It’s a busy time, the end of choir practice. It’s 9:05pm and I haven’t had my dinner. I need to put away chairs, don my cycling safety gear, unlock the bike and whiz back home to look for something to eat. Busy, busy, busy. So one is distracted, right?
And I found myself singing that famous line from the Hallelujah chorus
‘and She shall reign for ever and ever’
Why were you singing that, Andrew? I hear you ask.
Well the chorus had been the last thing we were practising and, you have to admit (if you’ve ever heard it) that it’s very catchy. No wonder that GF Handel was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day.
No, not that, you respond – I mean, why ‘She’? Don’t you know that the official lyric says ‘He’?
Well actually yes, I do know that, which is why I was a little surprised to find that my subconscious mind, after deciding to make me sing that song, had also decided to make me sing ‘She’. I don’t know why it did. I think it may be because there’s a lovely alliteration in ‘She shall….’ that you don’t get with ‘He’.
But then I thought to myself, as I strode in a purposeful and manly manner towards my bicycle, why not She? Where does it say that God has a sex, and that it is masculine?
Now I know what you’re thinking: the Bible and the Quran are both full of He this, He that, Father this and Lord the other. That’s true, but you ask any theologically sophisticated Christian or Muslim whether God has gonads and I’m pretty sure they’ll say ‘Of course not!’ God is much too big and impressive, not to mention invulnerable, to have a collection of soft, funny-looking, easily damaged organs dangling annoyingly between his legs.
I think there are two reasons why male pronouns and nouns are used to refer to God in the scriptures of Middle-Eastern religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), both of which are to do with cultural traditions and have no theological basis.
The first is that ancient Middle-Eastern cultures, like most all other old cultures, including English and American, are patriarchal and use masculine pronouns in all cases except where the person being referred to is definitely female. All sorts of interesting reasons for this can be discussed but, whatever the reason, we cannot doubt that that is the practice. In a sense, ‘He’ is just the way of saying ‘She or He’ in that language tradition. In the modern, progressive parts of the world, we are working to undo those traditions, because of their toxic effect on sexual equality. But that’s a modern phenomenon that occurred centuries after the King James bible, let alone the original versions written in the period 950BCE – 150CE (600-900CE for the Quran).
The second reason is more specific. In those patriarchal cultures, it was assumed that a figure of authority must be male. Yahweh / Allah was the ultimate Boss, so It was described as male, as the notion of a female boss would have just been too incomprehensible – and unacceptable – to consumers of the stories.
Neither of these reasons retain any validity in modern, Western society, so there is no reason to perpetuate the implicitation of masculinity that was adopted at the time of writing. In fact, there are good reasons to actively overturn that implication, as just another undesirable plank in the ugly edifice of male dominance.
There is one other reason that was suggested to me by a Roman Catholic friend, that is more concrete. That is that Jesus was a man. Let’s accept for now the biblical narrative that there was a single man called Jesus of Nazareth, on whom the gospel stories are based, and whose body housed the incarnate spirit of God. Then the worldly container for the spirit of God did indeed have an XY chromosomal pattern, testicles and a penis. But why should that make us think that the immaterial spirit that pre-existed that body, and survived it, also has those things. We are told that Jesus had a beard. Does that mean that the spirit also has a beard?
If God’s plan was to incarnate as a human and preach an important message, It had three options for a body in which to incarnate: as a man, as a woman, or as a human of indeterminate sex. In Palestine CE30, only one of them had any chance of success. Nobody would have taken a woman seriously, and someone of indeterminate sex would likely have been put to death as a perceived infraction of God’s laws. So the choice of Christ (the part of God’s spirit that is said to have incarnated as Jesus) to incarnate as a man was simply an expedient, and says nothing about the sex of Christ.
Christians pray to Christ – the spirit – rather than to Jesus, even though they may say Jesus because it sounds more friendly. Jesus was the incarnated man, and he only existed for about thirty years. It is Christ that the religion says is eternally in heaven, and to whom a Christian prays. And there is nothing to credibly suggest that Christ has a sex.
Are there any other reasons why God should have a sex?
I can’t think of any that aren’t completely silly. One that immediately comes to mind is that God is The Boss, and bosses are more often than not male (although personally I have been fortunate to have had at least as many female as male bosses in my work career, and there is no doubt about who wields the power in the reasonably-happy home I inhabit). We’ve already dealt with that.
Another is that God is portrayed as a Father. But again, the intent of this metaphor (metaphor because It’s not really a father – there is no divine sperm involved) is to convey that God has the same loving, guiding, protective relationship to us that a parent typically has to their child. The scripture writers just wrote Father rather than Mother or Parent because of the language conventions mentioned above.
Any more reasons? No, I’m afraid I can’t think of any.
On the other side, there are excellent theological reasons against attributing a sex to God.
