Dostoevsky on freedom and God

 

Dostoevsky had a lot in common with Wagner.  Neither was ever at risk of underestimating his own genius, and the behaviour of neither to others improved as result.  Both were prone to go over the top.  You can find forests of exclamation marks in the writings of both.  And both could and did bang on for far too long for some of us.  They both badly needed an editor. But if you persist with either of these men of genius, you will come across art of a kind that you will not find elsewhere.  The Brothers Karamazov, which I have just read for the third time, raises the issue nicely.  In my view, it could be improved by being halved – but you would be at risk of abandoning diamonds.

The most famous part of the novel comes with a sustained conversation between two brothers, Alyosha, who is of a saintly and God-fearing disposition, and Ivan, who is of a questing and God-doubting outlook.  The conversation comes in Part 2, Book 5, chapters 4 and 5, Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor.

Ivan gets under way with ‘I must make a confession to you.  I never could understand how one can love one’s neighbours.’  The author probably knew that Tolstoy had written a book that asserted that the failure of civilisation derived from our failure to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount.  Ivan’s biggest problem is the familiar one.

And, indeed, people sometimes speak of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel.  A tiger merely gnaws and tears to pieces, that’s all he knows.  It would never occur to him to nail men’s ears to a fence and leave them like that overnight, even if he were able to do it.  These Turks, incidentally, seemed to derive a voluptuous pleasure from torturing children, cutting a child out of its mother’s womb with a dagger and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on a bayonet before the eyes of their mothers.  It was doing it before the eyes of their mothers that made it so enjoyable…..I can’t help thinking that if the devil doesn’t exist, and, therefore, man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness….The most direct and spontaneous pastime we have is the infliction of pain by beating.

Well, that attitude is not completely dead in Russia.  Ivan is objecting to the unfairness, and the random nature, of cruelty, and he comes up with a phrase that so moved Manning Clark.

Surely the reason for my suffering was not that I as well as my evil deeds and sufferings may serve as manure for some future harmony for someone else.  I want to see with my own eyes the lion lay down with the lamb and the murdered man rise up and embrace his murderer.  I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it has all been for.  All religions on earth are based on this desire, and I am a believer…..Listen, if all have to suffer so as to buy eternal harmony by their suffering, what have children to do with it – tell me, please?….Why should they too be used as dung for someone’s future harmony?…..And what sort of harmony is it, if there is a hell?….I don’t want any more suffering.  And if the sufferings of children go to make up the sum of sufferings which is necessary for the purchase of truth, then I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price….Too high a price has been placed on harmony.  We cannot afford to pay so much for admission.  And therefore I hasten to return my ticket….It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha.  I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.

That is very strong stuff.  There may be answers, but Alyosha doesn’t have them.

‘This is rebellion,’ Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.

‘Rebellion?  I’m sorry to hear you say that, said Ivan with feeling.  One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.  Tell me straight out, I call on you –imagine me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?  Tell me the truth.’

‘No I wouldn’t said Alyosha softly.

Nor would any other sane person.  So much for rebellion – now for the Grand Inquisitor.  Ivan said he wrote a long poem about this functionary.  He had set it in Spain during the Inquisition.

The Cardinal is very old, but in fine fettle.  He has just supervised the public execution by fire of nearly one hundred heretics.  But his peace is disturbed by the arrival of a holy man.  ‘In his infinite mercy he once more walked among men in the semblance of man as he had walked among men for thirty-three years fifteen centuries ago.’  The crowd loves him.  A mourning mother says ‘If it is you, raise my child from the dead.’  The only words he utters are in Aramaic, ‘Talitha cumi’ – ‘and the damsel arose’.  And she does, and looks round with ‘her smiling wide-open eyes.’  The crowd looks on in wonder, but the eyes of the Cardinal ‘flash with ominous fire.’

He knits his grey, beetling brows….and stretches forth his finger and commands the guards to seize HIM.  And so great is his power and so accustomed are the people to obey him, so humble and submissive are they to his will, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and amid the death-like hush that descends upon the square, they lay hands upon HIM, and lead him away.

That sounds like the Saint Matthew Passion – doubtless, deliberately so.  The Cardinal visits the prisoner in the cells.  ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’

Do not answer, be silent.  And, indeed, what can you say?  I know too well what you would say.  Besides, you have no right to add anything to what you have already said in the days of old.  Why then did you come to meddle with us?  For you have come to meddle with us and you know it……Tomorrow, I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the vilest of heretics, and the same people who today kissed your feet will at the first sign from me rush to take up the coals at your stake tomorrow.

Ivan, brought up in Orthodoxy, explains that that in his view the fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism is that ‘Everything has been handed over by you to the Pope, and therefore everything now is in the Pope’s hands, and there’s no need for you to come at all now – at any rate, do not interfere for the time being’.  Ivan thinks this is the Jesuit view.  Ivan says the Cardinal went on.

It is only now – during the Inquisition – that it has become possible for the first time to think of the happiness of men.  Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be happy?  You were warned.  There has been no lack of warnings, but you did not heed them.  You rejected the only way by which men might be made happy, but fortunately in departing, you handed on the work to us.

Then comes a crunch.

You want to go into the world and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which men in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend – for nothing has ever been more unendurable to man and to human society than freedom!….Man, so long as he remains free has no more constant and agonising anxiety than to find as quickly as possible someone to worship.  But man seeks to worship only what is incontestable, so incontestable indeed, that all men at once agree to worship it all together….It is this need for universal worship that is the chief torment of every man individually and of mankind as a whole from the beginning of time…

Ivan comes again to the problem of freedom which is discussed in conjunction with the three temptations of Christ.  It’s as if the Church has succumbed to the third temptation and assumed all power over the world.

