Friday, 27 May 2011

Daniel Dennett Breaks the Spell

It's interesting how over the past decade some of our more militant atheists have taken to using the techniques of religion to promote their cause.  Not that they've become religious - that would be absurd - but they hold conventions, they promote atheism on the backs of buses, and they write works of atheist apologetics.  The advent of Islamic terrorism, and their belief that this is a sign of the deeply dangerous nature of religion (though Stalin's atrocities were somehow not similar evidence of the dangers of atheism), has made them militant.


Like Christian apologetics, these works are not really written for those outside the tent.  They are written for those within to give them ammunition with which to defend their belief, or lack thereof.  The best known work of this sort may be Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, in which the western world's crankiest atheist fires his shotgun furiously at religion.  However, because he knows very little about religion, Dawkins is unable to get a clear sight on his target and misses by a mile. 

Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell is a different kettle of fish.  He is much politer than Dawkins, in the kind of condescending way that would make you think that he, not Dawkins, was the Englishman.  He also appears to know more about religion than Dawkins, although this is rather like saying I know more about nuclear physics than my four-year-old nephew.  Dennett has read a few religious texts, seemingly at random, and found them confusing.  So confusing that he believes they are actually meaningless, and suggests that even religious people don't really believe them (how could anyone believe such nonsense?) they just say they do because that is what their religion requires. 

A couple of times he refers disparagingly to "Paul Tillich's concept of 'The Ground of All Being' (whatever that means)".  Perhaps a good way to find out what Tillich means would be to read his works, but for some reason none of them appear in his extensive bibliography.  Instead he provides an extensive list of works by anthropologists and evolutionary biologists.  No wonder Dennett is baffled.

The full title tells you the story of this book very succinctly - Breaking the Spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon.  Firstly, of course, it contains a double message - believers are "under a spell", somehow deceived into believing, and religion is akin to magic.  The subtitle tells you what sort of spell - a spell created naturally by the processes of human evolution.  This is merely the first of many snide references to religion.  Just because Dennett is politer than Dawkins, this doesn't mean he is any more sympathetic to religious believers.

However, Dennett is not attempting to prove that religion is a natural phenomenon.  Rather, this is his starting point, his foundational assumption.  His purpose, having accepted this assumption pretty much as a matter of course, is to show how it might have come about.  The word might is important here, because he repeatedly stresses that the possible evolutionary processes he cites are unproven - but in his view worthy of, and open to, further research and evidence.  This does not stop him from going from one unproven hypothesis to the next, building a house of cards which could fall at the slightest touch.

He asks us to accept, for starters, that the origin of all religion is ancestor worship.  The evolutionary practice of imprinting on our parents, and obeying them, with its obvious survival benefits, is thus developed into a a metaphysical belief that our ancestors remain present after death.  This, he says, is the origin of animism, the most primitive form of religion and hence the foundation stone of all other religions.  On this rather questionable foundation he then builds his speculative edifice explaining the process of evolution from this point to the elaborate world religions of today.

I won't rehearse the whole tale here.  Read it for yourself if you enjoy such stuff.  What I'd like to point out are just a couple of his key assumptions.  Aside from his assumption that religion is a product of evolution by natural selection, his first foundational assumption is that all religion is basically the same phenomenon.  Hence it makes sense to talk of religions as a single category with a common origin.  Following on from this, we are asked to accept (actually we are not asked, it is just assumed we will) that the religions of more technologically "primitive" people like Australian Aboriginal people or New Guinea tribesman are more primitive than those of techologically advanced nations.  This equation of technological with intellectual primitivity is breathtaking and unstated.

However, Dennett's big idea, borrowed from Dawkins, is the idea of "memes".  He cites the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word "meme" as "an element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means".  However, in explaining the concept and its applicability to religion he goes much further.  Ideas that are passed on and repeated through cultures without a clear origin or single author are said to have a "life" of their own.  To illustrate the idea he uses a number of examples.  For instance, he cites words and their particular pronunication, both of which change over time within a culture without anyone explicitly deciding that this should be so.  He cites folk music, where the words and tune are passed from one person to the other, changing along the way.  Folk songs, and folk religions, he says, have no author, they are "free floating" cultural articles intent, like genes, on their own survival, not on the survival of the species to which they are attached.