According to 1 John 4:8, God is Love. Does love have a specific sex? No.
According to John 1:1 God is The Word. Do words have a sex? No.
According to the influential theologian Paul Tillich, God is the Undifferentiated Ground of Being. Do Grounds of Being have a sex (provided we don’t differentiate them!)? No.
According to St Thomas Aquinas, God is Pure Actuality. If we distill Actuality until it is pure, does it acquire a sex? No.
According to St Augustine, God is Goodness Itself. Does Goodness have a sex? No.
I can tell you don’t want me to go on, so I won’t.
Right, now that we’re all agreed that God has no sex, what are we going to do about the fact that nearly all the words written and spoken about God attribute masculinity to It?
This is my plan. Please listen carefully.
From now on, whether you believe in God or not, in every reference you make to God that is in a context where use of a sexed pronoun is natural, I want you to use the female form.
As you are all intelligent and attentive readers, you naturally understand that this is not because I think God has a sex and that sex is female. Rather it is that, even if this idea went viral, it would have no hope of balancing out the enormous number of references to God as male that are out there. So we’ll keep on at this until God references achieve sexual parity, and then we’ll think about what to do next. This is not, as Alan Jones or Donald Trump might claim, ‘playing with words’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’. It’s just using sensible language that recognises that women and men are equally human and equally capable of anything except for a very few sex-specific activities such as fertilising an ovum or gestating a baby human. It’s a step that subverts the subtle message that only a man can be a person of power and wisdom. It’s a small but meaningful step in the project of gradually dismantling millennia of male dominance and oppression. And who better to lead such a step than the religions that have historically been – and unfortunately in some cases still are – platforms for those that seek to perpetuate that dominance.
So, if you please, it’ll be:
‘Our Mother who art in Heaven….’, in The Dame’s Prayer.
‘And He shall reign for ever and ever….’
Jesus is the Son of Woman (note the preservation of the word Son for Jesus, on account of the real-life testicles on the body used for Christ’s incarnation).
‘And She looked down on Her creation, and saw that it was good’.
The hymns will need reworking too:
‘Hail Redeemer Queen divine’
‘Queen of Queens, and Dame of Dames’
Everything, except specific references to the body of Jesus of Nazareth, has to go, and be replaced by its feminine equivalent.
What nice, friendly, inclusive places churches will become when this is adopted. I would happily visit them and sing along to ‘God rest ye merry (gentle)women’ in a spirit of ecumenical solidarity.
I don’t want to pick unfairly on Middle-Eastern religions, even though, they being by far the most powerful ones, they can take it. So let’s pause to consider the others.
Non-Middle-Eastern religions seem to generally be less patriarchal than the Middle-Eastern ones. There are powerful goddesses in Indian, Egyptian, Native American, Norse, Greek and Roman religions. But in all cases the boss of the gods is male. Apparently there have been, through the twentieth century, groups of scholars that believed that ancient religions such as druidism worshipped an Earth Mother type deity as their main focus, but these beliefs have fallen into disfavour in academia, and start to look more like wishful thinking of survivors of the Peace and Love generation of the sixties, than historically accurate accounts. The only well-known religions – ancient or modern – in which the most powerful being is female are neopagan religions such as Wicca. Well good for them, I say. But they are a very small minority, and the male dominance of the other religions I mentioned at least lets the Middle-Eastern triumvirate that currently dominates the world off the hook a little.
But Andrew, you protest, you are not a practising Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, so why should you care what words they use to talk about their gods?
You make a fair point, dear reader. The religions towards which I feel the greatest affinity are Buddhism and Vedanta, neither of which have any connection with the Middle East. But although I am not a Christian, Christianity has a major effect on my daily life and the lives of those around me, through the enormous influence that Christian power-brokers have on our laws and social customs. So it is in my interest, and in the interest of anybody that wishes for a kinder society, for the average Christian, as well as the power hierarchies of the various Christian sects, to become more consultative and compassionate. I think the religion becoming less male-dominated and male-oriented would help in moving along the road towards that goal.
And the same applies to Judaism and Islam. While their influences are minor where I live, there are parts of the world where their influence is intense. The people living in those regions would greatly benefit from those religions shedding some of their patriarchal orientation, and where better to start than to stop pretending that God is a bloke.
Bondi Junction, December 2017
One day the sun will grow so large that it will first dessicate, then bake, then engulf and vaporise, the Earth and everything on it. No life will survive that. Perhaps some people will have escaped to habitable places in other solar systems, but it’s hard to imagine it would be many, given the enormous energy that is likely to be involved in any interstellar travel. I expect ordinary people will be unable to escape.
Even escapees will be wiped out eventually, as the universe, many billions of years from now, slides inexorably into heat death. No life will survive that.
So there it is: the end of the world is a matter of when, not if. We are powerless to prevent it.
