CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM – ALTERNATIVE VISIONS FOR SOCIETY AND GOVERNMENT
By Peter Corney
There are similarities between Islam and Christianity; they are both missionary faiths with the stated goal of bringing all nations into the fold of the one faith.
But there are also major differences in their goals and the way the outcome is achieved, particularly in political terms.
For Christians the goal is stated by Jesus in his command to the disciples recorded in the Gospel of Mathew 28:19-20 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefor and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Disciples are ‘made’ by proclaiming the Gospel so people may understand its message and be able to respond freely and so choose to enter the Kingdom or rule of Christ. Coercion or force must not be used. Christians in the past have at times used force but this is diametrically opposed to the spirit and teaching of Christ and is to be condemned. The way of Jesus is the way of love not violence. The final universal and complete rule or Kingdom of Christ will be ushered in by God’s power and actions. The Kingdom of God is not brought in by human worldly power or force. (See John 18:36-37 and Mathew 26:52-54)
Islam believes that the Kingdom or rule of God should be expressed now politically in a universal and international Caliphate (or rule) under the one supreme Islamic leader. [i] Under the authority of this order all people whether believers or not are subject to the one Islamic government and one legal system, sharia law. Some, but not all, minorities may be tolerated but not on an equal footing with Islamic believers. Other branches of the non dominant Islam in a particular state may also be treated with intolerance and oppression as in the current case of the treatment of the Has-aria Shia minority in Afghanistan. In such a State apostasy or leaving the Islamic faith is a punishable offence and converting someone from Islam to another faith is also a punishable offence. As well as preaching and persuasion Islam’s rule or ‘Kingdom’ can be achieved by force and by waging war, and in some current expressions of radical Islam, terrorism, suicide bomings, kidnapping and deception are seen as legitimate means.
Christianity, believes that the Kingdom or rule of God is established through Christ. It has become present now through Christs life, death, resurrection and ascension but will only be fully realised when Christ returns and God finally and fully consummates it in a renewed and transformed creation set free from the destructive effects of the fall.[ii] A person enters the Kingdom by personal faith in Christ and freely accepting his lordship over their life. Christians do not believe that the Kingdom is a political rule that can be imposed or fully achieved now. Our present political and cultural orders can be and have been influenced by Christians, particularly in Western culture, and so may reflect, more or less, some of the values of Christs Kingdom.
The Kingdom and the Church are not one and the same; the Kingdom is a much bigger and more encompassing reality than the Church. The Churches role is to bear witness to the Kingdom, to live out its values and to be a signpost to it. At times the Church has been very influential in social reform, education, health care and a powerful voice for human rights and the unique value of every human person, but it is an imperfect body and has often failed in its role and witness. [iii]
Christians have lived and continue to live in many different political orders in which they seek to be good citizens. The limits to their co-operation with or obedience to any current political order is determined and framed by their allegiance to Christ, for them Jesus is Lord not Caesar. (Math 28:19 See above) If the current political order requires of them actions or beliefs that are contrary to the teaching of Jesus then they will peacefully resist or disobey and take the consequences. Recent examples are Christians in communist countries and the Confessing Church under the Nazis in WW2.
Christians are charged by Jesus to be salt and light in the world [iv] and so seek to influence the values and public policy of the current order in which they live. They do this by the witness of their life, by reasoned argument in the public discourse, and through legitimate political avenues where available. This has meant, in the case of the evolution of Western liberal democracies, the significant shaping of that political and civic order. For example it can be shown quite clearly that in the development of codes of Human Rights right up to the UN Declaration the process was significantly influenced by Christians, particularly in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. [v] The Evangelical revival in England in the same period coincided with and strongly influenced the political organisation of labour and the rights of ordinary workers, the factory acts, the child labour laws and many other social reforms during the industrial revolution. Christians were leaders in all these initiatives. Christians also seek to commend and explain the Christian faith to others and invite them to faith in Christ. They believe that people should and must be free to make their own decision without coercion or civil penalty. In these ways the Kingdom of God makes its presence felt in the world through the Holy Spirit in Christ’s disciples. But the final realisation does not come till Christ returns.
This understanding of the role of Christianity in the political order is clearly much more compatible to liberal democracy than Islam’s goals and methods.
[i] “The international system built up by the west since the Treaty of Westphalia will collapse and a new international system will rise under the leadership of a mighty Islamic state.” This statement was made after the Madrid terrorist attacks in 2004 by an ‘al Qaeda spokesman. Posted in the ‘Global Islamic Media Internet Forum’ under the name of L. Atiyyatullah and reported in ‘The Media Line’ April 2004 by Yaniv Berman.
[ii] See Romans 8:18-25
[iii] The history of Church and State in European history is complicated, there were periods when the two were joined and when the Church identified itself with the Kingdom of God. The Reformation gave impetus to the idea of the separation of Church and State; it also coincided with the emergence of nationalism and the nation state in Europe. Lutheran theology emphasised the idea of two separate kingdoms or spheres of responsibility, the Enlightenment reinforced this further. The Treaty of Westphalia (1647), which brought to an end the 30 years’ war over religious and national issues, established the basic principles of our current arrangements of sovereign nation states. These principles are now under some revision as a result of the formation of the EU, the UN and the growing acceptance of the ‘doctrine’ of human rights intervention where foreign states feel obliged to intervene in another states internal affairs when human rights are seriously infringed, e.g.; Kosovo, Libya, etc.
( Note: The gradual evolution of the liberal democratic state in England is seen by many as a good example of the development of a successful model of the relationship between Church and State. The observation could also be made that the Church is now so weak in England and the majority of the population so secular and pluralist that the current expression of the relationship is unrepresentative and unbalanced. This view is disputed by those who believe that the current order is a true reflection of England’s history, inheritance and core culture and should be preserved and that the present level of unbelief is a phase that may well change in the future.)
[v ] See A C Graylings “Toward the Light” (Bloomsbury Press 2007) for a survey of the immense influence of Christians like Anthony Benezet, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce on the development and eventual adoption of Human Rights charters and declarations. (Pages 164 f). It should also be remembered that the very influential Tom Paine who wrote “The Rights of Man” began his public life as a Methodist lay preacher.
CHRISTIANTY’S RADICAL CHALLENGE TO CULTURAL RELATIVISM by Peter Corney
Late last year I read the most profoundly disturbing book that I have read for a long time: “ThePolitics of Suffering – Indigenous Australia and the end of the Liberal Consensus.” It is written by Peter Sutton one of Australia’s leading anthropologists and an expert on Aboriginal culture. I recommend it to anyone who wants to try and understand why the results of our public policy on indigenous affairs have become such a tragic mess.
Peter Sutton speaks from the inside and he cares passionately about Aboriginal people but he is deeply critical of the failure of many of our policies since the 1970’s. One of the reasons he states has been the unwillingness to name and tackle a number of very negative practices and values in Aboriginal culture that have been exacerbated by colonial conquest. One of the reasons for this is the influence of a romantic view of indigenous culturesthat re-emerged and took hold in the early 70’s and the pressure of political correctness that protected it from any critique and has allowed it to go unchallenged till recently.  This view is an example of ‘Cultural relativism’.
This raised a bigger issue for me and that is the wider influence of ‘Cultural Relativism’ today on Western culture generally.
In this article I want to try and explain what ‘Cultural relativism’ is and how it has become a belief and value system that is now very influential in our public policy and popular values. I then want to explain how Christianity presents a radical challenge to this idea and belief.
Cultural relativism is an approach to the nature and role of values in a specific culture. “It is the view that the values and behaviours of people in one culture should not be judged according to those of another, but understood in terms of the culture concerned.” [ii]
As a technical principle within the science of anthropology it is an important and useful tool. But it has escaped from the discipline of anthropology into the wider cultural discourse and morphed into a philosophical idea and moral value, an unquestioned belief that has significant influence on public policy and our society’s value system.
