The Owl of Minerva – Can the West recover from gorging on greed?

By Peter Corney

The Owl of Minerva
Photo by takomabibelot

On Saturday March 21st this year The Age carried an unusual graphic with the lead story in the business section. The story was about the international financial crisis and excessive executive payouts. It showed an engraving of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden and an angel standing guard at the entrance, except that the entrance was to a bank! The bi line was, “Where to after the fall?”

Like most of us I had been ruefully reflecting on the state of things since the global financial meltdown, including my super fund! But the Age graphic started me thinking more deeply. I was further stimulated and disturbed by the reflections of five eminent economists and social commentators in the May issue of The Monthly on Kevin Rudd’s February article on the global financial crisis. Maybe there is no quick way back to the West’s financial affluence and security, no way back to Eden. Maybe this is the beginning of the big shift in the geo – political tectonic plates, the epochal change in the balance of power. Perhaps this is the sunset of the West.

My mind turned to a favorite film – Blade Runner. In Ridley Scott’s iconic film we find ourselves in Los Angeles in the future (2019). The setting is bleak; ‘ecological disaster, urban overcrowding, a visual and aural landscape saturated with advertising, a polyglot population immersed in a Babel of competing cultures, decadence and squalid homelessness.’ *  But juxtaposed with this social decay is brilliant technological achievement. High above the teeming filthy streets live the wealthy few in luxurious gated skyscrapers.

In one of the early scenes we find ourselves in the head office of a high tech corporation who are the creators of Cyborgs – advanced robots who are almost indistinguishable from humans. But some of the Cyborgs have gone feral and hunting them down is the core of the films plot. A ‘Blade Runner’ is a bounty hunter of rogue Cyborgs.

As we view the interior of the luxurious penthouse office we see an Owl perched on a stand. Then the Owl takes flight, passing in front of the vast plate glass windows behind which a brilliant orange 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 right at the beginning of Blade Runner is telling us that the films bleak vision of the future is what the sunset of our epoch will look like – the twilight of Modernity and Post or Hyper Modernity.*

The question for us is: As the Owl spreads its wings and the sun sets on Western Culture is our wisdom about the cause of its decay clear and sharp enough to enable us to transform it from it from decay to renewal? Or, to change the image, has the West fallen so far from the values and world view that produced it and delivered us something close to Eden that we can’t get back?   (* For a fascinating interpretation of the film along these lines see Jay Clayton ‘Concealed Circuts’ in Raritan Quaterly Review No 15 Vol 4)


Christ and culture

The 2007 J. Spencer Nall Memorial Lecture

‘Christ and Culture’ (The challenge – To conform or to transform?)

The key issue I want to address is whether we as Christians will allow ourselves to conform to the culture we are part of or will we seek to transform it by the values and Spirit of the Kingdom of God?

In the past three of the forces that have shaped culture were:

  1. The family, the clan, the tribe
  2. Religion – what people believed
  3. Commerce – how people grew, produced, exchanged, bought and sold things.

From time to time the influence of each of these waxed and waned but there was a kind of balance.

In our time a dramatic change has taken place. The third force, commerce, has joined itself to the most powerful and ubiquitous instrument our world has ever seen – the modern media – in all its dazzling and inescapable forms. This now threatens to overpower the other two.

The marriage was joined through advertising and marketing. Apart from some minor serious journalism that influences very few people, the popular media is primarily about delivering audiences to advertisers. Advertisers are about turning audiences into consumers.

Modern consumers are created by the construction of what has been called ‘Hyper Reality’. (1) Hyper Reality is a construction of desirable but artificial images. “You can be this or feel this if you buy this, wear this or drive this.” These images are then marketed for consumers. Hyper Reality is the product of consumerism. The process is reinforced by the promotion of discontent. “This mobile phone plan is better than the one you’ve got!”

The problem of course is that Hyper Reality is mostly fantasy and delusion. Eventually everyone is mugged by real reality. The consumer path leads inevitably to disillusionment because we know that the acquisition of things on its own does not lead to happiness nor does it construct real personal identity.

In the powerful and disturbing film ‘Fight Club” the writer of the screenplay puts these words into the mouth of one of the disillusioned young men who seek in the violence of the fight club some authenticity, some reality in their empty, superficial, consumer lifestyle.

“We are the middle children of history – no purpose or place. There is no great war for us to fight, no great depression. Our great war is a Spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’ll be millionaires, and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” (2)

It seems to ‘Jack’, the central character, that to feel really alive, to find meaning, can only be discovered through some existential experience of extremes, in their case the violence and the physical pain of the fight club.

Disillusionment leads to depression, anger and violence. It also leads to self-medication to ease the emotional pain or fill the vacuum. This is one of the reasons we now have an epidemic of alcohol and substance abuse. It may also explain the growing incidence of youth violence.

But the results are not only personal and individual they are social and global. Rampant consumerism leads us deeper and deeper into the environmental crisis and accelerated climate change – it is simply unsustainable.

Modern progress has reached a critical point where it is now eating itself, destroying its own achievements; it has turned into social regress.

While we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world with one of the most sophisticated health systems – Diabetes is skyrocketing, juvenile dental health is declining, one in four children have a mental health problem and Beyond Blue tell us that one in five adults suffer depression.

What is required is an alternative Christian Community that models a different lifestyle, one that says no to hyper reality and lives differently. A community that lives simply but joyfully, that is temperate and restrained but generous, disciplined but gracious.

The media Juggernaut is now the shaper of values and meaning for most Western people. It is in the process of overpowering the other two traditional shapers of our culture – the family and religious belief. Even the democratic political process is now captive to this monster.

I begin at this point to emphasise the size and seriousness of the challenge before us.

