A stethoscope to the moral heart

Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly, Karen Hitchcock, Black Inc.

As we keep being told, increasing numbers of us are becoming what we increasingly don’t want to be: old. And in our youth-obsessed society we put off growing old, which partly explains the almost manic passion with which many retirees travel and live life to the fullest, before the perils of old age begin stalking and we become a burden affecting ‘normal’ society.

We hear about the burden on taxpayers, and the ‘crises’ in our hospitals – that is the usual story – but Karen Hitchcock, a doctor and writer, suggests we instead have a crisis of attitude. In Dear Life she puts a stethoscope to the moral heart of our society, and diagnoses ageism. ‘Where’, she says, ‘are the parliamentary enquiries?’ She says that the elderly regularly tell us, self-deprecatingly, that they are a burden, and we, in our coldness, actually believe them. Because we largely agree.

And so, Hitchcock, writes, there is a pervasive desire to get the elderly out of hospitals so that they don’t ‘waste’ resources. A younger person exhibiting the same symptoms that elderly patients present would not be treated the same, but hospital staff often fear elderly patients’ slow recovery rates and that the hospital may get stuck with them.  The elderly, supposedly, just keep getting sick and it becomes less and less productive to treat them. When severe symptoms present, staff are often too quick to assume an elderly patient is dying and will shunt them off into palliative care. Often, however, following the level of care we would afford any other human being, elderly patients recover like other human beings.

It doesn’t help that, for various reasons, the elderly are over-proscribed. And often policy is contaminated by economic rationalism, leading to the neglect of patients themselves. But despite the rhetoric, Australia spends relatively little on hospital care and can afford to be more generous. Hitchcock also suggests that it doesn’t help that medical professionals are often lured into specialisation by the fat pay cheques, thereby turning them into doctors of symptoms rather than people. The book is full of harsh judgements, but by someone on the inside who can envisage better ways.

Just like other people, the elderly need time, touch, holistic understanding, and some lee-way. They need to be treated like adults. This, she says, is the problem with end-of-life agreements: they don’t take into account the journey of patients and medical staff, the ambiguities, the negotiations and changes-of-mind, and simply try to lock patients into black and white decisions. She is scathing about pontificating, under-informed celebrities such as Andrew Denton, who jump on the euthanasia bandwagon and are recklessly sure of their positions, where consideration is needed. Hitchcock, very movingly, argues from her place as a professional carer duty-bound to protect life, for better care for those alive, rather than simply assuming a quick exit is best for everyone. This is not a blanket condemnation of euthanasia, but a questioning of motive, and a note of caution.

In all this, Hitchcock comes across as almost heroic in her empathy, a view she would likely discount. She simply describes doctors and nurses as human beings, with faults like others. She praises and criticises where she deems it fair. She isn’t tarring all medical professionals, but drawing attention to cracks in the system. What comes across in her book is the picture of a society and a healthcare system that is muddle-headed and cold-hearted regarding the elderly. But we can be thankful for a practitioner such as herself who speaks loudly to our society, and gently to her patients.

(Reviewed for the Uniting Church)

A kind of materialist

Materialism, Terry Eagleton, Yale.

Terry Eagleton can usually be relied upon for a left-field viewpoint on religion, politics and culture, both in the senses of the political left and the simply surprising, even if he writes with common sense and a minimum of theoretical verbiage. In his latest book he investigates the concept of materialism (the philosophical concept rather than the idea of hording riches) particularly in the thought of Marx, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, with major contributions from the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas.

For Eagleton, Marx largely gets materialism right, arguing that the everyday determines how we think about things, rather than the other way around, and that material things should not be a means to an end, as in manufacturing simply for profit, for example.

Nietzsche held similar views about the roots of our ideas, spurned bourgeois philosophy in favour of brutal honesty and could see to the dark heart of things. (His celebrated ‘God is dead’ was meant to alert people to the fact that they spoke of God but acted as if He didn’t exist.) But Nietzsche got the practical application of materialism tragically wrong, arguing that the appalling conditions of many human beings in history is simply the price we need to pay to sustain the elite of society such as himself. (Those on the left in thrall to Nietzsche tend to conveniently overlook his fascist views, says Eagleton.)