As Peter Sutton points out it has had significant impact on our indigenous affairs policy. But it is also very relevant now to how we embrace and manage the new wave of immigrants and refugees from non-Western cultures to Australia. Remember most of our post WW2 migration was from Europe, people with a similar world view and value system to the majority of Australians.
In its popular form cultural relativism is closely related to ethical relativism which views moral truth as variable and not absolute. “What constitutes right and wrong is determined solely by the individual or by a society. Since truth is not objective there can be no objective standard which applies to all cultures. No one can say if someone is right or wrong; it is a matter of personal opinion, and no society can pass judgement on another society. Cultural relativism sees nothing inherently wrong (or nothing inherently good) with any particular cultural expression.” [iii]
All cultures and social systems have moral values, but sometimes they differ widely and are often in conflict with those of other systems. How do we determine which ones are the true or higher values, good or bad? For example the status and treatment of woman differs greatly from one culture to another, all the way from oppression to equality; or take the rigid caste system in India, it would be completely unacceptable in Australia.
When cultural values clash how do we determine which should prevail?
There are broadly three alternative answers:
Allow parallel systems of values to coexist. This can and does work at the level of certain personal values but in terms of fundamental social values like human rights it breaks down and divides a society. It would be very difficult to allow say the Sharia legal code or certain indigenous laws to operate alongside the Western legal system. Parallel development at the level of fundamental social and political values can lead to forms of apartheid, to ghettos, to conflict and fragmentation.
Adopt or agree on a common set of objective values: for example Judeo- Christian values or a charter of human rights by which cultural values are judged.
Resolve the issue by power. The majority impose their values on the minority or a powerful leader or group impose their values on others.
As Christians in Australia today we now live in a pluralist liberal democracy that is multicultural and multi faith. Historically many of its liberal values have been significantly shaped by Christian values but they are now muted and heavily modified. We now have a multi-value situation. While we share a number of general social and political values common to most Western liberal democracy’s there are at other levels considerable differences among sub groups. The current debate about marriage, gender and sexual intimacy reveals this.
All societies need a certain level of Social cohesion to work and survive. Social cohesion depends on how much value difference we can tolerate and the level of agreement we can achieve on major social and political values like; universal suffrage, the status of woman, marriage and family, how conflict is resolved, how the legal system should work, honesty in business and government, freedom of speech and religion, equality of access to education, etc.[iv]
Cultural Relativists are not consistent: they claim that there are no true, good or bad values but in fact believe in and support a range of value laden views. For example many secular liberals who are cultural relativists have very strong views on woman’s rights and status in society and yet this is an area of cultural values where there is great difference between various cultures.
Another example is the current investigation into the corrupt payment of bribes by Australian officials in both the Iraqi wheat sales and now the Reserve Bank’s note printing business. It is well known that bribing officials and politicians is an accepted cultural practice in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East but it is illegal under Australian law. Bribery happens here too but it is socially unacceptable and illegal and you go to jail if you are caught. There are few if any liberal secular Journalists or cultural relativists standing up to defend this practice! Why? Because they actually believe in an objective value at this point, that bribery is wrong and corrupt. They also assume that this belief should be accepted as a vital transcultural value in a globalised business world.
During the last Asian financial crisis in the late 90’s a widely respected Australian economist said that one of the reasons why the crisis got so out of control was the endemic corruption in the Asian and Indonesian banking system and their lack of prudential controls. This is a cultural issue but few if any in Australia would defend its continuance on the basis of cultural relativism.[v]
Christianity’s radical challenge to cultural relativism.
The first challenge comes from the Bibles teaching about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom, or final uninterrupted reign of God, which is looked forward to by the Jewish scriptures (the Old Testament), is inaugurated by Christ through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and return as Lord of all. The New Testament teaches that all other kingdoms and cultures are ultimately subject to Christs reign and the values of his kingdom.[vi]
(It should be noted that the Kingdom and the Church are not the same. The Church is to proclaim the Kingdom and to be a witness to it in word and life but they are not one and the same thing. The Kingdom of God is a much bigger more encompassing reality than the Church. The Church has often failed in its witness to the Kingdom.)
Now, in ‘this age’, there are no perfect cultures, they are all formed by fallen people and so are a mixture of good and bad, constructive and destructive, positive and negative practices, values and attitudes. They are all subject to the critique of the values of the Kingdom of God. These values are found in the scriptures and supremely in the life and teaching of Jesus.
Once a person by faith and baptism has entered the community of Jesus the values of all the other communities that have shaped and influenced them come under its critique and are subject to its values which are the values of the Kingdom of God. We become dual citizens, citizens of the kingdoms of this world and citizens of God’s Kingdom. When a clash of loyalty arises our first duty is to the Kingdom of God. Our confession is that “Jesus Christ is Lord”, not Caesar. The New Testament expresses it this way: “Here we have no enduring city”, “Our citizenship is in heaven”, we are “fellow citizens with Gods people and members of God’s household”.[vii]
The second challenge to cultural relativism is the great central aim and vision of the mission of God in the world. Through Christ God is bringing the fractured and fragmented world back into unity with himself; people with one another, tribe with tribe, culture with culture, men with woman and humanity with the exploited creation.
The New Testament makes the ultimate goal crystal clear:
“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Christ), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” [viii]
“You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [ix]
In Ephesians 2:11- 22 the model or template for the future unity of all things is described in the breaking down of the barrier between Jew and Gentile through Christ, “God’s purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.”
From Isaiah to Jesus all the great Biblical visions of the final consummation of the Kingdom of God – the final result of Gods act of salvation – use the metaphor of a great banquet where all the nations of the world are gathered together in peace and unity and joy in a great celebration in the renewed creation, the ‘new heavens and the new earth’ – the Messianic banquet!
Here is the prophet Isaiah:
‘On this mountain the Lord almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all people, the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death for ever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.” [x]
It is Jesus’ favourite image of the fully realised kingdom of God. It features in three of his parables and when he inaugurates the Lords supper he explains that it is an anticipation of the Messianic banquet. The scriptures end in the book of Revelation with the picture of the Marriage supper of the lamb.[xi]
Liberal democracy’s utopian dream of a united peaceful multicultural society is really a longing for the Biblical vision that has been planted in our hearts by God, but it will only ever be fully achieved in Christ. That does not mean of course that we should not strive to create our political approximations of it now, but we should not be too disappointed by our partial successes or failures, or naïve about the threats to the dream that we carry in our fallen natures. Utopian political endeavours do not have a great track record, especially in the 20th C. We can see the difficulties today as we watch the struggles of the E U with its current challenges, not only financially, but socially with large flows of immigration from vastly different cultures. [xii] In multicultural Australia we need to be very realistic and practical as we identify the common values that have served us well and as we determine the key building blocks of social cohesion that we want to maintain and strengthen, in the midst of our present social challenges.[xiii]
When Barak Obama was running for the US Presidency, on July 24th 2008 he spoke to a crowd of 200,000 people in Berlin near where the wall had stood that divided East and West Berlin for over 40 years, and said in a stirring speech: “We must build a world that stands as one. The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These are now the walls we must tear down.” [xiv]He has found that easier to say than do.
The disunity and confusion which followed the Tower of Babel is only finally and fully resolved in the unity and fellowship of the great Messianic Banquet. This is the hope the Christian faith offers to the world.
In the 5th C in his great book ‘The City of God’, Augustine wrote: “Adam lies scattered over the earth…..he has fallen, and having been broken to pieces, as it were, he has filled the universe with his debris and disunity. However God’s mercy has gathered together from everywhere his scattered fragments and by fusing them in the fire of his love, he has reconstituted their broken unity.” [xv]
The fire of God’s love is focussed in the cross of Christ.[xvi]
Peter Corney Oct. 2012
 The idea of the ‘Noble Savage’ from Roussaeu – see Prof. Marcia Langton’s second ABC Boya Lecture 2012. See also Stephanie Jarrett’s new book ‘Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence’ (Conner Court Publishing.) The renowned anthropologist Jared Diamond who’s recent book ‘The World Until Yesterday’ believes that traditional societies have much to teach us, nevertheless makes the point that “We should not romanticise traditional societies. There are horrible things that we want to avoid…” He sites widow strangling after the death of a husband practiced till the 1950’s among the Kaulong people of New Britain, similar to Suttee (Sati), widow burning in India, other examles are infanticide, and female clitoral circumcision. (See The Guardian Weekly 18/1/13)
[ii]Peter Sutton “The politics of Suffering” MUP 2009 (p.216)
THE GOSPEL AND CULTURE – CHRISTIAN VALUES AND THE PLURALIST LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC STATE
By Peter Corney
Can Christians influence the current debate in Australia on marriage and, if so, how should they approach their involvement?
