Secular Christianity?

26 December, 2006

Another Christmas has just gone by. As usual the TV news included a quick mention of an increased number of people attending church on that day. (Well, it would be strange if attendance went down, wouldn’t it?) I wonder if any of these one-a-year Christians feel some moral qualm about their hypocrisy? That’s a rhetorical question.

I should clarify by saying that I don’t believe in God. I think the whole supernatural thing is nonsense, and belief in such things is a sign of moral weakness.

Of course, people have a natural propensity to belief. As John Le Carre said. some people believe in God, some people join the Communist party, and some people keep canaries. I, being human, am not above this – I still regret my near brush with the vegetable juice and vitamin supplements cult a few years ago.

Beside something to believe in, religion also gives a framework that gives our lives a sense of purpose and meaning. Religion also gives rituals for important parts of life. Even non-believers want a white wedding and a reverent funeral. For this they turn to the Church.

What about the non-believers of conscience? Can they forgive themselves for using the G-word? Can they find comfort in something they don’t believe in? What are the alternatives?

Well, if you’re an atheist, I suppose you could hang out with the kooks at the local sceptics club, where non-belief has become as much a cult as any church or mosque. But even they feel the emptiness of their astringent attitude.

I would suggest that one truly useful thing these sceptics could do is compile a secular bible. It would include passages from sceptics such as Socrates and Nietzsche, and stories of noble sceptics and truth-seekers such as Galileo and Socrates (again). It would also include passages relevant to the great events of life – birth, marriage, death, etc. – and suggestions for appropriate rituals.

But what about the great cultural legacy of religion? The biblical stories engrained in the psyche of the West, the beatitudes of Jesus, the old rituals and songs – must these be swept away as the Communist regimes have attempted to do, leaving a sterile, functional, cultureless wasteland?

At this moment I recall the phrase “secular Jew”, which we use to indicate a person who, although not a believer in the bible and the rituals of Judaism, identifies culturally as a Jew, with the history, attitudes and behaviours this implies.

Why not be a “secular Christian”? The traditions, values, sentiments and stories, all have value even if one does not believe in a literal God that set it all in motion. The figure of Jesus can be inspirational even to one who doesn’t believe in his godhead or even his existence. We can see this working in pantheistic Japan, where belief in spirits of material things can be taken philosophically or literally, without recrimination. Each viewpoint is valid and complements the other.

I think much of the angst of the “culture wars” could be resolved if this “secular Christian” attitude was widely adopted. We might even see an increase in church attendance!

The word John Howard forgot

12 December, 2006

Last night, on the ABC, I saw a report on the planned citizenship exams, which would include an English test and a test on cultural knowledge. Included was a clip of John Howard identifying some of the Australian values applicants would encounter in the test: “The value of ‘mateship’; the value of ‘having a go’.”

I wonder how many Australians remember that the classic Australian values used to be “mateship and a fair go”? Are we experiencing some sort of Orwellian revision of our cultural history? Or does the famously mean John Howard find it difficult to even say the word “fair”?

I don’t want to be mistaken for a Jingoist, but I must say I think “mateship and a fair go” are values which, properly enshrined as law, could permanently enhance life in this country.

  • Mateship means solidarity with friends and neighbours, helping them and relying on them in turn. From this we can extrapolate a public health system, education, welfare, community service, etc.
  • A fair go means two things: tolerance, and opportunity. Opportunity means access to education and resources, freedom of speech and association, less red tape, exposure to other cultures and ideas, and assistance for new enterprises. Tolerance – well, we all know what that means, don’t we? Don’t we?

Christopher Hitchens asks the question: why do men make more jokes, and why are they quicker to laugh?

His answer – that women are more serious about life because they are biologically responsible for perpetuating it, and men, as slaves to the sexual choices of women, undercut their mistresses and their sense of inferiority with humour (phew!) – sounds true enough. It might be more persuasive, however, if his attempts at humour throughout the article weren’t so painfully inept!

Sample: a doctor telling his patient, “There’s no cure. There isn’t even a race for a cure.” I’m not saying I could do better, but that is definitely feeble.

An observation Hitchens doesn’t make: men are more interested in brutal wit, whereas women are more interested in character humour. A stereotype? Feel free to comment.

One thing I definitely disagreed with: women “are partly ruled … by the moon and the tides”. What is this blithering nonsense? For once and for all, the menstrual cycle is not determined by the phases of the moon. I knew one woman whose cycle was every five weeks, and another whose cycle was every three (very inconvenient). So perhaps they were starchildren who were being affected by the moons of distant worlds? A good idea for a science-fantasy story, but still bullshit.

Or maybe I should have a sense of humour about it?

On Jochum’s Bruckner

7 December, 2006

I’ve been listening to the Bruckner symphonies conducted by Jochum, on EMI. I still don’t like them, and I don’t understand why he’s so popular. Maybe it’s because his were the “breakthrough” records for Bruckner in the 1970s. Maybe it’s because he reduces the epic quality that this music should have, making these long German symphonies a little less intimidating.

I tried for ages to decide: was he underplaying the emotions, or overplaying? In the end I had to conclude that he was simply getting it wrong. He shapes the music as though it was the composer’s personal emotional statement, which I think is to mistake Bruckner’s purpose. Bruckner came from church music, which is about spiritual expression, not individual sentiment.

