Alain de Botton and a mock mass at the NGV

Alain de Botton and a mock Mass at the NGV.

Some comments by Peter Corney

Celebrity philosopher Alain de Botton, author of “Religion is for Atheists” and “The Consolations of Philosophy” was recently in Melbourne to promote the Melbourne branch of his “School of Life”. He also gave a sell-out lecture at the NGV. (The National Gallery of Victoria) on ‘Art as Therapy’.

It was described effusively in the Gallery’s magazine[i] as a mock Mass. “The Great Hall at the NGV with its quasi-liturgical glass ceiling was an apt setting for celebrity philosopher Alain de Botton’s secular sermon on Art as Therapy”. The glowing description goes on; “The evening progressed in the form of a mock Mass complete with secular hymns – the audience (or congregation) were encouraged to sing along to the Beatle’s ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds.’ As high priest, de Botton proved as polished a performer as he is a writer…… He was ably supported by singers Mark Jones and Adam Murphy, who kicked off the mock Eucharist with a clever, Latin peppered hymn that was one of the nights highlights….the authors’ proposition that art is a tool to help people live better lives and address their psychological frailties has clearly hit a nerve.” The Gallery was certainly pleased, over 600 turned up for the lecture!

Alain de Botton has rightly discerned an empty space in our secular culture, created by the Wests turning away from Christianity. He is now promoting art as a substitute for religion. The place where values and meaning arose from in the past now seems empty for contemporary people.  There is a spiritual emptiness which some people think can be filled by the aesthetic or emotional experience that art can provide. De Botton goes much further he claims art museums can function as the new cathedrals, “places of consolation, meaning, sanctity and redemption”[ii] and also as centres of therapy. He says: “We propose that modern artists serve the psychological needs of people in the same way their forebears served the needs of theology.… scripture can be replaced by culture. Culture will be our new religion…”

Of course many of the treasures of Western art that de Botton now calls on in his “Art as Therapy”[iii] lectures were inspired by the Christian faith and its worship of God. But what inspired artists like Reuben’s and Rembrandt and musicians like Bach and Handell  was the glory of God and the beauty and profundity of God’s grace and love in Christ and his sacrifice.  Christians believe that our longing for beauty and our natural response to it is at root our longing for God who is the source of all beauty and creativity.

Alain de Botton is partly right; art can be healing because we were made to respond to it by beauty’s creator. But if the Christian faith is true the deep question is: if you cut the cord of beauty and creativity from its true origin can you really find its deepest consolations or do have only their shadows?

Christians believe that beauty in all its forms, in nature, in people, in art, can be thought of as ‘Gods photos’ that he scatters around our world, waiting for us to respond to them and see in them his face. St Paul in the NT says that Jesus is the icon of God[iv], the image of the invisible God, the one who brings God into the sharpest focus, through whom we may find and understand God. In the Jesus of the Gospels we see the love and compassion of God for all people, especially the poor, the sick and the marginalised and his opposition to all hypocrisy, injustice and evil. This is the face of God.

As de Botton points out in his lectures not all artistic expression is a reflection of beauty in its narrowest sense. It also reflects our sadness, loneliness and despair, all the aspects of the human condition. It also reflects our cruelty and ugliness. Think of Munch’s “Scream” or Goya’s “The disasters of war” or his depiction of the firing squad in “The third of May” or Picassos “Guernica”, or the paintings of David Ol’ere of the victims of the holocaust. These images shock and disturb our consciences. They raise deep questions about the reality of evil in our world and why we feel injustice so deeply. These truthful reflections of the dark side of reality direct us to seek answers to humanity’s flawed nature in some one greater than ourselves, or alternatively, force us into the despair of nihilism and a loss of hope.

Artistic beauty and artistic expression has always had its worshippers. The question is will we allow it to lead us to its true source or will we worship the creation rather than the creator?[v]

Peter Corney .

[i] ‘Gallery’ March /April 2014

[ii] This and the following quotations come from an interview with Alain de Botton in the same issue of ‘Gallery’  with Gabriella Coslovich, pages 22-28

[iii] “Art as Therapy” written by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. Pub. Phaidon, 2014

[iv] NT Colossians 1:15

[v] NT Romans 1: 18-25

Some reflections on Sorrentino’s film ‘The Great Beauty.’

“The great Beauty”, Paola Sorrentino’s film about Rome, is both a beautiful and disturbing film. It is a feast for the eyes and ears of the beauty of the ‘Eternal City’ but raises deep issues about meaning and purpose.