“The gospel does not become public truth for a society by being propagated as a theory or as a world view and certainly not as a religion. It can become public truth only as it is embodied in a society (the Church) which is both ‘abiding’ in Christ and engaged in the life of the world” (Leslie Newbigin)
The Churches relationship with culture, society and the state has varied greatly over its history:
1. The church under the state – persecution as in the first three centuries under the Roman Empire, under communism in the 20th C and under Islamic states at various periods in the past and now again in the 21st C.
2. The Church over the state as in the mediaeval period and the Holy Roman Empire.
3. The Church in ‘partnership’ with the state as the ‘Established Church’ in England till recent times.
4. The Church withdrawn from and set up against the culture as in the Anna Baptist and Amish communities and Exclusive Brethren, creating separate worlds and exclusive communities.
5. The Church seduced and absorbed by the culture so that it conforms to it and radically adapts its beliefs and values to the culture and or the state . The Church under Hitler, parts of the Church in the prosperous liberal west.
6. The Church as a transforming agent in culture and the state by becoming salt and light such as in the 18th and 19th C revival in England with the social impact of Methodism and the Evangelical Anglicans of the Clapham group – The union movement, the factory acts, prison reform, abolition of slavery, education for the poor, etc.
Newbigin’s statement seems to fit into the last category.
In a pluralist liberal democratic state like Australia Christians can legitimately approach issues like the current debate about marriage in the following ways:
(a) Insist on maintaining our own beliefs, standards and values for our members and institution’s as is our right under a democratic system.
(b) As Australia’s history, institutions and values have been formed within a culture strongly influenced by Christian ideas and values we can argue that to reject these too radically is to go against the grain of our cultural DNA. We should remind our fellow citizens that many of the liberal democratic values they cherish were the result of Christian ideas and influence.
E.g.: The woman involved in the Woman’s Suffrage movement in South Australia, among the first in the world to obtain the vote, were almost all Christian activists as they were in NewZealand and the UK. The idea of the equal value of every individual person and their intrinsic worth is a Christian idea, based on the belief that we are all made in the image of God, it is not a pagan one. This is the origin of our ‘Human Rights ‘charters, etc. Therefore they should be deeply respectful and grateful of their Christian heritage and cautious about rejecting its values even if they no longer have a Christian faith.
(c) We should do the research well and be prepared to argue the case for the general social good of the support of institutions like stable traditional marriages, e.g. their positive effect on children, and the serious and long term negative effects of divorce and solo parenting on children. (See the research by Judith S Wallerstein.)
(d) We should also argue our case that as a significant percentage of the population (61% @ 2011 census) our views should receive significant weight in any debate and be respected in public policy and any legislation. But we cannot expect to impose all our values and beliefs on everyone.
(e) We should work hard at encouraging Christians to enter the media so that a more balanced view of issues and values is presented to people.
(f) But our most powerful argument will be the quality of our own individual lives, families and Christian communities – modelling Kingdom values, this is Newbigins point.
(g) We should also be active in creating Christian institutions for education, welfare, caring and justice initiatives that minister particularly to those whose lives are broken by the increasingly dysfunctional nature of contemporary Western society.(See the research listed below)
(h) We should also be active in respectful and intelligent evangelism because every person who embraces Christ will be drawn to live by Kingdom values.
The last three actions have the potential to be socially transformative over time, especially as society becomes more relationally dysfunctional as it turns away from the practices and beliefs that gave it a greater degree of stability in the recent past.
Peter Corney (9/7/12)
 “The unexpected legacy of Divorce”, J S Wallerstein, LM Lewis, S Blakeslee. Hyperion NY 2000. (The first longitudinal study (25years) of the children of divorced parents. It dispels many of the myths about children and divorce and blended and solo parent families. Children are not as resilient as we thought and are deeply affected by divorce and the negative effects carry through well into adult life. This has great implications for our society as we now have for the first time at least a quarter of our adult population effected by divorce. The introduction of ‘no fault divorce’ took place in the mid 70’s.)
 See The Cummins Report 2011/12 on Child welfare in the State of Victoria. Notifications of child abuse have gone from30,000 in 1995when mandatory reporting was introduced to 55,000 in 2011.See also “For Kids’ Sake” the report by Professor Patrick Parkinson Uni. Sydney 2010. The number of children in out of home and State care across Australia doubled in the 12 year period to 2009. The number of 12 – 14 yr. olds admitted to hospital as a result of self-harm increased by 66% between 1996 and 2006.
These statistics are the ‘Canary in the mine shaft’ test of a culture developing in our society that is toxic to marriage and the family.
By Peter Corney (Delivered as a lecture at the 2012 Annual St Hilary’s Kew Lectures on 23/5/12)
The project I have set myself in this lecture is to try and explain the story or narrative that lies behind the New Atheism and what makes it so plausible to many contemporary people.
Others more competent than I in science and philosophy have tackled convincingly the particular questions and objections the New Atheists raise for the Christian faith, people like Alistair McGrath, John Lennox, Richard Swinburne, Anthony FLew and William Lane Craig. I commend their books and some are listed in the notes
It should also be acknowledged at the beginning that grouping the New Atheists into one category is somewhat oversimplified. For example Richard Dawkins is a scientific rationalist and driven by his conviction that evolutionary biology holds the grand story and the key to understanding humanity and all of life, whereas the late Christopher Hitchen’s take is really motivated by his political philosophy. He is an old Trotskyite who morphed into an idealist democrat later in life. He is driven by his implacable opposition to all forms of fascism. Any government, religion, institution or idea that becomes oppressive and totalising he exposed and fiercely opposed. I must say that on that point at least I have some sympathy with his views.
Nevertheless they all share a materialist view of reality or what is sometimes called scientific naturalism, which claims there is nothing beyond the physical and material. There is no metaphysic, nothing bigger or other than the particles, forces and spaces of the physical world. This is the mental room they inhabit, what has been called ‘the windowless room!’
Every age in every culture develops a ‘plausibility structure’ – what most people find believable or unbelievable. It may be true or false, it might correspond to reality or it might not, but it is enormously influential in their reception or rejection of ideas and their beliefs. Plausibility structures and world views are closely connected.
For example, a contemporary Western person finds the idea of evil spirits implausible, whereas an African tribal person finds them quite plausible.
Plausibility structures and worldviews are developed and sustained by stories or narratives that a culture tells and retells to itself, usually in an over simplified form because they have to be understandable by everyone, not just the experts. These are a cultures ‘myths. Like the Henry Lawson and Banjo Pattison outback stories that sustain the Aussie male identity myth.
The New Atheists tell a story. They have a narrative about the history of Western Culture that is really more powerful than any particular scientific, philosophical or ethical argument they might mount. The plausibility of their case rests on a story, a myth that has been around in Western Culture since the second half of the 19th Century, although its roots are in ‘The Enlightenment’. Indeed the word ‘enlightenment’ is part of the myth. This story has created our Modern Western Plausibility Structure. It is this myth I want to try and unpack.
Before I go further it might be helpful if I define the way I am using certain terms . I am using the terms Modernity and Post Modernity in the following way:
Modernity is marked by the following characteristics:
A confidence in reason and science. ( A scientific breakthrough a day will keep the chaos at bay!)
There is objective truth and it can be found.
A belief in progress.
Faith in technology
Its ethical values are borrowed from Christianity.
