• Costello’s overarching message is that believing in something that is bigger than yourself – and discussing it openly - is the way forward. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
At a time when faith is at its least popular, Australian social commentator Tim Costello is urging us to hold onto it – no matter what our religion is.
Mariam Digges

18 Jan 2017 - 12:50 PM  UPDATED 27 Jan 2017 - 8:33 PM

“I think most of us plant our feet on a ground that we hope is solid,” says social justice advocate and Baptist minister, Tim Costello, on the importance of having a spiritual faith.

“But if we look at that ground, it’s been a leap of faith to stand there. And that leap is something I think we all need to be honest about.”

In his latest book, Faith: Embracing life in all its uncertainty (Hardie Grant), Tim Costello challenges all the faith-naysayers to start believing in the concept.

The long-serving CEO of World Vision Australia (he recently stepped down after 13 years in the job to take up a chief advocate role there) is inviting members of the secular community to see the term in a new light.

“Most of us can never prove love, but we know that we live for love and by love,” Costello says. “Most of us can’t empirically prove hope, but it’s hope that gets us out of bed and drives us to either make a difference or try and be better people.”

“So I think we all live by faith and base our lives on things that aren’t simply empirical, rational evidence-based things. I like to say the heart sees and understands well before the head ever sees and understands, which is another way of talking about faith.”

Costello’s 2016 book, Faith, follows on from 2012’s Hope: moments of inspiration in a challenging world.

Like Hope, Costello’s overarching message is broad: no matter what the official status of your religion is, believing in something that is bigger than yourself – and discussing this openly – is the way forward. And this is where the book is arguably most engaging: it appeals to atheists, believers, and everyone in between.

“The public religious discourse is narrow, bigoted and judgmental. I cringe when I hear these attitudes from my Christian colleagues who believe they are speaking for God.”

Costello opens by voicing his gripes with the idea of religion. “I often feel fed up with faith,” he writes. “The public religious discourse is narrow, bigoted and judgmental. I cringe when I hear these attitudes from my Christian colleagues who believe they are speaking for God.”

He writes about his faith, Christianity, in a largely progressive light, but is also quick to point out that while it was once “open around the edges”, it has at times lost its way.

“Christianity has made a lot of mistakes and I think, often betrayed its own understanding of faith,” Costello tells SBS.

A spiritual upbringing

Part-memoir and part-spiritual musing, where the book touches readers most is via its warm anecdotal retelling of Costello’s upbringing. His signature openness about a broader faith, we learn, was a direct inheritance from his parents. Costello’s father, a converted Christian who swapped Saturday night dances and drinking for bible studies, grew into what he calls “a loving authoritarian”. His mother’s faith, on the other hand, was shaped by literature and the arts, and as such, he was offered a balanced spiritual springboard.

Costello cites the story of the Good Samaritan when illustrating the current age of xenophobia. He retells for me the famous bible story when Jesus recites the story of the Good Samaritan, who found a man, stripped bare and robbed on the way to Jericho and therefore, unrecognisable to both his people and his enemies.

“They left him for dead,” Costello says. “The Samaritan couldn’t see whether this man was part of his ethnic mob and worshiped his god either, but this Samaritan saw a human; he saw someone who carried an image of God, and so bent down and cared for him.

“I think this profound story is needed today,” Costello urges. “We are so polarised by the fear of the other and making the worst assumptions of the other.  I think that’s what’s happening in our treatment of Muslims.”

On the growth in popularity of extremism around the world, the author blames secular fundamentalism as much as religious fundamentalism.

“I think we’ve arrived here through a sense that our group, our truth – and that can be secular fundamentalism as much as religious fundamentalism – is 100 per cent right and there’s no negotiating, and I don’t have to get out of my bubble and get into someone else’s bubble and understand their journey.

“I think that exclusivity leads not just to an evaporation of empathy, but anger, judgement, and treating the other as an irrational enemy. I see far too much of that.”

The decline of Christianity in Australia

A century ago, Anglicans accounted for the largest religious group in Australia, at over 40 per cent of the population, according to the national Census. By 2011, they'd declined to 17 per cent, while Catholics sat at about 25 per cent. Christians as a whole made up 61 per cent of the population.

But the group that is the most steadily growing is the one ticking the ‘no religion’ box, so much so that the 2016 Census featured this as the first option in the religion category for the first time. This is because the ABS is tipping it to be the most popular selection, and the boxes are actually arranged in descending order.

But ‘no religion’ doesn’t translate to ‘atheist’ by default; what the census doesn’t let participants select as yet, is a ‘spirituality’ box.

“Every second person in the street will stop me and chat to me about how they’re trying to be a spiritual person, and I think that’s a recognition that even secularism is a dead end, that it can’t nurture the mystery and sense of connection,” Costello says. “I think there is a heart hunger for spirituality, for faith, for trusting something that’s bigger than the material – that’s more than just the rational.”

"I like to say the heart sees and understands well before the head ever sees and understands, which is another way of talking about faith.”

Costello also touches on the rise in incidence of mental illness, attributing some of this to ‘soul sickness’, a term introduced by Carl Jung.

“Carl Jung’s term ‘soul sickness’ was a term to say that, for a person to really become well, they actually have to be connected to the soul, to something bigger than themselves. We’re actually disconnected in ourselves. And I really argue that the self is too small a site for finding ‘me’.”

“It’s very important in this book for me to explain that my values didn’t just drop out of thin air,” Costello says.

“When people often say ‘we quite like your values, Tim”, and when I try to explain they come from my faith, they say, “oh don’t give me that religious nonsense”. Well actually, values don’t just materialise out of thin air – they come from some of your foundational faith commitments – that’s why I’ve written this book.”

Faith (Hardie Grant) is out now.

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Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven airs on SBS on Wednesdays at 8.30pm from 18 January 2017. Watch all the episodes online after they air on SBS On Demand.

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