Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
The Freedom to Speak
Several weeks ago, we decided that our first episode would be about censorship and freedom of speech. What better topic, we thought, for the first edition of a new venture in which all we do pretty much is speak.
And then Andrew Thorburn happened.
For overseas listeners, or those whose social media algorithm has not shown you the details of this story in your feed, here’s a quick summary of an incident that has dominated the news here in Australia over the past two weeks.
Andrew Thorburn is a leading Australian businessman who was recently appointed CEO of the Essendon Football Club, a major professional sporting franchise in Victoria. Only a day after taking up the position he was forced to resign after being given an ultimatum by the club. He was told that he could remain as CEO of Essendon or remain as the Board Chairman of an evangelical Anglican church in Melbourne—but not both. The basis that was given for the incompatibility of these two positions was two sentences from sermons preached at the church from 2013, one of which compared the modern practice of abortion to the holocaust, and one which stated that homosexual activity was sinful.
Despite these being entirely uncontroversial views in terms of Christian history (orthodox Christians have believed and preached both ideas for centuries), and despite this sermon being given before Andrew Thorburn joined the church, and despite Andrew Thorburn never having expressed these views publicly himself, and despite his good record of business management in very large and diverse corporations—nevertheless, the Board of Essendon decided being chairman of such a church council rendered him an improper person to be CEO of their football club.
To make all of this even sharper, the premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, weighed in to say that he had no sympathy for Thorburn’s predicament. He said (speaking of the church’s views about abortion and homosexuality): “Those views are absolutely appalling. I don’t support those views, that kind of intolerance, that kind of hatred, bigotry. It is just wrong.”
There are more than enough ironies and hypocrisies in all of this to keep us occupied for some time. There is the fact that Daniel Andrews himself claims to be a man of Catholic faith—but somehow it’s all right for him to be Premier of the State while belonging to a Church that subscribes to precisely the same “hatred” and “bigotry” as Thorburn’s church.
There’s also the very bigoted way in which Thorburn has been labelled a bigot—bigotry being the “stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own” (as the dictionary defines it).
But at its heart, the incident is yet another example of the silencing and cancellation of certain views in our culture. If you say certain things—or even if you are associated with people who say them—you will no longer be tolerated as a proper person.
In our conversation, I asked Phillip this question: Why it is that some people want to silence or exclude the speech of other people?
PJ: It’s got to do with the nature of speech itself. God created speech. He’s the first speaker. He spoke, and the world came into existence. The way in which he created the world was by his speech. God said, “Let there be” and there was; or as the psalmist says, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made”
Words have two things about them—they have power and truth. So the Premier is not going to go out and build roads, but by his words he can get other people to build roads. His words are powerful words, because he is a powerful person within society. But God is all powerful, and his words create the universe. And so we believe in the possibility of truth, because we believe in the reality that God has created, and we believe that truth can be expressed through speech—because God is not dumb, and he creates us in his image as speakers.
So we believe in the power and truth of speech, because God speaks with power and truth.
Now, there are several ways you can react to speech that you don’t agree with. Firstly, you can listen and disagree and argue and say, “No, that’s not reality. That’s not truth. Have you considered this?” You can seek to persuade the person to a better, clearer understanding of the truth.
Or secondly, you can just ignore what people are saying, you can turn the switch off on your television or on your radio or on these podcasts.
TP: Or you can sit in church for years and years and years and just not listen. That’s nominal Christianity in a way …
PJ: Yes, I remember seeing a university lecturer in church who always listened when the music and singing was on, but as soon as the preacher got on the stage, he would pull out his marking and mark the papers — you can just ignore what is being said.
Or there’s a third alternative, which is simply to stop the person from speaking, if you don’t like that message. You shoot the messenger, you cancel their opportunity, you de-platform them, you take away any chance for them to say anything.
TP: This is what is happening in this latest example. The chilling effect of the Andrew Thorburn incident is to silence and exclude the speech of historical orthodox Christianity. You would think twice if you were a member of those churches—do I want to be a member of this church if it is going to be the end of my career?—and you would think twice if you were the preacher about what it was now acceptable to say.
PJ: This is the nature of real bigotry, intolerance and hatred. What you are saying must not be said or expressed by anyone at any time. And if we ever find out that you have expressed them, we will punish you, we will exclude you, we will silence you, we will cancel you. And so, that then puts terrific pressure on people to watch their words; to be careful. It’s like Orwell’s 1984, isn’t it? It’s like living in Stalinist Russia or today’s China—you have to be very careful what you say because ‘they’ are listening.
TP: So how have we come to this point as a culture—because traditionally, Western culture has been built on the values of free speech, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience. Western culture has always prized the freedom to disagree. In the famous (supposed) quote from Voltaire, “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”. But this seems less and less to be the case. What’s changed? What’s happened?