That background makes it a bit confusing to work out what moral obligation we have to take actions that prevent a near-term end of the world, and to avoid actions that would hasten it.
If we are talking about preventing the end of the world in our lifetime, it can be easier to resolve, because that would affect people that are alive now, and most people recognise that they have at least some obligation of care to other people that cohabit the world with them.
But that obligation is less widely accepted when it comes to future generations, and the farther away those generations are, the fewer people tend to feel an obligation towards them. Politicians sometimes talk about intergenerational equity and caring for the future of our children, maybe even our grandchildren. But it’s a rare politician that argues for a policy on the basis of its effect on our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-children.
At some stage, life on Earth will come to an end, and it seems likely that that end, unless it occurs in the blink of an eye – which it is hard to imagine happening – will be accompanied by tremendous suffering. If that is inevitable then how can we work out whether it matters whether it occurs sooner or later?
We cannot solve this by reason alone. As David Hume so acutely observed “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Of course he wasn’t saying he did prefer the destruction of the world. He was saying that one must look to one’s emotions to find an answer.
Looking to my own emotions, I confess that I am more alarmed at the prospect of the world ending in a catastrophe in 100 years than in 100 million years, despite the fact that I will not be here to see either..
I use the word ‘catastrophe’ rather than ‘cataclysm’ because I think the end would be lingering and painful. We should be so lucky as to be extinguished in the blink of an eye. Philosophers who have nothing better to do with their time make up thought experiments involving a button you could press to instantaneously end the world, and ask under what circumstances you would press it. But there are no such buttons, nor ever likely to be, so we need to contend with the end being a drawn-out, painful process. I suspect widespread famine would be a major part of it. That would lead to outbreaks of uncontrolled violence as people compete for the dwindling resources of food and water. Disease would spread to accompany the famine – perhaps providing a more merciful end for some. We see this sort of catastrophe already in some parts of the Earth, and we will see them more often as climate change becomes more severe.
Is a ‘soft landing’ possible? What if, realising that the world will become uninhabitable within 200 years, we were to decide that we were morally obliged to not have children, in order not to inflict on those new people the pain of experiencing the world’s slow death? What would a world with no new children be like? Most of us, including me, feel that it would be very sad. I know of two novels that explore this: ‘The Children of Men‘ by PD James, and ‘I who have not known men‘ by Jacqueline Harpmann. In the first, for some unknown reason, humans cease to be able to conceive. The novel is set about twenty-six years after the last baby was born. In the second novel, a group of female prisoners escape from their underground dungeon to find the Earth deserted. They wander for many years in vain search of other survivors and after a while start to die of old age, with no replacement.
Both novels are confronting, bleak and sad. The James also has a thriller element to it (which I won’t spoil for you), but the basic premise is still bleak.
It would be very hard for us now to decide ‘No more babies’. Imagine us all gradually dying one by one, deprived of that feeling of continuity – the circle of life – that one gets from seeing younger generations. But what if society had the time to work up to that over several generations? What if, realising that all life would cease within ten generations, society worked to change its culture in order to equip people to feel more positive about non-procreation and less reliant on younger generations. It would be a very difficult psychological shift to accomplish. It would have to counteract the powerful impulse embedded in our psyche by evolution – to perpetuate the species. But who knows what techniques of psychological manipulation humans may have managed to invent in a thousand or more years’ time? Maybe they could condition future humans to find fulfilment in bringing their species in for a soft landing – for instance in working as a childless carer for old people until one becomes too old to work. Things could be set up so that the last remaining people have all the food, water, clothes, medicine, shelter, power and entertainment they need to survive solo (we would also need to train people to be comfortable with isolation, which we current humans are definitely not). They might also be provided with pills to provide a painless end to life once they near the point where they will no longer be able to feed themselves. That is not how it happens in ‘The Children of Men‘. But that book is set in 2021, not 3021, and with no notice for society to prepare for the landing (for some reason fertility just suddenly ceases in 1994).
If a soft landing were possible then, while an end of the world may be inevitable, its accompaniment by great suffering would not be. It would then become easy to argue for doing what we can to delay the end of the world. It is simply to prevent a great suffering.
What if it’s not possible, so that the great suffering is simply a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’? What if the amount of suffering accompanying the end of the world will be roughly the same regardless of whether it occurs in 200 years or 200 million years? Are we morally obliged to do what we can to defer it beyond 200 years? I pick 200 years by the way because that should be long enough to be fairly certain that nobody currently alive will be around to experience a world’s end in 200 years.
It seems to me that the main difference between the two end dates is all the currently-unconceived humans that would experience life in the intervening 199,999,800 years. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that such lives should come to pass? There is very little moral guidance on this. Even religions have little to say about this, with only a very few religions (albeit big powerful ones) forbidding contraception.
