If there is a lesson to be drawn from the Israel Folau turmoil in rugby union, it is that we increasingly struggle both to understand faith and to respect it.
Conservative Party leader Cory Bernardi says Israel Folau has done nothing wrong and has been punished because he is not conforming with the views of corporate sponsors including Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.
Henry Ergas writes in today’s The Australian, after all, according to Rugby Australia, the crime of Israel Folau is not that he is an evangelical Christian for whom sin, damnation and salvation are ever-present realities. It is that he refused to keep his views to himself, biting his tongue and avoiding discomforting topics.
However, even that does not seem to have been his real offence. In effect, had he consigned climate change deniers to eternal hellfire, rather than gays, he would surely have been hailed as a hero, instead of being accused of bringing the sport into disrepute.
But by including homosexuality among the sins he castigated, he infringed on the rules of polite society. Not the society of his peers, perhaps, but certainly that of his self-proclaimed betters, who regard his views with the condescension, and all the arrogance of wounded pride, which only the highly educated can muster.
That he was found to merit the severest punishment is therefore unsurprising. And it is even less surprising when one considers the long history of prohibitions on offensive speech.
Those prohibitions were not born from concerns about protecting tender feelings. Rather, their origins lie in medieval laws that inflicted fierce retribution on commoners who insulted aristocrats or impugned their honour.
When technological change – in the form of the printing press – made it vastly easier to challenge the established order, including in terms of religion, the laws protecting noble honour provided the template for restrictions on “contumelious words” and “persecution of the tongue”.
Much as is occurring today with social media, the result was an outpouring of measures aimed at curbing freedom of expression, including the provisions against pamphleteering implemented in the German lands by the Peace of Augsburg (1555), the gag laws imposed in France in 1561, and England’s prohibitions, enforced by the Star Chamber, on “prophesying” (1576), conventicles or unlicensed chapels (1593), and on any “disputation regarding the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England” (1621).
In each case, the purported goal was to protect civil peace. But dissent has always appeared uncivil to those privileged by existing arrangements, and the new laws invariably repressed the opponents of an unjust status quo.
Time and again, however, faith proved a tough nut to crack, regardless of the savagery visited on dissenters. It is no coincidence that the Hebrew term emunah, which means faith, originally appears in the Torah in respect of Abraham, who stands not only for the unwavering acceptance of God’s commands but also as the first man who lives by his faith.
That is why Paul Tillich, one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th century, wrote, in reflecting on Abraham, that faith is the condition of being that “demands total surrender, and promises total fulfilment even if all other claims have to be rejected in its name”.
But that does not imply it provides certainty. Rather, faith is more akin to a committed struggle to understand, what US philosopher John Caputo, in discussing Saint Augustine, describes as “the restless searching heart in the midst of a mysterious world”.
Faith consequently requires existential courage: the courage to face inescapable doubt, as well as to bear the risk of not being able to cope with the strains of commitment. And it is that courage which has ensured that incessant attempts at its repression have been as unsuccessful as they have been socially damaging.
No one came to understand that better than John Locke (1632-1704), the philosopher whose work shaped our concept of toleration. Initially, Locke advocated laws prohibiting dissident sects from proselytising, as their preachers so often used “reproachful, reviling, or abusive language against (other persons and beliefs), disturbing the peace, and engaging in quarrels and animosities”. But having seen the gag laws at work, he dramatically reversed course. It was not merely that those laws were so readily abused, making them “a matter of perpetual prosecution and animosity”, it was also that they enforced hypocrisy, eroding the sincerity that must underpin the social bond.
Folau’s posts did not, in any way, belittle those he regards as sinners. On the contrary, he accorded them moral agency – the ability to know right from wrong – and the assurance that they were loved in the eyes of God.
Be they alcoholics, drug addicts or gay, he said, they were in charge of their fate and empowered by God’s love to find and follow the star of redemption.
As for Folau himself, he could do no other than to evangelise, for to proclaim the good news is, as the Gospel of Matthew declares, the utmost obligation of the Christian. Turning his back on that obligation, he told Rugby Australia, meant relinquishing his faith, which was more than his life was worth.
Perhaps that is what his critics cannot forgive: an authenticity one can neither fake nor mistake. In an age in which people choose their identities in a boundless supermarket of possibilities, adopting and abandoning them like hitchhikers entering and leaving swiftly travelling vehicles that emerge from nowhere and vanish into the abyss of timelessness, Folau’s faith stays firmly put.
That is what faith is all about – as every Australian would once have known. And we would also have known to cherish and respect it, even when it is far from our own.
The shame is that it has taken a player of rugby – a sport for barbarians – to rekindle our awareness of the essential that lies beneath the accessories of a world we have lost.
But that, too, would scarcely have surprised Locke. The exemplars of civility, he concluded on reaching old age, were not the Europeans, with their puffed-up self-esteem, but those “whom we call barbarous” and yet “observe much more decency in their discourse and conversation”. Three hundred years later, it is still from the barbarians that the measure of our civility comes.
Senator Bernardi has told Sky News the protection of freedoms is fundamental to our democracy and civil society.