There is nothing more alluring to man than this freedom of conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either.  And instead of firm foundations for appeasing man’s conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was exceptional, enigmatic, and vague, you chose everything that was beyond the strength of men, acting consequently, as though you did not love them at all…You wanted man’s free love so that he would follow you freely, fascinated and captivated by you…..But did it never occur to you that he would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?….You did not know that as soon as man rejected miracles, he would at once reject God as well, for what man seeks is not so much God as miracles.  And since man is unable to carry on without a miracle, he will create new miracles for himself, miracles of his own, and will worship the miracle of the witch-doctor and the sorcery of the wise woman, rebel, heretic, and infidel though he is a hundred times over…

How will it end?

But the flock will be gathered together again and will submit once more, and this time it will be for good.  Then we shall give them quiet humble happiness, the happiness of weak creatures, such as they were created.  We shall at last persuade them not to be proud….We shall prove to them that they are weak, that they are mere pitiable children, but that the happiness of a child is the sweetest of all ….The most tormenting secrets of their conscience – everything, everything they shall bring to us, and we shall give them our decision, because it will relieve them of their great anxiety and of their present terrible torments of coming to a free decision themselves.  And they will all be happy, all the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand who rule over them.  For we alone, we who guard the mystery, we alone shall be unhappy.

The Grand Inquisitor does not believe in God.

A swipe at one church by an adherent of another?  A reprise of the fascism latent in Plato’s Republic?  A bitter denunciation of the Russian hunger for dominance by a strong man like Putin?  A frightful preview of 1984?  It could be some of all of those things, but it is writing of shocking power that gives slashing insights into the human condition.  It is for just that reason that we go to the great writers.  They may not have the answer, but they ask the big questions.

Passing Bull 130 – Religion and nuts

 

The Roy Moore fiasco brought the term ‘evangelical’ to a new low, at least in the U S.  Sadly, the disease is not limited to the U S.  The Murdoch press went into a funk over marriage equality.  Here is some vintage bull from Jennifer Oriel.  She denounced ‘the Smith bill’ as being too short.

In a two-party system, the left is expected to promote equality while the right prioritises freedom.  The freedom of the political right is distinctive.  It is not anarchy.  It is the form of freedom that provides the spiritual, social, economic and political foundations for the flourishing of Western civilisation…..

The Smith bill represents the worst of conservatism and progressivism; it reserves freedom for the clergy while binding freethinkers under a state regime of political correctness.  There is no substantive protection for freedom of speech.

There is no protection against the lawfare used internationally to silence dissenters and purge them from public life.  There is no protection from the state forcing people’s speech to conform to central tenets of queer ideology.  And this is a bill for queer marriage, not same-sex marriage….

Dear, dear, dear.  Just think of all those demons, all those tigers out there with their eyes burning bright in the forest of the night, while the IPA stokes its paranoia about Stalinist queers.

On the same page, Greg Sheridan, who rarely misses a chance to get it wrong, hymned a mate.

Australia is very fortunate that Tony Abbott insisted on a plebiscite.

The paranoia is not confined to the IPA.  The Australian reeks of secular antagonism that died half a century ago.  In one column, Angela Shanahan said:

The political landscape is verging on chaos because of the ambition of Malcolm Turnbull and his lefty acolytes in the Liberal Party.

In their desire to prop up a failed government and a hubristic Prime Minister who wants to make his mark on history, they have proved, by opposing the amendments for religious liberty in relation to the introduction of same-sex marriage, that they are small political creatures who know no history.  They leave conservative voters nowhere to go.

That’s not quite right.  There is always Cory Bernardi, and the hard core reactionaries on Sky News and The Australian – not to mention Greg Sheridan’s mate.

But in another column, Ms Shanahan showed her grasp of history.  The Reformation was a serious mistake.

Christendom, which had existed beyond and above the state, was no more.  Kings, who like all baptised people great or small had been subject to the teaching and law of the church and part of the body of Christ, elevated themselves as the ultimate authority…..

The so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 was really a product of religious antagonism to see a Catholic off the throne and remove Catholics from public life……

Freedom of religion – of thought, of conscience – must be based on an informed conscience, which is not just for the elite….Today, ironically, it is threatened by the secularism sparked by that Reformation.

It reminds you of the time a guest and psychiatrist looked Basil Fawlty right in the eye and said ‘We could devote a whole seminar to you.’

To the extent that you can see something that Jennifer Oriel calls ‘Western civilisation,’ it depends in large part on the separation of Church and State.  The English got there largely through the Reformation and the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, both of which Ms Shanahan regrets.  The French got there by more messy means.  The Americans thought they had got there, but Roy Moore and Donald Trump show that they have missed.

We are many centuries past the time where the State could be viewed as ‘subject to the teaching and law of the church and part of the body of Christ.’  Such an idea now could best be described as madness.

We are also well passed the time when a religion can claim a veto over either the parliament or the people.  If the plebiscite celebrated by Greg Sheridan established anything, it showed that a clear majority of Australian regard the separation of Church and State as fundamental to our way of life.  The suggested issue about religious freedom was always a furphy from the start.  The issue was always about the power of the Church to stick its nose in where it doesn’t belong – the way we make our laws and govern ourselves.

You might expect that those of a reactionary cast of thought might understand all this.  The opposite result – where religion remains paramount, or at least claims a right of veto – is that which obtains in nations subject to their ultimate bête noire – Islam.

On another point about religion, one correspondent to The Sunday Age reminded us that the infant Jesus spent time as a refugee in Egypt.  How would his parents have got on if they had knocked on the door of Mr Morrison, who is bewailing the ill treatment of Christians in this country, or Mr Dutton?

Anyway, to the extent that a God-fearing lapsed Prot has any standing to say so – have a very happy Christmas and all best wishes for the New Year.