A group that has a decisive opinion that is the direct opposite of the anti-contraceptionists is the anti-natalists, led by the prominent South African philosopher David Benatar. Benatar argues that, since all life contains some suffering, it is immoral to create any new life. He does not accept that suffering may be offset by pleasure at other times in a life. Even a few moments of mild pain in an otherwise long, happy life makes the creation of that life a moral mistake, in Benatar’s book. Less extreme anti-natalists argue that procreating is OK if we think the new life will have more pleasure than suffering but that, since we can’t be sure, we are obliged to not procreate. A more folksy version of this is the comment uttered at many a late-night D&M discussion, that ‘this is no world to bring an innocent child into‘.
Not many people are anti-natalists. Most people, despite the exaggerated doom and gloom on the news – terrorist this and serial-killer that – (of course no mention of the real dangers like climate change, malaria, poverty, road carnage and plutocratic hijack of our democracies) see life as a generally pleasant experience and look positively on conferring it on new humans. But that tends to be a very personal feeling, in which the moral dimension cannot be disentangled from the powerful personal urge to procreate.
For those of us who are neither anti-natalists nor anti-contraceptionists, the question of those lives in the intervening 199,000,800 years remains a mystery to be explored. Is it important that they come to pass? Is it good that they do so?
Lest you decide I sound like a homicidal maniac and ring Homeland Security to have me ‘dealt with’, let me state here that I feel that it is better to do what we can to delay the end of the world. That’s a major factor in why I think action on climate change is the most important issue facing humanity today. But I won’t go into the reasons why in this essay, because this topic will be discussed at my upcoming philosophy club meeting and I want to avoid spoilers. In any case, I’m more interested in what other people think about this.
The dilemma posed by this essay was first raised by Oliver Kirk.
Bondi Junction, April 2017
- What, if any, obligations do we have to unborn generations? Do they include an obligation to ensure their existence?
- Does the nature or strength of the obligation change with the remoteness of the future generation?
- If we accept that the end of humanity will occur, and will be accompanied by great suffering, are we obliged to do what we can to delay it for as many centuries or millennia as possible (taking as agreed that we are obliged to delay it beyond the lifespan of anybody currently alive)?
- If we do feel obliged to delay, does that imply an obligation to maximise the population of the Earth, subject to being able to maintain adequate living standards?
- How do I feel about the fact that a time will come when there is no more life? Does it strip life of meaning? Or does it enhance meaning? Or neither?
- How would I feel about a world in which human reproduction became impossible?
- Do I feel differently about the world ending in 200 years from how I feel about it ending in 200 million years?
- What implications do our opinions on the above have on our feelings of what stance we should take on current future-oriented issues like climate change, balancing government budgets, infrastructure building, asteroid mapping, solar flare prediction?
PD James: ‘The Children of Men’
Jacqueline Harpmann: ‘I Who Have Never Known Men’ (‘Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes’)
Peter Singer: “Practical Ethics’. Discussion of obligations to future generations on p108-118 of Third Edition (2011, Cambridge University Press).
Last night I dreamed of Voldemort.
There’s nothing so strange about that – he’s a memorable character. What makes this worthy of comment is that I realised this morning, for the first time, that I regularly have dreams about Voldemort. But until recently, I have always forgotten them. This is the first time I realised that they are a recurring phenomenon.
They are fairly dramatic dreams. It’s a classic tale of the good (presumably that’s me, and my companions if I have any) trying to find the courage to face up to evil, to confront it, struggle against it – and the fear it evokes – and, one hopes, to vanquish it. Or at least to banish it until the next time it shows up.
Details are sketchy, and would be boring to relate. But the recurring scenario seems to be that, like Harry Potter, I need to venture into Voldemort’s lair (like Frodo going into Mordor) in order to try to bring his plans undone.
There is no absolute need for me to fight Voldemort – no duel with wands at twelve paces or anything like that. But I need to sneak into his headquarters like a secret agent, perhaps to steal some plans or sabotage some special evil-doing equipment he has constructed. I can’t remember the reasons why I need to go into his headquarters, but I do remember that the mission is essential if evil is not to triumph, and that I am very afraid that he will detect my presence and leap out of a wardrobe or somesuch and fling the full weight of his malevolent powers at me. And he does – every time. No matter how quietly I creep about, Voldemort always detects my presence and suddenly leaps out of a wardrobe to attack me with a splendid and terrifying roar.
What happens next I cannot remember. But something extended happens, because he doesn’t win instantly, killing me stone dead on the spot. Maybe some sort of supernatural scuffle and or flight/pursuit ensues and sooner or later I wake up out of that on account of all the excitement.
I don’t want to get too Freudian, but I can’t help feeling that these dreams tell me something. The idea of confronting one’s fears and deliberately going into danger, because it is the right thing to do, may have a strong emotional pull on me. I am, at heart, a romantic, notwithstanding my obsession with mathematics and the correct use of grammar.