Perhaps his most telling analogy, and one that gives the game away, is the analogy with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite which infests rats and causes them to dance in front of cats.  When the cat kills and eats the rat, Toxoplasma crosses into the cat and breeds in its gut.  This dancing behaviour, he says, does not benefit the rat (or the cat), it benefits the parasite.  Memes behave in a similar way (especially religious ones) - they make us do things which are not helpful to us and may be downright dangerous, in order to ensure their own survival.

There are a number of aspects of the idea of memes (the meme for memes, if you like) that make it attractive people like Dennett and therefore ensure its survival.  For one thing, its apparent similarity to the idea of genes makes it sound impressively scientific.  However, unlike genes no-one has yet succeeded in identifying a phyical basis for memes.  Nor does Dennett suggest that they act in the kind of predictable, mathematical way that enabled Gregor Mendel to surmise the existence of genes long before the discovery of DNA.  Indeed, there is no evidence for their existence at all, they are simply an idea.  This makes the Toxoplasma gondii analogy so misleading as to be downright mischievous from someone who pretends to scientific objectivity.  Not only does this nasty little parasite have a physical existence, it is an entire multi-genetic, complex organism in its own right. 

Secondly, the idea of memes enables the likes of Dennett to depersonalise processes they find troublesome.  Instead of being things people do they somehow "do" themselves.  Hence, as Marilynne Robinson points out, they are able to take reasoning and conscious action out of the equation.

Yet this requires a logical leap of which Dennett seems unconscious.  He assumes that because we don't know the identity of the author of a folk song, this means that it doesn't have one.  If I were to remove the cover of Dennett's book and circulate it without its identifying marks, this would not make it any less Dennett's work.  Its readers would just not know that.

In the end, the word "meme"is simply a new piece of jargon, serving like all jargon to obscure rather than enlighten.  You could just as easily use time-honoured words like "idea", "cultural practice" or "belief" and you would not only be more comprehensible, you would be more precise, because these are not the same thing.  You would then be able to talk sensibly about what people are doing when they think, believe and act, without the baggage of a dubious analogy with genetics.

Atheists love this book as well they should.  It is elegant, eloquent and biting.  Religion is subjected to all the rhetorical tricks available to a highly educated, skilled and experienced communicator.  Yet paradoxically it provides comfort to a religious person like me.  If this is the best the atheists have to offer, I have no need to abandon my faith just yet.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

"Not a Science Exercise"

When the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) released its discussion paper about revised water allocations in the Basin late last year, copies were publicly burnt in communities throughout the area.  This was because the plan recommended substantial reductions in allocations for irrigation - 4,000 gigalitres a year all up, a reduction of up to one third of allocations in some areas.  The Commonwealth Government quickly withdrew the plan and changed the terms of reference to put more weight on economic concerns.  The chair of the MDBA resigned in disgust and was replaced by former NSW Labor Minister Craig Knowles.

Now we read that the Wentworth Group, a group of environmental scientists attempting to shape water policy round the country, has withdrawn from discussions about the new plan.  They say proposed reductions being discussed are less than 3,000 gigalitres and this would be an expensive and useless exercise.  They want an independent review of the science behind the plan.

Mr Knowles responds:

Science is important, but so are other things. This is not just about a science exercise for a whole lot of academics and scientists. It's actually about real lives, real people, real economies.  If it was just as easy to say, "Let's pour 4,000 gigalitres down the river and everything'll be right," they don't need me in the job. They probably need the chief scientist of Australia. But I think Australia has said, that communities in the Basin have said this is more than just a science exercise. This is about people, their lives, their hopes, their futures.

So if the new plan is not going to be based on science, what will it be based on?  Guesswork?

Mr Knowles thinks scientists are just another interest group, with their views needing to be balanced against everyone else's.  We'll lean a bit towards the scientists, a bit towards the farmers, a bit towards the city-dwellers, and come up with a compromise everyone can live with. 

The problem is, science is not like that.  It's the study of natural phenomena.  Of course scientists are real people too.  They have their own views and values, but they also have detailed knowledge and skills in the various subjects needed to inform environmental decisions.  To use the word Mr Knowles seems to love, science is about what's real, not what we wish was real.

Unlike the farmers and small town business people along the river system, these scientists don't have an immediate financial interest in the outcome,  They will be able to keep on researching riparian ecology whatever the decisions of the MDBA.  It's just that if these are bad decisions, the results will be a lot more depressing.

