Book Launch address and review of “Attending to the Nations Soul” and the “Biography of Harry Goodhew”

“You can’t really move forward unless you first look back”

In May this year (2021) after several delays due to Covid restrictions we were able to launch two very important books at Ridley College by Dr Stuart Piggin the Sydney historian. I was given the privilege of being the speaker on this occasion. What follows is the address that I gave. The occasion was also combined with a celebration of the centenary of the late John Stotts birth and the annual Charles Perry lecture also given by Dr Stuart Piggin.

The book launch address by Peter Corney.

It is a great pleasure and privilege to have a role on this occasion today. Because three people whom I admire and greatly respect are featured here today. First, John Stott who had such a profound, inspired, and wide influence on contemporary Evangelicalism and indeed on my own life and ministry.  Second, Stuart Piggin, a friend, and whose work as a historian of the Christian influence on our nation is so important. Third, Harry Goodhew a person and an Australian Church leader I greatly admire.

We are gathered to launch two books “Attending to the National Soul” and the biography of Harry Goodhew. The first is the second volume of Stuart Piggin and the late Robert Linder’s history of the significant influence of Evangelical Christians on our nation’s history since European settlement. The first volume covered the period from 1740 – 1914 and this volume from 1914 – 2014.

The record in these two volumes is so important and needs to be made more widely known especially in our current cultural context. One where the Christian foundations of our culture are now largely forgotten or distorted by an aggressive secularism and various ideological reconstructions.

There is a rather quirky novel by a French writer Michel Tournier whose central character is a fourth Wise Man in the life of Jesus. His unique role is that he always arrives too late for the great events in the life of Jesus. He misses the nativity, he’s just too late for the Sermon on the Mount and arrives too late for the Last Supper in the upper room. But he does find a bit of left- over bread and picks it up and eats it!

The story is a bit like a metaphor for the present state of Western culture. So preoccupied with the present, so distracted by our prosperity, our popular media and entertainment, so controlled by a hyper individualism, that we have missed or lost the knowledge and meaning of the past key events and beliefs that have shaped our culture and its best values.

But like Tournier’s fourth wise man we still manage to scrounge some meagre sustenance for our weakening inherited values from what we have missed or abandoned from the scraps that are left behind. But the scraps are disappearing, and historical amnesia is a dangerous affliction for a culture’s future.

It is said that ‘‘you can’t really move forward till you first look back.” I first heard that statement from an indigenous female elder in North Queensland as she was discussing the way forward in relationships between indigenous and other Australians.

Stuart’s historical work helps us to do that with the history of the Church in Australia as we try to move forward in tackling the challenges we have today in our contemporary culture. For example, in chapters eleven and twelve there is a good account of the challenges presented to our culture and the Church by the 1960’s and 70’s period of radical and rapid social change. It records how parts of the Church responded poorly, and so declined rapidly by the 1980’s but many evangelicals did better and were more creative and adaptive in that period especially in the youth culture of the Baby Boomers.

We are now in a new and even more challenging period of change and the Churches cultural profile is smaller and more contested. To meet these challenges, we need to first look back if we are to move forward creatively and faithfully. This book helps us do that.

There are different ways of looking back, some are helpful, and some are not. For example:

  • Nostalgia is not usually very productive.
  • Grief and anger at our losses are not very productive either.
  • But examining past responses to social and cultural changes and challenges can be. You can see the mistakes more clearly and identify the creative and positive responses that were influential and productive, and which contain key principles.

This major work helps us do that. So, thank you Stuart and to the late Bob Linder for these two volumes of the history of the Church in Australia and the key contribution of Evangelicals. May they have the influence they deserve.

My second task is to launch Stuarts fine biography of Harry Goodhew. Harry is a person and a leader whom I greatly admire. He has that rare combination of Godliness and strength of conviction with inclusiveness and collaboration. Not a common combination! The book is a very comprehensive study of his life and the influences on him.

There are many interesting insights to be gained from Harry’s life and into the Diocese of Sydney. One of the fascinating things to me was Stuarts inside account of Harrys election as the Archbishop of Sydney in 1993. It’s an eyewitness and insiders account of the politics of such elections by Stuart who actually ran Harry’s campaign. An unusual role for a historian!

The other thing that caught my attention was that Harrys ministry in the parish of St Stephens Coorparoo in Brisbane coincided roughly with mine at St Hilary’s Kew in Melbourne in the early 1970’s, a very turbulent time culturally. What I discovered in Stuart’s biography was that St Stephens and St Hilary’s both approached that period of change in similar ways, and both grew to become large congregations in a time when others were declining. For example, they both pursued the following methods: (a) Strong youth ministry with contemporary worship and culturally relevant music. (b) An effective evangelistic ministry, Harry developed E.E (Evangelism Explosion) and Kew used Christianity Explained. (Today one would probably use “Alpha.”) (c) Both adapted and applied Church Growth principles that were drawn from cultural analysis of the social changes taking place. They included developing lay ministry gifts, small groups in homes, and connecting with the local community and its needs. This is an example of my earlier observation about learning from the past especially in periods of dramatic social change. Find the principles of adaption that are effective and consistent with our theological convictions! To move forward we have to first look back!

So, it is my great pleasure to launch both these excellent books that have so much to teach us about how we can respond to the challenges we face today.

Peter Corney (Vicar Emeritus St Hilary’s Kew.)









Whats after Post-Modernism? Charles Taylors take on contemporsry Secularism.

What’s after Post-Modernism?

 – Charles Taylor’s take on contemporary secularism


How can we connect the Gospel to a culture that has rejected the transcendent – a culture that lives in the closed room of materialism & hyper individualism?



“A culture not dedicated to the sacred has only

                Itself to take as object, the self becomes sovereign”

                                                                Robert Coles[1]







Peter Corney (2021)


In 1995 at the Lausanne Emerging Leaders Conference in Melbourne, I gave an address on “Post Modernism” that seemed to resonate with the young Christian leaders gathered at that conference! That is 25 years ago now and there is no question that the cultural trends emerging then have had a transforming impact on our culture and people’s attitude to Christianity and the church. If evangelism was becoming more challenging in the 90’s it is even more difficult now in 2021. These cultural changes coupled with the uncovering of child abuse in Christian institutions has accelerated the marginalising of the Church and Christianity in Australian society and reinforced the growth of a new and more aggressive secularism in our culture.


This paper, like the one I gave in 1995, is an attempt to understand the new mindset that lies behind contemporary secularism that is now so ubiquitous that we might say it is the default mental framework of most people.


In 1995 I quoted the late German theologian H. Thielicke – “The Gospel must be constantly forwarded to a new address, because the recipient is repeatedly changing his place of residence”. This is an attempt to understand people’s new mental address.


The influence of ideas


Many social and philosophical forces have fed into where we are now, not the least being the powerful influence of ideas that might be loosely described as “Post-modern” and their take up in many university departments since the 70’s.


As James K A Smith says “We are philosophical heirs even if we don’t realise it! We have inhaled invisible philosophies in the cultural air we breathe. Our everyday quest for authenticity and identity are grooves in the heart laid down by an Existentialism we’ve perhaps never heard of.” [2]


But Post-modernity was never just a philosophical movement. It was as much a socio-economic movement as it was one of ideas emerging out of post WW2 European existentialism. It is a kind of “hyper modernity”, a mix of Pop culture, marketing and modern media, Western prosperity and the growth of multiple-choice consumerism and unregulated free market economics – all on steroids!


The Post-modern cultural vibe also has within itself an inherent contradiction. It champions individual choice and the subjective authority of my personal perspective over all claims to objective truth, and it encourages a critical suspicion and cynicism about all large narratives of meaning like Christianity. And yet, it is itself manipulated by consumerism, the electronic media, marketing, and pop culture! The advent of the “Smart phone” in 2009 (Just 12 years ago) and social media has accelerated and magnified this contradiction for a whole generation. This position leads inevitably to a narcissistic obsession with the self and a view of personal authenticity that is highly vulnerable, particularly among young people. [3]


One writer who stands out among contemporary thinkers on “Secularism” and the contemporary mind and world view is Charles Taylor [4] and the thoughts in this paper are heavily influenced by his ideas and rather original terminology.


I have also used James K A Smith’s extremely helpful introduction and critique of Taylor’s work “How (not) to be secular – Reading Charles Taylor.” Smith describes Taylor’s work as a “cultural anthropology for urban mission”.


 The Contemporary mental landscape – or what todays secularism looks like


First to explain some of the terminology used in this paper:

  1. “Secular / secularism” A modern definition of the secular is areligious, neutral, particularly in relation to religious belief, as in the “secular public square.” Secularism is the view that in a pluralist democracy public institutions like government schools etc, are to be areligious. This is roughly equivalent to the French doctrine laicity a clear separation of Church and State. Taylor’s notion of the secular is the idea of an age of contested belief where religious belief is no longer axiomatic but where it is easier to not believe.[5]
  2. “Plausibility Structure” What the majority of people find believable or unbelievable at a particular point in a culture’s history.
  3. “Immanence” The idea that “reality” is restricted to the physical material world. All meaning and significance is restricted within the material physical world. (Note comment on this in (e) below*)
  4. “Materialism” The philosophy that underlies immanence. There is only the physical and material, there is no metaphysic, nothing beyond or bigger than the physical / material. Sometimes referred to as “the windowless room”, brightly lit but firmly closed to the transcendent.
  5. “Transcendence” The idea that reality is open not just enclosed within the material physical world. Open to truth and meaning from beyond, open to the divine and spiritual. These aspects of reality penetrate the material and natural and can be experienced through them. They can also be experienced through art, music, literature, poetry, worship, and religious experiences.