Passing Bull 128 – How good is popularity?

 

When the Beatles were at the height of their appeal, their popularity was almost immeasurable.  They could do no wrong.  Their wealth was immense.  A lot of the noise came from schoolgirls screaming out their puberty, but there was no doubting the general popularity of the band.  They were about as big as Elvis Presley.

But did this immense popularity signify anything about the inherent quality of their music – as opposed to the huge saleability of their product?  It would have been absurd to say that the Beatles were on a par with Mozart – and just as absurd to say that Elvis was on a par with Frank Sinatra – or even Bing Crosby.  If an entertainer is popular, he or she is to that extent succeeding in their chosen pursuit.  It’s the same with politicians.  If they are sufficiently popular to win the required number of votes, they may be elected into office – like a pope at the College of Cardinals.  That level of popularity and of votes entitles them to claim the prize or title of office.  But does it do any more?  Does it entitle them to say that they have some kind of seal of approval on the quality of their policies or their character?

Simply as a matter of logic, the fact that a given number of people like you or your policies does not of itself entail that either you or your policies have some intrinsic worth.  A proposition about worth does not follow from a proposition about popular appeal.  You have only to reflect on popular will in its purest form of action – the lynch mob – or the characters of probably the three most popular political leaders of the twentieth century – Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco in, say, 1938 – to see how doubtful a signifier mere popularity is.  The leader of North Korea is almost certainly more popular in his own country than the leader of the United States.

If someone claims vindication or exoneration from a win in a political process, they will invite at least two questions.  Did the process have integrity?  Was there a quality field – who did the winner have to beat?  In Australian terms, was he or she up against a drover’s dog?

The election of Trump falters on each.  Australians think the U S system is flawed because voting is not compulsory.  Democrats say the system is loaded against them.  Trump did not win the popular vote.  The Electoral College does not perform its original function.  And many people voted against Trump’s opponent rather than for him.  Many of his supporters are still in that mode.  They will support any measure that goes against what the Democrats did – especially if it involved the nation’s first black president.

So, it would be very hard to argue that the electoral triumph of Trump somehow validates either him, or his policies.  To the extent that we can identify policies he laid out before the election – such as building a wall, or excluding Muslims – then as President he would have both the right and the duty to seek to implement those policies.  (It’s best to avoid that weasel word mandate altogether.)

But to claim that his election as President in some way validates those policies is as sound as saying that the election of Hitler as Chancellor validated Mein Kampf, including the elimination of Jews and the annihilation of Russia.  Then you might ask whether Trump’s announced policies entitled him to present a budget which helps the rich, hurts those under the rich, and bankrupts the nation.

All that is clear enough, but we get keep being assured that the election of Trump does in some way validate both himself and his policies.

The issue has crystallized in Alabama.  In most political bodies, Roy Moore would be hors de combat because of his found misbehaviour as a judge.  In England and Australia, he would have no hope because he is a sanctimonious, bible-bashing hypocrite.  He would certainly have no chance anywhere that politics is rational in light of the credible allegations of sexual predation against him – and his dreadful response to those allegations.  In many places he would be hopelessly on the nose on the sole ground that this whole fiasco is the product of a faction fight within one party sponsored by a nasty, rich Leninist named Bannon.

But what about the similar allegations of sexual misconduct against the President?  With the straight face that becomes serial liars, the White House says that the American nation elected Trump with full knowledge of the allegations.

For reasons I have sought to give, this proposition entails no logically relevant consequence.  This case is a fortiori – a successful candidate wants to argue that winning an election doesn’t just validate policies – it also erases sin, or the allegation of sin.  And this is where the candidate is a proven liar; he has denied the allegations; he has said he would sue the complainants well knowing that he would never do so; and where he has given evidence that he is a serial sexual predator.  And the White House says their case is stronger than that of a Democrat senator who has admitted to and apologised for a lesser offence.

The Republicans have another problem with saying that Trump has been cleared by his being elected.  They will move to block Moore even if he is elected.  They are apparently choosy about which popular choice they will regard as valid.

The events in Alabama also show how the prejudices of an electorate can show why electoral success can so rarely be cited to support some kind of moral validation.  Polls in Alabama show that more than 70% of Christian evangelicals or fundamentalists will vote for Moore despite the evidence of his paedophilia.  Why?  According to a Republican spokesman on CNN, who is against Moore taking a seat on the Senate, this is because Christian evangelicals regard Democrats as being in favour of abortion to the extent that they might fairly be described as murderers.  What is the conclusion of these soi disant Christians?  They would rather vote for a paedophile than a murderer.

God give us strength, and spare us from judgments derived from the will of the people.  We are after all human.  At least one of the Beatles understood this.  The first of them to leave us, John Lennon, said: ‘We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock’n’ roll or Christianity.’  The Greeks had word for that kind of thing.  We call it leading with your chin.

Passing Bull 126 – Being rational about religion

 

We take a lot of things on faith – the balance in our bank account, the state of our health, the sense of our doctors, the faithfulness of our partners, and the magic and mystery of giants like Leonardo, Shakespeare and Mozart.  Faith doesn’t only apply to religion then.  To that extent I agree with Greg Sheridan in his piece ‘Idea of God is perfectly logical’ in The Saturday Australian.

My position about God is that of a God-fearing doubter.  I simply don’t know.  I don’t believe anyone knows about God, either way.  While I have lost any belief in God, at least as that term in generally understood, I don’t seek to persuade others either way.  That, frankly, would be none of my business.

