LEAPING FROM ONE QUOTATION TO ANOTHER SUGGESTS A LACK OF PERSONAL CONVICTION
writer is giving an account of their soul.
Leaping from one foothold of a quotation to another suggests a lack of personal conviction, a failure to digest and make one’s own the stuff of belief. A similar failure in self-appropriation was embarrassingly on display in the Q&A program, where Cardinal Pell was mouthing the terms and theses of his seminary training more than 50 years ago. There was no sense of a creed that had been thought through in an individual way.
If you’re going to lace your prose with other men’s and women’s dictums, you have to pick the memorable ones. Yet Smart and Woodlock introduce numerous variations of ‘‘ the Yale philosopher’’ or ‘‘ modern Turkish theologian’’, and what these worthies have to say rarely rises above personalist banality. Woodlock ends her essay on what religion has done for us with: ‘‘ The Qur’an calls such a person [a good one] ‘ God’s representative on earth’ (Q2:30) and, as Ibn ’ Arabi describes it, we become al-insan al-kamil, ‘ the locus for the manifestation of God’.’’ Hardly a crowd-puller of a final sentence.
Of the atheists, Loewenstein has his own tic. No matter what the topic, he manages to introduce his conviction about the infamy of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. He is the most openly perplexed of the panel, and this is winning, but there seems something curiously restricted in his sympathies and world view. Quite blithely, for example, he appears to equate love with sexual love. More than the others he betrays a personal context that must play into his thinking, but is unexplored — not least a longstanding alienation from his father.
Caro is the standout performer. I say this although I consider myself a struggling Catholic and she’s a chirpy atheist. But she speaks entirely in her own voice and has the ring of authenticity. Her easygoing straight-talking, her secular down-to-earthness, somehow seem to make her a more natural fit as an Australian. And the believers even seem self-conscious that their language and outlook make them alien, and they make folksy jokes to try to validate themselves as dinky-di.
Yet the book’s modus operandi seems to have had an effect on Smart. When he comes to the problem of evil he gives us perhaps the best pages in the symposium. His contemporary gurus are ditched and he claws his way through what he says is ‘‘ the most problematic thing for me as a believer’’. Amen to that. If ‘‘ the Lord is loving and full of compassion’’, as the Good Book tells us, how can he not grieve over his creation? But an all-powerful yet unhappy God? Surely not. Then again, the wholly divine, wholly human Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus. On the questions revolve.
Clockwise from top left, Jane Caro, Simon Smart, Rachel Woodlock and Antony Loewenstein