Wittgenstein, who is somewhere in-between, thought philosophy was often hopelessly out of touch with reality, but he also, writes Eagleton, undervalued philosophy’s power. All three thinkers are wary of philosophy, but not in the sense, says Eagleton with his usual wit, that Brad Pitt might be.

Eagleton relies heavily on Aquinas, who is a kind of materialist – one who thought we are more than matter but didn’t dismiss the material, and held that body and soul, emotion and reason, feeling and thought are not so easily disentangled. It might surprise some to read Eagleton’s argument that Christianity is a materialist religion, but Jesus, who is supposedly God in material form, spent much time healing bodies, and his ‘spiritual’ teachings typically had a materialist bent – don’t get caught up in the struggle for wealth, feed the hungry, take care of the wounded stranger, welcome home the prodigal son with a feast.

And Christians are not just souls waiting for heaven, but material beings (of a ‘highly specific kind’, says Eagleton) working through the animation of the Holy Spirit for a better world. Neither are we just minds, but connected to other people through our bodily needs.

(A shorter version of this review appeared in Crosslight magazine.)

Sunsets and cancer


The Beauty and the Horror, Richard Harries, SPCK.

If you are going to write an apologia for the existence of the Christian God in the face of the existence of evil in the world, you have a number of hurdles to clear. You need persuasive arguments that avoid the trite and the clichéd and that avoid trivialising suffering. And the reasons for doubting God’s existence are plentiful: the fact that an omnipotent God shouldn’t need to permit grievous suffering, the lack of clear evidence of God’s hand in the world, the drabness or ineffectiveness of his supposed followers, the divisions within the church, the explanatory power of Darwinism and determinism and quantum physics and multiverse theory, the existence of multiple religions (they can’t all be right), the miserable lives of those who have never known God, the question of whether Christ died for intelligent alien life forms, and so forth.

Richard Harries’ book The Beauty and the Horror, which can be summarised in the question ‘why both sunsets and cancer?’, confronts at least some of these objections. More importantly, he takes serious objections to Christian faith as seriously as the questioners, and responds with a willingness to entertain doubts, but also with a refusal to simply throw up his hands. He emphasises that humans have asked about the meaning of life throughout history, and engages with a wide range of art and literature to elaborate on the consequences. Artists and novelists are, after-all, types of philosophers themselves.

When it comes to theodicy, the explanation for the existence of evil, Harries dismisses the idea that persists in some conservative circles of God needing to test us, but goes over the old arguments about free will needing to coexist with the possibilities of good and bad. To the objection that heaven is supposedly free of evil so our world could be also, Harries replies that we must have known both good and evil to appreciate heaven’s evil-free state. About similar arguments from the philosopher Richard Swinburne, whom Harries quotes, Terry Eagleton, generally an apologist for religion, tartly comments that only an academic could believe such nonsense. Harries is rightly unimpressed with the suggestions of some, such as the philosopher Ronald Dworkin, that we should live as if the world has meaning even if it doesn’t. This sounds like more academic ducking and weaving.

In making the case for belief in God you are better, as Harries does, commenting on the practice of living out faith, and how that illuminates the intellectual dilemmas. It’s not much good to suggest to an atheist that they have to be a Christian to understand why there is evil in the world, but we can’t escape the fact that living out faith enlightens areas of mystery that existed before faith, or that exist in conjunction with faith, as is often the case. Harries would never suggest that having faith solves all your problems. The great English writer and man of faith Samuel Johnson wrote that it was pointless trying to understand evil. Attempts to understand evil can paralyse us and make us crazy, like Hamlet. Harries continues by saying that if we are aware of evil’s existence we are better to try and combat it than understand it, as indeed Jesus did when he cured people and was dismissive of lay philosophising about why the people were sick in the first place.

Anyway, it is not generally the existence of evil that has encouraged unbelief. For millennia people have believed in God while suffering horribly. Generally it was the privileged, such as particular Enlightenment philosophers, who looked upon the suffering, rather than the suffering themselves, and who were sceptical of God’s existence. And living well doesn’t usually make you praise God; it makes you feel he’s unnecessary. Atheism comes with autonomy. Today, as Harries and Eagleton point out, the biggest threat to faith among the masses is consumerism. The availability of goods and the prevailing philosophy that these goods are the answer to whatever might be wrong with us has shunted God aside.

