Reflections on our times inspired by C.S.Lewis

Reflections on today’s culture inspired by C.S.Lewis. By PETER CORNEY

The Lewis quotation that inspired this reflection comes from his essay “The Abolition of man”.

“Such is the tragi – comedy of our situation, we clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible….”

Currently we constantly hear the call for political and commercial leadership with more honesty and integrity, with less pride and avarice, and in the case of our politics, less of the ugly and sterile quest for revenge. The recent Royal Commission has also called for a new corporate culture of honesty and transparency in our Banks and financial enterprises.

And yet, as Lewis contiues; “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.  We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

As Lewis points out with his graphic metaphor of castration our present culture renders these qualities and virtues impossible because we have made our culture morally sterile. We have turned away from the belief in moral absolutes and the transcendent origin of the highest values and virtues. We are now lost in a confusion of Post Modern relativism, radical individualism and a false view of personal freedom that is really the desire for individual choice unrestrained by any boundaries of morality, truth and reason.

The sense of moral and spiritual accountability to God has been steadily eroded by the secularists who reject any reality beyond the material and physical world. They want to enclose us all in their well-lit, tightly locked but windowless room of scientific materialism that rejects any ‘meta physic’, nothing bigger or beyond the material and physical. And yet they have no satisfying answers to our most enduring questions about meaning, morality, the highest good and our ultimate purpose.

To change the metaphor we are a “cut flower culture” that has severed our values and virtues from their roots and so it should not surprise us that the flowers of the moral virtues are slowly withering and dying.


Praying the Psalms – a confession! by Peter Corney

Praying the Psalm’s – a confession! by Peter Corney

As a young man at theological college I found the discipline of the daily chapel services and the saying of the psalms sometimes a chore, sometimes boring, and sometimes a blessing.

Full of energy, impatient to rescue the world, more an activist than given to reflection or meditation the daily saying of the psalms mostly went past me, although sometimes the depth of their cries to God arrested even me!

But like all good disciplines their daily repetition meant their phrases seeped unconsciously into my mind. But to seep into my heart required something else – the experience of the inevitable difficulties, pain and disappointments of adult life and ministry. For the psalms are the cries of men and women who believe in God and are trying to serve Him in the ordinary challenges and often unanswered questions of life as well as its joy filled moments – the moments when Gods presence is felt like lightning or when He seems absent or silent.

They are the ancient yet constantly contemporary prayers of God’s people. They have been prayed for thousands of years by Jews and Christians. As a Christian I am immensely thankful for my ‘spiritual great grandparents’, the Children of Israel and for their preservation of these cries to God from the heart.

Even those awful imprecatory psalms where the prayer calls on God to curse and judge those who have taunted, wronged or hurt us, yes even they resonate! For those cries have been in my throat too in my darkest moments of self-pity, self-righteousness or anger, thoughts and feelings that, thank God, in the end drive me back to Christ on the cross bearing my sins and the suffering and evil and violence we are capable of inflicting on one another. Drawing me to cry out for forgiveness and the strength to love and forgive those who treated me badly or unjustly as Jesus commanded and to leave the judgement in God’s hands.

The psalms are not for the spiritually faint hearted!

 

 


The Rights Revolution

INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS, VIRTUE AND A CIVIL SOCIETY – by Peter Corney

Some reflections on “The Rights Revolution” by Michael Ignatieff.( 1.)

Beware when the expressions of people’s opinions are unrestrained by reason and civility and focussed on a single issue.  When these factors join debate shuts down and the shrill voice of ideology dominates the public square. This is a risk in our current preoccupation with identity politics and its fruit can be bitter and divisive in society.

Our present, and proper concern, about the expansion of individual human rights and how they are to be pursued, debated and finally expressed in legislation will be one of the biggest tests liberal democracies face in the immediate future. The fabric of democracy is more fragile than most of us imagine, especially those who have enjoyed it throughout their life without much reflection on its delicate balances. It is a social contract that involves a balance of individual rights with the common good, a balance sustained by a set of common values and public virtues, the latter being as important as the first.

The Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff has written incisively on these matters in the Massey lectures presented first on Canadian national radio in 2000. The Canadian experience is instructive as they have moved more radically in recent times on these matters than many Western nations. He says that “Every right entails an obligation. My right to go about my business without being assaulted or abused goes with an equal obligation to avoid doing the same to others.” He makes the key point that rights are reciprocal; when this understanding is present it gives rights the capacity to create community but if absent to fracture it. He also gives us the very important insight that “Rights talk” must not monopolise our language and discussion of the common good to the exclusion of the vital place of the common values and virtues necessary in creating a civil and healthy society; qualities like compassion, kindness, humility,civility, respect and love.

This can be observed in our present crisis in family life. We can rightly stress the importance of individual rights of woman, children and husbands in the family but, as he says, “this does not even begin to capture the web of love and trust that makes real families work.”

He goes on to say that “Rights are not a language of the good at all. They’re just a language of the right. Codes of rights are about defining the minimum conditions for any life at all. So in the case of the family they are about defining the negatives: abuse and violence. Rights can’t define the positives: love forbearance, humour, charity, endurance. We need other words to do that, and we need to make sure that rights talk does not end up crowding out all the other ways we express our deepest and most enduring needs.”

These lectures are clear and easy to read but cause one to reflect deeply on our public life today and the ever present challenge to see Democracy not as a finished product but a continuing work in progress and a gift to be treasured and nurtured.

Peter Corney (July 2018)

[Notes: (1) “The Rights Revolution “ by Michael Ignatieff  pub. By Anansi Press 2000. Delivered first in 2000 as The Massey Lectures on Canadian national radio by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).]

See also the paper on this site “Human Rights and Christian Influence” By P.Corney

 


Truth and the downward spiral – by Peter Corney

Truth and the downward spiral.   By Peter Corney

In the hangover of the Bill Clinton Presidency and its sad and grubby end in the Monica Lewinsky affair Os Guinness wrote a brilliant little book entitled “Time for Truth” (Published 2000). It should be required reading for every candidate for political office and anyone who aspires to a leadership role in business or public life. Its relevance to the present moral circus in Canberra is not hard to see.

He describes the impact of Post Modern relativism not only on Western cultures idea of truth but on the corruption of truth telling and honesty in the contemporary, political, commercial and entertainment worlds. Lies and deceit is a downward spiral into the moral abyss. As Richard Flanagan put it so eloquently in a recent Guardian article, “if we can be persuaded that the truth does not exist, the light goes out and we are condemned to the darkness.” Ideas have consequences!

In the final chapter (six) Guinness outlines the “Seven degrees of descent on the downward path of dishonesty”. Drawing on the work of the philosopher and ethicist J. Budziszewski * he outlines the seven steps on the downward path of dishonesty. As you read and consider this remember we have all lied at some time, or withheld the truth which is much the same thing, and the temptation is always with us. There is no place for self-righteousness here only personal honesty.

(The following is a direct quotation from “Time for Truth” pages 118-119)

  1. The first step is “simply sin”. We lie because we have done something wrong. Lying becomes the secondary utility sin in the service of some primary sin.
  2. The second step down is “self- protection”. As Budziszzewski writes, “Lies are weaklings they need bodyguards.” Each new protective ring of lies breeds its own protective ring until the liar is smothered in layers of lies and lying.
  3. The third step down is “habituation.” Lies repeated become habits and habits repeated become character. Before long a single lie becomes a settled way of lying and we cross the border between lying and become a liar.
  4. The fourth step down is “self- deception.” The more we lie, the more we lose hold of truth and the more we succumb to believing our own lies. Sincerity and self- deception then reinforce each other.
  5. The fifth step down is “rationalization.” Believing our own lies, we then give explanations other than the real reasons for all we do. Then we blame our weak grasp of truth on the weakness of truth itself, so that (for example) postmodernism itself becomes a gigantic rationalisation for our contemporary lack of truthfulness.
  6. The sixth step down is “technique.” The more accomplished we are as liars; the more lying becomes our craft.
  7. The seventh and bottommost step is that “morality turns upside down.” As Budziszzewski observes, “the moment lying is accepted instead of condemned, it has to be required. If it is just another way to win, then in refusing to lie for the cause or the company, you aren’t doing your job.” Thus living-the-lie replaces living- in- truth and in the moral murkiness, truth and freedom are lost and evil is born.