It follows therefore that I too, with Mr Sheridan, don’t like Dawkins or Hitchens, although I must confess that I have not read either in depth.  I don’t believe that any proposition about the existence of God is capable of rational proof.  As I gather that both of these men thought that they had proved that God does not exist, they are in my view talking bullshit.  And I don’t think I could be persuaded to the contrary.  And certainly not by arrogant and insulting people like those two.  They are to me nasty intellectual bullies, who think that they can work over people who overtly pledge their faith in that which cannot be proven.

People like Dawkins and Hitchens look to me to be evangelists of a nasty and bigoted kind.  Kant knew that bigots of denial were often worse than bigots of belief, and Carlyle showed his disdain for Rousseau by calling him the ‘Evangelist.’  What right or interest do these people have in seeking to undermine the religious faith of others – a lot of whom may not have the same intellectual horsepower, but very many of whom will be far better off for taste and judgment?  For that matter, why should they seek to deny to all of us the place of magic and mystery in the world – with some variety of rationalist double entry accounting?

So, I agree with Mr Sheridan that belief in God is rational.  To suggest the contrary seems to me to be as silly as it is rude.

But belief in what kind of God?   And how do we express it?  Mr Sheridan refers to ‘the thousands of years of intellectual effort on matters of faith and belief by the best minds humanity has produced.’  The best minds would include Spinoza, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Einstein.  They all professed to believe in God, but their God would be unrecognisable as such to most believers.  (And both Spinoza and Kant were persecuted because their God did not conform.)

Take Einstein.  Whereas some people see what they believe to be miracles as evidence of God’s existence, for Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence, and revealed a ‘God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists’.  This is very much like what Kant thought.  Einstein had the problem that Darwin had with people trying to get him to express views on religion.  People were trying to trap him.  A New York rabbi sent him a telegram: ‘Do you believe in God?  Stop.  Answer paid.  Fifty words.’  The reply was: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind’.  Einstein never felt the need to put down others who believed in a different kind of God: ‘What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos’.

So, are we talking about the intellectual model of God, or the personal model?  The personal model, which is that favoured by most believers, is that revealed by scripture.  Here is another and more biting division.  Which scripture?  The Old Testament, the New Testament, Confucius, the Koran, and so on?

So, of course a belief in God is rational – but putting meat on the bones of ‘God’ is another matter.  And that takes us to the second question.  The belief is rational, but to what extent can it be expressed in words and be justified in logic?

Mr Sheridan refers to Aquinas, ‘the greatest of the Christian philosophers and theologians.’  Augustine and Aquinas took the teaching of an unlettered holy man from Asia and drenched it in the European philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  I was brought up in a Protestant sect, and on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the eruption of Martin Luther, I may be forgiven for saying that this intellectualising of the teaching of Christ may appeal to some more than others.

It is in truth no small part of why I lost my faith.  God is limitless – Christ is too – and I have never understood the presumption of mere men seeking to lock God in behind the bars of a syllogism, a construct of human thought.  This is, if you like, an article of faith for me.  I can’t jump six feet; I can’t conceive of a thing being and not being at the same time; but I don’t say that God can’t do either.  What gives us the right to say that God cannot transcend our limitations?  Why can’t God be better than us?

But this intellectual elevation put up by Augustine and others, which can only be understood by about a thousand people in the world at any one time, looks to me to be part of reserving the mystery of it all to the clerics – and that is bad.  This monopoly of understanding was at the heart of Luther’s protest.  And the Church made a great gift to people like Dawkins and Hitchens.  The people of faith were offering to play the people of logic on their own home ground.  It would be like the New York Yankees offering to play the MCC at cricket at Lords.  No bloody contest, mate.

In sum, there are limits to both our logic and language, and you have as much hope of explaining or justifying your faith in God as you do of explaining or justifying your faith in Leonardo, Shakespeare or Mozart – or, I may add, the divine Catherine Deneuve.  Wittgenstein said:

I believe that one of the things that Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless.  That you have to change your life. 

His biographer said:

‘Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm, infinite harm.’  [Wittgenstein wrote.]  Why pair Russell and the parsons in the one condemnation? Because both have encouraged the idea that a philosophical justification for religious beliefs is necessary for those beliefs to be given any credence.  Both the atheist who scorns religion because he has found no evidence for its tenets, and the believer, who attempts to prove the existence of God, have fallen to the ‘other’ – to the idle worship of the scientific style of thinking.  Religious beliefs are not analogous to scientific theories, and should not be accepted or rejected using the same evidential criteria.

That looks obvious to me.  And if you want to return to the beginnings, I see that Plato believed that no philosophical truth could be communicated in writing at all – it was only by some sort of immediate contact that one soul might kindle a light in another.  Good grief – from what ashram did that come?  But then we recall that Einstein said that he rarely thought in words.  And the great physicist Niels Bohr said:

When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.  The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images.

It was therefore sad to see that Mr Sheridan began his piece by saying: ‘It is more rational to believe in God than to believe there is no God.’  What might that entail?  It is idle to contend that my belief in God is as secure as my belief in my parentage, and it is plain wrong to say that Mr Sheridan’s ancestry is ‘certainly not rationally proven.’ (Otherwise our judges would have to pick up their bongos).  And then we get the call to arms: ‘the high points of our elite and popular culture have been colonised by a militant and intolerant atheism.’

May I suggest that making warlike claims to rational superiority about religion is not the best way to deal with intolerance?  When we talk of God, those who think they have the best arguments are those who are likely to lose the war.  There is a lot to be said for live, and let live.

Poet of the month: Henry Lawson

A prouder man than you

If you fancy that your people came of better stock than mine,

If you hint of higher breeding by a word or by a sign,

If you’re proud because of fortune or the clever things you do —

Then I’ll play no second fiddle: I’m a prouder man than you!

If you think that your profession has the more gentility,

And that you are condescending to be seen along with me;

If you notice that I’m shabby while your clothes are spruce and new —

You have only got to hint it: I’m a prouder man than you!

