(With comments on the recent BBC production “Years and Years”)
By Peter Corney (Dec. 2019)

Once you step outside the idea of objective truth and natural law and say there is no ultimate or absolute moral standard or universal good you have “stepped into the void”
You join Nietzsche and his tribe who believe that humans are just the “Will to power” and have no inherent or created sensibility to ‘the good.’ If you also reduce the explanation of all statements of value about the natural world to just the expressions of personal feelings you step into the murky world of subjectivism, which is also a step into the void. Lewis’s essay “The Abolition of Man” from which the quotation is taken is a brilliant explanation of this process.
The current popular reporting of the Royal Commission into the behaviour of the Banks and financial institutions in Australia is a fascinating insight into how confused our present society is about the matter of ultimate moral standards and the chasm developing between ordinary people and what prevails in some parts of our tertiary education system.
The words “corrupt”, “corruption” and “attitudes of venal self- interest” appear regularly in describing the behaviour of these institutions and the people who run them. This is very discouraging for ordinary Australians who have trusted these bodies. But at another level it is very encouraging for it reveals that there is still a residual belief in our culture of a doctrine of absolute moral values and in the classical virtues – the practice in ordinary everyday life of pursuing the truth, honesty and the common good.

It is also encouraging for it is evidence that the Judeo/Christian heritage and values that lie behind Western culture has not been entirely lost or abandoned. This is remarkable given the influence of a coterie of tenured academics in the Arts faculties of some of our universities who have been working assiduously now for years on reconstructing the world view of a generation of tertiary students. Their goal is to create a radical scepticism about universal values and virtues and to promote moral and cultural relativism and a shallow doctrine of “social constructivism”. This puts forward the idea that all social norms and values are relative and merely social constructs created by the prevailing holders of power to control others and are open to change as we see fit. This is a reminted version of the old extreme left “ideology of oppression” with a dash of Post Modern deconstruction and hyper individualism, flavoured with identity politics. It makes a bad ethical cocktail!

The irony is that when these same people are duded by financial institutions, corporations and rogue government officials who steal from us, they are quick to call out such behaviour as corrupt, immoral and requiring just punishment! We might well ask – ‘But on what absolute moral basis, what universal values is this judgement made?’ To quote C S Lewis again, requiring from people integrity and absolute moral values when you have called them all into question and spent years promoting self-interest is “like castrating the gelding and then bidding it be fruitful!”

Nietzsche was at least consistent in describing human natures essence as “the will to power” His prophecy of the end result of our rejection of transcendent reality and values is a chilling vision of Western culture’s future, and remember this was written at the beginning of Modernity’s reign in the late 19th C. The “death of God” in the Western mind will, he predicted, be like leaving the stability of the land and launching out on an uncertain and restless sea. He wrote “We have left the land and embarked …… we have burned our bridges behind us – indeed we have gone further and we have destroyed the land behind us …. Woe then when you feel homesick for the land……there is no longer any land.” The storms on this restless sea are now beginning to engulf us.

Watching the recent dystopian and satirical BBC television production “Years and Years”, written and produced by Russell T Davies, that predicts the future of Western culture and our politics was both an amusing but depressing experience. But as the elderly grandmother of the family says; “Well we are responsible for all this!”
The recent election results in the UK, Australia, Europe and North America show that perhaps the majority of the electorate are beginning to wake up and react to this cultural confusion and destruction.

* C S Lewis “The Abolition of Man” page 45 Pub. Geoffrey Bless 1965
* Nietzche – See “Beyond Good and Evil” S36, also his essay “The Antichrist” for a succinct summery of his radical idea of the good as the will to power found in “Twilight of the idols” page 95-96 Pub. Woodsworth Classics 2007, and “The Gay Science” Vintage Books 1974 page 124.]

