By: Stephen McAlpine
“They came to a place called Golgotha (which means ‘the place of the skull’).” ~ Matthew 27:33
What we are watching in the post-Christian West is the inexorable marching of what I will term “The Theology Of The Skull”. It is of an altogether different mood and modus to the “Theology Of The Cross” that has so permeated Western thinking over the last 2000 years as to be invisible.
Indeed, the Australian Capital Territory government in Canberra should rename the Calvary Catholic Hospital, which they have recently taken over, “The Place of the Skull”. Quite frankly, that nomenclature would suit the death-cult of a government which has just said that it will lower the age of those eligible of assisted suicide to 14 years.
The place of unlimited mercy has now become the place of measured efficiency. The Theology Of The Cross has been replaced by The Theology Of The Skull.
The Place of the Skull
So you may have read recently how, In a piece of skullduggery the territory legislators have, without any reasonable conversation, and certainly none in public, announced that they are taking over the Calvary hospital for efficiency reasons. It’s interesting how the most brutal of governments, whether dictatorial or elected, have always craved efficiency, indeed prided themselves on it.
And in an ironic move, the cross was removed from the hospital on Sunday of all days. It should be replaced by a skull. After all it’s apparent that much of the hostility towards the presence of a Catholic hospital was the fact that the mercy ministry going on there did not countenance taking the lives of other people.
Don’t believe that? Then here’s what the head of the Australian Medical Association in Canberra said when the announcement of a takeover was made:
“It is important to deliver public healthcare services without being bound by ideology.”
Well not the ideology of the cross at least. But the ideology of the skull? Well that’s another matter. The sheer blindness of a supposedly intelligent medical leader to assume that there is a non-ideological position anywhere about anything. It’s the classic view from nowhere that does not exist.
The Theology of The Skull
The Theology Of The Skull likes to posture that is behaving in a merciful way, especially when it comes to killing, minors and the like. But that is merely a facade. It is merely a smiling facade hiding a grimacing skull. Nowhere is this more evident than the announcement in the same week as the closure, of the radical euthanasia guidelines in the Australian Capital Territory. For “skullish” they are.
And this has been pointed out by the Catholic church in the territory, all the talk of how such laws are going to be well vetted, and treated with great caution, flies in the face of the evidence from around the world. Canberra and Goulburn Archbishop Christopher Prouse is quoted in The Australian newspaper:
“It’s almost that you get the impression that the government is clearing the decks to prepare for whatever they’ve got in mind for the euthanasia legislation that they want to bring in at some stage.
Almost get the impression? Archbishop Prouse is being too nice. It’s a naked power grab and it’s got the marks of the skull all over it.
And let’s kick to the kerb the idea that the euthanasia ever finds its limit. Tom Holland, the historian not the Spiderman, pointed out how post-Christian the mood in the Canadian populace is when it comes to euthanasia. The theology of the cross is on the wane. The theology of the skull is on the march:
And how did that happen? Here we are in Australia saying that governments should lead the national conversation around issues such as The Voice, yet when it comes to the squeamish stuff that we find confronting, we throw up our hands and say “Meh, that’s what the people want!” No! The people have been inured to the shocking nature of euthanasia’s constant creep, because the Canadian government at every turn has shut down – or howled down – genuine debate in the public square.
And if you’re feeling like it’s a storm in a teacup, then the tea in that cup is brewing. Look at the percentage increases across the age ranges:
That’s The Theology Of The Skull right there. And as a secular historian, Holland picked the issue. Post-Christianity is coming and it won’t look like rainbows and candy. It will look like efficiency and corporate killing. Can we please disavow ourselves of the notion that the end-of-life legislation in Canberra will ensure that only the terminally ill will be offered suicide?
Please!! If you want evidence that that is not the case, then you don’t have to look very far. This creepy theology always creeps. Australia is like Canada in many ways. This will be another one of them.
And while many will consider me simply scare-mongering, with all this nasty talk of skulls, a better theologian than I, and one who a wider range of Christians take more seriously than they do me, – Stanley Hauerwas – said this:
“I say in a hundred years, if Christians are known as a strange group of people who don’t kill their children and don’t kill the elderly, we will have done a great thing. I mean, that may not sound like much, but I think it is the ultimate politic. I mean, if we can just be a disciplined enough community, who through the worship of God has discovered that we are ready to be hospitable to new life and life that is suffering, then, as a matter of fact, that is a political alternative that otherwise the world will not have.”
Hauerwas said this in 2012, predicting the Theology Of The Skull would take some time to gather steam. Let’s just say that here in 2023, just 11 years later, and with 89 to go, Hauerwas was way too confident.
The Simpering Dog On the Carpet
The whole issue is a little like the simpering dog that knows that it is not allowed on the carpet. First it simpers up the carpet, putting one paw on it, to the raised eyebrow of its owner, who nevertheless keeps on reading in their chair. Then a little wriggle, and whaddya know? Two legs are now on the carpet. Another raised eyebrow. Well, if your legs are there and not doing any harm, then a bit of stomach won’t make much of a difference. And before you know it , the whole beast is rolling around on the shagpile.
That, incidentally, is not only how end of life issues have played out in the West, but also start of life. Back in the good old days of early terminations, we were assured that it was a bunch of cells and that it was very early and that it was for medical reasons. A lot of simpering has been done on a lot of shagpile carpets since then. Oh, and that’s how affirming churches work also. “How about this?” “And if that, then how about this?”