If you have a swell companion when you see me on the street,

And you think that I’m too common for your toney friend to meet,

So that I, in passing closely, fail to come within your view —

Then be blind to me for ever: I’m a prouder man than you!

If your character be blameless, if your outward past be clean,

While ’tis known my antecedents are not what they should have been,

Do not risk contamination, save your name whate’er you do — `

Birds o’ feather fly together’: I’m a prouder bird than you!

Keep your patronage for others! Gold and station cannot hide

Friendship that can laugh at fortune, friendship that can conquer pride!

Offer this as to an equal — let me see that you are true,

And my wall of pride is shattered: I am not so proud as you!

Passing Bull 121 – God, sex and marriage

 

Sometimes you may ask a court to review a government decision that goes against you.  You can do so if you can show that the relevant government agency had no jurisdiction (in general language, power) to make the decision.  And you may be able to do that if you can show that the agency asked itself the wrong question.  You might think that this would be a cheeky way to allow unelected judges to second-guess agents responsible to an elected government, but it doesn’t take long to see the merit in the suggestion.  For example, a power to answer questions on health is not a power to answer questions about morals or business – and vice versa.  Say that the AFL asks a panel of doctors to advise if its rules should be changed to improve the safety of the players.  The panel says that in their opinion the rules should be changed to make the game safer, but that they advise the AFL not to so do so, as such a change would make the game less entertaining and would therefore be bad for business.  The most polite response of the AFL would be – who asked you?  You have asked yourself the wrong question.

English judges have spent about 900 years formulating rules for issues to be decided or questions to be answered in forensic contests.  We don’t have any such rules for public debate – as the British are finding in their Brexit debates.  We are now facing that problem in our debate about the role of religion in the discussion about marriage equality.  It may help to look at some of the questions that may arise.

What is marriage?

Marriage is a union between two people who intend the union to be binding and which confers, as a matter of law, rights on the parties.  Marriage confers status on a union between two people, just as the grant of citizenship confers status on one person.  Putting God to one side for the moment, on what moral or political ground could heterosexual people deny the conferral of that legal status to homosexual people?  If we deny that status to homosexual people, are we not saying that they are not entitled to all of the benefits of citizenship?  Would we not then be marking homosexual people as second class citizens?  If we say they cannot enjoy equal status with the rest of the community, how do we avoid the conclusion  that they are inferior in status?

This first question – about a kind of legal status – leads to another.  Why do we ask or worry about what people of faith may have to say on this issue?  They don’t have any special rights or interest in how much tax we pay, what kind of submarine we build, or whether we should sell Blue Poles.  Why is there such a fuss about their views on the legal definition of marriage?  I don’t know – for reasons that I will try to give – but many of the questions discussed here overlap.

Is homosexuality against the word of a Christian God?

It’s not my faith, but parts of the bible say that it’s wrong for a man to lie with a man in the same way as he would with a woman.  The penalty is death – by stoning, as I recall.  Well, we couldn’t have that.  Even Daesh might draw the line at death by stoning, whatever the offence.  But, then, how much of the bible should we have?  And, just as importantly, who says so – both for the members of the relevant church, and for the rest of us?

On that or some other ground, should people of the Christian faith decline to recognise or participate in same sex marriages?

It’s rare now for people to seek to impose their religious views on others – or to exclude from their company those people who have different religious views.  A person who says ‘I will not tolerate a person whose views on religion are different to mine’ is a definitively intolerant person – a bigot.

Some religious people seek to avoid this conclusion on the issue of abortion by invoking the category of ‘murder’, and saying that ‘murder’ is non-negotiable in any moral code.  But putting to one side the various defences to acts of homicide, those on the other side say that this mode of labelling is a cheap debating device.  They also wonder about the sincerity of those accusing others of murder if they are content to remain in a community that allows if not promotes this crime.

To what extent, if any, should leaders or elders of that faith seek to impart their views to others of their faith or the world at large?

This question suggests that there are two other questions anterior to those I have put so far.

What business does religion have with sexuality?

That’s a very real question.  And the bigger one may be: who gives the answer?

The Inquisition went after Galileo because his proven views on astronomy contradicted the bible.  So they did.  So what?  Galileo took the view that the bible answered questions about religion, not astronomy.  Should we still subscribe to the literal truth of the book of Genesis?  Of course not.

Many people are very angry with one part of the Christian church.  They say that the views of that church on contraception are causing untold misery around the world.  Why is any church allowed to dictate to anyone – anyone – on any issue of sexuality?  Is it not the case that the church is there to answer questions about religion – and not questions about sexuality?  Put differently, why should we pay any more attention to what a church says about sexuality than we do for what a church says about astronomy?

What business does religion have with marriage?

Well, most religions have something to say about marriage.  There may I think be various models within Christianity, let alone the many other faiths followed in Australia.  But there are also purely civil non-religious forms of marriage.  The Christians can have their model, and the Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists can have their models.  And the secular people can have their model.  What gives one group the right to claim the supremacy of their model – or to deny the right of others to their own model?

There is a particular question here.  If some Christians want to say that marriage should be confined by law to a union between a man and a woman, where do they get the right to claim a nation-wide monopoly of their kind of marriage?  That is a large question.  It is even larger in a nation that has the following in its Constitution.

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. 

It does seem curious that in a nation that outlaws establishing a religion, its people have to endure the efforts of one religion to impose its will and establish its definition on an issue as important to that people as marriage.