“Grace and the Parable of the Talents” By Peter Corney

Waverley Christian College
16th July, 2001

I am grateful for the opportunity of addressing you today because I believe that Christian teachers have a strategic role in our community today. You have a great opportunity and responsibility in helping to form young lives, to help shape their world view and to help shape their characters, particularly by the example of your own lives.
As Christians we live in very challenging times. As Hugh McKay has put it, “we are reinventing Australia,” reinventing just about every aspect of our lives – the way we shop, the way we eat, the way we bank, the way we arrange our family, the roles that we have in society as men and women. All these things are being radically changed and transformed as we watch. The change has accelerated to warp speed. But it is not only these kinds of changes and all the wonderful whizz bang technological changes that we face – something more profound than that is happening. The moral and intellectual landscape of Australia is changing. It is being radically transformed by the impact of post modernity. Our culture is being radically reshaped.
For hundreds of years three of the most powerful influences that formed culture were first: relationships, that is the family or the tribe, the community, the way people related to each other, that was the first force. The second force was what people believed about the world, about reality. Whether they believed there were spirits in rocks or whether they believed in God. The third force was commerce, the way people grew things and made things and exchanged them.
What has happened in our own time is that the third force, commerce, has married a number of other enormously powerful contemporary forces – electronic media, IT, the entertainment industry and popular media, advertising and consumerism – these things have come together in an incredibly powerful alliance and that alliance now overpowers and overshadows the other two ancient forces that formed culture – what people believed and the way they related to each other, the family, the tribe and community.
Where there was once a balance between those three forces, now we have this enormous juggernaut of the third force, that is transforming the way people think, transforming their values, transforming the way they think about reality and the world. This is the most powerful force the world has ever seen. This is the challenge to the Christian worldview. It is perhaps the greatest we have ever faced – greater than persecution and physical violence; greater than oppressive governments – because this reprograms the software of the mind. You teachers are at the frontline of this battle.
This morning you may find my choice of scripture strange in the light of this introduction. I trust by the end you will see why. My aim is to take us back to the core, to the foundation. The passage of scripture I have chosen for us to think about at the beginning of our conference is Matthew 25:14-30, known to us as the parable of the talents. The title is not in the original text, but is one that has been put in by the editors. I prefer to think about this parable as the ‘venture capital parable’, or ‘the parable to the investment opportunity of a lifetime’. The punch line of this story is ‘show me the money.’ When Jesus returns, he is going to say to each one of us ‘show me the money.’
Matthew 25:14-30
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’
His master replied, ‘Well-done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!
The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’
His master replied, ‘Well-done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
Then the man who had received the one talent came. *Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
His master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
This is a story about an opportunity grasped and an opportunity lost. Three people are given a great opportunity. They are entrusted with someone else’s resources and given the opportunity to develop them, to multiply them, to grow them. Two people rise to the occasion, and one doesn’t. In the end, the one who doesn’t loses what he has. The question is ‘why’? Why does one person fail to grasp the opportunity? The answer is given to us in one word in verse 25: “I was afraid and went and hid your talent in the ground.” The Greek word here is the word ‘phobia’.
Fear is one of the most crippling of all emotions faced in life. Fear stops us from trying new things and meeting new people, going to new places. Fear stops us from growing and developing and learning new skills. Fear stops us from taking risks. Fear is the greatest emotional barrier to change, both personally and corporately.
I recently wrote a little book called ‘Change and the Church’. It’s about helping local congregations grapple with the issues of change and to do it constructively. One of the interesting things I have discovered in my work with churches is that people’s first reaction to change is not rational, it is emotional. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a plumber or a PHd – it makes very little difference.
