Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

Be­yond Be­lief: How We Find Mean­ing, with or with­out Re­li­gion By Hugh Mackay MacMil­lan, 280pp, $32.99 The Soul of the Mar­i­onette: A Short En­quiry into Hu­man Free­dom By John Gray Pen­guin, 179pp, $24.99 Flour­ish­ing: Why We Need Re­li­gion in a Glob­alised World By Miroslav Volf Yale Univer­sity Press, 280pp, $49.95

Per­haps it wasn’t a good idea ask­ing a philoso­pher to re­view Hugh Mackay’s new book. The abun­dance of phi­los­o­phy lite on pub­lish­ers’ lists these days is eye-rollingly an­noy­ing for any­one who both­ers to en­gage with the real thing. Had enough of the re­li­gion you were raised in? Never had a re­li­gion? In­ter­ested in moral frame­works with­out get­ting a god in­volved? The list of stylish, crys­tal-clear writ­ing about mean­ing and how we should live, that doesn’t pre­sume ac­quain­tance with the jar­gon, is end­less: from Aris­to­tle’s Ni­chomachean Ethics, through Adam Smith’s The­ory of Moral Sen­ti­ments and John Stu­art Mills’s On Lib­erty, to John Gray, Sis­sela Bok, Martha Nuss­baum, Ju­lian Bag­gini, neu­ro­sci­en­tist An­to­nio Da­ma­sio and many more writ­ing to­day.

OK, you might stay away from Kant or Hei­deg­ger, at least at first. How­ever, a great deal of phi­los­o­phy is writ­ten for an au­di­ence pre­sumed to be ed­u­cated and in­ter­ested, but not qual­i­fied in the dis­ci­pline. It’s like ask­ing your neu­rol­o­gist un­cle to ex­plain your headaches and get­ting an an­swer you can un­der­stand, with­out be­ing treated like an child.

Mackay can be dis­posed of eas­ily. He is a mar­ket re­searcher, and a re­spected one, but re­cently he has for­ayed into meta­physics. He calls him­self a Chris­tian ag­nos­tic, which pre­sum­ably means he con­tin­ues to be­lieve in Christ’s teach­ing though he has doubts about the whole su­per­nat­u­ral fan­dan­gle. Some of the great­est, and cer­tainly the most hon­est, the­olo­gians in his­tory have ad­mit­ted to the same. But Mackay doesn’t seem to have ab­sorbed much the­ol­ogy.

His lat­est book, Be­yond Be­lief: How We Find Mean­ing, with or with­out Re­li­gion, is a slight, Alain de Bot­ton-style med­i­ta­tion on the sub­ject, mi­nus de Bot­ton’s philo­soph­i­cal ground­ing or his lit­er­ary el­e­gance. It is, Mackay writes, not a book for com­mit­ted Chris­tians or com­mit­ted athe­ists, but rather one for “doubters, scep­tics, heretics, ag­nos­tics and re­li­gious fringe-dwellers”. This evokes a mag­nif­i­cent lin­eage of dis­sent, but he doesn’t de­liver.

Mackay quotes few ex­perts in the field, though in his bib­li­og­ra­phy one or two moral philoso­phers and the­olo­gians rub shoul­ders with eco­nom­ics jour­nal­ist Ross Git­tins: Eck­hart “The Power of Now” Tolle; Emanuel Swe­den­borg, whom Im­manuel Kant dis­missed as a “spook hunter” more than 200 years ago; and Michel Houelle­becq, the scruffy French nov­el­ist who went into hid­ing as soon as his de­lib­er­ately out­ra­geous Soumis­sion was pub­lished. Seven of his own books make it into the list too.