The no-sayers have of course gone further than that.  They have deterred our members of parliament from doing what we elect them to do.  And here we may as well identify the rhinoceros in the wine cellar.  But for the Catholic Church, and some of its older, uglier and angrier votaries, we would not be having this discussion, and we would not have had to endure the tawdry farce of this plebiscite.  (And do you remember that hilarious occasion when a former Prime Minister, while still in opposition, said that he would not let his strong Catholic faith interfere with policy choices?  Not even the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, Tony?)

There is an issue of substance here.  We live in a nation that believes firmly in the separation of church and state.  Why do some members of one church want to cross the line and impose their will on their secular brothers and sisters?

But to go back to the question that led to these digressions, it’s a matter for the leaders or elders of a faith to say how they should deal with their own faithful.  The rest of us, however, have a say in how they should deal with us.  And the most polite way of putting it is – don’t.

We are not talking about the legal entitlement of a group of religious people seeking to tie the civil law to their religious view of the world.  We are talking about the moral worth and political decency of their attempting to do that when they know that their actions will divide their community and bring pain and suffering to other members of their community.  It’s one thing to say that religious people have the legal right to try to have their religious view of the world become part of the law of the land.  It’s altogether a different thing to say that in doing so they are acting as decent and responsible members of the community.

There is one very simple way to justify our resistance to people seeking to impose their faith on others as they are doing in the case of marriage equality.  We are for the most part talking about some but not all Christians seeking to impose their faith on others on the subject of marriage.  Can you conceive of the howls of outrage – and from the very same people – if we were talking about Muslims seeking to impose their faith on others on the subject of Sharia Law – or, say, the unilateral divorce pronounced by the husband?  You would be very lucky to escape with a straight-jacket.  Or you might get a group trying to promote polygamy; or the people into Voodoo might have some novel ideas.  Why should we give in to the views of any one faith?  Put differently, it’s fine for religious people to make their leap of faith – but how can they decently ask others to join in the beliefs they hold after they have made that leap?

The philosophical answer was given by Kant, to my mind unanswerably.

We have noted that a church dispenses with the most important mark of truth, namely, a rightful claim to universality, when it bases itself upon a revealed faith.  For such a faith, being historical (even though it be far more widely disseminated and more completely secured for remotest posterity through the agency of Scripture) can never be universally communicated so as to produce conviction.

To return to the theme that we started with, it is the role of the church to answer questions about marriages made within that church, and not about marriage outside that church.  If a church claims the latter right, is it not plainly going outside its power or jurisdiction?

Is it appropriate for people of one faith to seek to impose the consequences of their dogma on the world at large when that faith represents only a part of the community? 

I have largely given my answer, and that of Immanuel Kant, to this question.  Church-going Christians represent only a small proportion of Australians.  To describe Australia as a ‘Christian nation’ is in my view as insulting and dangerous as it is absurd.  But there are those who make that claim, and they just make it all the more desirable for the rest of us to resist having people trying to ram their religion down our throats and to create some form of de facto established religion.

Does it make good sense ‘politically’ for members of one faith to agitate about a change in the law if that agitation will bring bad odour on that faith and its followers?

This, too, is a matter for people of faith.  But it must be obvious that there may be heavy price to pay for associating with people like Abbott and Bernardi and those people in the Murdoch press and Sky television who rely on the intolerance of their audience and who live off the earnings of conflict, and who seek to hold back yesterday by denying equality to a minority of their fellow citizens.

And the no-sayers should at least dissociate themselves from some of the more dishonest posturing about religious freedom.  To the extent that some of the faithful are alarmed that the Commonwealth might use the occasion to make a law for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, they are expressing alarm over the possibility of a law banned by the constitution.  It is, I suppose, par for the Australian political course for a group of people to have us submit to a process that most Australians object to and then assert that they should not give the answer sought by most Australians – because their government has not told them enough!

To my mind, these crab-walkers are saying that we can’t trust this government.  I agree with them entirely, but it just doesn’t lie in their mouth to say so.  That is particularly the case for that little master of dog-whistling and obfuscation – John Howard – who now wants to do to marriage equality what he so squalidly did to the republic.  He has a genius for negative mediocrity.  And no one pretends that this is anything but a doomed holding exercise principally brought about to appease the followers of one fading religion.

Is the answer to that question different because it is asked in a nation that insists on the separation of religion from politics and which has very bad memories of people of one sect infecting its politics?

My answer will be apparent from what I have said.  We may not be as strong as the French on keeping religion out of politics, but this shabby little exercise shows why we should not relax our vigilance.

Is the answer to that question different where opinion within a faith is split on this issue on reasonable grounds? 

We are just weeks away from the 500th anniversary of the start of the great schism in Christianity.  For half a millennium each side has challenged the other’s integrity and accused the other of heresy.  It’s morbidly ironic that some of them now can come together and stand shoulder to shoulder for the purpose of denying the aspirations of others within their community.  Their unity on this issue leads to division within the wider community.  What drives these people to do this?  If the answer is that they are driven to that course by the religious beliefs that they hold, then that answer might give pause to those on all sides.

As I understand it, there is no uniform view on the issue either within Christianity or Judaism.  I may be wrong, but I think that only the Catholic Church has the machinery to set forth a binding view – and that’s not a model that other religious sects are keen to follow.  Some clergy (including rabbis) welcome the possibility of marriage equality and are keen to participate.  Others reject the notion and will opt out.  A Presbyterian minister has just broken the world land speed record for intolerance by refusing to marry a straight couple who were in favour of marriage equality.  This split among the faithful hardly helps the cause of religion on this issue.  If the faithful are split on the question, it’s not one to go to the stake for.  Why then do the rest of us have to be put to this ignominious trouble and expense?

Doesn’t it just come to this?  Religious people should look after religious marriages and allow secular people to look after secular marriages.  In other words, the people of faith should be a bit more careful in framing the question that they are fit to answer.  As matters stand, they look to me to resemble the hypothetical panel of doctors giving gratuitous commercial advice to the AFL.  It’s just none of their bloody business.