So, instead of a plan based on good science, it looks like we are going to get the sort of compromise that is typical of Australian politics.  We will half solve the problem.  The ecology of the river will almost be recued.  The farms will almost be viable.  Mr Knowles will look like a fix-it man, but nothing will really be fixed.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Jesus Preaches at Nazareth 2

So, to continue from Part 1...

One of the things that many of the writers on the life of Jesus agree on - including Albert Schweitzer, Albert Nolan and NT Wright - is that Jesus was a prophet of the "end times", that the core of his message was that a crisis was coming and they needed to get ready.  This is shown in the way Jesus begins his public ministry in all four Gospels.  Matthew and Mark begin with a summary statement: "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand."  The first public acts of Jesus in John's gospel are the changing of water into wine, symbolising renewal, and the cleansing of the temple, which presents a clear challenge to the Jewish authorities to reform or be destroyed. 

Likewise, the scene in Luke 4:16-30 shows Jesus announcing that the prophecy of the coming kingdom was in the process of fulfillment, and talking about what sort of kingdom it would be.

It didn't take any special message from God to know that a crisis was looming for Israel.  The country was buzzing with revolution.  Prophets and would-be Messiahs appeared regularly.  Militias trained in the hills and stocked arms.  The resentment against Rome could become open war at any moment.

When it did, one of two things was going to happen.  The national leaders - the priests and wealthy nobles of Jerusalem and Judea - worldly wise and realistic, knew that the poorly armed and poorly trained revolutionaries would be no match for the Roman army.  The result would be a massacre.  Everything they negotiated and schemed to maintain about their nation, and their own privileged positions in it, would be destroyed.  These people worked hard to avoid a confrontation, to keep the revolutionaries weak and inactive.

The other possibility was that God would intervene, and restore Israel to the power and glory it enjoyed in the days of David and Solomon.  This is what the revolutionaries, and many other people not directly involved in the revolts, prayed and hoped for.

What set Jesus apart wasn't his perception of this situation, it was his response to it. 

He rejected the compromise and self-service of the high priests and the Pharisees, who mixed a focus on personal piety and ritual purity with a series of compromises with the Empire.  He named the hypocrisy of this position and made powerful enemies.

At the same time he rejected the idea of armed revolution, teaching his followers the art of non-violence and passive resistance, encouraging them to look at their own motivations and deal with their own anger and hatred rather than just focus on the oppressor.  Hence, no milita would come to his aid when he was arrested.

At the same time he charted a third way, of which we can see many elements already in this opening sermon in Nazareth.
  • The Kingdom of God was to be a kingdom for the poor, for those who were suffering.  It was to be a kingdom of justice, and kingdom where suffering was to end and freedom was to be the rule.
  • It was to be an outward-looking, inclusive kingdom, not an exclusive national one.  All nations and tribes would be brought under its banner, not as servants of the dominant race but as equal partners.
  • In this kingdom, enemies were to be loved and welcomed, not exiled and killed.
That wasn't the sort of kingdom the Nazarenes wanted.  It's not the sort of kingdom most of us want.  We have a sense of our own superiority, and a will to power which leads us to try and force other people to live as we do.  We enjoy our comforts, and our securities.  If other people suffer that's unfortunate but we're not going to let it upset our way of life.  We have a sense of entitlement.

It's so hard for us to be ready for the challenge of Jesus.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Jesus Preaches at Nazareth

Next Sunday I get to do one of my rare preaching gigs.  The first for a long time and for perhaps the first time ever at St Andrews I get to choose the topic.  So I thought that all this reading of Lives of Jesus has to be good for something and I'm planning a talk on the story in Luke 4:14-30.   Jesus preaches for the first (and possibly only) time in the synagogue at Nazareth.  So I thought I'd try out my thoughts here and see if they make sense.  This is Part 1 - Part 2 is here.

First, here's the passage.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.  When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”  And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.  But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.  There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I've always found this a puzzling passage, because the vibe goes so quickly from happiness to uncontrollable rage, and because Jesus seems to deliberately provoke this rage.  However, my recent reading, and especially the commentary from Kenneth Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, has helped me to understand it better.

First of all we need to understand about Nazareth.  Nazareth was probably founded by the Hasmonean kings who ruled Israel from around 140 BC until the coming of the Romans in 63 BC.  They ruled a small kingdom, based on Jerusalem and surrounded by other small Gentile kingdoms.  One of their methods of securing and potentially expanding their kingdom was to plant Jewish settlements on its outskirts, in areas dominated by non-Jews - much as the Israelis are doing now in Palestinian areas.  Nazareth was one of these settlements. 

