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)


The Hall of Mirrors – Radical Individualism

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

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

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


Scientific materialism – the windowless room

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


The Law Of the Instrument

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


Kagawa – the forgotten Christian who reshaped 20th C Japanese society

Kagaw

The forgotten Christian who reshaped 20thC Japanese society
Toyohiko Kagawa was an outstanding Japanese Christian who had a great influence on twentieth century Japan but is now largely forgotten both in his native land and in the West.
He was a social activist on behalf of the poor and the oppressed working class of 1920’s Japan as it began to industrialise. An author and poet, by 1933 he was the most popular author in Japan and his book “A grain of wheat” went through 150 editions. He was very involved in the development of the first trade unions in Japan and also in advocating for a national health scheme, one of the earliest in the world.
He is no longer remembered in Japan partly because he strongly opposed Japans military aggression in the Second World War and attempted to convince the emperor and government to turn away from the aggressive stance of the senior military leaders. After their defeat he campaigned for Japan to formally apologise. This was not received well in Japan.
His story and conversion to Christianity and how his faith shaped his life and service to the poor and Japanese society is a fascinating one.
Christianity first came to Japan with the Portuguese traders in the 16th C., the first missionaries were Jesuits. In the late 16th and early 17th C. converts and missionaries were fiercely persecuted, many were actually put to death by crucifixion and the infant church pushed underground. In 1859 the Protestant missionaries arrived but it was not until 1871 that Japan officially recognised the Christians right to legal recognition. But even then a Japanese person who converted was often ejected from their family. Today the population of Japan is 126 million but only 1% is Christian, in spite of this several Japanese Prime ministers have been Christians.
At the beginning of the 20th C. in Japan God raised up this extraordinary man – Toyohiko Kagawa. His father was a senior official in the Japanese government and a member of the Japanese aristocracy. But he was a philanderer and Kagawa was the result of a relationship with a prostitute. Both his parents died when he was young and he was taken into the care of a wealthy uncle who owned an historic rural estate where he was brought up. The beauty of the countryside made a lasting impression on him; it gave him a love of nature and motivated his later environmental concerns. His uncle’s family history went back to the ancient Samurai nobility. But his time in his uncle’s home was difficult as his paternal grandmother rejected him because of his birth mother.
Eventually he was sent off to a Presbyterian missionary secondary school. High placed Japanese families at this time were eager for their children to learn English. There he was in effect adopted by two missionaries who took him into their home and loved and cared for him. This had a profound effect on the development of his faith in Christ. He had been given a New Testament earlier by an American missionary to whom he had been sent to learn English and was deeply impressed with Jesus. But his faith now flowered and he felt called to Christian ministry. He was a bright student but instead of going to university as his uncle expected he decided to attend the Presbyterian theological College at Kobe. His uncle could not accept this decision; he rejected him and cut off all ties.
While studying theology he became involved in ministry to the poor in the Kobe slums. He eventually went and lived there in a tiny hut identifying completely with the poor. There he started “The Jesus Band of Kobe” for young Christians to work in the slums. At this time there were approximately 10,000 people living in the Kobe slums. This is in the 1920’s at a time when Japan had no social welfare of any kind and farm and factory workers lived and worked in the most appalling conditions. The industrial revolution did not hit Japan till the end of the 19th C and its worst effects were just beginning to impact Japanese society in the early 20th C. There was no organised labour movement and no trade unions and so no one to stand up for the rights of workers and the poor.
Kagawa felt a burning call from God to work for and among these people. He lived in the slums for 15 years. His work was amazingly holistic; he worked as a passionate evangelist, social reformer, labour activist and union organiser. He developed churches, schools, hospitals and co-operatives among factory workers and farmers. The Kobe/Nada Co- operative which he helped start is still in existence and is the largest single Co-op in the world with four million members.
In the 1920’s he was frequently arrested for his involvement with labour activism which was actively discouraged by Japanese political leaders at the time. He became a key figure in the development of the first Japanese Unions and in 1928 organised the “Japanese Federation of Labour.” As a result of his tireless work he became known as the champion of the poor.
But he was not only an organiser he also researched and wrote on the causes of poverty. He became a prolific author and his writing both educated and touched the conscience of the Japanese public. He was also a celebrated poet and his book “A grain of Wheat’ which was published in 1933 was at one stage the most widely read book in Japan. His books sold in their thousands and he became Japans most popular author. He was also an early environmentalist and initiated a very effective tree planting program in Japans rural areas.
In 1923 Tokyo experienced what they still call ‘the great earthquake’ which devastated parts of the city particularly areas where the poor lived. Kagawa was now so respected he was asked by the city officials to take charge of its relief work and later was put in charge of the city’s social services.
His other extraordinary achievement was that he became the first person to advocate for a national health care system for the whole country which was eventually achieved, one of the first in the world.
But as mentioned earlier he was not only a social reformer he was also a passionate evangelist. For eight years from 1926- 1934 he conducted a nationwide evangelistic campaign called the “kingdom of God Movement” speaking to large crowds.
He had studied at Princeton in the US from 1914-1916 and was well known there. Before the outbreak of the Second World War he returned briefly to the US in an attempt to prevent the outbreak of war. As a pacifist he was deeply opposed to Japans militarisation and Imperial plans. He was arrested in Japan in 1940 for making a public apology to China for Japans brutal occupation of that country, an occupation whose memory lingers on with bitterness in China today.
After Japan’s defeat and occupation by the US he became an adviser to the Post War Transition Government. He was a strong advocate for Article 9 in the post war Japanese Constitution that renounces war as a means to settle international disputes. Japan is the only country with such a clause, although it is now a matter of some dispute as Japan re-arms today. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947 and 1948 the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and 1955. At his death in 1960 he was awarded Japans second highest award the Order of the Sacred Treasure but his call for a national act of repentance after the war was not received well by the Japanese and was a significant factor in his loss of popularity and marginalisation. But his social reforms live on and still bear fruit in Japan.
There is an interesting connection with Australia and Victoria. The late Fletcher Jones a Christian business man who built the very successful “Fletcher Jones” clothing company was very influenced by Kagawa’s ideas and brought him to Victoria to speak in 1935 at Warnambool where Fletcher had his business. Fletcher also went to Japan in 1936 to study the co-operatives started by Kagawa and this shaped his approach to staff involvement and financial sharing in the company which was very successful and an outstanding model of Christian principles applied to business and labour co-operation.
Kagawa, an outstanding example of Christian servanthood was motivated to achieve these things because he believed that, as he expressed it in one of his poems,
God who dwells in my hand
Knows this secret plan
Of the things he will do for the world
Using my hand!
(From the poem “Discovery”)