And is it not so sad to see the name of the man Einstein called ‘the luminous Nazarene’ being invoked in aid of that cancer of mankind that we call exclusion?  It’s even sadder than watching bishops or the odd cardinal take their breakfast at the Melbourne Club.

When I drive from Malmsbury to Ballarat, I pass many unused churches, stuck on hills in the middle of nowhere.  It’s very sad; they are like sullen artefacts to a lost way of life.  But for better or for worse, those churches had nothing to say to most Australians – that’s why they died.  Our world has changed greatly and it will of course keep on changing.  I suppose that I have a bias as a lapsed straight Protestant, and an admirer of Spinoza and Kant (both of whom were sharply rebuked by their orthodox faithful), but on looking back at how I would answer the questions set out above, I simply can’t understand what all the bloody fuss is about.  And, for the removal of doubt, I’m bloody furious that we have been put to this demeaning and hurtful farce because our members of parliament have allowed a small religious claque to stop them doing their duty.  They should all be deeply ashamed of themselves.

At my age, and with my disposition, it’s very unlikely that I will marry again.  It’s even more unlikely that I would choose to marry a bloke.  But if I did, I would expect my country to honour my right to equality before the law uninfected by the dogma of a faith that even the faithful can’t agree on.  Is that too much to ask for in Australia in the year of Our Lord 2017?

 

Poet of the month: Emily Dickinson

How far is it to Heaven?

As far as Death this way—

Of River or of Ridge beyond

Was no discovery.

How far is it to Hell?

As far as Death this way—

How far left hand the

Sepulchre Defies Topography.

Here and there – Injecting religion into the political stew

 

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant understood that of the conflicts deriving from religion, the conflict between believers in different faiths was far less toxic than the conflict between different sects in the one faith.  The first, let’s face it, just comes from the luck of the draw; but the second savours more of conscious choice, and of betrayal.  It’s one thing to be called an infidel; it’s another thing to be branded as a heretic.  People got burnt alive for heresy; infidels were usually just sent to the back of the bus, or over the border.  If a community finds sectarian hatred combining with ethnic differences and political factions, it has to deal with a very dangerous cancer deriving from three nasty sources.  It has happened at least twice in Australia, and one man, from a foreign land and subject to a foreign power, was deeply involved in each case.

Two of the most unpopular people in the history of Australia were Daniel Mannix and Bob Santamaria.  They were unpopular for at least two reasons.  They sought to inject their religious views into Australian political life, and they used their own special gifts for that purpose – and in the case of one of them, he did so with imported venom.  In the result, the Catholic and Protestant divide became almost as ugly here as it was in Ireland, and the party of the workers was split and rendered useless – so disenfranchising, in effect, a whole generation.  The divisions in our community festered like tumours, and caused serious damage to the standing of both Catholics and those of Irish stock in Australia.

In my view, the damage went further, and these two men made substantial contributions to the decline of religion here.  And I fear that I see the same happening again, and it is again being driven by the same faction within Christianity, in areas of public life where public opinion has shifted very considerably from the old dogmatisms embraced by the embittered and threatened faithful.  When the backlash comes, as it surely will, a lot people will recall the strife wrought upon us here by Daniel Mannix and Bob Santamaria.

All those thoughts came to me as I read Brenda Niall’s Mannix (2015) which struck me as a very fair, balanced, and sensible book.

Mannix was nearly fifty when he got to Melbourne.  His life had been sheltered – cloistered – in a teaching environment where his aloof sense of superiority was relatively harmless.  The teaching then was not conducive to allowing men consigned to loneliness to deal with the world as it is – a world of which half are women.  At the Seminary, Lectures in Pastoral Theology warned the young men about being seen in company with women – even their mother or sister.  ‘It is contrary to taste in clerical behaviour to walk with a lady in the street, no matter how near.  The laity do not like it.  It seems to them incongruous and it is so.’  The author comments:

The reasoning behind this is not just that female company means moral danger.  The priest must be a man apart from human ties.  That was clericalism, destructive then and ever since.

Just how destructive these attitudes have been is now agonisingly clear to the entire world.  The holy man known as Our Lord consorted with prostitutes.  Where in the life or teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is there any support for this exclusionary but poisonous ‘taste in clerical behaviour’?

The future Archbishop of Melbourne found his political feet quickly.  ‘To reason with the average politician unless you vote against him also, is about as useful as throwing confetti at a rhinoceros.’  The author says this was not tactful, but ‘Mannix could never resist a pithy phrase.’

In truth, God did not do Mannix a favour in sending him to Australia in 1913.  The young nation was about to heed England’s call to war at the very time when five centuries of England’s racist contempt for the Irish would finally come home to poison people on both sides of the Irish Sea.  The Irish attitude to the English and the war was the opposite of ours.  It became hopelessly toxic after the English shot those involved in the Easter uprising.  Any chance of Mannix reflecting any part of the Sermon on the Mount when it came to the English went clean out the window.  And yet the English Crown was and is our Head of State.  How was this conflict to be resolved?  What mattered more to Mannix – God or Ireland?

The book has good anecdotes about the principal opponent of Mannix – another foreign born Hell raiser, the Welsh Protestant, Billy Hughes.  At Versailles, Woodrow Wilson told Hughes he only spoke for five million people.  ‘I speak for sixty thousand dead.  For how many do you speak for, Mr President?’

It was on conscription and state aid for Catholic schools that Mannix nailed his theses to the door.  The first issue poisoned Australian public life during the First World War, although it did not stop a government fifty years later from imposing a viciously unjust conscription is an unjust and losing war, while the second issue continues to infect our whole policy on education.

