Review of ‘Strange Days’ by Mark Sayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2000’s Islamic terrorism begins in the west.

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

2002 Bush’s ‘Axis of evil’ speech

2003 US invades Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 Islamic Terrorism escalates in Europe.

2014 The Syrian conflict escalates triggering massive people displacement.

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

2015 – 1 million refugees flood into Europe

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

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

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

2017 Trump elected. Obamas dreams unravel!

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

HERE WE GO AGAIN, BACK TO CHAOS!

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

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

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

 

A brief essay

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

Christian Humanism vs Secular Humanism and a basis for hope.

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

Three key ideas in a Christian Humanism:

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

 

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

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

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

Peter Corney Sept 2017

 

 

 

 

 


Women Men and Ministry

WOMEN, MEN AND MINISTRY by Peter Corney
The following takes a ‘meta theological’ or overall Biblical narrative approach in trying to answer the question – ‘What are the big Biblical ideas that help us to find our way in these issues?’
1. Creation: We are all made in the image of God and therefore equal – Gen 1:27. Both the man and the woman are given the role to rule over creation – Gen 1:28. In marriage they are described as “one flesh”, a unity of equality – Gen2:24-25. It should also be noted that the Hebrew word translated as “helper” to describe the woman in Gen 2:18 means one that corresponds to the man or the other side of the coin and is most commonly used of God in the OT. But the fall disturbs all this and introduces inequality and oppression –“he will rule over you” – Gen 2:16. The fall introduces into our natures the propensity to “the will to power” , usually over others and frequently men over women. There are of course many other ramifications of this disturbance in the created order like fear and shame – Gen 3:8-10. The whole plan of salvation is to rectify this disturbance and restore Gods original intentions, which of course includes the relationship between men and women.
2. Redemption: The goal is to reconcile, restore and renew what has been disturbed and fractured. This plan is worked out in history through Israel and the Old Covenant and then finally through the Church in the new Covenant and so unfolds progressively. In the OT the sign of membership of the people of God, who are called out to be the instrument of Gods plan of redemption is circumcision, born by the male members only as the full plan of redemption is not yet fully realised. But when we come to the fulfilment of the plan, with Jesus’ death, resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the Church, it becomes baptism. This sign is now given to all, men, women, children, slaves, Jews and Gentiles-Gal 3:26-28, Coloss 3:9-11, Ephes 2:11-22, Philemon 15-17. So we begin to see the redemptive process of reconciliation, renewal and restoration beginning to work its self out in the relationships of gender, race and status (eg; slave and free). Baptism incorporates us all into Christ where we are united as one. The NT in fact encourages us to see ourselves now not only as equals but in a radical new relationship of servant love (literally slaves) of one another just as Christ served us – Phil 2:5-11, Ephes 5:21, Mark 10:42-45.
3. New creation: So the new people of God, the Church, are to be signs, examples and foretastes of the new creation, the Kingdom that God through Christ is bringing in now and which will be finally consummated when Christ returns and the whole creation is healed and renewed – Rom 8:18-27, Rev 5:9-10, 22:2 (‘the healing of the nations’.)
4. Ministry: In the new people of God all are equal and servants of one another, therefore ministry and role are by gift (Charism) of the Holy Spirit – I Cor 12:1-31, Rom 12:3-8. Roles and ministry are no longer to be determined by gender, inherited position (OT Priesthood), the world’s cultural constructs of hierarchy and imposed authority, but by the Spirit. The proper ordering of the gifts of ministry is a function of the new covenant community operating in its new understanding of itself as a community of redeemed equals in which the disturbed relations between people and particularly men and women and the judgements of the fall are now in the process of redemption. So all tendencies to the fallen “will to power” over one another must be eschewed and excluded from whatever method of ordering the gifts a particular community or group of communities decides. The other factors to be considered when appointing people for ministry and leadership roles in the new redeemed community include matters of character, spiritual maturity, sanctification and trustworthiness and those of the kind listed in – 1Tim 3:1-12, Titus 1: 5-9. There is no essential or ontological hierarchy in the Church apart from Christ who is the head of the body.
The following are notes on: The Pauline texts on men and women in Christian marriage and women in Ministry and two of the major solutions proposed to resolve the difficulties encountered in the NT and the disagreements that have resulted. They are: (a) ‘Equal but different’ (Complementarians) and (b)The idea of ‘Strategic cultural adaption for the sake of evangelism’ by the NT church alongside its radical redemptive teaching on human relationships of equality, unity and mutual servant hood.
1. Christian marriage: In the NT Christian marriage is seen as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and his people – we are ‘the bride of Christ’ – Eph 5:31-33, Rev 21:1-2. Christian marriage is to be understood as a sign and expression of the new people of God in which the original intentions for the relationships between men and women described in Gen 1-2 are to be worked out in a partnership of unity, equality, love and mutual servanthood. – Eph 5: 21. The binding covenant and promises required in Christian marriage provide the security and commitment for this process to take place in the intimacy of the marriage relationship. In this way marriage becomes a sign of: (a) the Gospel of redemption and (b) the intimate relationship possible now between Christ and his people and (c) the new redeemed community, the Church.
But this ‘meta theological’ view creates an apparent tension or paradox with Pauls other statements on men and women. In Ephe 5:22-24 the tension between Paul’s statements about submission of wives and the idea of the restored equality under the new covenant is within the text of Eph 5 itself as vs 21, which introduces the section on marriage, says we are to submit to each other! Paul also expects in vs 25 the husband to adopt Christ’s servant example in his relationship with his wife. Is Paul taking for granted their fundamental unity in Christ, as per Gal 3:26-28 (etc.), and referring to their roles – and therefore stating the ‘equal but different complementarian approach’? The other alternative is that this is an example of ‘strategic cultural adaption.’ These alternatives and their various merits and difficulties will be discussed further below.
2. Women in ministry: The question is how are we to resolve the tension between Paul’s restrictions on women in ministry and the macro theological picture presented in the Bibles redemption narrative?
