BRINGING PERSPECTIVE TO OUR TURBULENT TIMES – by Peter Corney
“Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding.” (Proverbs 3:13)
“Love the truth and understand the times” (1)
‘Populism’ is the appeal to current opinions, prejudices and the interests of popular contemporary culture; the fashionable ideas and sentiments of the times. It frequently rests on a shallow plausibility of narrow and limited arguments and is often promoted by glib slogans. For obvious reasons it has always had political currency but in our time of constant superficial mass communications, thirty second news grabs, social media and emotional reasoning, it is particularly virulent.
To counter populisms corrosive effects on the best, and often most hard won, of our cultures core values requires the application of a certain perspective and wisdom.
I offer the following ideas and quotations, mostly from the wisdom of others, that will I hope provide some of that necessary perspective and wisdom.
(For the sources of quotations and a further explanation of some of the ideas see the extensive footnotes)
Progressivism verses conservatism – a false dichotomy?
We live in a time when changes in our culture, which have been building now for many years, have begun to reveal themselves in radical, dramatic and unsettling ways. What were once foundational assumptions are either forgotten, being questioned or rejected. Historically this is not unusual.
Every generation needs to test the established ‘wisdom’ of their elders and to question its foundations and validity and its contemporary relevance. They need to press the depth and scope of their elder’s knowledge, the adequacy of their solutions to human problems, the extent of their quest for social justice, the usefulness and practicality of their inventions and technology and so on. This is part of the way we move forward and progress.
But wise cultures also value their fundamental foundations, particularly their moral and spiritual ones and those through which their hard won political progress has been made towards the common good, greater human equality, freedom and justice. The present generation typically assumes them but often does not know their origins or foundations, ‘their story’, and so can be in danger of neglecting, distorting or losing them. Progressivism and conservatism need each other.
The role of history and truth
“Not to know what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.” (Cicero 65 BC)
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (G Santayana19th C)
“History is the continuous conversation between the present and the past” (E H Carr 20th C) (2)
The corrosion of truth and the loss and distortion of our Western cultures history are disturbing features of our times. They are the result of a number of forces: the political propaganda and spin constantly churned out by our politicians, the relentless commercial marketing that at best just exaggerates and at worst is deceptive, (3)and corrupt commercial practices, for example the negligent, dishonest and exploitive behaviour of what were once our most trusted financial institutions. (4) But there are other less obvious and more culturally influential forces that have had a profound effect on the way truth and history are now perceived. For example Post Modern relativism (5) has reconstructed for a whole generation how the idea of truth is perceived.
The current funding model for Australian universities that in effect now emphasises education for employment rather than a genuine liberal education for life has also been unhelpful. It has accelerated the decline in many humanities and liberal arts departments and so has badly affected resources in history departments, particularly those newer universities not in the elite group. But in terms of ideas it is the unbalanced perspective from which much of the tertiary teaching of history has suffered over the last thirty years that has had a very pervasive and distorting influence.
This is the idea that history and culture is to be interpreted and taught primarily through the lens of the oppression of the majority by the powerful minority, and their control over not only material wealth but also social norms, customs, values, ethics and language. This has been accompanied by a particular theory of ‘social constructivism,’(6) of how a culture’s values and social norms are formed, the idea that values are just a social construct and have no objective truth. At its extreme edge it is claimed that ‘reality’ is just a social construct! This has captured the teaching of sociology, literature, gender studies and influenced the understanding of ethics, as well as the interpretation of history. The constructivist theory of social values can partly explain how values are passed on but its implied philosophical basis and theory of knowledge is highly contested.
