A pencil rather than a computer

The World-Ending Fire, Wendell Berry, Allen Lane

The Amish have been something of a joke among the non-Amish for many years – examples of backward-looking, technophobic eccentrics who will eventually be eclipsed by modern life. Or so the theory goes, but it is becoming more apparent that the joke is on the rest of us. The Amish are starting to seem like the sensible ones, as they are operating in a manner that is, importantly, among other things, sustainable (that contemporary buzzword).

In a similar fashion, novelist, poet and essayist Wendell Berry has been preaching his brand of back-to-basics philosophy, a mix of what we might crudely call conservative and radical, for decades. A self-described ‘crank’, a critic of technology and the idealism that comes with it, a Kentucky farmer who uses horses instead of a tractor, and a writer who uses a pencil rather than a computer, he has been criticised as an unrealistic Luddite, but the problems of the Western lifestyle that he has articulated for so long are becoming so increasingly obvious, despite the willful blindness of some, that the solutions he proposes, or at least the lifestyle that he advocates, can be the only answer.

It is somewhat depressing to note how long he has been writing on the same subjects. Far beyond the disputed issue of global warming, he has been writing about issues of pollution, extinction, large scale farming, pointless materialistic waste, urban ugliness, the tyranny of corporations and their lackey politicians, and the hollowing out of communities. If this sounds like an indictment of the Right and their followers – and make no mistake, it largely is – he is also a critic of radical causes of the Left that, he says, aren’t radical enough. He is critical of calls for widespread change that eschew personal responsibility, or focus too narrowly on one issue, or end up in self-righteous pontification. And he critiques a modern libertarianism that confuses freedom with individualism, at the expense of tradition, culture and family.

Berry is a conservationist, but for the places where people live, and this book collects decades of essays that amount to, as he says, more-or-less one argument: we depend on nature, which is not something that can be sealed off in order to be preserved. A national park, good in itself, surely, does unfortunately give the impression that we have to reserve pristine countryside as a trade-off for the ability to inevitably pollute and exploit the countryside where human beings live. The hopeful side of Berry’s prophetic writings is that he insists human beings can, have and must live in harmony with their surroundings. Nature is something with which human beings must interact with reverence and care. We must be able to produce food and shelter, in our local communities and in a way that means our descendants will be able to do the same. He is a critic of an economy based on false premises. He criticises economics where economic rationalisations are the final arbiters. He is critical of agribusiness that is reliant on long-distance fossil-fuelled transportation, of quick fix chemicals, of the myth of endless growth, of profit and greed ‘debited to the future’. He doesn’t blindly reject technology, but proposes a more sceptical approach: asking if the technology is necessary, and environmentally sound.

There are alternatives. Unfortunately, they involve hard work, giving up particular pleasures, recognising that our present Western lifestyle is unsustainable. I say ‘unfortunately’, but part of Berry’s point is that a return to slower, more local, more meaningful ways of doing things actually increases our health and wellbeing.

It is an insight that is being recognised in the West; in pockets, unfortunately not widely enough, but it is there nevertheless, in unlikely places such as inner suburbs where recycling, growing your own vegies, buying less, appreciating craft rather than mass-produced junk, are embraced. Berry agrees that change begins at home, that too often movements based on ideology become wayward and dictatorial. That if we are to have hope for the future, we must start with ourselves. And starting with ourselves, we need to look to our neighbours to collaborate with, and to counter the individualism and sense of hopelessness in the face of enormity that modern society presents.

(A shorter version of this review appears in the August issue of Crosslight magazine.)


The era of belief, not just belonging

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, Carlos Eire, Yale University Press

You don’t want to drop this massive book on your foot, but you might like to lug it back home from the bookshop, as it is a history of the period that is wide-ranging and careful. It seems ridiculous to say this about a 700-plus page book, but its author, Carlos Eire, also has a knack for summary, enlivened by anecdotes and well-chosen woodcut illustrations, meaning the narrative never gets bogged down.

Eire speaks of reformations plural because, as scholar Eamon Duffy says in his recent book on the English Reformation, the progress of reform was anything but linear. There were many conflicting movements happening at once, pushing and pulling.

Additionally, historians no longer point to Luther’s 95 Theses as the start of the Reformation. Luther merely lit the bonfire compiled by others. Eire’s book is so large partly because – to switch metaphors – he carefully points out all of the features of the medieval edifice as it stood before the Reformation knocked it down.