These two public controversies created Mannix as leader.  Being seen in single combat with the prime minister gave him a status that no other churchman attained.  If there had been no war in Europe, and if Home Rule had come quietly to Ireland, would Mannix have been a hero to his people?  A priest who had known him at Maynooth thought not.  Mannix was not loved until he was reviled, said Father Morley Coyne.  Out of the hatred roused in the war years came a strong bond with the people.  An unlikely alliance between the austere intellectual and the working class Catholics was formed in 1916.  That was one element in the Newman College campaign.  It also brought the university closer to the aspirations of working class Catholic parents.  A Catholic college might open the door to privilege.  ‘My son the lawyer’, ‘my son the doctor’….these were better dreams than ‘my son at the front.’

Mannix ‘was not loved until he was reviled’ may be the key to the whole book.  Is a relation founded on revulsion sound for a man of God?  What about a chip on your shoulder about the Protestant Ascendancy?  The English Crown – our Crown – does have to be not just a Protestant, but a communicant Anglican.  How big a problem was this for this profoundly Irish man?

When Mannix went to England, they blocked his entry to Ireland.  He could not see his mother.  Lloyd George offered to allow her to visit her son in London.

She would have accepted Lloyd George’s offer if her son had allowed it.  She felt that his isolation in England was leading him astray; he simply did not know how it was in Ireland.  He made his choice, with what degree of pain or regret no one can ever know.  He put politics ahead of the family tie, and his mother never saw him again.

A man who puts an idea ahead of a person is flirting with Perdition.

There were some pluses.  Mannix became reconciled with Hughes in circumstances that are movingly recorded in the book.  The long serving prison chaplain Father Brosnan said that he learned confidence from Mannix and not to be concerned ‘with who people were.’  If properly fashioned, that is a very useful lesson.  But from time to time, Mannix was rebuked from Rome for his politics.  On one occasion, he was directed to refrain from ‘any statement whatever of a political character.’  Like throwing confetti at a rhinoceros.

This was at a time when Rome sent an envoy to Australia whose task was to dilute the Irish bias among Australian prelates.  The man chosen was Giovanni Pannico, whose English was far inferior to his Latin and who charged like a wounded bull for officiating at church functions.  Pannico was ruthless.  He despatched a man called Lonergan to Port Augusta.  The move killed him.

What the author called the Vatican chess game was lost by Mannix, but he did get his red hat at a time when a new ethnic front was opening up.  Italian migrants were landing in numbers, but ‘the Irish-Australian Catholic majority, rapidly rising in the world, kept its distance from this new underclass.’  It was ever thus.  I have heard Greeks complain of the Irish conspiracy to lock them out of the heights of the professions.

The relationship between Mannix and Santamaria was close and strong.  The ‘split’ came from the ‘Movement.’

The Movement, which owed its existence to Mannix and Santamaria, was an informal Catholic organisation.  Nameless and secret, it came to the rescue of the beleaguered trade unionists.  Santamaria saw the possibilities of the parish structure, and Mannix, who controlled the diocese, gave him the power to use them.  Every Catholic belonged to a parish.

This might remind some of the Freemasons.  What they got was ‘a straggling mass of spiritual infantry’, more militant than the Salvos, and feared and loathed by a large part of the nation.

They showed that almost helpless affinity with the Right that troubles so many Australians.  Most Australian Catholics sided with Franco who was a murderous dictator and an ally of Hitler – with whom the Pope had done a deal.  ‘They saw General Franco as the saviour of European civilisation which Spain embodied.’  The most polite term for that mindset from most Australians would be ‘warped’, but here again religion was driving some Australians into manic positions on another foreign quarrel.  The notion that Mannix expressed political views as a private person was risible.

And Mannix kept expressing views about foreign affairs.  He deplored the bombing of German civilian targets as well as Coventry, and he said that the use of the atomic bomb in Japan was ‘indefensible and immoral.’  If so, Truman and Churchill were war criminals.  Was this man of the cloth really so lethal?  Was he aware that Truman was advised that an invasion of Japan could well cost America one million of its men?  What did an Irish prelate know about ‘unconditional surrender’?

The part dealing with Mannix and Evatt is especially sad.  An authentic Australian stirrer meets an authentic Australian tragedy.  The dealings about funding schools do not make good reading.  The author says Santamaria was shocked by Evatt’s opportunism.  He said Evatt was ‘a man without a soul’.  (How many successful Australian politicians are remembered for their ‘soul’?)  But as the 1954 election drew near, Mannix was very much for Evatt.  He had been tempted by Evatt’s promises of almost unlimited sums for Catholic schools.  Then along came Petrov, and Labor lost.

In November 1954, he [Evatt] made his bid for survival as leader by denouncing Movement members and supporters for disloyalty, and by indirectly exposing the still unknown Santamaria’s role in undermining Labor Party independence.  Another Labor Split – the third in Mannix’s time in Australia – brought back much of the sectarian bitterness of the conscription period.

It’s almost too painful to read.  A generation – mine – was denied two party politics, and the broad sunlit uplands were overshadowed by religious hate.  The hatred was awful.  As one Caucus meeting became a melee, one leader jumped on a chair and screamed ‘Take their names’, and Evatt descended into a long night of madness.  One sane but bemused ALP MP said: ‘I no more like Australia receiving instructions from Rome than from Moscow.’

All that has gone now, but with it, most of the religion has gone too.  In driving to and from Ballarat the other day, by different routes, I passed about twenty churches.  Nearly all of them now are little more than relics.  It’s very sad.  Only God knows how much that decline owes to the misused talents of two clever zealots.

Brenda Niall’s book looks very sound to me, but it is not a pretty or happy story.  These are dark pages of a tawdry history that our children have been happy to put behind us.