Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Some Religion for Christmas

When I was in Melbourne in August, I went to a talk at the Wheeler Centre, organised by the Australian Literary Review. Its subject was religion and politics (this was at the height of the federal election campaign, at a time when we had one prime ministerial candidate who was a Catholic and one who had always claimed to be an atheist but, as the campaign went on, wavered towards the self-description 'agnostic', which in itself told you something about the topic at hand.) I did not get around to posting on the event at the time but, since it is almost Christmas, which, as well as being one of the great festivals of the retail calendar, also has a religious connection, it seems appropriate to do so now.

The forum's chairman was Stephen Romei, the then editor of the ALR. One speaker was Gerard Windsor, who is a writer of criticism and fiction and was schooled by the Jesuits at Riverview in Sydney.The other speaker was supposed to be a professor of sociology but, to my great delight, he was replaced by Peter Craven. Craven is a prolific writer of criticism whose work I have generally enjoyed. Like many really intelligent commentators in this country (John MacDonald springs to mind as another example) Craven has often been the subject of bitchy comments, which I suspect are the result of jealousy rather than genuine objections to his work. Anyway, in the light of the conflicting views about him, I was extremely interested to see what he had to say.

Romei kicked off the discussion by pointing out that the best selling books in the category called 'religion' at the moment are all books against God. He said it seemed that atheists are getting all the headlines and that nowadays it is religious belief that is"the love that dare not speak its name". He then asked Gerard Windsor what he thought the state of play was and whether he thought that atheism was now in the ascendancy.

Gerard Windsor replied by saying that he thought the new atheisim was a fascinating phenomenon, because it appeared to be a form of evangelism and fundamentalism. He also said he saw a distinction between a belief held with all sorts of qualifications, which he said was a conviction, and a biblebelt type of faith

Craven, who did not say he was a believer, but did say he was someone against those people who are against believers, commented that Christopher Hitchens reminded him of Cassius, someone who "cannot behold a greater than himself". Craven also said he thought that the new atheism was rather simplistic. The loathing, horror and disdain that Dawkins expresses about intelligent design is really a tilt at windmills, he reckoned. No learned Jesuit or Methodist would hold the kinds of beliefs that Dawkins likes to attack.

Windsor suggested that the people who attack religious belief are attacking from a rationalist perspective but, in arguing with them, people tend to fall back on questions of faith, rather than taking them on on their own terms. Peter Craven agreed and said he would like to see Dawkins matched against Tony Coady, who is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Melbourne University and also a Catholic.  Craven went on to point out that many of Wittgenstein's followers became Christian, because Wittgenstein left room for that. He quoted Wittgenstein's "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent." He then went on to quote Evelyn Waugh, who said, "Lay interest in theology is the first sign of madness."

Windsor said he thought there was a need to revivivy the intellectual traditions of Christianity. Craven, reverting in a way to Windsor's earlier point, said that part of the problem religion has faced for a long time is that it has had to speak the language of agnosticism and that direct discussion of God within Australia's intellectual community just does not happen. He cited Morag Fraser, the former editor of the Catholic journal, Eureka Street, as exemplifying this. He regards her as one of the most intelligent writers in Australia but argues that she does not feel comfortable about discussing God publicly in the current anti-religious climate. He also pointed out that people who as a matter of faith are atheists do actually have a religion.

Windsor said that an article published in Quadrant in 1970 called The Strange Personality of Christ, by Vincent Buckley, (I will post the text of that article tomorrow), had struck him as a very convincing piece of writing. In the article, he explained, Buckley took two scenes from the New Testament and subjected them to the techniques of literary criticism. Windsor felt that an extraordinary figure emerged from the experiment. Windsor also said that he had just finished reading a new encyclopedia of religion in Australia and was interested in the extravagance of the places of worship and ceremonies documented in that.

On the question of the old Catholic - Protestant divide that was once so strong in Australia, Craven mentioned that proportionately more Catholics went to World War I than non-Catholics. He said that in Jugiong, although 39 men went to that war, there is no war memorial in the town. He claimed that one historian has suggested that this is because 26 of them were Catholics. Windsor described a conversation he had with Patrick White who, on learning that Windsor was travelling to Cork in Ireland said, simply, "Cork is a place of priests and nuns and dead rats." Peter Craven revealed that Mallcolm Turnbull is a convert to Catholicism. He said he admires someone who can take such a leap into belief, while living in a culture that is so much against it.