The ‘oppression theory’ of history, where the oppressed resist and eventually overthrow the oppressors, has some validity but narrowly understood and reductively applied is really an old Marxist idea and a discredited and simplistic view of history and the development of culture. (7)
One of the ways this influence now presents itself is in the politics of identity, particularly gender politics. Where any external definition of gender placed upon the individual is seen to be oppressive. Ros Ward a self-professed Marxist involved in the ‘Safe Schools’ gender re-education program says “Marxism offers both the hope and the strategy needed to create a world where human sexuality, gender and how we relate to our bodies can blossom in extraordinary new and amazing ways.” (8)
The recent public debates over same sex marriage and the Safe Schools program have raised some serious questions, not just about the particular issues, but about the way many people, and some pressure groups, conducted themselves and the ability of people to respectfully disagree and the extent to which they understand the vital importance of free speech in a liberal democracy.
The result of the same sex marriage plebiscite shows that the majority of people acknowledge that it had a worthy object of creating greater equality in a pluralist society. The Safe Schools program, because it overreaches, is much more problematic. Nevertheless the more limited and sensible goal of protecting vulnerable children from bullying is also seen by the vast majority of people as a worthy goal.
And yet the way in which truth, objective facts, reliable surveys, research, the advice of senior professional medical experts and rational discussion was distorted or ignored in the debate was very disturbing. (9) Emotional argument frequently dominated discussion and some groups used the tactics of abuse and name calling and even denied others the right to assemble or speak. The verbal violence and level of hate and vitriol expressed in some of the abuse was staggering. This continued, even after the result of the vote was public. As Goya wrote “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters” (10)
Progress, freedom and Truth
“Truth prevails for those who live in truth” (The motto of the ‘Charter 77 Movement’ and the Czech rallies in Prague in 1989 seeking to overthrow Soviet control.)
“Live in truth” (The catch cry of leaders trying to rehabilitate their people in post-Soviet East European countries) (11)
“If you hold to my teaching you really are my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – Jesus.
For those of us brought up on the writing of George Orwell, particularly his brilliant satirical critique in ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ of Soviet Communism and its real life expression of Marxist/Leninist theory, the current manipulation of truth has an eerie ring to it. The slogan of the ‘Ministry of Truth’ in Orwell’s novel is ‘War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength…’ and truth is whatever the ministry said it was! ‘Newspeak’ was also created by the state to control and limit the individual’s freedom of thought. ‘Correct thinking’ had to be maintained and ‘thought crime’ punished!
Our current enforcement of ‘political correctness’, about what can and can’t be said, particularly at the level of campus politics, begins to feel like a similar fascism of the mind! Roger Scruton the English philosopher describes its contemporary version in this way: ‘Newspeak occurs whenever the primary purpose of language – which is used to describe reality – is replaced by the rival purpose of asserting power over it. It conjures the triumph of words over things, the futility of rational argument, and also the danger of resistance’ (12)
Recently Richard Flanagan the Tasmanian author who in 2014 won The Man Booker Prize for literature recently wrote a very insightful piece in the Australian Guardian (31/10/17) on the theme of Progress Freedom and Truth.
‘Progress and freedom are not necessarily joined……truth is the precious hinge that holds freedom and progress together. Chinas advances are, after all, the proof that if all that matters to you is progress, you can have progress without freedom. But there will be a void, and in that void a great darkness will arise. Truth is the only force we have, the one light strong enough to combat such darkness. And if we can be persuaded that the truth does not exist, the light goes out and we are condemned to the darkness.’ (13)
Truth, meaning and morality
‘Cultures abhor a metaphysical vacuum’ (Ross Douthat)
‘When cultures lose the decisive influence of God and God dies for a culture they become weightless’ (Nietzsche)
“A culture not dedicated to the sacred has only itself to take as object, the self becomes sovereign.” (Robert Coles) (14)
In the old days of deep seam coal mining the miners carried a canary in a cage down to the coal face to keep a check on the quality of the air. If the canary stopped singing that was a warning, if it died it was time to get out and back to the surface! We live now in a culture where the warnings are becoming clear that the atmosphere of our culture is becoming toxic to humans. One in four Australian adolescents now suffers from some form of mental ill health such as depression, anxiety and self-harm. In spite of our prosperity we now have more dependent children in state care than ever before.