A rather more surprising aspect is that the dream involves imagining a character that is supposed to be pure evil. It surprised me because I believe the idea of ‘pure evil’ is dangerous, hyperbolic nonsense. I don’t believe anybody is purely evili. We all do some good things and some bad things. Some people – serial killers, dictators, rednecked talkback radio hosts – do lots of extremely bad things, but I expect even they are not purely evil. I expect they are sometimes kind – to family, to friends, even to strangers that manage to excite their interest or compassion – in those occasional lulls of peace between slaughtering hitchhikers, invading neutral countries and stoking up hatred in resentful white heterosexuals for Muslims, gays or environmental activists.
I don’t believe that evil can be personified – that people like Sauron, Satan, Voldemort or The Penguin are possible. Although I then ask myself ‘Are we really supposed to see the mythological figure of Satan as pure evil?‘. Satan is actually a very interesting fictional character. Some of his complexity may stem from the delightfully baroque Roman Catholic teaching on evil – first cooked up by St Augustine in the fourth century. It says that evil is not a ‘thing’, ie it is not a substance or spirit or anything like that. It is just an absence of another thing that is a thing, which is the ‘good‘. It’s an interesting position, and quite appeals to me, up until the bit where it suggests that the ‘good‘ is a thing. That’s a bit too ectoplasmic for me – the idea that there’s some sort of invisible, nonphysical substance called ‘good’ that floats about and goes here but not there (one wonders, can it be hoovered up by those ectoplasm suction guns that the Ghostbusters use?). It’s needlessly multiplying entities, I reckon. Much easier to just say that people sometimes do kind things and sometimes do mean things, and some people do more of one than the other. William of Ockham would not approve of ‘goodness as a thing‘ (although, being RC, maybe he pretended to, in order to avoid being burnt).
Back to Satan, then: the interesting thing about him is that he isn’t portrayed even in orthodox Christian texts as being pure evil. His story is just that of an angel that didn’t want to serve as an angel any more and so – in what appears to me to be an admirable display of honesty and integrity – resigned. Some bits of the Bible such as the book of Job portray Satan as pretty nasty (but then Yahweh doesn’t come out of Job looking very nice either) but there seems room to view him as a complex, conflicted, multi-faceted figure. Certainly not the sort of person you’d want your daughter to marry, or that you’d trust to do your tax accounts, but not bad enough to deserve exile to an eternity of torment either. I haven’t read Paradise Lost but, by eavesdropping on more literate people that have, I have gained the impression that maybe what Milton was trying to do there was investigate that complexity: Satan as exile, as rebel, as lonely iconoclast.
I digress. Sorry about that. Yes, well I don’t believe in evil as freestanding substance, and I certainly don’t believe in entities that personify evil. So it’s interesting that I dream regularly about battling a character who was created to represent pure evil. Does it mean that my disbelief in evil is purely intellectual, and that deep down I am as credulous and fearful of evil spirits as a Neolithic cave-dweller? Perhaps. Who knows?
Or perhaps even Voldemort is not pure evil. After all, JK Rowling does give him an unhappy childhood, to hint at the idea that maybe he was not always that way – that he was as much a product of his environment as anybody else.
But then I can’t be 100% sure that the terrifying Dark Lord in my dream is always Voldemort. All I know for sure is that in the most recent dream it was Voldemort, and that the dream series in general is about a stupendously powerful being (much more powerful than me) that wishes harm to all sentient beings in the universe. Perhaps other dreams are about Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, or John Le Carré’s Soviet spymaster Karlaii.
Thank goodness my dream self has enough courage to go through with the daring mission each time. It would be mortifying if the last scene of the dream, instead of a big fight-or-flight with a terrifying Dark Lord, saw me skulking about at home in shame and humiliation, having realised that I was too scared to go on the mission that was the free world’s last chance.
I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that I have one of the bravest dream selves in the observable universe. Now there’s a boast to conjure with! Who else can claim as much?
Bondi Junction, March 2016
i And No, Tim Minchin, – much as I love most of your work and, like you, detest the power structures and many of the teachings of the RC church – not even George Pell.
ii Or perhaps the Daleks of course. We mustn’t forget about them!
When I first read Les Misérables, I was miffed to find that the first one hundred or so pages were taken up with a character that does not even appear in the musical – Monseigneur Myriel, the saintly bishop of Digne (saintly as in incredibly kind, not as in pious). That hundred pages is basically devoted to painting a picture of just how saintly Mgr Myriel is.