Integrity

Living the truth and speaking the truth are connected; the connection is the notion of integrity. Integrity is about the moral integration of our private and public lives, it’s about wholeness. There cannot be a moral incongruence between the two if we are to have integrity.

It is fashionable today to talk about the separation of peoples private and public lives, especially in the matters of sexual ethics, and particularly in the lives of politicians. Certainly the unwarranted and excessive intrusion into their family and private lives is something that should be discouraged. But you cannot espouse certain values publicly and not follow them privately. You have to “walk the talk.” You cannot (for example) condemn bribery and then take kickbacks and ‘financial gifts’ for providing favourable treatment, or special access to power, etc. Nor can you appear to stand for fidelity in family life and deceive and betray your spouse and children without real repentance and restoration. This inconsistency is called hypocrisy and a failure in integrity! Such a person cannot be trusted at any level, let alone public office.

In sailing we talk about the “integrity of the boat” by which we mean the strength and physical fitness of the whole boat – what you can see from outside, the hull, the mast, the stays, and what you can’t see, like the keel and the steering gear, all the gear from the biggest winch to the smallest shackle. In heavy weather under full sail the stresses on the boat and all the gear, small and large, seen and unseen, are very great. A defect in a small stay shackle could lead to its failure and cause catastrophic results for the whole boat and crew. The integrity of the boat is its wholeness. Small lies are like small faulty D shackles!

When the light of telling the truth is snuffed out we are condemned to the darkness and evil triumphs.

Of all people, the followers of Jesus must be an example of truth telling, “You are the light of the world” he said. The New Testament tells us that “God is light; in Him is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin.”(1 John1:5-7)

We live in the truth in two ways (1) By always telling the truth, and (2) By pointing to the source of the light of goodness and truth – Jesus, who said “I am the way the truth and the life.”(John 14:6)   

 (* J.Budziszweski is Professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. He specialise in ethics, political philosophy and the interactions of these two fields with theology. Among his many books are: “Written on the heart” and “A line through the heart” on Natural law.)

 

 

 

 


Bringing Perspective to our troubled times

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

‘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.

Critical questions for us now are: How do we maintain a sense of  ‘home’ and identity without drifting to the dark side of nationalism and race? How do we retain the best of our individual cultural identities and uniqueness and at the same time embrace our human oneness and interdependence as the one world family? We have always found unity in diversity a challenge! The Christian Gospel speaks very clearly into these questions. (Gal. 3:26-28)

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.

Finding meaning

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)


Living in the Truth -responding to propaganda. by peter corney

LIVING IN THE TRUTH – responding to propaganda. By Peter Corney

“The truth will set you free” Jesus

The question of truth versus propaganda is a major issue for us all today. But it is particularly so for those Eastern European countries liberated from Soviet Russian control since 1989 and the collapse of the old Soviet Union. Remember it is only 28 years ago since that iconic moment when the Berlin wall separating East and West Germany came down!

Most of the current generation of Western young adults outside of the EU who have grown up in places like Australia since 1989 are completely unaware of the ongoing struggle these people have to rebuild their countries on democratic principles and to shake off the old Soviet mentality and, in some cases, ongoing interference in their new sovereign governments from the current aggressive Russian regime under Putin. Remember Russia is currently involved in a war with Ukraine and has unilaterally annexed part of its territory; it has also been involved in conflict with Georgia on whom it continues to apply pressure and there is growing evidence of its interference in other post-Soviet countries.