(* Taylor also maintains that while contemporary people have a view of reality that is predominately immanent it is, he says, “a haunted immanence”. They still have longings they can’t explain or satisfy. [6] It is often referred to in contemporary literature and film. Julian Barnes the UK author says, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him!”)

A picture that is helpful to understand the contemporary attitude to transcendence is to imagine a crowd at the Melbourne Tennis Centre watching a riveting game at the Australian Open. The roof has been open to the night sky but the officials have become aware that rain is on the way and so they have slowly closed the roof. No one notices because the game is so exciting and pre-occupying. At the end of a tight set, in the break you look up, but you can no longer see the heavens. You cannot even remember if the roof was open when the game started!

The process of “closing the roof” has been a gradual one in Western culture going back to the industrial revolution and the beginnings of “modernity” in the early 19th century. This will be explained further below.

  1. “Exclusive humanism” (or “autonomous humanism”) Where all meaning and significance are accommodated within us and without any recourse to the divine or transcendent. Where the individual is the sovereign and sole authorising agent as to meaning, value and truth.
  2. “Imaginary” Our mental framework, world view, habit of thinking, our ‘plausibility structure’.
  3. “Modernity and post-modernity” One way of understanding these terms is to examine the change in the relationship between the individual and society and the location of “authority” in Western culture. This is of course a gradual and uneven process. The following chart describes the process.



The changes in the relationship between the individual and society and the location of “authority” in Western cultures.


 Pre -modern

Authority is vertical, top down.The individual conforms tocommunity. Society is hierarchical. Moral authority is generally understood to be derived from God


































Taylor contrasts the pre-mod and the mod mental frameworks in the following way.


He says the pre-modern imaginary is shaped by three main ideas:


  1. The natural world is a sign that points beyond itself to what is more than nature.
  2. Society is grounded in a higher reality; earthly kingdoms are grounded in a heavenly kingdom.
  3. People live in an ‘enchanted’ world that is open and vulnerable to spiritual realities, it is charged with “presences”. This is the world of C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and the “Inklings”. It is the source and explanation of our “longings” [7] A world open to and aware of the transcendent, “spiritually porous” to use Taylor’s phrase.


This view of reality has been changed by the modern world by a range of forces both philosophical, scientific, technological, social, and economic. One of the ways this has happened is by what Taylor calls a “subtraction story” – what is left when you take away transcendence. This narrative is embedded in secularist theory. The narrative goes like this [8]. “Once we believed in fairies, ghosts and spirits and God, but as we grew up and became more rational and discovered natural explanations for the world and reality, we left these superstitions behind.” This is the idea that the discoveries of the Natural Sciences exorcised superstitions.


In challenging the “Subtraction Theory” we need to keep in mind that this closed immanent framework is a presupposition or assumption arising from a “belief” that the transcendent is just a superstition. This is a position that the materialist reasons from not just to!


To use Taylor’s phrase “it’s the illusion of rationale obviousness” stemming from the secularist subtraction stories they tell themselves – the narrative about growing up and coming of age and leaving the myths and enchantments of childhood for the reality of adulthood. [9]

In contemporary Christian apologetics Taylor encourages us to recognise what he calls “the three fields of cross pressure”.

  1. The field of Agency. The sense that many people have that we are not just determined by genes and socialisation but that we are as individuals, active creative agents.
  2. The field of Ethics. We have higher spiritual and ethical motives that don’t just reduce to biological instinct or base drives.
  3. The field of Aesthetics. Art, nature, beauty move us because we have an innate sense of meaning. Our responses are not just to pleasure or stimuli – merely chemical reactions.

These are areas of existential ambiguity and uncertainty for many despite the “subtraction stories” told by the materialists.


Most people don’t live in the confident camps of belief or unbelief – “the dogmatic zones”, but in the “cross pressured” no-man’s land in between.


Therefore, with some exceptions, it means traditional apologetic wars and weapons may not be effective for many people. (e.g., The Richard Dawkins vs John Lennox or Daniel Dennett vs William Lane Craig debates)[10]


For some people tapping into existential cracks in our quest for meaning and purpose and the “pains of existence”[11] may be more fruitful. To quote the late Leonard Cohen’s ballad, “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” [12]


James KA Smith summarises Taylor’s view in this way; “Taylor suggests that those who connect to unbelief because of science are unconvinced by data and more moved by the form of the story that science tells and the self-image that comes with it – rationality = maturity… If Taylor is right it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or evidence’s but rather to offer an alternative story that presents a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith.”[13] Smith suggests that the faith they have left has often been worth leaving because it was over simplistic, shallow, and untaught.


There are also those who find the world of modernity with the removal of the transcendent aspect of reality a very “flattened space”, a very mechanistic and utilitarian place. These people are often drawn to the arts and the aesthetic. Edward De Bono the English Philosophical populariser has connected to this group with his ideas of Art galleries being the new Cathedrals, the new “Sacred spaces”. This is an attractive idea to some, and it also has the added attraction of no ethically demanding attachments that religious faith has. Others in this group will be drawn to some forms of environmentalism that offers a kind of “spiritual ecology” based on the idea of “holism” or Pagan notions of spirituality. Recent surveys of young people show a significant percentage are interested in some spiritual entity or dimension to reality. [14]


 Taylor also develops the idea of what he calls “the buffered (or bounded) self” as a significant change in the modern persons mental framework. The contemporary persons capacity to generate or understand the meaning and purpose of life is now more isolated and restricted to the individuals interior subjective and limited resources. All exterior sources and authorities, including the transcendent, are suspect and so are either rejected or subject to the individual’s authority.


Taylor says that because of the disenchantment of the natural world there has been a shift in the location of meaning from the physical outer world into the mind and emotions – the inner world of the individual.


Meanings are now generated within the individuals mind and imposed on things by our minds and emotions– not just understood or perceived by the process of our minds – but imposed by us from within the subjective autonomous self. Meaning is now located subjectively, there is no objective meaning in things – meaning is located solely in us as agents.


This is of course what Post-Modern subjectivism and perspectivism under the philosophical influence of existentialism has reinforced.


In contrast to this the pre-modern self was porous, open to the beyond, the supernatural, the divine, the transcendent but this phase has now gone with the disenchantment of the world.


Now modern minds are bounded enclosed, inward spaces, not porous. They are (“buffered”) isolated in their interiority and subjectivity. This has produced what Taylor calls an “exclusive or autonomous humanism” that makes atheism ‘normal’. (But we need also to keep in mind Taylors other observation that they are still “haunted” by the transcendent.)


Two other tendencies in contemporary’ attitudes reinforce this condition, what Taylor calls:


  1. “Expressive individualism” – the assumption that each of us has his or her own autonomous way of reaching our full humanity and that it is important to discover and live this out without conforming to some idea or norm imposed on us from outside us. Such as parents, school, Church, and social norms like gender stereotypes. (This process is sometimes referred to as “self-realisation” in pop psychology)
  2. “The age of authenticity” – The only authentic spirituality is what “speaks to me”. This is a spirituality that is de-institutionalised, disconnected from family or Church or social norms and completely individualised. It is suspicious of all other “authorising agents” and formal frameworks of meaning – theological, political, communal, or institutional. The primary value is free choice, and so tolerance is the second important value. These two are the last remaining virtues. Anyone who challenges the validity of a particular choice, either on the grounds of truth or some other moral framework, is guilty of intolerance.[15] So in this mental framework “subjective authenticity” trumps all other forms of knowledge or external authority.


Where the ‘new spirituality’ does emerge David Tacey the La Trobe sociologist describes it in this way: “The new spirituality is existential rather than credal,…it grows out of the individual person from an inward source, is intensely intimate and transformative and is not imposed upon the person from outside authority or source.”[16]


Taylor also maintains there has been a change in what he calls “the social self.”


As we observed earlier the pre-modern world was communal, the authority of the community was greater than the individual’s authority. Also, the stability and unity of the community was of higher importance than the individual. So, belief or disbelief has social consequences. If belief was the norm, then the social pressure was to believe, to conform. That pressure is now reversed.


The change to greater individualism also has the potential to “atomise the society”. With fewer shared values diversity must be valued above previous common values. Tolerance of difference becomes important to sustain stability in the society. Post modern pluralist liberal democracies have also coincided with greater migration and people movement from one culture to another around the world. To sustain social stability modern democratic governments, have promoted ideas like “multi-culturalism” and the value of cultural diversity. So “individual rights” and tolerance of differences become critical.


The declaration of human rights was a post-World War II action by the UN in 1948, but its promotion has taken on even greater significance in our time in what were already liberal and pluralist democratic systems like Australia, the UK, Canada, the US, and W. Europe.


The promotion of human rights and the growth of post-modern individualism has also influenced another major cultural change that has enabled and encouraged the exploration of “rights awareness” in relation to gender. This has created a new public challenge to what had been a long existing private issue around questions of inclusion and equality. The issue of race and discrimination has also taken on a new heightened awareness.


These challenges have had obvious benefits for a variety of individual human rights in the creation of new legal protections in pluralist Western democracies.


But “hyper individualism” has the tendency to the atomising of society and also brings other challenges.