PJ: There’s a great conflict taking place between two groups in our society, that we Christians aren’t part of. In a sense, we’re sitting on the fence watching the fight taking place, and in a sense getting caught in the crossfire. The conflict is between Enlightenment liberal humanism on one side and postmodern progressive tribalism on the other.
The background is the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Enlightenment thought was very optimistic about the truth. They believed in ‘truth’, because after all, the 18th century was still coming out of a Christian worldview. They not only believed in truth, they believed that somehow you could find it through rationality or through empiricism through the development of science and the like, or even through imagination and creativity (as the Romantics taught). But there was truth.
And truth could be expressed in words. Therefore, what we need to do is debate the truth, argue, discuss, research—all of it in words. And so to have that kind of struggle over the truth, freedom of speech was essential, as was freedom of ideas, and freedom of association. This is the humanist, liberal, Enlightenment ideal. You have your view, I have my view—let’s sit down and talk about it. And out of that, we might come to some better truth together, or I might persuade or correct you, and we might get closer to the truth.
There’s one side. The other side really has come to the fore in the past 40 years (although its roots go back further). It’s the postmodernism in which there is no belief in absolute truth or being objective. All we have is my opinion and your opinion, my journey and your journey, my truth and your truth. But there is no objective truth available through words. And so the other function of words—power—becomes dominant.
To be in power requires a tribe that supports my power. And so I use speech to persuade people to join my tribe and to align with me, and also to exclude and defeat those who aren’t part of my tribe. But truth has very little to do with it, because for the postmodern person truth is not what you are seeking.
TP: In a way, the critique of Enlightenment thought by postmodernism was quite correct. The humanist ideal that we could find the truth on our own (having rejected God), without any overarching truth or framework—it was always a doomed project.
PJ: Yes, that’s right. Speech without the God who speaks is just the sinful human mind expressing itself, and who’s to say whether what you’re saying is true or not? Maybe you’re just trying to get it over me. Postmodernism’s criticism of Enlightenment optimism about truth was by and large right. Which means that Christians need to be warned not to jump on the Enlightenment bandwagon.
TP: It’s interesting that we Christians suddenly find ourselves being supported by old fashioned humanist liberals (who have spent decades criticising us), who now write opinion pieces in favour of Andrew Thorburn. Because for them, it’s an Enlightenment freedom of speech question. But we aren’t Enlightenment humanists, and neither are we postmodern progressives—although we kind of agree with aspects of both. We do believe in the possibility of truth and the value of speech (like the Enlightenment) but we also share postmodernism’s scepticism about our ability to actually arrive at an objective over-arching truth (that is, without God’s revelation).
Let’s talk about the distinctively Christian approach to speech. We believe in speaking the truth in love. We want to speak the gospel-centred truth, and rather than coerce or bully people into agreeing we want to persuade them, trusting in the power of God to work through those words to bring change.
But what should our approach be as Christians towards speech we don’t like or think is false or harmful?
PJ: Well partly, you’ve got to question what has historically been the attitude— because we haven’t always done the right thing, depending on who the “we” are in that sentence. You know, I’m not a Roman Catholic. But Roman Catholicism comes within the broad band of Christianity. And the Spanish Inquisition was hardly an expression of freedom of speech. But there’s no point washing my hands of that. I mean, poor John Bunyan was locked up by the Anglican Church, of which I am a minister, for 12 years for preaching the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I mean, we got Pilgrims Progress out of it. But still, you can hardly say that Anglicans have always done the right thing either. When we’ve been in power, Christians have censored other viewpoints in a way that I think is inappropriate. And I think we learned—in part because of the Enlightenment critique—that we shouldn’t have done that.
TP: Are you talking about the blasphemy laws?
PJ: Well, yes. In a Christian community, it is inappropriate to blaspheme God’s name. So if you, Tony, started to blaspheme, I’d say, “Tony, don’t say that; you shouldn’t take God’s name in vain like that”. And I’d be right to do that as a brother to a brother—but as a government to a citizen, or as a King to a subject, that is inappropriate, because it’s not Christian fellowship. A nation is not a Christian community, although we managed to confuse the two for a long time.
Part of the issue is that the non-Christian world doesn’t understand Christian fellowship, and has no experience of it. They see or hear the terrible language that some people have used in the abuse of the homosexual community, and assume that if Christians think that homosexual practice is sinful we must be using this kind of language too. But in my experience of living in Christian fellowships for all my life, 70 years of it, I’ve never heard a Christian say those things.
We don’t use vulgar language. We’ve censored vulgarity out of our language because the Bible teaches us to (in Ephesians 5 for example). We don’t tell crude jokes, because we value speech too much to allow it to be degenerated like that. Because the community and the secularists don’t know us, they assume that we do. But we don’t—and if someone does within our fellowship we gently correct them.