Change agents come along with all these wonderful reasons very carefully and logically worked out which they present to a group of people, and people listen and then say ‘no’. The change agent thinks ‘what’s wrong with these people, have they left their brains behind?’ The answer is ‘yes’ in a way. Their first reaction to change is emotional and it’s true for all of us.
Every one of us in this room – even if we think we are good at adjusting to change, will have some areas of our lives where we are reacting emotionally to change. Often the first emotional reaction to change is fear. Fear of breaking up the familiar, fear of loss of valued things, fear of damage to the organisation if it doesn’t work, fear of the unknown and the untried, fear of loss of tradition and the loss of identity, and so it goes on.
Fear is a very powerful emotion. Some people have fears that are so severe that we have labelled them with that Greek word ‘phobias’ – fear of heights, fear of enclosed spaces, fear of crowds – such terrible fears that people are immobilised and paralysed. Most of us don’t suffer from these fortunately. But almost all of us suffer from the fear of failure.
Where does it originate? Sometimes it originates from some childhood experience when crushed through constant negative comments – ‘you dummy’, ‘you idiot’, ‘you clumsy girl’, ‘when will you ever learn?’ Parents and teachers have a great responsibility to encourage and not to crush confidence and creativity.
My wife is an artist and teaches watercolour painting. It is interesting that she often has women and some men who come to her in the middle part of their life, late 40’s, early 50’s, family are off their hands, and they have decided that they want to learn to paint. Often, when they begin the class, they say “Well of course, I’m no good at this. I was bad at this at school. I’m not very artistic.” They make all these excuses and really it is coming out of a tremendous lack of confidence. Somewhere along the line the artistic potential got crushed and it has to be reignited again so that people can begin again to express themselves.
Two years ago, our faithful old dog died that we had for 14 years. We got a new dog, which was a mistake! The second mistake was that we decided that we couldn’t cope with the puppy stage all over again, so we went to the RSPCA and we got a dog that was grown, a young stray about 18 months old. But this poor little dog had obviously been very badly treated – fearful and timid and it has taken us quite a while to draw it out and get it under control.
Some people are like that. They have been so badly treated that they are full of fears.
Over the years I have seen so many people fail to realise their potential, fail to develop and use their abilities because they were afraid. Afraid of failure. Afraid they wouldn’t be perfect and afraid of people’s negative reactions. Afraid of looking foolish, afraid of loss of control. And so the work of the kingdom is held back by people’s fears.
I am in the second half of my life, and you would think that as we grow older, as we get into the second half, that we would be willing to take more risks. After all, we now have experience. We now have some maturity, possibly some wisdom, surely more confidence. But new fears appear: fear of diminishing energy, fear of getting too involved, and the demands on us growing too discomforting. We become too comfortable with our ordered world. We turn healthy boundaries into barriers against discomforts that might actually grow us, and possibly grow the kingdom.
A group of 90-year-olds were asked if they had their life over again, what would they do? Their answers came back, around these three statements: “Firstly, I’d reflect more.” Next they said “I’d put my energy into things that last”, and thirdly they said “I’d risk more”.
Anyone here who is in the second half, let me ask you to listen to these words of the great South American Christian, Dom Helda Camira, “Pilgrim, when your ship, long moored in harbour gives you the illusion of being a house, when your ship begins to put down roots in the stagnant water by the quay, put out to sea. Save your boat’s journeying soul and your own pilgrim soul, cost what it may.”
I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground! Is there something you are afraid of that causes you to bury your talents and not develop them? Face the fear. Confront it and put out to sea.
