Origins and destinations

A Little History of Religion, Richard Holloway, Yale

The ‘Little History’ series is aimed at a younger audience, and here Richard Holloway, a one-time bishop who himself is something of a sceptic, aims to foster critical thinking about religion rather than simply acceptance. So while his book is about what religious people say about their religion, he also advises questioning what they say.

For example, he asks of the Moses story, was there really a burning bush? Or was Moses simply talking to himself and hearing voices in his head? Further, was there really a Moses at all? Is this just a story, much like that of the Garden of Eden, that tells us not what actually happened, but what believers believe about themselves and their history, and how they understand the world? (Mind you, if this is so, it neither disproves God nor renders religion meaningless.)

In Holloway’s emphasis, religions originate in the human mind, and, in his own metaphor, are various rivers that have branched out from one stream as responses to fundamental questions about origins and destinations. (Other religious scholars might have their own definitions.) (His streams metaphor is obviously deficient, as streams don’t branch out, they converge, but we know what he is getting at.) Primarily there are two questions: Is there something or someone controlling the universe and the lives of human beings, and what happens to us when we die? (Interestingly, the Israelites, at least in the early stages of their ‘religion’, were concerned with the former but not the latter question. Jesus put it slightly differently, saying that what happens to us after we die is already begun on earth with the ‘kingdom’ he inaugurated. Other religions, particularly Eastern ones, proclaim that these aren’t quite the right questions.)

Religion speaks in symbolic terms to these questions. Holloway has understanding, interest and sympathy, mixed with impatience for conservatism, dogma, violence and quick recourse to the supernatural for explanation. Typically for Holloway, religion becomes perverted when it becomes rigid, and so he links orthodoxy to closed minds and suggests that new movements (as corrections, which the Reformation was claimed to be) come from heresy. This is how religion moves forward. Science often proceeds in the same way. This is all true, but heresy can also create even more rigid and intolerant groups (cults), with whacky ideas. As Holloway notices, religion also has a history of prophets and leaders claiming all sorts of privileged access to God, and moving elsewhere, taking with them a loyal band of devotees, with disastrous consequences. So sometimes the conservative, rigid religious traditions can act as a corrective to the self-serving voices in our heads.

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A house under construction

The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe, John Haught, Yale University Press.

The argument of John Haught’s The New Cosmic Story is that part of the universe’s continuing development is an awakening to what he calls ‘rightness’, for want of a better term. In this view, scientists and philosophers have not taken seriously the emergence of religion (alongside consciousness), which, rather than being some sort of outdated rival to science, has been oriented towards this rightness.  Religion may point to truth, beauty and purpose being fundamental goals of the universe, rather than illusions or accidents.

Haught contrasts three views of the universe – first, an atheist materialist one that says that the universe has no ultimate purpose and that it can be explained by looking back and down at the building blocks of the universe, namely matter. Materialists suggest that science explains all, including religious intuitions. Ironically, says Haught, they do so with a strong sense of the ‘rightness’ of their opinions.

The second view is of some religious believers, from Buddhist to Christian, who treat the universe as imperfect and who look forward to escape. For them also, the universe has little purpose except to be endured until we enter a perfect one. In contrast, Haught writes of a third, anticipatory worldview that sees subjectivity and morality as part of the universe, not an accidental by-product, and evolving along with actual matter.

By way of analogy, we might suggest the universe in Haught’s thought is a house under construction. Materialists suggest that it can be explained by looking back at when the materials were ordered and the inevitability of bricklayers laying one brick on top of another, but think it is silly to entertain thoughts of it being built for a purpose. Religious escapists see the rain pouring through holes in the unfinished roof and declare that we should ignore this imperfect, inadequate structure, as other perfect and finished dwellings are available for purchase. For Haught, the house is being built for habitation but its final shape is only envisaged, not complete.

At times it seems Haught has little evidence to back up his view, and can only state it repeatedly, albeit in increasingly poetic and elegant terms. But he would counter that this is taking the scientistic view. Instead we can take the universal emergence of religious explanations among many cultures as indications that there is more in the universe than can be explained by science, but that this way of seeing is through a glass darkly, and works subjectively and intuitively.

Some may catch a whiff of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s work behind all this, and certainly Haught builds on it while making his own case. Teilhard de Chardin’s work is not universally accepted, but it does have biblical resonance. In the New Testament, the concept of the Kingdom of God is one that has already begun. Christians are working on it already, with the help of God, anticipating that it will come to completion and perfect both heaven and earth, renewing the whole of creation, not just individual souls whisked off to enjoy heaven. This is a somewhat more specific reading than Haught gives. He is more concerned with the rise of religion in general alerting us to the possible teleology of the universe, a surmise certainly at odds with most cosmologists, who tend to look backwards rather than forwards.

