The Rights Revolution


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Corney (July 2018)

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

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


“Impossible People” By Os. Guinness – a review by Peter Corney

This is a review of “Impossible People” by Os. Guinness (Pub by IVP 2016)

The theme of this book is the necessity for Christian courage today in the struggle for Western civilisation.

The title Impossible People comes from a term used to describe the reforming Benedictine monk Peter Damian in the 11th century who courageously stood for truth, integrity and moral standards of the Christian faith at a time in the church was compromised by a culture of corruption among Church leaders, many were involved in immorality, homosexual practice and paedophilia. Simony was rife, the selling of church titles and offices for money. Damien was known as incorruptible, unbribable and uncompromising in his opposition. He was described by the authorities as that “impossible monk!”

Guinness is saying that Christians today have to become like Peter Damian at this moment in our history, we have become too complacent and compromised by our culture. He sees this moment as a crisis – a showdown for the church, particularly the Western church and also for Western culture. What is at stake is the victory or defeat of the long assault on the Jewish and Christian faiths, the two defining faiths of the West. The attack comes from what he calls progressive secularism. This is the push to marginalise, even eject Christianity from the public square of community debate, politics, public policy and legislation. The Christian faith in particular because of a resentment of what is seen by some as its past influence and power over culture, public morals and values.

He describes a number of other forces that are currently arrayed against Christianity:
1. Nihilism – the loss of a sense of ultimate meaning which in turn leads to a loss of hope and then despair. Contemporary nihilism is partly a product of Post Modern relativism about truth and morality and the growth of a hyper individualism under the guise of the ‘Rights’ agenda. This could lead to a social degeneration where the West collapses from within.
2. The second force is the very opposite of the first – a new secular optimism. This is driven by an over confidence in our increasing technological mastery and our ability to create a new world and a new humanity. This will be a world of super technology, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence guided evolution and genetic manipulation!
3. The re-emergence of cultural Marxism and its theory of power as an oppressive force in society and the necessity for it to be resisted and overturned. Cultural elites hold power and control the masses, not only economically but culturally. They determine morality, social norms and values. The Church in this ideology is seen as a cultural elite forcing a certain view of morality and truth on society, so its cultural power must be broken and overturned. The question of power is understandably a re-occurring theme in this book and Guinness quotes Nietzsche‘s belief that man’s driving force is “the will to power” and this is a key reality in this struggle and only God’s power through the Gospel can redeem and transform that.
4. Fundamentalist Islam is the fourth force he mentions, if it does not experience its own Enlightenment.

He says that if these anti-Christian forces prevail they will return the West to the philosophy, ethics and lifestyle of the first century Pagan world that Christianity was born into and which it originally transformed to become the influential force in developing Western civilisation. He says “We are not simply the guardians of some of the best of the past but pioneers whose task is to stand against the world for the future of the world.”

He poses “Three great questions” the answers to which he claims will decisively shape the future of the world in the next generation:
(a) Will Islam modernise peacefully in the end? (b) What faith or ideology will replace Marxism in China? (c) Will the Western world recover or completely sever its Christian roots?
The third question is the main subject of this book.

In the final chapter he takes a quotation from a speech by Winston Churchill when what was arguably a previous and equally critical moment for Western culture during World War II. Churchill appealed to President F.D Roosevelt for the US to abandon its isolationism and provide the resources England desperately needed to defeat Hitler. Churchill said “Give us the tools to finish the job.” The US responded positively and the Nazis were defeated.

“The tools” he says we need today are these:
1. An understanding that a key issue behind many of the forces at play is power and unless we renew our personal knowledge and experience of spiritual power – God’s power, we will be ineffective in this struggle no matter how courageous we are. Paul in Romans 1:17 writes “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe…”
2. We need to equip ourselves about the ancestry of ideas. To counter the forces ranged against us we need to understand them so we can confront the presupposition or truth claim that lays behind them not just their social effects.
3. Cultural analysis. We need the ability to describe and assess the culture we are living in and gauge its impact on our personal thinking and behaviour.

Undergirding these tools Guinness says; “What we need above all in the Church today is for each Christian to have a profound personal knowledge and experience of God himself and a deep knowledge of the Scriptures as his authoritative Word. No one and nothing can replace those essentials.”
This is a challenging book and will make a great resource for a small group discussion series. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion and a closing prayer.