Jochum’s approach is more suited to composers who wear their hearts on their sleeves, e.g. Tchaikovsky, or who have a light, colourful romantic style, e.g. Saint Saens. What style of conducting would suit Bruckner? Something with more propulsion, surely, and expressive in a more laconic vein, but also a sense of other-worldliness. (And with a better brass section than the horribly overrated Dresden brass.) Actually, I think Bruckner requires the same qualities as Sibelius. I’ll have to look for performances by Maazel, Berglund, Ashkenazy and Schmidt.

I have Wand conducting symphony no. 5 and 9 (NDR Symphony Orch.), both quite good (better than Jochum), Tintner conducting 4 (very good, but a little slow and a little too smooth for my taste), Mravinsky conducting 9 (1980 performance on Point Classics, a real bargain), and Horvat conducting 4 (also Point Classics, another great bargain from an unknown conductor). All these beat Jochum. It was a mistake to buy the EMI set, and I recommend the curious against repeating my mistake.

In reaction to the extreme ideas of a few education academics, right-wingers like to say that you can’t fuck up a child. Here are some points:

  • “the college racket, a vast money-swollen credentialing machine for lower-middle-class worker bees” – okay, I agree with this, although a good tertiary education can enrich one’s life through exposure to the higher cultural and intellectual world.
  • ” “KIPP” is an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program … KIPP schools have long hours (typically 7:30am to 5:00pm)” – that’s a cruel and unusual violation of human rights right there!
  • “educationalists … ignore the understanding of human nature that the modern human sciences are gradually attaining, and cling doggedly to long-exploded theories about how human beings develop from infancy to adulthood.” Here we get to the core of his thesis: nature eternally triumphant over nurture.
  • “parenting style makes very little difference to life outcomes. (Though parental decisions influencing the non-shared environment—e.g. where parents choose to live—may make a great deal of difference.)” Hmm. Isn’t the decision of where to live part of the “parenting style”? Wouldn’t the balance of parents vs. “non-shared environment” depend on the parent? Wouldn’t you react differently to your environment differently, depending on whether you received daily harangues from your evangelical dad, or had to sleep between paperbark sheets thanks to your wholefood mother?

    Are these extreme examples? Sure. In my experience, few childhoods aren’t extreme in one way or another. Mr. Derbyshire might need to get out a little more.

    And if parents and schools have such a negligible effect, why are right-wingers always going on about the importance of teaching “values”? Does it make sense that you do have to teach your child that homos are filthy and wrong, but you don’t need to teach your child the rudiments of academic self-discipline?

Look, of course there are some whack-jobs in academia with crazy, insupportable ideas. Some of them pontificate about education. Others make nice livings writing papers for far-right think tanks. That isn’t the problem here. The problem is academia having a direct effect on real world decisions. For example, Leo Strauss wrote some interesting books, but they’re not really useful as a blueprint for practical politics. Academia is a place for trying on ideas. The real world should not be its laboratory.

For most teachers, theory gets in the way of the work of teaching. Most teachers aren’t loony lefties – and perhaps they’re entitled to their long holidays, given that their work often resembles that of a prison warden, except that prisoners’ parents are unlikely to demand that you be fired if you teach evolution to the cons.

* * *

Philip Larkin said it best.

Unpatriotic and loyal

7 December, 2006

Does the USA have a monopoly on patriotism? Its brand of patriotism is certainly an exception in the West, where most people are a little more objective about such things, i.e. your country is like a sports team you cheer for, rather than a religion you proselytise and kill for. Standing around a flag in your front yard to recite the pledge of allegiance is an act of religious devotion, isn’t it? I think that for some US citizens, patriotism is a form of idolatry. That’s not an idea you’ll hear in the Sunday sermon.

I’m not patriotic. I don’t think my country is the best in the world. I don’t think anyone who criticises my country should be beaten and locked up. I don’t want to have to thank my country for the privilege of living there – what’s it gonna do, send me a postcard?

I’m not patriotic, but I am loyal. This is where I live, where my friends and family are. From this, I naturally want what’s best for them, and for my city, and for the environment. I also want peaceful relations with our neighbouring countries, and prosperity for them as well. I appreciate that people suffered in wars for my country’s freedom (even if most of those wars were rather ill-advised).

But I’m not going to wave the flag. The flag is too often used as an icon to deter criticism. Never trust a politician (or anyone else) who wraps themself in the flag – there’s never a good reason for it (unless it’s really cold!).

In the process of reading an interview with Dave Barry (thanks, Arts & Letters Daily), I feel prompted to mention libertarianism.

First of all, it’s an ideology. Ideology, like religion, is a substitute for thought. So it’s crap.

Like all ideologies, the adherents say “everything would be perfect, if only {x}”. Nevermind if {x} involves letting helpless people starve (because welfare is WRONG), or letting weird cults brainwash and abuse children (because public schools are WRONG), or letting companies pay less money for more work with less safety and no benefits (because, even though you’d think libertarians would be all in favour of labour unions, unions are WRONG).

If you think I’m exaggerating, try to get even halfway through this bizarre screed, in which the virtues of love and charity are put in inverted commas and derided as being contrary to the will of the freemarket god.

Second of all… Actually, I think that about covers it for now.