Will the stain wash out?

The ball tampering cricket scandal has put moral character in the headlines again. While disciplinary action has been taken, deeper questions remain about why it happened – not only why on earth they thought they could get away with it in such a highly scrutinised environment, but also what the culture is that has allowed the cricketers to think that they could and should cheat as they did.

For the players involved, particularly Steve Smith because of his role as captain, it is a blight on their characters, and many have speculated on whether the stains will ever wash out. But is Steve Smith now a cheat or is he simply someone who cheated? Is cheating at the core of his moral character, perhaps inseparable from his fierce competitive drive, or is it an anomaly?

These are issues explored in The Character Gap (Oxford University Press) by Christian Miller, who suggests that we are ‘a messy blend of good and evil’. There are rare exceptions, such as Abraham Lincoln or Adolf Hitler, who seem consistently good or bad but most of us are too inconsistent to be labelled good or bad generally. Many psychological and sociological experiments show that our behaviour changes radically in varying situations, with our environment having a large bearing, even in incidental things like the weather. Miller suggests that the terms virtues and vices are often inapplicable because we are just too unpredictable. The evil we delight in one day, we avoid the next.

To make a judgement about a person’s moral character we have to see a consistent pattern. In Steve Smith or David Warner’s cases, it is entirely plausible they have cheated previously, but then they are exemplary in other ways. They have cheated, but it is a stretch then to label them as bad moral characters. None of us would like to be labelled for life on the strength of one incident, as we change from week to week, we make mistakes, and we can admit this if we are honest (and sometimes we are honest with ourselves and sometimes we are not!).

Unsurprisingly, studies Miller cites show the strong role of others in influencing our moral actions, whether they be figures we see as authoritative, who can cause us to act in ways that wildly deviate from our normal behaviour, or groups of people, where we might not want to be the odd one out, where we might be scared or embarrassed to be the lone voice.

In the case of Cameron Bancroft, a junior player, it is unsurprising that, with all that is at stake, he chose to conform to a culture being emphasised by more senior figures. In Steve Smith’s case, as captain, with authority came a responsibility, and he failed spectacularly with a winning-at-all-costs mentality. But then again, with all his experience, if he thought cheating was a valid strategy, we might wonder at how he was influenced by those higher up, and a wider cricketing or professional sporting culture. Talk of culture may infer consistent behaviour, perhaps suggesting pervasive bad character, but we are talking here about group behaviour. Miller’s book shows that we may act completely differently in different situations (although of course there is also the issue of the reinforcement of bad behaviour in one area of life leading to it creeping into other areas).

The flipside of this issue of culture is the positive influence of others, particularly those we see as role models. It is unusual to be autonomous in moral character. We are easily influenced and we can be blind to where our influences are. Therefore we need to make an effort to be conscious of these influences. Good moral character can happen without us knowing it, as can bad, but if we desire to improve moral character in ourselves and others we must seek it out and cultivate it. The process is like physical exercise. It must be deliberate and consistent, at least until it develops into a habit. (This, by the way, is less overt in Miller’s book, but is the way moral philosophers across the ages have thought of the matter.)

As with exercise, cultivating good moral character can be done on our own, but it helps to do it in a group, such as volunteer and charity organisations, mothers’ clubs, (dare I say) sporting clubs and organisations where morality is front and centre, such as churches. Surprisingly perhaps for a book of contemporary psychology and philosophy, Miller’s book extols churches as places where good moral behaviour is reinforced. Here are groups of people with shared moral goals that, as Miller points out, reinforce these through prayer, confession, readings and modelling behaviour.

Churches have also recognised over the centuries what psychology has more recently statistically proven – that we are inconsistent in our moral behaviour, saints and sinners simultaneously. Part of this recognition is seeing the need for forgiveness. Jesus emphasised that forgiveness should be without limit, so that to remain healthy people we always have the chance of a fresh start and wrongdoing doesn’t define us. This is perhaps a message that our cricketers need to hear right now.

The poetry of Dylan: Thomas

Richard Thomas, a professor of classical poetry, argues in Why Dylan Matters (William Collins) that Bob Dylan’s songwriting sits downriver in the same ‘classical stream’ that includes Homer, Virgil and Thucydides, and that rather than being simply slightly obscure and playful, Dylan’s appropriation of these sources is relevant, because our times are much like the era of classical Rome’s decline, when a superpower was being encroached upon and torn within. (The following might not be what Dylan was thinking about, but among the comparisons of wars and declining civilisation, we could also include the fact that while the US still makes a show of religion, the rulers don’t seem to take it seriously, as with most of the people, despite the image of the US as a religious nation.)