Carver Yu the Chinese philosopher and theologian commenting on the cultural atmosphere in the West describes it as marked by “Technological optimism and literary despair.” (15) Richard Flanagan says “There is a pandemic of sadness and emptiness.” (16) Johnathan Sacks says our society is “one of a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” (17) A steady diet of dystopian novels and films, of varying quality, arrives regularly in the market place of cultural comment and artistic distractions to further increase our gloom.
A vacuum of meaning
Western culture seems gripped by a malaise, an ‘anomie’ (18) produced by a vacuum of meaning. Cultures not only abhor a metaphysical vacuum, as Ross Douthat says, but also a moral and spiritual one. Has our culture become weightless for the reason Nietzsche predicted?
The deepest wisdom and most profound knowledge is that which provides answers to our most enduring and important questions – questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives, about the nature of good and evil, what is just and unjust, about love, duty, honour, beauty, delight, shame, guilt, forgiveness, suffering and tragedy. The answers to these questions have traditionally been found in religious and spiritual sources, and in the West, in the Christian faith and world view. But currently Western culture has turned away from this heritage and has put nothing in its place that has its depth of meaning and wisdom. No wonder there is an atmosphere of nihilism and radical individualism that feels like our culture has developed a kind of collective mental illness of depression and narcissism. At the same time our prosperity enables many of us to pursue distractions rather than face despair, but the void is never far away.
Richard Holloway once put the matter most starkly and with brutal honesty in this way:
“The person who gives up belief in God because it brings with it certain unresolvable dilemmas ends up believing in a dying universe in which there is no meaning anywhere, a universe that came from nothing and goes to nothing, a universe that is cruelly indifferent to all our needs. And there is no point in feeling resentment against such a universe, because in a Godless universe there is no reason why anything should not happen, and there is no one to resent or to blame. We are alone in an empty universe. No one is listening to our curses or our tears. We stand, tiny and solitary, in a corner of a vast and empty landscape, and if we listen, all we hear is the bitter echo of our own loneliness.” (19)
The existential problem for the contemporary Western person
As Nietzsche prophesied, cultures not only become ‘weightless’ when they lose the decisive influence of God, but also as Robert Coles puts it, when they are not dedicated to the sacred they have only themselves to take as object and so ‘the self becomes sovereign.’ That is exactly what we now see in contemporary Western culture where modern selfhood finds its identity in self-enthronement. But to achieve that God must first be dethroned. The result, as the Jungian psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover puts it, is “the frozen isolation of the heart.” (20)
Charles Taylor in “A Secular Age” describes it as “expressive individualism”; it is the idea “that each one of us has his or her own way of realizing our humanity….as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside”. This “has profoundly altered the conditions of belief in our societies.” Important implications are: that personal authenticity and individual choice are now key values and tolerance is the primary virtue. (21)
While this self-obsession is not unfamiliar as a stage of development in adolescence it is now a common one among adults. It’s as if a whole culture is suffering from a collective form of arrested development! Because this mindset tends to reject any external wisdom, authority or tradition as oppressive the individual finds themselves in a ‘hall of mirrors’ where the only perspective they ever see is a reflection of themselves. This is the ultimate subjective trap, a kind of ethical, philosophical and spiritual narcissism, a tragic disorder of human vanity and hubris. Not the least reason that we all need a perspective from outside ourselves is that for most of us our inner world of feelings, emotions and impressions is frequently unreliable, dysfunctional and distorted by our past wounds and present difficulties.
Longing for ‘home’.
Another image that helps us to not only diagnose our spiritual condition but also glimpse the solution is the idea of ‘longing for home’, it is a powerful metaphor. Not only does our culture feel weightless, empty of deep meaning and trapped in subjectivity, it also feels homeless. Again Nietzsche is prescient in his predictions about the death of God for Western culture for it raises he says “The most painful, the most heart breaking question… that of the heart which asks itself, where can I feel at home?” (22)
Many forces in the culture of late modernity reinforce this. The way we have constructed our cities has turned us all into strangers in our own towns and streets, in spite of our best efforts at community events and festivals most of our ‘progress’ and prosperity has destroyed community. We have turned our suburbs into commuter dormitories dominated by our cars, our obsession with privacy and our fears for our children’s safety. Large numbers of people live alone; our elderly are shuffled off into separate ‘aged care facilities’ and the research tells us that a high percentage are rarely visited by family or friends.