For example:

  1. The idea of the “common good” becomes more contestable
  2. The process of community debate becomes more heated, and freedom of speech is threatened.
  3. The process of redefining the “common good” becomes more difficult and fraught with emotion and deep divisions and easily “weaponised” by single issue groups, and ironically lead to intolerance!
  4. This also affects politics which become more difficult and open to the temptation to rush into hastily thought-out legislation for party political advantage. This in turn has a vulnerability to the eroding of liberal democratic principles in over legislating.
  5. Religious faith and freedom come under undue pressure in this process and vulnerable to minority but vocal pressure groups. One illustration of this is the Christian principle of “the sacredness of the human life.” Issues like abortion on demand, and assisted dying are examples[17]. In the US the abortion issue has opened a chasm between the major political parties that has seen a highly contested battle for control of the Supreme Court, and a battle for the Presidency that recently elected a candidate who further divided the nation. Religious belief is deeply bound up with moral and ethical issues based in transcendent ideas of truth and is often in conflict with relativist and “social constructionist” views.[18]
  6. Institutions that are important to social cohesion like a common view of marriage are also weakened in the atmosphere of “hyper individualism.”
  7. The idea of “human flourishing” becomes very contestable in this climate of inflated individualism and in danger of collapsing into just self-interest. Prosperity also supports this trend as the need for traditional supports like the family seem to be less important and allows people to lead more singular lives. But relational breakdown, unemployment or ill health can quickly destroy this confidence.


Some tentative conclusions and suggestions for a Christian response:

  1. Taylor’s take on contemporary secularism raises important questions for the way we pursue apologetics and evangelism today. E.g.: How to tap into people’s secularism that is still haunted by transcendence, and their longings for meaning in the “pains of existence”. We also need to pay more attention to the Arts in worship and evangelism.
  2. The pervading materialist framework also challenges us to restore and review our belief in the power of God that can be released to impact people when the gospel of the Cross and resurrection is proclaimed. The first century culture that the NT Christians spoke the gospel into was in many ways like ours as Paul shows in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, where he says the Gospel of the Cross was “foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews”. But was also the “power of God for salvation” to everyone who embraced it. (See Rom 1:16, Acts 17: 16-32.)
    We also need to remember that the power and presence of the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church at Pentecost to enable us to witness to all people in all cultures (See Acts 1:7-8, 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
  3. If we believe that a sense of the transcendent is part of our essential human nature as beings created by God, then it cannot be entirely eliminated by materialism and will emerge in a variety of longings – Taylor’s “haunted immanence”. One of our tasks is to find ways to connect with that. But we need to recognise that those “longings” may take many different forms of expression – from a desire for social justice, to longings for inclusion and love, to the quest for personal meaning, or the revulsion at evil and injustice, or the enchantment with beauty.
  4. Taylor also makes the point that if Post Modern culture continues in its present direction it will create, particularly among young people, a new desire. He expresses it this way: “… this heavy concentration of the atmosphere of immanence will intensify a sense of living in a ‘waste land’ for subsequent generations, and many young people will begin again to explore beyond the boundaries.”[19]
  5. In an increasingly “atomized” culture Christian churches that develop strong loving and caring communities will become attractive places for people whose families have become dysfunctional or have broken down. We need to place a new emphasis on “incarnational ministry” and take initiative in creative and practical ministries of care to marginalised and damaged people.[20]
  6. Our worship must become richer again in its use of the arts, and its sensitivity to beauty and the affective side of people’s humanity.
  7. We also need to encourage our political parties to develop a new understanding of the “common good” and to redefine “pluralism” and its limits in our democratic system of government that is in danger of fragmenting.[21]
  8. The issue of young people’s declining mental health in our present anxious culture is an opportunity and challenge for churches that calls for creative and urgent responses in Youth Ministry.[22]


For further reading on some of the key ideas in this paper see the excellent book by Carl R Trueman “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self” pub. By Wheaton Crossway 2020.

Peter Corney August 2021

Cover Artwork by Merrill Corney

[1] From “The Secular Mind” R.Coles Pub. Princeton Univ. Press 1999

[2] James K A Smith – “On the Road with St Augustine” p.20 Brazos Press 2019.  Smith is Prof. of Philosophy and lecturer in Reformed theology at Calvin College US.

[3] See “I Gen” by J M Twenge, pub. 2017 by Simon and Schuster

[4] “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor, 2017 Harvard Un. Press. Taylor is Prof. Emeritus of McGill University Canada and was Prof. of Social and Political theory at Oxford.

[5] See James A K Smith page 142-3 “How not to be Secular – Reading Charles Taylor” Pub. Eerdmans 2014.


[6] See the McCrindell Report 2021 “A Survey of Australians attitudes to God, Spiritual and Supernatural realities…” conducted for the centre for Public Christianity. Report by Natasha Moore, ABC news 4/4/21 (

[7] See “Surprised by Joy” by C.S. Lewis. The autobiography of his   conversion to Christian belief. Pub. Geoffrey Bles 1955.

[8] See Philip Simpsons book “Six Modern Myths Challenging the Christian Faith” (IVP, 2000). It is a particularly good account of the typical ‘subtraction stories’ told in the secular or materialist narrative. Simpson challenges and unpicks many of the ideas in the popular “subtraction narrative”. See also David Bentley Harts brilliant book “Atheist Delusions – The Christian Revolution and it’s fashionable Enemies” pub by Yale University Press, 2009.

[9] What the development of the natural sciences did for the “outer” physical world, Feuerbach and Freud in the 19th Century did for the “interior” psychological world. The idea that “God is just a wish fulfilment”, a projection of our own needs and desires on to a non-existent divine being (see “The Essence of Christianity” by Feuerbach, 1841. He was an early materialist who influenced Nietzsche and Marx). Today contemporary Neuroscience is a new scientific frontier through which the materialist story continues. It does this with its reductionist and mechanistic expectations of how our brain works reducing all human consciousness and behaviour to a materialist explanation. Raymond Tallis the highly respected UK neuroscientist and humanist warns about this trend. He says, “we are in danger of developing a degraded view of humanity… if we discard supernaturalism all we are left with is naturalism.” He warns in his books about an “overreaching” in his field and the development of a reductionist anthropology. See his “In Defence of Wonder” pub. Acumen 2011. See also an interview on “Counterpoint” ABC 13/1/14, and “Apeing mankind – Neuromania, Darwinitus, and the misrepresentation of humanity” pub. Routledge 2011

[10] These debates are often more reassuring for Christians than knock down answers for sceptics. E.g., See Richard Dawkins the UK Evolutionary biologist and atheist vs John Lennox the Cambridge Mathematician, Bio ethicist and Christian, etc. (See YouTube).

[11] Irvin Yalom the Jewish/American psychotherapist “the gift of therapy”, “loves executioner” etc. The four re-occurring “pains of existence he identifies are: (a) The inevitability of death for each of us and those we love. (b) The freedom to make our lives as we will and its consequences. (c) Our ultimate aloneness as individuals. (d) The absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.

[12] Leonard Cohen from his song “Anthem”.

13 ibid Smith page 77.

[14] See the recent Survey by Deakin University “Gen Z- six types of teenage Spirituality” The Age Sept. 2018.

[15] See paper on “Tolerance” in Peter Corney’s blog <>

[16] David Tacey in an interview on Ockham’s Razor ABC RN

23/12/ 07. See also his book “The Spirituality Revolution” Routledge and CRC Press 2002. Tacey is the emeritus Prof. of Literature at Latrobe Uni.

[17] Another example is the State of Victoria’s Parliament recently passing legislation (2021) over counselling and ministry to people with “gender dysphoria” or other gender issues that many feel is very restrictive and ill-considered in its implications for religious pastoral care and professional therapists.

[18] The idea that moral values are just the construct of a particular society at a particular time and have no origin or basis in objective truth and therefore open to change.

[19] Quoted by JAK Smiths on p 138 of “How not to be secular – Reading Charles Taylor” pub. Eerdmans 2014

[20] Two recent examples of “incarnational ministries” in Melbourne are (a) A parish in an area where there are many overseas students living in units and rooms began a food supply ministry to them during the recent pandemic “lockdowns”, (b) A second example is a local church who ventured into emergency housing for single men, many of whom were unemployed and homeless, by leasing a large old house and developing a team of helpers. This eventually attracted government support and is now firmly established but still run by the local church.

[21] See “the Rights Revolution” by Michael Ignatieff the Canadian historian, politician, and writer. Originally delivered as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporations Massey lectures in 2000. Pub. Anansi Press 2007. Canada of all the Commonwealth countries has proceeded down the “rights” path more adventurously and controversially than most. His insights are very valuable.

[22] See the recent government report by the “Victorian Agency for Health Information Report – Mental Health…” A summary of the report appeared in the Weekend Australian June 5-6, 2021. The figures and recent rise in mental health admissions by young people to hospital emergency departments for self-harm, suicide and cases needing resuscitation is alarming. The VAHI report has not been publicly released by the Victorian Government to date. See also the article “Assertive Self-interest and Social Decay” by Peter Corney on the blog <>

New Zealands Tragedy and the Problem of Evil



On the 27th August 2020 the New Zealand’s High court brought down the judgement of imprisonment for life without release on Brenton Tarrant the Australian terrorist who attacked two Mosques in New Zealand on March 15th, 2019. He shot and killed 51 people and seriously injured 40 others with semi-automatic weapons. This terrible tragedy struck at the heart of the way New Zealanders think of themselves, as tolerant and inclusive people. Many of the victims were relatively recent immigrants to N.Z.