But this year we have celebrated the 200th Anniversary of an event that can give us great hope – the abolition of the slave trade in British Territories in 1807. A campaign by English Christians led through the British Parliament by William Wilberforce. This is an outstanding model of Christian mission and the transformation of culture.

It was a long campaign. It took them 18 years to get the abolition Bill passed and another 26 years to get all the slaves freed – 44 years! But they persisted.

Why was it such a struggle? It was a long struggle because of the social, economic and political climate of the times. The English upper classes were terrified of a French Revolution on English soil. The parliament was distracted by other issues. England was constantly at war with France and their American colonies. England’s growing wealth was tied to the colonies and the Slave Trade. The British Navy depended on recruiting merchant ships at times of war and the Slave Trade encouraged the building up of the merchant fleet. One of Wilberforce’s most bitter opponents was the national naval hero Lord Nelson! Britain’s leaders were fearful of any social reform at this time.

I mention this to encourage us because we also face a social climate that is not conducive to our values and we can easily be discouraged. But they did it and so can we!

Their campaign methods are instructive and a model for ‘faith based activism’. They mounted a media and petition blitz to coincide with Wilberforce’s Parliamentary Bills. (10% of the English population signed the Petition!) They assembled damning evidence of the barbaric nature of the trade. They developed a logo of an African man in chains with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” The famous potter, Wedgwood, even mass-produced it as a pottery plaque! They produced books, posters, they held rallies, they wrote to MP’s. They created a national organization and a huge grass roots movement. John Coffey comments: “There were even boycotts on consumer goods, as up to 400,000 Britons stopped buying the rum and sugar that came from the slave plantations”. The churches were mobilized and “hundred’s of Methodists … signed a petition against the slave trade in the Chapel at the Communion Table of the Lord’s Day.” (3)

The abolitionists were profoundly influenced by the radical New Testament teaching on relationships.

A fascinating example of this is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. It was written to accompany a runaway slave, Onesimus, as Paul returned him to his owner, Philemon. It appears that both had been converted to Christ through Paul’s ministry. Paul’s appeal begins as a very personal and emotional one (v8-13) but ends with a radical theological idea. He calls on Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but… as a beloved brother… both in the flesh and in the Lord” and as “a partner” (v15-17). In other words as a blood brother, as a brother in Christ and as an equal partner, like Paul, in their common enterprise – the Gospel! This is a radical request to a Roman slave owner.

In Colossian’s 3:10-11 and Galatians’ 3:26-29 Paul expresses this idea powerfully in the concept of our unity in Christ through baptism. “As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed your selves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Christianity draws us into a radical new identity through a radical new community. All our old communities of identity; gender, race, ethnicity, education, economic and social standing are relativised by our baptism into Christ. The old communities of identity often divide us, our new identity unites us. In addition, this particular unity is set against a broader unity laid out in the Bible – the idea that because every person is created in God’s image we are all bound in a common relationship. This together with the doctrine of the incarnation means that every person is precious and must be treated with dignity and respect. The English abolitionists logo expressed it well – “Am I not a man and a brother?”

These concepts of respect for every person and relational responsibility are touchstones of Christian ethics and social decision-making. Eventually this teaching undermined the Pagan ideology that was the basis of slavery. By the 12th C slavery was largely abolished in Christian Europe and by the 14th C rare, with the exception of some parts of Spain with it’s proximity to North Africa. But the rest of the story is not so happy or consistent and it raises the question of Christianity and culture.

In the 16th C two extraordinary acts of moral apostasy took place in Christendom. In 1548 Pope John 2nd issued a decree that it would now be acceptable for a Christian to possess slaves. Then in 1560 Queen Elizabeth 1st, defender of the Protestant faith of England, commissioned John Hawkins, sailor, merchant, naval hero and buccaneer, to get England a slice of the lucrative Trans Atlantic slave trade. The Queens decision was driven purely by economics and so began England’s long and immoral involvement in the transporting and trading of West African slaves from 1560 – 1807, 250 years and some three million slaves.

When European Christian’s looking for religious freedom settled in North America, they later developed the new nation with slaves! Founders of the “Republic of the free” like Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. Eventually they fought a bloody civil war over the issue. There were Christians on both sides arguing for and against slavery. Slavery was not officially abolished in the US till 1865. The effects of that bitter struggle still continue in American society today.

The British “Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge”, an early overseas mission agency, owned slaves in the West Indies. Following the common and barbaric custom they were physically branded, in their case with the word “Society”.

These disturbing examples raise the critical issue of the relationship between Christ and culture. How does a movement that morally transformed the Pagan world lose its bearings so easily on an issue that is fundamental to its core values?

At times Christianity has had an extraordinary morally transforming effect on its culture.

In his fascinating book “The Rise of Christianity” the sociologist Rodney Stark gives a very convincing account of why Christianity moved from a tiny minority to the majority religion of the Roman Empire by the time of Constantine’s conversion – just 320 years! It was because morally they out lived, out loved, out cared and out served the Pagans. Their treatment of women, children, slaves, the sick and the poor, their racial inclusiveness, their hope, simply overpowered the inequality, racism, corruption, violence and despair of first and second century Pagan culture. (5)

But, as we have observed, at other times Christians have been seduced and compromised by the culture in which they are set. They have been drawn into moral and theological reductionism, where they reduce core values and beliefs to fit the world view and practice of their times.

Borrowing and adapting categories developed by H.Richard Niebuhr (6) as he reflected on this question, the relationship between Christianity and culture can be described in the following ways:

(1) Christianity under the culture. E.g., Persecution by the Roman Empire in the first three centuries; Byzantine Christianity oppressed by Islam under the Ottomans’; the Church under Communism in Laos or China today.