THE DEATH OF THE CONTEST OF IDEAS

THE DEATH OF THE CONTEST OF IDEAS IN WESTERN CULTURE.
By Peter Corney
Western culture is inexorably moving towards a crisis. We are a culture of suspicion and cynicism, empty of any sense of ultimate meaning, a culture that leads to either despair or distraction. We are the philosophical children of Nietzsche and his post structuralist, Post Modern followers.
As Nietzsche prophesied, God is now dead for modern people. Therefore there can be no transcendent values of right and wrong, justice or goodness, no objective truth; the only absolute is the will to power. If this is true then the contest of ideas is over, it’s ultimately futile because there is no final standard to determine what is true or false at the end of the contest and so all that’s left is the contest of power!
Nietzsche said “If you kill God you must also leave the shelter of the Temple.” He meant that to be consistent you must leave Christianity’s values and meaning and make your way alone in the brutal world of the contest of power. The contest of ideas requires a notion of objective truth, with that gone the contest of ideas is a futile delusion. Samuel Becket depicts the futility powerfully in his play ‘Waiting for Godot’ as just the chatter of clowns waiting for someone to arrive and explain it all. But the ‘someone’ never comes because in Beckett’s world view there is no one to come and there is no meaning to explain. Behind our chatter about ideas – the thin veil of illusion – lies the real battle the will to power which eventually leads to the contest of power.
I am not suggesting that everyone out there knows or even cares about the history and influence of ideas in Western culture or would understand or express it in this way, but this is the spiritual place at which our culture has arrived. Of course very few who even do know are prepared to go all the logical way with Nietzsche to the edge of the abyss and stare into the empty darkness of the logic of his ideas that is too bleak for most of us! It’s only in our moments of suffering; physical, psychological or spiritual, that we come to the place of despair. When we have lost our job or failed to find one after months of searching or lost a friend in a car crash or yet another relationship has collapsed by betrayal, stupidity or selfishness, it’s only then that we stair into the abyss of meaninglessness and despair. Most of the time we are into distraction, and all the ingenuity and creativity of popular Western consumerist culture is pumping away to assist us!
Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists” and “Art as Therapy” (and as a substitute for religion), are well-meaning attempts at a popular philosophy of life without God for modern people but in the end they just paper over the crack of despair. They have no radical answer to the real pain of existence without ultimate meaning in the presence of the unrelenting struggle for power. In the end, even though it’s quite sophisticated and elegant writing, it’s just more of Beckett’s ‘chatter’, another addition to the veil of illusion masking the real game – the will to power.
But every now and then the truth breaks out to confront us in disconcerting ways, in contemporary art, film or literature. Richard Flannigan’s recent novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is such a moment. It deservedly won the 2015 Miles Franklin award for Australian literature.
In this powerful novel Flannigan tells the story of allied POW’s building the Burma railway under the brutal cruelty of the Japanese army in WW2. The central character is Dorrigo Evans a POW medical officer and surgeon.
For Evans the brutality of the experience has left him with a sense of total nihilism – the only truth in life is the relentless existence of violence. Flannigan expresses his characters thoughts in these words: “For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which no one could escape the horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any God man worshiped, for it was the only true God. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boots and fists and the horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was the history of violence.”
Violence is so often the accomplice of the will to power whether it is a controlling husband’s abuse of his wife and children or an authoritarian manager bullying his employees or the power of the state oppressing its own people or violating the sovereignty of another state for territorial or material gain. The contest of power is usually settled by violence of one kind or another.
