Sunday, 24 April 2011

Professor Emeritus T H (Harry) Rigby

Funerals are never cheerful affairs but one we went to with particular sadness recently was that of Professor Harry Rigby, described by another scholar of Eastern European studies as 'a real eminence in the study of the Soviet Union - one of the mere handful of Australians who had international recognition in that field.'

Professor Rigby was responsible for my husband and I first meeting each other in Moscow Airport right at the end of the Brezhnev era, (the story of exactly how, which involves Malcolm Fraser, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and my final realisation that, despite its charms, living in London's default climate of 'overcast' was making me feel as though I were trapped forever in a flat with low ceilings and poor lighting, is too long to tell here), and therefore he earned my eternal gratitude. He was also a particularly delightful and fine human being who, again quoting one of his colleagues, 'carried his authority in the most charming, light and unassuming way'. He will be much missed by those who knew him. This photograph - taken, apparently, at his desk in his office in the Coombs Building at the ANU on the day that he retired - captures him well, I think:
Strangely, for one who came to understand the Soviet Union so clearly later, while serving in Papua New Guinea during World War Two, Professor Rigby briefly joined the Communist Party. This prevented him from being allowed to join the Australian Foreign Service,  even though he had left the Party almost as soon as he had joined. Fortunately, the British Foreign Service was less fussy and Rigby and his family were posted to Moscow under that organisation's auspices.

It was while in Moscow that Rigby's atheism was tested, leading to his becoming a devout Anglican. In this context, he gave an address at the university commencement service at the Australian National University  in 1965, which was also published in the St Mark's Review in May of that year. It seems appropriate, on Easter Sunday, to reproduce it here:

Christ and Truth

TH Rigby 
(at that time: Professorial Fellow in Political Science, Institute of Advance Studies, Australian National University)

"I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life".

These words are those of Fyodor Dostoevsky, writing to a friend from his Siberian exile in 1854. And then he went on to make one of the most challenging and disturbing statements of Christian belief which has been recorded in modern times.

"How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now"), he wrote, "this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is. I believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no-one else like Him, but that there could be no-one. I would even say more: if anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth".

One hundred and eleven years after those words were written, no one would dispute that we are still in an age of scepticism and unbelief.

No one can escape this entirely and least of all those of us whose life is centred on the university. The dilemma which faced Dostoevsky, and to which he gave his burning answer, faces each and every one of us. Is this something a Christian should regret? Should we be hankering after an age of simple, untroubled faith? Certainly not. I am convinced that it is part of God's purpose to take us on paths beset by scepticism and unbelief, and not just in order to test and temper our faith, but because these paths will lead to a fuller knowledge and love of God than we have yet known.

These paths are not a broad, smooth highway. The rewards are matchless, but the going can be hard. These paths are not for the mentally and spiritually slothful and timid; they call for a mind and spirit which are energetic, adventurous, courageous and resilient. For what it means is this: that as our perceptions of what can reasonably be believed as fact, of what is delightful and beautiful, and of what is a good action – as these perceptions are broadened and deepened, the forms and formulas of our faith may become inadequate to contain them. Unless we are prepared to expose these forms and formulas to question, unless we are prepared for the pain and effort of broadening and deepening them too, then one of two things will happen, either our spiritual and intellectual growth will be crippled by these inadequate and immature religious forms and formulas or else our Christian faith will become increasingly irrelevant to our new realms of experience. Let us be certain of one thing: we cannot come closer to God by preferring fiction to fact, by preferring the unreasonable to the reasonable, by preferring the ugly and graceless to the gracious and beautiful, by preferring a smaller good to a greater good.

How do we go about squaring our growing experience with our faith? I'm not going to pretend to offer a simple, universal recipe for this, but I do want to suggest a few operational principles. Firstly, for most of us spiritual growth is a kind of dialectical process. Obviously, we cannot be constantly taking time off to incorporate our every thought, feeling and action into a harmonious pattern of faith and belief. On the other hand, it is no good thinking we can put off a search for wholeness and consistency indefinitely, on the principle, "Some day I'll sort it all out". For most of us spiritual growth entails repeated periods of accumulating tension between faith and experience, interrupted by sharp crises of intensive reappraisal.