Peter Corney 18/6/18

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

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

“The truth will set you free” Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Flanagan the Tasmanian author and winner of the Man Booker prize for literature in 2014 wrote recently in The Australian Guardian an insightful piece on the theme of Progress Freedom and Truth.

“Progress and freedom are not necessarily joined……truth is the precious hinge that holds freedom and progress together. China’s advances are, after all, the proof that if all that matters to you is progress, you can have progress without freedom. But there will be a void, and in that void a great darkness will arise. Truth is the only force we have, the one light strong enough to combat such darkness. And if we can be persuaded that the truth does not exist, the light goes out and we are condemned to the darkness.” (4)

How should we respond?

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

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

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

Peter Corney


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

The Law Of the Instrument

The Law of the Instrument
By Peter Corney
The Law of the Instrument is an idea that Abraham Kaplan developed back in 1964 in his book “The Conduct of Enquiry.” It is the idea that any discipline too narrowly held or focussed on can tend to limit or restrict ones view of reality. It is based on the old adage that if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail!
The principle can apply to many fields of study or endeavour. For example if a commercial business is dominated by salespeople then every problem of growth becomes a sales problem, when in fact it may be a product or service problem. In an organisation dominated by engineers every problem becomes an engineering one when in fact it may be a staff relationship or leadership issue.
It is why some people argue that scientists would be better scientists if they were also artists, poets or philosophers as well. In fact at the University of WA they have a project where artists and scientists work together on particular problems for this very reason. The synergy and co-operation between them widens the possibilities for solutions and new approaches.
In the field of enquiry about questions of meaning, human purpose and values the application of The Law of the Instrument is very relevant. For example if you are a ‘Materialist’, someone who believes that reality consists only of the material or physical, and you reject the possibility of any ‘meta-physic’, anything bigger than or beyond the physical – no spiritual, supernatural or transcendent elements to reality, then you severely limit and narrow the possible answers to questions about meaning, purpose and values. You also limit and impoverish the options and possibilities of what it means to be human. This later outcome is very evident today in some sectors of the growing field of neuroscience and can lead to a reductionist and mechanistic view of human persons and human consciousness and ultimately to a degraded view of human persons. (See the work of Raymond Tallis the UK neuroscientist and ethical humanist “Aping Mankind…” Acumen 2011 )
The Materialist World View is like locking yourself in a well-lit but windowless room, the ultimate captivity to The Law of the Instrument!

This really is repressive!

This really is repressive! By Peter Corney
The Australian reported on the 15/10/15 that the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart has recently been taken to Tasmania’s anti-discrimination commission for distributing a pastoral letter on the doctrine of marriage to the churches members! The complainant also seeks to have all church schools forced to promote LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) awareness, tolerance and behaviour. This is a misguided, repressive use of the law and a suppression of free speech and freedom of religion. (Ed.The case has now been withdrawn [5/5/16] but this still leaves the urgent matter of correcting and refining the legislation.)

Among the many serious concerns this raises about our democratic values, it also highlights the unsatisfactory drafting of our anti-discrimination laws that generally are far too broad and do not have sufficient protection of freedom of speech.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to conduct an intelligent, reasoned, respectful and open public debate on issues of values, morality, ethics and religion without fear of legal action and the resulting suppression of free speech.

Behind this repressive and dangerous atmosphere lies a radical change in the way we understand tolerance and intolerance.

The traditional or liberal view of tolerance is based on the following two key ideas which can be expressed in the following way: (1) it has an egalitarian view of people. Every person is equal and has an equal right to their views and beliefs and a right to express them respectfully. (2) It has an exclusivist view of ideas. Not all ideas, views and beliefs are equally valid or sensible, some are true, some are false, some are just, some are unjust, some are dangerous and some are just plain silly. So while everyone has a right to speak not all views and beliefs are right. This is what we might call ‘principled tolerance.’
The current view of tolerance and intolerance turns this on its head. (1) It has an egalitarian view of ideas and beliefs. All ideas, views and beliefs are equally valid (a relativist view) and therefore should not be critiqued. (2) It has an exclusivisvist view of persons. Only persons with this relativist view about ideas have a right to speak in the public forum. All others with a different understanding about ideas and truth and wish to contest people’s views and critique them, no matter how respectfully, may not speak! If they do they will be branded intolerant and discriminatory and excluded.