When you know you have 1800 pages ahead of you and are impatient for Jean Valjean (the hero) or Javert (his primary antagonist) to appear, you don’t have much patience for detailed portraits of peripheral characters, however saintly. Mgr Myriel’s sole role in the story is to be the first person that shows the cold, starving, exhausted Jean Valjean some compassion, as Jean makes his way on foot from the prison galleys in Toulon, where he was finally released after nineteen years’ penal servitude, to Pontarlier in Central Eastern France, which is several hundred kilometres to the north. Valjean’s attempts to buy food or shelter along his way are rejected by innkeepers, peasants and even local jail-keepers who distrust and fear him because they know he is a former convict. Valjean seems destined to starve or freeze to death until the bishop takes him in and treats him like an honoured guest. Despite that, Valjean sneaks out of the bishop’s house in the middle of the night, stealing away most of the bishop’s silverware with him – the bishop’s only possessions of any value. When the police arrest Valjean next morning and bring him to the bishop, expecting the bishop to accuse him and thus complete an easy arrest for them, the bishop instead says ‘No, I gave all that to M. Valjean, and also, you silly sausage, you forgot to take these that I gave you as well’ (and hands over to the astonished Valjean the few remaining pieces of silverware). This act of unfathomable kindness stuns Valjean, gives him much to think about, and changes his life (but not instantly: he still manages to steal a shilling off a small kid later that day before he finally ‘sees the light’ – a baroque flourish that is omitted from the musical).
There you have it – one hundred and fifty pages summarised in a paragraph!
Victor Hugo is given to these long diversions. Later in the book there is a very long, technical diversion about the topography of the field in which the battle Waterloo was fought – apparently just to show what a villainous knave the innkeeper Thénardier is (‘Master of the ‘ouse’). And another later on, almost one hundred pages long, describing the construction and layout of the sewers of Paris – just because Valjean will escape the police by going through these, carrying the half-dead body of Marius, his daughter’s boyfriend.
In most cases these interpolations are irritating. They subtract momentum from one’s reading and cause one to lose interest. That’s how I felt on my first reading of Les Mis. There was no momentum to lose, because Mgr Myriel is introduced on page 1, but one is beset by impatience to meet Jean Valjean and come to grips with the famous story. ‘Why are we wasting time on this bloody bishop?’ the impatient reader (me) asks themselves, and ‘We get it already, he’s a very kind person, can we move on now?’
But on the second reading it was different. I already knew the story. I knew when JvJ would enter, and why, and I knew what role the bishop would play. So, the impatience having been neutralised, I was alert for little details, items of colour and feeling, that were not essential to the plot, but instead artistic features of what is better considered as a vast tapestry.
And on that second occasion, I found myself entranced and inspired by Mgr Myriel. Unlike cardboard cut-out goodies like Dickens’s Little Nell or Little Dorrit (with Dickens, you always know you’re in for some insufferable Victorian sentimentality when somebody appears with the word Little prefixed to their name), Mgr Myriel seems real. One can imagine that there really are such people – rare, yes, but not extinct. I heard the retired heretical bishop Richard Holloway interviewed on ABC radio a couple of years ago and he sounded a little like what one imagined Mgr Myriel might be like.
How was it Inspirational? Basically, it just made me want to be like Mgr Myriel. I am sadly aware that my troubled, deeply flawed character is a million miles away from that of Mgr Myriel – a ridiculous seething mass of passionate good intentions with very little in the way of good actions to match. But just observing first hand the operation of Mgr Myriel’s apparently bottomless well of compassion made me want to be more like him – even if it meant travelling only a few small steps along the way between where I am and where he is. And in addition, Hugo managed to make it seem possible, that one could be at least a little bit like that.
It’s hard to put a finger on what it is that makes Hugo’s presentation of Myriel so inspirational and believable and so different from the goody two-shoes vaunted by other Victorian-era authors. Being honest, I have to concede it’s possible that it’s just a consequence of the frame of mind one has when one reads about them. Maybe if I’d read about Little Nell in the right time and place she would be my inspiration. I doubt it, but one must always remain open to the possibility of being mistaken.
One key difference is that Hugo doesn’t content himself with telling us how kind Mgr Myriel is, or with quoting dialogue in which Myriel says pleasant, amiable things. Talk, after all, is cheap. No, what we see beyond his gentle, friendly speech is a long string of tremendously kind actions. Myriel, piece by piece, gives away almost everything he has to those less fortunate than him. Since he is a bishop, and bishops in those days were very wealthy, with palaces, coaches, large incomes and expense allowances, there is an awful lot to give. Having given away almost everything he has, he then researches what other allowances and claims he can make from the church in virtue of his office, does the paperwork to claim whichever ones he can, and then gives those away too.