Nevertheless when young adults today are asked about what is important to them they frequently say ‘family.’ I know my own grandchildren, while being independent young people, put a high priority on family gatherings. While over a third of all marriages now break down and fracture families young people still instinctively feel the need and importance of family and ‘home’. So in spite of these negative cultural pressures, or perhaps even because of them, the deep human desire for ‘home’ persists. Home provides not only security, belonging and love but also a sense of place and identity. When these vital things are lost or fractured by family breakdown they leave a great void in young people’s lives. These factors combined with our culture’s loss of a sense of ultimate meaning leads to a wide spread feeling of spiritual homelessness.
Ironically even positive ideas that are meant to draw us together such as: one world, the global community, multiculturalism, a United Europe, in fact often have an opposite effect. The Brexit factor and the rise of nationalism again in Europe is partly a response to the sense of a loss of identity and place among many groups. Being a citizen of one world is a nice idea but it’s too big to be ‘home’. This unease coupled with the massive international movement of people from widely different cultures and values makes our politics vulnerable to extreme views from the right and the left.
In the Judeo / Christian tradition our ‘foundation story’ describes the drama of two brothers, Cain and Able. Cain’s jealousy and envy of his brother leads to a violent conflict in which he kills his brother. (Gen 4:1-17) His punishment from God is that he is to become “a restless wanderer on the earth”, and God’s presence will be hidden from him and he is now vulnerable to other men’s violence. So he builds the first city as a refuge from his fear and homelessness, but that never solves his essential existential longing for home, and as we know cities produce their own violence and fear and loneliness. (23) This is a way of describing our human condition when we depart from God and his design for our lives. As Nietzsche expresses it “where can I feel at home?”(Nietzsche had in mind his own late 19th C. European culture in which he believed the idea of God was dying but his predictions have become an accurate description of our times.) Once a culture closes the roof of its mind and imagination to the heavens – to the transcendent, then the mark of Cain descends upon us, the restless wandering looking for home.
The Waiting Father
But the Bibles story does not leave us in Cain’s dilemma; in fact its whole journey is taking us on God’s rescue plan that finds its climax in the person of Jesus. Perhaps the most well-known of the stories about coming home is told by Jesus, it’s the parable that is known as ‘The return of the Prodigal Son’, but a better title is ‘The Waiting Father.’ (24) In Jesus’ story the emphasis is on the extraordinary patience and love of the father for his way ward son. In spite of the son’s foolishness and selfishness and the pain he has given his family the father has been waiting for years for his son to come home. If we contextualise it a little we can think of him standing every day on the veranda of his homestead looking down the dusty country road for his son to return. When he at last he sees him he runs to meet him and embraces him and welcomes him home and restores him to his place in the family. This, Jesus is saying, is God’s stance towards us. But lest we think this is just a nice sentimental ending to the story, our failures and sins, our selfishness and betrayals, our violence and cruelty and pursuit of power over others are not just overlooked, they must be accounted for. But in the climax of the Biblical story God in Christ takes them and our accountability for them into and upon himself in the terrible but extraordinary event of Christ’s crucifixion. As St. Paul puts it in the New Testament “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us.” (25) The way ward restless wandering child can be welcomed home because the waiting father has borne the cost of forgiveness himself, which is always the way with true forgiveness. This is what Christians understand to be the heart of God’s grace and love. It is this story that is the foundation of our understanding of the meaning of life.
Lord Johnathan Sacks the retired chief Rabbi of the UK was asked recently in an interview discussing the loss of meaning in the West “How do you find meaning?” He replied “You have to go to those people who have preserved the stories of meaning.” (26)
Peter Corney (New year’s day 2018)
(All FOOTNOTES AND REFERENCES can be supplied on request)