(2) Christianity against the culture. E.g., Where the Church is actively opposed to the dominant culture as in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany with Bonheoffer and Niemoller or the Solidarity movement opposed to communism in Poland in the 1980’s.

(3) Christianity over the culture. E.g., Where the Church dominates and controls the culture, exerting power over it as in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages to the 15thC., or Geneva under Calvin.

(4) Christianity withdrawn from the culture. E.g., Where the Church disengages and withdraws into ghettos or closed communities like the Anna Baptists in the 16thC or the Amish in North America or the Exclusive Brethren and some forms of fundementalist pietism today. The motive may be fear of contamination from the culture or a desire to create The Kingdom on earth in an ideal community.

(5) Christianity absorbed by the culture. E.g., Where the Church is seduced by the dominant cultures values and conforms to them, adapting its values and beliefs to fit the culture. The contemporary Western Church reveals many examples of this like prosperity gospel teaching or ordinary Christians adopting the same materialism and consumerism of those around them or the retreat from classical Christian beliefs and Creedal faith. Apartheid in South Africa, tribal conflict in East Africa, and the culture of violence and confrontation in Northern Ireland are all tragic examples in the recent past.

(6) Christianity transforming the culture. E.g., Where Christianity acts like salt and light in the culture, reshaping its values and affecting public policy, like Wilberforce and the 18th and 19th English Christian social reformers. It is worth noting that in the examples of Northern Ireland and Africa mentioned in (5) above that Christians are now leading the reconciliation process and have moved to a transformational stance.

In Australia today the sixth relationship is the one I believe we should be pursuing.

Earlier we looked at the challenge of the contemporary media and consumerism. Another major issue is the contemporary trend towards social fragmentation. This is one of our great transformational challenges. I mention this because it links to the same fundamental issue faced by Wilberforce and the abolitionists – what really unites us as human beings.

We are a culture caught between contradictory desires. Because we are made in the image of God we are made for unity – unity with God and others. But because of our fallen natures we tend to disunity and fragmentation.

We are constantly conflicted – caught between the God placed desire for unity and community and the other desire for ever expanding individual choice – a desire that our Western consumer culture constantly feeds.

On top of all this, globally we now live in a socially and politically fragmenting world. The old unities of national, ethnic and cultural identity are all under challenge and stress by globalism and mass migration.

W.B.Yeats’ poem captures the feel of our times:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity. (7)

The world seems decentered! And yet the deep desire for unity and community persists.

One of the biggest challenges before every Western democracy today is maintaining a healthy multiculturalism.

Strongly influenced by our Christian heritage we continue to work at multiculturalism. There is a vigorous discussion going on about the need to redefine the essential core values of a multicultural democracy but we continue to work at the goal. Why? Because it is a unity dream – unity in diversity.

But can the dream stay alive in a decentered and fragmenting world? Can the dream overpower the nightmares of Racism, Xenophobia, extreme nationalism and fundamentalism?

Can the dream of unity and community stay alive without the revitalisation of its spiritual and moral source?

Let me remind you of that source – it is the N.T. and the Gospel.

Col 1 “…in him (Christ) all things hold together … God was please to have all his fullness dwell in him and through him to reconcile to himself all things… by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” (8)

Gal 3 “…there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (9)

Can we re-cast this vision of Christ as the source of unity, the centre for a decentered culture – the way to coherence in an incoherent world?

Can we re-cast this great transformational vision?

To be a transformational force we must remember that the Church and the individual Christian can never be neutral to the culture; we either work on the culture or it works on us. Therefore we should be constantly assessing and critiquing the culture and our part in it with the values of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. Passivity is not an option! But as we critique it and ourselves we must stay engaged because the surrounding culture is the arena of our mission. When Jesus said “as the Father has sent me so I send you” he was sending us into our culture with the good news of the Kingdom of God. Eugene Peterson in “The Message” translates Rom 12:2 “Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead fix your attention on God and you’ll be changed from the inside out.”

A question we should be constantly asking ourselves is: “In what ways am I allowing the culture I live in to compromise or reduce my Christian faith and practice?”

Wilberforce and his circle of friends in the “Clapham Group” used their influence to reshape British society in the early 19th C. Indeed many of the social values we take for granted today in Australia were pioneered by them. They created 69 different societies dealing with a great range of social issues including prison reform, child labour reform, factory reform, public education, gambling reform, the prevention of cruelty to animals – the list goes on. They also formed many evangelistic and overseas mission agencies. They managed to hold together what we have often separated – social justice and evangelism. They were very clear that individuals needed to be brought to personal faith in Christ; they understood that God desires to reconcile people to himself and to transform them. They were also clear that at the same time society could not be allowed to be dominated by greed and self interest, it had to be moderated by public policy that protected the poor and the powerless. Society also needed to be transformed. Nothing has changed these two needs in 200 years.

In this anniversary year of the abolition of slavery in British territories and the recognition of the profound influence of the “Clapham Group” we could take up the challenge to form “Clapham Circles” today and try to influence our profession, our business, our company, our political party, our community with the values of the Kingdom of God so that both individuals and our society might be transformed.