This event raises many questions for us: Is the perpetrator, a self-confessed member of the extreme ‘alt -right’ and a ‘white supremacist’, part of a growing movement that will further stress our democratic liberal societies and how do we counter that? Given what appears to have motivated this act how can we survive the pressures being created by the massive people movements around the world, the clash of cultures and the xenophobia they produce? Can we reign in the spread of these toxic ideological viruses on the ‘Web’ that seem to be the way many like Brenton Tarrant are radicalised?


There are deep tensions in Europe as they have coped with several large waves of people fleeing the violence in North Africa and the Middle East. Some countries have reintroduced border controls in spite of the EU’s policy on free movement. The Pandemic has added to existing tensions, and the financial and unemployment pressures it brings will increase these.  It also raises the question of the disturbing link between ultra-right-wing and extreme nationalist politics and religion. This includes for example; Hindu nationalism in India, Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and Islam and extremist violence in Pakistan to non-Islamic groups. All public figures on the political left or right, and particularly religious leaders, need to take great care with their rhetoric in these dangerous days. Christians need to remember “that they will know we are Christians by our love.”


But in addition to these socio-political questions another ancient question raises its head once more. It is a question we prefer to keep at bay till another atrocity hits our screens. It is the reptile we keep locked away in the cellar of our minds – the reality of evil.


Our writers have turned to metaphor to name it and the paradox of its presence alongside human goodness and beauty. It has been called “the worm in the rose” and “the maggot in the breast”. Alexander Solzhenitsyn made the point most elegantly when he wrote, “the line dividing good and evil goes right through the heart of every human being.” In its larger mystical sense St. Paul described it as “the mystery of iniquity” and Conrad as “the heart of darkness.”


But however we name it we must face it if we are to defeat it, both in our societies, our nations and ourselves. Optimistic Humanism wants to deny it. Scientific Naturalism wants to explain it away as the blind indifferent and brutish survival process of evolution. Secular sociology and psychology want to explain it sociologically or chemically.

But we all know this will not do. These explanations are inadequate and reductionist. When confronted with the beast we instinctively feel its malevolent spiritual reality. It may be that the reason that our first response is either to deny or rationalize it is because we do not want to face its presence in ourselves and the challenge it presents. But face the challenge we must, or the darkness will overpower us. When Bonheoffer faced the darkness in the form of the German Nazi party in the 1940’s he wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”


Of the many horrors of the 20th and 21st C that one could recount I chose two reflections by people who were actually present when the beast got off the chain. I chose them because they reveal in a very personal way that when intelligent and sophisticated people are confronted with rampant evil, they can only describe it in terms that reveal their intuitive sense of its malevolent spiritual reality.


In 1993/4 General Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian army officer was appointed the Commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda. Due to an inadequate force size and the negligent unwillingness of the UN to make decisions, in spite of his repeated appeals, he was unable to prevent the deaths of 800,000 people in the intertribal mayhem and murder that erupted over a period of 100 days. In his heart-rending book “Shake hands with the Devil” he writes: “This book is the account of humans who were entrusted with the role of helping others taste the fruits of peace. Instead we watched as the devil took control of paradise on earth and fed on the blood of the people we were supposed to protect.” Later haunted by the experience he was driven close to suicide.


The second reflection comes from the experience of a young German lawyer, Sebastian Heffner who fled to England in1938 to escape the Nazi regime. There he wrote a description of Germany’s seduction and corruption by Hitler entitled “Defying Hitler.” In an icy passage he describes the evil he sensed in Hitler well before it took expression in ‘the final solution’. “For a moment I physically sensed the man’s odour of blood and filth, the nauseating approach of a man-eating animal – its foul, sharp claws in my face.”


So, is the New Zealand terrorist a deeply psychologically disturbed person or a mad man, or is he madness in the service of evil? Is he a racist, a religious and political fanatic, fanaticism in the service of evil? When and where was the point he stepped beyond reason, morality and reality, surrendered to the darkness and was overpowered?


When we ponder the reality of evil other questions leap forward. Can it ever finally be overcome, not just personally, but universally? Who calls evil to the final accounting? Will there be an ultimate universal Hague, a final court of justice for the unnamed victims of history? Will there be a final judgment for the monsters of ancient as well as modern genocides? Is there another kingdom, a kingdom of light that can and will overcome the kingdom of darkness?


The responses posed range from Nihilistic despair that says that life is absurd and without meaning and so there is no reason why anything cannot happen in a meaningless random world. To the Optimistic Humanists who, in spite of all the evidence, believe more education and social engineering will solve the problem. They seem unaware of the naiveté of their position in the light of the fact that it was the most sophisticated, highly educated and aesthetically aware nation in Europe that designed and permitted the Holocaust.

Then there is the Existentialist response of heroic decision in the absence of no ultimate meaning, purpose or values. Like the hero in Camus’ novel “The Plague”, Dr Rieux, who works courageously on fighting the plague knowing all the time he cannot finally win but who finds his meaning in his actions. Of course this is ultimately no different from the disillusioned young men in David Fincher’s film “Fight Club” who find meaning in the visceral violence of bare knuckle fighting, or Hemmingway’s meaning in action, “Nobody ever lived their life all the way up except Bullfighters.”


The above are modernist responses, what would a Post Modernist say? With its rejection of all grand narratives of meaning and the embracing of moral relativism they are driven inward to individual subjectivity – what feels good or right to the individual. This leaves them at the mercy of their own thin personal resources distorted by their internal disfunctions and limitations. Ironically within their rudderless world there may be a seed of hope as their subjectivism may lead them to rediscover the core of their humanness – “made in the Image of God.” But the journey will be fraught because they will also meet the darkness and dysfunction within themselves as well.


Then there is the current Western flirtation with Eastern Mysticism and its concept of peace through disengagement from that which it claims produces evil and suffering – attachment, desire, individuality and difference. Leave desire, individuality and the self behind and merge oneself into the cosmic sea of universal oneness. Transcend the illusory world of difference. To critics of EM this is just the ultimate escape, the destruction of the self, a kind of mystical suicide. In the end these mystical and mental gymnastics will, I think, prove uncongenial to Western individualisms preoccupation with personal autonomy and self-interest. In fact it is mostly ‘EM light’ that’s flirted with in the West. Historically it  has a bad track record of indifference to social and structural evil. Despite their Constitution the iniquitous cast system is still alive and well in modern India. [i]


But there is someone who offers another way, the way of redemptive suffering, someone who suffers with and for us. Who neither denies, nor withdraws from evil but engages with it to defeat it. His actions take him into the heart of suffering caused by evil and to a final, terrible but triumphant confrontation. This one is ‘The Christ’, crucified and risen, “the lamb of God offered for the sin of the world”, God who becomes one with us in our humanness in his incarnation in Jesus.


Johns Gospel describes him in this way: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Although to his friends on that dark night when they came for him it seemed that it had. When the police and the betrayer arrived to arrest Jesus at night, he said to them “This is your hour, when darkness reigns.” Yes! Like every oppressive regime before and since this is when the secret police always arrive, at night in the darkness. There is a deliberate play on words here by Jesus. As he said on an earlier occasion “men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil”


But evil overplayed its hand; in attempting to destroy him it destroyed itself. Its cunning, its overweening pride and will to power overreached itself. It precipitated a final showdown with God and his sovereign will and his absolute power, justice, and mercy. There is only one outcome in such a contest. And so, on the cross Jesus bears all that evil can do, not only in its destructive violence and blood lust, but also through its primary goal, the separation of humanity from God and then people’s alienation from each other. So, he identifies with us in our suffering, but also suffers for us by bearing justices’ penalty for our willing participation in evil. He suffers death and then defeats it in his resurrection. The cross reveals how implacably opposed God is to evil and how unrelentingly for us is his love.


How are we to live now in the light of all this? As Christians we understand that we live now in the tension between the two kingdoms. The kingdom of light has broken in with the coming of Jesus, the decisive battle has been won but the final surrender and the consummation of the Kingdom of God is yet to come. It is like the situation in Europe as WW2 drew to its close. The decisive battle with Hitler’s army had been fought and won late in 1945, the Axis forces were routed and in retreat. It was now only a matter of time before the final surrender and the enemy laid down its arms. But of course, if you were in an allied infantry group on the front line there were a dozen more small but deadly battles and skirmishes to survive before you reached Berlin and the formal surrender. That is the Christians position now in the world. God has won the decisive battle on the cross; the end is now decided but we are still exposed to the crossfire of evil and each day we must act both personally and socially to confront and defeat it. [ii]

As a Christian I also need to remind myself that Christians have sometimes betrayed Jesus by also descending into religious fanaticism that has led to division, discrimination, and violence. This is a tendency that lurks in our fallen natures and we must guard against it constantly. Only by submitting to Jesus’ commands to love our neighbour and take up our cross daily and follow him can we defeat evils seduction to partisan and sectarian destructiveness.


[Peter Corney August 30th 2020]


[i] For a fuller description of these responses see Chp’s 4-9 in “The Universe Next Door” by James Sire IVP 2004

[ii] Some elements in this article first appeared in a different form as a response to a similar tragic event in Norway in July 2011in which a lone terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, with a similar profile, killed 77 people.