There were cracks in the structure as a result of Renaissance humanism, which promoted a ‘return to the sources’, a more scholarly analysis of scripture (and other texts) in the original languages. Though the Church was often enthusiastic about this, it did undermine claims for the inerrancy of the Latin Vulgate, not to mention various non-biblical doctrines and practices that had built up over centuries.

Although it is hard to judge the extent of belief in the period because religion was so intertwined with society as to make it almost meaningless to speak of religion as a separate entity, there was an enthusiasm amongst laity for spiritual revival (as is evident from the case of Savoranola), coupled with rising literacy and a distaste for the excesses of the Church’s hierarchy. What is also clear is that a renewal of piety and theological controversy ushered in an era of belief, not merely belonging.

Eire eventually narrows down to monastic practice, and Luther’s eventual rejection of the elitism of monastic practice. He shows how mysticism, Augustine, the Renaissance, faith over reason and conciliarism (the movement within the Catholic Church that questioned the centralisation of power in the figure of the pope) all contributed to Luther’s particular brand of dissent. Eire deals with Luther in only a couple of chapters, moving briskly on to how Luther’s Reformation quickly ran away from him. He battled left and right, both the intransigence of the Pope and a host of radicals, from hair-splitting theologians to violent peasants who, Luther said, misinterpreted him.

Fragmentation seems, in hindsight, to be inevitable once Luther and his fellow Reformers were understood to be advocating for the freedom to interpret Scripture in the light of conscience. Except that people weren’t free – Protestants persecuted heretics as much as Catholics. It could be argued the Reformed branch was the most zealous. Luther emphasised the spiritual, and contrary to his fiery image, was reasonably relaxed about everyday life. The Reformation of Zwingli, Calvin and the like was all-encompassing, and, says Eire, considering the US, probably more influential globally than Luther.

On the Catholic side, there were much-needed reforms, especially in education, and also a renewal of practices Calvin and company deemed superstitious. Calvin, much more than Luther, dismantled the world famously described by Max Weber as ‘enchanted’, and Peter Brown as ‘porous’. Ironically, considering his puritanical reputation, here Calvin sowed not only the seeds of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ but also the seeds of modern doubt.

We can see how the focus on the individual and a splintering of views made room for those who doubted or who were openly hostile. This situation, says Eire, led to the need for new modes of unifying peoples, leading in turn to our secular society and the marginalisation of religion as merely one aspect of life, and a private one at that.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church)

Starting with the body

Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women takes its clever title from her art criticism, but the heart of the book is a long, compelling, riveting, thoroughly researched and intricately thought-through essay on the mind/body philosophical problem, with personal touches often missing from discourses on the subject. She attacks it from a feminist angle, in the sense that she starts with the body, especially the female body, and the bond between mother and child, beginning in the womb, and unravels the masculine bias often submerged in Cartesian or evolutionary approaches (such as that of Richard Dawkins, whom she labels, interestingly, a Platonist). Importantly, she criticises over and over the stridency of arguments and the lame assertions that evidence for particular points of view (that consciousness is an illusion, we are just machines, etc., that we will soon create AI) will be forthcoming, just you wait and see. (Such lame ‘we don’t have the answer yet but we will, therefore our hypothesis is correct’ arguments are also roasted by, amongst others, David Bentley Hart in his book The Experience of God.)

Instead she pleads for recognition of the complexity and difficulty of the problem, and argues for the need to genuinely express doubt (perhaps another masculine area of weakness), especially, she says, since doubt is often a catalyst for innovative thinking, and not merely a weakness in argument or a reluctance to learn.

Giving hermits a bad name

The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel, Simon & Schuster

One day in the 1980s a young man fed up with the modern world abandons his car by the side of the road and disappears into the woods of the northeast United States, where he remains for the next 30 years, living in isolation in a makeshift campsite.

Christopher Knight, described as the last true hermit (a problematic term as becomes evident), sustains himself by breaking into nearby holiday cabins and thieving food and clothing, sparking a decades-long investigation. The Stranger in the Woods opens with the heart-racing account of his arrest by a policeman increasingly frustrated by Knight’s panther-like elusiveness. Before his entry into the woods Knight worked as a security alarm installer, and this knowledge enables him to elude detection. Upon his eventual arrest he becomes something of a celebrity, the subject of marriage proposals and songs. Michael Finkel finds Knight in jail, from where this intriguing story unfolds. (Knight is eventually released to perform community service.)