Peter Corney

References

(1) Mark Sayers “The trouble with Paris” DVD Room 3 Productions 2007

(2) Chuck Palahnuik, from the movie script of ‘Fight Club’

(3) John Coffey Cambridge Papers Vol 15/2 2006

(4) St Paul The letter to Philemon N.T (NIV)

(5) Rodney Stark “The rise of Chistianity” Random House 2006

(6) H.Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) “Christ and Culture” First published 1951. Torch books 1956

(7) W.B. Yeats “The second coming” 1920

(8) St Paul The letter to the Colossians 1:15-20 (NIV)

(9) St Paul The letter to the Galatians 3:26-28 (NIV)

Recommended Reading

“Saints in Politics” by E Marshall House (George Allan & Unwin, 1976)

“Vital Christianity – the life and spirituality of William Wilberforce” by Murray Andrew Pura (Clements Publisher Toronto 2003)

“Jubilee Manifesto – a framework, agenda and strategy for Christian social reform” Edited by M. Schluten and J. Ashcroft (Published by IVP. UK)

“Christ and consumerism” Edited by C. Bartholomew and T. Moritz (published by Paternoster 2000)

“Above all earthly powers – Christ in a Post Modern world” by David F. Wells (Published by IVP UK 2005

“The culturally savy Christian” by Dick Staub (Jersey-Bass 2007)

“Just generosity” by Ronald Sider (Baker 2007)

“Justice in the Burbs” W & L Samson (Baker 2007)


Reshaping The Western Mind – How God and the self blurred into one.

By Peter Corney

There has been a profound change in the way many western people understand themselves in relation to God, spirituality and religious concepts. In short God and the self have blurred into one. The forces that have brought about this change are complex but here are three key factors in the process.

First, out of the Renaissance and the Reformation there emerged a form of Christian humanism. Following and flowing out of the Renaissance the Enlightenments influence gradually disconnected humanism from its Christian roots. What eventually emerged was what we have come to call secular humanism.

Secular humanism encouraged the idea of the autonomous individual who, independent of God, possessed within themselves alone the power to discover, to understand, to create and control whatever they determined. The rise of modern science accompanied and reinforced this process. By the late nineteenth century the philosopher and radical thinker Friedrich Nietzsche had declared that the idea and necessity of God was dead. These processes laid the ground work for the change by over inflating reason and the self. As a result the western idea of the self began to gradually break free from its biblical theological frame work and Christian world view. The idea of the autonomous self was born.

Second, is a little known today, but highly influential thinker called Feuerbach, another nineteenth century German. He began by studying theology but turned away from Christianity to become a hostile critic. Feuerbach put forward the idea that God is the outward projection of mans inward nature, a wish fulfillment, a projection of our own aspirations and desires on to a non existent divine being. “God,” he said “is the realized wish of the heart.” “Knowledge of God is nothing else than the knowledge of man.” He was very hostile to the idea of revelation which he described as a “poison that destroys the divine feeling in man.” These ideas were promoted in his book “The Essence of Christianity.” (1)

Feuerbach had a deep influence on a group of thinkers and writers who have profoundly shaped the modern world: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the intellectual source of Marxism/Communism who together wrote the Communist Manifesto, and Sigmund Freud the father of modern psychiatry. Freud’s research, ideas and terminology attempted to describe the self in new terms and in the process succeeded in reshaping the modern view of the self. Many of the ideas and ways of describing and understanding ourselves that we commonly use today are influenced by Freud and his disciple Karl Jung. (2)

At the time of its publication (1841) Engels said of Feuerbach’s book “One must himself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.” Interestingly it was Feuerbach who first said “Religion is as bad as opium” a phrase later echoed by Marx, “Religion is the opium of the people.” Another quotation from Marx reveals Feuerbach’s influence, “Religion is only the illusory sun, around which man revolves until he begins to revolve around himself.” Freud treated religion as an illusion or wish fulfillment, an idea that has influenced so much of psychology and psychiatry in our times.

This is not only the beginning of the psychologising of religion it is the beginning of the grand inflation of the self. We are now the creators of God! God is just a projection of our own imagination, fantasies and wishes. Of course if we created him then we can also dismiss him, which was indeed the final result of the enlightenment experiment and announced by Nietzsche. That is what makes the next step in the process so paradoxical and contradictory – turning the self into God! If we have now decided that God is just a projection of our wishes and imagination, and an idea we have outgrown, why would we make the self divine? But that is exactly what we have done.

The reasons are deeply theological – our overweening desire to inflate the self to the place of independence from God. It’s beginning, described in the powerful mythic language of Genesis, has now reached its climax. In offering the great temptation: The serpent says “You will not surely die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” (Gen 3:4-5)

In the West, given where we had arrived at through the Enlightenment, we achieved this next paradoxical step by embracing a new, at least to the West, and very exotic influence, Eastern Mysticism (EM). This is the third force in the reshaping of the western mind.

As the West tired of secular materialism in the 1960’s and 70’s the counter culture flowered and the Baby Boomers embraced Eastern Mysticism. The Beatles went to India and everyone followed! The interest has continued but the result is not what anyone who really understands Eastern Mysticism might have expected.

At the heart of Eastern Mysticism (EM), particularly in its Buddhist form, is the question of how to solve the problem of suffering. The East’s solution is detachment. Our suffering, it is claimed, comes about through our attachment to our desires in this world. If we break our attachments we can free ourselves from that which is the source of our suffering. So the teaching and practice is geared towards this process of detachment and disengagement from the world. The ultimate step is to become detached from the conscious self, to become the “not self”, where individuality is extinguished in the “great deathless lake of Nirvana.”

Whereas Christianity is about incarnation the central idea here is excarnation – disembodiment, the annihilation of the self. The mental and physical disciplines of EM are part of the means to this end. The aim is to realise your oneness with the cosmic oneness or consciousness as a pinch of salt is absorbed into a glass of water. This is certainly not about the inflation of the self!

Closely related to this is the idea of transcending the material plane of the illusion of difference and absorption into the one, the great unity. This idea from EM is more associated with forms of Hinduism and is seen as the solution to what is believed to be another aspect of our suffering and burdens in this world. These are the troubles that arise from our insistence on the differences around us, differences of human and animal, plants and insects, race and religion, health and sickness, material and spiritual, rich and poor, etc. These differences are said to be an illusion that we need to transcend. The task of the spiritual journey, they say, is to transcend the plane of illusion and realize our unity with the one. (This and the above idea have a common source in the East’s pantheistic world view that God and nature are one and there is no distinction between them. This is described philosophically as Monism – from mono meaning one.)

