The Centrality of the Cross (This is series of seven studies for groups – 68 pages)

 

 

The Gospel and the
Centrality of the Cross

By Peter Corney

 

 


 

 

The Gospel and the
Centrality of the Cross

The preaching of the Cross as the power and wisdom of God.

A study of 1Corinthians 1-3 with observations on the exercise of power and knowledge in contemporary culture.

By Peter Corney (2019)

Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1:   In Christ’s death on the Cross is centred the Power and Wisdom of God

  • Why are we not seeing that Power and Wisdom more widely displayed in our current preaching and evangelism?
  • Is it the current negative and hostile cultural pressures on Christianity?
  • Is it that the Church has failed to preach the “Scandal of the Cross”?
  • How can we recover the New Testament teaching of the Cross in our preaching and discipling?

Chapter 2:   The Corinthian Church – a case study of Christians whose values and world views were not sufficiently transformed by the Gospel

  • Their disunity – Paul and Apollos.
  • The influence of the values of their culture.
  • The challenge for us in the Post Christian West.
  • The need to recapture an influence in tertiary education.

Chapter 3:   Examples of theological reductionism in the preaching of the Cross

  • The Cross as an example of moral courage.
  • The Cross as an example of the moral power of passive resistance to evil and violence.
  • The Cross as an example of the reversal of worldly values.
  • The NT teaching on the Cross as the radical challenge to our fallenness and alienation from the Holy God.
  • The centrality of the NT teaching of substitutionary atonement to the meaning of the Cross.

Chapter 4:   The radical difference between God’s Power and Wisdom and those of the world

  • Our culture – the sea we swim in and the air we breathe.
  • God’s Wisdom and Power is essentially relational.
  • Our cultures understanding of Knowledge and power. Two examples:
    (1) “Scientific Materialism” (or Scientific Naturalism), and
    (2) Radical individualism.
  • Nietzsche’s prophecy- no solid ground now just adrift on a restless sea!

Chapter 5:   God’s secret hidden wisdom

  • Decreed by God but hidden from before time began and now revealed in the Gospel of the Cross.
  • The Church now responsible for its declaration to the world.
  • Its purpose is to bring us the restoration of our intimacy with God, to once again “see God face to face” and to behold his glory.
  • God’s glory is a rich Biblical idea; it includes not only the experience of his blazing holiness and love but also the truth and meaning of all things – true Wisdom and knowledge.

Chapter 6:   God’s power and political power

  • The conflict between God’s power and worldly political power.
  • The persecution of the Church and our response.
  • An illustration of the conflict in the trial of Jesus.
  • Jesus’ incarnation as an example of how we are to exercise power and the key question to ask in all situations.

Chapter 7:   Common human barriers to the Gospel

  • Our fallen natures and the desire for independence and our resistance to God’s authority.
  • The role of the Holy Spirit and the value of reasoned apologetics.
  • We cannot achieve reconciliation with God by our own efforts.
  • The initiative lies with God.

Conclusion…

Appendix:    Essay “Eden – No Entry!”

Recommended Reading

Introduction

At the time of writing[1], we in Australia are focussed as a society on the abuse of power in our institutions. We have had in recent times a series of Royal Commissions into the abuse in our institutions of: children, failing child protection systems and youth detention centres, people with a disability, the treatment of the elderly in nursing homes, the treatment of the mentally ill and family violence. Since 2013 we have had seven federal Royal Commissions on these themes and at least six State commissions. Then there has been the commission on the abuse of power and corruption in our banking and finance sector and one on Trade Union governance and corruption.

In addition, the marginalisation of and discrimination against people by ethnicity and gender has become a major focus of popular discourse with the emergence of identity politics. There is also a deep cynicism in the electorate about the political system and its vulnerability to corruption and pressure from those with money and power. This is a very confronting time for the thoughtful Australian citizen.

In this context one of our dangers is adopting the “ideology of oppression”[2] as the only lens through which we can view and understand history, the social structures of our culture and human nature. This can lead us into a new “nihilism” and loss of hope, believing Nietzsche’s claim that “Man is just the will to power,”[3] or worse, to embracing radical political solutions that recent history has shown us are even more oppressive than the state of some of our present institutions. The other temptation is to give up the task of reforming the institutions that we have constructed to serve our hard-won democratic processes and give in to cynicism or despair.  The reality is that “Culture is both oppressor and gift giver, to think of it only as oppressor is naïve, unbalanced and ideological.”[4]

We also need to understand the relationship between power and authority as they are not the same. Power is the ability to command or lead, to make decisions, to get things done. It can also be the ability to dominate, control and compel submission in others, and so the relationship between power and legitimate authority is crucial. Legitimate institutional authority can be created in a number of ways, by democratic processes that delegate permission and delineate the scope of the exercise of power, or by the common acceptance of tradition and values. In individuals who may have no formal institutional position it can be by the recognition of their possession of knowledge, wisdom, experience and above all of virtue and character.

All this affects how we are to understand the nature and legitimate use of power and its limits and the role of permission to exercise it, how permission is given and then how accountability for its exercise is structured. Our democratic political system has developed some principles, structures and systems to do this but is not perfect and cannot be applied simplistically to all institutions. It also raises the question: From where do we personally gain the wisdom and character to exercise it rightly?

In this series of studies in 1Corinthians 1—3 the focus is on the power and wisdom of God as demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Christ and the preaching of the Cross.

This message about God’s power, its purpose, and how he exercises it, is the message that Christians are charged with speaking into and living out in the present culture. A context of heightened awareness of the abuse and misuse of power in the society and institutions we have created and in which we live and work.

Chapter 1:   In Christ’s death on the Cross is centred the Power and the Wisdom of God

Read: 1 Corinthians 1:17–31

“You are great Lord and greatly to be praised;
great is your power,
and to your wisdom is no end.”[5]

In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul makes the startling claim “that the message of the cross … is the power of God” and in vs 23-24 that “Christ crucified … is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” It is a claim he repeats in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”[6] And in Colossians 1:19-20 he makes the staggering claim that through Christ’s death on the cross God effected a cosmic reconciliation of “all things” alienated from Himself and affected by the Fall. So the New Testament message is clear – in Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection is centred and expressed the power and wisdom of God and if we are to see that power and wisdom at work afresh in our culture we must revive the preaching of the Cross.

As Christians we believe that God’s power[7] is not just the greatest power but the source of all power and his law is the guide to the just and merciful use of all power. His wisdom is not just the greatest and most comprehensive wisdom but the source of all true knowledge and wisdom.  The essential purpose and action of God’s power and wisdom is relational, it is directed to our salvation and the restoration of our relationship with God.  Its method is ‘incarnational’, it is centred and demonstrated in Christs incarnation, his life, his death on the cross and his resurrection. This gives the Christian a radical and unique understanding of power and wisdom and how it should be exercised.[8]

This leads us inexorably to some challenging questions.

If this is true, then why are we not seeing this power more widely at work in our evangelism and preaching today? Why are we seeing so many of our young people falling away and failing to embrace in their discipleship the challenge of Jesus to take up their cross and follow him?

Is it the context in which we work and its negative and often hostile cultural pressures on Christianity? There are certainly many, but the NT Church also faced hostility. Paul acknowledges the hostile attitude of the two major cultural groups of his time; the Greco-Roman culture and the Jewish culture. (See 1Cor 1: 18-25) The Greek and Roman culture found this message foolish and ridiculous. The Greek word in the text is translated as ‘foolish’ (vs 18); it is the word from which we get ‘moronic’ in English! The Jews on the other hand thought the crucifixion of the Messiah was a ‘scandalous’ idea (vs 23), a heresy that struck at the heart of their beliefs, an idea that would cause a good Jew to stumble and fall away from the true faith. So, like many people in our own culture today, both groups found the idea of God’s death on a cross as alien, strange and offensive. Yet, this message was the power that set off the spiritual explosion that created the New Testament Church!

So, we come back to our question: Why are we not seeing this power at work more broadly through our preaching and evangelism? Is it just the hostile environment of aggressive secularism?

The following are some of the factors in the present cultural context in which we work in Australia, and more generally in the West, that are often raised as barriers to the Gospel:

  1. The loss of the Christian memory in our Western culture.
  2. The growing aggressive secularism of our culture.
  3. The cynicism and loss of respect for the Church due to the exposure of the Church’s involvement in and cover up of the sexual abuse of children by some of its clergy and leaders.
  4. The spirit of modernity that finds the Gospel and its imagery and concepts strange and alien and pre-modern.
  5. The popular narrative of “Scientific Materialism” (or ‘naturalism’) that has so captured the modern mind that it has lost its openness to anything beyond the material and physical. Like the roof of the Tennis Centre on a night threatening rain, it’s gradually closed to the heavens, to the transcendent, to anything greater or bigger than the material. We were so absorbed in the game we didn’t notice![9]
  6. The counter narrative of Post Modernism where there is no absolute truth to find. The only authority is the individual’s subjective perspective. An attitude that finds the truth claims and moral absolutes of the Christian faith offensive to its selective relativism and cynical scepticism.
  7. The contemporary atmosphere of radical individualism and personal freedom so dominates the Western mind and desires now that it accepts few ethical and moral restraints on individual freedom of choice.
  8. The prosperity of the West that has so distracted us with constant entertainment, advertising and information. The ubiquitous screens of our mobile phones keep us in constant but superficial communication, we no longer have the space or time in our lives for the solitude and reflection that serious religious faith requires.
  9. The nihilism that has overtaken much of our contemporary philosophy and the arts has led many thoughtful people to a kind of bleak despair. A trip to our most avant garde gallery in Tasmania, MONA, is an interesting but rather depressing experience. Our culture seems to leave people with three options – denial, distraction or despair!

So, is it that these cultural forms of resistance or distraction have blunted our efforts at communicating the power and wisdom of the Cross, or is that we have failed? Have we failed to focus on the message of Christ crucified? Have we been seduced into modifying the message to suit the prevailing spirit of our age and so reduced it and accommodated it that we have gradually changed or weakened the New Testament teaching? Being mocked, dismissed, laughed at and rejected as weird is not a pleasant experience. Have we failed in the discipling of our young people to prepare them for this form of rejection when they witness to the Cross? Jesus said, “If you want to be my disciple you must take up your cross and follow me.”[10]

Every culture has some form of resistance to the message of the cross, or a way of attempting to disarm its power. That is because all cultures contain forms of resistance to God in the shape of human pride and independence – the core of our original resistance.[11] These take many forms, it might, as in the spirit of secular modernity, be an intellectual resistance in the form of the idea of ‘autonomous human reason’ that operates disconnected from any link to the transcendent. For example, in its manifestation in ‘Scientific materialism’, that we referred to above, it locks out any concept of a ‘metaphysic’ – something bigger than or in addition to the physical and material. So all we have to work with in attempting to answer our questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives is the physical / material, just matter and energy, particles and forces. Needless to say, this approach fails to provide any satisfactory answers to our most pressing and important human questions about the nature of justice, right and wrong, the reality of evil, the good, the virtues, beauty, art, love, loyalty, honour, the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives. (This idea is expanded later in Chapter 4.)

Every age has its mental and emotional ‘plausibility structure’, what it finds believable or unbelievable. On the other hand, the resistance may be less intellectual or philosophical; it may be a hedonistic preoccupation with pleasure, or an obsession with utopian political dreams without God. The resistance takes different forms in different cultural epochs.

So, if we are to resist falling into the trap of reducing or accommodating the message of the Cross to the cultural pressures of our age; or on the other hand, retreating into a cultural and intellectual ghetto and failing to engage our cultures dominating ideas and idols; what do we need to do?

There are three steps we need to take:

  1. Re-examine the NT explanations of the meaning of the Cross and the rich and diverse range of ideas, images and metaphors it uses. The following are some examples that reoccur in the NT:
    1. The legal: The idea of justification or acquittal before God’s law. Because Christ has paid the penalty for our sin we are then declared justified or righteous through our faith in his death for us and his righteousness is imputed or attributed to us. (See Romans 3: 19-27. This passage is very important as it illustrates how Paul brings together in the one sustained argument several different ways of explaining how Christ’s death achieves our salvation.) See also Romans 5:1-2 & 9, 8:30-34, 10:10, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Galatians 2:15-21, 3:10-14, Titus3:4-7 and Acts13:38-39.
    2. Redemption /ransom: A ransom was the price paid for the setting free or redeeming of a slave. We who are slaves to sin and the laws judgment on us are set free by Christ’s death for us as a ransom price. The freedom can also be from the power of a hostile or foreign political power. (Romans 3:24 Mark 10:45, 2 Timothy 2:5-6, Hebrews 9:11-15, 1 Peter 1:18, Titus 2:11-14, 1 Cor 1:30, Ephesians 1:17, 14, 4:20, Colossians 1:13-14, Gal 3:13-15, 23-29, 4:5.)
    3. A sacrifice/substitutionary atonement/shedding of blood: the idea that Christ’s death is a substitutionary sacrifice in our place that atones for our sin which we appropriate individually by our faith in him. (Romans 3:9-26, 1 John 2:1-2, 4:10, 1 Corinthians 15: 3-4. Hebrews 2:17. (The letter to the Hebrews is a sustained explanation of the anticipatory nature of the OT. Temple sacrifices for sin, and in particular the Day of Atonement that anticipates their fulfilment in Christ’s final once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. See also Isaiah 53:5.)
    4. Reconciliation/Relational: The possibility of reconciliation and peace with God is achieved through his action in Christ to forgive us. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Romans 5:10-11.)
    5. Victory over evil: In the Cross, death and resurrection of Jesus a great spiritual conflict is engaged in, victory over evil is achieved and sin and death are vanquished by Christ. (1Corinthians 15:54-57, 1John 5:4-5, Colossians 2:13-15, Hebrews 2:14-15, Ephesians 6:10-13.)
    6. Liberation/Freedom/The Passover: Jesus as the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12: 1-24) whose blood both protects us from God’s judgment and death and liberates us from slavery. In the Exodus account it is the liberation of Israel from Egyptian power and enslavement. Paul applies the Passover to our freedom through Christ in I Corinthians 5:7-8. (See also Mark 14:12-26 where Jesus institutes the Lords Supper in the context of the Passover meal and note vs’s 23-24.)