The freedom from the “oppression of absolutes”, that Western Post modernity craves, including any transcendent values, will of course in the end lead to the most terrible oppression of all, the unfettered expression of humanities will to power. The current redefining of personal freedom and the quest for unrestricted choice will tragically in the end see the loss of freedom and the unleashing of the crushing violence of unrestrained power. We see it in the growing dysfunction and fragmentation of the family in Australia and the accompanying escalation of family violence. Ironically the reaction of the state is more regulation. Having undermined transcendent values by the relentless encouragement of secularism all it has left is the blunt instrument of legislation. Laws don’t make good people they merely restrain bad ones, and not all that effectively as many Australian families know. A woman is murdered every week in Australia in an act of family violence.
Within, as well as beyond the West, we are seeing the rise of violent movements seeking to impose by force a totalitarian view of government and religion that marginalises or eliminates all dissenting views. This is a new form of fascism but an old story of the abuse of power.
The first actions of oppressive and totalising regimes, whether secular or religious are always to strip away the people’s rights to openly contest the truth of ideas, to remove the ability to challenge the basis of the regimes claim to power. The regime does this not by engaging in the contest of ideas but by the naked exercise of power.
Western democracy and its liberal values are built on ideas from its Christian heritage but it is now weak and vulnerable because it has lost its memory of these ideas and values and its connection to this foundation. Through prosperity, comfort and overindulgence it is now soft and flabby and without discipline. The jury is still out as to whether it will survive the coming storm that internally is of its own making and externally is bearing down upon it from distant deserts and the people who understand only too well the contest and the use of violent power in the quest for victory and control.
The award winning documentary “The Fog of War” is about the nature of modern war. It is built around Robert Mc Namara’s recollections and reflections. He was the US Secretary for Defence during the Vietnam conflict. At the end of hours of interviews with Mc Namara Errol Morris the film’s director concluded “We are in an endless loop, the characters change but the idiocy remains.” The idiocy is our unwillingness to face our fallen weakness of the will to power and our default position of achieving it by violence. Ironically one of Mc Namara’s conclusions when asked what he had learnt from his experience was “You can’t change human nature!”
The Christians understanding of power comes from the teaching and example of Jesus. It is the radical alternative to fallen humanities understanding of power. It is in fact the complete inversion of worldly power. Jesus said “Love your enemies….do good to those who hate you”, “Blessed are the peace makers”. It is the power of servant hood! He said “The Son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”. He submits to the cross and the brutality and violence of fallen worldly power and absorbs it into himself and bears upon himself the guilt of all who have and will exercise such power and in doing so he defeats it. Christians understand that in that act of submission and self-sacrifice he makes possible our forgiveness with God and a new way to live free of the will to power, to live in love as the servants of others. The Christian also understands that the power of God, which is the power of love, will ultimately rule the world in the transformed and renewed creation that God will one day bring to fruition. So the Christian engages in the contests of power that infect our world from a radically different World View and a radically different approach to conflict and power. Their guiding principles will include: (a) recognition of the presence of the ‘will to power’ in all conflicts, (b) the goal of mutual understanding and benefit for all parties, (c) equality for all participants, (d) truth telling, (e) the aim of forgiveness and reconciliation, (g) the refusal to use violence and illegitimate force as the first option, (h)and the goal of the democratisation of legitimate authority, (i) the belief that people can change through God’s grace and so (j) an attitude of hope.
Sometimes this approach will prevail and bring peace and reconciliation, sometimes not. Then it may mean suffering and the sacrifice of our lives. Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. Paul says “…that we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings…” Nonviolent intervention and rejecting the will to power can be a costly journey, for the will to power and violence combined is a monster without love or pity. But because all people are made in the image of God and in their hearts some of the reflection of God’s nature remains, sometimes when given the chance to see the true alternative to the monster some will choose the alternative, the way of Jesus.