(Reviewed for the Uniting Church of Australia.)

‘Optical gyrations’

Our Mob, God’s Story: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists share their faith, Louise Sherman and Christobel Mattingley (eds), Bible Society

In one of last year’s better books, Position Doubtful, Kim Mahood writes about how indigenous peoples don’t just passively receive good and bad elements of introduced European culture. This, she argues, ignores indigenous agency and plays into Eurocentric and anthropological stereotypes of a fixed culture encroached upon by, and unable to resist, modernity. Instead indigenous peoples adapt, innovate, resist and utilise. This ability is on show in the Bible Society’s Our Mob, God’s Story, a coffee table book that celebrates Australian indigenous art with a Christian orientation, as well as marking the Bible Society’s bicentenary. The artists here tell the biblical stories through the style and symbolism of traditional and modern indigenous art, and display a Christian faith as deep as their connection to the land, and as vital as rain. In many paintings orientation is to the fore, in that the aerial view of much desert painting, which highlights orientation to land and community, here also includes the orientation that comes through faith.

There are variations in style, and variations in quality too, I suppose, but that may be subjective. There are paintings here in the Western Desert style, often described as one of the great art movements of the twentieth century, with their dot-patterned ‘optical gyrations’ and bird’s eye view of landscape and history, X-ray paintings from the far north, and paintings that incorporate European art elements. These harmonise with the subject matter – the Bible seen through indigenous eyes alert to story, country, justice and community. This is art with simplicity and depth.

It seems unfair to single out artists, but as an illustration of the breadth of the collection, we move from the easy movement of the dot paintings of Pitjantjara leaders Rupert Jack and Hector Tjupuru Burton to Daphne Davis’s stringy, black calligraphic figuration in vibrant backgrounds that recall Pro Hart. Susan Nakamarra Nelson offers controlled, pared-back scenes that are reminiscent of both colour field painting and Rover Thomas’s use of spacious planes. Julie Dowling’s highly accomplished work combines realism, subtle dot painting background and Renaissance iconography. Margy Adams, like Ian Fairweather, places blurry white stylised faceless figures in tight groupings. Fern Martins reimagines the Stations of the Cross and the Easter story in a bushfire-blackened and eventually rejuvenated forest landscape.

The art and faith here contradict the idea of Christianity as merely a foreign imposition on indigenous culture. The artists here show that indigenous culture can embrace Christian faith, interpret it in appropriate ways, find resonances with traditional beliefs and use it as a resource. In particular, the artists here tell personal stories of the value of faith, away from wider issues of culture. The book also shows that the process is two-way, with indigenous culture able to reinterpret and rejuvenate Christianity for the Australian context. Proceeds from the book fund the work of translating the Bible into indigenous languages, which in turn helps to preserve that culture.

Keeping sane

Albert Camus lived through an era not unlike our own – saturated with a hopelessness about the future, fearful of the other, leading to terrorism from one side and torture and justifications of torture from the other side in order to supposedly safeguard society. Camus himself saw such as a vicious circle, and fell out with his fellow Leftist travellers, such as Sartre, for feeling that violence was somehow inevitable and yet never justified, never a necessary evil for the greater good, in contrast not only to modern Western conservatives, but to those of Camus’s time on the political left with their justification of Stalinist violence.

This is a major theme coming out of Robert Zaretsky’s recent little biography (A Life Worth Living) – though biography may be the wrong word – study might be better: Zaretsky takes five tropes: absurdity (of course), silence, revolt, fidelity and moderation, and writes about each of these affected and were meditated on by Camus.