In Luke 4: 16 -21, at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus announces his mission and describes it in startling terms of “proclaiming freedom for the prisoners … and release to the oppressed … to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Isaiah 61:1-2). It has been noted by some scholars that the phrase “the year of the Lord’s favour” was associated with The OT year of the Jubilee in which every 50 years people were freed from their debts; if their right to their family property had been lost this was restored; slaves were freed; etc.  (See Leviticus 25: 1-10)

  1. Rebirth/renewal: The idea of being spiritually reborn in Christ through his death. (See John3:3-15 and Titus 3:4-7.)

In these and other NT images, metaphors, illustrations and explanations, sometimes used singularly and at others in combination, are contained the revolutionary idea that “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” on the Cross (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). We need to revisit and study this rich mine of NT teaching on the Cross before we seek to apply it to our generation.

  1. Second, we need to engage and understand our generation’s longings and hopes, the causes of its despair, its guilt, its fears and confusions, its false confidences, and think creatively how we can apply most appropriately the rich variety of illustrations and metaphors of the NT to explain the meaning of the cross to them. Now it is in this work that we have to take the greatest care that we do not reduce or adapt the core meaning of Christ’s death to the spirit of our age. In Colossians 2:8 Paul says: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” In our case is it the spirit of ‘secular modernity’ and its idea of autonomous reason and its rejection of the transcendent?

Also, in this process we need to remember the role of the Holy Spirit. This is a spiritual battle, as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 2: 1-5: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” He makes the same point to the Thessalonian Church “Our Gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” (1 Thessalonians 1:4)

  1. So the challenge we have is to restore the NT preaching of the Cross to a central place in our evangelism and the making of disciples. We need to examine the content of our preaching and the spirit in which we approach it to see if it stacks up with the New Testament preaching and teaching. In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul gives us the disturbing warning that we can, by our anxiety to accommodate the Gospel to be more acceptable to the human wisdom of our times, empty the cross of its power! We do this by our theological reductionism, our adaptions and omissions, what we emphasise or de-emphasise, and by our lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit. The word he uses is translated here as “empty”. It can also be translated as “hollowed out, deprived of content, made ineffective.” The stakes are high here for if we empty the Cross of its power to save, we condemn those we are trying to communicate with to alienation from God and we also condemn the Church to a spiritually powerless decline in our culture.

Questions for discussion

  1. Which of the nine cultural barriers to the Gospel mentioned above do you find most challenging and why?
  2. Which of the NT examples of explanations of the Cross do you find are the most appropriate to explain the meaning of the Cross to people today?
  3. Which of the NT examples given above do you find yourself avoiding and why?

 

 

Chapter 2:   The Corinthian Church – a case study of Christians whose values and world views were not sufficiently transformed by the Gospel

Read 1 Corinthians 1:1-17, 2:6-16, 3:1-22

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom.12:2)

Sometime after Paul planted the Church at Corinth Apollos arrived, the gifted teacher from North Africa. His particular gifts helped to build up the Church, but his style was different to Paul’s. We learn from Acts 18:24-28 and 19:1 that Apollos was an Alexandrian Jew, a recent convert, a scholar and gifted speaker who was particularly effective among Jewish enquirers and new Jewish converts of the ‘diaspora’, the Hellenised Jews living in Greco- Roman cities.

Alexandria in North Africa was founded and built by the Greek kings at the height of their power. In the first century it was the principal city of North Africa, a major sea port, famed for its architecture, its learning and sophistication. It had a great library of thousands of works. Although a Greek city, it had a large Jewish population and became the intellectual centre for the Jewish dispersion. It was there that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament was produced. It was in Alexandria that Jewish scholars sought to synthesise the Philosophy of Athens with the Old Testament.

This is where Apollos was trained and so he would be fluent, not only in the OT but also in Greek thought and the whole Alexandrian tradition of interaction and apologetics between Athens and Jerusalem. He would also be trained in ‘rhetoric’ and the art of speaking and arguing your case which was part of the Greek tradition.

Now it appears from 1 Corinthians 1:10 -17 3:1-17 that something of a popularity contest had arisen over Paul and Apollos and their different styles and this had led to divisions in the Corinthian Church! But notice that Paul never criticises Apollos, his criticism is levelled at the Corinthian Christians and their attitude. In 3:18-21 he takes them to task for their immaturity and their values and world views, they are still not transformed enough by the Gospel. They are still governed by the values of their culture, “…you think you are wise by the standards of this age.” (vs18) (in their case by the attitudes of the Greco/Roman culture of the Empire and second Temple Judaism). These were the two main cultural groups that made up the Corinthian Church.

What were some of those attitudes?

For converts from the Pagan Greek and Roman culture, they had absorbed the Greek emphasis on learning and philosophy (what they termed ‘Wisdom’) and also the skills of rhetoric, the art of persuasive argument in public speaking. Their religious inclinations were speculative and syncretistic. Many were cynical like Pilate “What is truth?” It was also a culture based on status and power, and education or learning was a factor in their view of status.

The Jewish converts also had a high view of learning, but this was in the Jewish Rabbinic tradition and the legalism of Judaism. They also valued Wisdom but understood it in the sense of right living through keeping God’s law.

But to both groups the preaching of the Cross was a problem. It was deeply countercultural and either absurd intellectually or morally offensive. For the Romans crucifixion was a death only appropriate for slaves and serious crimes against the Empire, crimes that required the ultimate deterrent. Even to that very cruel and brutal culture crucifixion was seen as an appalling death. To educated Romans and Greeks it seemed absurd and, in their philosophy and idea of wisdom, without merit to associate religious truth with the cross. It was a symbol of weakness, failure, immorality, humility, torture and defeat, not power.

For the Jews too it was deeply offensive, they saw it as the ultimate curse. Deuteronomy 21:23 says: “Anyone guilty of a capital offence was to be put to death and their body hung on a tree … anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” The notion that the anticipated Messiah would endure this was unthinkable. (The same reaction is expressed in Islam today; the idea of a crucified God is unthinkable to them.)

So, for both groups the preaching of the Cross was culturally embarrassing and a huge barrier. And yet it was at the heart of the Gospel the NT Church preached! In the introduction to his letter to the Christians in Rome Paul says: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, and then to the Gentile.” (Rom 1:16)

This is all very applicable and challenging for us now in a Post Christian Secular West

We can easily forget how our minds and emotions are shaped by the culture we inhabit and lose our sense of critical appraisal of that culture – where it is ungodly, and where its ideas, general assumptions and presuppositions are now in conflict with a Christian and Biblical world view. We can easily slip into a sense of embarrassment with the NT teaching on why and how the death of Christ rescues us from our alienation from God as it seems so foreign to our culture, just as Paul describes its reception in his culture as “foolishness to the Greeks.” But unlike Paul we can react by reducing the message. We can for example say: “The Gospel is all about God’s love” but fail to explain why that love was compelled to take on human flesh in the incarnation and die for us on a bloody cross, and how that deals with our sin and alienation from a holy God. There is only a small step in such omissions from reducing the Gospel to emptying it of its power. In the next chapter we will look at three common examples of how this is done in some popular preaching.

The wisdom and eloquence of the world

In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul says that “Christ sent me to preach the Gospel not with wisdom and eloquence lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” What Paul means by wisdom and eloquence is what we would call the current ideas and ideological fashions that dominate the times in which we live, and the common narratives and rhetorical tactics that are used in the popular discourse to discredit Christianity. In our context it is ideas like the assumed conflict between science and religion; the rejection of the transcendent as part of reality (that there is something greater than just the material and physical); that moral values are just a social construct and have no origin in any transcendent or objective truth.[12]

Challenging Atheistic Secularism and Autonomous Reason

In relation to serious philosophical and thoughtful discussion of ideas, particularly in the public space, Christians today need to return to a more confident and less apologetic stance and to assert our right to challenge the assumptions of aggressive secularism.

Christian theology and apologetics must no longer concede all authority to determine or adjudicate how we understand epistemology (our theory of knowledge) and ontology (our theory of the nature of being) to the current philosophical discourse and in particular the common assumptions of many in politics, the media and higher education. We must recognise that the philosophical project is never neutral or an unbiased search for truth. Everyone has presuppositions, sometimes they are aware of them, at other times not. If we believe that the source of true knowledge and wisdom is God, then our position must be to reject the idea of autonomous reason. Our stance must be that true knowledge requires both theological insight and human reason. This means we must step back into the public domain, including tertiary education, in relation to the whole range of thought and knowledge. The French philosopher Etienne Gilson put the point succinctly; “If man is made in the image of God, how can he know himself without knowing God?[13]

Atheistic secularism has spent considerable energy pushing religious thought and experience into the private domain of personal preference and experience. At the same time, it has also claimed the right to critique, reject or interpret religious thought and experience in purely psychological or materialist terms (like brain function). But at the same time, it resists the right of theology to critique its reductionist, materialist and anti-metaphysical views! We cannot allow that narrow control over the presuppositions of higher education and the discussion of knowledge to go unchallenged as the only valid position.[14]

Hans Kung, the European philosopher and theologian, made this point strongly: “Modernity’s house has been, with two world wars, at least in the case of fascism and Stalinism, burned down to the foundation walls. … Modernity finds itself in transition, as a paradigm that has grown old and that must be built up anew. … We must deny the reductionism of Modernity with respect to the deeper spiritual and religious levels of reality. We must also deny Modernity’s superstitious faith in reason, science and progress along with all the destructive forces that this faith has unleashed … in the course of our (recent) history.”[15]

Now that does not mean that we reject the critical power and insights of the Enlightenment and retreat into a new kind of fundamentalism. But if our core confession is “Jesus is Lord”, then we must challenge the reductionism of Modernity and the sceptical destruction of all foundations by Post Modernity. This may be the only way of constructively saving Modernity from itself and saving Post Modernity from collapsing into complete subjectivity and nihilism. As Kung says, “Hope must remain empty without a final ground of being.”15

If we are to be true to our confession of the Incarnation, we must pursue this path and reject the false opposition between faith and reason. We must embrace the truth that only an incarnational faith can lead us to true knowledge. In this faith the Divine takes on human flesh in Christ – the transcendent with the human: human rationality, human feelings and passions with Divine wisdom, human frailty with God’s power (See Phil.2:5-11). This path will challenge the sense of superiority that atheistic secularism, autonomous reason and scientific reductionism assume, and the idea that faith is a private matter and has no place in the discussion of knowledge, morality and public policy.

Given our current political and social contract in the West, if we wish to pursue in the democratic project a true liberal pluralism and multiculturalism, then success can only be achieved if we respect and give genuine space in the public debate and policy formation for religious views and beliefs, and uphold freedom of religion and respectful religious expression. The state must provide unequivocally for this freedom and strictly limit any legislative impositions that threaten or undermine it.

Theologically Christians will also reject the temptation to pursue an apologetic approach that operates on the assumptions of Secularism, Positivism[16] and Scientific Materialism. That was the well-meaning but mistaken pathway of liberal theology that contributed to our current intellectual and spiritual impotency, and our retreat from the “scandal of the Cross.”

Paul is bold and confident in his faith in the Gospel “We… speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor: 6-8.)

Questions for discussion

  1. What are you most tempted to de-emphasise in the NT explanations of Christ’s death? Do you think that is valid?
  2. In your evangelistic preaching do you make the meaning of Christ’s death a key part of your preaching?
  3. Which of the NT metaphors or illustrations of Christ’s death would you choose as most relevant to the people you work with?

Chapter 3:   Examples of theological reductionism in the preaching of the Cross

Read 1 Corinthians 1: 17-25, Romans 3:19-26, Hebrews 9:11-15, 10:19-23, Isaiah 53: 5-6

“Christianity is concerned with God’s holiness above all else; which issues to man as love, acts upon sin as grace,
and exercises grace through judgment.
The idea of God’s holiness is inseparable from the idea of God’s judgment as the mode by which grace goes into action.
And by judgment is meant … the acceptance by Christ of God’s judgment on man’s behalf.”[17]

The following are three common examples in some popular preaching of hollowing out or “emptying” the Cross of Christ of its power. They are all illustrations of majoring on an aspect of the Cross’s significance that is true, but not its core meaning – they are reductions.

  1. The first example emphasises that the Cross is primarily an example of moral courage and self-sacrifice. “Greater love has no man than this that he is willing to lay down his life for his friend.” We are familiar with this theme in Anzac Day services. It is a powerful and noble image. But unless the application to Jesus’ death for our sins is drawn the image fails to explain the reason for and the result of Jesus’ act of moral courage. The Cross is meant to make more than a moral impression on us, to do more than just lift our moral idealism! Its purpose is to redeem us from our moral guilt before God’s law and our inability and failure to live up to the righteous life to which He calls us. It is about our accountability before God and his holiness and how He dealt with that justly and mercifully.
  2. The second example emphasises that the Cross is primarily an example of the moral power of passive resistance to evil and violence — that sin, evil and violence can be ultimately defeated by non-violence and passive resistance. Once again, this has an aspect of the truth to it, but to explain the Cross fully we need to move beyond parallels to Ghandi and Martin Luther King, inspiring as they both are! We need to enter into an explanation of the real spiritual battle being engaged in the death of Christ in the spiritual realm. As Colossians 2:14-15 explain “…having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he (Christ) has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
  3. The third example has similarities to the second. It is to see the Cross as primarily an example of the reversal of worldly values. That immoral use of power can be defeated by the power of truth, love and justice. Now while this is a legitimate and admirable aspiration to hold out to people in their community and political life, it does not necessarily lead them to the personal experience of God’s freedom from the temptation to misuse power in their own life. It is this freedom that is the source of the inner motivation to act for truth, love and justice in political action. As P.T. Forsyth points out in his book The Cruciality of the Cross: “Public liberty rests on inward freedom and the Cross alone gives moral freedom.”17 It is in our personal experience of the freedom of forgiveness and grace through the Cross that we have the desire and the strength to work for “public liberty” in the daily experience of life. The brutal facts are that the powerful (in worldly terms) most often seem to win through money, influence and the abuse of power. So while the ideal held out in this example is noble and challenging, it does not explain the essential meaning of what takes place in Christ’s death on the cross and in his resurrection, and how it empowers a person to act morally. Nor does it explain why God exercises his power in the particular way of the Cross.