It has been crucial for the leaders of the early freedom movements in those countries recently liberated, to continue to educate their people, as they put it, to “live in the truth”, because for so long they lived under the clichés, lies and deception of constant communist propaganda from, as Orwell satirized it in his novel “1984”about the Soviet regime – “The ministry of Truth”!  Anyone over the age of thirty in these countries lived all their formative years shaped by communist propaganda. The level of control and the stifling of freedom, individual initiative and creativity created passivity, inertia and apathy as well as dissent. People needed to be set free in their minds and hearts to effectively embrace their new political freedom. Two other legacies from their immediate past are the tension between their renewed nationalism and their membership of the EU, and the tension between the liberalism of the West and their cultural conservatism.

In the Sept-Oct 2017 issue of “New Eastern Europe” the editors ran a very interesting section on the Legacy of the Reformation in Central and Eastern Europe. They interviewed two Lutheran Pastors who had been deeply involved in the pre – 1989   struggles for independence from the Soviet Union.

Markus Meckel is a German Lutheran pastor and one of the leaders of the East German pre 89 movement for freedom from Soviet control. He also became a minister in the first post 89 democratically elected East German government. In the 80’s he and other Christian leaders started groups meeting in Churches to teach people what was needed to have a free and open society. He says “It took years of our work within these groups to prepare people to say ‘No’ and be encouraged to live in truth.” They continued this work while under threat and pressure from the old regime. (1)

Another Lutheran Pastor Juris Rubenis, a Latvian who helped organise some of the largest anti Soviet demonstrations in the 1980’s in Latvia is now working to help Latvians overcome their post-Soviet mentality through spirituality and meditation. He says “External freedom is only one part of total freedom. It is impossible to properly utilise external, political freedom if people do not have enough internal freedom. So I understood that the main effort against totalitarianism in the years to come would not happen in the external world but in the internal world. How do we become internally free?” This led him to build a meditation centre and to begin to conduct retreats to teach people meditation and contemplation. His contemplative practice is shaped by his Christian tradition. He says “it’s like shock therapy for people who have been educated in communist rationalism……meditation corrects the false notion that earthly happiness is easy, quick or simple.” (2)

The so called “Velvet Revolution” in Prague that precipitated the Czech’s liberation in 1989 took the moto of the Charter 77 Movement as their rallying cry “Truth prevails for those who live in truth.” The vast crowds that gathered in Wenceslas square to listen to the inspiring speeches by Vaclav Havel the poet/activist, who later became President, chanted “We are not like them! (The Soviet regime)They are people of lies and propaganda. We are people of the truth.” (3)

The issue of living in the truth and how to become internally free is thrown into sharp relief for Eastern Europeans because of their recent experience, but it is a critical one for us all in our contemporary world that is saturated with commercial and marketing propaganda, as well as political. Today propaganda is not just the province of commercial interests and mainstream political parties and governments. The internet and social media has made the dissemination of information, opinion and protest cheap and easy. This has a positive side in a democracy but it can be and is abused. The information that is used by minority political and activist groups to push their cause is often deeply biased, exaggerated or false. Sometimes this is a cynical strategy as the end is seen as justifying the means, at other times it is just passion for the cause distorting or being blind to the facts. Living in the truth is not so easy in the world of contemporary communications!

Richard Flanagan the Tasmanian author and winner of the Man Booker prize for literature in 2014 wrote recently in The Australian Guardian an insightful piece 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. China’s 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.” (4)

How should we respond?

  1. Practice personally living in the truth! That means beginning with our selves by being scrupulous in not lying, even in small matters and not exaggerating! Being honest with ourselves. Living an examined life, reflecting on our own weaknesses and then actively trying to change. Seeking to admit and apologise when we have hurt someone and to seek forgiveness. Making time for reflection and quiet in our daily prayers to allow God to speak the truth to us about our attitudes and behaviour.
  2. As a Christian regularly review your core values and ask yourself are they determining and controlling your ideas, opinions and actions or are your cultural prejudices in charge?
  3. Be aware of your political prejudices and bias’s and your tendency to reinforce them! Seek out balanced information. Remember all governments and political parties engage in propaganda at some level in attempts to sell their ideas, policies and programs and so the citizen must be constantly alert for the truth and seek out balanced reporting on important issues. This is why freedom of speech is such a critical value in a democracy. All media outlets have a point of view and many a strong ideological bias. Public Think Tanks are similar and most have been set up by particular political party interests and you should be aware of their bias. Having said that, their information and opinion is often well researched and worthy of study as long as you balance it with other studies.
  4. The other alternative is to be indifferent, to have no political views, to be apathetic or so cynical that you have given up any sense of responsibility for public truth. This is to forfeit your part in the cause of the common good!
  5. All commercial marketing is an attempt to sell us something so we must treat it all with a degree of scepticism and do our research before we buy. There are many sources of information on the internet that are designed to assist in this process – don’t impulse buy is a good motto!