Reflections on our troubled world – a message for Christians

Reflections on our troubled world – A message for Christians.  By Peter Corney May 6th

As I nightly watch the news of our troubled world – at present the Pandemic, but of course the violence of places like the Middle East continues and the persecution of particular people groups like the Myanmar Rohingya or the Uyghurs in China continues as if there were no pandemic – 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?”

Yes! I am aware of God working through individuals through His ‘common grace’ and the many often unseen acts of care by individuals and neighbours and the heroic work of medical staff and volunteer agencies. Reading the moving writing of Trent Dalton in the weekly Australian Magazine as he records the acts of simple kindness by ordinary Aussie neighbours as they reach out to one another in this ‘lock down’ phase of the pandemic is heart-warming.

Nevertheless in the midst of the bigger picture the questions persist. But I have found some helpful perspective in returning to the writing and theology of a thoughtful Christian who found himself in a chaotic and violent time in the crisis of the 1940’s and the war in Europe.

Recently I have 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.”[i]

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. [ii]

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



[i] 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.

[ii] 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


*These thoughts can also be found in the conclusion of Peter Corneys recent study discussion guide “The Gospel and The centrality of the Cross”. Available by order from Peter at <>


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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!”)

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

Waverley Christian College
16th July, 2001

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

Principled Tolerance

Tolerance, as it is being understood and practiced in Western culture today, is in danger of becoming oppressive and undermining its own good intentions.
As Western culture becomes less uniform in its cultural influences and drifts from its historical roots in its Judeo – Christian heritage, the way we understand and practice tolerance of difference in belief, values and life style is crucial to our common good.
My proposition is that true tolerance is only possible if one also holds to other convictions such as truth, goodness and freedom of speech as well as respect for others. What we might call a ‘principled tolerance ‘.
Tolerance can be elevated to the place of supreme virtue so that it obscures or overpowers all other virtues. Without a ‘principled tolerance’ it can easily slip over into any or all of the following negative outcomes:
1. An oppressive political correctness that gradually, through overzealous legislation, creates a raft of social restrictions that diminish our freedoms and stifles the public discussion that is crucial to a healthy democracy and, inadvertently, creates an underlying resentment that is counterproductive to the very aims of the spirit of the legislation. The frequent outbreaks of irreverent and politically incorrect humour are signs of, and blessed reliefs from, this oppressiveness. We so easily forget that laws do not make people good or kind; at best they may only restrain the worst among us. Goodness and kindness come from deeper convictions.
2. The development of a cultural blandness that can lead to indifference about deeper issues of value and questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence and the goal of human flourishing. This is a particular danger in in our prosperous Western societies. Economic hardships have a tendency to inspire deeper questions both politically and spiritually.
3. An intolerant secularism that rejects or seeks to dismiss and marginalises from the public square all religious convictions. Ironically secularism is of course a strongly held conviction in itself and a very narrow and often intolerant one. It is experienced today by people of faith as a kind of ‘hostility creep’ in many areas of life. The most recent being the change to Religious Instruction in Schools in Victoria. Another example is the strange way much current media commentary in Australia works in relation to ‘conviction politics.’ Commentators criticize the blandness and lack of convictions in our politicians and their ‘spin speak’ but as soon as one expresses their religious convictions or personal values strongly in public they are painted as bigoted, and ridiculed as out of step with the ‘assumed majority!’ Only those ‘convictions’ that are listed in the currently acceptable moral lexicon are protected from their derision.
4. A sceptical tolerance: this is when tolerance is driven by a sceptical relativism and anti-foundationalism. “We must tolerate everything because no one knows what the truth is, in fact there is no ultimate truth or objective set of values any way!” This leads our culture to become an empty shell without any deeper purpose than the utilitarian one of keeping social harmony at all cost.
5. Cultural relativism: this is where tolerance is driven by the idea that all cultural practices and beliefs are of equal value and legitimacy and are therefore immune from critique by any other objective standard or set of values. Three examples are sufficient to illustrate the shallowness and inconsistency of this widely held view: The treatment of woman and the abuse of their rights and equality in a number of cultures. The practice of cast inferiority systems endemic in some parts of the Indian sub-continent and other places. Endemic corruption in Asian business and political cultures where business is regularly smoothed by bribery. While corruption in business and politics exists in Australia it is generally seen as unacceptable and destructive of the common good. It is also illegal and you go to jail if you’re caught. We currently have a series of Royal Commissions vigorously investigating corruption. Very few if any Australians would support these three practices indeed most would condemn them. This simply illustrates that most cultural relativists are deeply inconsistent and have their own set of standards by which they judge other cultures. All societies have intolerances to certain practices and ideas like our intolerance of paedophilia, child abuse and violence against woman. Certain “intolerances” are in fact considered virtues. Of course any form of valid critique assumes some objective set of values, some moral convictions. It is at this point that much contemporary thought is hollow, inconsistent and evasive.
The only way to avoid these negative outcomes of a very thin view of tolerance is to hold a “Principled Tolerance”.
(Two excellent books for further reading are “The Intolerance of tolerance” by D A Carson Eerdmans 2012. “The Cube and the Cathedral” by George Weigel Basic Books 2005. This book explains and describes the crisis in the European Union of a spiritually and morally hollowed out culture.)
Peter Corney

Islamic terrorism challenges the West to renew its moral and spiritual vision

by Peter Corney.

Frank Ferudi the English sociologist has made the very insightful point that the efforts of Western countries to stem the flow of young men from Western Islamic communities to fight under the ISIS flag will not be successful until the West renews its own moral and spiritual vision. He writes “Until Western society articulates its own moral vision of a good society, it will struggle to contain the influence that Jihadist political theology exercises over its target audience.” He points out that political arguments about the superiority and virtues of liberal democracy rarely succeed in overcoming the recruiter’s claims that in fact the effect of the Western way of life is actually morally corrosive on young people of Islamic faith. That’s an argument that it’s very easy to find evidence for in the present state of our culture, not only among Islamic young people, but among Western young people in general! As Ferudi puts it “The language of good and evil appears more convincing than arguments based on secular logic and reasoning.” (The Australian July 25/26 2015)

Long before the rise of Islamic terrorism and ISSIS there have been a number of voices in the West calling for a renewal of our moral and spiritual vision. George Weigel’s book “The Cube and the Cathedral” (2005) is an articulate example among many. The social fabric of our culture is under enormous strain as the stability of the family and our experience of community has eroded and substance abuse has escalated. While we have never been so prosperous, never had more people in tertiary education and never had better health care, we now have more dependent children in state care than ever before, a third of our marriages end in divorce and we are experiencing escalating family violence. One woman per week is killed by her partner in Australia today! Our state institutions that are tasked with providing child and family welfare, and the justice system that attempts to administer intervention orders, are all in a constant state of crisis. In 2013 Mark Latham wrote a very insightful essay in the Quarterly (QE 49 2013). He spoke about the rise of an ‘entrenched underclass’ in Australian society who are trapped in a repeating cycle of generational family dysfunction and unemployment, they have lost the skills and habits of healthy family life, without the motivation to take advantage of the many schemes that are available for personal development, rehabilitation, job retraining and education. Fortunately, due to our generous welfare system, they do not live in the physical poverty and hunger of ‘The Great Depression’ years, but they live in a social, psychological and spiritual poverty. He describes them in this way: “….this group has gone feral, leading lives of welfare dependency, substance abuse and street crime.” Political parties of both left and right seem unable to solve this.

The problem with using the virtues of democracy in our arguments is that we have drifted away from many of the values that contributed to shaping it and the idea of a “common good”. These were largely Christian ideas and values; remember Western culture is the product of 2,000 years of Christianity.
For example: out of the Christian belief in our creation in God’s image and the incarnation of Christ we derived the idea of the value of the infinite value of each person and their human rights and individual freedoms. The political expression and evolution of these was a great step forward in our social and political life. (The origins of this process go right back to the struggle in England by the Christian Protestant Dissenters to be free to decide their own religious affiliations and places of assembly. That struggle resulted in “The Act of Toleration“ in 1689, a milestone in the development of human rights. Interestingly those struggles were about both the individual’s right to freedom of belief and the group’s right, in their case the small Christian communities dissenting from the State Church.)
One of our difficulties now is that the right of individual freedom has developed into a hyper individualism where the individual feels there should be no restraints on their right to choose or decide on any particular life style, and no restraint on saying what they think or feel regardless of others feelings. The old Christian idea of personal freedom was that we were made both free and responsible by God, free to overcome our weaknesses and self-interest so we might responsibly accept our duties and serve others – free for service. This is long gone and replaced by the idea that we are free from any restraint on our choices. This idea is daily reinforced by the market and consumerism. When freedom or equality or tolerance is elevated to the place of supreme virtue they tend to overpower all other virtues that could moderate their excesses. Unfortunately our fallen human nature makes excesses inevitable.
If we take the three classic political virtues of “freedom, equality and fraternity (or community)”, which as Charles Taylor has pointed out in his writing on ‘Secularism’, currently seem to be the only ‘moral virtues’ of modern liberal democracy, then clearly this new idea of freedom has overpowered one of its own virtues – ‘fraternity’ or the ‘common good’ of the community. A commitment to the ‘common good’ requires Hobbes’ ‘social contract’ – that citizens must be willing to sacrifice to the community and its governance some freedoms in exchange for the community’s protection of their other freedoms .If our hyper individualism continues on its current trajectory and the erosion of the commitment to ‘the common good’ continues then liberal democracy will become difficult to govern and may in the end founder. It cannot survive without this commitment, nor can it survive without a common moral and spiritual vision, indeed the two are intimately connected. As many of the framers of the American Constitution believed – “Freedom requires virtue and virtue requires faith.”