Each of these aspects of Christ’s death has some moral value and attractiveness but on their own they are reductions of the full meaning of his death and resurrection. They may be used as starting points, but they must go further. While they may be a strong appeal to our moral courage to confront the world’s misuse of power, they do not explain how the Cross changes our relationship with the holy God nor deal with our own personal accountability for the abuse of power. On their own they all lead us back to the essential problem of our inability to keep God’s moral law. God’s law is not a ladder we can climb to reach approval. It is a ruler that shows us how short we fall and so points us to Christ and his atoning death. The problem, and God’s solution, is outlined very clearly by Paul in Romans 3:9-26.

The three examples above may touch our conscience to try and live with more moral courage, but they do not address our inability to do it consistently. They lead us instead to a sentimental and over-optimistic humanism that is powerless in the face of human weakness and our fallen tendency to “the will to power.”3

When describing the preaching of the false prophets of Israel, Jeremiah said “They dress the wounds of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jer. 6:14). We must deal with the heart of the problem, and to do that we must communicate God’s radical solution in the Cross.

A failure to preach the Cross as a substitutionary atonement for our sin and fallen state fails to grapple with the radical nature of our human moral and spiritual problem, one that is deeply embedded in all of us. Consider the following Biblical truths:

  1. Our fallen nature is bent towards “the will to power.” — First in challenging God’s authority, and then in exercising exploitative power over others. The prevalence of this in marriage, business and political leadership is sadly all too evident.
  2. God’s moral order is an expression of his love for us. It is his design for human flourishing. But we consistently seek to overturn or subvert it. As a result, we have created extremely destructive behaviours that continue to cause immense human suffering. This includes our exploitation of, and damage to, the natural environment whose health and stewardship was entrusted to us by God.[18]
  3. God holds us accountable for these decisions and actions. He has created us as moral beings with the freedom to choose and the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong. We are responsible and accountable to Him and his law.
  4. The Bible regularly uses language and images that depict God’s essential holiness as like a “refiner’s fire” in whose presence evil and sin cannot survive but is consumed. The two cannot coexist before Him. Deut 4:24 says “The Lord your God is a consuming fire.” These Biblical statements about God’s character do not sit comfortably with our contemporary “therapeutic culture” of constant affirmation and acceptance. Nevertheless, they correctly describe God’s insistence on truth, righteousness, justice and holiness. God’s love is a holy love.[19]
  5. If we are to enter his holy presence, our sin and evil must be dealt with and removed justly. The radical nature of our problem required a radical solution – our repentance and acceptance of God’s provision of a universal and once-for-all act of atonement made by Christ on the cross.

The principle is clearly laid down in the Old Testament at the very beginning of God’s covenant with his people and was regularly enacted in the Temple liturgy on the Day of Atonement. This ‘anticipation’ (Heb. 9:8) finally found its fulfilment in the Messiah’s coming in Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection and ascension. The NT explains the fulfilment of the OT anticipation and its availability now to all people clearly in the letter to the Hebrews (See Hebrews 9:1-28.)[20]

In recent times, among some Evangelicals, objections have been raised against the idea of “Penal substitution.”[21] In his outstanding book “The Cross of Christ” John Stott carefully and comprehensively addresses these objections.[22] For example he makes the point that some find the idea of the ‘imputation’ or transfer of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us (2 Cor. 5:21) as unjust and offensive. But Stott point out this is based on a misunderstanding; imputation does not imply the transference of one person’s moral qualities to another, which would be impossible. “No, what was transferred to Christ were not moral qualities but legal consequences: he voluntarily accepted liability for our sins.”[23] The Biblical teaching about substitutionary atonement must also be understood within the orthodox creedal teaching on the nature of the Trinity.

Stott sums up the Biblical material in this way: “When we review all this Old Testament material (the shedding and sprinkling of blood, the sin offering, the Passover, the meaning of ‘sin bearing’, the scapegoat and Isaiah 53,) and consider its application to the death of Christ, we are obliged to conclude that the cross was a substitutionary sacrifice. Christ died for us, Christ died instead of us.”[24]

An issue that is also often raised by contemporary people is that an emphasis on the atonement and a bloody sacrifice sounds like an echo of primitive paganism that we have surely outgrown. This gives apparent strength to the moral appeal of the three examples we have presented of some contemporary preaching as they all avoid this criticism by omission of substitutionary atonement! But in fact, the NT explanation of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is the complete opposite to the pagan idea and practice. In the Christian faith, it is God who, in his love for us, makes the sacrifice himself to satisfy the law’s righteous and just demands. In pagan worship, it is the human worshiper who attempts to placate the gods or spirits by offering their own sacrifice. But in the Christian Gospel, as Paul explains in 2 Cor 5:18-19, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ …  God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” The unique and humanly counter-intuitive thing about the Christian Gospel is that God takes the initiative and makes the sacrifice himself.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Do you think it is possible to find contemporary images of the atonement that are faithful to the NT teaching? Can you think of any examples that would clearly explain substitutionary atonement?
  2. If people’s reaction to Biblical atonement imagery is negative because they no longer understand or accept the holiness of God and its serious implications for our moral condition, should we then start at a different place and try to create first an awareness of God’s holiness? If so, how could we do that in a way that resonates with contemporary feelings and attitudes (such as the current outrage and condemnation about child abuse, corporate corruption such as ‘wage theft’, or racial and other forms of discrimination, etc.)?
  3. Why do you think the idea of atonement is so pastorally important and positive for believers?

Chapter 4:   The radical difference between God’s Power and Wisdom and those of the world

Read: 1 Cor 3:1-23 and 15: 20-25

“Power belongs to God, and steadfast love to you O lord.” Psalm 62:11-12

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” Proverbs 1:7

We have seen that Paul’s first reason for writing to the young Corinthian church was to address their disunity over their teachers, but below this problem lay a deeper issue he wanted to challenge –their immaturity and worldliness. The Corinthian Christians’ values and world view were still not transformed enough by the Gospel; they were still dominated by the values and ideas of their culture. He describes them in in 3:1-2 as “people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ.” Two things prized by their first century Greco/Roman culture were wisdom and power, but their culture’s understanding of them was nothing like the Wisdom and Power of God.

The Corinthian church’s problem should not surprise us. We are all deeply influenced by the culture we are raised in and in which we live every day. It’s the air we breathe, the sea we swim in! In our time of constant digital communication, popular entertainment, advertising and marketing it has been described as “liquid modernity”, a wave that constantly washes over us every day. We should never underestimate its influence to shape and reshape our values, beliefs, prejudices and presuppositions.

When we embraced Christ, whether that was a decisive conversion experience at a particular time, or a realisation we gradually grew into and began to identify as a follower of Jesus, we passed into a whole new world of values, beliefs, and understandings of how we are to now think, live, decide and act. We entered into a whole new perspective on how we are to understand reality and the meaning and purpose of our lives. We began, as Paul puts it, the process of entering “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) or, as he describes it in Rom 12:2, of no longer conforming to the pattern of this world but being transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we will know God’s will for how we should live. We entered the Kingdom of God and the realm of its values!

This is the key issue Paul is addressing here with the Corinthian Christians. In these first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, he is focussing particularly on the attitude to Wisdom and Power. So our key question in this chapter is to identify the essential difference between the fallen world’s view and God’s view.

God’s view of Wisdom and Power.

Paul’s rather startling answer in 1 Cor 1—3 is that God’s Wisdom – true wisdom – is summed up by two words: Christ crucified. And God’s Power – true poweris summed up in two events: the Cross and the Resurrection. (The emphasis on the resurrection comes later in the letter, in chapter 15.)

In chapter 1 Paul says: “For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … in the wisdom of God … [He] was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached (the cross) to save those who believe” (vv 18 & 21). The aim and purpose of God’s Wisdom and Power is our salvation – our rescue, reconciliation and restoration. They are focussed on removing the barriers to, and making possible, our restoration to fellowship with Him and then to one another in loving human community. In a word God’s Wisdom and Power are essentially relational. Their purpose is reconciliation driven by love!

In the Cross and the resurrection, God does what all the world’s wisdom and power so often fails to do. It brings reconciliation, peace, unity, and deliverance from what enslaves us, our misdirected passions and our will to power over others.

The bigger picture of what is achieved by God’s power and wisdom is the final consummation of the Kingdom of God, in which the kingdoms of this world are finally gathered in unity and peace under Christ (Isaiah 2:1-4). In Romans 8:18–24, Paul paints an inspiring and cosmic picture of the “universal restoration of all things”[25] and the whole of creation’s renewal in the new heavens and the new earth.[26] Between the “now and the not yet” of the Kingdom of God, Christians are called to bring anticipations of that peace and restoration wherever we can in both individuals and communities, amidst the transient kingdoms of this world.

God’s wisdom and power have nothing in common with the world’s ideas and practices; the world sees wisdom as knowledge and power as strength and control. To further emphasise this 1 Cor 1:26-31 reveals that God grounds His wisdom and power entirely in grace, and expresses that in choosing “the weak things of the world to shame the strong … the lowly things of this world and the despised things … to nullify the things that are…” The common human elevation of pride, self-assurance and achievement, our mastery and knowledge of the physical world, our status, the money we have accumulated, our ‘leadership’ through the control of others, all these have almost nothing in common with God’s view of power and wisdom. For example, God’s idea of leadership is characterised by servanthood and the model of Jesus, the suffering servant, who lays down his life for others.[27]

Now this message had all sorts of disturbing implications for the Corinthian Christians, as it does for us. Our twenty first century preoccupation with wisdom as knowledge and power as control over others are shown in the following two examples:

  1. The first example I mentioned earlier is the false wisdom of ‘Scientific Materialism’ or ‘Scientific Naturalism’. This popular narrative is based on a narrow view of reality and the self-sufficiency of human reason. It rejects metaphysics[28] and the transcendent dimension of reality, so its tendency is to reductionism in its understanding of, and approach to, knowledge and knowing. Its belief is that the only ‘real things’ are the material and physical – energy and matter, atoms, particles, forces, etc.[29] Scientific Materialism is not just a method of discovery but contains a belief or doctrine that limits the field of exploration to what it thinks of as the ‘facts’ of the physical and material world. This has been referred to as ‘the fact/values divide.’[30] It is asserted that there is the realm of publicly verifiable ‘facts’ and the realm of socially constructed ‘values’. The second is a so-called private realm, where religion, morality, the virtues, and values like justice, goodness and love reside but cannot be verified in any objective way and, it is claimed, are relative and changeable. The Christian World View cannot accept this artificial divide.

Scientific Materialism as a popular narrative has contributed to producing in our present culture of late modernity a vacuum of meaning and purpose. It offers no way of answering our most important questions about the meaning and purpose of our existence and the values by which we should live. It shuts out (and in some cases even ridicules) traditional sources of their explanation, and ignores or dismisses over fifteen hundred years of acquired knowledge in Western culture on these matters.

It can be described as the ‘windowless room’ whose doors all lock behind you as you enter – a brilliantly lit space in which a certain kind of knowledge can be discovered. But it has no windows through which we can look out on to the wider aspects of reality. Hence the criticism that it is reductionist. It’s a bit like describing music as fluctuating air pressure that the human ear is able to detect. It’s an accurate statement as far as it goes, but it is reductionist. There is so much more to say! It also leads to the impoverished view of equating wisdom with mere knowledge of the physical world.[31]

This idea in its popular form has closed much of the contemporary mind to the idea of the transcendent and the deeper reality of God. It leaves a culture in a kind of existential vacuum of meaning and purpose, and eventually a pervasive and vague nihilism. Cultures abhor a spiritual and moral vacuum and so they seek to fill that in some way. As we observed earlier, this leads either to seeking constant superficial distraction or to entering into denial or despair. Cultures that follow this path tend to fall slowly into moral and social decay. This in turn can lead a culture into a political vulnerability to authoritarianism, fascism or violent utopianism as a solution to their dysfunction. Europe has seen both in the recent political disasters of the 20th century.[32]

  1. The second example of our contemporary quest for power is the development, at least in the West, of radical individualism. Here, the quest for power is focussed on the individual’s quest for personal autonomy and complete freedom of choice – from the brand and colour of your mobile phone, to preferred gender, to whom you will sleep with tonight, to what you believe is right and wrong. The individual is now the sole source of authority, a self-authorising agent who acknowledges almost no external restraints on the freedom of their will. Authority is now located subjectively in the self, and what is authentic or genuine or true is what and how I feel and decide.

This of course becomes a ‘hall of mirrors’ in which the only perspective I have is my own, because I can admit no other reflection! It is the ultimate trap, a kind of ethical, philosophical, emotional and spiritual narcissism. It is as if Western culture has developed a collective personality disorder, and like all people afflicted with narcissism it is relationally alienating and destructive.

This is the end of a long journey that Western culture has been on since the enlightenment in our quest for wisdom and power. Once we gradually decoupled that quest from the authority of God it was inevitable that we would come to believe in autonomous human reason as the sole means of obtaining wisdom.

