Young people in Australia and their mental health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Young Adults in 2015


By Peter Corney
If you want to understand what is shaping the needs, anxieties and aspirations of young adults today there are two books that are essential reading. They take you beneath the superficial features to the deep cultural forces that underlie their increasingly unhealthy emotional, relational and spiritual lives.

The first book is Anne Mannes “The Life of I – The new culture of Narcissism”, published by Melbourne University Press 2014. The first part of the book explores Narcissism as a psychological pathology on the continuum from the extremely destructive to the everyday type who regularly creates relational havoc in the workplace and home. The second part explores the social and cultural factors in contemporary Western culture that are creating a very unhealthy self-obsessed society and a generation of narcissistic young adults. The second part is most helpful in analysing the cultural and social factors at work. In fact I would recommend you read the second part first – “Narcissism and society”.

The second book is “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce”. A ground breaking piece of social research that was published in the US in 2000 but sadly barely made a ripple here. It is a longitudinal study (25years) of the children of divorce and how it affects their lives as adults. They now represent well over one third of our general population! Any one working with young adults can assume that at least a third will be affected in some of the ways this research reveals. The authors are Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee and it is published by Hyperion NY 2000.
In the early 70’s ‘no fault’ divorce laws began to roll through Western societies, first in the US and then the UK, Australia and Canada. It was argued at the time that children were better off out of unhappy and conflicted marriages and in any case they were very resilient and would cope. This research clearly shows that these arguments were tragically false. The divorce rate quickly rose to about a third or more of all marriages and has stayed there. But the number of children affected is higher because at the same time de facto marriages increased, and these break down at an even higher rate, but they are not recorded in official stat’s.
This research followed the children of divorce over 25 years into adulthood. They revealed remarkably similar and troubling features. Here is a sample: they expressed a fear of commitment and difficulty in committing to relationships, especially in forming permanent ones, and if they did marry, had a higher than average divorce rate. They feared conflict, and were often anxious. They often felt that even though things might be going well at any moment catastrophe might strike. They felt their childhood had been stolen. Reading the results of this research explains a great deal of why young people are showing higher levels of mental health problems than ever before.
It is not hard to see why many Christian young adults have trouble standing out from the crowd and why they choose not to challenge some of the cultural and moral values of their non- Christian friends. The fear of rejection and conflict is emotionally too hard for them.
Discipling these young adults is a longer and harder task than it was in the past and requires a more holistic approach as their need for emotional healing is great, this is where the power of Christian community can also be very helpful.
Joining the dots between the two books especially between part two of Anne Mannes book and the research of the second book could be a useful and interesting discussion to have with some of your friends in ministry, why not set up a discussion!

STOP PRESS: According to the 2009 International Social Survey Program 72% of young people drop out of church in Australia, 57% in UK and 47% in US. A New book by the Barna Research group has just been published trying to analyse the reasons and offer some ways forward – “You Lost Me: Why young adults are leaving the Church……Rethinking Faith” by David Kinnaman.

The challenge of discipling today’s young adults

By Peter Corney

Photo by numstead
Photo by numstead

A current challenge being faced all around the Australian Church is in bringing this generation of young adults to mature Christian discipleship.

There are a number of contemporary cultural factors that seem to be contributing to this:

  1. The experience of family dysfunction and breakdown. With such a high proportion of marriages ending in breakdown (40%) a large number of young adults have experienced this.  This leads to a variety of personal insecurities that they carry with them into their adult life.
  2. A rapidly changing and uncertain world leads to an extreme form of adaptation – you simply delay long-term commitment.  This is one of the reasons for the high increase in singleness and young adults delaying marriage. Single-person households have doubled over the last few years. (ABS)
  3. Growing up in an obsessively consumer oriented society means that the choices and options for just about everything have multiplied.  Multiple options leads to excessively self-oriented choices and a consumer approach to other aspects of life where it is inappropriate – like relationships, community, church etc. – or to just keeping your options open.  There may be a better offer just around the corner! Getting young adults to formally respond to invitations to events is difficult.
  4. Instant communications technology such as email, mobile phones, SMS and ‘twitter’ has many advantages, but it also produces a short-term and shorthand attitude to planning and communication.  “Just remind me the day before – life’s too hectic to think too far ahead!”
  5. A post-modern world view as transmitted by the popular media creates an intellectual climate of vague relativism and radical inclusivism.  “There is no one truth”.  “All lifestyles are equally valid”.  This un-thought-through political correctness leads to an unwillingness to embrace or stand for Christian distinctives of belief and behaviour.