The back cover of Michael Finkel’s book suggests that ‘occasionally [Knight] would have to venture to holiday cabins in the dead of night to pilfer a bit of food’, but this is a gross understatement. Actually he did this regularly, also stealing clothes, bedding, reading material and, crucially, gas canisters for his camp stove. Upon his arrest, he replied that virtually everything he ‘owned’ was stolen. Rainwater was the only provision he didn’t steal. He didn’t grow or hunt any of his food.

Finkel suggests Knight’s ‘back was fully turned to the world’, but Knight did not live in the wilderness. He lived, his campsite camouflaged in the forest, within three minutes’ walk of civilisation (a form of it, anyway), and even stole a flat screen TV which he powered with (stolen) car batteries. He read (stolen) books and magazines and listened to a (stolen) radio. Like the Japanese individuals whom Finkel mentions and who stay shut in their rooms, interacting with the world only via the internet, Knight simply turns his back on face-to-face interactions with living, breathing people. He describes himself as ‘kind of an isolationist’.

Finkel ruminates on how a thousand years ago we lived in small communities, in the bush, in a quiet environment, and opines, ‘This is who we truly are’, forgetting for the moment that Knight can only survive in his patch of peace and quiet with the modern conveniences of a gas stove, tents, sleeping bags, warm clothing and manufactured, long-life food. Knight does, however, show extraordinary tenacity and survival skills, many learnt on the job, because, Finkel explains, Knight lacked any training in bush survival before going bush. To survive the harsh Maine winters Knight rose at 2am, did exercises to stop freezing and thawed out precious drinking water on his camp stove.

Hermits, typically, are rather high-minded about what they do, and though living in isolation, they tend to make some communication to the world, particularly in a sage-like capacity. Knight himself, though, is puzzled by the ‘hermit’ label, preferring to think of himself as normal. He makes no attempt at manifestos or communicating his experience to the world. It is as if he made an impulsive decision and then, increasingly, finds it impossible to go back. Despite his thieving, of which he is ashamed, he has principles – he doesn’t steal expensive or obviously sentimental stuff, and he is a polite house-breaker, re-sealing doors and windows. He is not uninformed about the modern world and is a devourer of books, discerning in his reading unless, Knight says, the alternative is nothing to read. He admires Socrates for his recommendation of hermiticism, but detests that great populariser of back-to-nature principles, Thoreau (above), because, as Knight sees it, Thoreau only pretended to be a hermit, and still went to town on the weekends for dinner parties. This is somewhat ironic, considering Knight’s own lifestyle.

Knight describes Finkel as his Boswell, but reading between the lines, Finkel is an annoying journo who is after the major scoop and who is constantly stepping over the line from familiarity to intrusiveness, despite knowing that Knight and his family value privacy. But Finkel is intrigued in, as well as full of admiration for, someone so determined to shun society. Locals are not so forgiving. Some hate Knight for ruining their idyllic peace and quiet. Others see him as a minor inconvenience. The last word should go to the online hermit community (yes, there is such a thing), who, after much deliberation, decide that Knight is not a true hermit, but a thief who gives hermits a bad name.


London fog

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun is a memoir and a piece of nature writing, like Katherine Norbury’s Fish Ladder, that describes Liptrot’s upbringing in the Orkney Islands, her moving to London and her intoxication with it, her literal intoxication as an alcoholic, her rehabilitation and return to the wind-buffeted northern islands of Scotland. She says, of clouds, that she likes ‘the idea of pollution creating something beautiful’, and this could stand well as a description of her illness and subsequent writing of the book. Throughout she intersperses descriptions of her personal London fog with the gradual clearing of her head through her immersion in the stark nature of the islands. She is honest about the process of recovery, about the demon on her shoulder whispering to her to just relapse and burn out gloriously, instead of plodding gradually to recovery.

She describes the need for the obsession of alcoholism to be redirected elsewhere and here it is in observations of birds, wind, clouds, geology, walking, snorkeling and island life. She maps her walks with GPS, she monitors shipping websites, she uses her phone to scan the night sky. She describes how as a drunk she increasingly obsessed over her phone, just as her illness correspondingly created a decline in the communication coming back to her. In the Orkneys her attention turns to how her phone (and the internet) can enlighten the non-human world. (The same technology allows you to find the cottage she stayed in on the island of Papay on google maps.) The lack of people focuses her attention on the wild, or at least on the simpler existence.

Incidentally, we often think of the world as becoming increasingly overpopulated, but that tends to be in the cities. The islands at the north of Scotland are far less populated than they used to be, says Liptrot. The complexities of modern life, that have supposedly made life easier, have, rather than encouraged and enabled people to live in more remote settings, drawn them away.

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).