Nietzsche, that erratic but insightful 19th Century atheist and prophet of our future, maintained that once belief in God died for Western culture, the inevitable result would be “the triumph of the will” and this, as he rightly discerned, would also lead to increasing our tendency to the “will to power” over others.[33]

If this is an accurate description of the present shape and direction of the mental and emotional landscape of Western culture then it is in for a very hard time, because radical individualism is in the end socially destructive. We are created as social beings, we are meant to live in community, and we only flourish in the context of interpersonal love and respect, beginning with the primary community of the family. To live in community requires accepting limits and boundaries to our individual freedoms and choices. It imposes on us duties and obligations to others and the common good, and a set of common values and commitments.

If you break this down too far, our communities become dysfunctional, our families, individuals and our politics become dysfunctional. This appears to be the present trajectory of Western culture, and so as we float adrift in a sea of radical individualism and moral relativism the storms are approaching.

Nietzsche has an arresting image of what will happen to Western culture once belief in God has died. He says it will be like leaving the stability of the land and launching out on to an uncertain sea – “we have left the land and embarked … we have burned our bridges behind us – indeed we have gone further and destroyed the land behind us … Woe then when you feel homesick for the land … there is no longer any land.”3

But the good news is that storms can make people re-evaluate what really matters to them. Storms expose the vacuum of ultimate meaning in our lives. John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, was converted to Christ in a storm aboard a sailing ship!

Preaching the Gospel of the cross in this environment – to an anxious generation clutching their smartphones to check their latest message of affirmation or rejection – is a challenge, but presents many opportunities to connect with their growing mental, emotional and spiritual crisis.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Can you think of any personal encounters you have experienced with “radical individualism” that have been destructive to relationships and community?
  2. What do you think is the most constructive way of challenging radical individualism?
  3. How can we build into our lives and relationships the idea of God’s wisdom and power being essentially “relational”, and its purpose being reconciliation and unity?
  4. What do you think of Nietzsche’s description of the future of Western Culture (see above), and if it is accurate, how can we make a connection to it with the Gospel?

Chapter 5:   God’s secret hidden wisdom

Read 1 Cor 2:6-7 and Eph 3:7-12

‘God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the glory of God displayed in the face of Christ’ (2 Cor 4:6)

The idea of a secret or hidden Wisdom or a divine mystery hidden since before time began but now revealed sounds strange to our contemporary minds. But Paul wants to drive home just how different God’s wisdom and perspective is from our transient and partial worldly wisdom and knowledge. It is a wisdom whose origin is in the eternal mind and purposes of God, it existed before the world began, as expressed in John 1:1-14.[34] God’s Wisdom is centred in Christ, his life, death and resurrection. His love for us goes all the way to the cross and its purpose is our reconciliation to Him. This Wisdom says Paul is now being revealed in the preaching of the Gospel through the Church. (Eph 3:7-12)

At the end of the NT this emphasis that God’s Wisdom and plan transcends this age and is not bound by time is reinforced with a remarkable description of Jesus as “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” (Rev 13:8)

The knowledge that Paul urgently wants to share is that now is the time to reveal this “hidden Wisdom”, because God through the Holy Spirit has established and empowered His Church to be the witness to his Wisdom.[35] Now is the time for the Church to proclaim the Wisdom of the Cross to the world. He expresses this succinctly in Eph 3:10 “God’s intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known…” This then becomes the Christian community’s primary calling till Jesus returns to consummate the Kingdom of God.

The second extraordinary and encouraging idea that Paul brings to us in 1 Cor 2:7 is that this divine plan was “for our glory”. God wants us fallen, broken, self-serving people to experience His glory! “… we declare God’s Wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” But how does this declaration of the Gospel bring glory to us?

As we have seen, the primary goal of God’s Wisdom is relational – to restore us to true fellowship with Him. We shall see Him “face to face”[36] in a relationship of intimate love and friendship in which His full glory will be revealed to us. To hear, understand and embrace the Gospel is how we enter this renewed relationship.

Isaiah 59:2 tells us that “… your sins have hidden his face from you …”. But the Cross removes that barrier between us and the glory of God. We know this now because through faith God has given us “… the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6) In the present time, as Paul explains, we experience this treasure in “jars of clay”, our present fragile and mortal bodies.[37] We also glimpse that reality partially now in nature’s glory, and imperfectly in human love and friendship, in art and music, but the unfiltered reality of God’s glory awaits us. One of the challenges now in the present is for us to maintain and deepen through the Holy Spirit our present intimacy with God and to reflect that in our relationships with others in our daily life.

God’s glory is a rich Biblical concept: it describes the overwhelming experience of His presence and the radiance of His majesty, his blazing holiness and love.[38] It also carries with it the idea of weight or gravitas, the weight of truth. To experience God’s presence is to experience the essence of love and joy and to finally understand the truth and value of all things. Jesus said “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”[39]

Questions for discussion:

  1. Why does the experience of God’s total acceptance of us in Christ bring us such joy, relief and satisfaction?
  2. Why is the sharing of this experience an important key to effective personal evangelism?
  3. Why does the experience of God’s love and acceptance bring a new perspective to “the truth and value of all things?”

Chapter 6:   God’s power and political power

Read: 1 Cor 2:6-10, John 18:28-40, 19:1-16 & 15:18-21

There is a difference between power and authority.” (anon.)

If anything sums up the preoccupation of worldly politics, corporate business, and many of our human institutions it is the pursuit of power. In politics the pursuit of power is often for an end that is claimed to be the common good, but so often the end becomes a justification for bad means!

The irony of our obsession with power, particularly political power, is as Paul says in 1 Cor 2:6 that “the rulers of this age … are coming to nothing.” All worldly power eventually fades away. The kingdoms of this world rise and fall and their leaders pass from memory. In verse 8 he says of his own time “None of the rulers of this age understood it [the mystery of God’s action in Christ], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

The word Paul uses here for Lord is Kurios (Gk). In the first century it was the title given to the most powerful person in the world, the Roman emperor. The political system of the most powerful earthly Lord of that time killed the Lord of all, the creator of heaven and earth!

This clash between Christ’s Lordship and worldly power recurs throughout our history because the Christian’s ultimate loyalty is to Christ and not to any political leader, party or ideology. This lies behind much Christian persecution past and present, and the ongoing antipathy to Christian values in our present post-Christian culture wars.

If we examine the trial and sentencing of Jesus, we can see the conflict that often arises between God’s power and the exercise of worldly political power.

There is a fascinating moment in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate the Roman Governor who was the representative of the greatest political and military power at that time. He alone had the power of life and death in Palestine at that moment.

In the record of the trial, Pilate is revealed as uncertain and conflicted about the charges brought against Jesus. He seems to be looking for a way out of condemning him, but he is also anxious to avoid an incident of civil disorder. He is frustrated that Jesus will not answer his questions. Finally, he says to Jesus “Don’t you realise that I have the power to release you or to crucify you?” Then Jesus speaks “You would have no power over me at all if it were not given you from above.”[40] In that moment we are reminded that there is no power greater than God’s that all power derives from God, and that Pilate, a representative of first century absolute political power is subject to God and God’s ultimate plans and purposes.

This does not relieve Pilate in some deterministic way of his personal moral responsibilities and his freedom of choice in his final decision about Jesus. These responsibilities are given to us by God, and their moral imperative cannot be abrogated by us by claiming the overriding plan of God. The two realities of our God-given choice and His will and plan are ultimately only resolved in the sovereign will of God, the details of which are often hidden from us. Pilate knows the charges are trumped up and Jesus should be freed. But in the end, he makes an expedient political decision to avoid a disturbance of the “Roman Peace” that his masters in Rome demand. Human history is often the outcome of these kinds of expedient choices made in self-interest by us in our exercise of power.

In Acts 4:24-31 there is a remarkable prayer recorded that shows the attitude and response of the first century Christians to the oppressive exercise of worldly power over the infant Church. It is a clear guide for us. Peter and John had been imprisoned for openly preaching the Gospel. When they are released, they gather their fellow believers and they pray this prayer:

“Sovereign Lord, you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

‘Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together

Against the Lord
and against his anointed one.’

Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against you holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’

And after they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”

The implication of this passage is clear for us today: If we believe that God is sovereign and his eternal purpose will prevail, then whatever persecutions we experience, soft or hard, we should keep speaking the Gospel of the Cross with boldness in the power of the Holy Spirit.

You can also see in the trial of Jesus by the ruling authorities of his day a clash of power between Pilate and the Jewish leaders. Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, has no military or political power like Pilate. But he understands the psychology of fear and the power of self-interest, and he has political cunning. He manipulates Pilate through his deepest fear – how his political masters in Rome will feel about a possible insurrection against Rome’s order and control. “If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a King opposes Caesar.” (John 19:12) This is a cynical ploy by any measure. The Jews hated Caesar and the Roman occupation and power. But it worked, and Pilate caves in to the tactic. This is a typical scenario in many political contests.

But below the surface of opposing political powers, another more personal struggle is taking place here – between Pilate and his conscience. He knows Jesus is innocent, but his fear and self-interest win out. When the truth confronts our conscience we always have a question to answer and a decision to make – In this struggle for power, am I willing to pay the price for truth or will I sacrifice my values and principles to win, to save my skin, to promote myself or, at the most pathetic level, to avoid embarrassment or ridicule? Whenever the Gospel is proclaimed there will frequently be these conflicts and clashes between God and the world that is turned away from Him.

The question that contemporary Christians face is: “Will I submit to the powers of my culture and its expectations, or will I take up my Cross and follow Jesus?” Our great hope and secret is that when we decide to take up the cross and to live out and speak out the Gospel of the Cross, God’s power and wisdom are released into the world and our culture to do their work. Paul in his letter to the Church at Rome, the city that was then the centre of worldly power, says “I am not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”[41] Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century London preacher, said “The gospel is like a caged lion. It does not need to be defended; it just needs to be let out of its cage.”[42] The tragedy is often it is we who keep the cage doors locked!

God taking on human flesh in the incarnation of Jesus is the ultimate demonstration that God exercises his power relationally. He steps into the world we have disfigured and disturbed by our will to power, and he identifies with us in the pain and violence caused by our abuse of power. He becomes our servant and the means of our rescue and restoration. He is the suffering servant King. This is the model we are to follow in the exercise of any power that we have in relation to others. And we all have some power in relation to others, whether it be in professional, corporate or community leadership, in marriage, parenthood or in friendship.

Here is a question we can apply to any exercise of power or influence we have in life: “Will it lead to relational good?” E.g.: Will it lead to a healthier community, family or marriage? Will it lead to a better and fairer work place? Will it reconcile or divide? Will it deepen relationships or erode them? Will it build trust or create suspicion? These are also questions we can use to evaluate the morality and wisdom of any political leadership that is presented to us for our society.

Questions for discussion

  1. Can you think of an example in your own life where someone with influence (power) shaped your life for good?
  2. What do you think is the difference between power and authority? (See the description in the Introduction para’s 4-5 on Page 1.)
  3. What is the difference between legitimate and illegitimate authority?
  4. If, as Christians believe, ultimate authority resides in and comes from God, how do we recognise legitimate authority in people and human institutions?
  5. How important is character in the effective exercise of positional power?

Chapter 7:   Common human barriers to the Gospel

Read: Romans 3: 9-26

“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Rom 3:23

Behind the wisdom of the world that finds the Gospel ‘foolish’ and naïve lies another barrier to the Gospel that is common to us all, and that is our resistance to God’s authority – human pride. Its origin is in the fall and our rejection of God’s authority described in our foundation story in Genesis chapter 3.

That resistance can only be broken down by the Holy Spirit. This is why evangelism in any form, whether sharing your faith with a friend, preaching from a pulpit, engaging in a public forum or doing apologetics and arguing the reasons for faith, must be undertaken with prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit.

But as pointed out in the Essay in the Appendix “Eden – No entry!” the task of communicating the Gospel does not preclude the role of reasoned argument and the removing of misunderstandings and false ideas (partly the role of apologetics). Most people’s knowledge and understanding of Christianity and other faiths is very rudimentary and based on popular narratives that are often false or very simplistic – “All religions are the same”; “Science has disproved the existence of God”; “God is just a psychological projection of our needs”; “The Church has misused its power in the past, so its message can’t be trusted”; and so on. But these discussions always need to be conducted graciously, with an attitude of dependence on the Holy Spirit. Facts, ideas and reasoned arguments should not be used as logical battering rams!

There is another barrier to accepting the Gospel and the cross which probably arises out of a certain kind of parenting or lack of parenting. It is the desire or need to prove oneself to God, to appease or gain his favour in some way, to try and make oneself good enough for our heavenly father. At first this seems to be the very opposite to resisting God’s authority, but in fact it is connected. There is in the person who desires to make themselves good enough for God a false assumption, that they can win God’s approval by moral effort, good works or strict religious practices.

The history of religious practice and rituals is full of descriptions of elaborate and rigorous spiritual and physical disciplines. Elaborate methods of prayer and meditation, physical exercises to control the body and focus the mind, difficult pilgrimages, fasting, prostrations, flagellation and deprivations. For some, there is the idea that God can be found via a rigorous intellectual journey through philosophy and rational exploration – “If I study hard enough and long enough, I will find God.”

While there is value in some of these approaches, their underlying weakness and danger is that they can be based on two false assumptions: (1) that by our own efforts we can achieve intimacy with God, and (2) that the initiative lies with us.

Both assumptions fly in the face of what the Bible tells us and what the experience of the people of the Bible reveals. If we take the experience of two of the most outstanding and influential people of the Bible, Moses and Paul, we can see this clearly.

Moses had run away from God’s call to him in Egypt and his accountability for killing an Egyptian slave driver in anger. He ran into the Arabian Desert and took on a new identity as a simple shepherd. But God pursues him there and reveals himself to him in the burning bush that blazes with fire but is not consumed, and he realises he now stands on holy ground in the presence of God. This experience did not come to him from within himself. It came to him from beyond himself. Now he is faced with a decision: How will he respond to God?

