Godly aware­ness that some­thing is miss­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

DE­BATE about the ex­is­tence of God is no longer fright­en­ing or vi­o­lent in the West. Com­par­a­tively lit­tle is at stake, be­yond wav­ing team colours. Even in that avowedly re­li­gious place, the US, re­li­gion no longer sat­u­rates life or dic­tates be­hav­iour in the way that, say, shop­ping does. Most people get on nicely enough with­out giv­ing it a thought.

In pre­vi­ous cen­turies it had vis­ceral sig­nif­i­cance: for the ground­ing of one’s sense of self, of ex­is­tence and iden­tity, and for the fu­ture of one’s im­mor­tal soul, the core of that self. When the pos­si­bil­ity that God did not ex­ist was mur­mured again, af­ter Scholas­ti­cism had buried the athe­ist strands in Clas­si­cal Greece, an abyss seemed to open up be­neath the feet of the faith­ful. Scep­ti­cism was deeply shock­ing.

That pos­si­bil­ity was con­fined at first to the few who dared to ex­am­ine the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of sci­en­tific break­through. Re­mem­ber that as late as 1633 Galileo was forced by the In­qui­si­tion to re­cant his the­ory that the Earth re­volved around the sun. In the late 18th century in Ger­many and Bri­tain, ac­cu­sa­tions of athe­ism were enough to wreck an aca­demic ca­reer.

Matthew Arnold’s “melan­choly, long, with­draw­ing roar” of the Sea of Faith took cen­turies. Philo­soph­i­cal wran­gling over the mean­ing of faith was con­ducted way over the heads of or­di­nary people, and it is only re­cently that they have be­gun to un­der­stand that what you see is prob­a­bly all you get.

Most Western­ers to­day would think of elec­tric­ity and sound waves dur­ing a se­vere thun­der­storm, thrilling though they find it, rather than a bearded be­ing, like a man only big­ger, hurl­ing thunderbolts in a rage. The creak­ing of a dark house sug­gests the con­trac­tion of build­ing ma­te­ri­als af­ter the heat of the day, not ghostly foot­steps.

Mind you, many still feel un­ease: the idea of the su­per­nat­u­ral lingers, so too the fear of in­trud­ers, stoked by end­less crime reporting and hor­ror films. As Terry Ea­gle­ton puts it in Cul­ture and the Death of God: “Pieties and prin­ci­ples em­bed­ded in age-old forms of life are not to be up­rooted by a few elo­quent polemics.”

Ea­gle­ton writes with his usual lu­cid­ity and wit, trac­ing the his­tory of athe­ism and the con­comi­tant rise in re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism. Peter Wat­son fol­lows half that tra­jec­tory, ig­nor­ing the fun­da­men­tal­ism, in The Age of Noth­ing: How We Have Sought to Live since the Death of God.

While Wat­son ad­vo­cates for an athe­ist world­view, in a far more gen­tle­manly style than most writ­ers on the sub­ject, Ea­gle­ton’s stance is more am­bigu­ous and all the more fas­ci­nat­ing for it. Both strive to de­fine the re­li­gious long­ing that Ger­man philoso­pher Jur­gen Haber­mas calls “the aware­ness of some­thing miss­ing”. Both start, as their ti­tles sug­gest, with Ni­et­zsche’s bold as­ser­tion.

Wat­son has writ­ten an at­trac­tive in­tel­lec­tual The Age of Noth­ing: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God By Peter Wat­son Weidenfeld and Ni­col­son, 612 pp, $59.99 (HB) Cul­ture and the Death of God By Terry Ea­gle­ton Yale Univer­sity Press, 248pp, $34.95 (HB) his­tory, which even a re­li­gious be­liever, though per­haps not a ra­bid one, will find in­ter­est­ing. A jour­nal­ist as well as an aca­demic, he has a happy knack for trans­lat­ing dif­fi­cult con­cepts into ev­ery­day English with­out dumb­ing them down.

He be­gins with Ni­et­zsche’s ex­co­ri­a­tion of re­li­gious be­lief, and par­tic­u­larly Judeo-Chris­tian be­lief, which he be­lieved re­duces the in­her­ent no­bil­ity of hu­man be­ings to servile obe­di­ence. Wat­son of­fers art as a con­so­la­tion prize for the loss of God, work­ing his way through mod­ernism, via Mal­larme and Rilke, Pi­casso and Woolf, as well as the work of key post-Ni­et­zschean philoso­phers. His the­sis is that a civil­i­sa­tion that has ex­plored and named and grap­pled to un­der­stand ev­ery as­pect the world, even at the price of re­duc­ing it to atoms and me­chan­i­cal causes and the bland­ness of ba­nal­ity, is a far richer civil­i­sa­tion than those with a poorer cul­tural vo­cab­u­lary con­strained by re­li­gious pro­hi­bi­tion.

He con­cludes op­ti­misti­cally. One could have quoted Arnold fur­ther, ar­riv­ing at his gloomy con­clu­sion, af­ter sur­vey­ing the state of the world: “And we are here as on a dark­ling plain/ Swept with con­fused alarms of strug­gle and flight,/ Where ig­no­rant ar­mies clash by night.”

Wat­son’s con­clu­sion, how­ever, is a brief med­i­ta­tion on Wordsworth’s words: “We will grieve not, rather find/Strength is what re­mains be­hind”. Af­ter dwelling on what we have lost and ex­plor­ing what great minds have made of that, Wat­son ends with a fas­ci­nat­ing eye to the fu­ture, won­der­ing with an edge of ex­pectancy how the great tra­di­tion of Western thought will

Ger­man philoso­pher Friedrich Ni­et­zsche; the face of God in Michelan­gelo’s Sis­tine Chapel fresco, right

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.