It seems that the declared end result of EM is the shedding not just of self consciousness but of our unique personal identity. This has been critiqued as really the annihilation or suicide of the self.

Annihilation of the self is not very congenial to the Western mind shaped as it is, first, by Christianity’s view of the value of each human person made in the image of God which is reinforced by the incarnation of Christ in human flesh. Then, second, by the enlightenment and the forces we have described above. Years of humanist thought that celebrates the uniqueness and importance of the individual and their creativity and power and right to decide and choose and shape and control the world does not give up so easily. We are prone not to the annihilation of the self but to its inflation!

So we have adapted Eastern Mysticism and adopted it’s ideas selectively to achieve the very opposite of its declared goal. We have used EM not to annihilate the self but to further inflate it in the most grandiose inflation of all, to transform the self into God!

We have done this by taking from EM those things that are congenial to the Western mind and life style and ignored or flirted superficially with the rest. The things that are congenial to the Western mind are: The idea of unity. Western culture has been promised so much by material progress through the industrial and technological revolutions, by science and modern medicine and yet now finds itself in a confusing and fragmenting society. International migration has created multicultural societies where once a more mono culture and uniform national identity was assumed. This has caused significant tensions. They are acutely aware of the growing disunity of their world, the fragmenting of marriages and families, the loss of community, the environmental crisis and the divisions of the world through international conflicts. In this environment the unitary idea of EM is immensely attractive.

We invite the Dali Lama to visit the West and listen approvingly as the rather exotic figure talks about world peace and unity. His lectures on Tibetan Buddhism are also well attended but much less understood and quoted in the press as they take one into the more opaque labyrinth of Eastern thought.

As the West has become a more pluralist culture it has embraced moral relativism in its ethics and syncretism in its approach to religion – the “blender” view. It is also increasingly influenced by post modern subjectivism in its evaluation of spiritual and religious ideas. For these reasons the idea of pantheism is attractive because it supports the notion that all religions are really just different expressions of the one. It requires no hard thinking or difficult decisions about what might be true or false, reasonable or nonsense, consistent or illogical. The fact that some of the fundamental ideas of different religious systems are mutually exclusive and logically contradictory is either brushed aside as too hard to think about or, as in most cases, not even considered out of shear ignorance. These days the West likes its religion lite!

We flirt with detachment from our materialism with expensive eco tourist retreats and high tech costly push bikes and lycra riding outfits. We borrow some of the meditation techniques and go to Yoga classes to ease our stress and keep our bodies in shape. But not to really detach from our frenetic work and entertainment but to refuel to re-engage more energetically! Our engagement with EM is at best simplistic and naive and at worst cynical and dishonest.

Another idea in EM that is congenial to the western mind is the notion that there is a divine spark in all of us. The idea is that because we are all part of the one, potentially we are all little Gods. Our task is to realise the divine light in ourselves, realise our divinity and our true unity with the one. To go thus far with EM is very congenial to the Western tendency to inflate the self – the self has now become divine! ( A brilliant recent analysis of this trend is Ross Douthart’s book “Bad Religion” Free Press, 2012, see chp 7)

Some eastern teachers are fond of quoting Jesus’ words in Luke 17:21 “The kingdom of God is within you” to reinforce their ideas with a biblical phrase still familiar to some western ears. This gives the impression that essentially EM and Jesus’ teaching are the same. The context of the Gospels and the teaching of Jesus makes it quite clear that what Jesus meant by these words is in fact the complete opposite to what EM teaches! (3) Jesus, standing in the midst of the crowd, is saying: ‘The kingdom of God is entered by an inner act of faith and trust in me its King. I am here in your midst now and if you want to enter my kingdom you must submit to my rule, obey and follow me.’ Jesus is not found within us he must be invited in and submitted to and we must first turn away from our inflated selves and seek forgiveness for our pride and independence.

In John 10:1-18 Jesus takes the metaphor of the sheepfold and the shepherd and says that only those who come into the fold via the shepherd are members of the flock of God. The shepherd sleeps across the entrance to the fold. Any one trying to enter the sheepfold some other way is either a thief or a wolf! (4)

In the Christian faith when a person is encountered by God in Jesus Christ and they respond and submit to him in repentance and faith the image of God in which they were created is restored. They are not absorbed and their identity and personhood annihilated or lost, they in fact find it renewed. (5) They have now entered into a union with Christ who became incarnate, took on human flesh, lived, died and then rose from the dead. For Christians the resurrected body is a real body, renewed, but in continuity with our former body. Christianity is about incarnation not excarnation! Christians are about the renewing and perfecting of the self in the image of Christ not its annihilation. (6)

It is very instructive that the development of hospitals, orphanages, and modern medicine did not develop in the East but in the West influenced by the Christian teaching of the value of the individual life, the body, and the importance of the physical world. The physical world is to be respected and enjoyed but not worshiped for it is not God. It was made, like us, by God and reflects his glory but it is not God. These distinctions lie at the heart of the difference between EM and Christianity. (7)

References:

  1. ‘The Essence of Christianity” by L. Feuerbach 1841. See also The New Dictionary of Theology” IVP 1988 p258 -259.
  2. See “The Empty Self” Gnostic and Jungian Foundations of Modern Identity” by J. Satinover Grove Books no. 61 1995.
  3. See Romans 1:18-25. (NIV) Note the clear distinction between the Creator and the created order.
  4. John18:36-37
  5. IICor.5:17
  6. Phil. 3:7-14
  7. Rom 1:18-25. Psl.19:1-4

Belief in an Age of Unbelief – responding to the “New Atheism”

God-Delusion-700195by Peter Corney

(Delivered at SHAC Commnity on 14th March 2010)

This weekend Melbourne has hosted an internationally publicized conference entitled “The Rise of Atheism”. The headline speaker is Richard Dawkins, biologist, author of “The God Delusion” and well known promoter of Atheism. Also the widely read English writer A C Grayling will be present, and the usual local suspects, Peter Singer, Phillip Adams, Catherine Deveny etc.