Faith in humanity’s ability to improve itself by education and knowledge.
It seeks to keep religion in the private sphere.
‘Materialist’, sceptical of anything beyond the physical realm.
Post Modernity is a critique of modernity and is characterised by the following characteristics:
A loss of confidence in objective truth and absolutes.
Embraces relativism and perspectivism . ( Its all a matter of individual perspective.)
Adopted Nietzsche’s view that the only absolute is mans will to power.
A loss of faith in all ‘big stories’ or grand narratives that purport to explain everything.
A loss of faith in progress.
Openness to other dimensions of experience other than just the material world.
Some knowledge of the Russian revolution of 1917 is part of everyone’s mental furniture today but what is not so well understood is that it launched Eastern Europe on a vast experimentthat apart from the brief extremes of the French Revolution in the 18thCentury, had never been attempted so thoroughly before. That experiment was the complete rejection and marginalising of religion and all transcendent values as the source and foundation of morality, meaning and purpose. That experiment, as we now know, failed with disastrous consequences.
What is even less well understood by contemporary people is that Western Europe, England, Australia, New Zealand and North America have now relaunched the experiment, although from a completely different ideological base and less self consciously – what we might call ‘radical secularism’.
The rejection or complete marginalisation of God and religious faith and especially the Christian faith, is a bold experiment for our culture. The Christian faith is part of the West’s cultural DNA, so this project is a radical one and goes against the hidden grain of our culture. To attempt such a radical experiment requires a powerful story or myth to justify and undergird it.
We all love stories, especially those that have a good plot, conflict, heroes and villains. This story has all these elements.
The Yale scholar David Bentley Hart in his brilliant book, Atheist Delusions(Whose thesis Ihave drawn on heavily for this lecture) , makes the point that ‘Modernity’ attempts to define itself as “ an Age of Reason that is emerging from and overthrowing an Age of Faith.” It portrays itself as the grand adventure of the struggle for human freedom, our coming of age, so long delayed by the priestcraft, superstition and intolerance of religion. Modernity is “the great revolution that liberated society and the individual alike from the crushing weight of tradition and religious dogma.” Behind this definition, he says, lies a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale; its only defect is that it is largely a false and grossoversimplification. His book is an erudite deconstruction of the myth.
The story goes like this: Once upon a time Western people were the naïve children of Mother Church and during this age of faith, education, culture and science stagnated and languished. Ignorance and superstition held sway and knowledge was stifled by religious dogma. There was an unholy alliance of Church and State .The last remnants of classical learning from antiquity were lost or destroyed by the fires of faith. The inquisition and the burning of witches’ features prominently. The Church opposed scientific enquiry. The great achievements of Greek science were forgotten till restored by Islamic scholars. It was the ‘Dark Ages’. Even the word ‘Medieval’ became a pejorative rather than a term to describe an historical period. All was darkness. But then the age of reason and modern science dawned with the Enlightenment and we moved into the age of light and knowledge and progress. At last humanity had come of age. The story of Galileo almost invariably occupies a central place in this narrative as an example of the struggle between faith and reason, Galileo the hero scientist versus the Church as villain. It is a simple and compelling tale, easily followed and tidy in its explanations, but as Hart points out with detailed historical analysis, largely a false and grossly oversimplified one.
This narrative that lies behind modernity’s self-image is a coffee table book history, as many of our cultural myths are.
To correct some of the historical facts in any detail now would be very time consuming and I have listed references in the notes that do this well. But let me make the following general points:
1. On the progress of scientific knowledge
The progress of scientific knowledge does have serendipitous breakthroughs or major advances like Newton’ s or Einstein’s, but it is generally an accumulative process. Copernicus and Galileo’s work stands out on the shoulders of many other earlier scholars, like the logicians and mathematicians of the 13th and 14th Centuries – names that most of us have never heard of : Gerard of Brussells, William of Ockham and the Oxford school of Walter Burleigh, John Dumbleton and Richard Swinehead, and in France, Jean Buridan and Nicholas Oresme. Oresme had suggested two hundred years earlier than Galileo that the earth could move arround the sun – a heliocentric rather than a geocentric view. And this is just a small sample. Copernicus and Galileo were the heirs of a long tradition of astronomers, cosmologists and mathematicians. Louis Pasteur the great 19th Century French chemist and microbiologist made the point that sudden insights and discoveries only occur to the intellect that has rehearsed and prepared for them. The same could be said for societies.
2. The common caricature of the medieval period from, say the 8th to 14th Centuries, found in popular histories and popular thought, as a period of backward ignorance and superstition is now largely rejected by serious scholars of the period . Even the term ‘the dark ages’, if used at all, is restricted to the period after the fall of Rome and the collapse of the Western Empire from the 5th to 8th Century. It was a time of great dislocation as Roman Government structures and organised education collapsed. This term also meant we could not ‘see’ into it due to lack of historical data. But historians have now researched the period much more thoroughly and deeply and have considerably revised their views. The period from the 10th to 14th Centuryis now generally acknowledged to in fact be a particularly fertile period of scholarship. The 11th Century is when the university was invented and established in Europe.
The late medieval period (13th to 14th Century) was also very creative as ideas and classical texts found their way back into Europe from the dying but dazzlingly brilliant culture of the Byzantine Christian Empire centred at Constantinople. An illustration of how the period has beencaricatured is the claim, first popularised in the 19th Century, and still common, that all medieval people believe the Earth was flat. This claim is quite wrong. In fact, the study of university lectures from the medieval universities show that the idea that the Earth is a sphere was quite common among scholars.
For anyone to describe the history of the middle to late medieval period as a time of darkness, ignorance and the suppression of learning and science by the Church is simply ignorant of the facts. And remember that almost all the scholars, astronomers, mathematicians and philosophers were Christian clergy. They were, after all, the main educated group in medieval society. Their Christian faith was a strong motivator in their scholarship as they believed it was their duty to examine and discover the secrets of the Natural World because it expressed and revealed the Glory of God. They believed that the natural world was an ordered and rational one because the God who created it was a rational and ordered God. The Judeo-Christian God was not like the capricious and fickle gods of pagan classical antiquity. His word and covenants were trustworthy. It was this idea that lay behind the progress of Western science.
A fascinating contemporary research project is currently underway at the University of Durham in the UK. It is called The Ordered UniverseProject. Durham University has one of the largest collections of medieval manuscripts in Europe. A multidisciplinary team of historians and scientists are carefully researching this treasure trove of medieval manuscripts to gather evidence to show that the period from 11th to 14th Century in England, the period prior to the so-called ‘Enlightenment’, was actually a very rich time of scientific enquiry and discovery.
Their latest star witness is a 13th Century English scholar and scientist who was also the Bishop of Lincoln. He wrote about everything from sound to comets and stars, but his essay on the nature of colour stunned the researchers because it reveals a remarkably modern understanding of colour – that colours do not exist by themselves but are a property of the interactions of light and matter. And this was written in about 1220!
The project’s initiators say: “That without an awareness of the intellectual developments of this period modern science risks radically underestimating its own foundations.”
The fact is that serious contemporary historians of the medieval period do not speak in the simplistic terms of the modernist myth.
3. But modernity’s story – its myth of the triumph of reason and science is easily told because it is partly true and its achievements are dramatic and largely within the scope of contemporary memories. For example:
The unlocking of the secrets of the physical world
The development of modern technology, especially the ever surprising growth of digital technology
The extraordinary medical advances
The achievements of modern chemistry and microbiology
The unlocking of our DNA and the human genome structure
And I haven’t even mentioned engineering and the advances in materials science.
The achievements are enormous and stunning and should be celebrated. No one wants to go back to living without anaesthesia, antibiotics, and immunisation!
But modernity’s myth also comes with another set of ideas that demand a critique:
The idea of continual progress. And not only progress in invention and discovery and mastery of the physical world, but also: –
A belief in the progress of the human spirit. We also believe we are overcoming conflict, inequality, poverty, injustice; that we have advanced politically through our democratic institutions.