But never does Myriel congratulate himself. He seems to subscribe to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ adage. When asked why he gave this or that thing away, he replies to the effect that he was never entitled to possess it in the first place. But Myriel is no anarchist. His comments are not generalised philosophical points about the nature of private property, but about the specific treatment by society of the people to whom he gives these things. They have been dispossessed, by the operation of law, of privilege, of capitalism, of raw temporal power. As his employer’s policy manual says ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. Bishop Myriel does his humble best to redress the imbalance created by the church and state by returning some of the world’s good things – those that he has in his power – to those from whom they have been taken (whether directly or indirectly).
Hugo writes Myriel’s dialogue in such a way that one can imagine doing and saying such things. His lines are not ethereal or sanctimonious, but practical and down-to-Earth. After giving the last remaining silver to Valjean, as well as saving him from a return to penal servitude (this time for life), he professes relief, telling his sister and housekeeper that he was embarrassed to be dining off silver when others in the village had no utensils at all, and that he feels much more relaxed eating his soup out of a wooden bowl.
Here’s a sample. Mgr Myriel is talking to the director of the small, overcrowded church hospital that is attached to his large, luxurious bishop’s palace, and has learned that they have too many people crammed in, in unbearably uncomfortable conditions. After a series of probing questions about conditions in the hospital, Myriel comes out with:
‘Look, Mister Hospital Director, this is what I reckon. There’s obviously been a mistake. You have twenty-six people in five or six little rooms. We have only three people in here [in the palace], where there is room for sixty. It’s a mistake I tell you. You have my lodgings and I’ll have yours. Give me my house [meaning the little hospital]. This one here is your house.’
No moralising, no sermons, no verbal niceties, just ‘Look – this is what we need to do‘.
He even has a sense of humour – a quality nearly always lacking in nineteenth century heroes. When the housekeeper discovers that Valjean has disappeared overnight and so has the silverware, the following dialogue ensues:
Housekeeper: Your excellency, your excellency, do you know where the basket of silverware is?
HK: Jesus-God be praised! I didn’t know what had become of it.
Bish: [Picks up and presents to the housekeeper the empty basket that he had spotted lying under a hedge, where Valjean had jettisoned it last night] Here it is!
HK: What!? There’s nothing in it! Where’s the silverware?
Bish: Ah, so it’s the silverware you were worried about. I don’t know where that is.
One might be tempted to think that Myriel is a Marxist in disguise – a fifth-columnist usurping the rich, corrupt church from the inside by giving away whatever of its wealth he can lay his hands on. But that is not the case. For instance he does not give away the (very valuable) robes and ornaments of the cathedral – presumably because he feels that they belong to his congregation, who enjoy seeing them as part of their religious rituals every week. He even believes in a good God – quite an achievement given the corruption and cruelty of those around him who claim to represent that God. He holds fast to a humble, optimistic spiritualism in which God is identified with Love – the value that guides his life in every waking moment.
But he has no time for theology. He has no interest in doctrinal favourites like the trinity, the resurrection, sexual purity, salvation by faith or grace, or the damnation of sinners and unbelievers. When his ecclesiastical colleagues discuss such things he does not criticise them for wasting their time on meaningless arcana. He just shrugs his shoulders as if to say ‘They must be terribly clever to understand such things, but it’s much too complicated for a simple man like me‘. If he has a theological position, it is something like that everybody is worthy of salvation, and will ultimately be saved. He never quite articulates this though. If he did, he’d be at risk of punishment as a heretic. But all his actions seem to me to suggest such a belief. He expresses no theological opinions except for the primacy of love. He judges nobody, and is happy to admit his ignorance and uncertainty on all ‘ultimate questions’.
In general I am not a fan of clergy. But I make an exception for Monseigneur Myriel, even if he is fictional. He is an inspiration. I could never be anything like him. But if reading those 150 pages again, without the impatience this time, has motivated me to move even a little bit more from where I am towards where he is on the spectrum of compassion, it will have been worth it.
Bondi Junction, February 2016
I fried mushrooms and zucchinis in the juice left over from having fried a steak for my daughter. Then I ate them. They were delicious.
There’s nothing remarkable in that, except that I’m a vegetarian who is, since my ‘conversion’, repelled by the idea of eating meat. I could not have eaten the steak, but was happy to eat the mushrooms and zucchini fried in its juices.
This struck me as odd when I first thought of it. But I was able to explain it to myself well enough, at least at first. The explanation was that I was brought up to abhor waste and, since the juices would otherwise have been wasted, and the cow had already been killed, it would be a shame to waste the nutrition of those juices. All very sensible, except that the same argument wouldn’t have worked had my daughter decided she did not want her steak. I could not have eaten the steak to save waste, however strong my intentions. I would have requested my daughter to bury it in the garden. That is the fate of all unwanted meat scraps in our house, as experience has taught us that putting them in the compost bin attracts too many rats and breeds maggots.
As an aside, our garden is full of decently interred parts of animals. Buried carefully and solemnly, but without ritual (unless I do it, in which case there may be a surreptitious incantation of respect for the departed spirit). Perhaps that is why the garden is so lush.