Following the tradition of Federico Fellini’s celebrated film “La Dolce Vita” (The Good Life), that portrayed Rome’s post war 1950’s revival and the empty hedonism of its upper classes, Sorrentino’s film is set in today’s Italy of Berlusconi, with its political and moral disorder and the spiritual and emotional emptiness of its rich high flyers partying amidst its decaying economy. At one stage Jep, the main character, travels to the coast and stands looking out at the image of the recently capsized Italian cruise ship, still on its side waiting to be re-floated. Is it a symbol of the nation’s condition and perhaps even Europe’s?

As we are taken on a tour through the breathtaking beauty of Rome and its treasures we also follow the nocturnal revelling’s of a group of wealthy decadent friends who party on to an endless but hollow beat of empty pleasure amidst the opulent beauty of their city. A neon Martini sign is a constant and appropriate backdrop to their nightly roof top gatherings.

Jep Gambardella the central character is played with elegant sardonic restraint by Toni Servillo. He is a wealthy, aging, jaded writer who has become dissatisfied with his life and his friends and is experiencing an emptiness that begins to overwhelm him.  He has never married and learning of the death of his first love brings back the memory of its fragile beauty. He then learns of the tragic suicide of a friend’s troubled son and he begins to ponder the meaning or futility of his own life amidst the beauty of his city. At one stage he remarks to a friend who has also become disillusioned with the city and his life; “We are all on the brink of despair; all we can do is keep each other company – and joke a little.” The film could be seen as a search for what gives meaning to life and death, especially in the presence of great beauty.

There are also wonderful cameo performances in the film like Jep’s interview with an artist for an article on the arts he is writing for a highbrow magazine. She is an avant-garde performance artist who’s bizarre act climaxes in her hurling herself naked head first against a stone wall! The setting is spectacular; the wall is part of the foundations of a great towering ancient Roman aqueduct set in glorious countryside. The irony of this rather bizarre and nihilistic performance being performed, once again, against the back drop of Rome’s “great beauty,” is hard to miss. The further irony is Jeps interview with the artist. It is an amusing but ruthless exposure of the shallowness and meaninglessness of her fashionable postmodern punk – hip performance. Her explanation is as incoherent as the performance, it is without meaning. In a sense it is a less sophisticated version of the lives of Jep and his friends and you sense that he knows it.

For me the film raised a fundamental question about the origin and purpose of ‘great beauty’ in our lives, whether it’s the beauty in art, nature, love or friendship. In the end I think the answer to that question lies in your world view.

As a Christian I believe great beauty has its origin in God and is a reflection of his glory and beauty and its purpose is to point us to him, “The heavens declare the glory of God…” [i] The film wonderfully celebrates beauty but never asks what is its ultimate source.[ii]

If great beauty doesn’t ennoble you then it may corrupt you. If you do not allow it to take you to its true transcendent source then you can make it the object of your worship, or you turn it into something you can manipulate for your own selfish purposes, human love is a good example, or it can set you on a journey of longing and desire that you never fully satisfy with this worlds substitutes.

In an interview about the film Toni Servillo who plays the main character said; “I think that beauty can injure you to death. It can cause an injury that can never be cured, or it can so traumatise you that it changes your direction.”[iii]

Rome is also known as ‘The Eternal City’ because the ancient Romans believed that it was a city that would last forever. That title is also sometimes used because its beauty and grandeur is said to reflect the true eternal city, the city of God in the Kingdom of heaven. But sadly the Rome of Berlusconi’s Italy is once again a byword for political, moral and spiritual corruption.

Also we should never forget its violent history, expressed in Cowper’s famous line from his poem ‘Boadicea’:

“Rome shall perish,

Write that word in the blood she has spilt.”[iv]

Both beauty and power have their origins in God and if their worldly expressions do not lead us back to him they will inevitably corrupt us.

In “The City of God”, written by Augustine after the sacking of Rome by the Vandals in the 5th Century, a book that has greatly influenced Western thought, he reflects on the historical conflict between the city of man and the city of God. The city of God is marked by people who forgo earthly pleasures and devote themselves to God and his eternal truths. The city of man on the other hand consists of people who focus themselves on the pleasures of this present but passing world.

Even though the great earthly cities may eventually fall, The City of God – the New Jerusalem – will last forever.[v]

Peter Corney Jan.2014

[i] See Psalm 19:1, Psalm 29, and Romans 1:20.

[ii] See C.S Lewis “The weight of Glory” Collected Essays 2000 Harper.