A common moral and spiritual vision that is informed by ideas and values that transcend our human self-interest is necessary precisely because of human frailty and selfishness. These values have almost always been informed by religious faith. When the discussion is moved into categories of moral corruption, good and evil, as Islamic extremists will do, the possession of a vital moral and spiritual vision for our society is critical. While the strength of secularism is that it can protect us from the excesses and oppression of religious fundamentalists its great weakness is its rejection of any transcendent values. At its best, liberal democracy in the West has enabled us to value and include the contribution of religious faith in the democratic process while at the same time maintaining a separation or healthy distance between Church and State. This is largely due to the historical evolution from established Churches and the influence of Christian values on Western democracy. With the knowledge of this history now a distant memory, or completely unknown for many, we are in danger of losing the valid place for faith in the public square under the pressure of a new secularism suffering from historical amnesia.

As Ferudi explains this state of mind renders us very vulnerable to the sense of moral and spiritual superiority that underlies and is expressed in Islamic fundamentalism and Jihadist terrorism.

The Future of Democracy in a Post Christian West.

More people attend an AFL round over a weekend in Melbourne than the combined membership of all Australian political parties. In the 90’s ALP membership was around 50,000, it is now about 30,000 and still falling, and in the last national party elections only 12,000 voted. A similar pattern affects the Liberal party. The late Don Chip’s Democrats, that began as a high member participation party is now a tiny shadow of its former self.

Some people say that the greatest threat to democracy today is voter indifference and voter cynicism with politics and politicians.

This year a Lowey Institute survey polled Australian’s attitudes to democracy. They found that – 60% preferred democracy to any other form of government. But most disturbing was that of 18-35 year olds only 39% answered yes to that question and 15% said “It doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.” [i] Currently it is estimated that about 1.4 million young Australians eligible to vote have not registered.

Our English word democracy comes from a Greek word meaning “the rule of the people”, from demos = people and kratos = power – “the power of the people”. Well, if that is how we are to define it then we might be in trouble because the people are switched off, or in the case of party members, ‘ticked off’ by being shut out of the political process by an increasingly professionalised and remote party machine.

Commentators point to other issues like:

–         The over influence of the Media and the relentless reporting cycle that politicians seem to allow to control them, and the media focus on the internal political conflict rather than policy – politics as entertainment rather than real debate over ideas and vision.

–         The obsession with minority issues and special interest groups that affect only a tiny proportion of the electorate.

–         The tendency of governments to attempt to intrude further and further into areas like freedom of speech.

–         The creeping surveillance and data collection culture that threatens our privacy and freedom.

–         Etc.

These are all important issues but I have chosen to focus in this lecture on what I believe to be three critical threats to modern liberal democracy today.

(1) The diminishing influence of Christianity in the West and the rise of an aggressive secularism.

(2) The growth of hyper individualism and the new understanding of freedom.

(3) The threat to democracy from religious extremism.

The first threat comes from the diminishing influence of Christianity in the West and the growth of an aggressive secularism that believes that it alone has the right to occupy the public square.

Almost everyone knows Lincolns description of democracy that was part of his famous Gettysburg speech on Nov. 19th 1863. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

But where did that phrase come from? Did it originate in Lincolns mind? Well, No! Thirteen years before Gettysburg it was used in a speech by the Rev Theodore Parker at an anti-slavery convention in Boston. In his speech urging Americans to abolish slavery Parker described democracy and freedom in these words: “ A democracy, that is a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people…..a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God…..I will call it the idea of freedom.”  [ii]

But where did Parker get it from? Well it turns out that the first occurrence of this phrase is found in, of all places, the preface to the first translation of the Bible into English by John Wycliffe in 1384. Where it says: “The Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”[iii]

Now I mention this obscure bit of history to illustrate how powerful the influence of Christianity and the Bible has been on the development of Western liberal democracy.

The quote from the preface to Wycliffe’s Bible also illustrates the inextricable link between democracy and freedom and the part that the Reformation and Protestant ideas played. Wycliffe is known as “the morning star of the reformation” and, like Martin Luther who translated the Bible into common German, they were concerned to make the Bible accessible to ordinary people so that they would be free to make their own judgements unfiltered by authoritarian Popes or controlled by priestly mystification. This thread of influence weaves its way through the development of democracy.

In the long struggle for democracy and its evolution in England from Magna Carter on, Christians and biblical ideas played a key role. For example: the key idea that God has established the state as a delegated authority, not as an autonomous power above God’s law. Laws made by the State should not contradict God’s law. English jurists from Bracton (1210-1268), to Edward Coke (1552-1634) and William Blackstone (1723- 1870) repeated and upheld this idea. [iv] This concept lies behind the trial of King Charles I. for “crimes against the people of England” by the English Parliament in1649. He was the first European monarch to be tried and sentenced in such a way. Even the King is not above the law. This is the principle on which the International court of justice in The Hague now operates in judging crimes like genocide by leaders of states.  [v]

In the 16th and 17th C’s  and the formation of the English Parliament and the Commonwealth, the Puritans were a driving force. They sought to model their ideas about community and government on the Bible. James Harrington a Puritan scholar developed a concept of republican government with popular ownership of land based on Israel’s God given agrarian land laws. [vi] They were greatly influenced by the NT ideas that all Christians are one in Christ and all people are equal before the Cross and God’s grace. Radical elements like the “Levellers” challenged the whole aristocratic arrangement of inherited land and privilege. They were heavily persecuted for their ideas. All the Protestant Dissenter’s Confessions of faith in the 17th C. contain strong statements about freedom of conscience and the moral limits of the state to compel people in matters of faith and belief.

These ideas were then transported to America with the Pilgrim Fathers and the first English settlers who were seeking religious and political freedom and were foundational in the new political experiment in the ‘new world.’

Tom Paine who wrote “The Rights of Man” and greatly influenced American democracy and human rights thinking began his public life as a Methodist lay preacher in England in the 1760’s. [vii]

When we come to the late 18th and early 19th C, the beginnings  of organised labour, the early union movement and workers’ rights were dominated by Methodism and people affected by the Evangelical revival in England. [viii]

Human rights are intimately connected with democratic values and Christians have been closely involved in their development and codification from the very beginning. Key figures in this process like the anti – slavery campaigners: Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and the French Huguenot and Quaker Anthony Benezet, were all motivated by their Christian faith.[ix]

The first country to give woman the vote was New Zealand, closely followed by South Australia, in both cases Christian woman’s organisations like “The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union” were a driving force.

So from these few brief highlights we can see  the profound influence of Christian and Biblical ideas on freedom and democracy. The key point here is to recognise that modern democracy has  a cultural foundation developed in the Christian West.

I said earlier that freedom and democracy are intimately connected but as the framers of the American Constitution stressed “freedom requires virtue and virtue requires faith”. [x] It is striking in their writings and speeches to see how clearly they understood this. While many were Christians, others were Deists and free thinkers, but they all understood the essential connection between freedom, virtue and faith. Let me give you just three quotations from the many I could have quoted:

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom” (Benjamin Franklin)

“To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a fantasy.” (James Maddison)

“It is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.” (John Adams)

The social and cultural critic Os Guinness has recently published a new book provocatively titled “A Free Peoples Suicide – Sustainable Freedom and the American Future”. [xi] He makes the point that while freedom can be a long and tough struggle to achieve; sustaining freedom is an even greater challenge because freedom is its own worst enemy. When freedom becomes unmoored from virtue and faith it tends to become license and undermines liberty. We begin to believe that whatever life style we desire we can choose without any cost. Inevitably we begin to impinge on the freedom of others as we lose our sense of obligation to the common good. He writes “only those who can govern themselves as individuals can govern themselves as a people. As for an athlete or dancer, freedom for a citizen is the gift of self- control training and discipline not self- indulgence. The laws of the land may provide external restraints on behaviour, but the secret of freedom is what Lord Moulton called ‘obedience to the unenforceable’, which is a matter of virtue, which in turn is a matter of faith. Faith and virtue are therefore indispensable to freedom” [xii] This is a most perceptive insight.

The Classical virtues are: Temperance, Prudence (Wisdom), Courage and Justice; the Christian virtues are: Faith, Hope and Love.

But these virtues can only be sustained by belief in and a commitment to a source of transcendent values. Hence the formula “Freedom requires virtue and virtue requires faith..”

It is no accident therefore that the two outstanding English speaking examples of modern liberal democracy are Great Britain and the United States, both profoundly influenced, as I have shown, by the Christian faith and world view that also incorporates the classical virtues. In the case of the British example it has now been successfully adopted by Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and a large number of countries in the British Commonwealth of Nations, including the largest democracy in the world, India. (Japanese and Korean democracy were the gifts of America.)

To dismiss this influence on world democracy on the grounds of personal or ideological prejudice towards the Christian faith, as many aggressive secularists do, is to say the least, curious. But to ignore it as a result of historical amnesia is just irresponsible. To fail to ensure that this history is taught in our educational institutions is to fail to nurture and sustain the foundations of our culture and identity and to sustain our democracy. The question people in the West need to ask is, how long can the flower of democracy last once it is cut from its roots?