The proposition was put forward that the Australian character is forged from the tension between the English idea of the just person and the Irish idea of the larrikin and saint.

Craven, provocatively, pointed out that Julia Gillard is unmarried, childless and committed to her ideals, and therefore could be regarded as a person who has entered a kind of religious order (as a counterpoint, Wendy McCarthy had defended Gillard's childlessness that very morning, saying every family needs an unmarried auntie - clearly the issue is not an entirely neutral one.)

Craven went on to point out that Jung said, "Be careful when you throw religion out the door, because it will come back through the window." In the light of this, Dawkins's atheism can be seen as a kind of displacement of the religious impulse. He also suggested books like Twilight fulfil some similar purpose, although I suspect he doesn't really know what he is talking about there.

A member of the audience then asked where Islam fitted into Australian life. Craven said we must tolerate everything except intolerance. Windsor made a comparison between identity in the Islamic community and identity among the Irish Catholics among whom he grew up. Irish Catholics, he claimed, always wanted to be part of  Australia. He talked about growing up feeling Catholic and Australian in duality, but never either or He was uncertain whether Islamic Australians wanted to be part of existing Australian society and culture or whether retaining their own culture was paramount to them. It would be interesting to see whether it was possible to be equally loyal to both in that situation.

The question, "Does Jesus have a part in Australian society, going forward?' was asked. Windsor as a believer in a rationalist modern world confessed: 'My hope is stronger than my belief and my position is essentially: I don't feel I'm doing violence to myself by holding on to my belief that the divine word became incarnate and did something for us that I don't quite know how to explain, but I am aware I was born into this culture and so maybe that is why that is an attractive idea for me. Ultimately though, Jesus is a character who I don't want to ditch, despite belief in the gospel story being a struggle."

As to society, he said, most Australians seem to be over all that.  (Listening to this, I remembered a friend of mine who had thought of herself as an atheist until she had extremely premature twins and found herself on her knees in the hospital chapel every minute that she couldn't be beside their incubators. Since she told me that, I've wondered whether everyone is really finally over religion or whether the whole subject is simply unexamined by most people, until, in extremis, they find they need it.)

Craven then mentioned that Foucault referred to getting a "glimpse of the face of Christ" in Dostoevsky's novels. He went on to talk about enthusiastic 'Hillsiders', which I liked the idea of. Eventually though he was corrected, sadly. He described Hillsong as an attenuated form of Christianity mixed up with venality.

Under attack from a member of the audience about the persecution of the Cathars, (the questioner seemed to have taken this particular injustice very much to heart, despite the time that had elapsed since the deeds were done), Windsor made the distinction between Christianity and Christianity once it was taken up by the Roman Empire and beyond. He argued that, in its original form, Christianity was not spread by sword or violence ever, whereas Mohammed was always a warrior and the Koran is full of blood

Someone in the audience pointed out that the Old Testament is extremely violent. In reply, Peter Craven defended the really shocking parts of the Old Testament by arguing that 'the hideous bloodthirsty righteousness of the human heart is being expressed in the worst bits of the Old Testament' and suggesting we think of the book of Ecclesiastes and treasure its beauty: 'the sun also rises," "vanity of vanities", "the golden bowl is broken." He said the Bible contains some of the best poetry in the world and pointed out that it is not decorative poetry either - it is powerful, like King Lear, and is full of pessimism about human life.

So all in all, little about current politics was really discussed, apart from the almost untouchable subject of Islam and modern Western society, which was skirted around. It seemed to be understood that our society is at least outwardly less bound up with the church than it once was, but that the impulse to religious belief, the desire to belong or to understand have not completely gone away.


  1. And here is that same Peter Craven, writing about Christmas in today's paper:

    "The story of the Christ child makes the spirit soar, as it has for countless generations.

    WHAT is it that defines Christmas for us? The strain of the obligatory socialising with family (including the ones you might naturally run a mile from)? The obligation huge numbers of people have to make those they love, especially children, feel that love because of the effort to delight them with the right gift? The general mayhem of spending and socialising and simulating good cheer in the midst of the strain and the squalor of another year gone?