Richard Dawkins is the current flag bearer for a new, articulate and very vocal group who has captured the media spotlight. They include the very talented and acerbic journalist Christopher Hitchens who has written “God is not Great”, a play on an Islamic chant. It was Hitchings who coined the phrase “Islamofascism” to describe today’s militant Islam. Then there is Sam Harris who has written “The end of Faith” and Daniel Dennett who wrote “Breaking the Spell”. They are sometimes referred to as the four horseman of the apocalypse!

These writers have a common theme – religion is the main cause of division, violence and conflict in the world, it is, they say, the root of all evil, not only a delusion but dangerous to society. It is the enemy of reason and scientific truth. The enlightenment is under threat….it must be defended from deliberate attacks from organised ignorance. The passion with which they promote their views can be quite intolerant  and narrow. Ironically these are the attitudes they claim to oppose.

They also make some very sweeping claims. Eg: Dawkins implies that no scientist worth his salt could be a theist! In fact many of the worlds leading scientists past and present are Deists or Theists and many are Christians: Here are just a few examples: Max Planck (father of quantum theory) John Barrow (the theoretical physicist and current Professor of mathematical sciences at Cambridge,) John Polkinghorne (a particle physicist and a previous holder of the same chair at Cambridge), John Lennox (currently Professor of Mathmatics at Cambridge,) Simon Conway Morris (the Prof of evolutionary paleobiology at Cambridge, someone Dawkins should know well professionally), Francis Collins (head of the international Human Genome Project.), Allan Sandage (the famous Astronomer.) Someone I know personally, Dr.John Pilbrow (emeritus Prof of physics at Monash Uni,) is a committed Christian. One could go on. In fact many of the academic and research scientists that I have known are not only theists but Christians.

Now because a significant number of leading scientists and philosophers are theists or Christians does not prove the existence of God. But it does support the idea that belief in God is not unreasonable. It certainly runs counter to Dawkins implication that belief in God is something that only the uneducated, prejudiced, and intellectually feeble embrace.

Dawkins is highly intelligent and it must be acknowledged that he and his associates present some very challenging and persuasive arguments in their books.

But there are now a number of well written rebuttals by Christian scholars and professional philosophers. Like John Haught’s “God and the new Atheism a critical response….” The Anglican theologian Alister McGrath has responded with “The Dawkins Delusion”, he is an Oxford theologian but began his academic career in molecular biophysics. (A list can be found attached to this paper)

Most interesting among the recent responses is the respected British philosopher Anthony Flew who for most of his academic career did not believe in God but has now changed his mind.

Flews early writing was recognized for many years as part of the classic argument against theism. His recent book, in which he explains why he changed his mind, is entitled “There is a God”. The book is very significant because it explains how academic philosophy has moved on from the philosophical presuppositions of Dawkins and coy. They are really working from a now discredited logical positivism. The idea that – the only statements that are valid and meaningful are those that can be empirically observed, ie: tested and verified by sense experience, or scientific study and experiment. The effects of logical positivism have carried over into popular culture and remain widespread . Comments like “Well hasn’t science disproved the Bible and Christianity!” are typical.

Every culture and period of history has what sociologists call a plausibility structure, ie: what the people of a particular time find plausible or easy to believe (and what they find difficult to believe.) Logical Positivism and its twin, scientific rationalism, have greatly influenced the plausibility structure of most contemporary Western people, even though they may never have encountered those terms, particularly people over 50years of age. Younger people who are more influenced by a post modern framework of thinking are often more open or flexible in their plausibility structure. They can flip easily between modern and post modern. Eg: the ease with which they embrace the idea of the spiritual and supernatural as well as modern technology. We will return to this idea of plausibility structures later.

This phenomena, the rise of the new atheism, raises a number of questions that I’d like to try and address today.

Is it new?

Is it a broad popular movement gathering strong momentum?

What is driving this new militant and vocal atheism?

Is there a significant decline in religious adherence in Australia today and is there a connection  with the new atheism?

And what should our response be as Christians?

Addressing the questions:

1. Is it new?  No! It is basically the old arguments recycled. ( In Dawkins case with a heavy emphasis on evolutionary theory, which as a biologist is his field of expertise.)

2. Is it a broad popular movement gathering strong momentum? No! Not really although it has a high media profile. Those who choose conscious atheism is still a minority section of the population in the West.

The recent Age Neilson Poll (18/11/09) showed that:

68% of Aus believe in God or a universal spirit.

( In another poll by CPX, 54%  said they believed in Jesus and that he rose from the dead!)

In The Age poll 50% say religion is an important part of their lives.

In the developing world belief in God in some form is almost universal and Christianity in particular has been growing rapidly for years now particularly through Pentecostalism. But also in the main stream denom’s. Eg: In Nigeria there are 11mill active Anglicans alone!

  • Christianity is now the majority religion in South Korea.
  • It is estimated that there are now in excess of 50 mill. Christians in China, and the Fallen Gong religious movement is also numbered in the 100’s of millions, and this in spite of years of active atheist propaganda and active suppression by the state.
  • In addition we have resurgent Islam all over the world, and a resurgence of Hinduism in parts of India. (This is associated with Hindu nationalism.)

The factor of religion is now so important in international relations   that Tony Blair has formed a special organization to harness faith in the service of international political solutions.

So in the bigger picture atheism is not growing, in fact it is diminishing.