Review of the Film “Calvary” directed by John Michael McDonagh

This is a challenging but very serious and thoughtful film. It has a great cast and the main character, a Catholic priest, is brilliantly acted by the wonderful Irish actor Brendon Gleeson. It is the second in a trio of independent Irish films by Mc Donagh. The first “The Guard” also set on the west coast of Ireland featured a local policeman also played by Gleeson. It was a comedy but with some dark overtones. Some theatre advertising misleadingly advertises “Calvary” also as a comedy, although not without flashes of humour it is not a comedy! We wait with eager anticipation for the third in the planned trio.

Set once again in a remote seaside village on the west coast of Ireland this film portrays the New Ireland. Made up of disillusioned cynical people who have lost their faith in the Church and many their personal faith also, they are cynical about their country and its leaders. Their lives are relationally dysfunctional and morally adrift. There’s the sad disillusioned financier whose family has deserted him and who wants some redemption from the way he has immorally amassed his fortune from Irelands pre GFC property binge, played with pathetic irony by Dylan Moran of “Black Books” fame. There’s the tired cynical cop, the bitter local doctor who is angry at God for the suffering he has seen and the desperate frustrated women.

The plot centres on the local priest Father James, a faithful, wise and good man. His protagonist is a bitter and angry victim of serial abuse in his child hood by a catholic priest. He wants revenge and has decided that only a good priest will be a sufficient sacrifice. He announces this to Father James in the confessional and so the drama unfolds over seven days. The week becomes a parable of the Stations of the Cross with Father James as the Christ figure as he endures humiliation and doubt but remains courageously to face his would be executioner. A chance encounter with a young woman and fellow believer whose steadfastness in the face of her own recent and tragic loss restores his resolve at a critical point of doubt. This minor cameo role is very significant.

In an unusual twist we find that the priest was married and then widowed before he was ordained. This gives James a depth of experience and compassion. Perhaps another critique of the Catholic Church in its unwillingness to change their position on clergy being able to marry. He has an adult but troubled daughter from his marriage who says that she felt abandoned by both her mother’s death and her father’s new vocation, “I lost two parents!” The dialogue between them as he responds to her pain is beautifully written and profound, illuminated with flashes of grace, love and humour. James comments at one stage that “forgiveness is greatly underrated” – indeed!

The ending is traumatic and there are dark themes to this frank but insightful film. It is critical of the Catholic Church but it is also viscerally honest about the human condition. In my view it is not an anti-Christian film, if anything it is a celebration of the strength and power of the Christian faith when lived out with courage and sincerity. It also raises the old and profound questions about how we find atonement for our sins and stupidity, what is the cost of redemption and where it may be rediscovered by a culture that once understood it but has lost its way.

Review by Peter Corney.

YouTube Trailer:


Alain de Botton and a mock mass at the NGV

Alain de Botton and a mock Mass at the NGV.

Some comments by Peter Corney

Celebrity philosopher Alain de Botton, author of “Religion is for Atheists” and “The Consolations of Philosophy” was recently in Melbourne to promote the Melbourne branch of his “School of Life”. He also gave a sell-out lecture at the NGV. (The National Gallery of Victoria) on ‘Art as Therapy’.