It was a small town or village - it could have had anywhere from 500 to 2,000 residents at the time of Jesus, probably at the lower end of this range.  Just down the road was Sepphoris, a large Romanised town which served as the capital of Galilee.  A little further away was Tiberias, a rich persons resort on the Sea of Galilee where the Herods had a palace.  Nazareth was a little conservative Jewish outpost in a mostly Gentile region, ruled by Roman soldiers.

This is the community where Jesus lived for most of his life.  The congregation would have included his parents and siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and long-time friends.  Now for the first time he appeared to them as a travelling preacher.  The passage he chose to read was pretty much the mission statement for the Nazareth community, a passage which would have been dear to all of them, from Isaiah 61.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;

to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.

Because their shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.

For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

You can see why they loved this.  They will be comforted, freed from their oppression and captivity.  They are to restore the glory of the ancient kingdom which has been destroyed, the Gentiles who ruled them will become their servants and they will be the honoured elder children receiving the double portion.  This was the hope Jesus' father, the descendent of King David earning a living as a humble tradie, would have held on to as he carted his tools down the road to Sepphoris to do building work for the Gentile dogs. 

So when Jesus read the beginning of this passage to them and then said "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing", their reaction would have been, "You beauty!  The revolution has come and it's being led by a local boy."

This is what they hated about the next bit.  He referred them to two stories which they would have heard from their childhoods onwards.  The first is from 1 Kings 17, and talks about how Elijah, during a terrible famine brought on by God's anger at Ahab's kingdom, was sent to shelter with a Phoenician widow, whom he supplied with miraculous flour and oil and whose son he healed.  The second, from 2 Kings 5, is the story of Elisha healing the Aramaean general Naaman and refusing to accept payment.

No wonder they were angry.  Jesus was proposing himself as Messiah, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah.  But he was not a nationalistic Messiah.  He would not crush their enemies and give them power and riches.  Instead he would show compassion to their enemies, both the rich and powerful and the poor and destitute.  The part of the prophecy he read - the freeing of captives, restoring of sight, rescuing from oppression, the "year of the Lord's favour", applied to everyone.  If they didn't like that, they could go without.  They preferred the latter, and tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

As for them, so for us.  Our rejoicing at Osama bin Laden's ex-judicial killing, and our harshness towards asylum seekers, are the opposite of the two stories Jesus refers to.  Instead of comforting and feeding the poor widows and their children (and the oppressed fleeing their home governments) we imprison them.  Instead of seeking the healing and gratitude of enemy generals, we seek their death.  I suspect we would be among those throwing Jesus off the cliff, too.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Hung Parliament 9 Months On

I used to think a hung parliament wouldn't be such a bad idea.  After all it worked here in Queensland, where the Labor Party had to appease a rural independent for a whole term.  It didn't do them any harm.  Plenty of other countries have governments that include loose coalitions of parties cobbled together post-election and they still seem to function.

However, in the case of the Gillard Government I'm starting to have second thoughts.   Since Gillard finally made her peace with the Greens and Independents in September, things seem to have gone badly in a lot of different ways.

I don't necessarily mean on governance.  There have been some successes here.  The government has managed to actually get agreement on a health reform package and new workplace safety laws, while some good progress has been made on a carbon tax.  Other areas are more disappointing, especially on asylum seekers where Gillard has become so like Howard she may as well shave her head and put on glasses.

The problem is more in the public sphere, and I think this has a lot to do with the kind of coalition Labor was forced to negotiate.  Where the Queensland hung parliament only required the Beattie government to negotiate with one reasonably predictable rural independent, the Gillard government has to get agreement from the Greens, a more or less left-leaning independent in Andrew Wilkie, and two rural conservatives in Windsor and Oakshott. 

This seems to be giving the government two problems.  First of all, it makes it schizophrenic.  It has to lean right to get legislation through the lower house, then lean left to get it through the Senate.  This constant swaying causes motion sickness and loss of direction.

Secondly, the diversity of the minor players creates an incentive for stakeholders to conduct their lobbying in public, trying to build pressure on Labor's partners.  Tony Abbott is more than willing to play along by opposing everything. 