There is of course another reason why we bury our talents. It is also related to fear, but it is really self-interest. Self-interest is related to fear because we are afraid that we will have our own personal agenda derailed. And so in whatever passage of life we are in or passing through, we all claim to have no time. In the years when we are studying, we are so busy studying. When we are building our careers and families and have the demands of small children, we have got that alibi. And then in the middle years when we have heavy responsibilities in our work and have risen to positions of influence, we have got too much responsibility. Then in the period when children have left the nest and we feel that we deserve a rest and a little self-indulgence, we have got that alibi. Then in retirement, we feel justified at having done our bit. Finally, the period of our ageing and frailty, we can’t do very much because we are too old. At every passage in life, you can construct an alibi, an alibi for self-interest. I have heard them all and none of them are convincing. I have used them myself. But Jesus is going to say to every one of us, in spite of our alibis, “show me the money”.
Let’s run through the story again and note some key things.
First, remember the context. It comes towards the end of Jesus’ ministry. The cross is rapidly approaching. In chapter 24, Jesus had been speaking about his Second Coming in power to judge the world. This parable is one of three that are clustered together, for they are all about judgement and the end of this world. There is the parable of the Ten Virgins and their lamps; the separation of the sheep from the goats; and this parable, which is called the Parable of the Talents. So the emphasis is clear. The master will return; it may be after a long time; but he will return, and when he does there will be a settling of accounts. The big question will come: “What have you done with what you have been given?”
What are these talents? Originally a talent was a measure of weight, but it became the description of a measure of money. In the NIV footnote, it says a talent was worth more than $1,000. The NIV was translated some years ago and that was American dollars, so it is probably a great deal more than that now. To translate it into Australian dollars, we can double it again! In Luke 19, which is the parallel passage, it is called ‘Ten Minas’. A ‘mina’ was three months wages. If you multiply 10 by 3, you get 30 months, which is 2 12 years’ wages. So, whatever figure you want to put on it, the point Jesus is making is that it is a lot of money that has been given and very valuable.
In verse 19, it says, “After a long time, the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.” It is easy to be lulled into a sense of smugness and confidence when you are waiting for the consummation of the Kingdom. There are times when you wish it would just come because the pain and the suffering of the world seem so bad, but at other times we just kind of tick along. We believe in accountability, but we are not really expecting it. But the master eventually returns and the three people are confronted. The people who have used their talents are rewarded. Then comes the man who received the one talent. He comes with his excuse and says he was afraid and hid the talent in the ground and gives it back just as he had received it. The master replies with very strong words; “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed. Then you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers”. The Greek word means a table on which the money was changed. This same word is above the banks in Athens today. Then come the harsh words in verses 28 – 30, words of judgement.
How are we to interpret the talents?
Traditionally, they have been interpreted as all those various resources that God has given to each of us in varying degrees – our abilities and gifts, natural and spiritual; things that God has allowed us to acquire; our education, training, knowledge, skills, experience; our material resources; our money; the things that we have acquired; our time; our energy. Yes, God is going to say one day, “What have you done with this?” Have you used your resources to multiply the work of the kingdom? This I believe is the legitimate and proper interpretation.
But there is another resource that must be included on the list. It is surprising that we don’t include it. It is a resource that has been given to all of us whom God has called to know and trust Christ. It is a piece of venture capital that we are all given and it is the most precious of all – it is the gospel of grace. Romans chapter 5: “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” It is what we do with this gift, this piece of venture capital that I want to focus on, because this I believe takes us back to the core, the fundamentals. Whether we are a teacher, a parent, whatever role, this is fundamental, particularly in these difficult and changing times.
In a gathering like this, if I were to ask you the question “Do you promote grace?” you would all reply “Of course, I believe with all my heart in God’s grace to me in Christ. My life is grounded in this truth.” But do you actually promote it? Does your life promote it? Does the way you live promote it? Does the way you teach promote grace? Does the way you relate to one another as staff in a school promote that? Does your attitude to others promote grace? Does your behaviour promote grace? Does the way you live and speak and treat other people draw attention to grace or undermine it? You see, you can believe in grace and still undermine it. Do you bury grace underneath ungracious attitudes, negativity, being judgemental, having an unforgiving spirit?