But having said that there is definitely a decline in Christian adherence in Australia and the West in general.

Let me say something about the categories of belief and unbelief in western culture, and in Australia in particular – six categories:(I’ve borrowed some of these from Tom Frame’s book “Loosing my Religion”.)

  1. Believers who are active and committed adherents
  2. Believers who are inactive (a signif. % Christians)
  3. Vague believers – there is a God or a supreme being
  4. Non belief – neutral, never considered it, indifferent.
  5. Unbelief – non dogmatic agnosticism
  6. Disbelief – conscious atheism

Bishop Tom Frame in his book  estimates that the majority of Australians are now in the category of unbelief, ie: they are ‘non dogmatic agnostics’, not really sure. I don’t think he is right about that. The research does not support that they are a majority, but I certainly think they are a large proportion now and growing. But the point is these people are not conscious atheists. In The Age Neilson Poll 24% say they have no religion or do not believe in God and the % is highest among the under 25’s (Gen Y) and going up. So is conscious atheism growing at the same pace as the decline of Christianity?   No!  But non belief and unbelief are growing (c’s 4&5) and the situation with the under 25’s deserves our close attention.

3. What is driving this new and militant group of public apologists    for Atheism?

I think there are three things:

(a) The rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism, the West’s reaction to it, and the increasing violence and suffering that has resulted.

(b) The growth of “Creationism” (the young earth view) within Christian fundamentalism.

(c) The decline in Christianity in the West. They smell the blood in the water!

Let me develop these three and then think about how we should respond.

(1) The bloody conflicts around the world and international terrorism have in most cases a religious factor. The response of the west has been described as a new crusade and is seen as such by many in the Muslim world.

People like Christopher Hitchens see militant Islam in eg: its Iranian revolutionary guise or the Taliban in Afghanistan as the new religious fascism of the 21st C. They see it as the enemy of all we have achieved through the European enlightenment over the last 300 years.

The running sore of the Israel / Palestinian conflict is deeply embedded in religious issues.

The terrible conflict in the Sudan is between Islamic and Christian tribes.

So it is very easy to frame an argument that religion is the great cause of evil, hatred and violence in the world, get rid of it and we will be free of the hatred and the violence and the suffering.

But little if no attention is paid by these writers to the fact that the most bloody regimes in the recent past were militantly atheistic. It is estimated that over 40 mill people lost their lives in the atheistic, communist regimes of Stalin and Mao. A whole nation was traumatized and over 2.5 million lost in the Killing fields of Kampuchea by the fundamentalist Marxist Khmer Rouge, and no one knows what the toll is inside N. Korea.

Therefore the idea that atheism will deliver us from evil, violence and mans inhumanity to man seems rather implausible when you reflect on its recent track record.

Dawkins says that religious faith is the problem but I think he confuses faith and conviction. Unbalanced fanatical conviction that is driven by religion or atheism or a political ideology, that has no restraints or any moderating values like love and compassion, is frequently destructive. Nietzsche said “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies”.G.K. Chesterton made a similar point when he warned “Beware of the well lit prison of a single idea” passionately held.

Of course the truth is that it is the darkness in fallen humanity that is the cause of wars and hatred and the quest for power. “The heart of darkness”, as Conrad put it, is in us all. It is only the radical message of the gospel that is the answer to that darkness. Only Christ and the cross can both judge and free us from our evil and guilt.  Only the transforming power of the Holy Spirit can change our hearts and enable us to live above our weakness’s.

But Christians must confess, that in spite of our knowledge of the gospel, we have at times been seduced by our national or ethnic culture and its inevitable pride, its prejudices, its fears, its tribalism – and that has then led us into being accomplices in the abuse of faith as a tool of discrimination, division and the oppression of others. (Eg: Serbian Orthodoxy and the Balkins conflict in recent times)

We can forget the clear NT statement that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but all are one – that the gospel calls us to a new identity that transcends race and culture. When we forget this we can fall back into the darkness.

When we forget that forgiveness and reconciliation are central to the gospel we can easily embrace revenge and retaliation  – When we allow faith to becomes aligned with a political ideology – then the darkness overpowers us and we too can resort to coercion and force rather than love.

But when rightly understood and practiced the Christian faith transforms not only individuals but families, cultures, tribes and nations with love, forgiveness and reconciliation.

On the other hand – Atheism offers no radical answer to the darkness in the fallen human heart. At its best it offers only the existentialist position – to will, to decide to do good in the face of evil, to fight the plague even though ultimately you know that it has no lasting effect or meaning, and you even have no objective way of determining what the good is. Like the Dr in Camus’ famous novel “The Plague”. You go on fighting the plague trying to save lives but in the end the plague wins.

Jean Paul Sartre the French atheist and existentialist said : “Atheism is a cruel long term business.” (And I would add, not many have the strength or courage to follow it with complete consistency.)

(2) The second thing driving the new atheism is the growth of Creationism within contemporary fundamentalist Christianity. “Creationism” is an interpretation of the Genesis creation account as taking place in 6 literal 24 hr days and rejects the Darwinian evolutionary theory and believes in a young earth (10,000 yrs, not Billions.) This has stirred up people like Dawkins who is a biologist. His other reason for visiting Australia is to promote his new book on evolution and Darwin’s work “The greatest Show on Earth”. Dawkins feels that Creationism is anti scientific and irrational and is taking us back to a pre enlightenment world view.

(It should be said that there are a variety of views that are held under the “Creationism” banner, like Intelligent design, some are more nuanced than others and not all who hold the various views can be fairly described as fundamentalist.)

It is worth noting that there are many thoughtful Christians who believe in divine creation and evolution and have some sympathy with Dawkins at this point. We need to make it clear that it is thoroughly Biblical to hold a view that believes in some form of evolution and a divine creator who designed, began and guided the process –God.