And so our censorship is a self censorship, a brotherly censorship. Unfortunately, the fusion of church and state in previous centuries meant that our brotherly self-censorship turned into a governmental censorship, which was inappropriate and wrong.
TP: So in one sense, we should guard our lips, and censor our own speech so that it is only truthful and loving. But is there another sense in which we should not censor ourselves?
PJ: I’m glad you came to the other side of that coin—because I must speak the truth of the gospel in love in my relationships with other people. It’s not loving to let people go on living a lie. I need to speak out that this is a lie, that this does not work, that this is not real. I mustn’t censor the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ—I must censor my own sinfulness, but not the gospel.
Unfortunately, we’re tempted to censor the gospel; to not speak at all. And then we wonder why no-one understands Christianity or the gospel.
TP: Let me finish by posing a curly one for churches and ministries. Most churches these days have a library of past online sermons, just waiting for some journalist or activist to trawl through and find some offensive sentence. What should we do? Should we leave our sermons up or take them down?
PJ: Well, one of the problems is that people do not understand what sermons are. Sermons are pastors speaking to congregations. Yes, you can record it. But for the people who weren’t there, they do not know the situation, and do not know how to evaluate the situation. Because what a pastor says to a congregation at a particular time is slightly different from what he’d say in a different situation or time. That’s where the postmoderns are right: language is a relational activity. And in different relationships and different contexts, you may say it differently—whereas once it goes up on the web, it becomes depersonalized, decontextualized and derelationalised. It’s just words floating without their relational context.
So if you go on to phillipjensen.com, there’s a little introduction to many of the talks telling you when and where it was recorded. But if you don’t understand what it was like to go to a Campus Bible Study at lunchtime in 1987, you don’t understand actually why I was saying what I was saying, the way I was saying it or how I was approaching it.
There’s also the problem that the written word is very different to the spoken word. For those listeners who don’t know, Tony writes, and I speak. And when I write, Tony often finds it easier just to start again. It’s just a different art form, a different communication method. And so when people go into old libraries of talks, and find sentences and then write them down, they actually have a different logic to them, a different way of communicating—so I can understand why people don’t want to leave their talks up.
But on the other hand, this is the wrong kind of censorship. I think we should leave our talks up, even though there’s a vulnerability there.
To go back to the Andrew Thorburn incident—there was a sentence in a sermon in 2013 about abortion and an illustration used of how, in future years, we may look back and see the history of this wholesale abortion industry with the same sense of guilt and unhappiness as people look back at the Holocaust. The pastor is being pressured to back down from this statement, but I don’t see why he should. In fact, I would do the exact reverse—given the opportunity to speak publicly, I’d clarify and heighten it. You see, the point he’s making is a very good point. At the moment, if you have Down Syndrome, you have no right to live. You can be killed at the will and whim of doctors and parents who abhor children who have Down Syndrome. I call that a genocide—because you are saying that people who are less than physiologically perfect have no right to live. That is a dreadful thing that our society is doing. That is an evil thing.
So rather than backing off and saying, “Well, I wish I’d said it slightly differently”, when given the opportunity I think we should make the point again, and even more clearly. And if anyone, including the Premier of the state, says it is shameful to say such things, that shouldn’t stop us.
TP: It seems to me that we’re kind of finding ourselves in a similar situation to the New Testament itself—a situation where there’s no shared Enlightenment tolerance, where people are slandered and rejected and persecuted as the scum of the earth for preaching the message of Jesus, and where the key thing is power and whether I can kill you or not. And I suspect that as, as the Christianity-infused Western Enlightenment values of tolerance and free speech break down, we’ll return to what has been the default situation for most of human history in most places—where what matters is who is in power, tribally and politically, not what the truth is. And as Christians, in that context, we must commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience by the plain and open statement of the truth, and entrust ourselves to God.
PJ: And if we get it wrong, we get corrected by the truth. We should always be open to reasoned argument, and assume that we’re capable of being wrong. But when you are silenced, there can be no openness to reasoned discussion.
In that sense, that’s what’s right about Enlightenment modernism—there must be freedom to speak, because truth comes through words. We mustn’t stop speaking. But there is also a sense in which the postmoderns are right—we can’t partition off our Christian speech into the private sphere. We’ve got to be authentically ourselves—authentically Christian—wherever we are. I’m a citizen and a taxpayer. I have as much right to be and to speak in the public square as any other citizen or taxpayer.
And when they say, “No, no, you can’t speak in the public square, because you’re a Christian …” . Well, I’m sorry, you won’t be able to silence me with that kind of tyranny. Even then, I will tell you about Jesus, and you won’t be able to shut me up.