Until the 1970s many were educated in the classics, but now we need someone like Thomas to show us not only the rich references in Dylan’s songs, but also how Dylan throughout his career identifies with Odysseus, the trickster and traveller. Thomas takes a detour into Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles Volume 1, to discuss, as others have noted, how the book deviates from history and how, true to form, the book is not a straight-forward biography, but the creation of a character – or multiple characters, as ‘Dylan’ in the book is not the only one seemingly embellished and invented.

Thomas is a devotee, revelling in the minutiae of setlist changes, tours of Dylan’s hometown and picking up all the little clues that point to Dylan’s reading or his personal life. He even shows enthusiasm for Dylan’s recent attempts at jazz standards (which I am afraid I just can’t share – I don’t think Dylan’s voice, which works well with the bluesy stuff, is suited to the more melodic jazz standards), which he argues make sense in the larger scheme of Dylan’s, and folk and poetry’s, tradition of borrowing from earlier works, which also includes T S Eliot, Robert Burns, Shakespeare, gospel songs and the Bible. And all this interplay of generations of poetry makes Dylan’s music almost unique. The songs on recent album Tempest, for example, were inspired by finding a book on transfiguration in a library in Rome, which is not something you would read about most rock musicians. Thomas makes careful note of this, of course, as transfiguration is another form of transformation, of which, in Thomas’s view, Dylan is a master.

Thomas takes some time to explain why Dylan’s borrowing is not plagiarism but rather creativity, a distinction that at times seems subjective (especially when others have been taken to court for appropriating Dylan’s songs). With all the classical material woven into Dylan’s songs, it could be argued that Dylan’s songwriting is both less inventive and more, a dichotomy that seems appropriate for Dylan. His music reworks material within narrow confines, yet it is the way he reworks it, and the way he has done so for so long, that of course endeared him to the Noble Prize people, and to a fan such as Thomas.

Retrospective cheering

Simon Leys: Navigator Between Worlds, Philippe Paquet, Black Inc Books.

Simon Leys is the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans, historian, novelist, critic and expert on Chinese culture. Belgian in origin but an adopted Australian, he taught at Sydney University and the Australian National University (where Kevin Rudd was one of his students). He was one of our most perceptive and firm-footed public intellectuals and writers, and he was one of the first to write about the horrors of China’s Cultural Revolution.

While most of the literati in Europe were praising Mao and the rebels as bringing utopia to China, largely because they had an affinity with the ideology without taking a careful look at its consequences, Leys boldly pointed to the naked ruthlessness underneath, as the title of his book had it, ‘the chairman’s new clothes’.

For Leys, dialogue was not the same as agreement, and it was his deep interest in and understanding of Chinese history and art, as well as love of its people generally, that caused him to critique the Communist rulers. Alternatively, this biography suggests, it was the love of ideology and not of the Chinese people that inspired his leftist critics and caused them to avoid the critical questions. Some eventually accepted that he was right, and publicly said so, others continued to resent his puncturing of their ideological bubbles. The recent history of China’s opening to the world has continued to vindicate Leys, as he predicted that human rights issues would be marginalised by the international community if China simply participated in the global economic scene, that intellectual and religious freedom would come a distant second to economic development.

Leys was wary of group-thinking, and it is not surprising that he was a fan of George Orwell. He had a gut reaction to and a talent for unmasking propaganda, where a well-turned phrase hid malodorous thinking. It was not just because he was Catholic that Leys criticised Christopher Hitchens’ famous attacks on Mother Teresa.

Leys’ faith sustained him during the long period of his estrangement from European intellectual circles. He also conscientiously avoided publicity’s glare, even if he could be formidable in public debate, and let his books be judged by their writing alone. In them, too, he could be scathing. Like Chesterton he could use the well-chosen analogy to uncover the flimsy underpinnings of an opponent’s arguments.

His biographer, Philippe Paquet, retrospectively cheers him on, while also constantly setting Leys in context so that this comprehensive biography becomes also a substantial work of history, politics, literary criticism and even philosophy. Paquet is able to tie together the various strands of Leys’ interests. Leys was also well known as a historian of the sea, and Paquet shows how Leys’ book on the Batavia shipwreck and tragic story of its survivors is linked to his work on China, not to mention Leys’ novella on Napoleon, by his loathing of dictatorship. This extended also to Leys’ criticism at the end of his university career of the way economics dictates over education in the modern higher education system. To the end he championed clear thinking in aid of the individual over the trampling effect of ideology.

(Originally reviewed for Insights magazine.)