I read this quotation the other day. “He who cannot forgive another breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.” Jesus said to pray like this, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” All of us must pass over the bridge of forgiveness or we do not cross into God’s kingdom.
U2 are arguably one of the great rock bands of the world. Recently they released a new CD and among the songs on the CD is a song by Bono called “Grace,” a beautiful hymn of grace. It is a great pleasure to think that thousands, millions of people will hear this song – “Grace, she takes the blame, she covers the shame. When she walks on the street, you can hear the strings because grace finds goodness in everything.”
The people of our fractured and confused 21st century long for grace, the people that you and I live amongst every day hunger for it. They may not be able to name it or even describe it, but they know it when they see it and experience it. So many contemporary films have this theme of the quest for grace and redemption. Why is that? It is a hunger in the heart of the world. And yet in spite of this hunger for grace, we so often miss the opportunity. I have heard preaching that was doctrinally immaculate but so hard and ungracious, so lacking in personal identification with people’s frailty and brokenness that people could not hear it. I have seen Christian parenting so narrow and tight and rigid, parents who were so slow to apologise to their own children that their kids could never hear the gospel of grace even though it was taught to them in words.
Let’s determine to make our lives and speech more grace filled. Let’s determine to multiply this grace that we have been given by being more gracious, more hospitable, more generous, more forgiving, more understanding of other’s brokenness, more willing to tell the story of God’s grace to us. Let’s go back again and again to our own personal experience of grace to us. Try and get in touch with what it was like to feel that first sweet touch of total forgiveness and God’s loving grace.
Let’s be determined to build Christian schools, Christian churches, and Christian homes that are oases of grace, where the story of grace can be heard and seen and experienced. Let’s be constantly asking ourselves – “What undermines grace in my life?” “’What is it we do in this place that actually undermines grace?” Deal with it and get rid of it.
What could we do that would multiply this talent? Let’s name and overcome in ourselves the fears that stop us from multiplying it. Let’s have a fresh determination to pass on the story.
Let me ask you this question: When was the last time you told someone the story of God’s grace to us, and told it with such excitement because you knew that this was the most unique and precious information that you could ever pass on?
This is the core and foundation that we must return to if we are to have any impact on the forces that are reshaping the interior world and the mental landscape of our nation. So much of what is being created by the forces in society is ugly. You just have to look at television – these appalling ‘Reality TV’ shows that focus on the worst in human nature, pandering to our voyeurism. But underneath, there is still the image of God that we were created in, this is still a longing for grace.
Some years ago after the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, there was a great celebration at a huge concert in Wembley stadium and various musical groups, particularly heavy rock bands had gathered together, but for some reason the promoters had also asked an opera singer, Jessie Norman to perform as the closing act. For 12 hours the concert went on and then eventually Jessie Norman came on the stage. She walked on the stage, no backup band, no group of singers. She is a tall African / American woman, a very dignified looking figure. Hardly anyone in the crowd knew who she was. The crowd was restless and the scene was getting a little ugly. Then Jessie Norman began to sing “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me?” A remarkable thing happened when she sang – 70,000 raucous fans began to fall silent. By the time Jesse reached the second verse “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear”, 70,000 fans were digging back into long forgotten memories of words they had heard before. One observer who was there said a power descended on Wembley stadium – and I think I know why. When grace descends, the world falls silent. Teachers, parents, citizens – don’t hoard it. Multiply, promote grace. Become multipliers of grace, promoters of grace. The world is thirsty for grace.
(The Wembley Stadium story is from Phillip Yancey.)
Peter 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