To ‘live in the truth’ is a challenge to live an examined life and a responsible life both for yourself, your family and the common good of others. For the Christian the words of Jesus provide the clear direction:

“If you hold to my teaching you really are my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

Peter Corney

Footnotes

  • From an interview in “New Eastern Europe” Sept –Oct edition 2017. Page115. This edition also ran an interesting section on the Legacy of the Reformation in Central and Eastern Europe. (neweasterneurope.eu)
  • From the same edition as above pages 140-141
  • Quoted by Os Guiness in “Time for Truth” pages 9-10 pub. Baker 2001
  • The Australian Guardian 31/10/17

Review of ‘Strange Days’ by Mark Sayers

A review by Peter Corney of “Strange Days” by Mark Sayers. (With a brief essay on the question of hope and the future)

Mark Sayers recent book ‘Strange Days’ (published by Moody 2017) is a very insightful and readable book and I thoroughly recommend it to thoughtful readers. He joins a lot of dots both political and cultural about our troubled times. It also points a way forward for those attempting to live a faithful Christian discipleship in today’s world.

The following comments take an in depth view of chapter four ‘Civilisations striving’ in which Mark attempts to answer the question ‘why in the West are we so anxious today?’ It’s a very relevant question when you realise that in spite of all our prosperity one in four young Australians currently suffer from some serious form of mental ill health from severe anxiety to depression and self harm.(These are the figures quoted by Dr Michael Carr Greg one of our leading experts on adolescent and young adult mental health. The figures are borne out by all the major surveys conducted over recent years.)

Chapter four sees 1989 as key date in recent history. Prior to 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union the world was dominated by the Cold War between the democratic/ liberal West and Soviet Russia. The West lived in fear of the spread of Communism and the ever present anxiety of a possible nuclear catastrophe triggered by a conflict between the two power blocks.

1989 is when the dismantling of the Berlin wall took place and so became a symbol of the collapse of the Soviet state and the failed utopian Marxist vision and the end of the Cold War.

With the end of the binary conflict between East and West it seemed that a new more positive international era was possible:

  • The EU was developing – a symbol of growing nation state co-operation.
  • Marxism was defeated as much by free market liberal Western capitalism as by weapons, and China another communist state was opening up and also embracing a form of the Western economic model.
  • History seemed to be at one of its turning points and Francis Fukuyama wrote his book entitled ‘The End of History’, by which he meant we could now leave behind the struggle and chaos of the 20th C (WW 1 &2, The Great Depression and The Cold War) and embrace a new era of peace, globalism, prosperity and multiculturalism. There was a new optimism.

Mark makes the point that this optimism was a revival of an old one that has been part of the Western dream ever since The Enlightenment in the 18th C. The Enlightenment had many very important ideas for the Western mind, but two are very relevant to this discussion:

  1. With the advances in science and knowledge we believed that we could bring in a brighter and better human future.
  2. There was a growing confidence in human perfectibility, what we could call Optimistic Humanism. But along with this went a playing down, and in many cases a rejection of the Christian doctrine of the fallen and imperfect nature of humans.

At the end of the 19th C there was a great confidence that with universal education, better social conditions, prosperity, better health, with our new psychological knowledge and with better prisons and mental health institutions, etc.  we could work our way to Utopia. This was also accompanied by dreams of a new international order of rules of co-operation and peace.

But this was all shattered and destroyed in the blood and carnage of WW1. This was followed in the 1920’s by the financial crash and the Great Depression and then the rise of fascism in Germany, Spain and Italy, WW2 and the Jewish holocaust. The Marxist dream ended in the totalitarian nightmare of Soviet Russia, the Gulags and the deaths and of millions of people and the beginning of The Cold War.