Paul on the other hand believes he is doing God’s will, energetically ridding Judaism of the blasphemous Jesus sect that threatens to compromise the purity of God’s law. Paul is an intense and rigorous religious person. On his way to arrest yet another group of Christians, Jesus meets him in a revelation of blinding light on the Damascus road. We don’t find God he finds us!

From the moment of our first rebellion against God’s authority, the scriptures are the story of God planning our rescue. From His call of Abraham to the incarnation of Jesus and his death on the cross, God takes the initiative. Our rescue, redemption and reconciliation are by grace alone. Dick Lucas, in his commentary on Colossians, expresses it clearly: “Reconciliation with God does not wait on human achievement but upon human acceptance of God’s means of reconciliation.”[43]

Once we are confronted with the Gospel we have a choice, to accept God’s grace or turn away. Our “will to power”, our fallen desire for autonomy from God, must now submit to His authority and accept His grace in Christ and the cross. This is the wisdom and power of God.

Questions for discussion:

  1. In what ways has some popular preaching and teaching unwittingly contributed to the problem of people trying to prove or make themselves good enough for God?
  2. What other motives may drive our desire for independence from God?
  3. What are some other barriers you have encountered in your experience of sharing the Gospel with non-Christians?

CONCLUSION…

As I nightly watch the news of our troubled world, questions flood my mind: “God where are you in all this chaos and pain? Why don’t you act to judge and save and protect the innocent? And Lord, if you are acting, why is it hidden from us?”

As I prepared these studies, I had been re-reading some of the war time sermons of Helmut Thielicke, the German pastor and scholar who continued to preach and pastor his people through the nightly bombing and chaos of WW2 Germany in which his own home and church were destroyed. A contemporary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was part of the German resistance to Hitler and the Nazi ideology, and in 1941 he was forbidden to speak or travel. He was also dismissed from his university teaching position and forbidden to publish books or articles. He was finally given permission to deliver one evening lecture per week in the Stuttgart Cathedral Church. He decided to speak on Luther’s Smaller Catechism, and through that vehicle he sought to prepare people for what he believed were the terrible things they would experience. He drew crowds of 3,000 people weekly as the air raids intensified, eventually the Cathedral was destroyed and they moved to other churches and halls, as one by one they were destroyed by the allied bombing. But the people kept coming. It is an inspiring story of faith and courage. He says “What we were doing was teaching theology in the face of death. There the only thing that was of any hope at all was the Gospel itself. Everything else simply dissolved into thin air. We were living only upon the substance of our faith. And these desperate hours also helped us to find that substance.”[44]

As he struggled with the same questions I mentioned above, in the midst of the crisis of those times, he preached that God’s role in world history can only be understood from the end, not from within the midst of it. “Not until the world’s last hour strikes, that hour of the Second Advent, when faith will see what it has believed, and unbelief will be compelled to see what it has not believed – only that last hour of the world will make known the meaning of history.” He went on to emphasise that till then life must be lived by faith not sight; faith in three things: (1) faith in God’s goodness, (2) faith in God’s presence with us, (3) faith in the knowledge that God has acted in Christ and his death and resurrection to save and reconcile us to himself, and one day to restore and renew the whole world.[45]

Between our now and the future renewal of all things, we live as God’s people with the tension of being members of two kingdoms – the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. There will be times when great numbers of people will embrace the Gospel and even particular nations will embrace the values of God’s Kingdom in their societies. And there will be times like ours when they are rejected. But, whatever our times, our primary task remains the same – to go on proclaiming the Gospel of the Cross, and to live out its values in our individual lives and Christian communities. For whenever anyone embraces the Gospel of the cross, they are secure within, safe in the grace of God, whether in prosperity or poverty, peace or chaos, moral decay or an existential crisis of meaning and purpose in their society.

Thielicke also makes the very insightful point that the Christian faith is always twofold: (1) Faith in what God has done in Christ and (2) Faith that is contrary to appearances, especially when particular historical and cultural appearances oppose the Gospel and appear to overpower it.

Our challenge in these times is not to live in despair, negativity or denial, but hope – hope of the future God is bringing in, and a confidence in the message we have to share, the Gospel and its power to change and renew people’s lives now.

Peter Corney September 2019

Appendix:   Essay “Eden – No Entry!”

“Jesus took the tree of death so you could have the tree of life” (Tim Keller)

“I am a passionate believer in the unity of knowledge – there is one world of reality.” (Professor John Polkinghorne theoretical physicist and theologian.)

In our exploration of the meaning of God’s power and wisdom in 1 Cor chapters 1-3, we have seen that they are essentially relational in their action and purpose, exemplified in the incarnation – “God with us” – and Christ’s death and resurrection to reconcile us to God.

We have also seen that they are in dramatic contrast to the way the world generally understands and exercises power and wisdom.

But this leads us to some other critical questions:

  1. Does this emphasis mean that we can therefore ignore or dismiss all human wisdom and learning?
  2. Does this lead us to an anti-intellectual fundamentalism?
  3. Does this justify a retreat from engagement with the ideas and ideological fashions of our times?
  4. Does this emphasis on God’s power in contrast to worldly power mean we can retreat from any involvement in political action or worldly power structures?

The answer to these questions must be an emphatic No! But they are a temptation for us. Christians in the past have at times retreated in these ways. That retreat is a strategic error for it leaves the field of ideas, intellectual and cultural influence, and political power to those who ignore or reject God’s wisdom. We must engage with, but not be seduced into playing only by, the prevailing or dominant philosophical or ideological rules! We must insist on respect for our presuppositions that reality includes the transcendent, and God as creator and upholder of all that is. (Colossians 1:15-17)

All this raises the further question of the role of reason in our engagement.

If we look at Paul’s example in the NT, we see not retreat but vigorous engagement. Paul did not live in a modern democracy and so his political options were limited but he could and did work on the power of ideas shaped by the Gospel and urged the Church to live out a new set of values in their communities. In Acts 17: 16-34 we have a clear example of Paul’s evangelism engaging the culture and ideas of the Greco /Roman culture of Athens. He goes to the common place for the discussion of ideas, the Areopagus on Mars Hill, and debates with the philosophers and rhetoricians quoting their own poets to them as he argues from their acknowledgement of the “Unknown God” to whom they have erected a statue in the Agora.

The result of this example of engagement is described in vv 32 -34: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”

Another example of such engagement occurs when Paul was in Ephesus. He hired a lecture hall belonging to a man called Tyrannus and lectured there daily for two years. Rhetoricians’ putting forward their ideas was a common practice in cities influenced by the Greek culture of the first century. Acts 19:10 says it was such an effective strategy that “…all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia (part of modern Turkey) heard the word of the Lord.”

Also, when Paul arrived in a new city, the first place he attended was the Synagogue where he entered into discussions with the Jews of the Dispersion. The phrase that is used in Acts to describe these encounters is “He reasoned with the Jews”, the Greek word used in the text is that from which we get the word ‘dialogue’, or it can also be translated as ‘reasoned with’ or ‘to debate’.

Paul is a wise and gifted apologist who connects with the culture in which he finds himself, whether it be Jews of the diaspora or Greek intellectuals. He is not afraid to use reason and debate, and his strategies involved cultural adaption. He says in 1 Cor 9: 22 “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Having observed that Paul is unafraid to use reason and dialogue in his encounter with ideas opposed to or different to the Gospel he also knows the limits of human reason. In Romans 11: 33-36 he quotes a hymn of praise composed of a number of Biblical phrases to emphasise this:

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!

Who has known the mind of the Lord?”

Reason alone will not bring us all the way to God, we also need divine revelation because, like all our human faculties, our reason is limited and imperfect.

By “Divine Revelation” Christians mean two things:

  1. God’s specific revelation of Himself in Christ and God’s Word. We receive this by hearing God’s Word or reading the Gospel. (See John 1: 1-18)
  2. God’s general revelation of himself and aspects of his nature in creation. We describe it as “general” because it is nonspecific. In our fallen state, we can easily distort or misread it or, worse, make nature the object of our worship as in Paganism and Pantheism. (See Romans 1:18-32) (In the case of a person’s commitment to “Scientific Materialism” or “Naturalism” they generally exclude any notion of the transcendent from their investigations of nature and trust in the self-sufficiency of human reason. This leads to an inevitable reductionism)

Christians also believe that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in our minds and hearts that brings true understanding and awareness of God to us as we observe and experience creation. The Holy Spirit brings understanding and conviction as we ‘hear’ the Gospel. (2 Cor. 4:6. John 1:6-9)

In relation to knowledge and our purpose, the limits of our reason mean that our capacity to develop a comprehensive knowledge from nature and reason alone is limited and often leads us to a narrow and reductionist view of reality that rejects the transcendent. This approach to epistemology and ontology locks us out of the answers to the vital questions of meaning, morality, values and our ultimate purpose.

The Judeo/Christian foundation story in Genesis and in particular chapters 1-3 remind us of why the wisdom and power of God in the Cross is necessary to regaining access to a true, and eventually comprehensive, knowledge and wisdom.

The story in Genesis 2:9 tells us that in the centre of the Garden of Eden was “the tree of life” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The man and the woman are placed by God in the garden to tend it and enjoy it in fellowship with God. In 3:1-13 they are told they could eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the story, the essence of the temptation and the great lie presented to humanity was that by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would become “like God”, even though God had told them their act of disobedience and independence would cause their death! But “when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it and gave some to her husband.” Here is the Judeo/Christian theological explanation of our constant quest for autonomy, to live without God through our own quest for knowledge, wisdom and power. This is the explanation of secular modernity’s story of slowly unhooking the quest for knowledge and meaning from the transcendent. The Genesis story continues but doesn’t end well. Adam and Eve are ejected from the garden and all it represents in terms of intimacy and fellowship with God. Their ejection is described in a dramatic way in Genesis 3:23-24. God banishes them from the Garden of Eden and “… placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The way back to the Garden is now blocked by a “flashing sword”, a graphic symbol of the denial of access! In other words, the way back to fellowship and intimacy with God, the way back to life as it was meant to be, must now be by another way. The way back to true wisdom, to a comprehensive knowledge and understanding, to a comprehensive or “unified field of knowledge”, [46] one that includes not only our physical world but the larger reality of the meaning and purpose of our lives and the source of values, right and wrong, good and evil must be by another way, another gate! The way through autonomous reason, nature and the material and physical world alone will not take us there.

Now it is important not to misunderstand this point. The discoveries and mastery of a great deal of our physical world that modern science has delivered has to be celebrated, enjoyed and encouraged. Every time when we hear of another new medical breakthrough to overcome disease or enhance physical life, we should rejoice at the creative ability God has given us. He has given us the freedom and capacity to discover true knowledge about our world, especially in the physical and material world. But we cannot find a “comprehensive knowledge” by human reason alone. We must come to the tree of knowledge now by another way. We need Revelation. This may sound strange to those raised in the mental framework of secular modernity, a framework that has forgotten or rejected the Christian heritage and learning of Western culture.

The new way, the gate of entry that God has provided back to ‘the Garden’ and the trees of Knowledge and Life is through the Wisdom and Power of the Cross. This is how we must find our way back to God, to true freedom and life, to the fullness of wisdom and knowledge.  This “way” back to the trees of Life and Knowledge is by another “tree”, the Cross, the tree on which Christ died. The NT. says that “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sins and live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24. See also Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29, Galatians 3:13)

Picking up the symbolism and imagery of Genesis 1-3 was natural for the NT Christians with their Jewish background. And so the Cross, as the “Cursed tree” in Jewish law (Deut 21:23 Gal 3:13), becomes a graphic biblical image to explain what must be embraced if we are to find the way back to the “tree of life”, to fellowship with God and the answer to our rejection of God’s authority that shut us out of “the Garden” and all it represents. The Cross is the means of our reconciliation with Him and the way back to true wisdom and knowledge, the proper use of knowledge, and the power of creativity God gave us at creation to “tend the garden”, to care for it and to unfold its amazing complexity, beauty and potential.

The NT closes with the book of Revelation and in the last Chapter 22:1-5 there is a rich symbolic picture of the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. In the centre of the picture is the tree of life, whose leaves it is said “are for the healing of the nations”, a time when division, violence and war will be redeemed and all our human folly and will to oppressive power shall be healed. It will be a time when we again will “see God’s face”, our intimacy with Him fully restored. This is the goal of God’s Wisdom and Power, but it is only achieved for us fallen people by hearing, understanding and receiving the Revelation of the preaching of the Cross. That is why it is the Church’s primary task.

Peter Corney

Recommended Reading

“The Cross of Christ” by John Stott. Published by IVP 1986

“Pierced for Our Transgressions” by S. Jeffery, M. Ovey, A. Satch. Published by IVP 2007

“Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross” Ed. by Mark Baker. Published by Baker Academic 2006

“The Cruciality of the Cross” by P.T Forsyth. First published in 1909. Currently in the Biblical Classics library by Paternoster Press 1997.

 

 

 

 

Peter Corney is the Vicar Emeritus St Hilary’s Anglican Church Kew Vic

< Petercorney.com >

[1] 2019

[2] The ideology of oppression is the idea that history, societies, social structures and norms and human relationships can be explained principally through the single lens of the oppression of the majority by a controlling powerful minority and the human drive of the will to power.

[3] Nietzsche’s analysis of our core human drive. See “Beyond Good and Evil” S36. Also his essay “The Antichrist” for a succinct summery of his idea of ‘The good’ as ‘The will to power’. Found in “Twilight of the Idols” published by Wordsworth Classics 2007 p 95-96. “The Gay Science” N.Y. Vintage Books 1974 p 124.

[4] Jordan Peterson “The 12 Rules” page 302

[5] Augustine from the introduction of his “Confessions.” Translation by J.G Pilkington, Pub, Folio Society 1993 Page 13.