Self-encouraging interior monologues

In an attempt to tackle at least some of last year’s Booker Prize shortlist I recently read Dorthe Nors’ novel (novella?) Mirror, Shoulder, Signal about Sonja, a translator of Swedish crime fiction living in Copenhagen, who suffers from dizziness and also a middle age sense of ennui and nostalgia. She is attempting to learn to drive – hence the book’s title – and can’t quite seem to get the hang of the fluidity and muscle memory needed to drive competently, much to her frustration as she sees herself as otherwise having it together, unlike some of her friends and relatives.

The book shows what can be done with modest scope. The third person narrative otherwise has a stream of consciousness, present-tense style that amusingly conveys Sonja’s self-admonitory and self-encouraging interior monologues, which also include her summings-up of her contemporaries, and, in a feat of verisimilitude, Nors nicely conveys how these interior monologues compete with the conversations we have with other people, and how our listening fades in and out, in inverse proportion to how much we are thinking about other things.

Unusually tumultuous

Crucible of Faith, Philip Jenkins, Basic Books.

We understand the Bible is a collection of books with much variety in style, authorship and date, but we tend to notice less its theological variety, exacerbated by the tendency within the churches to read selectively from the Old Testament in order to make resonances with the New. After-all, such inconsistency might trouble conservative Christian notions of divine inspiration and the infallibility of Scripture.

Scholars note the development throughout the Old Testament of Jewish ideas of God, and of the practice of Jewish religion. Philip Jenkins, author of many books on the history of religion, argues that much of what we would think of as core doctrines of Judeo-Christianity came late in the piece, in the Inter-Testamental period – what he calls the ‘crucible’ era because it was an unusually tumultuous and heated time that forged new ways of thinking about how God interacted with people. He argues that these new thought-worlds remain with us, even beyond the walls of the Church, so influential have they been in the West.

This period, when the Scriptures that became the Tanakh (our Old Testament) were compiled, is neglected because of its comparative lack of documentation, but in it developed a more individual spirituality, focussed on the home and synagogue rather than on infrequent Temple sacrifices, and the ideas of a universal God, Satan as a rival to God, and an afterlife for all. There was also a new focus on sacred texts, where God’s Word and, especially, laws could be encountered.

The Jewish God moves from being the local god of the Hebrews to the only god, a more aloof, pure figure, betraying the influence of Greek culture, which at this stage had a more abstract concept of God than the human-like gods of Hesiod and Homer. That influence can be seen in the opening to John’s Gospel, with its description of Jesus as abstract Truth (‘Word’).

Angels become more tangible in this period, after having a fuzzy meaning in the older Old Testament, where they were as much ‘message’ as ‘messenger’, according to Jacques Ellul. Jenkins suggests that the concept of many gods morphed into the myriad of (lesser) heavenly beings. Satan, though, gets an upgrade, from the figure in Job who is described sometimes as God’s justice minister, though prosecuting lawyer might be more to the point. (Some readers will likely have no problem identifying Satan with lawyers.)

Satan becomes key to theodicy. Previously, bad things were thought to have happened because of the Hebrews’ disobedience, but perpetual warfare led some to offer an alternative explanation of malevolent forces manipulating reality. Jesus takes this attitude, saying that you can’t directly attribute someone’s misfortune to sins they have committed.

Rather than a person’s worldly status being a sign of blessing or curse, the ‘crucible’ period saw a rise in belief in the afterlife, and Heaven and Hell as places of reward and punishment. A clear lack of worldly justice meant that God would need to put things right in the next life. As we know, in Jesus’ time some had embraced this concept (the Pharisees) and some had not (the Sadducees), usually in inverse proportion to how prosperous they were in this life.

Some may be unsettled by this suggestion that the Bible contains a development in theology. (Is doctrine simply made up as we go along?) But Scripture is the catalogue of a process of gradual revelation, through various authors and styles, being a collection of books and not one book, and the long story of the development of a relationship between God and his people, unlike, say, the Koran or the Book of Mormon. In the New Testament we see, of course, the most radical development in Jesus’ messiahship, to the extent that the majority of Jews in Jesus’ time could not accept it. And we see development in church history. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is not obvious from the New Testament, which is why it took decades for the early church to clarify it. On the other hand, Jenkins’ book may prompt us to question some of these ‘basics’ of Christian doctrine, how much they gel with Jesus’ ministry, or Pauline theology, and how fundamental or dispensable they are.

Jenkins also notes the parallels with our own time, and the issue of accommodation with the world outside the church, which might entail re-evaluation of our harsher beliefs, about exclusive favour from God, retreat into tradition, over-correction, and the assertion that current beliefs have always been with us.

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