Now the events of 1989 seemed to offer a new start a renewal of the suppressed Western dream of the Enlightenment. It seemed progress was possible once more politically, morally and materially. Our technological advances were racing ahead, the internet and the W W Web was evolving with its immense connecting possibilities. The EU progressed, multiculturalism, economic globalism, ‘the global village’ emerged and ‘one world’ seemed possible again. The development of human rights and individual freedom advanced. From 1989 a new generation of young people were educated in this hope over nearly 30 years.

In 2008, 19 years after 1989, Barak Obama was campaigning for the presidency of the USA with the theme of ‘HOPE.’ As part of his campaign in July he went to Germany and stood in the symbolic city of Berlin where the wall had stood. Standing near the Brandenburg Gate he made a speech to a huge crowd in which he said “This is the moment to secure the peace of the world without nuclear weapons……..this is the moment we must come together to save the planet…..the walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls that must come down.”   He was elected on Nov 4th the same year. The Obama presidency may be seen as the pinnacle, or the last gasp, of the new popular hope and optimism before the chaos that was descending upon us again gathered its present momentum!

Paul Keating in a recent article in The Australian (Sept 23/24) makes the point that American administrations from Clinton on failed to take hold of the opportunity to reshape the global order for good in the post 1989 period and Obamas rhetoric was unfortunately better than his achievements. Keating says “There was no coherent American strategic plan for the post- Cold War world. It was the biggest opportunity lost”.

And so the chaos emerges again – The following are some key events that I have selected to Show how it has emerged since 1989.

1991 The Gulf war, Iraq invades Kuwait and the US and allies defend Kuwait. The instability of the Middle East begins to gather a new momentum. (Note: From 1980-88 Iraq and Iran had been involved in an extended conflict that cost over one and a quarter million lives.)

1999 ISIS is founded – an apocalyptic and more extreme version of Al Qaeda founded in 1988. It becomes a magnet for Islamic fundamentalist frustration and anger with the Wests domination of Islamic countries and Islam’s dream of a world- wide Caliphate or rule.

1991-99 With the break- up of Yugoslavia the historic tensions between the Balkan states breaks out in a major conflict in which serious war crimes and genocide take place and threatens Europe’s security.

1999 Putin the ex KGB Colonel becomes Russian PM and begins to re assert Russian power again in Europe.

2000’s Islamic terrorism begins in the west.

2001 The US Twin Towers attacked by Islamic Terrorists (Sep 9/11)

2002 Bush’s ‘Axis of evil’ speech

2003 US invades Iraq

2007-8 The Global Financial Crisis. Discrepancy in wealth distribution accelerates in West.

2008  Russia invades Georgia and claims territory – extended conflict ensues.

2011 In may Osama Bin Ladin killed by US special forces in Pakistan.

2011 The Arab Spring blossoms – a desire for democracy but is generally suppressed except in Tunisia.

2011 The Syrian civil war begins and the attempt to oust President Assad.

2013 K. Rudd “Climate change is the great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our time”

2014 Islamic Terrorism escalates in Europe.

2014 The Syrian conflict escalates triggering massive people displacement.

2014-5 Refugee/ displaced persons crisis reaches critical stage with massive people movement, the largest since WW2, the UN est. is 59.5 million. (Currently the figure is now est. at 65.6 Mill.)

2015 – 1 million refugees flood into Europe

2014 Part of Ukraine invaded by Russia. Civil passenger jet downed over Ukraine by Russian missile. Echoes of the Cold War re-emerge!

2015 Paris Climate Change Conf. Emissions targets are now urgent.

2016 Brexit . Right wing and Nationalist parties gain momentum in EU

2017 Trump elected. Obamas dreams unravel!

2017 N Korea threatens nuclear attacks. Echoes of 1950-53 Korean War and nuclear fears.

HERE WE GO AGAIN, BACK TO CHAOS!