[6] Biblical quotations are from the NIV, except where noted.

[7] The Greek word is ‘dunamis’ from which we get in English ‘dynamite’.

[8] For a more detailed explanation of Pauls use of power and wisdom in 1 Cor. See C.K Barrett’s commentary pages 40-98. Published by Black’s 1976 Ed.

[9] This is Charles Taylors thesis in his book on “Secularism.”

[10] Mark 8:34-38

[11]  Genesis 3

[12]  The following are some typical examples: (a) Science and Christianity are in conflict. (b) That religion is part of our superstitious, primitive and unenlightened past and, now that we have come of age, we can leave it behind. (c) The limitations and inadequacy of “Scientific materialism” and its rejection of metaphysics and the transcendent and its limited view of knowledge and epistemology (d) The idea from sociology of “Social Constructivism”, that our social values and morality, like marriage, have no absolute or transcendent origins they are merely constructed by us in our social interactions and enforced through the exercise of power by certain groups in society to control others. Therefore, we are at liberty to change them any time that suits us. (e) The idea that all history and human ontology can be viewed and interpreted through the narrow lens of power and its use to control others – “the ideology of oppression.” (f) The negative history of religion is frequently put forward as an argument and because of a near universal lack of historical knowledge, especially in the young, this means there is a very limited knowledge of historical facts and so there is an inevitable lack of balance in such discussions. Then there are the kinds of rhetorical devises such as the use of abusive, emotional and marginalising terms like: “Christianity is conservative, regressive, prejudiced, intolerant, phobic, medieval…. etc.”, which are thrown about rather than engaging the ideas with balance, rational argument and discussion.  (Interestingly the Greek word translated ‘foolish’ in the English text of 1Cor.1:18 could be translated as ‘moronic!’ The ideas that Paul preached about the Cross sounded ‘moronic’ to many of Pauls Greek hearers! But to those responding with faith it was the power of God for their salvation.)

[13] Page 11 “The Unity of Philosophical Experience” by Etienne Gilson, 1937 Ignatius press. Reprinted 1999. Distinguished French Christian philosopher. Professor of Medieval Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris 1921-32,Uni. Harvard, Uni.Toronto, etc.

[14] In the 1960’s and 70’s Christian apologists and writers like Francis Schaefer- “Escape from Reason”, “The God Who is There,” developed cogent arguments that equipped thoughtful young Christians and tertiary students to challenge the position and attitudes of atheistic secularism, in the case of Schaeffer by helpfully tracing and critiquing its philosophical roots.

In more recent times David Bentley Hart’s “Atheist Delusions” coming from a more historical perspective has produced a brilliant expose of the shallow and ill-informed history behind many popular criticisms and assumptions of the Christian story. See also Rodney Stark “The Rise of Christianity” Harper Collins 1997.

Recently a major philosophical challenge has been mounted by John Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy movement. They have thrown down the gauntlet in powerful academic terms to the hegemony of autonomous reason, atheistic secularism, scientific materialism and the myth of neutrality in tertiary education, politics and public policy formulation. See “Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason” by J Milbank, Oxford: Blackwell 1990, and James K A Smith “Introducing Radical Orthodoxy – Mapping a Post-Secular Theology,” Baker Academic 2004. Smith’s book is the best place to start for an excellent introduction to and evaluation of Radical Orthodoxy. An interesting development among Christian Psychologists that resonates with R.O and its critique of secular reason is the “Transformational Psychology view”. (See “Psychology and Christianity – Five views” IVP Academic 2010.)

[15] Hans Kung “Theology for the Third Millennium” page 8,9 Doubleday NY 1988

[16] Positivism is a philosophical system that recognises only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof and therefore rejects metaphysics and theism.

[17] P.T. Forsyth “The Cruciality of the Cross” Paternoster 1997 Ed. Preface page viii.

[18] Genesis 1:26-38 &2:8-9,15.

[19] See the following texts: Habakkuk 1:13. Zechariah 8:16-18. Psalm 5:4-6 &Vs’ 15, 24. Psalm 50:16-23. Isaiah1:11-17, 57:15-18. Hebrews 10:31 & 12:29. 1Peter1:15-16.

[20] See also Hebrews 10:1-14.

[21] Penal Substitution is “the doctrine that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin” page 21 “Pierced for our Transgressions” by S. Jeffery, M. Ovey and A. Sach IVP 2007. This is an excellent survey of the debate and it gives well considered answers to the objections that are commonly raised to the doctrine.  See also Mark Baker (Ed.) “Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross” Baker Academic 2006. Baker’s book is an interesting attempt to find contemporary images to explain the Atonement.

[22] John Stott “The Cross of Christ” Pub IVP 1986. See chapters 5and 6.

[23] Ibid pages 148-149.

[24] Ibid page 149.

[25] Acts 3: 19-21

[26] Revelation 21:1-7, 22:1-5.

[27] Luke 10:42-45

[28]  Metaphysics is that branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality – literally that which is beyond or bigger than physics – and the study of being (ontology).

[29] ‘Scientific Materialism’ must be distinguished from the ‘Scientific Method’ which is a distinct methodology for approaching research and testing hypothesis.  It has brought us an extraordinary understanding of our physical world but it also recognises its limitations.

[30] See  pages 106 -108   “Total Truth – Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity” by Nancy Pearcey  Crossway 2004

[31] The philosophy of “Critical Realism” developed by Roy Bhaskar offers an encouraging new approach to developing a more open and multi layered approach to the nature of reality. It has been embraced by a number of Christian scholars like Alistair Mc Garth Prof. of science and religion at Oxford, a scientist and theologian and NT. Wright the NT scholar and John Polkinghorne the theoretical physicist and theologian. See R. Bhaskar “The possibility of naturalism: a philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences.” Pub. Routledge 1998 3rd Ed.)

[32] German and Italian fascism and Marxist communism.

[33] Page 124 Nietzsche “The Gay Science” N.Y. Vintage books 1974. (See also note 3)

[34] John 1:1-14 The Word – the Logos (Gk.), is the Divine Wisdom that existed before creation, the third person of the Trinity who becomes flesh in Christ’s incarnation, He is the Wisdom of God!

[35] See Acts 1- 3.

[36] I Cor. 13:12.,  1John 3:2

[37] 2 Cor. 4:6-18.

[38] Isaiah 6:1-6.

[39] “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” John 8:32.

[40] John 19:8-11

[41] Romans 1:16

[42] Page 17. “Total Truth” by N. Pearcey Ibid.

[43] Page 55 “The Bible Speaks today- The Message of Colossians and Philemon”, R.C.Lucas. IVP.

[44] From the forward by H. Thielicke to a selection of the lectures. Page10, “Man in God’s World.” First published in 1958 in German and then in 1968 in English by James Clarke.

[45] Helmut Thielicke Page 15 “Christ the meaning of life” Pub.  James Clarke 1965. See also “The Prayer that Spans the World,” Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer from the WW2 period of nightly bombing in Germany. First published In German in 1958 and then in English in 1967 by James Clarke

[46] “A unified field of knowledge” (or ‘Unified field theory’) is a term that is used in physics to explain the attempt to describe all the relationships between the fundamental forces and elementary particles in terms of a theoretical framework. (Michio Kaku the theoretical physicist more humorously described it as a “An attempt to seek an equation an inch long that would allow us to read the mind of God!”)


“Eden – No Entry”

 

The following essay “Eden – No Entry” is taken from my recent study book “The Gospel and the Centrality of the Cross,” which will be available on the website soon for free download. The aim of the essay is to show how the Gospel and the Cross is the key to finding our way back to a true understanding of the knowledge of reality. C S Lewis wrote “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (From “The weight of glory.”)

                           “Eden – No Entry!” 

 “Jesus took the tree of death so you could have the tree of life” (Tim Keller)

“I am a passionate believer in the unity of knowledge – there is one world of reality.” (Professor John Polkinghorne theoretical physicist and theologian.)

In the study book The Gospel and the centrality of the Crossthe preaching of the Cross as the power and wisdom of God – with observations on the exercise of power and knowledge in contemporary culture,”  I explore the meaning of God’s power and wisdom in 1Cor chapters 1-3. In these chapters we see that they are essentially relational in their action and purpose, exemplified in the incarnation – “God with us” in Christ’s birth, death and resurrection to reconcile us to God.

We also see that they are in dramatic contrast to the way the world generally understands and exercises power and wisdom.

But this leads us to some critical questions:

  • Does this emphasis mean that we can therefore ignore or dismiss all human wisdom and learning?
  • Does this lead us to an anti-intellectual fundamentalism?
  • Does this justify a retreat from engagement with the ideas and ideological fashions of our times?
  • Does this emphasis on God’s power in contrast to worldly power mean we can retreat from any involvement in political action or worldly power structures?

The answer to these questions must be an emphatic No! But they are a temptation for us. Christians in the past have at times retreated in these ways. That retreat is a strategic error for it leaves the field of ideas, intellectual and cultural influence, and political power to those who ignore or reject God’s wisdom. We must engage but not be seduced into playing only by the prevailing or dominant philosophical or ideological rules!  We must insist on respect for our presuppositions that reality includes the transcendent and God as creator and upholder of all that is. (Colossians 1:15-17)

All this raises the further question of what is the role of reason in our engagement.

If we look at Paul’s example in the NT, we see not retreat but vigorous engagement. Paul did not live in a modern democracy and so his political options were limited but he could and did work on the power of ideas shaped by the Gospel and urged the Church to live out a new set of values in their communities. In Acts 17: 16-34 we have a clear example of Paul’s evangelism engaging the culture and ideas of the Greco /Roman culture of Athens. He goes to the common place for the discussion of ideas, the Areopagus on Mars Hill, and debates with the philosophers and rhetoricians quoting their own poets to them as he argues from their acknowledgement of the “Unknown God” to whom they have erected a statue in the Agora.

The result of this example of engagement is described in vv 32 -34: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”

Another example of such engagement occurs when Paul was in Ephesus. He hired a lecture hall belonging to a man called Tyrannus and lectured there daily for two years. Rhetoricians’ putting forward their ideas was a common practice in cities influenced by the Greek culture of the first century. Acts 19:10 says it was such an effective strategy that “…all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia (part of modern Turkey) heard the word of the Lord.”

Also when Paul arrived in a new city the first place he attended was the Synagogue where he entered into discussions with the Jews of the Dispersion. The phrase that is used in Acts to describe these encounters is “ He reasoned with the Jews”, the Greek word used in the text is that from which we get the word ‘dialogue’, or it can also be translated as ‘reasoned with’ or ‘to debate’.

Paul is a wise and gifted apologist who connects with the culture in which he finds himself, whether it be Jews of the diaspora or Greek intellectuals. He is not afraid to use reason and debate, and his strategies involved cultural adaption. He says in 1Cor 9: 22 “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Having observed that Paul is unafraid to use reason and dialogue in his encounter with ideas opposed to or different to the Gospel he also knows the limits of human reason. In Romans 11: 33-36 he quotes a hymn of praise composed of a number of Biblical phrases to emphasise this:

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!

Who has known the mind of the Lord?”

Reason alone will not bring us all the way to God we also need divine revelation because, like all our human faculties, our reason is limited and imperfect.

By “Divine Revelation” Christians mean two things:

  1. God’s specific revelation of Himself in Christ and God’s Word. We receive this by hearing or reading God’s Word and reading or hearing the Gospel. (See John 1: 1-18)
  2. God’s general revelation of himself and aspects of his nature in creation. We describe it as “general” because it is nonspecific. In our fallen state, we can easily distort or misread it or, worse, make nature the object of our worship as in Paganism and Pantheism. (See Romans 1:18-32) (In the case of a person’s commitment to “Scientific Materialism” or “Naturalism” they generally exclude any notion of the transcendent from their investigations of nature and trust in the self-sufficiency of human reason. This leads to an inevitable reductionism in their understanding of reality.)

Christians also believe that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in our minds and hearts that brings true understanding and awareness of God to us as we observe and experience creation. The Holy Spirit brings understanding and conviction as we ‘hear’ the Gospel. (2 Cor. 4:6. John 1:6-9)

In relation to knowledge and our purpose, the limits of our reason mean that our capacity to develop a comprehensive knowledge from nature and reason alone is limited and often leads us to a narrow and reductionist view of reality that rejects the transcendent. This approach to epistemology and ontology locks us out of the answers to the vital questions of meaning, morality, values and our ultimate purpose.

The Judeo/Christian foundation story in Genesis and in particular chapters 1-3 remind us of why the wisdom and power of God in the Cross is necessary to regaining access to a true, and eventually comprehensive, knowledge and wisdom.

The story in Genesis 2:9 tells us that in the centre of the Garden of Eden was “the tree of life” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The man and the woman are placed by God in the garden to tend it and enjoy it in fellowship with God. In 3:1-13 they are told they could eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the story, the essence of the temptation and the great lie presented to humanity was that by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would become “like God”, even though God had told them their act of disobedience and independence would cause their death!  But “when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it and gave some to her husband.” Here is the Judeo/Christian theological explanation of our constant quest for autonomy, to live without God through our own quest for knowledge, wisdom and power. This is the explanation of secular modernity’s story of slowly unhooking the quest for knowledge and meaning from the transcendent. The Genesis story continues but doesn’t end well. Adam and Eve are ejected from the garden and all it represents in terms of intimacy and fellowship with God. Their ejection is described in a dramatic way in Genesis 3:23-24. God banishes them from the Garden of Eden and “…..placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The way back to the Garden is now blocked by a “flashing sword”, a graphic symbol of the denial of access! In other words the way back to fellowship and intimacy with God, the way back to life as it was meant to be, must now be by another way. The way back to true wisdom, to a comprehensive knowledge and understanding, to a comprehensive or “unified field of knowledge”, [i] one that includes not only our physical world but the larger reality of the meaning and purpose of our lives and the source of values, right and wrong, good and evil must be by another way, another gate! The way through autonomous reason, nature and the material and physical world alone will not take us there.