[iii] See The Guardian film review 2013

[iv] ‘Boadicea : An ode’ by William Cowper, 18th C.

[v] Revelation 21.

“Punk Theology”


Punk Rock was created in the UK by the Sex Pistols in 1975 with Johnny Rotten, joined later by Sid Vicious; they were closely followed by another creative Punk band The Clash. They took the rock scene by storm and created a whole new wave of music that was a vehicle for a radical form of political dissent from the establishment. Their concerts often ended in a riot! They also inspired new styles in dress and fashion. Later this was followed by Punk art, Punk poetry and even Punk film such as the classic “The Decline of Western Civilisation.” They were anti-establishment, anti-authority, anti-capitalist, nonconformist and iconoclastic. They were for freedom, equality, direct action and free thought, opposed to selling out to the dominant culture.

The name and image has been hijacked now by all sorts of alternative and New wave arts and social movements who want to challenge the established artistic or cultural scene. There is even a self-styled “mystic Punk -art collective” called “Punkasila” based in Jakarta of all places that is to perform in Melbourne soon.

As someone who survived the 70’s it occurred to me that some contemporary theology could be described as “Punk Theology” – iconoclastic, rejecting the historic tradition and anti-authority. But where it differs from authentic Punk is that strangely it is not opposed to selling out to the dominant culture, a strong theme in genuine Punk. In fact much contemporary liberal theology is accommodationist – reducing and adapting the Gospel to the prevailing culture and its plausibility structure- what it finds easy to believe and is congenial to its morality. Despite its radical pose it is oddly intellectually provincial, reflecting the attitudes and values of its times. Rather than offering a critique of the contemporary culture and its values from the foundation of the historic faith it does the opposite.  A visit to a “Progressive Christianity”, “Progressive Spirituality” or “Emerging Christianity” website will be enough to reveal how un – Punk much contemporary liberal Christianity has become.  Alternatively read Ross Douthat’s very insightful book “Bad Religion”, especially chapters 5-7, (Free Press 2012)

A truly authentic Punk theology would radically attack and critique the contemporary intellectual and cultural idols of hyper modernity. These idols include Western cultures hyper individualism and narcissistic selfism, its redefining of personal freedom as the freedom from any restraint’s on the individuals choice, its reduction of decisions about sexual ethics to the narrow private concept of individual consent, its boundryless radical inclusivism and hypocritical cultural relativism*, its intellectually lazy religious syncretism that refuses to grapple with fundamentally contradictory ideas and world views. Then there is the empirical and reality denying embrace of ‘new literary theory’ and deconstruction to justify the rejection of any objective meaning in human communication – turning every interpretation into a mirror of the self’s inner world of murky motives and emotions and our dysfunctional psyches. This radical subjectivism eliminates all objective meaning and any moral and ethical criteria. Then there’s its highly selective and phoney embrace of Eastern Mysticisms idea of the self as a divine spark that if realised will not just connect you to but merge you with the Divine. Re- packaged for Western consumption by the merchants of the self- realisation and self- fulfilment movement this naive adoption of Eastern ideas feeds our contemporary inflation of the self. It adroitly avoids the real message of Eastern Mysticism, the elimination of the self in the ‘great sea of cosmic consciousness,’ a kind of ultimate suicide of the self, definitely not a congenial idea to the ego focussed selfism of the West!  ** If we still had a Biblical memory we might recognise the echo of the Tempters lie from Genesis 3:4 seducing us away from listening to God’s voice, “…you will not surely die…. you will be like God…” But alas all we hear now is our own.

The list of the Wests present cultural follies that a truly Punk Theology could challenge is a long one but you get the idea.

I say, bring back ‘The Clash!’

Peter Corney

*See the article on this website: “Christianity’s radical challenge to Cultural Relativism” (Category: “Christ and Culture.”)

**See the article on the website: “ Remaking the Western Mind – How God and the Self Blurred into One” (Category: “Christ and Culture.”)

ALIENS AND EXILES IN A STRANGE LAND – Living as Christians in contemporary Western culture


By Peter Corney.