We also believe that through education, psychological understanding and social improvement, we are delivering a new humanity.
And this of course is the great Enlightenment dream – the creation of Utopia!
However,there is another story that runs parallel to this and challenges this myth of comprehensive progress – a darker story.
The high point of modernity – the 20th Century and 21st Century have also brought us the following:
The terrible cost of three great secular political experiments:
The extermination of 8 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust
At least 80, possibly 100 million killed or starved to death in Stalin’s Soviet Republic and Mao’s China.
And we can add to these three major disastrous political experiments, Pol Pot’s Kampuchean experiment with 2 million killed and a country ruined.
Then there are the ongoing smaller but humanly costly wars such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and numerous civil wars, such as the Balkans and their accompanying genocides.
The UN was the creation of our idealism after WWII to reign in and manage our penchant for solving political problems with violent conflict. But with some notable exceptions, it now has a litany of failures as peacemaker, due mainly, it must be said, not to the institution itself but to the pressures and self-interest of sovereign nations. It’s educational and health initiatives have been much more effective, but of course in these matters the protection of power is a less immediate concern.
Then there is the matter of displaced persons due to famine and conflict. The UN estimates there are approximately 43 million displaced persons in the world.
If we turn to technology, it’s a mixed blessing. For example, nuclear power has brought us cheap energy but it has also brought us Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl and now Fukushima. The loss of life, the cancer and genetic mutations, and land made sterile for hundreds of years is a high cost. 
We have polluted and ravaged our environment and daily we add to the extinction of species on our precious planet.
In spite of the green revolution of the 1970s that freed places like India from famine, two thirds of the world are still undernourished and we are now lurching towards a new food and water crisis.
The dark satanic mills of the 19th Century industrialised England are now replaced by their equivalents in Asia, India, China and Indonesia.
There is now serious doubt about the viability and sustainability of our economic model of continuous growth and endless consumption as well as doubts about the stability of our financial system.
I could go on but I won’t, and you don’t want me to either! Because we all want to believe in modernity’s myth of comprehensive, unqualified, unending progress.
This parallel story to the myth of progress, these facts, are what drive the post-modern critique of modernity.
To keep the myth of science and reason’s triumphs and irresistible progress alive and well, and without major critique, there needs to be an enemy to attack, who, if you allow to return to central importance again in our culture, will halt our progress to Utopia! The enemy is religion, and so a war is constructed, a war between science and faith, reason and religion, progress and the Church.
This is reflected in the very intemperate remarks of some of the champions of the so-called New Atheism. Richard Dawkins describes religion as a ‘virus’ that must be eliminated, and Daniel Dennett says, ‘religion must be caged’ to protect the young.
Richard Dawkins is one of our most celebrated scientists and evolutionary biologists. He held the prestigious Oxford chair for “The Public Understanding of Science” for 13 years till 2008. He has exercised great influence. His ideas can be associated with what has been called ‘Neo Darwinism’ (or Social Darwinism). By Neo Darwinism is meant, not just the scientific explanation of evolutionary biology but its extension into sociobiology and its application to religious, philosophical, ethical and political conclusions about society, human purpose and meaning. It has been said that Neo Darwinism or social darwinism has taken over today as the dominant explanation or narrative for understanding human life and society, replacing the position Freud and Marx held for previous generations. Here is a statement from a sociobiological perspective: “Our belief in morality, is merely an adaption put in place by natural selection to further our reproductive ends. Hence the basis of ethics does not lie in God’s will….. Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.” Just another of natural selections tricks! 
The other great contemporary evolutionary biologist the late Stephen Jay Gould held a different position to Dawkins, he opposed Social Darwinism, sociobilogy and evolutionary psychology. He held the view that there are two non overlapping fields of discourse (Magesteria); the magesteria of science which covers the empirical realm and the magesteria of religion that covers questions of meaning and moral value. Science should not attempt to trespass out of its field of discourse. Dawkins disagreed with Gould. They also disagreed on a number of scientific issues in relation to evolution.
As the author of “The Selfish Gene” Dawkins has done as much as anyone to popularise the idea that the blind selfish processes of genetic evolution are the basic reality behind our existence. But he tries to deny its ethical implications. In a strange statement that seems to contradict his own premises he writes: “If we tried to learn personal lessons from evolutionary biology we would all the time be doing very unpleasant very selfish things to each other. Fortunately we do not live in a Darwinian world. Civilisation has changed it very radically…….. we have been given our brains by natural selection. Now we can use them to rebel against the tyrany of our selfish genes.” Peter Lowman in his excellent book “A Long Way East of Eden” asks the obvious questions: But “From where do we get the power, the desire to transcend the dictates of our genes…… and from where does Dawkins find his alternative ideals, in whose name we are to fight against the tyrany of our selfish genes?” 
At this point Dawkins needs to escape from his ‘windowless room’ but is logically trapped inside it for there is nothing beyond it to appeal to. In the end this scientific reductionism gives no satisfactory explanation for lifes most important questions. It is like the explanation that music is fluctuating air pressure – its true as far as it goes but there is so much more to say! At this point I am reminded of G K Chestertons description of those who hold such positions, “They have the conviction and clarity of those whose minds are trapped in the well lit prison of a single idea.”
At this point we see the clash of Post Modernity with Modernity most acutely.
4. All this leads me to the last and key point I want to make about modernity’s myth and the narrative that lies behind the New Atheism. It fails to deal with the real culprit, which is not religion, but human nature, which continually disappoints. At this point the New Atheism seems naïve and overly influenced by Utopian liberal humanism and its great faith in human nature’s ability to overcome its weakness’s unaided, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. 
This is a curious attitude given the New Atheism is also strongly influenced by neo-Darwinism and evolutionary biology. One would think that the survival of the fittest and strongest would lead to a more pessamistic view, one that would reinforce Nietzsche’s bleak prophesy that when God dies for a culture, in the end, all you are left with as the only absolute is the will to power, with no constraints but those we construct ourselves. As we attempt to construct them we need to keep in mind Dostoevsky’s words, If God did not exist everything is permitted.
Nietzsche’s view is reinforced by the great secular atheist political experiments of the 20th Century I mentioned earlier; Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. It is interesting that the iconic propaganda film that launched Hitler’s terrible experiment was entitled The Triumph of the Will. It is chilling viewing, probably the most brilliant propaganda film ever made.Viewing it is like experiencing a religious ceremony, albeit a pagan one.
Its purpose was to lead a whole nation to embrace an idea – to believe in the power and superiority of autonomous man when he sets his will to triumph over every weakness, challenge, and enemy. The man is of course the noble, blond, pure Teutonic male of Hitler’s fantasy. To achieve this, and to make the nation great again, it must first be racially purified and then the unreserved collective allegiances of the people must be given to the State, represented in the person of the Leader, the Feuhrer. It is a chilling warning we ignore at our own peril. For when the focus of the will to power is concentrated in the Statein this way and unrestrained by any transcendent moral value we are at themost dangerous point of our collective experience, because the State can and does kill with terrible ruthlessness and on a grand scale. That is the lesson of human history.
In his autobiography Christopher Hitchens describes his abandonment of Marxist idealism with some nostalgia. He quotes Oscar Wilde; ‘A map of the world that did not show Utopia would not be worth consulting.’ I used to adore that phrase, Hitchens says, but now reflect more on the shipwrecks and prison islands to which the quest has led.  Because of his deep suspicion of oppressive regimes and his wide experience as a political journalist Hitchens has a more astute awareness of humanities dark side than some of his fellow travellers.
So the real story is more complex than modernity’s narrative suggests – and the real culprit lurking in the background is not religion but human nature:
Our falleness, our weaknesses, our selfishness, our capacity for cruelty and evil.
Our will to power, our drive to be free of any restraints on our desires and choices and the responsibility for their ends.
Terence Malik in his brilliant and beautiful film The Tree of Life delivers a convincing verdict onthe neo Darwinian fantasy. The Mother in the film says to her sons; there are two ways through life the way of nature or the way of grace, you have to choose which one you will follow.