(i) The Complementarian approach. In this resolution men and women are seen as equal but different, having different roles in the family and in the Church, particularly in relation to leadership and ministry. The problems here are as follows: (a) That it fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between the man and the woman in Gen 1-2 and Gods original intention and imports into the creation account role differences like leadership. The account has no mention of role distinctions and, as we pointed out earlier, the Hebrew word in Gen 2:18 translated in English as ‘helper’, which has given rise to much misunderstanding, does not refer to a particular role that is different to the mans but actually means ‘one who corresponds to’, or as we might say, ‘the other half of the coin’. It is a description of their mutual interdependence – they are only complete together – “one flesh”. The only difference is in their male and femaleness and the woman’s ability to bear children. (Later in the Mosaic instructions it will be clear that the responsibility for the children’s nurture as in their conception is a mutual responsibility.) It is one of the goals of the redemption plan to restore this original relationship disturbed by the fall. (b) That particular roles like leadership and eldership are associated with authority, power and control which frequently conflict with expressions of equality. (c) That because of the effects of the fall we are all vulnerable to the temptation of “the will to power” and the seduction of hierarchy, and our vulnerability to this is particularly acute in male female relations. (d) Pauls teaching appears to hold an unresolved tension between his radical redemptive teaching on the effects of the Gospel on human relationships in the new covenant community (Gal 3:26-28, Colos 3: 9-11 etc.,) and his comments on male and female roles in the family and the Church.
(ii) The Strategic cultural adaption approach. This resolution sees Paul’s instructions as an expression of strategic cultural adaption for the sake of evangelism. Because first century culture is highly patriarchal it would have been culturally unacceptable for women to lead in church or to publically evangelise. So the Church accepts some of the limitations of current cultural norms for the practical reason of the ability to publicly witness. But at the same time it teaches within the fellowship the radical redemptive ideas of equality in Christ. This creates certain tensions. It should therefore not surprise us to find in such a dynamic and developing environment as the NT Church examples of cultural and practical inconsistencies regarding women and ministry. For example women are described as ‘fellow workers’, ‘deacons’ and ‘Prophets’. In Paul’s list of people and fellow workers he wishes to thank in Romans 16: 1-27 there are at least nine women’s names! He begins his list with Priscilla who we know from Acts 18:24-28 instructed the gifted teacher Apollos .(For further examples see the notes in the references )
There are a number of examples of this tension in other areas of cultural clash between the Gospel and the first century world: (a) Slavery – there were many slaves among the members of the new Christian churches. Paul clearly takes the cultural adaption approach with Onesimus the runaway slave in his letter to Philemon his Christian master as he sends him back as Roman law required. At the same time he exhorts Philemon to see Onesimus as his brother in Christ – vs 15-16. In 1Tim 6:1 the sensitivity to the cultural issue is very clear – “so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered”. In Coloss 3:22 he encourages slaves to obey their masters and then in 4:1 relativises their authority by saying both master and slave are under Gods authority. In I Cor 7:21-23 he says to Christian slaves that in Christ they are really free people and if they can gain free legal status they should. In 1Tim 1:8-11 he describes slave traders as evil and breakers of God’s law. These references show clearly the tension described above.
(b) Circumcision – Paul argues strongly in Gal 5:1-3 against non Jewish Christians being circumcised as this conflicts with the Gospel of grace (see also Coloss 2:9-12). Paul with Barnabas argued strongly against requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised at the first Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 and the Council agreed –Acts 15:19-21. And yet Paul has Timothy who has a Jewish mother and Greek father circumcised for the reasons of cultural sensitivities among the Jews they were attempting to evangelise at Lystra – Acts 16: 1-5. Another example of cultural adaption for the sake of witness and a very controversial one! (c) Clean and unclean food: The Council at Jerusalem had put forward the cultural principle (Acts 15:19-21) of respecting the sensitivities about foods that were forbidden to Jews and Paul respects these. But when teaching non Jewish converts about their new freedom in Christ he makes it very clear that these are not required by the Gospel and are only to be considered in evangelism to Jews and discipling young Gentile believers who are still influenced by Pagan sensibilities of idol worship and the food offered to them – 1Cor 8:1-13, 10:23-33. (d) Head covering and uncovering – men and women: This is another area in which the cultural principle can be observed. In Pauls day for a woman to remove her head covering and expose her hair in public was a sign of loose morals and sexual promiscuity. If she was married this would be a sign of gross disrespect to her husband. Men were to worship uncovered. I Cor 11:1-16 deals with this issue, it is a passage that is notoriously difficult to exegete and has been the subject of much controversy but it is very relevant. One thing is clear it is about cultural propriety in public worship and the common custom of the churches at the time, as vs 13 & 16 shows. In the process of his argument vs’s 11-12 reveal another example of how Paul grapples with the tension between the creation accounts of the equality and the mutual interdependence of men and women and the pressure of cultural adaption. The tension is clearly revealed in his equivocation about the instructions he is giving in vs’s 11-16.
The I Tim 2:11-16 passage should also be commented on at this point as it is Pauls response to another occasion of the issue of cultural proprietary in public worship. This passage is much commented on and the interpretations are vigorously disputed so my comments will be brief! The following points should be noted: (i) Verses 9-10 indicate that the instructions arise because of the proprietary of women’s dress and hair adornment in worship. This is similar to the occasion for the instructions in 1Cor 11. This was obviously a sensitive issue in the culture of the day! (ii) The context of 1 &2 Tim also indicates that there were specific issues with false teaching at the Church at Ephesus – 1Tim 1:4-7, 2 Tim 2:16-19, 3:6-9, 4: 2-4. (iii) At this time most women in the general culture were uneducated, it was similar in Judaism where the Rabbis were very reluctant to have women as disciples. This would have added weight to Paul’s concerns for women to be teaching in Ephesus at a time when false teaching was present. Paul presents two strategies to meet these concerns: (a) The short range one – to forbid women to teach. (b) The long range one- educate the women , Vs 11 “a woman should learn.” It is worth noting in the cultural context Paul was addressing that this gender specific encouragement is actually counter cultural! So once again we see the cultural tension issue arise – adaption alongside radical redemptive change. (The footnotes have further comments on the 1Tim 2:11-15 passage, in particular on Pauls remarks on the “creation order” in Gen 1-2. See also Craig S Keener’s excellent but brief commentary on these passages. )