Ba­si­cally, he me­an­ders through a dis­cus­sion of why 61 per cent of us, he says very specif­i­cally, have given up on con­ven­tional re­li­gion, even though most still claim it nom­i­nally in the cen­sus, and what those peo­ple are to do about tran­scend­ing the ma­te­ri­al­ism he says has ru­ined our lives. He talks about mir­a­cle cures for cancer and the power of prayer, vir­gin birth and magic mo­ments. There is lit­tle talk of the awe-in­vok­ing majesty of our world, and of the uni­verse, in ma­te­ri­al­ist terms. There are a lot of stats.

“There are more things in the hu­man psy­che, Ho­ra­tio, than are dreamt of in your phi­los­o­phy,” he writes at one point, rif­fling on Ham­let, which sug­gests he has only a vague idea of the mind-bog­gling di­ver­sity of philoso­phies hu-



mans have in­vented to in­vest mean­ing in the harsh con­tin­gen­cies of life. “Sig­mund Freud and his dis­ci­ples would have cheered at that.” Er ... pos­si­bly. Freud doesn’t get a guernsey in the bib­li­og­ra­phy, but his dis­ci­ple Jung does.

There is no rea­son Mackay should not tackle phi­los­o­phy. Primo Levi was a chemist and Vik­tor Frankl a psy­chi­a­trist, and it is im­pos­si­ble to be­gin to grasp the Holo­caust with­out read­ing their philo­soph­i­cal med­i­ta­tions in the form of fic­tion and mem­oir. Suf­fice it to say, how­ever, that only if you al­ready like Mackay’s writ­ing is this the book for you. I’d sooner read a good self-help book that, at best, might of­fer a prac­ti­cal plan.

John Gray is a com­pletely dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion. Gray, the Cor­mac McCarthy of phi­los­o­phy, has a mind like a rapier and a pen­chant for point­ing out the hope­less­ness of ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing. His re­views are bril­liant and, for my money, more sat­is­fy­ing than his books. His last one, The Si­lence of An­i­mals, was wrist-split­tingly ni­hilis­tic, as I pointed out in a highly an­noyed re­view at the time.

His new one — The Soul of the Mar­i­onette: A Short En­quiry into Hu­man Free­dom — is dif­fer­ent. Flow­ers and but­ter­flies adorn the cover. The ar­gu­ment is still tough, but per­haps he got the lighten-up mes­sage when crit­ics world­wide groaned so loudly last time.

Gray med­i­tates on free­dom, the holy grail of moder­nity. We know (as Mackay points out many times in his book, though not in these words) that moder­nity has brought about the “dis­en­chant­ment of the world”, as We­ber put it, at least for us in the West, and has set us free from op­pres­sive princes and pesky priests so we can, in Kant’s words, dare to know.

Gray’s con­tention is that free­dom is an il- lu­sion, choice a bur­den, and we are driven by many oc­cult, though en­tirely nat­u­ral, forces every time we think we have come to a de­ci­sion or stretch out a hand. Neu­ro­sci­en­tific break­throughs are up-end­ing the mil­len­nia-long de­bate about the ex­is­tence of free will. The knowl­edge that neu­rons are fir­ing long be­fore we are con­scious of think­ing of some­thing is chal­leng­ing all do­mains from bi­ol­ogy to phi­los­o­phy to crim­i­nol­ogy. And still, for Gray, we are liv­ing in a world the Gnos­tics de­scribed: a turf aban­doned by God and dom­i­nated by Evil, which we must do our best to look in the eye and over­come.

Gray’s pro­posal is even more fright­en­ing than Plato’s al­le­gory of the cave. In Plato’s de­scrip­tion we think we are free and we think we have knowl­edge but, in fact, we are shack­led in a cave and can only see the out­side world as shad­ows pro­jected on the wall from things pass­ing in front of a fire be­hind us. At least Plato’s shack­led peo­ple can ob­serve and in­ter­pret, even if they are get­ting it wrong.

