Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Futa Helu, man of God?

[I've just out this message on facebook. Internet has been scarce up here, but I'm back in Nu'u Sila soon.]

It was a pleasure to give a seminar called 'Tongan Artists and New Zealand Themes' at the 'Atenisi Institute in Nuku'alofa last Monday night. Using 'Atenisi's new and startlingly sophisticated projection system, I was able to juxtapose the paintings of Colin McCahon and Visesio Siasau, and to flash between dendroglyphs carved centuries ago on the Chatham Islands and the equally astonishing murals that Benjamin Work has more recently left on the walls of Auckland.

The fifty or so people who attended the seminar included a set of Mormon elders, who wore identical white shirts and arrived in a small bus. They played happily with my kids, and showed commendable tolerance in sitting through my discussions of Siasau's neo-pagan sculptures of crucified Polynesian gods.

After my talk and a question and answer session, one of the Mormons stood up and gave an impromptu blessing that soon morphed into an impromptu sermon. The sermoniser explained that he was a nephew of Futa Helu, the legendary educationalist, philosopher, and pro-democracy activist who founded 'Atenisi. He denounced the notion that Futa was an 'atheist', insisting that his uncle was a 'man of god' who would have been very happy to get on the Mormon bus, were he alive today.

I didn't know Futa Helu personally, but I have read many of his English-language writings and have watched clips of a number of his public speeches. If Futa was a Christian, then he seems to have done a thorough job of hiding the fact. In a speech at a graduation ceremony that was reproduced in Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's documentary film about 'Atenisi, Chancellor Helu asked his audience to consider the gods of ancient Egypt and Iraq, who were once feared and revered but are now almost forgotten. Today's gods, he suggested, are also doomed to die, as the world and the universe continue to change. In one of the essays he collected into a book called Critical Essays: Cultural Perspectives from the South Seas, Helu argued that Tongans easily adopted Christianity in the nineteenth century because the new faith had the same authoritarian and anti-intellectual qualities as their old pagan religion. Like the old religion, the lotu of Siasi could, Helu argued, be used to justify the rule of chiefs and kings and keep commoners meek.

Both the claim that the Christian faith is doomed to eventual extinction and the argument that there is an essential continuity between Christianity and Tongan paganism are completely incompatible with the teachings of Mormons and of every other Christian sect in Tonga. The kingdom's churches affirm the eternal truth and inevitable triumph of Christ's message, and insist that Christ is different and superior to old Tongan gods like Tangaloa and Hikule'o. I can't see, then, that Futa's nephew has much hope of claiming him for Christianity. I think that he ought to be able to be proud of his uncle and nonetheless disagree with the man's views on religions. We are not obliged to agree with our friends and our families about every or even most subjects.

Futa Helu was a man who believed in and practiced critical thinking. He denied that any idea or individual was beyond criticism, believed that everyone had the right to think and argue freely, and was famous for giving as much attention to the opinions of the small children who followed him around 'Atenisi as those of visiting palangi academics or the king of Tonga. I'm sure that Futa Helu would have been happy to listen respectfully to his nephew's arguments in favour of Mormonism, and that he'd be able to find some merits in the faith and in its followers. I suspect that, like me, Futa would have immense admiration for the brass band of the Mormon high school Liahona, whose members honk and dance their way down Nuku'alofa's main street every year in front of cheering crowds. Futa would surely also appreciate the role that the Mormon church has played in allowing Tongans to emigrate to the United States in general, and Salt Lake City in particular, and secure vital jobs and scholarships there.

But I think that Futa Helu, like virtually every other scholar of the Pacific, would be very critical of the view of Polynesian history that is still advanced by many propagandists for the Mormon church and still believed by many of the church's members. The Mormon insistence that Polynesians came to the Pacific from the Americans, and came to the Americas from the Middle East, where they were one of the lost tribes of Israel, is contradicted by archaeological, genetic, and linguistic evidence, and has done considerable damage to popular understandings of the past in societies like Tonga. I regret not having time to raise the Mormon theory of Polynesian history at 'Atenisi on Monday, and I think that, in the spirit of critical thinking, it would be good to see a debate about the subject at 'Atenisi in the future. I had an online debate with a group of Tongan Mormons about their version of Pacific history a couple of years. I posted the debate to my blog here.


Blogger Richard said...

Of course I comment but my refusal to go more than FB is that anything more will be even more time consuming and tiring...

So I tend to speak in an empty room.

I like that. Room to speak.