Paul’s general cultural principle in evangelism: This is found in 1Cor 9:19-23. “Though I am free and belong to no one, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jew I became a Jew……I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some..….” For Paul his Mission was always the priority, if that required strategic cultural adaption he was prepared to take the risk!

The danger of cultural adaption is of course cultural conformity that reduces and compromises the radical redemptive message of the Gospel. It certainly seems when you look at the NT evidence in this way that the early Church did a balancing act walking the fine line of strategic cultural adaption to its culture for the sake of evangelism and at the same time avoiding cultural conformity. It is also clear that the NT contains evidence of failure to resist the conforming and corrupting influence of certain cultural forces such as the Gnostic influences that Paul tackles in Colossians and the constant tendency for Jewish converts to drift back to the legalism of Judaism that he tackles in Galatian’s and is also seen in the letter to the Hebrews. Also the corrosive effect of the general ungodliness and moral decadence of the first century Greco/ Roman culture that we see reflected in I Corinthians and described in 2Tim 3:1-5 had its effect on some.

The reason the early Church did not fall into complete cultural conformity is I believe because of the following :( 1) The NT Church was gripped by a living experience of the Holy Spirit. (2) The nature of the freedom that the Gospel brought to them was so radical and fresh in contrast to their 1st C culture, whether Jewish or Pagan, that they really felt ‘saved, liberated and redeemed’ – like converts in Africa, Asia and China or converts from Islam feel today. It is also why evangelism is so hard in the jaded post Christian West. Its people have the hard won fruits of Christian freedom and its radical view of the equality and dignity of every human person, which they take for granted, but are no longer aware of the origin of these values, they have also rejected their transcendent source. (3) While the early Christians were culturally savvy and pursued their outward evangelism strategies with great courage, energy and cultural sensitivity, it is also clear from the NT letters that the Apostles and teachers continued to teach within the Churches the radical nature of the redemptive and relationally transforming power of the Gospel. This would have been supported by the regular reading and reflection on the Gospels and the radical teachings of Jesus. (4) There were also clear points at which they drew a line in the sand in cultural adaption. For example; the Lordship of Christ over their lives could never be compromised, there was only one who could be called Kurios (Lord) and that was Jesus. That led eventually to persecution when they would not take part in the civil ceremonies of allegiance to the Emperor that involved or implied his worship as a God. They were also uncompromising in matters of sexual morality. (5) While they made some strategic cultural adaptions they also developed new cultural innovations based on their redemptive theology that had significant impact, for example:
(a)Their practice of caring for prisoners who were not members of their families
(b) The rescuing and adopting of abandoned babies
(c)Their willingness to become involved in caring for the sick and dying in the numerous epidemics that regularly broke out in the crowded cities when most people withdrew from the sick.
(d) The practice of not allowing their daughters to be given in marriage before the age of 18 years.( Rodney Stark in his excellent history of the early Churches influence on Roman culture points out that their treatment of and regard for woman was one of the factors for the churches rapid growth in the first three centuries. His book lists other ways in which they were counter cultural and innovative )
(e)The treatment of slaves due to their understanding of their oneness in Christ.