My second operational principle is this: while we must constantly strive to harmonise our religious perceptions with our intellectual, aesthetic and moral perceptions, we must not imagine that we can simply translate one into the other. Religion is concerned with the transcendental. It is concerned with the reality of which the world enclosed in space and time is merely an abstraction. And yet when we try to express and communicate our sense of the transcendental, our knowledge of God, we have to use media which are bound to the limitations of space and time: this is true whether we use the language of rational discourse, the language of music, painting or drama, or the language of social action.

The difficulty of translating religious experience into the language of other forms of experience is perhaps analogous to the difficulty of translating from one art form into another, or, for example, of communicating in words an aesthetic experience. Or, to use a different image,it is rather like trying to represent a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional picture. You may be able to convey a fairly vivid visual impression, say, of an apple and if the picture is a good one, anyone who has handled and eaten an apple may even be stimulated to recall something of the feel and taste of an apple. But if he tries to feel or taste it, he will soon find out it is not an apple, but only an incomplete representation of one.

Now these analogies and images are rather inadequate, but, if there is anything in what I am trying to say by them, then this has certain implications. It implies, for instance, that our own experience may justifiably lead us to reject as false certain representations of religious truth, just as we can say "that square black object couldn't possibly be an apple". On the other hand, because a man's efforts to express his experience of God seem to us to be illogical, or ugly, or immoral, this does not prove that he has no real knowledge of God or that God is an illusion: just because the apple is painted badly, we can't say "that man can't ever have eaten an apple", or, if we've never seen an apple ourselves, it gives us no right to say "something like what he has put into the picture could never exist in nature. Which proves what I've always said – that apples are myths". But then we would want to add a rider – and this takes me back to the point I made earlier – we would want to add: "I wish he would work harder on doing a good painting of the apple; if he did, he would not only have more success in evoking the sensation of the apple in others but he would discover things about the apple he had never noticed before". We could also take this point a little further. When a professional painter criticises our technique of painting an apple, we don't reject his criticism as irrelevant just because we suspect he has never eaten or even seen an apple. If we attempt to express religious experience in some specialised medium, then the criteria of excellence proper to this medium are fully applicable, however inadequate they may be as a guide to the quality of the religious experience itself. A bad hymn sung out of tune is not redeemed by the piety and fervour of the singers. This is a principle which has the most far-reaching implications both for our private and public worship and for the way we go about propagating the faith. It is not only Caesar to whom we must render what is his, it is Apollo and Minerva as well.

Well, you may say, that's all very well, but aren't you begging the question that you posed right at the beginning? Dostoevsky said that if someone could prove to him that the Saviour and the truth excluded each other, he would stay with the Saviour and turn his back on the truth. Now you seem to be saying that Dostoevsky is answering a non-problem, because in the long run the Saviour and the truth - whether it is philosopical, historical or aesthetic truth or the truth of practical activitiy - the Saviour and the truth do not exclude each other.  Well, it is true that I am saying this. But it's only a non-problem in the long run. In the short run it may be very much of a problem. Our mental and spiritual growth will almost inevitably bring periods of tension between our faith and our perceptions of truth, and at times there may appear to be an irreconcilable contradiction. This is where Dostoevsky's words can be of enormous help to us. Now, I do not think the answer is to draw away from our new and troublesome perceptions of truth, to close our eyes to them. Instead, we should constantly strive to go beyond them to a new harmony of faith and belief. Achieving this may mean some sacrifice both of our current perceptions of truth and the current forms and formulas through which our faith is expressed. This is not a matter of one or other area of experience giving way, or of their meeting each other halfway in compromise. It is rather a matter of reconciliation on a higher level. But all this is really just a footnote to what Dostoevsky is teling us, which I understand as follows: no matter how great our intellectual doubts, no matter how sharp the clash between our faith and our perceptions of truth - or in Dostoevsky's words, between our longing for faith and the proofs we have against it - we must hold firm and cherish the image and love of Christ, for this alone will carry us through and allow the work of reconciling faith and truth to proceed.

