For mystery, against religion
The author of that masterpiece of intelligent television - the phrase did not always seem like an oxymoron - The Singing Detective would be apoplectic, were he able to see the way that new technological innovations are being squandered today. Potter would have been particularly upset, I think, by the phenomenon of facebook, which treats the decentralised, user-friendly qualities of the internet as opportunities not for intellectual and cultural exchange but for repetitive displays of narcissism.
Over the past couple of years I have watched a series of apparently sane members of my social circle retract their denunciations of facebook, create profiles, and begin the primitive accumulation of friends. They stop contributing to blogs like Reading the Maps, where at least a modicum of an argument is expected in the comments boxes, and begin to post almost sublimely anodyne reports on the flux and flow of their minds - 'I'm bored' and 'I need coffee' seem to be refrains - to their facebook 'friends', who are only too happy to respond in kind.
How do I know about the activities of these converts to facebook, if I have taken a position of lofty condescension toward the phenomenon? Although I've yet to succumb to technological determinism and take out a facebook account, Skyler, who embraced the medium reluctantly some years ago, acts as a bridge between me and my departed friends, relaying their laconic reports to me along with her own commentaries. I've also visited some of the facebook profiles and pages that include links to parts of this blog.
For anyone interested in such esoteric pursuits as political and cultural discussion, facebook, with its millions of apolitical, ungrammatical grunts and sighs, might seem like one of the least promising zones of the internet. And yet even at facebook, the tremendous unrealised potential of the internet can be glimpsed. Although many facebookers confine themselves to discussing their last bowel motion or their next date, a few brave souls, like the indefatigable Kiwi-Irish socialist Joe Carolan, use the medium to promote and debate ideas. It might be true that, for their hundreds of apolitical friends, these facebookers are something like dinner party bores, but there are sometimes worse things to be than a bore.
It also seems to me that, despite the best efforts of its corporate designers, the very format of facebook can sometimes spur interesting discussions of ideas. When Skyler recently updated her facebook profile, she was confronted with a series of silly enquiries about her tastes in food and her favourite colours, along with a couple of questions about her political and religious convictions. A lot of facebookers choose to ignore these more serious questions, or else fob them off with non-sequitirs, but others seem to suffer a dark night of the soul, as they struggle to define their most important beliefs. Certainly, Skyler spent a lot of time mulling her political self-portrait, before settling on the phrase 'slightly left of the centre-leftists - "Democratic Eco-Socialist"!!?'
When I mocked the equivocating question mark at the end of her political self-description, Skyler hit back by demanding that I find a snappy label for my attitude to religion. 'You might know what you think about a thousand different varieties of the far left', she said, 'but you shy away from explaining how you feel about religion. I reckon you're scared to join facebook.'
Skyler's comment had some justification. Facebook seems to demand that its users define their view of religion in relatively simple, effectively binary terms. Most facebookers who answer the question on religion seem to pronounce themselves believers of one creed or another, or else simply as 'atheists'. It is as though the parameters for self-definition have been set by the noisy debates which have occurred in recent times between religious fundamentalists on the one hand and the so-called 'New Atheists' led by Richard Dawkins on the other.
After a fair bit of debate with myself, and of course with Skyler, I decided that if I ever join facebook I will describe myself there as a 'non-humanist atheist'. Of course, this rather tortured phrase invites far more questions that it answers. I'm not trying be evasively delphic, by coining such a strange term: on the contrary, I'm trying to be precise, by acknowledging both my lifelong complete lack of belief in a supernatural reality and my complete disdain for 'New Atheists' like Christopher Hitchens who want to see the universe, with all its mystery and wonder, through a prism made out of the dogmas of twenty-first century Western capitalist society.
In the hope of making myself clearer, I'll quote a passage from a letter I recently sent to a very good friend who saw and critiqued a couple of posts I made on the poetry of Christianity near the end of last year. My letter was an attempt to explain to my friend, who is a Christian and who reveres the art of Colin McCahon, why I reject the framework in which recent high-profile debates between believers and atheists have occurred.
'I am atheist but not a humanist. I reject the humanist ideas that the history of our species has some sort of intrinsic goal or meaning, that human beings exist at the top of some sort of hierarchy of nature, and that individual humans can be analysed in isolation from their fellows and from the history and the physical environment that contain them. To quote Louis Althusser, I think human beings are 'constituted from outside'.