Conclusion.
The Biblical theology of Creation, Redemption and New Creation creates an overwhelming case for the equal and mutual interdependence of men and women in Christian marriage and ministry. It also means that there should be no gender distinction in leadership and ministry in the Church.
Contemporary cultural factors that run counter to that theology and reflect our fallen nature require the Church to teach and model a counter culture of Kingdom values in its community, but they also require a missional sensitivity so that the Churches culture does not hinder evangelism or place unnecessary cultural barriers before non-Christians.
‘Strategic cultural adaption’ for evangelism is complicated and vulnerable to the danger of cultural conformity to the world’s standards. There is also the question of the difference between first and second order issues. Some cultural practices at certain points in history are so opposed to the Gospel that they have to be challenged from the outset. For example the custom of honouring the Emperor was expected by the ruling power of Rome and Paul encourages that respect in Rom 13: 1-7 but in certain civic ceremonies it was extended to a formal act of worship, and as pointed out earlier in the paper, this was a bridge too far for the Christians. By the time we get to the Book of Revelation and the period of fierce persecution Rome has become the Anti-Christ!
Culture is also constantly changing and so must ‘strategic cultural adaption’. Some examples: if a woman in public leadership in the first century was a cultural barrier, in the twenty-first century for women not to be in leadership in the Church is a cultural barrier! A less serious example is the custom of women wearing a scarf or hat in Church, based on Paul’s injunctions in I Cor 11. This was still common in the 1950’s in Australia even though the original reason was hardly remembered and was by then more connected to the idea of dressing up for Church – so hats for ladies and suits and ties for men! It is almost never seen now in Protestant Churches and would be seen as culturally ludicrous to call for today. On the other hand if you were doing evangelism in a Muslim culture today head covering for women might be advisable! If we consider the question of slavery any tolerance today by Christians for slavery would be seen as an intolerable barrier to the Gospel’s integrity. On the other hand if we take the question of food and drink it has been a largely irrelevant issue in Western Churches for a long time but if you were evangelising in a Muslim subculture in Australia today it would be important, and you certainly would not serve alcohol at an Alpha dinner for Muslims! The issue of polygamy is still a factor in evangelism in parts of Africa today and often a difficult question to resolve practically for new converts from a tribal culture that practices polygamy – which wife does the man keep! These examples could be multiplied.
Then there are the more subtle cultural factors to bear in mind when evangelising sub cultures of a dominant culture. For example in the dominant Aussie culture there are the subtle issues of dress style, language, choice of illustration, music genre, etc., all can affect you being ‘heard’ in a particular sub culture of our many Aussie tribes!
If you are serious about effective evangelism ‘strategic cultural adaption’ is unavoidable, as St Paul knew so clearly.
These factors have great significance for the contemporary Church in a multicultural Australia today.
Peter Corney 4/1/17
(Notes: There are extensive footnotes available for this article on request)


Scientific materialism – the windowless room

Scientific Materialism – the windowless room by Peter Corney
Since the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution we live in a culture that has made enormous progress in our understanding of the physical world which has been of enormous benefit to us – just think of the field of microbiology and the treatment of common diseases.
But accompanying this success has grown the popular doctrine of ‘Scientific materialism’ which believes that reality is limited to the physical and material world alone, that there is no ‘metaphysic’ – nothing bigger than or beyond the physical. This belief, which incidentally is not held by most serious scientists, has cut us off from the transcendent and the larger, more subtle and spiritual aspects of reality. This reductionist belief provides no answers to our deepest and most persistent questions of meaning, purpose, and values. It has no answers to our questions about how we determine what is good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust, and how we determine accountability for our actions. This doctrine is like a brilliantly lit room in which we can research and discover wonderful things about our physical world except that it has no windows on to the larger realities and its door is tightly locked and bolted and permits no access to our most pressing existential questions.
One of the latest exciting scientific frontiers is in neurobiology as we uncover more of the mystery of how our brain works. But once again the reductionist temptation is with us. We think that once we have tracked the physical cause and effect pattern we can explain everything about human behaviour, emotions, beliefs, and consciousness. But humans are not just biological machines, they are more than material objects, they are persons who persist in asking questions about meaning and values, who express opinions and appreciations about beauty and art, who create music and poetry to express joy and sorrow and hope and love, who understand values and make moral judgements.
Music illustrates the above points well. It can be described quite accurately at one level as fluctuating air pressure made by an instrument and processed by the human ear, but if that’s all we say it’s a reductionist explanation, which from a human perspective of appreciation and emotion, is completely inadequate. You could say the same thing about gunfire! Why is it that when that fluctuating air pressure is produced in a particular pattern that we call ‘a melody’ it produces in us delight or pathos, deep feelings of sorrow or joy and so on?
As English philosopher Roger Scruton points out the ‘Why question’ can be asked and applied in many different ways: There is the ‘why’ of science that looks for causes; there is the ‘why’ of reason that looks for arguments; and there is the ‘why’ of understanding that looks for meanings.
Peter Corney 2017