Is it any wonder we see an exodus of well thought out evangelical young people to the likes of the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy? They stare in vain like stranded troops on Dunkirk, waiting for a public square rescue by their denominations to come over the horizon. A rescue from those who have decided that the mission of the gospel is too important to actually have anything to say about ethics that contradicts the zeitgeist in the public square. And all too often it’s pitched as a “wisdom” or “winsome” issue, when in fact it’s mere cowardice.
The Theology of The Cross
So how do we counter this macabre Theology Of The Skull? Clearly the answer is with The Theology Of The Cross. The theology of Calvary. And that is going to take more than trying to recapture some of the institutions that have been overwhelmed by skullish thinking. It is going to take a grassroots movement once again, like it did at the start of Christianity. For let’s face it, Christianity gave so many of the institutions we value to our world, and an historically-clueless world thinks that it can take over those institutions and not lose what is at their heart.
Pagan Rome was governed by a skullish theology. It was about power and not consent in sexual relationships. It was about exposing children almost casually on the hills to die, if they were not expedient, or – as was often the case – they were a girl and therefore not efficient. Pagan Rome was about despising the weak, offering no succour to the poor, and filled with a hopelessness at its core, and a pagan fear of death, that all hope was centred in this life and this life alone.
And that’s where we are headed back to. Although not quite. The Post-Christian West will look a little different. The ideas and the social imaginary Christianity has gifted to the West will be lifted from us and filled with pagan ideas. A post-Christian West will look very different to a pre-Christian West. It will be hyper moral and hyper zealous, and use all of our terminologies, to do exactly the opposite. It will use the frameworks given to it by the Theology Of The Cross to do the bidding of the Theology Of The Skull.
Countering The Theology Of The Skull
So if we’re going to counter it we’re going to have to do that two ways.
The Public Square
First, we’re going to have to ensure that we raise up good people in the public square. Good, brave people, because the Theology Of The Skull brooks no rivals. This needs no mealy-mouthed Chamberlains who believe that they have secured “peace in our time”. It needs a few Prime Ministers for wartime.
And perhaps that will be a generation or two away. From what I can see so far, there are too many Christians with too much invested in this age who don’t want to upset those particular apple carts. Hezekiahs, as much as Chamberlains. I mean, they know Babylon is coming for Jerusalem, they just are glad they’ve got, well, they’ve got peace in their time (Isaiah 39:8). Places such as the Lachlan Macquarie Institute just outside Canberra. whose say of themselves: “We train people to be biblically faithful, culturally intelligent, and positively engaged for the common good. When the common good is up for grabs, it’s going to take a certain disposition to push back. It’s not for the faint-hearted. But it’s not for the hard-hearted either. The Theology Of The Cross must keep our hearts soft in this moment.
I’ve been encouraged seeing that being done already by public facing institutions attached to churches across the nation. And to see it come hand in glove with a robust, evangelical theology. Let’s not pit social justice against deep gospel transformation in the lives of people who need our help. As Sydney’s Wesley Central Mission’s CEO Stuart Cameron put it concerning the Uniting Church in Australia, – a man committed to social justice in areas of poverty and gambling:
“Along the way we’ve lost our gospel moorings. We must again tether ourselves to Christ, and him crucified and risen. We must face the future with repentant hearts, humility, hope and courage. Our eyes have to be fixed (again) on Jesus – who is our only hope. Proclaiming his gospel and calling people to repentance, faith and discipleship should always be our heartbeat.”
The Private Church
But we can’t outsource it. The local church is the future of this movement. Whatever is coming our way, the future will have to look like deeper, and more costly, intervention by grassroots Christian churches and fresh organisations that may well become the new institutions when the old ones crumble and we’re left wallowing in the mess.
So who should we be helping? The marginalised at risk of death at the hands of the skull and its pernicious theology. And when I say “marginalised’ I’m not simply referring to those who the likes of EY and the NAB celebrate weeks and months and financial years on end.
I’m talking about that list above in the stats from Canada: the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill and the disabled. You know, the ones who can’t make much of a dent in our building program finances. The ones who are awkward and don’t work in creative industries in gentrified urban parts of our towns where you can get the best coffee. The smelly ones who might have even considered voting for Donald Trump if they didn’t live in Canada or Australia – quelle horreur! In other words, the ones who we would rather offer death to than life.
Churches that can do that – and that ensure that the poor are not simply their outsourced project kept at arms length from the polite crowd by an agency or by a government funded program – will find themselves on the coalface of the Theology Of The Cross. The gospel call is not to make the poor our project, but our table companions.
And I’ve seen this done well. Now, obviously, our contexts will determine how much each church can do, and for how long etc. But it would be safe to say that few of our churches have tested the limits of their endurance in this area.
Few of our churches have experienced a costly burn by over-doing charity to the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill and the disabled. It would be worth doing an inventory of our church’s local area, or its spheres of influence should it be a regional church, and figure out how we might play our part in staving off the Theology Of The Skull, even if it’s just a little bit.
But public policy or private practice? It has to be both, right? And a sign that we have lost the gospel moorings, is how readily we outsource our social justice to our agencies, at very little cost to ourselves. It’s the equivalent of throwing the widow’s mite into the collection box, and then asking the government – an increasing post-Christian government – to cover the rest. Which then leaves us at the mercy of the Theology of The Skull.
I’m just thankful Jesus didn’t outsource my desperate spiritual need to someone else. He braved the cross, scorning its shame, and was resurrected on a Sunday. And no amount of skullish ideology can remove that cross from history.