I concur re Futa Helu. Not perhaps an atheist in the strict sense, but probably thought that Christianity is too much a patriarchal philosophy and culture (with many good aspects and also much that is dubious). The political connection with The Church (as in other places with say The Mosque) is problematic. They want to tell you what to think. They have all the answers. They know. But philosophy shouldn't be like that, and Futa Helu had studied, among other things, philosophy. He was aware probably of Plato and Aristotle, the Greek tragedians, and the pre-Socratics. He may have been interested in the question of free will or the chain of causes. The Mormons have many good aspects, with their attention to health, morality, and self-esteem: but their creed like that of many such religions is relentless and revolves around guilt, the fall, sacrifice, a saviour and so on.

Many Western Christians today see these as metaphorical or allegorical only
(Dorothy Sayers in her - I think - excellent 3 volume translation of Dante 'Divine Comedy' - allows that for many this non-literal interpretation of that great work (and hence Christian mythology and philosophy in general) is valid.) The Mormons seem to stop. This life is not important. Clearly though, it is, even if we accept Christianity as true...

But having a relative who is of a different belief shouldn't be a problem. My sister is a strong Christian (she has been to Northern India trying to convert Moslems, which is courageous if, well, it sounds dangerous to me: but that is her strong belief. But I have never really discussed religion with her. In fact our family (mother and father) rarely said anything about God or religion. For some reason I went to 'Sunday School' but even at that age I was disappointed that the angels and so on depicted were rather, as I sensed it, I think I was only 6, not "deep" enough. I wanted convincing, terrible or strangely beautiful angels...something like that.

So one can get on with people who have different religious or political beliefs. Our survival as a group requires it.

Does it matter they think people come from the Americas? I'm not sure, it is part of what I call the Dawkins Syndrome: his religion, almost as bad as his despised fundamentalism [but if one is going to be religious surely one needs to be fundamental, or lose the strength of that faith?]: his Atheism,his Scientism is another religion, another fanatacism.

He thinks that such things as evolution (being true he thinks) proves that there is no God.

Well, it is just as impossible to prove the existence of God by 'science' or 'logic' as it is to disprove it.

In fact, the question of the existence or not of God, like also that of 'why is there anything at all?' and so on, is like the old:

"What happens when an irresistible force meets and unmovable object?"

But religion in Tonga and everywhere else will continue, as, being humans, our concerns are philosophic and religion is part of philosophy. We are concerned about death, the future, why we are here on earth: as well as other metaphysical questions and these are connected to the other, ethical questions, and the more analytical sides of philosophy and ideas. And art.

In a sense, McCahon seems to me almost a deeply religious figure. Or someone whose struggle with these metaphysical questions energises his art (Lloyd Geering writes about McCahon in a mag I have here somewhere).

It's good they had the gear there at Atenisi. Atenisi lives on? I think Futa Helu is a fascinating man, and that he was or wasn't an atheist of an agnostic shouldn't mean his nephew be too concerned. Each has to take their own path.

I think he had beliefs and ideas. He was a thinker: he was open to ideas, as you said, he would have listened.

7:19 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Thanks for your talanoa RichARD. There's some very weird stuff going down in Tonga at the moment: I've just been to a ten year birthday party for the On The Spot arts collective that was visited by the Ban of the South Pacific, which gave OTS a cheque for fifteen grand, and the cops, who offered some harassment. As Maikolo Horowitz said an hour ago, Tonga is in a Weimar period. Democracy and fascist reaction coexist. I talked at the OTS party to 'Ofa Gutenbeill, director of women's refuge in Tonga. She's the subject of regular on-air curses from Dr Ma'afu Palu, a deranged theologian and DJ with a disconcertingly large following here. Paul calls for the overthrow of democracy and its replacement by a theocracy and calls on men to have sex with their wives at least three times a day. More about him soon!

8:10 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Sounds as though all is not well in the State of Denmark. Interesting how "small" places like 'lil ol' Noo Zeelan' and Tonga etc are seen as quietish places, with sun and so on, nothing much happening! And NZ with less sun and ditto! But, a lot of things ARE going on.

Give my regards to Maikolo.

It's a pity that women need refuges and there are such as the Palus...sounds like one of those crazy Moslem clerics in some far flung place: or some of the US citizens: Trump and his followers spring to mind.

11:18 pm  
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"We express gratitude that to these fertile Islands Thou didst guide descendants of Father Lehi."
—New Zealand Temple dedicatory prayer, 1958

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