It was described effusively in the Gallery’s magazine[i] as a mock Mass. “The Great Hall at the NGV with its quasi-liturgical glass ceiling was an apt setting for celebrity philosopher Alain de Botton’s secular sermon on Art as Therapy”. The glowing description goes on; “The evening progressed in the form of a mock Mass complete with secular hymns – the audience (or congregation) were encouraged to sing along to the Beatle’s ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds.’ As high priest, de Botton proved as polished a performer as he is a writer…… He was ably supported by singers Mark Jones and Adam Murphy, who kicked off the mock Eucharist with a clever, Latin peppered hymn that was one of the nights highlights….the authors’ proposition that art is a tool to help people live better lives and address their psychological frailties has clearly hit a nerve.” The Gallery was certainly pleased, over 600 turned up for the lecture!

Alain de Botton has rightly discerned an empty space in our secular culture, created by the Wests turning away from Christianity. He is now promoting art as a substitute for religion. The place where values and meaning arose from in the past now seems empty for contemporary people.  There is a spiritual emptiness which some people think can be filled by the aesthetic or emotional experience that art can provide. De Botton goes much further he claims art museums can function as the new cathedrals, “places of consolation, meaning, sanctity and redemption”[ii] and also as centres of therapy. He says: “We propose that modern artists serve the psychological needs of people in the same way their forebears served the needs of theology.… scripture can be replaced by culture. Culture will be our new religion…”

Of course many of the treasures of Western art that de Botton now calls on in his “Art as Therapy”[iii] lectures were inspired by the Christian faith and its worship of God. But what inspired artists like Reuben’s and Rembrandt and musicians like Bach and Handell  was the glory of God and the beauty and profundity of God’s grace and love in Christ and his sacrifice.  Christians believe that our longing for beauty and our natural response to it is at root our longing for God who is the source of all beauty and creativity.

Alain de Botton is partly right; art can be healing because we were made to respond to it by beauty’s creator. But if the Christian faith is true the deep question is: if you cut the cord of beauty and creativity from its true origin can you really find its deepest consolations or do have only their shadows?

Christians believe that beauty in all its forms, in nature, in people, in art, can be thought of as ‘Gods photos’ that he scatters around our world, waiting for us to respond to them and see in them his face. St Paul in the NT says that Jesus is the icon of God[iv], the image of the invisible God, the one who brings God into the sharpest focus, through whom we may find and understand God. In the Jesus of the Gospels we see the love and compassion of God for all people, especially the poor, the sick and the marginalised and his opposition to all hypocrisy, injustice and evil. This is the face of God.

As de Botton points out in his lectures not all artistic expression is a reflection of beauty in its narrowest sense. It also reflects our sadness, loneliness and despair, all the aspects of the human condition. It also reflects our cruelty and ugliness. Think of Munch’s “Scream” or Goya’s “The disasters of war” or his depiction of the firing squad in “The third of May” or Picassos “Guernica”, or the paintings of David Ol’ere of the victims of the holocaust. These images shock and disturb our consciences. They raise deep questions about the reality of evil in our world and why we feel injustice so deeply. These truthful reflections of the dark side of reality direct us to seek answers to humanity’s flawed nature in some one greater than ourselves, or alternatively, force us into the despair of nihilism and a loss of hope.

Artistic beauty and artistic expression has always had its worshippers. The question is will we allow it to lead us to its true source or will we worship the creation rather than the creator?[v]

Peter Corney .


[i] ‘Gallery’ March /April 2014

[ii] This and the following quotations come from an interview with Alain de Botton in the same issue of ‘Gallery’  with Gabriella Coslovich, pages 22-28

[iii] “Art as Therapy” written by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. Pub. Phaidon, 2014

[iv] NT Colossians 1:15

[v] NT Romans 1: 18-25


Some reflections on Sorrentino’s film ‘The Great Beauty.’

“The great Beauty”, Paola Sorrentino’s film about Rome, is both a beautiful and disturbing film. It is a feast for the eyes and ears of the beauty of the ‘Eternal City’ but raises deep issues about meaning and purpose.

Following the tradition of Federico Fellini’s celebrated film “La Dolce Vita” (The Good Life), that portrayed Rome’s post war 1950’s revival and the empty hedonism of its upper classes, Sorrentino’s film is set in today’s Italy of Berlusconi, with its political and moral disorder and the spiritual and emotional emptiness of its rich high flyers partying amidst its decaying economy. At one stage Jep, the main character, travels to the coast and stands looking out at the image of the recently capsized Italian cruise ship, still on its side waiting to be re-floated. Is it a symbol of the nation’s condition and perhaps even Europe’s?