There is also another more sinister force at work here. Some lobby groups have worked out this change that has taken place in people’s view of tolerance and intolerance and exploit it very skilfully in the media and public forums to suppress criticism and reasoned argument about the particular ideas they are promoting. Many in the media are easily drawn into this strategy. For a diverse society sensitive to any ethnic, religious or cultural divisions that might create disharmony or public disorder this sensitivity is a very easy but cynical button to press for strategic campaign reasons.

The new view of tolerance and intolerance owes a great deal to Post Modern thinking and its anti- foundationalism and rejection of objective truth which has reinforced the relativist position.
The English philosopher Roger Scruton has a very apt and ironic comment on this trend in contemporary thought; “the very reasoning that sets out to destroy ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes a political correctness as absolutely binding and a cultural relativism as ‘objectively true’”

In the end all this leads to the death of the contest of ideas and the emergence of our very destructive default position, the contest of power.

Christians and the proposed amendments to the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act


(Proposed repeal of section 18C)

Christians feel strongly about this issue but are also conflicted. On the one hand we believe strongly in the equality and dignity of all people before God but we also know that to maintain these values in a modern democratic society requires the opportunity and ability to defend them vigorously and that requires a degree of freedom of speech that some people and groups may find uncomfortable.

We believe we are made in the image of God and therefore every person is infinitely precious and must be treated with dignity and respect. We believe in the OT vision that one day all the nations will come together in peace, harmony and unity in The Kingdom of God, the reign that is ushered in by Jesus its king.[i] We believe that the Church, the community of Jesus, is to be a present example of and signpost to that future reality. We believe that, as the NT expresses it; in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[ii] We also confess to our failures and disobedience in regard to these truths at times in our history, such as our past discrimination against the Jewish people and the participation of parts of the Church in racism and apartheid in South Africa. Therefore it is with humility that we oppose racial and religious discrimination.

But we also know that Christians who have retained their true Biblical faith have often led the charge for basic human rights and the fight against racism. People like William Wilberforce, Anthony Benezet, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, to name just a few. In fact in the history of the development of a charter of Universal Human Rights Christians have played a significant role. The philosopher A .C. Grayling, no special friend of Christianity, makes this point very clearly in his history of the struggle for liberty and rights, “Towards the Light”. [iii] Many of the ‘liberal values’ of the modern democratic state have their origins not just in the ‘Enlightenment’ but in the Western Christian heritage.

We believe that to maintain the values enshrined in declarations of human rights, the right of freedom of speech is a key essential. Of course freedom of speech must have its limits and vigorous debate must be conducted with respect and civility. Defamation, abuse, lies and untruths must be excluded along with incitement to racial and religious hatred and violence. A critical question is how we define and set the limits. This is partly what the current debate is about.

It was Thomas Hobbs the 17th C. English Christian political philosopher who developed the very influential idea of the “social contract” where the citizen gives up or limits certain personal rights to the state in return for the protection by the state of their rights. This “contract” involves a tension between control and freedom and the balance between these shifts from one cultural period to another. Currently in Western democracies we are in a confused cultural state and therefore confused about how to manage the tension between control and freedom in this matter. [iv] On the one hand we are in a time of hyper individualism and a preoccupation with personal freedom of choice at the expense of the common good; on the other hand we have democratic governments passing all sorts of laws attempting to enforce morality on their citizens in the form of political correctness of various kinds by legislation. In our good intention we easily forget that virtues may be protected by legislation but they cannot be created by them.

There are other current cultural factors that also complicate our situation like the significant migration of people from pre-modern, authoritarian and traditional cultures into Western post Enlightenment ones. People from such cultures have a different view of what may and may not be debated in the public square. For at least 300 years Christians in Western society have had to adjust to increasingly aggressive public critique and scrutiny of their beliefs and their primary documents and frequently to be exposed to ridicule and mockery. We have had to accept that this is the price of living in an open society where freedom of speech and freedom of belief and religious choice is valued. We no longer have or enforce particular blasphemy laws as we have come to accept that they are not consistent with the modern pluralist democratic society. If Christians wish to have freedom of belief and religion they must also grant it to others. But immigrants from theocratic and authoritarian states do not understand this. They will use our well-intended, but sometimes badly drafted anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws to avoid genuine critique and debate about their beliefs and practices on the grounds of offense or blasphemy or vilification. This stifles open debate and shuts down freedom of speech because those who wish to disagree or critique others beliefs are constantly under the threat of expensive litigation by individuals or by government Commissions of Human Rights and the subsequent penalties that might ensue. The irony of this position is that many of the very views and practices unintentionally being protected from scrutiny by our anti – vilification laws are inconsistent with our common liberal democratic principles!