For Christians living in Western culture today, as it moves further and further away from its Christian heritage, it sometimes feels like being an alien or an immigrant or perhaps even like being in exile. “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137) [i]

Our position of being the majority or controlling influence on culture has changed to one of minority or marginalised status. There has been a mocking thread in the arts and in popular media for a long time but we are now also often viewed with suspicion, and as a result of the recent uncovering of large scale sexual abuse in the church even despised. There are regular attacks by aggressive secularists on what they perceive as our undemocratic privileges like Christian Religious Education in State schools and Federal funding for Church schools. Aggressive and militant Atheism of the Richard Dawkins style is also a new development. While this hostility may be the expression of a vocal minority and common among overly influential secular liberal journalists, it nevertheless sets a tone in the general culture which has results like the passing of overly zealous religious vilification laws that can stifle free and open debate.

Because of the curriculum and the way history has been taught in schools in recent years there is a staggering and wide spread ignorance of the Christian foundations of our culture and its values by the media class and the debt that our current liberal values owe to that heritage. This, coupled with the embracing of “cultural relativism” [ii] by many of our so called educated commentators and public policy makers, leads to the downplaying and relativising of our heritage.

There is also a trend politically to marginalise Christian morality and religious considerations, to push them into the private space and exclude them from the public discourse. This has been the result of many factors one being the way minority interest groups have successfully organised politically to pressure government for decisions that are out of all proportion to their real size in the national profile, [iii] these decisions are then imposed on the vast majority. Governments in a media driven culture frequently make knee jerk reactions to remain popular rather than take more difficult but responsible decisions for the long term interest of the nation. Once again the influence of journalists, academics and public commentators, whose views are often not really representative and who are in reality a tiny percentage of the population, have an effect that is out of all proportion to their size.

These trends coupled with the inexorable and radical relaxation of censorship standards in film, television, and popular media, the general coarsening of our culture and the ready availability online of pornography and violence and the most graphic forms of human degradation leave Christians with a feeling of deep alienation from their culture.

Some of these trends may be inevitable as we have developed into a pluralist multicultural society based on secular liberal democratic principles. The question for contemporary Christians in Australian society today is – how we are to live, work, develop family life, recreate and vote in this society, and generally act as agents for the Kingdom of God and its values?

The following are 12 principles and directions that could constructively guide our actions and attitudes:

  1. Remember the first century Christians. They were a minority in a violent and cruel pagan culture but because of the way they loved, served, taught, argued and lived a set of values and beliefs that were superior ethically and philosophically to the paganism around them; they eventually changed a whole culture. Convictions like their belief in the precious value and equality of every individual human life made in the image of God was revolutionary and in the end culturally transforming.
  2. We must continue to proclaim the Gospel in every way we can, respectfully but confidently so that individuals come to faith in Christ and the Church grows.
  3. We must live out the values and life style of the Kingdom of God in our lives as individuals, families and Christian communities.
  4. We must develop strong distinctive Christian communities that preserve and pass on our values and beliefs and are models of care, love, compassion, mutual responsibility and commitment to one another, but are also open and engaged with our society.
  5. We must live out Kingdom values in our daily jobs and the voluntary responsibilities we may take up in the general community.
  6. Where we have opportunity to influence public policy we need to argue our case reasonably and persuasively in the public discourse, not imposing our values but arguing for their general applicability and value for the health and general good of the community.
  7. Where legitimate political avenues exist in our liberal democracy we should use those avenues to forward the values of the Kingdom of God, just as others forward theirs. [iv]
  8. We should seek office in organisations that influence and set cultural agendas; educational bodies, professional associations, arts councils, political structures at municipal, state and federal levels.
  9. We should be active in producing art, literature, plays, films, music and philosophy that reflects the Christian worldview.
  10. We should be active in pioneering new forms of care, compassion and social justice for the sick, powerless and marginalised in our society.
  11. While being active in State education we should also strengthen and develop new Christian educational institutions.
  12. Attitude is a key. Because of the importance of Christianity in the history of our culture we can come across as people with a ‘majority attitude’ even though we now have a ‘minority status’. This can be perceived as arrogant and presumptuous. While we must not surrender the heritage but continue to educate and explain its foundational nature in our cultures core values, we must do so without arrogance. The ideas must stand on their own feet, their only ally being the quality of our lives.

Peter Corney.


[i] Psalm 137 “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept…” Composed by the People of God when in exile in Babylon in the 8th Cent. B.C.

[ii] See the article on the website <> “Christianitys Radical Challenge to Cultural Relativism.”

[iii] The 2001 Aus. Census reveals that 99.53% of Aus. couples identify as heterosexual; 0.26% as gay; 0.21% as Lesbian. (ABS)

[iv] See the article on the website <> “Christianity and Islam – Alternative Visions for Society and Government.”