When these influences are brought together, what is produced in many Christian young adults is a strong emotional resistance to being different, decisive and committed.

One of the strong emotional causes behind this is a fear of rejection.  Some years ago John Bowlby, a British psychotherapist, wrote a book called “Attachment and Loss” in which he talked about the process of a child’s gradual physical detachment from its mother.  In normal circumstances this is a gradual process of separation.  But he observed that if the normal gradual process was seriously interfered with, the child became very anxious, fearing abandonment.

We now have an army of young adults who have suffered family breakdown and separation from a parent, and an increasing number who have experienced “professional child care” on a daily basis in childhood, which can increase feelings of insecurity.  They have also watched their parents, often their fathers, abandoned by employees, suddenly retrenched by companies and organisations after 20 or 30 years of service to them.

It would not be unreasonable to conclude that all this has produced in them a fear of rejection and abandonment.  Add to this the intellectual climate of post-modern relativism and inclusivism and you have a person programmed to avoid standing out from the crowd on belief and behaviour issues and who avoid strong commitments.  After all, you might be let down again!

So as this generation of young adults listen to the teaching about Christian lifestyle and beliefs, they either back away from them or live a double life – espouse them at church but not at uni or work.  After all, who wants to be rejected!

How are churches responding to this?

  1. Most people now realise that discipling young adults will take much more time than in the past: it will require more than a short course!
  2. Some churches are responding by developing lengthy and highly structured courses.
  3. The mentoring movement.  Young adults linked with an older mature Christian in a regular on-going relationship.
  4. Small groups where peer support and encouragement can be experienced on a weekly basis.
  5. Meeting the desire for community.  Community, friendships and relationships seem more important than ever.  Interestingly many of the new alternative church experiments are deliberately small in size.  There is a great fear of loneliness.  Building community among them is critical but hard work.  They want to belong but they don’t always want to join!
  6. The “Recovery Group” process can also be used as a discipling tool.  For those with major personal issues one large Church in Victoria has a program called “Careforce Recovery Ministries”.  It can be used in this way, as it seeks to both teach a biblical worldview and address’s issues of personal dysfunction.
  7. Challenging experiences can lead to significant growth where young adults are exposed to, say, the developing world, or local situations of great need in cross-cultural mission visits and to experiences that really challenge their comfort zones.  These experiences can be strong enough to challenge the self oriented consumer culture in which they are immersed. (Organisations like ‘The Oak Tree Foundation’ an aid organisation for people under 26 yrs, the ‘Surrender’ movement, UNOH, and ‘Tear Australia’   demonstrate that young adults will respond positively to the challenge of sacrificial Christian service if reached in the right way.)

Youth work – lessons from the past

Youth work – lessons from the past.


A lecture delivered by Peter Corney at the Ridley Youth Ministry Conference, July 2004.


 Some historical observations

Imagine it’s just at the turn of the century in the UK (1890s to 1900) and you are wandering about a large town or city in the UK and you stumble across a group of about eight or nine boys in their early teens walking in a group. They are all wearing colored scarves knotted around their necks and some have short staves or thumb Sticks, one or two even have hats that are shaped like a Canadian Mounties. The rest of their clothing is the same as that of any other 13-year-old boy at the time.


You do not identify them as scouts, as the organisation did not begin in the UK until 1908. What you have stumbled across is a spontaneous phenomenon that was occurring around Britain among young adolescent boys in the cities at that time. What triggered this was the Bore War (1899 to 1902). It was the first war to be reported daily in the popular press and the first war in which journalists were embedded with troops at the front line. Winston Churchill was one of these journalists.


These boys read the romantic reports of fighting on the Veldt by British troops defending the Empire. They followed eagerly the adventures of soldier heroes one of whom was Baden Powell. The Bore War was a significant conflict in which 22,000 died.


Young boys endured a very rigid, controlled and uncreative education in late Victorian and Edwardian England. They were longing for freedom and adventure. They imagined themselves as army scouts, bushman on the African Veldt, scouting out the enemy and living rough. This was a spontaneous movement organised by young people themselves. It was only later captured and organised as the Boy Scout movement. Baden Powell the British military media personality was brought in as the PR figurehead. It became an instant success.


In the late 19th century and early 20th century several other sociological factors that impacted on youth are quite fascinating and fed into what became the Scout movement.


1. The industrialisation of Britain in the 19th-century and the consequent urbanisation separated people from the land and country. Children grew to young adulthood without ever seeing a beach or walking in a forest. They lived in overcrowded, cramped houses – ‘Coronation Street’ England.


2. One of the reactions to this, coupled with the Romantic Movement in art and a new interest in Europe’s pagan roots, was a great revival of interest in nature and the outdoors. Groups sprang up like ‘The Woodcraft Folk’, camping, nature studies, hiking in the country all became popular.



3. In Europe they were called ‘Wood Crafters’. In Czechoslovakia in the early 1900’s there were a large number of groups who called themselves ‘The children of Zivena’ the old Slavic goddess of nature and crops. These groups were outlawed under Communism, but in a fascinating example of cultural survival, with Communisms fall in the 1990’s 700 Wood Crafter groups emerged from secrecy!


4. There was a great interest in the culture of the North American Indians their bush craft and traditions and reverence for nature. All this was popularised and romanticised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. ET Seton an American naturalist and artist, wrote and illustrated books about the North American Indians that became enormously popular. He visited the UK in 1906 and influenced the formal beginnings of the Scout movement in 1908. In fact, Baden Powell borrowed many of his ideas from Seton’s writings about the red Indians. Seton, known as ‘Black Wolf ‘, began the US Scout movement in 1910, he was a friend of  Rudyard Kippling who wrote the famous and Mowgli stories about the jungle boy.


5. The Scouting youth movement was the product of a number of sociological factors coalescing and the opportunistic organisation of these into a structure by a group of people who saw its potential.


6. By 1914 Europe was once again plunged into war, a war so bloody and futile that its effects reverberate down to this day, for example our own Anzac legend. Because Scouting was influenced by both the Woodcrafters (naturalists) and the military ethos, a tension grew in the movement sparked by the futility of the 1914-18 war. Eventually two of the founding figures who came from the naturalists side split from the organization. In England John Hargreaves formed a new movement and in the U.S., ET Seton did the same forming the Woodcraft league of America. Hargreaves was an idealist and pacifist and his movement eventually morphed into the ‘Green shirts’; a semi political movement promoting social credit, international cooperation and world peace. Remnants of these groups still exist today.


7. Out of World War I and the defeat in Germany came the ruin of the German economy, the loss of faith in its government and then the beginning of the great depression. This laid down the seedbed for the rise of fascism in Europe – Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Many other factors lead to the formation of the Nazis and National Socialism in Germany, eg; the weakness of the German church eaten away by liberal theology, the subtle effect of Nietzsche’s death of God philosophy on European thought and the re emergence of ancient European paganism.


One of the things Hitler did was to exploit the rise of paganism and capture the naturalist youth movement, the Woodcrafters etc, and blend these elements into the Hitler Youth movement. You have probably all seen some of the old footage of healthy, blond young Germans hiking into the picturesque countryside singing folksongs together ‘We will build a strong and healthy new Germany!’ Many of these young people became storm troopers and members of the SS.


Some implications of this history for youth work today.


  1. The theory of the sociology of knowledge says that ideas do not succeed in

history just by virtue of their own power or value but also by their relationship to social processes. For example the Reformation in Europe in the 16th century spread at the same time as the invention of the printing press. Scouting took off because of the coalescing of the social factors listed above. Other earlier examples of youth work that grew out of the social conditions created by the Industrial Revolution are the Sunday School Movement (1831) and the YMCA and the YWCA.(1844 -55)

The Sunday School movement grew out of a Christian response to educating the urban poor and the YMCA and YWCA as a Christian response to protecting vulnerable and lonely young women and men who came from the country to the city to work as servants, shop assistants or apprentices and to bring the Gospel to them.


Most successful youth movements since the 19th C have captured, adopted or exploited spontaneous social and cultural trends. Someone saw a need and opportunity and organized.


2.   If we jump forward to the 1960’s and 70’s some Christian evangelists, youth and student workers became deeply involved in the tumultuous cultural changes of the  counterculture, the civil rights and protest movements and the reaction to the Vietnam war –  the Jesus Revolution resulted. Out of that sprang significant creative new youth work that lasted for a decade and impacted on a lot of people. This was mostly para church as youth workers reacted to the conservative style of churches at the time. In Australia the new initiatives included  “Theo’s Coffee Shops”, “The Masters Workshop”, “The House of the new world”, “The House of the Gentle Bunyip”, “Truth and Liberation Concern”, “God’s House”, etc. Some of these also had elements of intentional community associated with them. Groups like “Teen Challenge” developed ministering to the emerging drug culture. A whole new generation of Christian music emerged with numerous Christian rock bands and folk groups.

Some of these initiatives have had a lasting effect but it is worth noting that this movement in general was significantly shorter in its duration than earlier ones for two reasons. First it was not organised or institutionalised as previous movements were like Scouting or the YMCA and second, the rate of cultural change had picked up.


3.   There is always somewhere in the background a philosophical religious or political worldview influencing the social trend. In the late 19th century and early 20th it was romanticism and pagan naturalism. Today it is post modern subjectivism.


4. There is always a political dimension. If the movement for social change is influential enough and big enough, politicians will seek to use it. In the 19th and 20th centuries Scouting was used by British imperialism and German fascism. In the 1960’s and 70’s in Australia Whitlam and mainstream Labor cashed in on the counter culture and radical left politics with the “It’s time for a change” campaign.


5. Wars and major conflicts influence youth and youth movements. We have already commented on the influence of World War I. In the mid-1950s a new hedonism and risk-taking took off as young people reacted to living in the nuclear shadow and the Korean War. In the 1970’s the Vietnam war and the accompanying protest movement contributed towards the development of the counterculture. The question for youth leaders today is “What will the backdrop of international terrorism and the environmental crisis produce among young people today today?


6. New technology also influences youth and youth movements. Just as the Industrial Revolution affected youth in the 19th and early 20th century so electronic and digital technologies affect young people today. The question to youth leaders today is how will the new technology influence young people and youth Ministry today?


7. Educational models influence youth work. As indicated earlier late Victorian and Edwardian education was rigid, controlling, uncreative and stifling, Scouting was liberating and exciting and so had strong appeal. In the late 1950’s and early 60’s adventure camping was popularised as an educational experience. Prince Charles was sent to Gordonston in the Scottish Highlands, a school with an outdoors program developed out of `preparing sailors for survival experiences in WW2. The ‘Outward Bound’ movement also grew out of this experience, it began in Australia in 1956. ‘Timbertop’, developed by Geelong Grammar School in Vic., was influenced by these developments and became a model for other schools to create a ‘camp year’ at a country site with outdoor and wilderness programmes. Prince Charles also spent a year at ‘Timbertop’ which drew much attention to these initiatives.


Many Christian youth organisations had developed campsites and camping programs in the 1950s but the kind of camps run were very conventional. This new trend in education sparked a Christian adventure camping movement which became quite significant until the late 80s.( S.U’s Camp Coolamatong in Vic.; the Diocese of Sydney’s Camp Howard; Crusader Camps;  The Anglican DCE Adventure Camping Program in Vic.; Mill Valley Ranch in Vic., etc.)


Currently many Christian organisations are selling off their campsites as camping is now not as popular as it was. Also it has become more difficult due to the fear of litigation, risk management, rising insurance premiums and the increasing cost of maintaining campsites. But camping will come back again in different forms. The nature of the modern city, high – tech urban living and the distancing from the natural environment will create a reaction and a longing for more natural experiences. Also the environmental crisis will also create a new sense of importance about the natural world. There is also again a revival of pagan naturalism through influences such as the ‘New Age’ movement. These are often linked with environmentalism and green politics.


8. Currently with the breakdown in community and family the response of politicians is to look to the school as a quick fix. Making schools the hub for community redevelopment is a popular idea. This provides many opportunities for chaplains and youth workers but we cannot expect the school to do all the work of the family.


9. A new educational initiative in Victoria has particular significance for work with marginalized youth. The new Vic Certificate of applied learning (VCAL). A pathway to TAFE it can also be a flexible pathway to university courses. Units can also be credited to VCE. VCAL will be available in non traditional educational settings such as community centers neighborhood houses and youth centers. Youth programmes could be built around this.

So educational models influence youth work  – study them.


The influence of the media on youth culture.


Since the 1900’s and the reporting of the Boor Wars and its effect on the development of Scouting this influence has kept growing. From satellite link ups over Bagdad to mobile phone photos from Afghanistan no war today can be fought away from public scrutiny and the influence of the media.

 In the past three of the most powerful influences on the formation of culture have been; (1) The family/tribe or clan. (2) Religious belief. (3) Commerce. In our time commerce has joined forces with the media, advertising, the internet, and the popular entertainment culture to form a ubiquitous and almost irresistible force. This monster has now overpowered the influences of family and religious belief. It is now the creator of values, world views, purpose and meaning. A “lifestyle” is now defined by the model of car or the mobile phone you buy!




One of your tasks as strategists’ and influencers in youth ministry is to discern the significance of the times and adapt your methods and organise or re-organise youth ministries. Remember that culture today is both global and local. Because of the contemporary media culture has common global features but it always has a local expression.


Some theological observations


1. Because effective youth ministry is always adapting to the culture certain tensions arise: – Evangelism vs social justice

          – Christian discipleship vs cultural conformity

          – Nurturing the children of believers vs reaching non Christians

          – Using popular cultural movements and mediums vs being captured by them.                                     Eg: sport, music, etc.

The options in response to these tensions are:

(a)    resolve them by going to one end or the other of the tension. Eg: Avoid cultural conformity by isolating your self from the culture, or conform to it. The first leads to isolation the second leads to a loss of Christian distinctiveness.       

(b)   Maintain a healthy balance. But to do that requires strong theological formation in the leaders and a clearly articulated theology of mission,

      particularly a theology of word and deed, Gospel and culture.


2.The Christian formation of young people that lasts almost always involves some form of peer cell group experience that is intensive and involves the following elements in some shape or form:                  

(a)    A leader with strong convictions who becomes a model

(b)   A highly relational experience of  peer friendship

(c)    Study of the Bible and Christian doctrine

(d)   Extemporary prayer


When I look back over the years at all the youth ministry I was involved in and then look around today at the people who have remained actively involved in the Christian faith from those years, almost all at some point had a powerful peer cell group experience.


I do not subscribe to the view that all we have to do is run peer cells. I believe it is important to have regular larger group experiences and to use methods like camps and conferences, drop in centers, concerts, social nights, etc. These events provide opportunities to reach out and connect with unchurched young people and are very important peer social contexts. But unless an intentional peer cell group strategy is the foundation there will be little lasting fruit.


One of the secrets of successful youth work is to get the peer group pressure working for you rather than against you. If it’s working against you it is very hard work. Peer approval, peer learning and peer friendship is the most powerful emotional factor in a teenagers life. Working in small cells enables the development of a positive peer group dynamic with the constructive influence of the committed Christians and the serious enquirers on their friends.


3. Any Christian youth movement that fails to take seriously leadership development and leader multiplication from the ranks of its members will have a very short life and a limited influence. Many Christian camping programs have faded away because of this failure.


4. Reductionist, liberal theological frame-works in the end destroy effective Christian youth ministry, but enthusiastic, intelligent and relevant orthodoxy builds strong youth ministry. Four examples of once strong evangelistic youth ministries that have either collapsed or changed into largely secular youth programs are: The YMCA, the YWCA, The Methodist Youth Movement (now UCA) and the SCM (a student movement). Over time all these movements shifted away from their orthodox theological base to a liberal stance. Their decline or move to a more secular youth work (as in the YMCA and YWCA) coincides with this theological drift.


Reductionist liberal theology creates a spiritually impotent Christianity shorn of conviction and inner strength. Of all the stages in life youth requires strong faith, conviction and passion. Only a vital, intelligent and passionate Christian orthodoxy has the energy to catch their innate idealism.



Peter Corney (12/7/04)

Reshaping The Western Mind – How God and the self blurred into one.

By Peter Corney

There has been a profound change in the way many western people understand themselves in relation to God, spirituality and religious concepts. In short God and the self have blurred into one. The forces that have brought about this change are complex but here are three key factors in the process.

First, out of the Renaissance and the Reformation there emerged a form of Christian humanism. Following and flowing out of the Renaissance the Enlightenments influence gradually disconnected humanism from its Christian roots. What eventually emerged was what we have come to call secular humanism.

Secular humanism encouraged the idea of the autonomous individual who, independent of God, possessed within themselves alone the power to discover, to understand, to create and control whatever they determined. The rise of modern science accompanied and reinforced this process. By the late nineteenth century the philosopher and radical thinker Friedrich Nietzsche had declared that the idea and necessity of God was dead. These processes laid the ground work for the change by over inflating reason and the self. As a result the western idea of the self began to gradually break free from its biblical theological frame work and Christian world view. The idea of the autonomous self was born.

Second, is a little known today, but highly influential thinker called Feuerbach, another nineteenth century German. He began by studying theology but turned away from Christianity to become a hostile critic. Feuerbach put forward the idea that God is the outward projection of mans inward nature, a wish fulfillment, a projection of our own aspirations and desires on to a non existent divine being. “God,” he said “is the realized wish of the heart.” “Knowledge of God is nothing else than the knowledge of man.” He was very hostile to the idea of revelation which he described as a “poison that destroys the divine feeling in man.” These ideas were promoted in his book “The Essence of Christianity.” (1)

Feuerbach had a deep influence on a group of thinkers and writers who have profoundly shaped the modern world: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the intellectual source of Marxism/Communism who together wrote the Communist Manifesto, and Sigmund Freud the father of modern psychiatry. Freud’s research, ideas and terminology attempted to describe the self in new terms and in the process succeeded in reshaping the modern view of the self. Many of the ideas and ways of describing and understanding ourselves that we commonly use today are influenced by Freud and his disciple Karl Jung. (2)

At the time of its publication (1841) Engels said of Feuerbach’s book “One must himself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.” Interestingly it was Feuerbach who first said “Religion is as bad as opium” a phrase later echoed by Marx, “Religion is the opium of the people.” Another quotation from Marx reveals Feuerbach’s influence, “Religion is only the illusory sun, around which man revolves until he begins to revolve around himself.” Freud treated religion as an illusion or wish fulfillment, an idea that has influenced so much of psychology and psychiatry in our times.

This is not only the beginning of the psychologising of religion it is the beginning of the grand inflation of the self. We are now the creators of God! God is just a projection of our own imagination, fantasies and wishes. Of course if we created him then we can also dismiss him, which was indeed the final result of the enlightenment experiment and announced by Nietzsche. That is what makes the next step in the process so paradoxical and contradictory – turning the self into God! If we have now decided that God is just a projection of our wishes and imagination, and an idea we have outgrown, why would we make the self divine? But that is exactly what we have done.

The reasons are deeply theological – our overweening desire to inflate the self to the place of independence from God. It’s beginning, described in the powerful mythic language of Genesis, has now reached its climax. In offering the great temptation: The serpent says “You will not surely die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” (Gen 3:4-5)

In the West, given where we had arrived at through the Enlightenment, we achieved this next paradoxical step by embracing a new, at least to the West, and very exotic influence, Eastern Mysticism (EM). This is the third force in the reshaping of the western mind.

As the West tired of secular materialism in the 1960’s and 70’s the counter culture flowered and the Baby Boomers embraced Eastern Mysticism. The Beatles went to India and everyone followed! The interest has continued but the result is not what anyone who really understands Eastern Mysticism might have expected.

At the heart of Eastern Mysticism (EM), particularly in its Buddhist form, is the question of how to solve the problem of suffering. The East’s solution is detachment. Our suffering, it is claimed, comes about through our attachment to our desires in this world. If we break our attachments we can free ourselves from that which is the source of our suffering. So the teaching and practice is geared towards this process of detachment and disengagement from the world. The ultimate step is to become detached from the conscious self, to become the “not self”, where individuality is extinguished in the “great deathless lake of Nirvana.”

Whereas Christianity is about incarnation the central idea here is excarnation – disembodiment, the annihilation of the self. The mental and physical disciplines of EM are part of the means to this end. The aim is to realise your oneness with the cosmic oneness or consciousness as a pinch of salt is absorbed into a glass of water. This is certainly not about the inflation of the self!

Closely related to this is the idea of transcending the material plane of the illusion of difference and absorption into the one, the great unity. This idea from EM is more associated with forms of Hinduism and is seen as the solution to what is believed to be another aspect of our suffering and burdens in this world. These are the troubles that arise from our insistence on the differences around us, differences of human and animal, plants and insects, race and religion, health and sickness, material and spiritual, rich and poor, etc. These differences are said to be an illusion that we need to transcend. The task of the spiritual journey, they say, is to transcend the plane of illusion and realize our unity with the one. (This and the above idea have a common source in the East’s pantheistic world view that God and nature are one and there is no distinction between them. This is described philosophically as Monism – from mono meaning one.)

It seems that the declared end result of EM is the shedding not just of self consciousness but of our unique personal identity. This has been critiqued as really the annihilation or suicide of the self.

Annihilation of the self is not very congenial to the Western mind shaped as it is, first, by Christianity’s view of the value of each human person made in the image of God which is reinforced by the incarnation of Christ in human flesh. Then, second, by the enlightenment and the forces we have described above. Years of humanist thought that celebrates the uniqueness and importance of the individual and their creativity and power and right to decide and choose and shape and control the world does not give up so easily. We are prone not to the annihilation of the self but to its inflation!

So we have adapted Eastern Mysticism and adopted it’s ideas selectively to achieve the very opposite of its declared goal. We have used EM not to annihilate the self but to further inflate it in the most grandiose inflation of all, to transform the self into God!

We have done this by taking from EM those things that are congenial to the Western mind and life style and ignored or flirted superficially with the rest. The things that are congenial to the Western mind are: The idea of unity. Western culture has been promised so much by material progress through the industrial and technological revolutions, by science and modern medicine and yet now finds itself in a confusing and fragmenting society. International migration has created multicultural societies where once a more mono culture and uniform national identity was assumed. This has caused significant tensions. They are acutely aware of the growing disunity of their world, the fragmenting of marriages and families, the loss of community, the environmental crisis and the divisions of the world through international conflicts. In this environment the unitary idea of EM is immensely attractive.

We invite the Dali Lama to visit the West and listen approvingly as the rather exotic figure talks about world peace and unity. His lectures on Tibetan Buddhism are also well attended but much less understood and quoted in the press as they take one into the more opaque labyrinth of Eastern thought.

As the West has become a more pluralist culture it has embraced moral relativism in its ethics and syncretism in its approach to religion – the “blender” view. It is also increasingly influenced by post modern subjectivism in its evaluation of spiritual and religious ideas. For these reasons the idea of pantheism is attractive because it supports the notion that all religions are really just different expressions of the one. It requires no hard thinking or difficult decisions about what might be true or false, reasonable or nonsense, consistent or illogical. The fact that some of the fundamental ideas of different religious systems are mutually exclusive and logically contradictory is either brushed aside as too hard to think about or, as in most cases, not even considered out of shear ignorance. These days the West likes its religion lite!

We flirt with detachment from our materialism with expensive eco tourist retreats and high tech costly push bikes and lycra riding outfits. We borrow some of the meditation techniques and go to Yoga classes to ease our stress and keep our bodies in shape. But not to really detach from our frenetic work and entertainment but to refuel to re-engage more energetically! Our engagement with EM is at best simplistic and naive and at worst cynical and dishonest.

Another idea in EM that is congenial to the western mind is the notion that there is a divine spark in all of us. The idea is that because we are all part of the one, potentially we are all little Gods. Our task is to realise the divine light in ourselves, realise our divinity and our true unity with the one. To go thus far with EM is very congenial to the Western tendency to inflate the self – the self has now become divine! ( A brilliant recent analysis of this trend is Ross Douthart’s book “Bad Religion” Free Press, 2012, see chp 7)

Some eastern teachers are fond of quoting Jesus’ words in Luke 17:21 “The kingdom of God is within you” to reinforce their ideas with a biblical phrase still familiar to some western ears. This gives the impression that essentially EM and Jesus’ teaching are the same. The context of the Gospels and the teaching of Jesus makes it quite clear that what Jesus meant by these words is in fact the complete opposite to what EM teaches! (3) Jesus, standing in the midst of the crowd, is saying: ‘The kingdom of God is entered by an inner act of faith and trust in me its King. I am here in your midst now and if you want to enter my kingdom you must submit to my rule, obey and follow me.’ Jesus is not found within us he must be invited in and submitted to and we must first turn away from our inflated selves and seek forgiveness for our pride and independence.

In John 10:1-18 Jesus takes the metaphor of the sheepfold and the shepherd and says that only those who come into the fold via the shepherd are members of the flock of God. The shepherd sleeps across the entrance to the fold. Any one trying to enter the sheepfold some other way is either a thief or a wolf! (4)

In the Christian faith when a person is encountered by God in Jesus Christ and they respond and submit to him in repentance and faith the image of God in which they were created is restored. They are not absorbed and their identity and personhood annihilated or lost, they in fact find it renewed. (5) They have now entered into a union with Christ who became incarnate, took on human flesh, lived, died and then rose from the dead. For Christians the resurrected body is a real body, renewed, but in continuity with our former body. Christianity is about incarnation not excarnation! Christians are about the renewing and perfecting of the self in the image of Christ not its annihilation. (6)

It is very instructive that the development of hospitals, orphanages, and modern medicine did not develop in the East but in the West influenced by the Christian teaching of the value of the individual life, the body, and the importance of the physical world. The physical world is to be respected and enjoyed but not worshiped for it is not God. It was made, like us, by God and reflects his glory but it is not God. These distinctions lie at the heart of the difference between EM and Christianity. (7)


  1. ‘The Essence of Christianity” by L. Feuerbach 1841. See also The New Dictionary of Theology” IVP 1988 p258 -259.
  2. See “The Empty Self” Gnostic and Jungian Foundations of Modern Identity” by J. Satinover Grove Books no. 61 1995.
  3. See Romans 1:18-25. (NIV) Note the clear distinction between the Creator and the created order.
  4. John18:36-37
  5. IICor.5:17
  6. Phil. 3:7-14
  7. Rom 1:18-25. Psl.19:1-4