The second threat is from the growth of hyper individualism and the redefining of freedom.

Democracy like community requires the commitment of its individual members to the common good if it is to flourish. Indeed democracy is a form of community. It can only remain healthy if its members have a sense of obligation and duty to the good of others. Rights must be accompanied by responsibilities.

In Pre- Modern traditional societies the good and the authority of the community is placed above that of the individual and their rights, conformity is required, often in ways that are oppressive of individual freedom.

In Modern societies the rights of the individual are more strongly asserted and a balance or accommodation is sought with the authority and good of the community. This is ‘the social contract’ struck between the state and the individual.[xiii] Many of our current public debates arise from this tension, like the issue of freedom of speech.

In contemporary Post – Modern society the emphasis on the individual’s freedom and rights has now overbalanced so far towards personal autonomy that obligation, duty, commitment to the family, the community and the greater common good is falling away. This is ‘hyper individualism.’

In a recent essay in The Quarterly, Mark Latham has produced a very insightful essay into not only the future of the A L P but Australian politics in general. He makes the point that liberal democracy with its emphasis on individual rights worked much better in the early 20th C. when citizens were tied together morally much more strongly, by tradition, common culture, religion, family and locality. But such a society has now passed. He writes “This is the price of modernity: instead of being heavily inculcated in traditional social norms, our obligations have become optional. The challenge for progressive government is to maintain the benefits of pluralism and personal freedom while encouraging solidarity among its citizens…… Rights alone are not sufficient to create a good society. Having the right to do something does not always make it the right thing to do. More is needed: a collective recognition of right and wrong.” [xiv]

This is not an entirely surprising view from the left for those who know its history. The ‘ethical left’ in English and Australian politics was heavily influenced by the early English Christian socialists. [xv]

In this process of social change another critical shift has taken place: the idea of freedom has been unconsciously redefined.

The new Post Modern view of freedom is located in the idea of the right of the individual to the unhindered power of spontaneous choice. On this view an act is free when it is in defiance of any restrictions, even of any objective values or duties. The only absolute is “the triumph of the will”. [xvi] Once freedom in this sense becomes an absolute we arrive at the tyranny of the individual – this is ‘hyper individualism’.

This expresses itself trivially in the social media by unpleasant people who feel it is their right to say whatever they like and express however they feel without concern for others feelings.

At the most serious and destructive end of the spectrum it reveals itself in the desertion of family and community. As one writer expressed it: “This kind of freedom is really just abandonement. You might start by throwing off religion, then your parents, your town, your people and way of life, and when later on, you leave your partner and your child too, it seems like a natural progression”  [xvii]

I argued earlier that freedom requires virtue or it descends into selfish individualism or moral license. But virtue cannot stand alone in its task of guiding freedom. Virtue requires faith if it is to be strong enough to resist our selfishness. It requires a foundation in a transcendent moral source beyond ourselves.

Until recent times the Western idea of freedom was greatly influenced by Christianity. In Christian thought freedom is about becoming free from the negative and selfish aspects of my nature so I might become what I was created for – to love and serve God and others. The model was the self-giving of Jesus in the sacrificial act of servant hood; “I have not come to be served but to serve and to give myself as a ransom for many” [xviii]

This idea also drove Christians to work for the social and political freedom of oppressed people so that they also could become and be what God had made them to be. This is why Christians have so often been at the fore- front of human rights movements.

But once this core idea is lost freedoms end becomes fixed on the self, on the individual, on my rights, my choice and my freedom from any restrictions on those choices, including any transcendent or objective values, there is now no limits to my freedom.

So duty to others, to the community, to family, to service, to kindness and respect for others falls away. People are then trapped in a destructive narcissism, imprisoned in the service of the self. As the NT expresses it:

“They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them” [xix]

Also the positive side of Enlightenment liberal thinking about human rights and freedoms is corrupted into a culture of entitlement, ugly selfism and hyper individualism.

These attitudes weaken democracy at a fundamental level. The positive “power of the people” rests on a virtuous vision and that rests on faith. I believe this can only be renewed in Western culture by a return to its Christian roots.

The third threat comes from religious extremism:

National and cultural identity and forms of government have historically been inextricably bound up with religion. Europe, North America and Australia have been shaped by Protestant and Catholic Christianity. After the collapse of the Christian Byzantine Empire the countries of the Middle East were reshaped by Islam. India has been shaped by Hinduism and Buddhism, and so on.

For centuries these cultures were separated by distance, geography and limited communications but we now live in a very different world. Our world has shrunk through globalisation, large people movements and modern communications. As a result the old cultural boundaries have become porous or weakened and in some cases broken down altogether. Very different cultures, religions and world views now find themselves living together. Almost all the great cities of the world are now multicultural. One of the results of this is a growing sense of confusion and anxiety about our identity. Assumptions about values, beliefs, rights and forms of governance are challenged.

Xenophobia, (the fear of difference), and racism, (the sense of racial superiority) have been with us ever since the fall and the tower of Babel. But these human weaknesses are exaggerated by the current changes we are experiencing.

One of the most dangerous developments of our current situation is the growth of religious extremism and ultra-Nationalism. Some examples: [1] The first and most obvious is Islamic fundamentalism and its deep hostility to the West and Christianity. Inherent in its core beliefs are (a) the goal of a world wide universal rule of the Islamic faith and law, (b) the union of the state and the Islamic faith and Sharia law, (c) the submission of all other faiths and beliefs to this rule, (d) the principle of ‘Jihad’ or holy war understood as both an internal spiritual war against evil within the individual and also the legitimate use of war against any external opposition to Islam. When these core beliefs are held without compromise or liberalisation they become an ideological foundation and justification for the use of violence, armed conflict and terrorism to advance the cause.
The resort to violence to advance their cause is inflamed by certain social and historical factors such as the Wests colonial past and the present high levels of unemployment and poverty among young adults in many Muslim countries and their marginalisation in immigrant and refugee communities in the West. Also the threat of modernity to conservative, authoritarian regimes in some Islamic states and their perception that the West has an insidiously permissive and moraly corrupt lifestyle are contributing factors. [2] The second example is the unease that is felt by many Europeans to the large influx of Islamic immigrants and refugees to Europe and the EU. This has created an anxiety that has fed a revival of the old ultra nationalism that the EU was designed to counter. With Europe’s present economic difficulties and high unemployment levels this is a dangerous mix. [3] Third, is the growth of Hindu nationalism in India represented by the BJP party that threatens to distort democratic politics and religious tolerance in India. There are now regular serious attacks on religious minorities in parts of India. [4] Fourth, is the growth of a militant and politicised Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar which has partcipated in numerous violent attacks on racial and religious minorities in those nations.

There is a long and depressing history of Nationalism in its extreme form seducing religion to its cause. This is a great danger to modern liberal democracy. In the tragic story of ethnic cleansing in the recent conflict in The Balkans in the 1990’s, the ambitions of Serbian nationalism was supported by elements of The Serbian Orthodox Church. This conflict is built on historical tensions between Islam and Christianity going back to the Islamic invasions of the 17th C. The emergence of fascism in Europe in the 1930’s that led to the rise of the extreme nationalism of Hitler and the Nazis, Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy was supported by parts of the Christian Church. In Hitler’s case he managed to recruit the official German Lutheran Church to bless what was really his Pagan cause. Only the courageous opposition of the minority Confessing Church formed by Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonheoffer stood against Hitler.

Many wars have been fought under the false flag of religion. A tragic example is The 30years War that devastated Europe from 1618 – 1648. It is often explained as a Protestant verses Catholic conflict but in fact the underlying force was the emergence in Europe of the ambitions for independence and power of the sovereign Nation state. Catholic France with its messianic pretensions actually made alliances with Protestant armies to defeat and ruin Austria and defeat Spain, both Catholic countries. [xx] The Treaty of Westphalia that ended the conflict in1648 created the idea of independent national sovereignty and what is now the basis of modern Europe. Some historians believe that it also paved the way for the national ambitions and power conflicts of the 19th and 20th C’s, it certainly didn’t solve them. [xxi] Whatever the weaknesses of the current EU it is at least a genuine attempt to create a unity that will diminish these old temptations to national pride and megalomania.

Underlying extreme nationalism is the ancient pagan and tribal marriage of “blood and soil” – the linking of race and land in a kind of exclusive covenant of difference and superiority. Christianity challenged this with its doctrine of all nations and tribes being one in Christ. The great prophetic visions of the Bible speak of a day when every tribe and nation would be united and living in peace, where, in the words of Isaiah “they will beat their swords into ploughshares”.[xxii] If you visit the United Nations headquarters in New York and go to the courtyard garden you will find a powerful bronze sculpture of a man beating a sword into a ploughshare and on it are inscribed Isaiah’s words. The Biblical dream is of the Tower of Babels confusion being transformed into unity and peace on the Mountain of the Lord.[xxiii]

The thirty years War broke the influence of that unfulfilled Christian dream in Europe, although it did not entirely snuff it out. In a sense the EU and the UN for all their weaknesses are reflections of that dream.

