If all the books disappeared…..

In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, the British comedian Ricky Gervais discussed religion. Colbert, an avowed Catholic asked Gervais provocatively about the existence of God as prime mover:

But why is there something rather than nothing?

Gervais, an agnostic-atheist, countered that the question “why” was irrelevant. Rather, HOW was a much more relevant question.

Colbert, a monotheist would deny the 2999 gods of other religions, but maintains one ….the Judeo-Christian God.

Gervais simply denies one more God than Colbert.

Ricky adhers to the scientific process, exploring the eternal laws of the universe, without needing a recourse to theism to accept existence or manufacture morality.

But science is constantly proved all the time. If we take any fiction, or any holy book, and destroyed it, okay, in 1,000 years time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. But if you took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in 1,000 years they’d all be back — because all the same tests would be the same results.

What is interesting about this exchange is the elision of several hundred years of western philosophy.

Friedrich Nietzsche stated at the end of the 19th century, ‘God is dead’. This was not a triumphant declaration on behalf a race who had finally overcome millennia of slavery to the dreams and fairy-tales of their ancestors.

It was a melancholy observation of his times and a gloomy foreboding of the consequence of this for subsequent generations.

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Without an understanding of a realm of absolutes, it was not morality that is corroded….. but meaning and identity.

The 20th century found itself contending with existentialism, subjectivism, post-modernism and individualism.  We live in a culture of “alternative facts” in which even the foundations of empirical rationalism can be declared “subjective.”

If all the books disappeared from the world, along with all memory of what they contain, humans would return to campfire story telling dreamers. We would return to pre-scientific intuitive learners, oral historians, mythmakers and poets. 

We would become religious again.

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Knowing this, Carl Jung, following from Nietzsche, sought to re-understand religion and myth, plumbing the depth of our dreams to understand ancient narratives and legends and apply them to human psychology and culture building.

Should all the books of the world disappear, we would have to rediscover the scientific process.

This would require a relearning of an ability to know, to form meaning and have identity.

This would, as it did with the Greeks, the Hindus, the Chinese, the Hebrews, our scientific forbears (and all highly spiritual people), be forged within a framework of absolutes; a transcendental realm in which ideas and knowledge are – within the mind of God.

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The Idiot

First published in 1868, The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky has long been a favorite of Russian literature.

The novel seeks to expose the tragedy that occurs when a truly good and beautiful human being encounters the rudeness and cruelty of the real world. Its character portrayal is likened to another literary great, the 17th century Spanish classic, Don Quixote.

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The Idiot gains its title from the central character, Prince Lyov Nikolaevich Myshkin [Myshkin], a young man troubled by epilepsy which was at the time equated with simplicity of mind, or idiocy.  His condition highlights his goodness and open-hearted simplicity and much of the novels tension is created by his interaction with characters who mistakenly assume that he lacks intelligence and insight.

Dostoevsky’s account of one man’s struggle with the conflicts, desires, passions and egoism of worldly society is according to philosopher A.C. Grayling, is:

..one of the most excoriating, compelling and remarkable books ever written; and without question one of the greatest.

So, what happens when the ideal human being comes into the real world?

The world that Prince Myshkin enters is one of moral corruption and decay. With money as the principal object of importance, the value of human dignity and the source of human love are redefined in relationship to it. Beautiful, intelligent women such as Nastassya Filippovna, are objectified, dishonored and consequently destroyed by the people who supposedly love and desire them.

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This world of the novel is also full of drunks and rogues, even murderers,  and a high society full of superficial nothings who are surrounded by self serving underlings seeking a high position.

In contrast to this world, Prince Myshkin stands out with simple goodness.

In the midst of this world Dostoevsky depicts Myshkin as an almost Christ-like character, epitomised so by his immense compassion and love for others.  The novel contains an series of encounters between Myshkin and the other characters, many of whom have committed offenses against him. His attempts at assisting them even after their slights, emphasise his selfless compassion.

The novel is a tragic satire. Dosotoevksy used the novel to discuss and critique Russian Christianity. In it Prince Myshkin describes religion as an immensely strong feeling similar to joy, the joy God feels for his creation. For him, true religion is more akin to a feeling than a set of rules to follow.

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This idiotic sentiment of his leads him only to suffering. Though he attempts to help those around him, he fails and this failure, finally drives him to insanity. The tragedy of the novel is that it would seem his effect on this world is ultimately zero.

Does Myshkin fail to bring good? Is his own goodness inverted and manipulated, leading to the destruction of both himself and his ideal?

Far from it.

The novel remains a classic for its embodiment of true religion, one of compassion and a quest to right injustice. It remains a timely warning against the vices of wealth and privilege and false morality. And it points beyond itself to the truest man, the one who suffered so that we might see inequalities redressed and true humanity valued.

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Narrative of Identity

In mid January this year,  hundreds of thousands of marchers and numerous world leaders took to the streets of Paris to support freedom of expression.  The slaying of 12 journalists in their Charlie Hedbo headquarters, for its polemical pieces and mocking illustrations of the prophet Muhammad, raised the issue of religious intolerance as well as freedom of expression.  France, the heartland of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, would not stand for censorship on this issue and the magazine lives on.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-15551998

How does culture work like that? How does a nation spill half a million people onto the streets simultaneously to fight for an idenity? This phenomenon is not infrequent in times of upheaval, but what makes larges masses of people move as one?

In Queensland, we stand this week between Australia Day, 26th January and our State Election, 31st January. Much of the discussion and polemic in the media concerns,  “what it is to be an Australian”, our heritage, our ethos. How does our state collectively make a decision about what political party to choose? How do we move as one when it comes to decisions to go to war? How can a crowd of spectators at a match simultaneously break into laughter or cheer at once, except when something strikes a chord in their heart, a memory, a shared value?

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How else do we achieve national untiy at all except through story telling, repeated, iterative, gradual story telling. From school onwards, we are told the story of our nation, our struggles, our journey, our coming of age, our national icons, our spirit. Slowly we believe, we are more than just residents of an address but citizens of a national village, who share a common bond, who belong together more than we belong apart.

While much of this narrative can be murkied propoganda, we need these stories to function as unified whole. Let us examine what stories we are telling ourselves! What is shaping our knowledge of right and wrong? What are we telling our children about the future?