Gender and Gender Fluidity – A Christian Response

GENDER AND GENDER FLUIDITY – A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE
In July 2015 the Australian reported that the Sydney University SRC were agitating for a variety of changes in the way the University categorised students and facilities like toilets and change rooms. They wanted less binary and more inclusive gender categories. Josh Han the SRC representative for gender matters, or Queer Officer as he was termed, said: “It’s about deconstructing societal views about what it means to be a man or a woman. If you only have two genders, there are limited interactions. But if you have a diversity of gender identities you don’t have these closed categories. It means you can have way more than 58 gender categories.” Among those 58 options according to Facebook are bi-gender, questioning, gender variant, pangender, intersex and 27 varieties of transgender and transsexual.
Now lest you think that this is just the latest fad in student politics you need to think again. The signs are that the concept of ‘gender diversity’ and ‘gender fluidity’ is becoming mainstream. The categories LGBTI are now recognised in some Commonwealth legislation. The Victorian State government has announced that it is planning to spend approximately $10 million on a ‘Pride Centre’ to showcase LGBTI art and history and $5 million on a Gender Dysphoria clinic at Monash Health. The Victorian government has also recently appointed a Gender and Sexuality Commissioner Ro Allen a long standing advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse and intersex Victorians.
First we need to clarify how some of these terms are currently being used.
L = Lesbian, G = Gay, B = Bisexual, T = Transgender, I = Intersex, Q = Queer or questioning (‘Queer’ was originally a derogatory term but now adopted and rehabilitated by the Gay and gender questioning movements, although not all same sex attracted people support this term.It is also used to describe a political theory -‘Queer Theory’- that seeks to question and challenge all social norms. CIS gender = relating to a person whose self identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender. (What in the past was called normative.)
‘Pangender’ is another term sometimes used to indicate the belief that gender is a very broad and inclusive thing and not restricted to traditional heterosexual attraction.
What is Gender Fluidity or transgenderism?
It is a way of thinking that makes a sharp distinction between sex and gender. Sex is still understood as biologically determined but gender is now seen as something that is entirely socially constructed and so a matter of personal choice. This means that there is no necessary connection between your gender identity and your biological sex. The two may be the same or they may be different. There is, it is claimed, no norm.
Another more political way of describing transgenderism is that it is an umbrella term for anyone whose role, behaviour or gender orientation is not in line with what our prevailing and dominantly heterosexual society currently expects from our biological sex.
How does current mainstream medical and Psychological understanding help us approach this issue?
The following three general categories are recognised that are relevant to this issue:
1. There is a very small group of people who are born with physically ambiguous genitalia. These are very rare deviations from the physically binary sexual norms and are generally understood as “disorders of human design.”
2. The second category is those who are biologically male or female but have a same sex attraction. This group is commonly identified as homosexual, lesbian, gay or same sex attracted. While the exact figure is disputed reliable recent surveys in Australia, such as the ‘Australian Study of Health and Relationships 2013’, indicate 3.3% of men and 3.6% of woman identify themselves as not heterosexual. But it should be noted that of these totals 1.3% of the men and 2.2% of the woman identified as Bisexual. Only 1.9% of the men identified as gay and only 1.2% of the women as lesbian. A very small % describes themselves as ‘other’.
With regard to the question of whether same sex attraction is innate or caused by psychological and social factors it is scientifically unclear at this stage and disputed.
3. The third group is described as experiencing ‘Gender dysphoria’. This is the term currently used by the Psychiatric profession in their ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM5). This describes people who have distress, confusion or tension between their biological sex and their gender identity. This is where a person is biologically male or female but feels they are like the opposite sex. This was formerly listed in the DSM as a gender disorder as it was understood as a mental or psychological disorder from the norm where sex and gender match. The change in the DSM definition to ‘dysphoria’ is seen by some professionals in the field as more of a social and philosophical shift rather than a scientific one. The number of people in this category is unclear and disputed but probably less than 1. % as can be seen from the ASHR survey (Quoted above). It’s also possible that there will be people who are same sex attracted (category 2. above) and also those in pre-pubescent confusion who will present with gender dysphoria. While this is a small number it is significant socially and for those people suffering this distress it is a real and challenging problem that requires compassionate and specialist care.
Measuring the number of people genuinely in this category is also difficult at present due to the wide spread publicity given to current gender politics and the ambiguity expressed by some young people during the developmental stage of adolescence. Also it must be remembered that adolescent surveys on sexuality are notoriously unreliable for the reasons of peer pressure and expectations, their vulnerability to popular media fashions, and the fact that a number of adolescents go through a period of sexual confusion and questioning during this period of their development, but at the end of puberty the overwhelming majority accept their biological sex.(As DSM5 indicates)

A recent history of sexual politics
Since the 1960’s there are four discernible stages in the recent history of sexual politics in the West. Each stage has been the subject of considerable political activism. Reflecting on these stages and the response of the general community
and the Christian community is instructive.
1. Stage one: The cause of women’s rights to equality.
As a political cause this goes all the way back to the 19th C and the Suffragettes and their campaign for women’s right to vote. But the cause for women’s rights took on a wider scope and a new energy with the advent of contemporary feminism in the 1960’s. While there is still much to be achieved in areas such as equal pay and representation in positions of leadership the achievements have been substantial and generally accepted by society.