We cannot turn the clock back on globalisation and multiculturalism. To support liberal democracy and to make it work in this context we need to do the following five things:

(i)                We need the commitment and cooperation of faith communities who support liberal democratic values and who understand that it is not necessary to have a state sponsored religion or church to preserve these values. And of course we need religious freedom.  (eg: Muslim intellectuals who support a ‘middle way’- a pluralism that rejects both ‘assertive secularism’ and ‘radical Islam’ – and accept the idea of a ‘secular Muslim democracy’ or what is sometimes called ‘proceedural democracy’ are to be encouraged. Although it should be understood that these ideas are not accepted among traditional Muslims. See the recent book by Sydney University academic Lily Z Rahim “Muslim Secular Democracy – Voices from within”  pub. Palgrave Macmillan 2013.)

(ii)              We need a consensus and acknowledgement from the general community about the importance of religious faith in the sustaining of democratic values and the virtues that make them work. Aggressive secularists need to understand and accept that the overwhelming majority of people in the world have strong religious attachments and commitments and have a rightful place in the public square. Globally secularists are in fact the minority.

(iii)            In my personal experience of working with refugees it has become very clear that democratic governments need to take far more seriously and intentionally the process of integration and the education of new settlers. People from very different cultures and value systems who have almost no experience of democratic values and governance need special assistance. As I mentioned earlier education in democratic values and the history of their development should also be a compulsory part of the general school curriculum.

(iv)            We also need to begin an open public conversation about our current problems in this area.

When new settlers fail to adapt to or embrace democratic values and become isolated cultural islands, or their young people are marginalised by poor education, discrimination and unemployment serious social problems emerge. For example: If the new settlers come from a pre modern culture, as they engage with modernity in the new culture the gap between young people and their parents’ traditional values grows to a chasm and the parents lose control. The young person’s identity becomes confused; they then become vulnerable to the extreme religious voices as well as petty crime, drugs and street violence. The internet provides all the radical resources they need to forge a new identity that seems empowering. This can also be exacerbated by the xenophobia, fear and right wing extremism they may find in the host culture.

In March this year the UK scholar and member of the UN’s special committee on intercultural engagement Dr Aftab Malik spent a month in Sydney’s Lakemba community which has the highest concentration of Islamic people in Australia. He reported that the identity crisis for young Muslims in Australia is a “growing disease”. He urged us to begin a public discussion of these issues.

He said: “Unfortunately for British Muslims it took a terrorist attack for us to have that discussion…. You need to pre-empt this. Don’t wait till something tragic happens.” [xxiv]

(v)              We need to understand that multiculturalism is an important part of modern democracy but that its definition and limits have sometimes been subject to naïve views and overly influenced by the philosophy of ‘cultural relativism.’[xxv] A view that ignores the reality that every culture has some features that are destructive and morally wrong. Our naiveté in Australia is partly due to the success we have had with our post WW2 immigration and the cultural enrichment it has brought. But we forget that the majority of those immigrants were from Europe, including a large group of Jewish refugees; all had a similar Judeo / Christian world view and culture to Australia. The second wave after the Vietnam War was also a success as the Vietnamese immigrants were fleeing communism and enthusiastically embraced our democratic values. Within the current wave are many people from traditional, authoritarian and Islamic cultures whose experience, values and world view are very different to that of a liberal democratic society like ours.

As Christianity continues to make, the sometimes painful journey from the pre – modern to the modern world, it continues to negotiate and adapt its relationship with the state. From its beginning as a persecuted minority, to controlling Europe’s Holy Roman Empire, to a separation of Church and state in some western nations,[xxvi] to conflict with totalitarian states like the former Soviet Union, to embracing representative democracy today, the relationship continues to change. Christianity has at times, in disobedience to the clear teaching of Jesus and the New Testament, descended into the use of force to forward its mission and discipline its members. It has at times persecuted minorities. It has at times confused the Kingdom of God with the Church or the Kingdoms of this world. It has had to adapt to scientific and Biblical criticism, to secularism, to philosophical materialism and now to consumerism and aggressive atheism. Therefore Christians, as a result of their sins mistakes and successes, have much to bring to the conversation that other religions and cultures need to have with the Enlightenment, modernity and liberal democratic values. Indeed there are some sections of the Christian community who are still to make that journey. Some sections of the Christian community are still hoping for a return of Christendom!

Of course for us all it is a continuing journey as our society continues to change. Maintaining an intelligent and relevant orthodoxy and holding on to the essential core beliefs and values of the Christian faith in a rapidly changing culture is a challenge but we must not shrink from it otherwise we concede the ground to secularism, extremism or authoritarianism.


Christianity has many unique and rich things to bring to the process of sustaining democracy:

(a)  As I have mentioned, our past and present experience in responding to the challenges of The Enlightenment and modernity. This should equip us in our conversations with some other faiths who have yet to constructively respond to these challenges.

(b) Our long history of involvement in the struggle for freedom and human rights.

(c)  Our theological commitment to the following core ideas that are a great underpinning for democracy:

–         The primacy of love.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and your neighbour as yourself”, “Love your enemies”, “Whoever loves God has fulfilled the law.”

“God is love. Those who live in love live in God and God in them” [xxvii]

–         The key doctrines of grace and forgiveness commit us to reconciliation in all our relationships.

–         The infinite value of every person because they are made in Gods image, and because God in Christ took on human flesh. This value propels us to champion human rights and protect the sacredness of every individual.

–         The community of equality. In Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.” [xxviii]

–         An international community that embraces all races – we are saved by grace not race. We have no sacred language, everyone prays in their own heart language and we are committed to the provision of the Bible in every person’s language.

–         Servant hood and following the example of Jesus is our goal.

–         The three great Christian virtues of ‘faith hope and love.’ [xxix]

These ideas and commitments fit us most aptly to be in the vanguard of actions to forward and sustain democracy’s cause.

All of us need to ask ourselves the following questions: (i) Is my current engagement with the democratic process sufficient to claim my rights as a citizen? (ii) How can I be more engaged at a level appropriate to my abilities and stage of life? (iii) As a Christian how can I apply the core Christian values listed above to the various activities and involvements of my daily life, especially where I might be involved in decisions that affect professional or business standards, public policy and social structures? (iv) Given that the foundation of my life is my relationship with God in Christ how can I bring prayer to bear on this task?

Peter Corney 17/6/13 St Hilary’s Annual Lecture series.


[i] The Lowy Institute poll 2013 on Australian attitudes to democracy.

[ii] From a speech delivered in Boston 29th May 1850 “The American idea”

[iii] From the Prologue to the first edition of the Bible to be translated into English by John Wycliffe in 1384. The prologue is thought to have been written by John Purvey.

[iv] Augusto Zimmerman “Christian foundations of the rule of law”  News Weekly June 4, 2005 (

[v] See “The Tyrannicide Brief” by Geoffrey Robertson, Chato and Windus 2005.

[vi] James Harrington (1611-1677), who wrote “The Commonwealth of Oceana” in 1656. It was dedicated to Oliver Cromwell. See Gai Ferdons article in ‘Engage’ p.6 Spring 2006 from The Jubilee Centre UK.

[vii] Tom Paine (1737-1809) “The Rights of Man and the Age of Reason”. From “Tom Paine – A Political Life” by John Keane p. 46-48 1995 Bloomsbury Press.

[viii] See “Christian Social Reformers of the Nineteenth Century” Ed. by Hugh Martin, Torch 1933. “Saints in Politics – the Clapham Sect and the growth of freedom” by E. M. Howse, Allen and Unwin 1976.

[ix] A. C Grayling “Towards the Light” Bloomsbury. See chp 5.

[x] Os Guinness “A Free Peoples Suicide” IVP 2013 p. 108

[xi] OS Guiness ibid

[xii] OS Guiness ibid p.106

[xiii] The idea of ‘the social contract’ originates with Thomas Hobbes (1588- 1679) who wrote “Leviathan’. His theory is the basis of much western political philosophy – the idea that individual citizens surrender some of their freedoms and rights to the state in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

[xiv] The Quarterly Essay issue 49. 2013 “Not Dead Yet – Labor’s post left future” By Mark Latham p.61-62

[xv] See “Christian Socialism – Scott Holland to Tony Blair” Alan Wilkinson, SCM press 1998.

[xvi] F. Nietzsche “Beyond Good and Evil”

[xvii] Larissa Mac Farquhar in The Age Good Weekend 11/8/13.

[xviii] Jesus, Mark 10 :45

[xix] 2Peter 2:19

[xx] David  P Goldman “How Civilisations Die” Regnery 2011 Chap.11.

[xxi] Ibid Goldman chap 11

[xxii] Isaiah 2:4,

[xxiii] Micha 4:1-4

[xxiv] The Weekend Australian 13-14  April  2013 p 6. See also the article “Between Two Worlds” by Trent Dalton on Lakemba NSW in The Weekend Australian Magazine.

[xxv] See the article “Christianity’s Radical Challenge to Cultural Relativism” at <>

xxv The separation of Church and State is still in a process of evolution in liberal democratic countries like The UK where the Bishops sit in the Upper House, although the powers of the Upper house are limited and subject to those of the Lower elected house “The Commons”. The Church of England is an established Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury has considerable moral authority and influence in national affairs. The balance of ‘powers’ in this case is as much custom and culture as it is law and its effectiveness is only as significant as the general citizenship accept its place and level of influence. This idea hangs over in a more vague way in Australian political life although it is being challenged by aggressive secularism.

[xxvii] Mathew 5: 44., Romans 13:8-10., I John4:7-12.

[xxviii] Galatians 3:26-28.