Christianity’s Influence On Indian Culture

By Peter Corney

To Indian Christians Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg is the name of a hero. In July 2006 a very significant celebration took place in India, of which Christians and the Press in the UK, US and Australia were completely unaware. It was the celebration of the 300 hundredth anniversary of a German Christian missionary’s outstanding contribution to modern India’s culture. The celebrations went on for a week and the Postal service even issued a stamp in his honour. Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg was one of the first two Protestant missionaries to India. He and his fellow worker Heinrich Plutschau arrived in East India at the port of Tranquebar in 1705.

Ziegenbalg is celebrated in India for his outstanding contribution to Indian education and Tamil literature. Modern Tamil Nadu’s education system is based on his language study, literary and education work and the school system he founded.

At the present time when we hear increasingly disturbing reports from India of the resurgence of an illiberal, discriminatory and often violent Hindu nationalism and the accompanying persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, Ziegenbalg’s story is one we need to know. Like all extreme nationalist movements the increasing influence of the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Indian politics is a concern, especially for liberal democracy in India and the progress of equality in Indian society. The Indian constitution outlaws the caste system but it is still alive and well in many parts of India. The reactionary BJP will also not be a positive influence in this area.

It is also important for us to know Ziegenbalg’s story given that migration from the sub- continent has now overtaken Chinese immigration to Australia. Immigrants from India have gone from 50,000 to 100,000 in Victoria in the last census period. This is expected to continue to grow and so will represent a significant part of our emerging new society. This has strategic implications for the ministry of the Church in Australia as we face the growing reality of “the nations” coming to us.

Many of us are familiar with the work of English missionaries in India. The Mission to India was sponsored by Wilberforce and the Clapham group of Evangelical Anglicans. Interestingly the first Episcopal oversight for Anglicans in Australia was provided by the Bishop of Calcutta. We are also aware of the great ministry of the Baptist missionary William Carey. Ziegenbalg’s story is unfamiliar to us but a very significant and encouraging one.

Ziegenbalg was from Halle in Germany but was sponsored by the Danish/German Halle Mission to India and the King of Denmark; this led to him being based at the Danish trading post in East India. He was part of a group of young Lutherans who were inspired and influenced by Herman Francke. Francke was an outstanding 18th C. Lutheran scholar, pastor, educationalist and welfare pioneer who taught at Halle University. He was a leading influence in the spiritual revival that took place in the German Lutheran church in the 18th C. and the development of Protestant missions. Count Zinzendorf who influenced the Moravian missionary movement was one of his students; the Moravians had a significant influence on John Wesley and so the English revival of the 18th C.

Francke was a Christian leader and entrepreneur, his work in Germany included the pioneering of primary education, he also developed a centre at Halle that included orphanages, hospitals, a pharmacy laboratory and residential care for widows and the elderly. The King of Prussia was so impressed with his work at Halle that he introduced similar centres throughout Prussia. Francke also believed in the then radical view that the poor and the nobility should be educated together. He also began the first Bible Society. As Ziegenbalg developed his work in India the influence and vision of Francke can be clearly seen.

Within a short time in India Ziegenbalg had mastered the Tamil language and began to preach and teach the poor in their own language. At that stage Tamil had no written form and due to the Hindu caste system and the authority of the Brahmin ruling class they were forbidden to read or own their own classical texts. Ziegenbalg developed a dictionary, a grammar and a written script and began to translate their own literature and the Bible. He also took the radical step of creating casteless schools that also admitted girls to education for the first time. As a result of his work, education and literacy spread through Tamil culture. Prior to this the ordinary Tamil people were captive to the Hindu priests and the Brahmin elite. His work produced a liberating revolution in their culture.

He became an acknowledged expert on Indian religion and literature. He taught the Christian faith with great respect for their literature and sought to explain how Christ fulfilled their spiritual longings and the missing pieces in their understanding of ultimate truth. It is a great example of cross cultural mission, evangelism and discipleship that takes culture seriously but also challenges it with the values of the Kingdom of God and that understands that no culture is beyond the critique of those values. At a time in Western culture when we have been misled by cultural relativism and developed amnesia about the how the best of our values have come from our Christian heritage this is a great story to reflect on.

Millions of Indians can trace not only their Christian faith back to Ziegenbalg and the New Jerusalem Church of Tranqueber that he founded but also their education and liberation from oppression and some of the destructive elements of their culture. Vishal Mangawaldi, one of India’s foremost Christian intellectuals, says “that the Western missionary movement was, in fact, the single most important force that created contemporary India.”