The Hall of Mirrors – Radical Individualism

The hall of mirrors by Peter Corney
In the past some of the great houses of Europe were built with the special feature of a hall or room where all the walls are lined with mirrors so that as you enter all you see are reflections of your own image. No doubt an interior design feature that their wealthy owners found pleasing! They have also been reproduced in some modern buildings with the ceiling lined with mirrors as well.
Also in the past a feature of the travelling circus or carnival was often a tent of mirrors but these were designed to distort your image for fun. Some made you look short and fat, some thin and tall, others gave you a rippled effect or showed your image out of focus. The effect was comic and amusing. I remember as a boy spending some of my precious pocket money on a side show tent of “fun mirrors” at the Perth Royal Show!
One of the features our Post Modern world has embraced is an attitude of mind like the hall of mirrors where the self is constantly reflecting on itself. We all have a tendency to be preoccupied by our – selves, how we feel, how we look, what others think of us. Self – interest is a perpetual preoccupation! In our teenage years it becomes an obsession, one that has now been facilitated by social media to levels dangerous to youth mental health.
But our Post Modern world has embraced an attitude of mind that has taken our natural tendency to a new level in the realm of ideas, values, truth and meaning. The individual’s subjective view and perspective has become the primary authority, particularly in matters of meaning, purpose, ethical values, right and wrong. Now the individual’s subjective view is unmodified by, nor subject to, any external authority or notion of objective truth, let alone by any concept of transcendent values. This is further reinforced by an idea of personal freedom where the individuals will and choice is primary and sacrosanct, an idea reinforced daily by living in the consumer/ marketing society of unlimited personal choice. The sense of obligation to some common good or community responsibility is being overwhelmed by this trend.
Hyper individualism has also been reinforced by a fashion in parenting and education that has overcorrected some negative elements of the past and substituted them uncritically with the language and emphasis of the Self Esteem and Human Potential Movements – “You can do anything, be anything”, “anything is possible if you believe in yourself.” Self-control and concern for the feelings of others is also pushed aside by the closely related Self Expression Movement – with the encouragement to “be yourself”, “don’t repress your feelings”, “ be authentic, say what you feel”, “be true to yourself”, “you have a right to say what you think”, your opinion is as good as anyone else’s.”  *  All this has fed an overinflated sense of entitlement and an ugly narcissism. Also weak and overindulgent parenting has lowered the bar for children on facing the tough side of life, its limits on self interest, its requirement for accountability for our bad decisions and selfishness.
This kind of radical individualism that is self- authorising is like the hall of mirrors, in the end you are trapped in a room of reflections of yourself. In fact it may be more accurate to see it as the side show tent of distorted mirrors as our individual inner worlds are so often distorted by our own desperate needs, desires, dysfunctions, past hurts, ignorance and self-interest. The hall or tent of mirrors cuts you off from the wisdom, experience and knowledge that is greater than your own.
The fact is we can’t be anything we want to be; only people with a certain kind of physical make up can be an Olympic sprinter! The fact is an individual’s knowledge is limited! The fact is our individual capacities vary! The fact is that at 17 or 18 years your life experience, wisdom and skills are limited!
This cultural fashion has set up a whole generation for a great disappointment and the evidence is now coming in. All the recent surveys on the mental health of young people in Australia are telling us that they have poor resilience in the face of failure and the inevitable difficulties that life throws at us all; they have high levels of depression and anxiety. The alarming fact is that one in four suffers from some serious mental health issue.
Radical individualism is a problem for the individual’s health; it is a problem for building healthy marriages and families; it is a problem for our communal and social health; it is a problem for the political health of our democracies. The solutions are not very palatable for a Post- Modern and materially prosperous society like Australia as they take us back into many of the very ideas and values that so called progressives have rejected and ridiculed.
Christian communities have to now redouble their efforts to faithfully and alternatively live out the values that have been rejected by a section of our society, or in many cases just been worn down by our prosperity, the contemporary media and an over reactive education system captured by fashionable ideas. This places a high priority on Christian parental teaching and example and Church youth ministry that must work harder and more creatively at Christian education and discipleship training. At tertiary level education Christian young people will find themselves in a context where the world view framework is allegedly neutral but in fact is frequently aggressively ‘progressive’, secular and often anti-Christian. They need to be equipped to understand the ideas behind what they are facing and how to respond. Those entering higher education or any level of political activity need to understand the intellectual, ideological and cultural contest to which they will be exposed and prepared for significant ‘soft persecution’. To some it may sound extreem to say that Christians are now in a new cultural war but that is the reality! (2Tim 3:1-5)

The upside of all this is that there is an increasingly dissatisfied and growing group of people in our community who are unhappy at the results of what our contemporary society has produced. They are concerned with: our mental health crisis, particularly among the young; with marriage and family health; with the alarming number of children now in State care; with the loss of values and ethics in business and finance; with the state of our political processes and the level of public discourse. These concerns may develop into a groundswell of desire for a recovery of those values and ideas that we have turned away from.
Peter Corney.

( * Note: Some time ago the US Christian Psychologist and academic Dr Paul Vitz wrote an outstanding book that traced the roots of the so called Human Potential Movement entitled ”Psychology as Religion – The cult of self worship.” [ Pub. Eerdmans 2nd Ed. 1994 ] It traces its origins in a form of secular humanism based on worship of the self and its most influential and well known theorists. For anyone wishing to understand the academic and theoretical origins of the psychological theories behind the popular versions of the Self Esteem, Self Expression, Self Actualisation, etc., movements it is an excellent guide. The range of popular books and training seminars has multiplied over the years and widely influenced parenting, education, staff training and therapeutic practice.)

Women Men and Ministry

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.

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

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]

Young people in Australia and their mental health

PETER CORNEY (See the full article: “Social and Cultural Toxins Encountered by Young Australians in our Current Society.”)
The following reports show that one in four young Australians are now suffering from some serious mental health issue. There are 4 million 12 – 24 year olds in Australia (20% of the Pop.) That means a million young people in crisis.That’s a serious problem!
The following reports have been consulted for the paper “Social and cultural toxins encountered by young Australians in our current society”(See the paper on this site):
1. “Young minds matter” – Released in 2015. Research conducted by the premier research institute for child and adolescent health the “Telethon Kids Institute” founded by Professor Fiona Stanley and run in association with the University of WA.