By neo Darwinian fantasy I do not mean the scientific explanation of evolutionary biology but the extensions from that into philosophical and ethical conclusions. What it means to be fully human and our meaning and purpose and how we overcome the dark side of our natures.
If we are to focus on human nature, then Christians must also acknowledge their failures, made worse by their knowledge of grace and goodness. We cannot claim to be untouched and unaffected by this. At our worst and our moraly weakest we have created our own atrocities and bowed the knee to Caesar’s seductions or his demands. But at our best we have given ourselves up to be redeemed and transformed by the power of God’s love and grace, and we have fought the darkness in ourselves and our societies and changed them. Christianity has an explanation and an antidote for the darkness in the human heart and an answer to our individual and collective guilt for the appalling results of our will to power. That is what we call The Gospel.
Christianity’s great radical moral idea is that we are all made in the image of God and so every person must be treated with dignity and justice and kindness. Every person is precious whatever their ability or disability, whatever their station in life, whether they are embryos, infants, aged, disabled, prisoners or free, all are precious. This is the great idea that transformed the brutal ancient pagan world of Rome and claimed the heart and mind of Europe and shaped our collective moral imagination and what is best in the moral DNA of Western Culture. This ironically is what lies behind our now secular liberal values that the New Atheists assume and borrow. Alain de Botton  acknowledged this in his recent book Religion for Atheists. In fact the ground he traverses could well be a better place to begin a more helpful conversation between Atheists, Agnostics and Christians.
In a sense every Western atheist today is a post-Christian one, that is, a person whose best values are shaped and borrowed from the great ideas of the Christendom they have rejected, or left behind through cultural and historical amnesia. The exceptions to this are the French Atheistic philosophers like Michel Onfray who are more ruthlessly consistent. They dismiss their English counterparts as Christian Atheists who are afraid to take their views to their nihilistic and Nietzchean conclusions.
But borrowed values don’t last forever and, given our new knowledge in genetics, soon the lure and logic of social biology and social Darwinism and genetic engineering will press in upon us once again as it did in the early part of the 20th Century in the Eugenics Movement. A movement supported by the leading Atheists of the day like George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell. It should not be forgotten that the subtitle of Darwin’s book The Origin of the Species is – the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. Under the vision of improving life, the agenda of racial purifying and superiority are easily smuggled in. Never forget that, in addition to the extermination of 8 million Jews, the Nazis euthanized 80,000 patients in mental hospitals. The principles of Eugenics were practiced in North America before National Socialism came to power in Germany, and in the Scandinavian countries right up to World War 2, after which it became a moral embarrassment.
To be fair, most of the New Atheists would be appalled if they felt they had contributed to this possibility again by their mythic story, but of course we don’t always see all the consequences of our ideas, especially if we misunderstand, distort, or fail to properly read our history.
In conclusion, the narrative, the mythical story that lies beneath “The New Atheism”, that forms its foundation, is an inaccurate, biased and gross oversimplification of the formation of Western Culture and for the sake of our future it must be challenged.
Peter Corney 23/5/2012
William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Wheaton Crossway (2008 rev.)
Antony Flew, There is a God, HarperOne (2009)
D Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages (2001)
David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions – The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, Yale Press (2009)
John Lennox, God’s Undertaker – has science buried God? Lion (2009)
D Lindberg, Science in the Middle Ages (1978)
D Lindberg and RL Numbers, Beyond War and Peace – a reappraisal of the encounter between Christianity and science, Cambridge UP (1986)
D Lindberg, “Myths and Truths in Science and Religion: A historical perspective”, lecture – Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, University of Cambridge, UK, 1/5/2006.
P Lowman, A Long Way East of Eden, Paternoster (2002)
Alistair McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion, Veritas, IVP (2007)
Master of Colour, New Scientist, 10/3/12,No. 2855, p. 52-53
J P Moreland Scaling the Secular City, Baker Books, 1987
J B Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (1991)
P J Sampson, Six Modern Myths Challenging Christian Faith, IVP (2000)
Richard Swinburne, Is there a God, Oxford UP (2010)
 Antony Flew, There is a God, Harper One (2009) – A former atheist and leading British philosopher, Past Professor. Of Philosophy at Keele Uni. UK, also positions at Oxford and Aberdeen Universities.
Richard Swinburne, Is there a God, Oxford UP (2010) – He is also a leading British Philosopher, Past Professor of Philosophy Oxford Uni.
William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Wheaton Crossway (2008 rev.) – William Lane Craig is Prof of Philosophy Biola Uni US
Alistair McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion, Veritas, IVP (2007) – Alistair McGrath is an Oxford theologian and scientist
John Lennox, God’s Undertaker – has science buried God? Lion (2009) – John Lennox is Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University.
Alvin Plantinga, The Dawkins Confusion, Books and Culture Feb 2007 <www.christianitytoday.com>
 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions – The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, Yale Press (2009)
 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions…, p. 33 – 35
 D Lindberg and RL Numbers, Beyond War and Peace – a reappraisal of the encounter between Christianity and science, Cambridge UP (1986)
D Lindberg, “Myths and Truths in Science and Religion: A historical perspective”, lecture – Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, University of Cambridge, UK, 1/5/2006.
P J Sampson, Six Modern Myths Challenging Christian Faith, IVP (2000) – an excellent and readable overview.
I’m very pleased to make available for free download a series of small group studies centred around the theme “The Hands of Jesus and our hands”. Accompanying the Study Booklet are six sermons, useful for preachers who wish to use the theme for a preaching series while their congregation uses the studies in small groups. The content is licensed like the rest of this website under the generous Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Below is an excerpt from the Small Group Study Guide:
1. Hands of compassion – Matthew 8:1-17 2. Servant hands – John 13: 1-17 3. Hands that broke bread – John 21:1-14 4. Healing hands – Mark 7: 31-37 5. Hands of blessing – Mark 10;13-16, Matthew 18:1-9 6. Wounded hands – John 20:19-29
How to use these studies: They can be used as small group study material and or combined with a sermon series; there are six accompanying sermons available for free download at http://petercorney.com. They could also be used for individual personal reflections. The Bible text is from the NIV translation.
The structure of each study:
An introductory question or exercise to get people thinking on the theme
The core material of the study and Bible passages.
Questions and exercises for group discussion
A “take–away” task
A thought for the week.
Introduction: As we read the life of Jesus in the Gospels and his interactions with people one of the things that is not immediately obvious is the way he uses his hands, but when you focus on it, it is striking and suggestive. Often when he heals the sick he touches them. Although Jesus doesn’t need to touch in order to heal he often does. With his hands he washes dirty feet, he breaks and serves bread, and he cooks fish and hands it around to his disciples. He takes children into his arms and places his hands on them in blessing, and on the cross his hands are cruelly pierced. In our imagination we can also easily see Jesus warmly embracing his friends, clasping a shoulder or hand in affection or encouragement, waving a greeting or a farewell, emphasizing a point as he teaches, holding out his open hands in prayer to his Father. They are hands that are used to hard work, they are tradesman’s hands. Jesus the divine son of God is also fully human and so like us he used his hands to communicate, to express himself, to convey feelings; empathy, encouragement, support, love, friendship.
Because we use them constantly it is easy to forget how important and significant our hands are, only when we injure a finger or our hand and can not use them do we realize how much we rely on them. But they are not only critically useful to us in all our everyday tasks they are also part of our “language”, our means of expression. Our hands are used to convey a great range of messages and emotions. They are used for greetings and farewells, to express friendship, affection and love, to show praise and anger. We point in accusation, we shake a fist in anger, and we clap in appreciation and congratulation.
As disciples of Jesus we are called to follow him, he is our teacher, guide and model for the way we should live. In one of his conversations with the disciples after his resurrection and shortly before he was to leave them in body he said “As the Father has sent me so I send you”. We are now to be Jesus’ hands in the world! In these six studies we are going to focus on the way Jesus used his hands and what they tell us about the way we should live and act as his disciples.