From a Christian and Biblical standpoint women’s equality with men should never have been questioned for the N.T. makes it quite clear that in Christ we are one. Paul expresses it this way in Galatians 3:27-28 “… all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This together with the idea that we are all made in God’s image is the basis of the Christian idea of equality. The N.T. also makes clear that Christian Baptism replaces Jewish male circumcision as the sign of membership of the new covenant people of God. All are baptised men, woman, children, slaves, Jew or Gentile. The Body metaphor used by Paul in I Corinthians 12 to describe the way the Church is to function explains that while we are all equal and interdependent members of the body we have different functions, roles and gifts.
For the first 300 years of the Churches mission this was an overwhelmingly powerful and attractive truth to the ordinary people of the highly stratified, unequal, oppressive and patriarchal pagan culture of the first century. It was only later in the Churches history that this truth was diminished and compromised by the Churches adoption of old cultural forces. The recovery of this truth and its practical application in the contemporary Church has been widely welcomed. There are some exceptions but even these are modified from the immediate past practice.(EG: Almost all Protestant denominations have women as well as men as ordained ministers)
2. Stage two: The decriminalisation of homosexuality and Gay rights.
This took place only 35 years ago in the state of Victoria. This has been followed by a campaign to remove social discrimination against same sex attracted people. This campaign continues today and its success has been significant and is generally accepted by the community at large.
Once again from a Christian standpoint, on the same basis as just mentioned above (Gal.3:27-28 etc.) there should be full acceptance of same sex attracted people in the Christian community. We are all equal before the Gospel of grace and we are all equally fallen and in need of redemption.
On the question of sexual intimacy and same sex attracted people, the N.T standard of behaviour expected should be the same as that expected of single heterosexual people – chastity. (The ‘Four key Biblical and theological points’ in the last section of the paper imply that Christian Marriage is not available to same sex attracted couples as it would contravene the Christian concept of marriage, being against both divine and natural law.)
3. Stage three: The still contentious and unresolved question of same sex marriage.
While our society is currently in the throes of this debate it seems that the general community is conflicted for three reasons: (a) they have generally accepted the principle of “mutual consent” as being the only requirement for sexual intimacy among adults whether heterosexual or gay and so to refuse formal same sex unions seems inconsistent! (b) Many non – Christian people still hold to a traditional view that ‘marriage’ is a term that should be reserved for the formal union of a man and a woman. (c) There is also a significant residual feeling that same sex marriage is ‘unnatural’, meaning that it goes against natural law. (There is a plausible opinion that says that the national plebiscite was opposed politically because it was feared that despite the polls it would fail.)
So for these reasons many in the non – Christian community are conflicted about this issue.
Among the Christian community there is strong support for the traditional view of marriage and retaining the current legislated definition of being between a man and a woman and I believe we should continue to argue for that and support that position politically. But there is also a feeling among some that in a post Christian and pluralist liberal democracy we should honour the views of a national plebiscite, should one ever approve same sex marriage, and not oppose civil unions of same sex couples. This would mean the Church preserving Christian marriage as a separate and distinct institution conducted in and by the Christian community with its own unique character, purpose, requirements and values. Consistency would also require us not to “bless same sex unions” as that would compromise our values and beliefs. This would of course be heavily criticised by the Gay community. At the same time we should resist any attempt by the state to compel our ministers as celebrants to formalise same sex unions. That would be a grave breach of a core democratic value of the separation of Church and state and freedom of religion.
4 . Stage four: The gender fluidity debate.
This is the stage we are currently entering. Gender fluidity as we have already observed is based on two ideas; a sharp distinction between sex and gender and the claim that our gender identity is not determined by our biology or the prevailing social construct of heterosexuality but by individual choice. This is illustrated with claims such as; ‘I am not necessarily what my body says I am…. I am not what you or society says I am……I will be what I say I am…… and I may change that decision from time to time’
You can see how this mood can be fuelled by current Western social trends toward an exaggerated or hyper individualism, where people accept few objective moral restraints or transcendent values restricting or directing their individual choice.

It is also important at this point to challenge the oft repeated phrase that ‘heterosexuality is just a social construct’. The idea of a social construct comes from a particular theory of the sociology of knowledge and been widely influential in sociology schools. It is based on a particular philosophical presupposition that hardly passes the common sense test, which is that reality only exists when we as members of society invent or create it and does not exist prior to its social invention. The Christian world view is entirely opposite to this presupposition. We believe reality exists objectively to us and is revealed to us by God.We aprehend it and discovered it and in that process we uncover its meaning and its purpose and also our own. This knowledge is then socially shared by us and through that process we develope our societies,our values and our cultures. So we understand that sexuality and gender and their relationship and purpose are a given part of the created order. The reality of the world, its meaning and purpose therefore are not determined by personal choice. But, of course how we as individuals respond to that God given given meaning and purpose is a moral and ethical choice for both the individual and community.Those chioces profoundly effect the kind of society we construct, for good or ill.
In relation to the oft repeated claim that heterosexuality is just a social construct we should observe three facts about the real world (i) At least 95% of the human population are heterosexual (ii) It is self- evident that this is the way we were designed and how the human race has continued (iii) It has been historically the overwhelmingly dominant social norm in all cultures since history has been recorded. Therefore to claim that it is merely a social construct and so is not innate, natural and normative is not an idea based in reality! (Further explanation of these ideas can be found in the footnotes. )
Having made this critical observation of the idea of gender as a social construction it is important to add that for various reasons which we do not entirely understand there is a small group of people for whom gender dysphoria is a real and challenging personal issue that requires recognition and a compassionate response.