Nothing illustrates this better than the debate over the carbon tax, where representatives of various poluting industries have lined up to publicly whack the government and demand outrageous compensation for losing the right to ruin the planet.

All this posturing and threatening creates an air of perpetual crisis.  Anything the government attempts is greeted with choruses of protest from people who wouldn't bother if there was a solid majority government.  The Labor Party, already spooked by Rudd's dethroning and its swift decline in popularity, gets more skittish with every passing poll.  Gillard, having ruthlessly dethroned Rudd, knows she has to watch her own back.  Abbott gets more strident by the day.  How much longer can we stand the drama?

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Commentariat Scam! Slammed, Slapped Down and Told to Take a Hike.

Do you, like me, despair at the quality of Australian jounalism? 

I'm not talking about the sort of tabloid journalism you see on shows like 60 Minutes or newspapers like The Courier Mail.  There, at least, we have balance.  "Tenants From Hell" is balanced by "Landlords From Hell".  "Small Businesses Rip Off Customers" is balanced by"Big Businesses Rip Off Contractors".  "Government Bungling" is balanced by "Welfare Cheats".  It's awful but there's not much we can do about it.  As a wise man once said, "you can't stop the birds from flying but you don't have to let them nest in your hair".

 No, what raises my blood pressure is when tabloid habits start to leak over into supposedly serious sources like the ABC, the Sydney Morning Herald or The Australian.  I know they have tight deadlines, but if we don't stop this leakage then before long our brains will be turned to porridge. 

To help prevent this tragedy, I'm putting out there for public comment a list of words that should be permanently banned from news coverage.  Here they are.

1. Hike
As in "Reserve Bank Announces Interest Rate Hike".  This word is intended to create drama and outrage, suggesting that the rate increase, despite being only 0.25%, is extreme, unconscionable and will cause widespread economic and social destruction. 

Possible alternatives - increase, rise.  (The word "hike" would still be permitted in reference to long walks in the rainforest.)

2. Scam
As in "Electricity Scam Exposed".  This word is used to suggest fraud and deception on a grand scale without actually using the word "fraud", since fraud is a crime and the newspaper could be sued for accusing somebody of it.  Hence when you see the word "scam" you should instantly be aware that someone is being accused of something that may or may not be wrong, or even happening.

Possible alternatives - "There Might Be A Problem With Your Electricity Bill, Perhaps You Should Check".

3. Slam
As in "Unions Slam New Workplace Laws".  Apart from being deleted on suspicion because it rhymes with "scam", this word is used to heighten the sense of conflict in relation to the issue at hand, even if the unions only disagree with 5 clauses in the 150 clause piece of legislation.

Possible alternatives - "criticise", "disagree with", "seek changes to".

4. Slapped Down
As in "Today the Prime Minister slapped down unions over changes to workplace laws."  This is another term used to heighten the sense of conflict and has the added bonus of providing a vivid visual image.  Vivid but totally misleading.  Slapping someone is a criminal offence.

Possible alternatives - "refused to listen to", "disagreed with".

5. Commentariat
As in "the commentariat will scorn Mr Abbott's views."  This word is used as a term of abuse by newspaper columnists, usually those of a right-wing persuasion, about other newspaper columnists with less conservative views.  The word is intended to say to the reader, "I'm not one of those, you can trust me."  Whenever you point the finger at someone else there are three pointing back at you, Mr or Ms Right Wing Commentator!

Possible alternatives - "people who disagree with me", "people I don't like".

Do you have other words to add to my hate list?

Saturday, 14 May 2011

A Little Tea, A Little Chat

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, brought home from some second hand book stall or other and then left to gather dust with the other classics of Australian literature which I feel I ought to read and occasionally do.

Stead is not for the fainthearted.  Living in various American and European cities in between bookending her life in Australia, she wrote amidst the horrors of the Great Depression and World War 2   Her books are depressing, dense and difficult.  You have to be determined.

Have I sold it to you yet?  Well, perhaps I should try a little harder.  Mediocre writing can be easy to read, great writing always requires an effort.  The reward for that effort is a rich reading experience and a different way of seeing the world.  That's what you get from A Little Tea, A Little Chat.  Not a way of viewing the world you would like to adopt, but one that, at least for me, gives me an extra point of reference.