Ziegenbalg died in 1719 at the age of 36 just 15 years after he began his revolutionary ministry. He was a hero of the faith.

Peter Corney. Oct. 2012.

Christianity’s Radical Challenge to Cultural Relativism.


Late last year I read the most profoundly disturbing book that I have read for a long time: “The Politics of SufferingIndigenous 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 cultures that 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. [1] 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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


[1] 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)

[iii]  (2002-2012)

[iv] See article by Tim Soutphommasane on ‘Multiculturalism’ (political philosopher Monash Uni. Member of the Australian Multicultural Council) the Age 24/9/12

[v] Professor Ian Harper Access Economics.

[vi] See  Mark 1:14-15., Philippian’s 2:5-11., Colossian’s 1:15-20., Revelation 11:15-17., Isaiah 9:6-7., Luke 14: 15-23., 22:14-30.

[vii] Philippians 2:11., Hebrews 13:14., Philippians 3:20., Ephesians 2:19.

[viii] Colossians 1: 19-20.

[ix] Galatians 3:26-28.

[x] Isaiah 25:6-8

[xi] Luke 14:15-24., 22:7-30., 15:22-24., Mathew 22:1-13., Revelation 19.

[xii] See the recent book by Stefan Auer “Whose Liberty is it anyway? Europe at the crossroads” Seagull Books 2012.

[xiii] See also the article “Christianity and Islam – alternative visions for society and government” (2012) at <>

[xiv] The Age 25/5/08

[xv] “The City of God” Augustine of Hippo.

[xvi] Ephesians 2:14-18., Colossians 1:20.

The Gospel and Culture and the current debate on Marriage in Australia


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.[1])

(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[2])

(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)

[1] “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.)

[2] 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.

The New Atheists: Their Myths and Beliefs

The Greek word αθεοι (those who are without god)

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[1]

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 experiment that 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[2] (Whose thesis I have 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.”[3] Behind this definition, he says, lies a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale; its only defect is that it is largely a false and gross oversimplification. 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.[4] 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 Century is 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 been caricatured 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.[5]

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.[6] 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 Universe Project. 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.”[7]

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
  • Space travel
  • 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. [8]
    • 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!  [9]

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?” [9]

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. [9]

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 State in this way and unrestrained by any transcendent moral value we are at the most 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. [10] 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 on the 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 [11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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)

[1] 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 <>

[2] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions – The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, Yale Press (2009)

[3] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions…, p. 33 – 35

[4] 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.

[5] JB Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (1991)

[6] D B Hart, Atheist Delusions, Yale Press (2009); D Lindberg, Science in the Middle Ages (1978); D Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages (2001)

[7] “Master of Colour” New Scientist, 10/3/12, No. 2855, p. 52-53

[8] See also Adam Curtis’s Brilliant three part BBC doco All watched over by machines of loving grace, 2011

[9] See the interview with Richard Dawkins quoted in P Lowman, A long Way East of Eden, Paternoster (2002) pp.134-135

[10] Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22 a Memoir , Allen and Unwin (2010) p420

[11] Alain De Botton, Religion for Atheists, Hamish Hamilton – Penguin (2012)

[12] Michel Onfray, Atheist Manifesto: the case against Christianity, Judaism and Islam. P 57-58. NY Arcade (2007.)

[13] See the Interview with Richard Dawkins quoted in P Lowman, A Long Way East of Eden, Paternoster (2002), pp. 134-135.

The Hands of Jesus – 6 Studies for Small Groups

The Hands of Jesus - 6 Studies for Small Groups

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.

Click here to download “The Hands of Jesus – 6 Studies for Small Groups” (2MB PDF)

Click here to download the accompanying 6 sermon series focused around the theme. (2MB PDF)

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 They could also be used for individual personal reflections. The Bible text is from the NIV translation.

The structure of each study:

  1. The theme
  2. An introductory question or exercise to get people thinking on the theme
  3. The core material of the study and Bible passages.
  4. Questions and exercises for group discussion
  5. A “take–away” task
  6. A thought for the week.

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.

Jesus doesn’t sell anymore – The artist as the mirror of our souls

Image by varrqnuht

(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.

(1) Wim Delvoye. In an interview for The Age 10/12/11. In his own work he says he uses Jesus as a subject just because he is not fashionable! “ He’s a reject. Jesus doesn’t sell anymore.”
(2) The Arts, The Age 10/12/11
(3) “The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas, pub. 2008 Alan & Unwin

Peter Corney