Four observations about the conduct of the debate throughout the history of sexual politics:
1. Sexual politics is about identity and therefore is a very personal debate for us all.
Identity politics includes questions of race, religion, nationality and gender all very emotionally charged issues. Therefore they are almost always overheated and often extreme.
2. Because identity politics are very emotive they are easily ‘weaponised’. As it can seem that your opponent is attacking your identity he or she easily becomes your enemy and you are tempted to fight back strongly and to exaggerate or overgeneralise. “All white people are racist”…… “All Christians are homophobic”…… “All people of a particular ethnicity are lazy” …..” All men are violent”. Disagreement can be caricatured as “Hate speech”, etc. So debate becomes oppositional distrustful and alienating and logic and reason are discarded. Slogans take the place of reasoned argument, research and reliable facts.
3. The discussion and debate is also very vulnerable to those with an ideological political agenda whose political presupposition is that the existing established social, religious and moral order is oppressive and must be overthrown and radically replaced. What is to replace it is never made clear beyond slogans. This extreme left agenda influenced by ‘critical theory’ is not really interested in reasoned debate or the free exchange of ideas and different views or compromise. For them the liberal democratic process with its commitment to free speech and accommodation of difference is not something to be respected and enhanced but merely exploited and used as a means to an end – a social and value revolution! This means that their underlying attitude to free and open debate in the public square is one of strategic cynicism. Demonising the opposition by name calling and labelling is a favoured weapon of choice and in a saturated and superficial media space of 30 second grabs an effective tactic, this ‘weaponises’ and poisons the debate. Sadly a significant section of our current journalist class seem ill equipped by knowledge, wisdom or sufficient objectivity to seriously critique this exploitation of the media by the extreme left and minority politics.
4. Identity politics is also vulnerable to the current philosophical winds.
Currently these issues are being debated in an atmosphere of Post Modern relativism and hyper individualism where the supreme value is the unrestricted freedom of individual choice. This makes the debate vulnerable to those at the extreme end who wish to deny or reject any idea of objective truth and natural or transcendent moral values and who also refuse to accommodate in their preferred social policy those who do. To these people the traditional values around gender, sexual intimacy, family and marriage are just ‘social constructs’ that can be deconstructed and swept away. We should be very clear what is at stake here, it is the promotion of a radical social and cultural revolution. The average person is only vaguely aware, if at all, of these forces at work in the background and so raising them in public debate seems extreme or alarmist.
A Christian theological and pastoral approach.
1. The first thing that must be said is that there is much to repent of in the past. Homosexuals and people with gender dysphoria have often been treated poorly, rejected or felt unaccepted and marginalised.
2. Our attitude should reflect the grace and love of God that he extends to us all in Christ.
3. We need to acknowledge that within the transgender movement, with its various motives, there is a genuine plea for our society to be less cruel to people who are different to the majority.
4. We need to be in the forefront of protecting children from bullying and persecution at school and speaking out about adults being bullied over gender issues in their place of work.
5. We must also encourage hospitality in our churches and the ethos of friendship and community that many same sex people long for but have not always discovered.
As I mentioned earlier, since the 1960’s in Western culture there has been a focus on advancing and protecting the rights of individuals and minorities and enhancing the status of woman. This has generally made us a fairer and less cruel society. For example: People no longer have to stay in marriages that are brutal and violent.
: Women are now able to exercise their gifts and talents in leadership.
: Homosexuals are no longer criminalised and imprisoned.
: We are now alert to the secret abuse of children.
: Girls who are unmarried and become pregnant are no longer sent away to bear their child secretly and have them adopted out with little say.
In these ways we are now a more open, compassionate, less cruel and fairer society than we were when I grew up in the 1950’s.
But we are still a fallen and broken people who bear Gods image but an image scarred by our selfishness and sin. To quote Hugh McKay “Nothing is perfect, life is messy, relationships are complex, outcomes are uncertain, and people are frequently irrational!” And so the very honourable desire to pursue the rights and freedoms of the individual is easily distorted into a narcissistic narrow self- interest that is destructive to society, community and the family.
This is our great dilemma! It is an ancient dilemma that every culture has tried to manage in different ways. Our way till now has been the social contract of liberal democracy with its balance of individual freedom and social obligation, flavoured with Christian values. While far from perfect it has worked reasonably well. But the dilemma is heightened for us now by our excessive individualism and this affects every ethical and social policy debate we are engaged in.
From a Christian perspective what this means is that we must keep the need for human redemption and personal spiritual transformation at the forefront of our thinking and action. Social policy is important but it is not enough, the law can define what is good and bad for us, it can restrain us by threat of punishment but it cannot make us good, it cannot transform our hearts, only God and the Gospel can do that. We the people of God are the bearers and guardians of this message but we must embody it as well as proclaim it! We must demonstrate in our Christian communities the compassion and grace that God has extended to us if we are to convince a secular culture that they can only achieve and maintain a kind and fair society if they rediscover the spiritual source of the moral power to overcome our fallen self- interest.
Four key Biblical ideas we must reflect on if we are to respond faithfully to this issue:
1. For the Christian our primary identity is in Christ not in gender, race, nationality, role or gift.
‘You have put on the new self which is being renewed in the image of its creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, Barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.’ (Coloss. 3:10-11)
‘All of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal. 3:27-28)
To be in Christ is to adopt a new identity that derives from Christ and a humanity restored in the image of God, that lives by the values, hopes and promises of his Kingdom, not the kingdoms or the spirit of the age in which we now live and which are passing away.
2. Recognise the importance of our foundation story in Genesis 1-4. This makes very clear that we are made in God’s image as male and female and a key part of our purpose is procreation. (Gen. 1:27-28.) It also tells us that our ‘aloneness’ is now partly met in the one flesh union of the man and the woman (Gen 2:18, 24). This is the beginning and foundation of human community, which includes not only marriage but friendship and companionship with others and the numerous communal associations we form for our human enrichment and culture.
3. But our aloneness is only partly met in these ways because our relationships were also originally intended to include our relationship with God. To be fully human we must also live in union with God. Our foundation story tells us that we broke that union with God by our rejection of his authority (Gen 3). It is only when that relationship is restored and we are reconciled to God through Christ that we can rediscover our true human fulfilment.
4. Jesus reinforced the teaching of Genesis 1-3 in Mathew 19:1-12 when he was answering a question about marriage and divorce said :
4.“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ 5.and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 6.So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefor what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
7.“Why then,” they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’
8.Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual morality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”…….
11.“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12.For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.”
These verses (especially vs 11-12) are pertinent to our discussion on gender, same sex attraction and gender dysphoria. Because we live in a broken world awaiting its renewal all our relationships are affected. There will be those who are unable to experience the love and intimacy of the marriage union described in Gen 2. for a range of reasons including those mentioned here by Jesus – some who were born that way,…. some made so by others and those who choose to live that way for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.
For such people, while they may find significant love and companionship with friends and in Christian community, their union with God is particularly important.
There is in Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus in chp. 3:14-19 a beautiful prayer that the people there may know the riches and depth of God’s love for them, a love that surpasses all knowledge. The people at Ephesus were no doubt as varied in their human condition as most Christian congregations. This prayer is for everyone because none of our human relationships are perfect in this fallen world, but it is especially important for those who are unable to experience the union described in Gen 2, for the reasons Jesus gives or for other reasons like illness, disability, divorce or the death of a spouse that has removed that intimacy from them.
We do not live in a perfect world but a world in need of redemption and waiting for renewal and that is why we all need to embrace the call of Jesus to commit our lives to him and be renewed at the core of our being by his Holy Spirit
(This paper was first given on 31/7/16 at St. Hilary’s Kew /North Balwyn as part of a series entitled. “Fault Lines –Where Faith and Culture Collide.”)
[Note: A copy of this paper with all references and extensive footnotes is available if requested]