The central character in this rather strange modern morality tale is Robert Grant, a New York business man.  Grant is apparently a cotton dealer although his business interests are broad and somewhat mysterious.  You know he is rich, although it is never clear how rich.  You also know, right from the beginning, that he is an extremely unpleasant person, and that most of the people who surround him are just as bad, some of them worse.  Even his most constant friend, David Flack, an apparently honest man, still does Grant's bidding enthusiastically and apparently for no reward except the distant promise of a quiet retirement in Rome, or on a farm.  Yet we know, and Flack must know, that Grant makes this promise to everyone who helps him, and to every woman he seduces (of whom there are many) and has no intention of ever keeping it.

The book has very little in the way of plot, and what it has is depressing.  In the midst of all his affairs financial and amorous, Grant has an affair with a beautiful woman called Barbara Kent, and she proves his equal in the game of seduction and deceit.  Their various attempts to get the better of each other, their mutual extortions, infidelities and negotiations, represent the core of the novel.  It is a kind of love story, the two dancing around each other until, in the end, Barbara finds a way to blackmail Grant conclusively.  She moves in permanently with him and the pair live in a kind of domestic harmony underpinned by the knowledge that they have each others measure.

Around this core are various scenes, often laden with a subtle black comedy that sneaks up on you to lighten the bleakness.  At one point Grant engages one of his shadiest associates, March, to use his supposed Washington and Toronto contacts to find out if Barbara is a spy.  The resulting double deception, in which March first dupes Grant with false information, and then Grant turns the tables and manages to gradually force March to return every cent paid to him, is intriguing and baffling by turns.  Equally intriguing is Grant's obsession with co-writing a play based on his life, culminating in a farcical reading of the apparently awful play to a prominent actress.  And what are we to make of one of Grant's nastiest associates, Alf Goodwin, berating him in public about buying him the wrong sized underwear?

These are, however, light relief from the more sinister scenes, in which Grant cheats his business associates, betrays his various sexual partners and neglects and abandons his own family.  Here, just as in the comedies, we see a man completely without principle or compassion, a man it is dangerous to know, and yet one who is oddly compelling and seems to come out the better of every scrape and deception. 

It is often hard to work out what is going on.  This is because much of the story is told through monologues placed in Grant's mouth, as he rambles about his business interests, his love life and his family.  These monologues change and shift throughout the book, and even in a single page you can hear Grant contradict himself, shifting his position so that both his listener and the reader are baffled and overwhelmed.  Where is the truth in all this? And what is he trying to acheive?  And why, despite his obvious lies and betrayals, do his friends stay around?  Right to end of the novel, none of these questions is answered clearly.

So why would Stead present us with such a character?  What is the purpose of this venal story, this reverse morality tale?  At one level, this is a story about the moral heart of the society she observed in post-war America.  All of our relationships, she seems to be suggesting, are bargains, negotiated with the ruthlessness of a black market business deal.  This deal-making amorality at the heart of New York society, the heart of the capitalist West, drives everything from our personal relationships to our decisions about war and peace.  The best we can hope for is an uneasy truce driven by mutual blackmail.  The various cryptic references to Barbara's communism and her supposed espionage are perhaps meant to suggest that as for Grant and Barbara, so for America and Russia. 

Indeed Grant is a bit like capitalism.  He promises everything to everyone, and they all want to believe him and keep flocking to him even though they know deep down they will get nothing from him.  He gives them hope in a future free from toil.  Everyone knows he will never deliver.  But what other hope do they have?  And this is the ultimate tragedy of this book. There is nothing better on offer. There is no white knight, no corruption busting official, no whistleblower to put a stop to it all.   Grant is a dangerous friend to have, indeed he is not a friend at all, only an associate who will fleece you unless you fleece him first.  Yet he is, in his own words, the honeybear, and if you want the honey you must get it from him or go without.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Absence of Mind

Of the books I read while I was away on holidays, the one that got my brain moving the most was Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson.  The chapters of this book were originally a series of lectures given as part of the wonderfully named Dwight Harrington Terry Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy

Her subject is what she calls "parascientific writing" - that is writings, generally by scientists, which attempt to apply scientific insights to subjects such as religion or human culture which are strictly beyond the bounds of those sciences.  Obviously uppermost on her mind are those we think of as "scientifics atheists" - the Dawkins, Dennets and EO Wilsons of this world - but she also delves further back to the writers of the late 19th and early 20th century such as Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, not to mention a whole chapter on Sigmund Freud. 

