donderdag 29 november 2007

Religion and civilization

Fred Reed and Mark Vernon, both, I think, agnostics sympathetic towards religion, have posts up about the role religion plays in art and culture. Mark Vernon reviews a TV series about civilization by Mark Collins, detailing the removal of the religious impulse from art and its preoccupation with the human, and asks:

So art becomes the business of expressing human feeling - perhaps in the direction of nobility like the paintings of David, or in the direction of subterranean depths like the paintings of Goya. But the change does not stop there, for the deeper question Collins raises is whether the exclusively human, borrowing echoes of a religious past, is enough? Why this might be thought a problem is that in the years since David and Goya something further has happened to bring about what now might be called the quintessence of contemporary art - a gleeful, giddy, slightly menacing, slightly amusing fun.

The often wrong, but always worthwhile Fred Reed once again acerbically comments the decline of the West, blaming the sorry state of modern art, music and architecture on scientism:

The scientific habit of mind has killed off both religion and the spiritual wonderings behind so much of art. Thought has become purely materialistic in the philosophical sense. Today among the nominally educated it is regarded as uncouth to mention death or to wonder what might lie beyond. Among many of the less educated a hard and sterile Protestant fundamentalism flourishes, but it is an embittered, brainless thing. One does not easily imagine Jerry Falwell sculpting David or writing sonnets. The Catholic Church of Renaissance Italy was corrupt and venal, but it was magnificent and able to ponder things not expressible in equations. Perhaps it didn’t have truth, but it had style.

Writing a Wagnerian score requires (I think) a sense of the transcendent. To write The Lord of the Rings or to paint Leda and the swan, one need not believe in Norse gods raging in battle against chill skies, or a muscled Zeus throwing thunderbolts, or Pan leering from darkling forests. You need a mind that doesn’t smell of electrical insulation. This, few now have. The sciences are remorselessly literal. They do not admit of transcendence, wonder, or magnificence. People today drink this terrible narrowness with their mother’s milk and seldom get beyond it. They do not know what they have lost.

Thus a desert sunset is not a vast expanse of molten dunes on some unimaginable shore, stretching away in cascades of failing colors to the blue-black of the coming night and hinting of…what? That is the question. What is the wind saying?

No. A sunset is differential refraction, roygbiv, lambda equals, dispersion, water vapor, thermal upwellings caused by…

Reflecting on this brought back memories. I grew up in Oude Pekela, a town of 8,000 inhabitants in the northeast of the Netherlands. Religiously varied - Oude Pekela has a sizeable Roman Catholic community as well as at least three Protestant communities, and neighbouring Nieuwe Pekela has more Protestant communities, including, pretty unique for the rural Netherlands, a Lutheran parish - with, until the late eighties, a strong Communist Party presence as well. In many ways, it's a bleak place. Highly industrialized until the 1960s, particularly paper mills - but the closure of factories brought mass unemployment later on. The town and the surrounding landscape has a peculiar beauty of its own, one you find very rarely in the overcrowded, overurbanized Netherlands - vast, almost treeless plains of black clay cross-sected by straight canals and a big and sometimes menacing sky hanging over it. The architecture of the older farm houses and the old, small working-class homes is beautiful. That of the newer suburbs utterly soulless. Older houses had faces - windows as the eyes, and a door as a mouth - and the face could be friendly, or scowling, or even monstruous. The newer, post-war houses simply do not have the same character, being uniform and utterly forgettable.

In any event, though my parents were not religious at that time (my father would convert to Catholicism much later) I was sent to the Catholic primary school because it was the best school in the town. And the bits and pieces of religious upbringing I received there have contributed decisively to my later development. I recall sitting in church and staring fascinatedly at the monstruous gargoyles at the feet of the images of saints, and at the stern-faced saints themselves (I took a liking to St. Gerard Maiella because, being beardless, he did not look as stern as the others), and at the terrible station of the cross and the stained glass depiction of Christ behind the altar - and this opened a whole horizon to me. Who were these people, and what were the awful times they lived in like? The same with the Biblical stories our teacher used to vividly tell. They opened up a new frontier to me, an idea of a world so much vaster, more frightening and terrible, but also more glorious and beautiful than my village.

(And my fascination with ancient times led to an interest in ancient languages at the Gymnasium, etc. etc.).

As Fred Reed points out, what religion did was to put a narrative structure on our human experience - an idea where we came from, a notion about our current nature, and a hope for a deliverance from sin and evil, and a reconciliation with a merciful God. This narrative structure also in a way linked us with the past, with history, with the artistic achievements of prior generations, it provided for a kind of continuity. It made us into historical creatures. And it is, importantly, humans that are central to this narrative, as created in the image of God.

What, I believe, the Christian religion especially did was to unite the highest aspirations with the lowest points of human experience with the notion of the Son of God becoming flesh and suffering on the cross. Before my current, ongoing conversion to some kind of Christianity, I used to regard catharsis as a very important function of religious ritual and religious art: to purge ourselves of some of our lowest, basest impulses by weaving them into a ritual framework or a narrative structure which nonetheless imposed social cohesion, or integrated them into us as human beings.

There's a passage from Donna Tartt's brilliant novel The Secret History which illustrates this idea very well. Julian Morrow, the classics teacher, discusses the strange beauty of particularly the most ghastly passages of ancient literature:

'Aristotle says in the Poetics,' said Henry, 'that objects such as corpses, painful to view in themselves, can become delightful to contemplate in a work of art.'
'And I believe Aristotle is correct. After all, what are the scenes in poetry graven on our memories, the ones that we love the most? Precisely these. The murder of Agamemnon and the wrath of Achilles. Dido on the funeral pyre. The daggers of the traitors and Caesar's blood - remember how Suetonius describes his body being borne away on the litter, with one arm hanging down?'
'Death is the mother of beauty,' said Henry.
'And what is beauty?'
'Well said,' said Julian. 'Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.'
I looked at Camilla, her face bright in the sun, and thought of that line from the Iliad I love so much, about Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.