I think it is significant that Christianity and other religious traditions have the ability to pull us out of the here and now, and to make us see our lives and concerns within the context not only of a vast sweep of human history but of the concepts of 'eternity' and 'nothingness'. In the hyper-paced, facile, attention-deficient society in which we live, the sort of transcendent power which Colin McCahon found in certain Christian thinkers and artists, and which you find in your own way today, is both subversive and healthy.
But mainstream Christianity seems, to me at least, to have very little interest in the sort of transcendent anti-materialism that attracted McCahon. For the vast majority of its practitioners, Christianity seems to act as a sensible insurance scheme for the afterlife, or a social club, or a means of building self-esteem, or a political cause. Recently I overheard a group of earnest young Catholics discussing an important theological question. When they died, they wondered, would they get to have their pets with them in heaven? So much for Pope Benedict's negative theology-influenced speculations about heaven as a place where time and the self are obliterated!
The media is in the habit of talking about a 'New Atheism', and about a struggle between 'believers and unbelievers', but this sort of rhetoric serves to disguise the fact that some of the most vociferous defenders of the Christianity and some of the loudest detractors of the faith share an utterly anthropocentric, instrumentalist worldview. The loathsome 'New Atheist' Christopher Hitchens, who wants to get rid of God and any concept of morality so that he can justify doing whatever he likes and helping start whatever wars he wants, has far more than he realises in common with somebody like Billy Graham, who thinks that heaven is a place where all-American kids drive cadillacs over streets paved with gold, or Brian Tamaki, who regards Christ as the prototypical businessman.
On the other hand, some of the more sensitive New Atheists - Richard Dawkins, for example, who feels a sense of transcendence when he studies the world scientifically, and who responds to Bach in a way a philistine like Graham or Tamaki never could - perhaps have more in common with 'transcendental' Christians like yourself than is generally appreciated. I don't mean to sound like I'm picking on Christians. The state of Christianity in our society, and in the West in general, reflects not some problem peculiar to the creed but a wider social pattern. Free market capitalism and alienating technology have had a similar effect on many other movements and institutions, both religious and non-religious. A look at some other religious traditions - the absurd New Age cults which pretend to recycle ancient wisdom but actually cater to the psychic needs of neurotic twenty-first century consumers, for instance - shows that Christianity's problems are far from unique. And how about the 'liberated' non-religious humans Hitchens celebrates, who 'worship' on Sunday mornings by visiting the mall and buying clothes or cellphones, rather than by going to church? Are they really any more liberated than Brian Tamaki's benighted followers?
I do want to suggest though - and I did make this point in my posts - that the inevitable contemporary problems of Christianity are exacerbated by key parts of the religion's doctrine. Some of the supernatural tenets of the faith - the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the promise of eternal life to the pious, the claim that prayers can be answered - encourage its misuse. Prayer, for instance, becomes in our crass, instrumentalising society not the profound sort of dialogue with nothingness practiced by Karl Barth or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, but the equivalent of purchasing a lotto ticket, or requesting a pay rise from the manager.
I respect the transcendental aspects of the Christian tradition - the faith's ability to pull humans out of the here and now and to put them in touch with the mysteries of existence, with the vastness of history, with the otherness of death and nothing, and with the beauty and wonder of the world - but reject the religion's supernatural claims. It's not simply that I don't see evidence for the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, and so on - I regard the very concept of an omnipotent God and the very promise of eternal life as contrary to the parts of the Christian tradition I admire. I am for Pseudo-Dionysus rather than St Paul. And I think McCahon shared my general position. He embraced some of the transcendentalism and symbolism of Christianity (aka Catholicism), but (as far as I am aware) refused to commit to its supernaturalism.
In his early twenties the philosopher Martin Heidegger distressed his family, who were pious and conservative Catholics, by telling them he was no longer a Christian. When he was asked by a family member why he had abandoned the 'sacred mystery' of Catholicism, Heidegger replied 'I have abandoned Christianity because I believe in mystery and in questioning. Church doctrine puts an end to mystery by giving the essential questions metaphysical answers'. I tend to agree.'
I hope that readers will use the comments box under this post to add their own opinions to mine. If we get a good debate going, somebody might even link to it from their facebook page!