We have now suffered the unhappy result of such laws in the state of Victoria. The European Union and Canada have had similar and even more extreme experiences. As a result the Canadians, who have a similar Act to ours and have experienced overreaching government Commissions of Human Rights and a raft of heavy fines and expensive law suits, have now repealed a similar section in their act and sought to reign in their Commissions. This is a significant lesson for Australia as the two countries have a similar history, culture and liberal democracy and a successful multicultural experience. One of the pioneers and champions of Canada’s human rights laws, Alan Borovoy, has in recent years become a critic of the way the Canadian Commissions have overreached and has publicly supported the changes in their law. He has made the point that too much ambiguity arises from legislation that uses words like “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate.” From the Canadian experience he says: “You wind up losing more than your trying to nail” – exactly! [v]

Because of the doctrine of the separation of Church and State we do not have a ‘Sacred Public Square’ with a state established religion, nor do we have an entirely ‘Neutral or Secular Public Square’, we have a ‘Civil Public Square’ in which all views and beliefs have a right to speak. But the right to participate in debate in the ‘Civil Public Square’ requires everyone to submit to the right of others to respectfully and rigorously question and critique your ideas, beliefs , values and practices without pleading ‘offense’, ‘insult’, ‘intimidation’, or ‘blasphemy’ and resorting to litigation to escape scrutiny and transparency. The same point could be made about the debate over gender and identity politics where it is so easy to silence differing views with clichéd labels that demonise those with different views and values. The way the current law is framed makes critique and open discussion very vulnerable to legal challenge and so limits freedom of speech.

Because religion, race and culture are so often connected the issue of ‘cultural relativism’ [vi] is also very important in this debate. ‘Cultural relativism’ is the commonly held view that different values and behaviours are simply relative to different cultures and that no one should judge anyone else or any other cultures values and practices. This sounds reasonable and tolerant at first but it excludes the idea of any objective or universal set of values like those in declarations of Human Rights. It leads directly to the tolerance of evils such as the oppression of woman, cast systems, slavery, abuse of children, exploitation of labour, minority and religious persecution, etc. Of course there are no pure and consistent cultural relativists everyone draws the line somewhere in relation to the practices and beliefs of other cultures. There is a fog of fuzzie thinking in this area. It is important to remember that the right to believe anything does not lead to the conclusion that anything anyone believes is right!

The atmosphere of Post Modern thought with its rejection of any objective truth, value or meaning and its reduction of every issue to a question of power means that in the end there is no contest of ideas only a contest of power. This freedom from the “oppression of absolutes”, including God, that Post Modernity craves, will of course in the end lead to the most terrible loss and oppression of all – the loss of freedom to the absolute oppression of naked power. Usually this appears in the form of oppressive and violent political powers whose first actions are always to slowly strip away our rights especially our right to openly contest the truth of ideas.

Migration of different people groups from vastly different cultures and worldviews into the cities of the West has led to the development of a degree of cultural pluralism that is new in the breadth of its diversity to our past experience. The doctrine of “multiculturalism” has been developed as a way to maintain harmony and social cohesion in this context and countries like Australia and Canada with their Christian heritage have been very successful in this experiment. It could be argued that this dream of intercultural and ethnic harmony is an echo of the ultimate Christian vision of the peace and harmony in the Kingdom of God. [vii] But we also believe that this dream will only be completely achieved in the fully realised Kingdom. Till then we have to work within a fallen world of imperfect people and imperfect societies and imperfect political instruments. This fact is the weakness that all human political utopianism stumbles on. The task of a democratic society and the role of Christians within it is to try and realise the dream as substantially as we can within the limits of fallen human nature. One of the vital instruments to achieve this is freedom of speech and the ability to speak truth to power, whatever that power might be. That is why this debate is so important.

We also need to constantly be reminded that the virtues of respect for others and respect for truth may be protected by law but they cannot be created in people’s hearts by legislation or fear. It can only be taught and caught by example and precept in our most fundamental institutions of families, faith communities, schools and universities – the basic foundations of a ‘Civil Society’.