An old Jewish Rabbi known and respected for his learning and wit was once asked by his students why he often illustrated truth by telling a story. With a wry smile he replied “I can best explain that through a story, a parable about parable itself.”
“There was a time when Truth walked among people unclothed and unadorned, as naked as his name. But whoever saw truth turned away in shame or fear and gave him no welcome. So Truth wandered through the earth rebuffed and unwanted.
One day, when feeling very sad and lonely, he met Parable strolling along happily dressed in many brightly coloured clothes. Parable asked, ‘Truth, why do you seem so sad? ’ ‘Because I am so old and unattractive, I seem to cause fear in people and so they avoid me’ said Truth. ‘Nonsense’, laughed Parable, ‘That is not why they avoid you. Here borrow some of my clothes and see what happens.’
So Truth donned some of Parables lovely colourful clothes and, to his surprise, everywhere he now went he was welcomed.”
The old Rabbi smiled and said; “ For the truth is that people cannot face truth naked, they much prefer him clothed.”
Peter Corney. (25/3/12)
(I am not sure of the origin of this story or the source of where I first encountered it but I salute its author. I have since discovered that another version of it can be found in ‘Yiddish Folk Tales’ ed. by B.Silverinan. Pantheon Books NY)
“JESUS DOESN’T SELL ANY MORE “ (1)
(The Artist as the mirror of our souls)
They say our artists are the mirror of our souls. If thats true then the Western soul looks very toubled. If you want an insight into the soul of contemporary Western culture two of the windows you can look through are: popular television entertainment and avant- gar’de contemporary artists.
If we start with a week’s viewing of popular entertainment on commercial TV a particular metaphor comes to mind. It’s like visiting a sleazy carnival run by pimps, hucksters and snake oil salesmen!
But if we turn to our second and more interesting window a current place where we could begin is to look at the work of the Belgian neo conceptualist artist Wim Delvoye and Australian/Greek writer Christos Tsoilkas, both very current.
In Delvoye we see an example of an ironic but cynical expression of the loss of meaning in Western culture. As Delvoye says “everything in modern life is pointless” and his art expresses this feeling well. A Delvoye piece has been chosen as a permanent installation in MONA our new prestigious and popular Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. In fact from Dec 2011 to April 2012 a collection of his work has the honour of being the MONA’s first temporary exhibition. (2)
Delvoye has created, as a work of art, an elaborate machine that simulates the human digestive system and produces excrement – it’s called the “Cloaca”,from a latin word meaning sewer. Given his view that everything in modern life is pointless, the most useless thing he could create was a machine that serves no purpose but the reduction of food to waste . He also has an ‘art farm’ where he tattoos on pigs Louis Vuitton fashion designs and symbols of the great ideas of Western culture. He is saying that our culture has lost its meaning; it has become trivial and absurd. Our most highly prized consumer objects and our most precious ideas will ultimately end up in an abattoir and then we will eat and defecate them! He is in the tradition of the Dadaist’s and Marcel Duchamp famously exhibiting a urinal as a work of art at a 1917 exhibition. They anticipated, at the beginning of the 20th C., what was coming culturally for the West as it began to turn away from its spiritual roots and was overpowered by industrial consumerism.
In Christos Tsiolkas’s novel “The Slap”, (3) now made into a powerful and widely viewed TV mini-series, we see the unattractive, indeed the very unpleasant face, of a large section Australia’s new middle class . It is a brilliantly evoked, and if accurate, a deeply disturbing view. They are a generation who have experienced material prosperity but departed from many of the values of their parents and grandparents. Morally unmoored and without a bigger compass of meaning and values beyond self-interest, they present a sad picture of a mostly unpleasant selfish people struggling with personal and interpersonal dysfunction. The film begins with the illusion of community and family but apart from the elderly parents their ‘community’ has no real depth because their actual focus is self-interest, personal gratification and individual rights.
In an interesting interview with Geraldine Doogue on ABC Compass in 2011, Christos who has a Greek orthodox background, acknowledged that although he was no longer a believer he felt that the loss of Christian faith and values had greatly affected his generation. He said one of his aims was to show the high cost of this in the mostly unpleasant cast of characters he created.
As I reflect on this mirror of our souls held up to us by our artists, the moral and spiritual landscape of Western culture begins to feel like a scene from the iconic film “Blade Runner”, with its paradoxical images of high rise affluence and high tech achievement but at street level its a picture of social decay.
There is a very symbolic scene early in the film where we find ourselves in the ultra- modern pent house office of the company who makes the life like but rogue robots (Cyborgs) that the Blade Runner has been hired to find and eliminate. As we view the luxurious interior we see an Owl perched on a stand. Then the owl takes flight passing in front of the vast glass windows behind which a brilliant sun is setting.
The symbolism is deliberate. The Owl has always been seen as a symbol of wisdom. In Roman mythology he accompanies the goddess Minerva, goddess of wisdom. But it was the German philosopher Hegel who famously wrote, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”, by which he meant, that philosophy only comes to understand an historical condition as it is passing away. This image early in “Blade Runner” is telling us that the films bleak vision of the future is what the sunset of Western culture will look like. We are now living in that future.
Clues for Christian leaders – How to get more done
For leaders there’s always more to do than you can keep up with. Here’s some ideas for how to get more done but stay healthy!
1. Work harder. Yes, but there is a limit to this. There is a limit to your energy, your time, your family’s tolerance. There is a line you can cross where your life balance gets way out of whack and you and your relationships become unhealthy. There are some people who do need to work harder but most leaders I know need to slow down!
2. Multiply the workers. Whether they are volunteers or paid staff more can get done if you multiply the workers. To do that you have to motivate people to be involved – create a vision, then recruit and train. Create an organisational structure for people to work in*; then delegate, supervise, encourage and support them. This is the primary key to getting more done.
3. Work smarter. Manage your time well, set and keep to a daily and weekly structure planned in your diary. Get organised, plan ahead. E.g.: Have three 30 min slots in your daily dairy to answer your email and phone messages – at the beginning of the day, late morning and late afternoon. Unless there is a crisis or emergency do not constantly monitor and respond to emails and phone messages, manage them according to your dairy time table.
4. Use technology to work smarter for you not to control you. E.g.: If you have groups of people that have to be contacted regularly for meetings then create group mailing lists in your email. Store pro format’s and outlines, for agendas, notes, study and discussion outlines, programs, service orders, etc. so you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.
5. If you have admin assistance then use that person to filter and handle basic enquiries and requests, do follow up phone calls, do basic info gathering, etc. After careful briefing delegate tasks to them that do not need your expertise but make sure you supervise and encourage them with daily contact.
(*This is the ‘scafolding’ that enables the construction of what you’re trying to build.)
There are healthy and unhealthy reasons why we want to get more done.
1. Ego, pride, we want to make a good impression on others.
2. Control and power over others.
3. Feeding an inner need – a parent’s expectations, insecurity, the need for success to prove yourself, etc.
1. To serve God and others and build the Kingdom.
2. Because you believe that when people embrace Christ they become what they were meant to be. When they find love and grace through Christ they are reconciled with God and can be reconciled with each other and can become more whole, happier and better people that can make a better society.
3. To equip, empower and release others into ministry
Why we sometimes lack motivation to get more done
1. Laziness, selfishness.
– The fear of more responsibility or more complexity
– The fear of failure
– The fear of things getting out of my control
3. Theological justifications:
– ‘Quietism’ – the idea that we should not take human initiative and action but waite on the Holy Spirits movement. “The Lords work is the Lords work.” While there is an element of truth in this it can be a justification for failure to obey the Lords clear commands, eg: “ …go and make disciple’s…”
– An unbalanced view of the Gospel that limits action to narrow categories.*
– A limited and narrow view of the church and its ministry that constrains activity to a few functions, like formal worship and pastoral care.
(* A balanced and wholeistic view of the Gospel has been expressed as “The whole Gospel for the whole person for the whole world.”)
Will the so called Arab spring be the Middle East Christian’s winter?