2. “Young Australians their health and well-being report 2011”. Produced by the Federal Government sponsored “Australian Institute of health and welfare.” (Available on the Australian governments Youth Statistics website.)

3. Mission Australia’s 2015 survey of 19,000 young people aged 15-19 years.

4. Australian Psychological Society 2015 reports on the effects of the sexualisation of children, especially young girls, in the media. (APS website)

5. “The Spirit of Gen Y Report”. Research conducted by Monash University and the Catholic University of Australia which surveyed the religious views of adolescents in Australia. Published in 2006.

• These reports, particularly the first two fully support the highly regarded adolescent psychologist Dr M Carr Greggs statements about the crisis and most of the contibuting “Toxins” outlined in the article also on this site – “Social and cultural “Toxins” encountered by young people in our current society” .
• Anecdotal research with teachers, school principals, chaplains and university welfare officers. All agree with the general findings of these reports from their personal experience.
• The personal experience of Merrill and myself over recent years leading a young adult small group in our home.
[Go to the full article mentioned above.]

Social and cultural toxins encountered by young Australians in our current society

“Our society has become toxic for our young people….one in four suffer from some serious form of mental ill health.” (Dr Michael Carr Gregg, leading Australian adolescent psychologist)
In response to Dr Carr Greggs disturbing claims I set out to examine the recent research and to explore what might be the social and cultural factors causing this ‘Toxic’ environment. The following are my conclusions. [The research papers consulted are listed below]
1. Divorce and family break up, solo parents and blended families – now over one third of all formal marriages end in divorce.
2. The educational and vocational pressure to succeed. It now takes the average graduate between 5 to 8 years to find a full time job. Many only achieve part time employment for some years. (Plus sleep deprivation related to poor study patterns and m/phone use, phones on all night and so constant sleep interruption.)
3. The negative impact of digital technology through social media bullying, constant communication without intimacy or solitude, excessive use of computer games, the availability in visual form of all experiences, good and bad.
4. Youth unemployment – 1 in 10 nationally, 25% in many places.
5. The constant sombre background music of international crisis – Environmental, Refugees, Terrorism, Middle East conflict, etc. They feel powerless to affect any change.
6. The impact of pop-culture and mass marketing’s relentless exploitation of image and identity creation through consumerism – “Wear this, buy this and you will become this.”
7. Sexual experience without maturity – in early adolescence one in four 15 to 16 year olds; exposure to online pornography. (This is also affected by the now widely accepted idea and practice in the general adult community that the only constraint on sexual intimacy is the mutual consent of the two people.)
8. Sexual politics and identity confusion – ‘Queer politics’, the gay agenda, now transgender and ‘flexible gender’ campaigns (LGBTIQ.)
9. Binge drinking – 30% to excess, 12% to long term harm; 38% are victims of alcohol or drug induced violence.
10. The redefinition of personal freedom in Western culture from the Christian idea of freedom from selfishness to serve others to the freedom of the will to choose whatever I desire. This now effects all ‘rights’ discussions so they become hyper individualised. The individual has become an autonomous self-authorising agent. This is very confusing for an adolescent.
11. The above (10) is coupled with the concept that it is my right to choose my lifestyle without any ethical restraints or modifying transcendent values because there are no objective moral truths only subjective opinions – ‘What’s true is what’s true for me’ – truth has become relative.
12. Loss of a larger frame work of meaning and source of inner strength.
13. A lack of resilience. There are a variety of views as to why this is so, such as overprotective and overindulgent modern parenting who may be over reacting to being overbusy and underpresent, but many of the above factors are obviously major contributors.
The following view of a ‘youth crisis’ at another time was put forward in 1968 by the influential Jewish American psychotherapist Erik H Erikson. He in fact coined the phrase ‘identity crisis’ in an essay entitled “Identity Youth Crisis”. He put forward the idea that some periods of history create an identity vacuum. This he said can be caused by:
1. Fears raised by new facts and inventions that radically change and expand our image of the world.
2. Anxieties raised by symbolic dangers as a result of decaying ideologies.
3. Disintegrating faith and the fear of the loss of meaning – a kind of background dread of an existential abys devoid of meaning.
(See the paper on this site “Young People in Australia and their mental health” for a list of the research papers consulted.)
Peter Corney.

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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