One of the key aspects of this kind of thinking, she says, is that its authors see our society as having crossed some sort of intellectual threshold - whether represented by Darwin's theory of evolution, Freud's exploration of the science of human behaviour, or Einstein's theory of relativity - which requires a re-evaluation of everything we thought we knew. 

This motif of shocking newness that must startle us into painful recognition is very much a signature of the "the modern" and potent rhetorically, more so because we are conditioned to accept such claims as plausible.  But it often achieves its effects by misrepresenting an earlier state of knowledge or simply failing to enquire into it.

One consequence of this way of thinking is that earlier ways of understanding the universe, and particularly religious ones, are seen as outmoded and needing to be replaced. 

The degree to which debunking is pursued as if it were an urgent crusade, at whatever cost to the wealth of insight into human nature which might come from attending to the record humankind has left, and without regard to the probative standards scholarship as well as science should answer to, may well be the most remarkable feature of the modern period in intellectual history.

Or to translate - modern scholars are committed to debunking no matter what the intellectual cost or value of that exercise.

To illustrate this practice, she spends the entire second lecture talking about the problem of altruism.  The problem is this - if we have evolved through a process of "survival of the fittest", then all our traits must have survival value.  What, then, is the survival value of altruism?  Surely the practice of sacrificing our lives for others is the very opposite of an adaptation for survival?

The writers in her critique attempt a number of explanations of this trait.  Perhaps it's evolutionary over-reach, a trait which has developed beyond its usefulness in a species already securely established.  Perhaps it has developed out of our need to save our descendents, and hence our gene-pool - or course we will save our children!  Perhaps it's an example of a "meme" - a self-replicating piece of cultural behaviour which attaches itself to our brains and is as self-seeking and self-relicating as any physical gene.

The core problem with each of these arguments, says Robinson, is that they rely on our conscious thoughts and motivations having no value. 

(The theories she has been discussing) represent the mind as a passive conduit of other purposes than those the mind ascribes to itself.  It reiterates that essential modernist position that our minds are not our own.  The conviction so generally shared among us, that we think in some ordinary sense of that word, that we reason and learn and choose in response to our circumstances and capacities, is simply... a persisting illusion serving a force or a process that is essentially unknown and indifferent to us.

This of course, begs the question about the value of these theories themselves.  If our motives and thought processes are mere slaves to some other, unconscious, process then surely this also applies to the theorising of the parascientists themselves.  However, Robinson doesn't go down that track.  Instead, she devotes her third lecture to the social thinking of Freud as expressed particularly in his Civilisation and its Discontents.  Here we find more of the same - our human religion, mythology and culture are simply the result of our hereditary trauma and the resulting suppression of our sexual and aggressive desires. 

So where does Robinson want to take us with all this?  What she tentatively begins to build in her final lecture is a view of humanity which rejects the reductionism of parascience, with its tendency to "strip away culture-making, as if it were a ruse and a concealment".  Instead, she wants to build a world-view which takes our history and culture seriously as pieces of evidence in the puzzle of the nature of humanity.

Each of us lives intensely within herself or himself, continuously assimilating past and present experience to a narrative and vision that are unique in every case yet profoundly communicable, whence the arts.  And we all live in a great reef of collective experience, past and present, that we receive and preserve and modify....The gifts we bring to the problem of making an account of the mind are overwhelmingly rich, severally and together....History and civilisation are an authoritative record the mind has left, is leaving and will leave, and objectivity deserving the name would take this record as a starting point.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Osama bin Laden

So Osama bin Laden finally got found and killed, in a major Pakistani urban area just a kilometre from a military academy.  Bloody images of the room in which he was shot are broadcast around the world.  Americans dance in the streets.  Western leaders struggle to hide their glee behind serious faces.  The world is a safer place, they say, now that bin Laden is no longer in it.

I'm not a fan of bin Laden.  He was the figurehead of an organisation that promotes and plans terrorist attacks.  He preached an extreme version of political Islam that oppresses everyone.  Yet I find it hard to share the glee.

I'm not convinced that his death does make the world a safer place.  He's been in hiding for ten years, his activity very limited.  Al Qaeda is a network of more or less independent cells and they will continue with or without him.  They will be angry.  They have a new martyr.

