ethics and above all science.

And lest we fall into the trap of ‘resting’ in our search for understanding – Gunson manages to put under critical focus the major influential writers of this era and none are free from his assertion that they are individually faulty in their claims.

We are a people of new scientific thinking and should give greater credence to our own abilities to interpret the meaning of life.

Highly recommended reading.

Paul Inglis 5th November 2018.

This book is available in print (Morning Star Publishing)  and e-copy (Amazon Australia Kindle)




4 thoughts on “Book Review: God, Ethics and the Secular Society

  1. Peter Marshall

    Like many books or précis of books I come across in very recent times they seem to echo my own thoughts. Generally I find them to support my world view, but in so doing usually do not provide any challenge for me. Of course there is inherent challenge within my world view so perhaps I expect too much in wanting books such as John Gunsons to provide more. At any rate I will be sharing something of my world view at the West End Uniting church on Sunday 18 November at the 9:30am service. I will be most interested to see how my sharing of personal experiences are received and am of course quite nervous about the outcome. But given I am not a minister or even a church member, I think it quite courageous of the West End committee to take a chance on turning quite a large proportion of the service over to me. I hope to bring people to a sense of great wonder through sharing personal experiences of nature and ecology that maybe are very foreign to many churched members. Oh well, gotta take a chance sometimes.

  2. Paul Inglis Post author

    It is very encouraging to see the way some churches are keen to live out diversity of thinking. A great response to a parallel trend to rush to defend the fortress walls as a better educated community questions the unreal orthodox shiboleths of faith. All strength to you and the West End community Peter. Open and critical thinking has to be good in the long term.

  3. Rodney Eivers

    Congratulations, Peter Marshall on being willing and prepared to share your faith journey with the people at West End Uniting Church. I do not know any of the people there now personally but I have no reason believe they will not accept you and listen to what you have to say. I notice your use of the words, “Sharing experiences “. Sharing views” and not “preaching” is the key to conversation with people about issues of philosophy or religious faith. I surprise myself sometimes about the number of conversations I can have on faith topics with every day people during any week. Sometimes I wonder if I may be a religious junkie! Ironically, though, in the classical sense I am not a religious person, concerned about a personal relationship with whatever I might conjure God to be, or seeking to fulfil set rituals, or even to seek mystic experience.
    I recognise, however, that I am passionate about achieving a good society and how for the whole history of human communication (recall the stone age Venus figurines going back 35,000 years) human communities have been linked by religion as a binding influence. At the moment we are living on 2000 years and more of borrowed Judaeo-Christian tradition. With that no longer being seen as valid what can we generate for the next 2,000 years? Or can we do without any binding influence to cope with the disintegrating effect of such social and political developments as Brexit, Donald Trump’s nationalism and the parochialism of many of the current Australian political leaders?
    I have written more than I intended to here and gone off on a bit of a tangent but my purpose was to support correspondents like Peter Marshall and Mark Southwell in putting some effort into making the world a better place. We would hope to supersede the pervading supernaturalism of perhaps the bulk of people who claim to identify as “Christian.

    I had intended to make some comments and perhaps suggestions as to my experience in conversing with people about religious faith on a day to day basis. This might be helpful to people like Peter and Mark who would like to engage with everyday folk on religious topics. I had better leave that, though, to a later date.
    Rodney Eivers

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