The future for Christians in the Middle East is not looking good. Consider the following developments:
The ongoing violence towards Christians in Iraq since the ‘liberation’ and the large numbers leaving the country. Thousands have fled into Syria where the Alawite controlled Baathist’s have respected the minority Christians, but if Assad’s regime falls the upheaval in Syria may leave them in a very precarious situation with a majority Sunni Muslim population.
The recent violence towards the Christian Copts in Egypt since the overthrow of the Mubarak government does not bode well there for Christians. On October 9, 2011, a peaceful protest in Cairo by Coptic Christians and some moderate Muslims against religious discrimination was violently broken up by the Army and police. The army fired into the crowd and armoured vehicles ran people down. This resulted in 27 deaths and 300 injured. A Christian church was also burnt recently by a Muslim mob.
The recent statement by one of the leaders of the provisional liberation government of Libya, Mustafa Abdel Jalil is not reassuring, he is pledging to replace Gaddafi’s dictatorship with a more ‘democratic’ but more strictly Islamic legal system and reintroduce polygamy. (1)
The recent election in Tunisia has just elected an Islamist party the al-Nahada, much to the alarm of woman’s rights groups and those who fought hard to overthrow the previous oppressive rule. (2) It is interesting to note that the leader of the Islamist party, Rachid Ghannouchi, spent 22 years in exile in the UK under the protection of British democracy! It will be interesting to see if he returns the compliment to minority religious groups in Tunisia.
The fact is that Islamic organisations and particularly the more strict ones are the most well organised political groups in these countries and so are likely to have the most political influence in the chaotic situation that follows the overthrow of oppressive regimes. With Islam’s commitment to the fusing of religion and the state and the introduction of Sharia law it means that what the West understands by democracy is by no means the same as what may emerge. Islam has a bad track record of marginalising and frequently persecuting religious minorities and repressing woman. This so called Arab spring may not be the budding of real democracy but a very limited and restricted form.
The Islamic government of Iran has recently arrested a well known Iranian female documentary film maker Mahiraz Mohammadi and a female photojournalist Maryann Majd, both are woman’s rights activists. No reason has so far been given for their sudden arrest. (3) An Iranian actress, Marzieh Vafamehr, has also been sentenced to one year in jail and the medieval punishment of 90 lashes for acting in an Australian made film that is a social critique of life in Iran – “My Tehran for sale”. Iran has had a long and distinguished film industry but currently suffers under very restrictive laws. (4) A Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, is also currently in prison there and likely to be sentenced to death for alleged breaching of the Islamic Apostasy laws. (5)
Christian are regularly sentenced to imprisonment or killed in Pakistan, an Islamic ‘democracy’, by local courts and Islamic groups for Apostasy. (6)
(1) The Age Oct 25th 2011.
(2) The Age Oct 28th 2011
(3) The Guardian June 30th 2011
(4) The Envoy Oct 10th 2011
(5) The Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin Oct 26th 2011
(6) The Islamic Apostasy laws forbid Muslims from converting to another religion on pain of death. Also encouraging a Muslim to change their faith is also forbidden under the Apostasy laws.
The following six ideas are eroding classical, creedal, orthodox Christian faith. They sometimes travel under the heading of “Progressive or Emerging Christianity.”
1.CONFORMISM – The radical adapting of the gospel to fit the prevailing plausibility structure (A “plausibility structure” is what a particular culture finds easy to believe at a particular time.) This is often done covertly and dishonestly by continuing to use the language and symbols of orthodox faith but changing their first order or original meaning. Conformism is intellectually provincial; it traps itself in the spirit of the times and fails to give proper weight to the churches historic understanding of the faith. Most of the fundamental issues we face have been faced by the church in the past.
2. UNIVERSALISM – A gospel without repentance and exclusive allegiance to Christ where every one will eventually be members of the Kingdom of God even those who do not believe, reject or ignore Christ or give allegiance to another God.
3. RADICAL INCLUSIVISM – A community without boundaries of belief or practice. Loving Christian hospitality should not be confused with radical inclusivism.
4. SYNCRETISM – The acceptance of all religious beliefs as equally true and the inclusion and blending of all faiths. The logical contradictions embraced by syncretism are breathtaking.
5. COVERT UNITARIANISM – The reduction and erosion of the uniqueness, divinity and lordship of Christ. This eventually unravels the key doctrine of the Trinity. This leads to a new Arianism.
6. PANTHEISM – The confusion of God and the creation in which the distinction is dissolved and the worship of nature emerges. This inevitably leads to Monistic Pantheism and a revival of Paganism. Monism (all is one) is also the fundamental idea beneath Eastern Mysticism.*
C.S.Lewis observed many years ago that Pantheism is fallen humanities default religious position, “….not because it is the final stage of enlightenment, but because it is the attitude into which the human mind falls when left to itself. In the absence of revealed religion, humanity gravitates towards natural religion.”(See Romans 1: 18-23)
It also reveals itself today under the titles of Evolutionary Mysticism and Religious Naturalism but it is the old pagan Pantheism.*
The influence of these ideas in the contemporary Church leads to spiritual impotence – form without life or power. It is existentially irrelevant and spiritually deeply unsatisfying as it does not deal radically with sin and evil or lead to a personal relationship with the living God.
That is why so many people in this movement often turn to mysticism, aestheticism and liturgical symbolism to find some experiential satisfaction.
THE RESPONSE to these trends is often fundamentalism but there is another more constructive alternative – vibrant intelligent orthodoxy. The way forward is to bring the depth and broad historical perspective of Biblical and Credal orthodoxy to bear in a critique of the current plausibility structure and its intellectual preoccupations rather than the reverse. Theological liberalisms tendency is to judge God by our own intuitive morality and reason forgetting the fallen state of these faculties and their conditioning by the current world view. Camus, speaking wistfully but honestly out of his atheism, said “When man submits God to moral judgment, he kills him in his own heart”
It seems extraordinary and so unfounded that we who are so flawed and responsible for the many atrocities of human history have such confidence to imagine that our moral sensibilities and our judgments about truth are somehow superior to the God of Revelation.
The great danger is that we create a God in our own image. As Bonhoeffer said: “If I am the one who says who God is and what he is like then I will always find a God who in some way corresponds to me, who is agreeable to me. But if it is God who says who he is, what he is like and how he acts then that may well be a place which at first is not agreeable to me; for that place is the cross of Christ and that does not correspond to our nature at all”*
This is false belief and a re- run of Gen 3. Once again we believe a creature and his word over God’s. “You won’t die….. when you eat (disobey) your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing good and evil”
Any young church leader or anyone contemplating training for pastoral ministry in the church today needs to be aware of these ideas. In some denominations you will need to be well prepared before you even contemplate entering theological college as these ideas are well entrenched in some, but thankfully not all, theological faculties.
* The title of this article was inspired by the title of John Quiggin’s book on economic rationalism, “Zombie Economics, how dead ideas still walk among us”, Princeton Uni Press 2010.
* Eastern Mysticism is very attractive to people concerned with the degrading of the environment because of its apparently associated idea of interconnectedness which comes from its underlying monism (all is one). But imbedded in its monism is the idea that ‘difference’ is an illusion to be transcended and so it must ultimately deny the individuality of species. James Lovelocks Gaia theory is an expression of this idea of the interconnectedness of all things. While there is truth in the idea of interconnectedness in nature it becomes a distortion when used as the primary operating principle for the interpretation of nature and it should be recognized very clearly that when applied to philosophical and theological ideas it is a particular ideology and world view.
* It should be noted that the names this movement sometimes gives itself are: “Progressive Spirituality”, “Progressive Christianity”, “Evolutionary Christianity”, “Emerging Faith,” “Emerging Christianity.” A brilliant analysis of these trends in contempoaray Western culture and Christianity is Ross Douthart’s book “Bad Religion” Free press, 2012. (See chp 7)
* D.Bonhoeffer “Meditating on the Word” Camb.MA Cowley 1986 P44-45