Peter Corney


[i] Micha 4:1-4. Isaiah 2:1-5, 25:6-8. Mark 1:14-15. Luke 4:16-20. Revelation 7:9-10.

ii Galatians 3:26

[iii] “Towards the Light” A.C Grayling, Bloomsbury 2007

[iv] See Philip Rieff “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”, etc. He put forward the view that over time societies go through a cycle of ‘release and control’. In the West the 60’s and 70’s were at time of ‘release’, we may now be moving into a cycle of control.

[v] The Australian p11 April 9th 2014 article “One voice on Free Speech”

[vi] See the article on “Cultural Relativism” at <petercorney .com>

[vii] Revelation 7:9-10. Isaiah 2:1-5

Speaking the Gospel into the pain of existence

By Peter Corney

Irvin D.Yalom writes fascinating stories based on his experience as a psychotherapist. His work in group psychotherapy is highly regarded in the US and Australia by professionals in the field. In one of his books Loves Executioner he describes his approach as ‘Existential Psychotherapy.’ His basic assumption is that we all experience what he calls ‘existence pain’. “In my therapy…my primary clinical assumption, on which I base my technique, is that basic anxiety emerges from a persons endeavors, consciously or unconsciously, to cope with the harsh facts of life – the givens of existence” (1)

He lists four primary givens of existence that give rise to existence pain:

  1. The inevitability of death for each of us and those we love.
  2. The freedom to make our lives as we will.
  3. Our ultimate aloneness as individuals.
  4. The absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.

Yalom is not a Christian but his insights about people and their basic issues are very astute. You may not be a fan of psychotherapy but Yalom is a penetrating and thoughtful thinker about the human condition. It is worth considering how one can shape evangelism and evangelistic preaching to speak to these needs and show the relevance of the gospel to them.

There is no doubt that the gospel is relevant to them, the question is how to creatively connect with them in a way that is not simplistic or crass. It must be subtle and nuanced, almost approached obliquely. It is like the experience we sometimes have when reading a novel or story or seeing a film and finding deep inner feelings and thoughts stirred and touched. The aim must be to find common ground with the hearer, to connect with their experience, in particular their experience of the anxiety and pain that arises from the four givens of existence – death, freedom, aloneness and meaning.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Use an inductive approach – begin where the people are. With the inductive approach the communicator begins with the life experience of the hearers and draws them towards concepts, principles and conclusions. He takes the hearers on a journey of discovery rather than beginning by announcing and asserting.
  • Use your own experience. Tell your own stories about your existence pains.
  • Use the stories from widely viewed films by tapping in to the experience people have had while watching the film e.g.; ‘Do you remember the scene from Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks…… I watched I felt this sense of …………..’ Powerful films tap into these existence pains as do good novels.
  • From the Gospels show how Jesus speaks and relates to these issues e.g.: By retelling the story of the death of his friend Lazarus and Jesus’ obvious grief. The scriptures are full of the experiences of people struggling with these issues. Consider Moses in Exodus 33. when he tries to deal with his disappointment and anger at the people’s apostasy and to come to terms with whether he can continue to lead them, and if there is any point any way; or Hanna’s despair in 1 Sam 1. at not being able to bear a child and all that meant then for the significance and purpose of her life.
  • Read one of Yalom’s books to see how he helps people talk about these questions. I suggest you start with Loves Executioner (2)
  • Read Inductive Preaching by R and G Lewis, Crossway Books 1983.(3)
  • Think of the process like a letter slipped under the door rather than a battering ram!

It should be noted that the use of inductive techniques in preaching should not undercut the Evangelical theological commitment to preaching as the proclamation of God’s Word. Indeed it is the commitment to enabling people to ‘hear’ the Word that should drive the preacher to find the most effective way to engage the listener. ‘Hearing’ is more than making peoples ear drums move! The inductive method is a way to take the listener on a journey with the preacher to the answers found in the Gospel. (See Acts 17:16-34, Rom.10:14-15.)


  1. Irvin Yalom, Loves Executioner, Penguin Books 1989 p. 4,5
  2. Ibid. See also Staring at the Sun, Scribe 2008 and The Schopenhaure Cure, Scribe 2005 and When NietzscheWept, Basic Books, Harper Collins, 1992
  3. Ralph L Lewis and Greg Lewis, Inductive Preaching – Helping People Listen. Crosway Books 1983