For Gray, we don’t even have that as con­so­la­tion. We are mar­i­onettes, pulled willy nilly by the strings of bi­ol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy, so­ci­ety, you name it. But that’s not the end of it. “How is the pup­pet to live?” he asks in his fi­nal chap­ter, ti­tled Free­dom for Uber-mar­i­onettes, after his wide-rang­ing dis­cus­sion. “You might think a pup­pet can have no choice in the mat­ter ...”

And yet it does, he main­tains, though it doesn’t feel like the soar­ing free­dom we yearn for. In­deed, it is our ca­pac­ity for choice that brings us un­done. This is not con­scious­ness or free will that sep­a­rates us from other forms of life, but the in­ner con­flict that choice oc­ca­sions: “the con­tend­ing im­pulses that di­vide us from our­selves”, he writes.

“No other an­i­mal seeks the sat­is­fac­tion of its de­sires and at the same time curses them as evil; spends its life ter­ri­fied of death while be­ing ready to die in or­der to pre­serve an im­age of it­self; kills its own species for the sake of dreams. Not self-aware­ness but the split in the self is what makes us hu­man.”

Like Mackay, Gray ranges widely, from the Aztecs (via Aus­tralian his­to­rian Inga Clendin­nen’s mag­nif­i­cent writ­ing), through the Or­ange Revo­lu­tion, Ben­tham’s panop­ti­con and Fidel’s Cuba, to en­cryp­tion and the 21st-cen­tury sur­veil­lance state. With Gray, how­ever, we are in safe hands dur­ing this provoca­tive ex­plo­sion of philo­soph­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal, so­ci­o­log­i­cal and lit­er­ary ref­er­ences. He had me at Leop­ardi.

Miroslav Volf, too, of­fers real meat to chew on. Like Gray, he is a poly­math (though a cheerier one) and he ranges widely to dis­cuss the re­al­i­ties of our lives and how we have imag­ined, jus­ti­fied, glo­ri­fied, de­monised and sought to find mean­ing in it. This is a vividly per­sonal piece of writ­ing that veers com­pellingly be­tween il­lu­mi­nat­ing mo­ments of opin­ion and ed­i­fy­ing dot-point ex­pla­na­tions of re­li­gion, eco­nom­ics, what­ever the mat­ter in hand. Un­like Gray, he is a Chris­tian, though like him, he gives short shrift to “spir­i­tu­al­ity”, in the weasel-word sense that Mackay uses with rev­er­ence.

A pro­fes­sor of the­ol­ogy at Yale, Volf was raised a Pen­te­costal and ad­mits to inch­ing to­wards the Epis­co­palian (Angli­can) Church in the years since. His fam­ily was Pen­te­costal in the Balkans, a re­gion that has rarely given quar­ter within, let alone out­side, the stormy triad of re­li­gions en­demic to it, and doubt­less helped give rise to his en­dur­ing in­ter­est in the sub­ject.

“Re­li­gion and glob­al­i­sa­tion aren’t two neigh­bours, each liv­ing in its own home sep­a­rated by a tall wall, al­ter­nately co-op­er­at­ing, com­pet­ing, or quar­relling,” he writes. “The world re­li­gions are part of the dy­nam­ics of glob­al­i­sa­tion.”

Need­less to say, given the book’s ti­tle, he is pos­i­tive about re­li­gion, de­spite his ex­am­i­na­tion of re­li­gious wars and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. He is also pos­i­tive about glob­al­i­sa­tion, though he ar­gues well from a the­o­log­i­cal stand­point for ame­lio­ra­tion of the down­side of un­reg­u­lated cap­i­tal­ism, crony cap­i­tal­ism, and bod­ies politic that don’t have wel­fare sys­tems in place to care for their vic­tims. “A spec­tre is haunt­ing the world — not a spec­tre of com­mu­nism, as Karl Marx wrote at the be­gin­ning of the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, but the spec­tre of ni­hilism,” he writes in his epi­logue. Hello, John Gray.

For Volf, all will ul­ti­mately be well. Oh, to get him and Gray in a room to­gether. is a writer and critic

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