Self Interest and Social Decay

“Assertive self-interest and social decay” by Peter Corney
Why an unrealistic view of human nature undermines democracy and human flourishing.

“Never underestimate the power of self-interest.” Paul Keating

In 1944 not long before the Allies final victory over German fascism and the demonic forces unleashed by the Nazis in WW2 the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote his memorable book “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness”. It is a spirited defence of democracy and a reminder of its dependence on an honest and realistic view of human nature. This view Niebuhr maintained was underpinned by the Christian understanding of reality and its view of human nature. In his introduction he says that the political philosophy on which his defence of democracy rests is “informed by the belief that a Christian view of human nature is more adequate for the development of a democratic society than either the optimism with which democracy has become historically associated or the moral cynicism which leads to the abuse of power and which inclines human communities to tyrannical strategies for solutions to situations of social decay.” The tyrannical strategies he had in mind of course were those of Nazi fascism and Soviet communism.
Writing as he was at the time of the unfolding knowledge of the scale of the Jewish holocaust and the human catastrophe that had taken place in Europe his warnings cannot be taken too seriously by us now. His warning is never to underestimate “the power of human self-interest, both individual and collective in modern society” He says that “evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole”; by the whole he means the common good, including the wider international community of humanity as well as the individual nation state.
Niebuhr is concerned that Western liberal democrats and secular idealists have too superficial, sentimental and optimistic view of human nature. It does not account for the potency of individual freedom for both creative initiative and destructive self-interest. That is why freedom needs a frame-work of order and objective values that transcend the individual. It is why moral relativism is in the end corrosive to society and democracy. It is why the Post Modern emphasis on the rejection of absolutes and their substitute with the autonomous authority of the individual’s perspective unmodified by any transcendent set of values and meaning, will lead to a particularly destructive form of self-interest.
It is sadly ironic that what at first may be seen as a way to self-fulfilment turns out in the end to be self-destructive. For, as Niebuhr points out, that for true and full human flourishing the individual needs not only personal freedom but also community, communal responsibility and obligation, because he is by nature social. He cannot fulfil his life within himself, but only in responsible and mutual relations with his fellows, “The individual cannot be a true self in isolation”
Niebuhr’s views are very relevant to our current situation in Western culture where the quest for individual freedom has reached an extreme and destructive hyper individualism. Anne Mann in her recent book “The Life of I” has described it as a form of social narcissism. Personal freedom has been redefined, having broken loose from its Judeo/Christian influences where it was understood as a freedom from our tendency to a dominating self-interest so that we might be free for the service of God and others, “love God and love your neighbour” . It is now about the unrestricted freedom of my will to choose whatever I decide. It has become what Friedrich Nietzsche that influential prophet
of unrestrained freedom of the will predicted and championed – “the triumph of the will.” (For an insight into Nietzsche’s disturbing ideas and their tragic logic about human nature once the Christian faith is rejected, see the quotation in the reference notes below. )
A major problem with the current view of personal freedom is that it leaves people trapped in their own limited interior world of subjective feelings, impressions and limited perspectives, a world that is frequently disturbed and dysfunctional. For adolescents and young adults in particular they are left without any larger and more objective framework of meaning with which to make sense of their questions and to navigate a very confusing world. Coupled with prosperity and consumerism and the growth of a culture of entitlement and exaggerated individualism they are set upon a journey that will lead them into a life style of destructive self- interest. Remember Niebuhr’s penetrating insight that “evil is always some assertion of self- interest without regard to the whole.”
Nietzsche in “The Gay Science” has a very arresting image in which he describes what will happen when Western culture leaves the stability of its Christian heritage and moral framework. (It is of course a result he approved of, his whole intellectual energy was devoted to overcoming that heritage and what he believed was its repressive hold on the Western intellect and spirit!) He says it will be like leaving the stability of the land and launching out onto the restless uncertain sea. “We have left the land and embarked….we have burned our bridges behind us – indeed we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us….Woe then when you feel homesick for the land….there is no longer any land”. His prediction is a devastatingly accurate description of 21st C Western culture.
Through Existentialism and Post Modernism Nietzsche’s ideas have filtered down to influence a new generation of Western intellectuals who, having driven out transcendent values and Christian faith, have succeeded in contributing to the creation of a spiritual, moral and cultural desert in Western culture. With its old moral energy fading, it is now focussed almost solely on the creation of material wealth but in increasingly unequal distribution. The Wests moral confusion, its growing social and relational instability and restless uncertainty about its ultimate purpose is fast approaching Nietzsche’s graphic image and with it comes a crisis, a storm that will sink individual flourishing and endanger even democracy itself.

Peter Corney aphantom@ihug.com.au
(For a more detailed treatment of some of the themes in this essay see “The death of the Contest of ideas” on the Website/blog )

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