I'm also a little dubious about the method of his killing.  I would be interested to know if the soldiers involved made any serious attempt to arrest him and bring him to trial.  Did they have to shoot him to save their own lives?  Or was their mission to kill him?  Somehow we have legitimated ex-judicial execution and undermined our own system of law.  We have descended to his level.

Thirdly, I'm mindful of Jesus' saying in Matthew 5.

44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Love is difficult, too hard for us when we are faced with the kind of evil bin Laden brought into the world.  But that is the love Jesus asks of us.  Islamists accuse the US and its allies (including us) of being crusaders, of waging a holy war against Islam.  The  lightning raid in the Pakistani night and the scenes in New York will only reinforce that view.  For followers of Jesus there can be no holy wars.

My friend Lynn posted this quote from Martin Luther King on her Facebook page.

"Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."

Osama bin Laden's death, like the war he sought and inspired, leaves me with a profound sadness and a deepening fear for our future.

Monday, 2 May 2011

More On Universalism

My friend Trevor recently posted a Facebook link to an article in the New York Times entitled "The Case for Hell" by Robert Douthat.  So of course I've been thinking some more about Universalism and all that.

Douthat is obviously a believer in hell.  He laments what he sees as a decline in this belief, which he attributes to a growth in pluralism ("are Christians obliged to believe that Gandhi is in hell for being a Hindu?") and an increasing outrage at suffering which comes as a result of our prosperity and relative safety. 

However, he sees a problem with a faith that eliminates hell.

...to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

Perhaps Douthat has something like CS Lewis's view of damnation in mind - when we reject God, we are unable to recognise him, like the dwarfs at the end of The Last Battle who sit in a huddle in the midst of paradise and see it as a wasteland.  Hence, he slides over the question of Gandhi and onto the question of Tony Soprano, a fictional character who knows he is doing wrong and yet continues to do it.  In the process, he shows the weakness of his position.

To my mind this weakness is threefold.  Firstly, he assumes that the traditional Christian position is that people who devote their lives to evil will be sent to hell, while those who devote their lives to good will be taken to heaven.  In this sense hell is self-chosen and his argument makes some sense. 

However, this is not the traditional Christian view.  In this view we are all devoted to evil as a result of our participation in original sin, and we are saved by the grace of God, mediated through our faith in Christ.  This means indeed that Gandhi, who was clearly a fallible human being but devoted his life to doing good, would go to hell because he rejected the Christian faith.  On the other hand a notorious villain like Robert Mugabe is likely to go to heaven because despite devoting his life to oppression, murder and pillage he is a practicing Christian.

The second weakness is that by implication it sees death as the deadline for this decision.  We will appear before God in the next life and be called to account for what we have done in this one.  At that point, it will be too late to repent if we have not already done so.  Hence, our choices in this life matter, but in the next we will have no choice.  This is a crucial aspect of the cruelty of God in the traditional view - at the very moment when the veil is removed and we see the nature of reality clearly, it is too late to respond.  This highlights a point I have made before - most people who reject Christianity do so, like Gandhi, because they are unconvinced of its truth, not because they are deliberately and consciously rebelling against God.

The third problem with his argument, and for me the most serious, is that it assumes the only choices that matter are eternal ones.  The removal of choice in relation to heaven and hell (if this is indeed what Universalism represents) makes all other choices meaningless as well.  I find this perplexing.  Surely if I choose to be loving towards my wife and children - as opposed to either abusing or abandoning them - this choice matters here and now, irrespective of whether it leads me to heaven and hell.  Whether Robert Mugabe goes to heaven or hell, the people of Zimbabwe care deeply about what he does to their country.  In denying this Douthat is flirting dangerously with the idea of the illusory nature of earthly life.  He is suggesting that earthly suffering and joy don't really matter, all that matters is the next life.

A few years ago I read some books by Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk who wrote extensively on the spiritual life.  I would hardly like to compare myself to Merton.  However, one of his insights that has stuck with me is his description of how he would progress to a certain point in his spiritual development and then realise that what he thought was an expression of pure love for God was really an act of self-love and self-indulgence.  So he would abandon that, move to a deeper stage of spirituality, only to find his selfishness expressing itself again.

This is what the discussion about Universalism does for me.  How much has my faith been motivated by the selfish desire for eternal bliss, and by the fear of eternal torment?  If this is what motivates my faith, then once I have expressed that faith and moved "into the camp" what motivates me to do right?  Can I move beyond fear and desire and learn to truly act out of godly love?