As we are taken on a tour through the breathtaking beauty of Rome and its treasures we also follow the nocturnal revelling’s of a group of wealthy decadent friends who party on to an endless but hollow beat of empty pleasure amidst the opulent beauty of their city. A neon Martini sign is a constant and appropriate backdrop to their nightly roof top gatherings.

Jep Gambardella the central character is played with elegant sardonic restraint by Toni Servillo. He is a wealthy, aging, jaded writer who has become dissatisfied with his life and his friends and is experiencing an emptiness that begins to overwhelm him.  He has never married and learning of the death of his first love brings back the memory of its fragile beauty. He then learns of the tragic suicide of a friend’s troubled son and he begins to ponder the meaning or futility of his own life amidst the beauty of his city. At one stage he remarks to a friend who has also become disillusioned with the city and his life; “We are all on the brink of despair; all we can do is keep each other company – and joke a little.” The film could be seen as a search for what gives meaning to life and death, especially in the presence of great beauty.

There are also wonderful cameo performances in the film like Jep’s interview with an artist for an article on the arts he is writing for a highbrow magazine. She is an avant-garde performance artist who’s bizarre act climaxes in her hurling herself naked head first against a stone wall! The setting is spectacular; the wall is part of the foundations of a great towering ancient Roman aqueduct set in glorious countryside. The irony of this rather bizarre and nihilistic performance being performed, once again, against the back drop of Rome’s “great beauty,” is hard to miss. The further irony is Jeps interview with the artist. It is an amusing but ruthless exposure of the shallowness and meaninglessness of her fashionable postmodern punk – hip performance. Her explanation is as incoherent as the performance, it is without meaning. In a sense it is a less sophisticated version of the lives of Jep and his friends and you sense that he knows it.

For me the film raised a fundamental question about the origin and purpose of ‘great beauty’ in our lives, whether it’s the beauty in art, nature, love or friendship. In the end I think the answer to that question lies in your world view.

As a Christian I believe great beauty has its origin in God and is a reflection of his glory and beauty and its purpose is to point us to him, “The heavens declare the glory of God…” [i] The film wonderfully celebrates beauty but never asks what is its ultimate source.[ii]

If great beauty doesn’t ennoble you then it may corrupt you. If you do not allow it to take you to its true transcendent source then you can make it the object of your worship, or you turn it into something you can manipulate for your own selfish purposes, human love is a good example, or it can set you on a journey of longing and desire that you never fully satisfy with this worlds substitutes.

In an interview about the film Toni Servillo who plays the main character said; “I think that beauty can injure you to death. It can cause an injury that can never be cured, or it can so traumatise you that it changes your direction.”[iii]

Rome is also known as ‘The Eternal City’ because the ancient Romans believed that it was a city that would last forever. That title is also sometimes used because its beauty and grandeur is said to reflect the true eternal city, the city of God in the Kingdom of heaven. But sadly the Rome of Berlusconi’s Italy is once again a byword for political, moral and spiritual corruption.

Also we should never forget its violent history, expressed in Cowper’s famous line from his poem ‘Boadicea’:

“Rome shall perish,

Write that word in the blood she has spilt.”[iv]

Both beauty and power have their origins in God and if their worldly expressions do not lead us back to him they will inevitably corrupt us.

In “The City of God”, written by Augustine after the sacking of Rome by the Vandals in the 5th Century, a book that has greatly influenced Western thought, he reflects on the historical conflict between the city of man and the city of God. The city of God is marked by people who forgo earthly pleasures and devote themselves to God and his eternal truths. The city of man on the other hand consists of people who focus themselves on the pleasures of this present but passing world.

Even though the great earthly cities may eventually fall, The City of God – the New Jerusalem – will last forever.[v]

Peter Corney Jan.2014


[i] See Psalm 19:1, Psalm 29, and Romans 1:20.

[ii] See C.S Lewis “The weight of Glory” Collected Essays 2000 Harper.

[iii] See The Guardian film review 2013

[iv] ‘Boadicea : An ode’ by William Cowper, 18th C.

[v] Revelation 21.