    Well, Christmas can be all of that. It's easy to forget that when Dickens created his ''Bah! Humbug'' man Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, he wasn't simply adding new refinements of sentimentalism to the long-established myth. He was also delineating, with great power, the travails of the long-distance loner. (If you re-read the bits of the story everyone forgets, before Scrooge comes good, you'll find that Dickens accommodates a sweeping blackness as disturbing as Kafka's.)
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    But on top of everything else, there's the story of the Christ child that surfaces in us like a race memory. Away in a manger, no crib for a bed. Silent night, holy night. O come all ye faithful, come let us adore him, born the King of Angels, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem. Peace to those of good will.

    It can all sound pretty cheesy piped through the speakers at the supermarket amid the turkeys and hams and Christmas puddings but, wherever you come from and whatever you believe, it goes as deep as anything does in what we call our civilisation.

    It was pleasing the other week when that easygoing lady of the left, Tanya Plibersek, Minister for Human Services and Social Inclusion, took to task whatever blighted public servant it was who ordered that there should be nothing Christian in any of the displays in post offices, as if a nativity scene was the insignia of the Spanish Inquisition and nothing but the stench of infamy in the nostrils of all those fundamentalist atheists who march under the banner of Richard Dawkins.

    Plibersek said, quite rightly, that the Christmas story was a thing to be treasured, and people should also be free to honour Hanukkah and Hindu and Muslim festivals.

  2. Of course that's true. Christmas is the one, though, that underlies the Jewish and Greek influences that structure our world.

    If you doubt the Jewish influence in Christianity, think of the stupendous, densely Hebraic accents of Mary's great prayer which is known to the church as the Magnificat. ''My soul doth magnify the Lord … He that is mighty hath done great things to me.''

    This is when she first hears from the voice of the messenger, Gabriel, that the power of the Most High will overshadow her and, virgin though she is, she will bear God's son.

    The language is like the language of the prophet Isaiah. She says that God will scatter the proud in the ''imagination'' (the delusion) of their hearts and that the rich he will send empty away.

    Isaiah is the prophet Christians always saw as prophesying the coming of the Messiah. He talks about the one who will wipe away all tears, and he talks about the man of sorrows, despised and rejected. It all figures in the music of Handel's Messiah, which is always triumphantly performed at Christmas, not because it has any children in mangers but because it is so full of the power and the glory of the Christian vision. I remember the moving sight of that old Marxist Bernard Smith, the eminent art historian, standing up for the Hallelujah Chorus.

    At some level we all do, whether we like it or not. St Paul, after his days of persecuting this Jewish sect and in the light of what happened when he fell headlong on that road to Damascus, said that it was all a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.

    The Gentiles, that is to say the Greek culture of the Roman Empire, worked its more lucid magic on the cult of the pale Galilean whose birth we commemorate on Christmas.

    Think of that Logos glittering in the darkness that opens John's Gospel. ''In the beginning was the Word.''

    This is the fourth, all but inscrutable Gospel, and whoever wrote it found his inspiration and his divinity in Plato. It deconstructs all the sweetness and drama of that Bethlehem nativity story to present the image of the light that shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome. It presents one take on the start of this story with the loftiest possible poetry of abstraction. Nor does it contradict that earthy Jewish story of dispossession, of the King of Kings coming like one of the wretched of the earth. How could it? Jesus himself said he would not dispense with one jot or tittle of the Jewish inheritance: he would bring it to fulfilment.

    And so there is the story of the shepherds hearing the angels sing of glory in the highest. There is the story of the three wise men with their rich gifts and their homage. It's a beautiful story, the story of the birth of the Christ child, in the straw of the manger, with the cattle lowing. Think of the thousand images of this moment in Western painting that dazzle us with a truth-like revelation.

    It is, as it develops, a tragicomic story, because that child will die on a cross, but at this Christmas moment, it is a story of joy.

    And what does that baby, which is the first apparition of the incarnation of everything that is good, signify? A supreme innocence. An innocence that can outstare death. An innocence that casts no stones. An innocence that can forgive the worst things we can do.""