Let me quote the words of another great son of Russia, Boris Pasternak, summing up his experience of forty years of the Bolshevik Revolution, speaking through the mouth of Vedenyapin, the priest unfrocked at his own request, in his novel 'Doctor Zhivago', and this will bring me to my final operational principle. "As I was saying", says Vedenyapin, "one must be true to Christ. I'll explain. What you don't understand is that it is possible to be an atheist, it is possible not to know if God exists or why He should, and yet to believe that man does not live in a state of nature but in history, and that history as we know it now began with Christ, it was founded by Him on the Gospels. Now what is History? Its beginning is that of the centuries of systematic work devoted to the solution of the enigma of death, so that death itself may eventually be overcome. This is why people write symphonies, and why they discover mathematical infinity and electromagnetic waves. Now, you can't advance in this direction without a certain upsurge of spirit. You can't make such discoveries without spiritual equipment, and for this, everything necessary has been given in the Gospels. What is it? Firstly, the love of one's neighbour - the supreme form of living energy. Once it fills the heart of man it has to overflow and spend itself. And secondly, the two concepts which are the main part of the makeup of modern man - without them he is inconceivable - the ideas of free personality and of life regarded as sacrifice. Mind you, all this is still quite new. There was no history in this sense in the classical world. There you had blood and beastliness and cruelty and pock-marked Caligulas untouched by the suspicion that any man who enslaves others is inevitably second-rate. There you had the boastful dead eternity of bronze monuments and marble columns. It was not until after the coming of Christ that time and man could breathe freely. It was not until after Him that men began to live in their posterity and ceased to die in ditches like dogs - instead, they died at home, in history, at the height of the work they devoted to the conquest of death, being themselves dedicated to this aim."

Thus Pasternak.

In the fullness of his creation, God created man. He created man in his own image, that is he imbued him with mind, with power to choose between different possibilities of action, the power to perceive the patterns of creation, to use them for new purposes and to act upon them, the power to accumulate the experience of individual lives in culture, a new creative force in God's universe, and thus allowed him to share in this transforming and creative work, allowing the individual life of man to acquire a meaning transcending the limits of time and space, to share in God's eternal life. But the power to choose meant the power to make wrong choice, the power to destroy as well as to create, the power to bring discord and chaos as well as harmony and order, the power to live a senseless, pointless life and die in a ditch like a dog, as well as to live a creative life and live in one's posterity. In the last few thousand years the destructive as well as the creative implications of each man's choices have grown enormously, and with an accelerating momentum, as man's mastery over the secrets of God's universe has advanced. The possibilities of consciously sharing in God's work of creation and in His eternal life have extended enormously, but so have the possibilities of opting out of this work of creation and this eternal life. As the stakes have grown, so has man's need for a clue to right choices. Man received this clue with Christ. The clue is love. All our choices must be imbued with love - the love of God, the intimate and personal sense of God's creative presence - through all things and devotion to His creative presence - and the love of other men - every other man whose life is affected by our actions - the love which cares as much about how our actions will affect that other man as we would care if it were ourselves they were affecting - the love which is ready to devote oneself to providing for the needs of others. It is only through love, the sacrificial love of Christ, that we can exercise our freedom creatively and thereby share in God's eternal life; that we can end the "blood and beastliness and cruelty of pock-marked Caligulas" and the "boastful dead eternity of bronze monuments and marble columns". This applies not only to the choices which face us in our actions in the world, but to the choices which face us in our own personal growth. Just as love is needed to reconcile man with God and to reconcile man with man, so is it needed to reconcile the warring elements in our own minds and spirit, and to integrate our lives around a richer, more vital, more creative faith. Without this love, the supreme form of living energy, all our efforts will be in vain.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

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