Famously, Camus thought that it was necessary to confront meaninglessness. One can argue about the supposed meaninglessness of the world, in big and small ways, but it would be flippant not to be at least sympathetic to his outlook that the world is indeed meaningless, particularly based on the situation he found himself in, as an onlooker to the exploitation and violence in his native Algeria. (Besides, talk about meaning in the world at large is, as David Bentley Hart points out, so abstract as to be, er, meaningless – meaning is to be found in a particular thing… or difficult to find in a particular thing, as the case may be.) It’s not hard to have sympathy and admiration for both Camus’s outspokenness and then his reluctance to speak out about violence. He felt passionate about injustice and was torn between a duty to report the truth and a reluctance to offer a voice when there are often no clear answers to moral dilemmas (hence them being dilemmas in the first place). This is not always an easy position for a public intellectual to take – it is easier to make grand pronouncements that leave the impression of black and white.

It is also hard not to admire his attitude to the cultivation of happiness – that it is hard fought for – a long, tiring effort, especially when our society promotes easy answers here too, that are generally mirages. His Sisyphean attitude is sometimes off – Zaretsky suggests that contrary to what Camus says, Homer never says Sisyphus is wise and there’s actually not much to redeem that story, and there’s not meant to be – it’s not about human dignity, but about the folly of crossing the gods – but one can admire Camus’s ‘epiphany’ that one must not neglect injustice or those things that keep us sane, such as, in Camus’s case, taking some joy from nature.

Fence climbers

Violent Borders, Reece Jones, Verso.

Reece Jones’s book contains an arresting image of illegal immigrants high atop a dizzyingly high Spanish border fence that looks over Spaniards doing the rounds at an exclusive golf course. The fence climbers are repeatedly removed by security forces, only to try again a few days later. It’s a microcosm of what is happening at various places along the borders of European countries.

In 2015 3700 people died trying to enter Europe illegally. In the decade previous, 40,000 people, possibly 1 in 4 who stepped on a boat, lost their lives. The answer to this is often touted as deterrence, with much hysterical press attached, but Reece Jones focuses here on a more ideological root issue, and what most of us just take as a given – international borders and their policing. As well as advocating for refugees, Violent Borders amounts to a short history of the border.

Jones argues that international borders, which are a relatively recent invention and which often cut arbitrarily across geography and ethnic groups, are set up to ‘protect privileges’. ‘Border protection’ then naturally invites Trump-like rhetoric and violent defensive action. Jones outlines the international escalation of the criminalisation of illegal migration and the increasingly unempathetic attitude towards refugees.

This stands in contrast to international corporations that are free to roam the globe to secure the cheapest labour. The benefits corporations bring to the head honchos of third world nations entices those leaders, in order to keep the corporations there, to reduce regulations, including those that deal with environmental care, and to restrict the movement of the labourers within their countries.

Jones describes this global situation as ‘broken’. Why, he asks, if we consider people to be equal, do we not allow the poor equal access to employment? The freedom to travel and to offer your labour for a fair price should be a basic human right. He advocates for more open borders, which to many will seem like an invitation for global chaos. But, he says, this is no more radical an idea than giving women the vote seemed in the nineteenth century. Then again, it might simply seem as radical as the early church, whose members ‘held all things in common’.

(Reviewed for the Uniting Church)

Appealing to conservatives and atheists

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard can appeal to conservatives, atheists, fervent believers and critics of the church. He is claimed as a Lutheran and an existentialist. He influenced Karl Barth, Martin Luther King and Bonhoeffer, but also Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. Equally, he could offend anyone, in his own life and beyond, as his critical gaze takes in most of human folly. He was precocious and aloof but also physically impaired. He treated his ex-fiancee dreadfully but also saw and responded to the humanity in all the people with whom he talked in the streets of Copenhagen.

Summaries of his thought and his life can be daunting, which makes Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan) a feat, even though, admits Backhouse, Kierkegaard himself deplored such reductionism. The subtitle, ‘A Single Life’ refers to the ‘single individual’, Kierkegaard’s term for the individual who stands with authenticity apart from the crowd, something that Kierkegaard increasingly came to embody, as he became mired in slanging matches in the press and ultimately became a figure of public ridicule, so much so that he could no longer take his daily walks in the city. Backhouse outlines the scandals and trials, and also, fascinatingly, how Kierkegaard’s thought disseminated across the globe until he reached his place in the pantheon of the greatest of Western philosophers.