Bums on pews

Why God? Explaining Religious Phenomena, Rodney Stark, Templeton Press

As religion supposedly declines in the West, those on the outside increasingly want to understand why belief persists. Rodney Stark’s book is not a work of apologetics. It doesn’t aim to explain why God must exist (this isn’t Stark’s immediate concern), but rather why exactly people might come to believe in God. It is a work of sociology, refreshingly free of jargon, which will still illuminate much for those of us within the walls of churches.

In summary, he argues that religions are not fundamentally irrational. We all want explanations for the way the world works, and historically there has been a supernatural element to this. If we are convinced of the supernatural it then makes some sense to interact with this other world, to gain favour for this worldly experience, as well as for a possible next world. We gain these rewards through worship and obedience.

As religions develop, mediators (priests) become needed, and there is an inevitable ritualization and organisation. Pluralism of gods whittles down to monotheism, which provides the best explanation and commands more loyalty, which in turn leads to moral control. Close relationships, especially familial, are important for recruitment and growth of the religion. Miracles help to legitimise the claims of religions’ founders.

In time, religions become more liberal, initially to attract more members, but it is actually the stricter (to use Stark’s term) religions that are growing. Breakaways happen, religions are reinvigorated, or new religions created. There is a tendency to try and monopolise religion (as in the Middle Ages or Revolutionary France) but this is usually counterproductive. Counterintuitively, even for sociologists, our own pluralistic society might be healthy for getting bums on pews, because of the competition involved in attracting followers.

Much of this is sound reasoning, and is confirmed by a reading of the Bible. But no doubt some of this will be disputed, and Christians too might feel the need to debate Stark, at least in their heads, particularly when it comes to his conflation of rigidity of theology and degree of passion. One can be lazily conservative, just as one can be passionately concerned with liberal causes. It also can’t be true that ‘most’ Christians don’t think Jesus is coequal to God, especially when the growth of Christianity is happening in conservative, non-first world settings. And, despite his professed best intentions, his conservative personal ‘preferences’ seep through. He has a typically conservative American aversion to suggestions that justice might be relevant to society’s economic structures too.

Stark has an admirable passion, bordering on the combative, for correcting past sociologists of religion, including his younger self. It may seem oxymoronic, as Stark notes, but there has been a long-lived fashion in the field for talking of religion without reference to God, or gods and the supernatural, in favour of evolutionary or Freudian theories. Stark aims to put God back into the centre of religion. Even most Buddhists admit the supernatural, he says, despite folklore that suggests they are atheistic. This is a particular emphasis of Stark’s, but the book roams much wider.

I do wonder where Jesus fits into Stark’s theorising. It is not quite true, as is often suggested, that Jesus was dismissive of religion; it was rather that he criticised ossified religion. But Jesus often gives categorisations the slip. Stark suggests miracles and visions are often key to attracting followers of religion, but Jesus, rather than espousing mystical theology, talked in riddles and favoured practical applications of faith, such as clothing and feeding the poor. He was a miracle worker, according to scriptural and even non-Christian sources, but didn’t seem to want to publicise the fact. And what might Stark say about Jacques Ellul’s assertion that Jesus was entirely unconcerned with morality? Jesus seems to dismiss ritual, societal standing and detailed explanations of why the world is as it is, largely because these tend to get in the way of compassion.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church’s Journey magazine.)

Evolution from and in debt to

Alister McGrath, in his latest book, says that no modern philosophers are asking about the meaning of life because it is (to them) an embarrassingly crude subject matter. This is not entirely true, although perhaps academic philosophers regard the popular philosophising of the likes of Alain de Botton, John Armstrong or Terry Eagleton as barely worthy of the name philosophy. The disregard seems to be mutual. Anyway, John Kaag (above) in his recent  American Philosophy paints a similar picture of contemporary philosophy’s allergy to the everyday. Kaag argues for the relevance of said American philosophy of a bygone age, particularly that of the pragmatic philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey.

A philosophy lecturer, Kaag stumbles across the library in New England of Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher and educator, a student of William James, a key contributor to the literature on the sociology of religion, and a correspondent of Robert Frost and others. Kaag has the task of working out how to preserve and offload the library, while keeping some semblance of its worth as a whole. Amidst his discoveries of gasp-inducing first editions of various Western classics with handwritten notes and dedications from authors, Kaag weaves the tale of American philosophy’s evolution from and debt to European philosophy, emphasising both that American philosophy was not as autonomous as it is often portrayed and that it beat its own individual, enterprising path. As in an undergraduate course, he introduces Hobbes, Hegel, Descartes, Kant and James, as well as lesser known figures such as Jane Addams and Pearl Buck.

Not only does Kaag argue for an older, more relevant style of philosophy, but he ties it to his personal experience of getting over a divorce and alcoholism and falling in love again. Rather than just telling of American philosophy’s practicality, he applies it to his own situation, and the result is a beautifully entwined memoir and summary, even if at times his own circumstances tend to accentuate what is personally relevant from the works of various philosophers. For example, he says that Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is ‘actually’ about Coleridge’s marriage. Well, yes, but also so much more, as Malcolm Guite relates in detail in his recent glowing study of the man and the poem, Mariner (Hodder & Stoughton).


Faith and Freedom, Teresa Forcades, Polity.

Faith and freedom may be thought of as opposites by those critical of religion, but this is certainly not the case for a thinker such as Martin Luther, who thought that only faith can free us from slavery to our self-interest, and it is not the case for Spanish nun and activist Teresa Forcades.

She suggests that the early church took some time to reconcile itself to the concept of a God who does not restrict, and she notes the differences in Near East creation narratives, in that the Israelite God, unusually, gives rather than demands something. Additionally, God radically allows for the chance of subversion by human beings, who are given freedom to accept or deny what God offers. So Christianity begins not with conformity but with release.

The monastic tradition and freedom may also seem contradictory, but for Forcades, the life of a nun removes many impediments to communion with God and with others, particularly an attachment to possessions. As a nun, she is free to serve others, as it were, which spills out into the world via her activism in the areas of social justice and the fight against rampant consumerism, discrimination, disparities of wealth, our dependence on global pharmaceutical companies and the erosion of democracy. Much of her short book is concerned with such matters.

She writes that she was a feminist before she was a nun, and that her introduction to theology was through liberation theology. Her faith and what one might term her radicalism inform each other, they are two sides of the same coin.

Turning inward, she finishes her book with a meditation on forgiveness, a profound act that can only spring from freedom, and which, she says, is at the core of our experience of faith.

(Reviewed for the Uniting Church in Australia)

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.