Mark expresses the disappointment that underlies our anxiety about all this with a graphic image at the end of chapter four. The reason we feel as anxious as we do is that we don’t see what we expected. We came running in to the new world with arms raised like a boxer waiting for flowers to flood the ring. But as the darkness swirls around us, our posture shifts. Our arms slouch in confusion, as if to ask, “What is this?” Expect Utopia and dystopia is jarring.

He quotes Robert kagan the US Journalist and cultural critic who tells us that our hopes were a mirage and reminds us what the real world is really like. The world has not been transformed. In most places, the nation- state remains as strong as ever, and so too, the national ambitions, the competitions among nations that have shaped history. And so we return to the Enlightenment dream and once again have to face the facts that it remains an overoptimistic one based on an overoptimistic view of human nature.

Like in a movie this is the background music to our times. No wonder we are anxious! Speaking of movies it seems prescient that this year the much anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 iconic futuristic film ‘Blade Runner’ has just been released this October in Australia. The sequel “blade Runner 2049” is set in a time 35 years on from the original setting. The visual effects are stunning but bleak. The director Denis Villeneuve says, It’s not a bright future. It’s a very dystopic vision. I hope what we depict won’t happen.  So do we, but it may just crank up our anxiety a bit more!

 

A brief essay

The following is a brief essay by Peter Corney in response to the questions  all this raises about hope and the future and whether our anxiety is well founded?  Does this mean history just keeps repeating itself? Is there no hope? What is the Christian response to this? One way of answering this is to contrast Secular and Christian Humanism and their different hopes.

Christian Humanism vs Secular Humanism and a basis for hope.

If the Enlightenment view of Optimistic Humanism is too optimistic and flawed by blindness to human imperfection and our fallen natures, what is the Christian vision of our human potential for good and progress and how does it work in this imperfect and fallen world?

Three key ideas in a Christian Humanism:

  1. We are made in God’s image, his character is stamped on our hearts, but we are also fallen.
  2. So we are capable of great good in both social and moral progress, but also great selfishness and evil and the misuse of power.
  3. Christian humanism is both idealistic and realistic.

 

  • Idealistic: It is hopeful it says we can make substantial progress in human society but we are not utopian. Our model is the values of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Jesus says in the Lord’s prayer “ when you pray say; “Our Father…..May Your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. The prayer seems to assume both a present and future dimension to the Kingdom.
  • Realistic: But our Christian idealism and actions also need the moral guidance and corrections of Gods laws and Jesus’ teachings to restrain our weaknesses and fallen natures. Western culture has reflected these and introduced them into our laws and social norms and institutions over 1,000years of our history. Remember that institutions like the UN, the Charter of Human Rights, and the International Court of Justice were developed primarily by Western leaders who were either convinced Christians or strongly influenced by Christian values. (People like Dag Hammarskjold the first UN general secretary, Jacques Maritain the French Catholic philosopher and humanist, Charles Malik the Lebanese Orthodox Christian Philosopher, theologian and diplomat, and Eleanor Roosevelt the wife of the US president. Malik followed E. Roosevelt as the Chair of the UN Human Rights commission and as President of the UN General Assembly.) We also need the Gospel to transform our fallen natures. PT Forsyth put it this way, “Public liberty rests on inward freedom; and the cross alone gives moral freedom and moral independence.”

But despite our best efforts the NT tells us that the Kingdom of God will never be completely realized by us now and awaits God’s final intervention in the process of his plan of salvation in the renewal of all things in the new creation. (Rom 8:18-25) Till then we live in a tension between the powers and values of the Kingdom of God whose fulfilment is coming towards us and the powers and values of the Kingdoms of this world that are passing away. The balance between these powers will ebb and flow till ‘the new creation’. Sometimes it will ebb and flow because of Christian cultural success or failure, sometimes because the fallen worldly powers prevail and sometimes for reasons hidden from us by God.

The Churches role and the individual Christian’s role now is to live out the values of the Kingdom in our Christian communities  and families and act as ‘salt and light’ in our social, economic and political communities, and at the same time evangelise so more people will embrace the kingdom of God and its values.

Peter Corney Sept 2017