Now it is important not to misunderstand this point. The discoveries and mastery of a great deal of our physical world that modern science has delivered has to be celebrated, enjoyed and encouraged. Every time when we hear of another new medical breakthrough to overcome disease or enhance physical life we should rejoice at the creative ability God has given us. He has given us the freedom and capacity to discover true knowledge about our world, especially in the physical and material world. But we cannot find a “comprehensive knowledge” by human reason alone. We must come to the tree of knowledge now by another way. We need Revelation. This may sound strange to those raised in the mental framework of secular modernity, a framework that has forgotten or rejected the Christian heritage and learning of Western culture.

The new way, the gate of entry that God has provided back to ‘the Garden’ and the trees of Knowledge and Life is through the Wisdom and Power of the Cross. This is how we must find our way back to God, to true freedom and life, to the fullness of wisdom and knowledge.  This “way” back to the trees of Life and Knowledge is by another “tree”, the Cross, the tree on which Christ died. The NT. says that “He bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sins and live for righteousness, by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24. See also Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29, Gal 3:13)

Picking up the symbolism and imagery of Genesis 1-3 was natural for the NT Christians with their Jewish background. And so the Cross, as the “Cursed tree” in Jewish law (Deut 21:23 Gal 3:13), becomes a graphic biblical image to explain what must be embraced if we are to find the way back to the “tree of life”, to fellowship with God and the answer to our disobedience and rejection of God’s authority that shut us out of “the Garden” and all it represents. Our act of trust in Christ and his death on the Cross is the act of obedience that opens, as it were, the gate back into the garden. As C S Lewis expresses it in a memorable phrase: “…in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely role, reverses the act by which we fell, treads Adams dance backward, and returns.” (From “The Problem of Pain”)

This brings our reconciliation with God and the way back to true wisdom and knowledge, the proper use of knowledge, and the power of creativity God gave us at creation to “tend the garden”, to care for it and to unfold its amazing complexity, beauty and potential.

The NT closes with the book of Revelation and in the last Chapter 22:1-5 there is a rich symbolic picture of the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. In the centre of the picture is the tree of life, whose leaves it is said “are for the healing of the nations”, a time when division, violence and war will be redeemed and all our human folly and will to oppressive power shall be healed. It will be a time when we again will “see God’s face”, our intimacy with Him fully restored. This is the goal of God’s Wisdom and Power, but it is only achieved for us fallen people by hearing, understanding and receiving the Revelation of the preaching of the Cross. That is why it is the Church’s primary task.

Peter Corney

End Notes

 

[i] “A unified field of knowledge” (or ‘Unified field theory’) is a term that is used in physics to explain the attempt to describe all the relationships between the fundamental forces and elementary particles in terms of a theoretical framework. ( Michio Kaku the theoretical physicist more humorously described it as a “An attempt to seek an equation an inch long that would allow us to read the mind of God!”)


Reflections on our times inspired by C.S.Lewis

Reflections on today’s culture inspired by C.S.Lewis. By PETER CORNEY

The Lewis quotation that inspired this reflection comes from his essay “The Abolition of man”.

“Such is the tragi – comedy of our situation, we clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible….”

Currently we constantly hear the call for political and commercial leadership with more honesty and integrity, with less pride and avarice, and in the case of our politics, less of the ugly and sterile quest for revenge. The recent Royal Commission has also called for a new corporate culture of honesty and transparency in our Banks and financial enterprises.

And yet, as Lewis contiues; “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.  We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

As Lewis points out with his graphic metaphor of castration our present culture renders these qualities and virtues impossible because we have made our culture morally sterile. We have turned away from the belief in moral absolutes and the transcendent origin of the highest values and virtues. We are now lost in a confusion of Post Modern relativism, radical individualism and a false view of personal freedom that is really the desire for individual choice unrestrained by any boundaries of morality, truth and reason.

The sense of moral and spiritual accountability to God has been steadily eroded by the secularists who reject any reality beyond the material and physical world. They want to enclose us all in their well-lit, tightly locked but windowless room of scientific materialism that rejects any ‘meta physic’, nothing bigger or beyond the material and physical. And yet they have no satisfying answers to our most enduring questions about meaning, morality, the highest good and our ultimate purpose.

To change the metaphor we are a “cut flower culture” that has severed our values and virtues from their roots and so it should not surprise us that the flowers of the moral virtues are slowly withering and dying.


Praying the Psalms – a confession! by Peter Corney

Praying the Psalm’s – a confession! by Peter Corney

As a young man at theological college I found the discipline of the daily chapel services and the saying of the psalms sometimes a chore, sometimes boring, and sometimes a blessing.

Full of energy, impatient to rescue the world, more an activist than given to reflection or meditation the daily saying of the psalms mostly went past me, although sometimes the depth of their cries to God arrested even me!

But like all good disciplines their daily repetition meant their phrases seeped unconsciously into my mind. But to seep into my heart required something else – the experience of the inevitable difficulties, pain and disappointments of adult life and ministry. For the psalms are the cries of men and women who believe in God and are trying to serve Him in the ordinary challenges and often unanswered questions of life as well as its joy filled moments – the moments when Gods presence is felt like lightning or when He seems absent or silent.

They are the ancient yet constantly contemporary prayers of God’s people. They have been prayed for thousands of years by Jews and Christians. As a Christian I am immensely thankful for my ‘spiritual great grandparents’, the Children of Israel and for their preservation of these cries to God from the heart.

Even those awful imprecatory psalms where the prayer calls on God to curse and judge those who have taunted, wronged or hurt us, yes even they resonate! For those cries have been in my throat too in my darkest moments of self-pity, self-righteousness or anger, thoughts and feelings that, thank God, in the end drive me back to Christ on the cross bearing my sins and the suffering and evil and violence we are capable of inflicting on one another. Drawing me to cry out for forgiveness and the strength to love and forgive those who treated me badly or unjustly as Jesus commanded and to leave the judgement in God’s hands.

The psalms are not for the spiritually faint hearted!

 

 


The Rights Revolution

INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS, VIRTUE AND A CIVIL SOCIETY – by Peter Corney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Corney (July 2018)

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

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

 


Truth and the downward spiral – by Peter Corney

Truth and the downward spiral.   By Peter Corney

In the hangover of the Bill Clinton Presidency and its sad and grubby end in the Monica Lewinsky affair Os Guinness wrote a brilliant little book entitled “Time for Truth” (Published 2000). It should be required reading for every candidate for political office and anyone who aspires to a leadership role in business or public life. Its relevance to the present moral circus in Canberra is not hard to see.

He describes the impact of Post Modern relativism not only on Western cultures idea of truth but on the corruption of truth telling and honesty in the contemporary, political, commercial and entertainment worlds. Lies and deceit is a downward spiral into the moral abyss. As Richard Flanagan put it so eloquently in a recent Guardian article, “if we can be persuaded that the truth does not exist, the light goes out and we are condemned to the darkness.” Ideas have consequences!

In the final chapter (six) Guinness outlines the “Seven degrees of descent on the downward path of dishonesty”. Drawing on the work of the philosopher and ethicist J. Budziszewski * he outlines the seven steps on the downward path of dishonesty. As you read and consider this remember we have all lied at some time, or withheld the truth which is much the same thing, and the temptation is always with us. There is no place for self-righteousness here only personal honesty.

(The following is a direct quotation from “Time for Truth” pages 118-119)

  1. The first step is “simply sin”. We lie because we have done something wrong. Lying becomes the secondary utility sin in the service of some primary sin.
  2. The second step down is “self- protection”. As Budziszzewski writes, “Lies are weaklings they need bodyguards.” Each new protective ring of lies breeds its own protective ring until the liar is smothered in layers of lies and lying.
  3. The third step down is “habituation.” Lies repeated become habits and habits repeated become character. Before long a single lie becomes a settled way of lying and we cross the border between lying and become a liar.
  4. The fourth step down is “self- deception.” The more we lie, the more we lose hold of truth and the more we succumb to believing our own lies. Sincerity and self- deception then reinforce each other.
  5. The fifth step down is “rationalization.” Believing our own lies, we then give explanations other than the real reasons for all we do. Then we blame our weak grasp of truth on the weakness of truth itself, so that (for example) postmodernism itself becomes a gigantic rationalisation for our contemporary lack of truthfulness.
  6. The sixth step down is “technique.” The more accomplished we are as liars; the more lying becomes our craft.
  7. The seventh and bottommost step is that “morality turns upside down.” As Budziszzewski observes, “the moment lying is accepted instead of condemned, it has to be required. If it is just another way to win, then in refusing to lie for the cause or the company, you aren’t doing your job.” Thus living-the-lie replaces living- in- truth and in the moral murkiness, truth and freedom are lost and evil is born.

Integrity

Living the truth and speaking the truth are connected; the connection is the notion of integrity. Integrity is about the moral integration of our private and public lives, it’s about wholeness. There cannot be a moral incongruence between the two if we are to have integrity.

It is fashionable today to talk about the separation of peoples private and public lives, especially in the matters of sexual ethics, and particularly in the lives of politicians. Certainly the unwarranted and excessive intrusion into their family and private lives is something that should be discouraged. But you cannot espouse certain values publicly and not follow them privately. You have to “walk the talk.” You cannot (for example) condemn bribery and then take kickbacks and ‘financial gifts’ for providing favourable treatment, or special access to power, etc. Nor can you appear to stand for fidelity in family life and deceive and betray your spouse and children without real repentance and restoration. This inconsistency is called hypocrisy and a failure in integrity! Such a person cannot be trusted at any level, let alone public office.

In sailing we talk about the “integrity of the boat” by which we mean the strength and physical fitness of the whole boat – what you can see from outside, the hull, the mast, the stays, and what you can’t see, like the keel and the steering gear, all the gear from the biggest winch to the smallest shackle. In heavy weather under full sail the stresses on the boat and all the gear, small and large, seen and unseen, are very great. A defect in a small stay shackle could lead to its failure and cause catastrophic results for the whole boat and crew. The integrity of the boat is its wholeness. Small lies are like small faulty D shackles!

When the light of telling the truth is snuffed out we are condemned to the darkness and evil triumphs.

Of all people, the followers of Jesus must be an example of truth telling, “You are the light of the world” he said. The New Testament tells us that “God is light; in Him is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin.”(1 John1:5-7)

We live in the truth in two ways (1) By always telling the truth, and (2) By pointing to the source of the light of goodness and truth – Jesus, who said “I am the way the truth and the life.”(John 14:6)   

 (* J.Budziszweski is Professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. He specialise in ethics, political philosophy and the interactions of these two fields with theology. Among his many books are: “Written on the heart” and “A line through the heart” on Natural law.)

 

 

 

 


Bringing Perspective to our troubled times

BRINGING PERSPECTIVE TO OUR TURBULENT TIMES  –  by Peter Corney

“Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding.” (Proverbs 3:13)

“Love the truth and understand the times”   (1)

Populism

‘Populism’ is the appeal to current opinions, prejudices and the interests of popular contemporary culture; the fashionable ideas and sentiments of the times. It frequently rests on a shallow plausibility of narrow and limited arguments and is often promoted by glib slogans. For obvious reasons it has always had political currency but in our time of constant superficial mass communications, thirty second news grabs, social media and emotional reasoning, it is particularly virulent.

To counter populisms corrosive effects on the best, and often most hard won, of our cultures core values requires the application of a certain perspective and wisdom.

I offer the following ideas and quotations, mostly from the wisdom of others, that will I hope provide some of that necessary perspective and wisdom.

(For the sources of quotations and a further explanation of some of the ideas see the extensive footnotes)

Progressivism verses conservatism – a false dichotomy?

We live in a time when changes in our culture, which have been building now for many years, have begun to reveal themselves in radical, dramatic and unsettling ways. What were once foundational assumptions are either forgotten, being questioned or rejected. Historically this is not unusual.

Every generation needs to test the established ‘wisdom’ of their elders and to question its foundations and validity and its contemporary relevance. They need to press the depth and scope of their elder’s knowledge, the adequacy of their solutions to human problems, the extent of their quest for social justice, the usefulness and practicality of their inventions and technology and so on. This is part of the way we move forward and progress.

But wise cultures also value their fundamental foundations, particularly their moral and spiritual ones and those through which their hard won political progress has been made towards the common good, greater human equality, freedom and justice. The present generation typically assumes them but often does not know their origins or foundations, ‘their story’, and so can be in danger of neglecting, distorting or losing them. Progressivism and conservatism need each other.

 

The role of history and truth

 “Not to know what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.” (Cicero 65 BC)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  (G Santayana19th C) 

“History is the continuous conversation between the present and the past” (E H Carr 20th C) (2)

 

The corrosion of truth and the loss and distortion of our Western cultures history are disturbing features of our times. They are the result of a number of forces: the political propaganda and spin constantly churned out by our politicians, the relentless commercial marketing that at best just exaggerates and at worst is deceptive, (3)and corrupt commercial practices, for example the negligent, dishonest and exploitive behaviour of what were once our most trusted financial institutions. (4)  But there are other less obvious and more culturally influential forces that have had a profound effect on the way truth and history are now perceived.  For example Post Modern relativism (5) has reconstructed for a whole generation how the idea of truth is perceived.

The current funding model for Australian universities that in effect now emphasises education for employment rather than a genuine liberal education for life has also been unhelpful. It has accelerated the decline in many humanities and liberal arts departments and so has badly affected resources in history departments, particularly those newer universities not in the elite group. But in terms of ideas it is the unbalanced perspective from which much of the tertiary teaching of history has suffered over the last thirty years that has had a very pervasive and distorting influence.