Julian continues to compare the Romans and the Greeks - the Romans, for all their pragmatism and logic, yet being strangely vulnerable to all kinds of superstition and foreign religious fads, while the Greeks, in contrast, provided for a place for the mystical, the irrational and the ecstatic in their culture:

'The Greeks were different. They had a passion for order and symmetry, much like the Romans, but they knew how foolish it was to deny the unseen world, the old gods. Emotion, darkness, barbarism.' He looked at the ceiling for a moment, his face almost troubled. 'Do you remember what we were talking about earlier, of how bloody, terrible things are sometimes the most beautiful?' he said. 'It's a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown back, throat to the stars, "more like deer than human being." To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.'
We were all leaning forward, motionless. My mouth had fallen open; I was aware of every breath I took.
'And that, to me, is the terrible seduction of Dionysiac ritual. Hard for us to imagine. That fire of pure being.'

The terrible brokenness of being human - to which religion, any religion, is an answer - lies of course in the contradiction between our notion of the Divine and our animal flesh, between our universal intuition of morality and our universal failure to follow it, and the ensuing alienation between us and the natural world that surrounds us on the one hand, and between us and God and our fellow man on the other. Religion, and genuine art, are both ways to escape this brokenness for a while - to approach, momentarily, the Other - whether that be another human being or God. To, just for a moment, break through the walls that seperate us from that (Him) we long for so much.

I still believe this notion has a lot to say for it. And I'll also cheerfully assent to the central message of Christianity being true. There is an idea that one cannot have both. That to regard religion or art as a social phenomenon, or to interpret it through an aesthetic prism, cannot be reconciled with adherence to a central religious doctrine. I think that idea is wrong.

So, I think that in this fashion, religion and art as activities go hand in hand; that art in a way is an expression of a religious impulse.

That doesn't, of course, mean that being religious is necessary for appreciating art. But what, I think, is necessary is some notion of the transcendent, some notion of there being more to the universe than the whirl of atoms, of us being ultimately at home in the universe. As Fred Reed puts it:

Scientism and religion are brothers in intent; they have just chosen different roads. Both are evasions.

Religion sees life as a passage, scientism as a condition; religion as a moral order, scientism as a material order. Thus the religious person thinks we come into this strange world (from where?), reside briefly, and leave for somewhere else (where?). Death seems to him a fact of some interest. It is a leaving. Often it is frightening. He makes up stories to relieve his unease. He may believe that a loving god put us here and awaits us, despite an immense lack of evidence.

The adherent of scientism comforts himself by insisting that the questions don’t exist. We didn’t come from anywhere and aren’t going anywhere. We are just momentary arrangements of matter, like bubbles in a test tube. The bubble bursts, the ripples subside, and we are simply…gone. There is no evidence for this either.

Finally, we have divorced ourselves almost completely from the natural world, and even more for respect for it. Once we were specks on the landscape. The mountains were vast and forbidding; one walked in them with a sense of awe, or at least of being small in a large place. You could lie beside a brook babbling through a forest and reflect that the world contained things other than the trivialities of human existence. This produced I think a tranquility that made for contemplation, a frame of mind conducive to what we call tiresomely “creativity.”

Now we are become a blight on the earth, with the tinker-toy minds of chemists, rushing about in noisy machines and leaving beer cans everywhere. I do not see how a Vivaldi or Corot or Milne can exist under such conditions. And they don’t.

There is a strange contradiction at the heart of modern atheism: on the one hand, there is a strong tendency to assert the moral autonomy of the human individual; to place the human center-stage, including a laudable defense of universal human rights, equality between genders and races, etc. On the other hand, the metaphysics that often accompanies modern atheism tends to utterly undercut this: the notion that consciousness and ideas are a product of matter, that human beings are physical beings in a physical world, etc. The latter does not necessarily accompany atheism - but it often does. Few atheists would assent to dualism or idealism.

The "Copernican revolution" of scientism - the decentering of human beings, being ultimately a rather accidental outcome of natural evolutionary processes around a backwater sun in a rather unremarkable place of an indifferent universe - sits ill with some of the central values that humanism defends, to the extent that some popular ideas (the notion of a possible reduction of the normative realm - which includes reason, moral values, etc. - to the non-normative workings of the human brain; or the notion of "memetics") have the potential to undercut humanism.

This is something I am missing often with pro-science criticisms of postmodern relativism. Because it is not just the fashionable Francophone philosophers who have contributed to the demise of the notion of the human individual as endowed with reason and able to take control over his own circumstances. Scientism - from the unmourned behaviorist paradigm to the hopefully soon equally dead notion of memes - has done its own share.

But, ultimately, I disagree with Fred Reed on fingering scientism as the culprit while agreeing, at least to an extent, with his bleak view on postmodern civilization. Because scientism, as the misuse of science as a basis for a moral or ontological philosophy, is much more a product of (post)modernity than a cause. It is a refuge - an arid, poor, ramshackle refuge - after the death of all the great ideologies and narratives that provided a place for our individual fates within a greater whole. From the political - the old bourgeois order died ideologically on the killing fields of the First World War, and the new socialist order died ideologically on other killing fields not long after - to the religious, to the nation, to the family as a social institution, etc. We're atomized cogs in the wheels that sustain a social order which sustains that atomization. Until, at the margins, something new emerges. I am confident Christianity will play its part in that, and hopeful that it will do so as a guiding light rather than as political power.

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