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-
NO OTHER ANIMAL SEEKS THE SATISFACTION OF ITS DESIRES AND CURSES THEM AS EVIL
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