This is the idea that history and culture is to be interpreted and taught primarily through the lens of the oppression of the majority by the powerful minority, and their control over not only material wealth but also social norms, customs, values, ethics and language. This has been accompanied by a particular theory of ‘social constructivism,’(6) of how a culture’s  values and social norms are formed, the idea that values are just a social construct and have no objective truth. At its extreme edge it is claimed that ‘reality’ is just a social construct! This has captured the teaching of sociology, literature, gender studies and influenced the understanding of ethics, as well as the interpretation of history. The constructivist theory of social values can partly explain how values are passed on but its implied philosophical basis and theory of knowledge is highly contested.

The ‘oppression theory’ of history, where the oppressed resist and eventually overthrow the oppressors, has some validity but narrowly understood and reductively applied is really an old Marxist idea and a discredited and simplistic view of history and the development of culture. (7)

One of the ways this influence now presents itself is in the politics of identity, particularly gender politics. Where any external definition of gender placed upon the individual is seen to be oppressive.  Ros Ward a self-professed Marxist involved in the ‘Safe Schools’ gender re-education program says “Marxism offers both the hope and the strategy needed to create a world where human sexuality, gender and how we relate to our bodies can blossom in extraordinary new and amazing ways.” (8)

The recent public debates over same sex marriage and the Safe Schools program have raised some serious questions, not just about the particular issues, but about the way many people, and some pressure groups, conducted themselves and the ability of people to respectfully disagree and the extent to which they understand the vital importance of free speech in a liberal democracy.

The result of the same sex marriage plebiscite shows that the majority of people acknowledge that it had a worthy object of creating greater equality in a pluralist society. The Safe Schools program, because it overreaches, is much more problematic. Nevertheless the more limited and sensible goal of protecting vulnerable children from bullying is also seen by the vast majority of people as a worthy goal.

And yet the way in which truth, objective facts, reliable surveys, research, the advice of senior professional medical experts and rational discussion was distorted or ignored in the debate was very disturbing. (9) Emotional argument frequently dominated discussion and some groups used the tactics of abuse and name calling and even denied others the right to assemble or speak. The verbal violence and level of hate and vitriol expressed in some of the abuse was staggering. This continued, even after the result of the vote was public. As Goya wrote “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters” (10)

 

Progress, freedom and Truth

“Truth prevails for those who live in truth” (The motto of the ‘Charter 77 Movement’ and the Czech rallies in Prague in 1989 seeking to overthrow Soviet control.)

“Live in truth” (The catch cry of leaders trying to rehabilitate their people in post-Soviet East European countries) (11)

“If you hold to my teaching you really are my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – Jesus.

For those of us brought up on the writing of George Orwell, particularly his brilliant satirical critique in ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ of Soviet Communism and its real life expression of Marxist/Leninist theory, the current manipulation of truth has an eerie ring to it. The slogan of the ‘Ministry of Truth’ in Orwell’s novel is ‘War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength…’ and truth is whatever the ministry said it was! ‘Newspeak’ was also created by the state to control and limit the individual’s freedom of thought. ‘Correct thinking’ had to be maintained and ‘thought crime’ punished!

Our current enforcement of ‘political correctness’, about what can and can’t be said, particularly at the level of campus politics, begins to feel like a similar fascism of the mind! Roger Scruton the English philosopher describes its contemporary version in this way: ‘Newspeak occurs whenever the primary purpose of language – which is used to describe reality – is replaced by the rival purpose of asserting power over it. It conjures the triumph of words over things, the futility of rational argument, and also the danger of resistance’ (12)

Recently Richard Flanagan the Tasmanian author who in 2014 won The Man Booker Prize for literature recently wrote a very insightful piece in the Australian Guardian (31/10/17) on the theme of Progress Freedom and Truth.

‘Progress and freedom are not necessarily joined……truth is the precious hinge that holds freedom and progress together. Chinas advances are, after all, the proof that if all that matters to you is progress, you can have progress without freedom. But there will be a void, and in that void a great darkness will arise. Truth is the only force we have, the one light strong enough to combat such darkness. And if we can be persuaded that the truth does not exist, the light goes out and we are condemned to the darkness.’ (13)

 

Truth, meaning and morality

‘Cultures abhor a metaphysical vacuum’ (Ross Douthat)

‘When cultures lose the decisive influence of God and God dies for a culture they become weightless’ (Nietzsche)

“A culture not dedicated to the sacred has only itself to take as object, the self becomes sovereign.” (Robert Coles) (14)

In the old days of deep seam coal mining the miners carried a canary in a cage down to the coal face to keep a check on the quality of the air. If the canary stopped singing that was a warning, if it died it was time to get out and back to the surface! We live now in a culture where the warnings are becoming clear that the atmosphere of our culture is becoming toxic to humans. One in four Australian adolescents now suffers from some form of mental ill health such as depression, anxiety and self-harm. In spite of our prosperity we now have more dependent children in state care than ever before.

Carver Yu the Chinese philosopher and theologian commenting on the cultural atmosphere in the West describes it as marked by “Technological optimism and literary despair.” (15)  Richard Flanagan says “There is a pandemic of sadness and emptiness.” (16)  Johnathan Sacks says our society is “one of a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” (17)  A steady diet of dystopian novels and films, of varying quality, arrives regularly in the market place of cultural comment and artistic distractions to further increase our gloom.

A vacuum of meaning

Western culture seems gripped by a malaise, an ‘anomie’ (18)  produced by a vacuum of meaning. Cultures not only abhor a metaphysical vacuum, as Ross Douthat says, but also a moral and spiritual one. Has our culture become weightless for the reason Nietzsche predicted?

The deepest wisdom and most profound knowledge is that which provides answers to our most enduring and important questions – questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives, about the nature of good and evil, what is just and unjust, about love, duty, honour, beauty, delight, shame, guilt, forgiveness, suffering and tragedy.  The answers to these questions have traditionally been found in religious and spiritual sources, and in the West, in the Christian faith and world view. But currently Western culture has turned away from this heritage and has put nothing in its place that has its depth of meaning and wisdom. No wonder there is an atmosphere of nihilism and radical individualism that feels like our culture has developed a kind of collective mental illness of depression and narcissism. At the same time our prosperity enables many of us to pursue distractions rather than face despair, but the void is never far away.

Richard Holloway once put the matter most starkly and with brutal honesty in this way:

“The person who gives up belief in God because it brings with it certain unresolvable dilemmas ends up believing in a dying universe in which there is no meaning anywhere, a universe that came from nothing and goes to nothing, a universe that is cruelly indifferent to all our needs. And there is no point in feeling resentment against such a universe, because in a Godless universe there is no reason why anything should not happen, and there is no one to resent or to blame. We are alone in an empty universe. No one is listening to our curses or our tears. We stand, tiny and solitary, in a corner of a vast and empty landscape, and if we listen, all we hear is the bitter echo of our own loneliness.” (19)

The existential problem for the contemporary Western person

 As Nietzsche prophesied, cultures not only become ‘weightless’ when they lose the decisive influence of God, but also as Robert Coles puts it, when they are not dedicated to the sacred they have only themselves to take as object  and so ‘the self becomes sovereign.’ That is exactly what we now see in contemporary Western culture where modern selfhood finds its identity in self-enthronement. But to achieve that God must first be dethroned. The result, as the Jungian psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover puts it, is “the frozen isolation of the heart.” (20)

Charles Taylor in “A Secular Age” describes it as “expressive individualism”; it is the idea “that each one of us has his or her own way of realizing our humanity….as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside”. This “has profoundly altered the conditions of belief in our societies.”   Important implications are: that personal authenticity and individual choice are now key values and tolerance is the primary virtue. (21)

While this self-obsession is not unfamiliar as a stage of development in adolescence it is now a common one among adults. It’s as if a whole culture is suffering from a collective form of arrested development!  Because this mindset tends to reject any external wisdom, authority or tradition as oppressive the individual finds themselves in a ‘hall of mirrors’ where the only perspective they ever see is a reflection of themselves. This is the ultimate subjective trap, a kind of ethical, philosophical and spiritual narcissism, a tragic disorder of human vanity and hubris. Not the least reason that we all need a perspective from outside ourselves is that for most of us our inner world of feelings, emotions and impressions is frequently unreliable, dysfunctional and distorted by our past wounds and present difficulties.

Longing for ‘home’.

Another image that helps us to not only diagnose our spiritual condition but also glimpse the solution is the idea of ‘longing for home’, it is a powerful metaphor. Not only does our culture feel weightless, empty of deep meaning and trapped in subjectivity, it also feels homeless. Again Nietzsche is prescient in his predictions about the death of God for Western culture for it raises he says “The most painful, the most heart breaking question… that of the heart which asks itself, where can I feel at home?” (22) 

Many forces in the culture of late modernity reinforce this. The way we have constructed our cities   has  turned us all into strangers in our own towns and streets, in spite of our best efforts at community events and festivals most of our ‘progress’ and prosperity has destroyed community. We have turned our suburbs into commuter dormitories dominated by our cars, our obsession with privacy and our fears for our children’s safety. Large numbers of people live alone; our elderly are shuffled off into separate ‘aged care facilities’ and the research tells us that a high percentage are rarely visited by family or friends.

Nevertheless when young adults today are asked about what is important to them they frequently say ‘family.’ I know my own grandchildren, while being independent young people, put a high priority on family gatherings. While over a third of all marriages now break down and fracture families young people still instinctively feel the need and importance of family and ‘home’. So in spite of these negative cultural pressures, or perhaps even because of them, the deep human desire for ‘home’ persists. Home provides not only security, belonging and love but also a sense of place and identity. When these vital things are lost or fractured by family breakdown they leave a great void in young people’s lives.  These factors combined with our culture’s loss of a sense of ultimate meaning leads to a wide spread feeling of spiritual homelessness.

Ironically even positive ideas that are meant to draw us together such as: one world, the global community, multiculturalism, a United Europe, in fact often have an opposite effect. The Brexit factor and the rise of nationalism again in Europe is partly a response to the sense of a loss of identity and place among many groups. Being a citizen of one world is a nice idea but it’s too big to be ‘home’. This unease coupled with the massive international movement of people from widely different cultures and values makes our politics vulnerable to extreme views from the right and the left.

Critical questions for us now are: How do we maintain a sense of  ‘home’ and identity without drifting to the dark side of nationalism and race? How do we retain the best of our individual cultural identities and uniqueness and at the same time embrace our human oneness and interdependence as the one world family? We have always found unity in diversity a challenge! The Christian Gospel speaks very clearly into these questions. (Gal. 3:26-28)

In the Judeo / Christian tradition our ‘foundation story’ describes the drama of two brothers, Cain and Able. Cain’s jealousy and envy of his brother leads to a violent conflict in which he kills his brother. (Gen 4:1-17)  His punishment from God is that he is to become “a restless wanderer on the earth”, and God’s presence will be hidden from him and he is now vulnerable to other men’s violence. So he builds the first city as a refuge from his fear and homelessness, but that never solves his essential existential longing for home, and as we know cities produce their own violence and fear and loneliness. (23) This is a way of describing our human condition when we depart from God and his design for our lives. As Nietzsche expresses it “where can I feel at home?”(Nietzsche had in mind his own late 19th C. European culture in which he believed the idea of God was dying but his predictions have become an accurate description of our times.)  Once a culture closes the roof of its mind and imagination to the heavens – to the transcendent, then the mark of Cain descends upon us, the restless wandering looking for home.

The Waiting Father

But the Bibles story does not leave us in Cain’s dilemma; in fact its whole journey is taking us on God’s rescue plan that finds its climax in the person of Jesus. Perhaps the most well-known of the stories about coming home is told by Jesus, it’s the parable that is known as ‘The return of the Prodigal Son’, but a better title is ‘The Waiting Father.’ (24)  In Jesus’ story the emphasis is on the extraordinary patience and love of the father for his way ward son. In spite of the son’s foolishness and selfishness and the pain he has given his family the father has been waiting for years for his son to come home. If we contextualise it a little we can think of him standing every day on the veranda of his homestead looking down the dusty country road for his son to return. When he at last he sees him he runs to meet him and embraces him and welcomes him home and restores him to his place in the family. This, Jesus is saying, is God’s stance towards us.  But lest we think this is just a nice sentimental ending to the story, our failures and sins, our selfishness and betrayals, our violence and cruelty and pursuit of power over others are not just overlooked, they must be accounted for. But in the climax of the Biblical story God in Christ takes them and our accountability for them into and upon himself in the terrible but extraordinary event of Christ’s crucifixion.  As St. Paul puts it in the New Testament “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us.” (25)  The way ward restless wandering child can be welcomed home because the waiting father has borne the cost of forgiveness himself, which is always the way with true forgiveness. This is what Christians understand to be the heart of God’s grace and love. It is this story that is the foundation of our understanding of the meaning of life.

Finding meaning

Lord Johnathan Sacks the retired chief Rabbi of the UK was asked recently in an interview discussing the loss of meaning in the West “How do you find meaning?” He replied “You have to go to those people who have preserved the stories of meaning.” (26)

Peter Corney  (New year’s day  2018)

(All FOOTNOTES AND REFERENCES can be supplied on request)


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

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

“The truth will set you free” Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How should we respond?

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

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

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

Peter Corney

Footnotes

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

Review of ‘Strange Days’ by Mark Sayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2000’s Islamic terrorism begins in the west.

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

2002 Bush’s ‘Axis of evil’ speech

2003 US invades Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 Islamic Terrorism escalates in Europe.

2014 The Syrian conflict escalates triggering massive people displacement.

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

2015 – 1 million refugees flood into Europe

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

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

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

2017 Trump elected. Obamas dreams unravel!

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

HERE WE GO AGAIN, BACK TO CHAOS!

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

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

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

 

A brief essay

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

Christian Humanism vs Secular Humanism and a basis for hope.

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

Three key ideas in a Christian Humanism:

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

 

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

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

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

Peter Corney Sept 2017