(3) The third thing driving the new atheism is the decline of Christianity in the West. The new atheists sense this weakness and are moving in for the kill.

I mentioned earlier that every age and culture has a plausibility structure ie: a mental framework that finds some things easy to believe and others not. The age of science bolstered by a philosophical frame work like logical positivism has made the believability of transcendent realities implausible for many western people. The idea that there is no absolute truth or absolute moral standard makes what Christianity offers no longer attractive and in fact it seems rather restrictive.

The response of the Church to this since the 60’s has been less than helpful. There have been two common reactions:

(1) At one extreme we have had the liberal theological reaction of accommodation – of reducing core truths to fit the prevailing plausibility structure.

Eg: If resurrection is unbelievable then redefine it as just the idea of Jesus coming alive in our hearts and minds.

If Jesus’ claim to be Gods divine son is implausible then deconstruct the NT text to say that he didn’t really say that, this was what the early Christians wanted to believe and so they changed Jesus’ words. What he really meant is that we are all Gods sons and daughters.

If the idea of atonement is too offensive to modern ears then re interpret the cross as merely a symbol of passive resistance to evil or a sign of identifying with us in our suffering.

You can even retain the most disturbing symbols, like the cross and the Lords Supper, but evacuate them of their radical first order meaning of substitutionary sacrifice and turn them into some kind of feel good emotional spiritual mystery. Keep them clothed with traditional liturgy music and art and no one will know the difference!

Or take the uncomfortable idea of judgment and accountability –  that Christ’s call to follow him must be responded to and the failure to do so places you outside his kingdom. You can reinterpret it to a more comfortable idea that says everyone in spite of their personal decision will find their way into the Kingdom of God.

The end result of liberal reductionism is of course a Christianity so emptied of its classical content that it has nothing radical to offer the contemporary culture. It is so seduced into conformity with it, so domesticated that it is unable to challenge the spirit of the age. Its ideas are now provincial, trapped in the mental landscape of the culture it inhabits.Instead of challenging the intellectual idols of its day with the gospel it submits to them.

(2) The second response is at the other extreme.Fundamentalism! Creationism is one expression of this. Fundamentalism is a retreat from the intellectual challenges to belief. It is a result of pitting reason against faith rather than seeing it as a partner. It is a retreat into a closed certainty.

It has some devastating results for the Church and its mission, eventually it produces:

1.  An intellectually shallow Christianity that is very vulnerable.

2. An over dependence on emotion and subjectivism

3. A withdrawal from culture rather than engagement

4. A shallow evangelism that fails to engage the mind.

5. A simplistic and uninformed approach to the Bible

Fundamentalism also produces generational faith decline:

  1. Gen. one has a living faith with moral practice but fails to pass on intelligent understanding.
  2. Gen. two has faith and practice but without intelligent understanding   is unable to convincingly pass on vital faith, and so only passes on moral practice by example.
  3. By gen. three even moral practice is weakened because its foundation of vital faith and understanding has gone. As it no longer has these, and the example of moral practice is now compromised, it is unable to pass on any of the three key things. In fact it may even pass on a negative attitude, as a result of children seeing moral compromise.
  4. So gen. four has neither faith, understanding nor moral practice.

That is how generational faith decline works. (Gen. five may begin to feel the emptiness and ask ‘what have we lost?’ or it may not.)

So liberal theology or fundamentalism are two extreme responses that weaken Christianity.

But we do not have to be limited to these two responses there is a third way.

(3) The third response is intelligent orthodoxy alive with personal faith and infused by the Holy Spirit. That seeks to bring all the wisdom and intellectual resources from the history of the people of God to bear on the issues of the day. We have been in a battle like this before. Maybe in a different shape and context but the same questions re – occur. Classical Christian orthodoxy frees us from the provincial and present and lifts our horizons to the broad sweep of history and the treasures of Christianity’s intellectual and spiritual resources.

I have defined this third way as “Intelligent Orthodoxy alive with personal faith and infused with the HS.” Our response to the new atheism must be intelligent and thoughtful but it must also come out of a living personal relationship with God – We need “Minds ablaze and hearts on fire”. Essentially Christianity is relational. It is about being in a personal relationship with God, it is an encounter with both the mind and the heart of the living personal God. That relationship must then flow out in love to others. Jesus summed it up succinctly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Finally we must confront the new atheists with two questions:

In relation to the arguments from science – the material that scientists are working with is basically, forces, particles and spaces and that is important work. But you simply cannot get to values, purpose, meaning and hope from there alone. And it is self evident that these things are part of our reality, they inform and effect every day of our lives. They must be found in a different place. This leads me to my first question for the new atheists:

(1) Do they have a meaningful alternative to belief in God?

Ronald Aronson an atheist but one of the more measured critics of theism has written a book entitled “Living without God”. He makes the important point for his side to consider – “That living without God means turning to something.” What will that be?

(2) Given the immense complexity of the universe and all living things, and the immense improbability of life happening on this planet in this solar system, why then is belief in a creator less probable than the idea of our origins being in blind chance?

It is of great interest to me that physicists and cosmologists are generally much more open on this question than biologists like Dawkins. Einstein wrote: “Everyone who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble”

The burden of proof for the faith of  atheism lies squarely with the atheists!

Let me close with these two quotations, the first  from Richard Holloway which expresses the stark alternative to belief in God :

“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 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.”

The second is this bleak conclusion of the Richard Dawkins of a previous generation the late Bertrand Russell – mathematician, philosopher, atheist – here is his conclusion of the alternative to belief in Christ and his resurrection: “No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve the individual life beyond the grave;…..all the labor of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system,…… the whole temple of mans achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins