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Despair and social disease

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 14 September 2015

If we lose theology we also lose anthropology. Or, in other terms, if God is dead than our death will quickly follow. Thus the crisis for our age after the death of God is the loss of the truly human leading to an inhumane humanity.

There are various signs that this process is well on the way. In Victoria religious education has been displaced by relationships training in order to "stamp out" domestic violence (not that I am a particular defender of RE in schools). The Child Protection minister Helen Morton as reported in The West Australian of Sept 7 has stirred up a similar uproar in Western Australia.

While I sympathise with importance of this issue as a grave problem in our society, the minister, and I suspect those in high places in Victoria, believe that the cause of such violence can be put down to community attitudes. The solution: change community attitudes. Use the education system to teach people, particularly men, that violence in the home is unacceptable.


Of course the offenders should face the full force of the law and the government acts sensibly in providing safe houses and highlighting the problem. My difficulty is with the idea that we as a community can simply decide to end violence in the home. What is left out of this simplistic aim, and what will defeat it in the end, is a lack of understanding of human nature.

We, as a society have lost the deep understanding of the human bequeathed to us from our founding religious tradition. That witness to the human dilemma tells us that good intentions and the law are not enough and that we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We hear the agonised writing of St Paul telling us of his frustration that he cannot do what he knows is the good: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." Rom. 7:15.

Paul understood that good intentions and the law was not enough, indeed these led not to self improvement but to self delusion. But we moderns, in the shadow of the Enlightenment, have put our trust in will and reason and we think that will carry us through to a better place. Theologically educated readers will recognize the heresy of Pelagianism.

But when we look at governmental programs designed to address problems that are essentially spiritual, we see few success stories. For example, every new government decides to close the gap between aboriginal people and the rest of the nation and after the expenditure of millions of dollars have little to show for it. Add to this the failure of the war on drugs. What is missing is an understanding of the deep spiritual malaise that is at the center of intractable personal problems.

Human disharmony is a thing of the spirit (an inadequate word but the best we have). The underlying cause of violence and drug taking lies at the depth of the human soul hidden from secular concerns. It is hidden because we have lost the concepts and the language that address it and the separation of Church and State has made sure that it remains lost.

The man who hits out at his wife and children nurses a great ball of disappointment and resentment and self-hatred that cannot be cured by education or even self-awareness. Neither can it be cured by more robust law enforcement. The government has no cure for despair: here it is out of its depth.


The civilization of the West was built on the two pillars of Church and State, each taking its role. With the effective retreat of the Church from the public square the State has taken up, in an entirely amateurish way, the reformation of human behavior and thought. The tool that it has to hand is the education and judicial system.

Our education system is in danger of being loaded up with health and safety issues that will displace the real objective of education: the cultural formation of the human person. What we get is piecemeal attempts at social engineering when we should have broad formation of the human person produced by the classical humanities and the life of the Church.

The formation of human identity is not achieved by moral instruction that exists apart from a practiced and holistic tradition. Behavior comes from Being. It is an expression of Being. When Being is governed by despair behavior is self-destructive and violent. Being belongs to religious discourse that is disinterested and produces behavior, by the back door as it were.

The problem with health and safety instruction in school is that it has an obvious function: it has been devised by someone who is concerned about a particular social ill and this is they way they think they can correct it. Teenagers are not stupid, they can see this coming and they feel manipulated.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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