But that leaves me without an explanation for why I will eat the thus-fried mushrooms but not a leftover steak or sausage. Don’t get me wrong. A left-over portion of meat is a rare event in our house, as we only have two meat-eaters out of five (the third meat-eater having flown the coop), and I try very hard to err on the side of too little rather than too much, to avoid the animal having died any more in vain than necessary.
Anyway, an alternative, or perhaps supplementary, explanation occurred to me today. It may be a bit new-agey and holistic, or is it just brutally biological, I don’t know. But whichever it is, I stand by it. It seems to explain why I’ll consume the juice but not the steak.
Carl Sagan told us that we are all made of star dust, and how deep and inspirational that is. But other perspectives are possible too. One comes from an African philosopher – Simba the Lion King. He reminded us that we are all part of the circle of life. Put bluntly, while from one perspective we are made of the remains of dead stars, from another we are made of the remains of dead animals and plants. And however vegetarian or even vegan we may be, we are still made of both. Because there is no food chain with a top and a bottom, there is only a food cycle. Even Lions and Tyrannosaurs become food for worms and bacteria, fungi and plants. Plants are part animal juice and animals are part plant juice.
So when I eat a pear or a nut I am also feasting on the bodies of long-dead kangaroos, rabbits, mice, dingos and wild cats and dogs. And also on the bodies of long-dead people.
Not only do we all eat the remains of people and animals. We also breathe them. The air is full of small particles of organic matter, each molecule of which has probably been part of the body of a long chain of living organisms – plant, animal, fungi, bacteria, whatever, over the billion or so years since organic chemistry really took off on this planet.
And of course we are breathing in loads of dust with every breath, which they tell us is mostly discarded human skin.
Now this doesn’t mean that I regard all consumption as identical, either in an ethical or an aesthetic sense. I have no immediate plans to become a direct cannibal, or any other sort of direct carnivore. I have aesthetic objections to both and ethical objections to most carnivorous opportunities that are presented to me. I won’t start eating steaks simply because I have come to dislike the thought of chewing on flesh, because every bite would remind me that this animal had been imprisoned for life and finally killed for my benefit.
That would not be the case if the animal had been shot in the wild, or raised on a happy farm (I picture the farm in Charlotte’s Web) and humanely slaughtered there rather than undergoing gruelling transport to an abattoir. But since almost all meat in our society does not meet that standard, I have come inevitably to associate the texture of meat with that spectre of life imprisonment and execution. So unfortunately, I could not even eat a humanely culled wild kangaroo or Wilbur the pig from the idyllic-sounding farmyard in Charlotte’s web. I doubt I could even eat road-kill, which would be the most defensible of all choices. Just because of the texture and what it reminded me of.
But there is none of that involved in consuming the juice of a steak, especially when combined with zucchini and mushrooms. One does not have to chew it or slice it. There is no tearing and ripping involved. One’s only obstacle to consuming those steak-cooked mushrooms is the potential to think ‘Oh no, this was cooked in the remains of a cow!‘ But since my epiphany of this morning, all I need do is remind myself that everything I eat is made of the remains of animals, including people. So why be squeamish?
Bondi Junction, November 2014
How fine it is to mend things.
There is a real satisfaction in tinkering with a faulty object, examining it, taking it apart, finding the source of a problem and then coming up with a way to fix it. The satisfaction comes partly from the intellectual stimulation of trying to solve a puzzle, and the pleasure in successfully solving it. Then there is the pleasure in learning something new about the world. Once I fixed a metronome and was delighted at what I learned about the ingenious clockwork mechanisms that were concealed within the case. I like to think of those creative and resourceful engineers and craftspeople that had remarkable ideas like putting a little doodad here that would tip the whirligig there on every third revolution, which would, via a series of additional baroque interactions, make a little bell chime.
What a brave new world it is, that has such people in it!
But the most important source of satisfaction from mending things is its contribution to sustainability. Every broken toaster, metronome or lamp shade mended is one less piece of rotten landfill and one more set of valuable resources saved to be used for another five or more years.
Quality control in manufacturing is almost non-existent these days, except for products where faults can cause serious safety hazards. It is much cheaper for a manufacturer to dispense with quality control and simply replace any faulty items returned by customers than to maintain an expensive quality management process in their factory. Why do your own quality control when you can get your customers to do it for you, at no cost?
The consequence of this is that an older, mended object is often better quality than a new replacement, because the older item may have been made in a factory that paid more attention to quality.
My abilities at fixing things are very constrained though, and venture hardly at all into the domain of Soft Things. I can, only just, sew a button on a shirt. It will usually stay on for a while, but it’s not a pretty sight. But beyond buttons I am at sea. That is not generally a problem because my partner is highly skilled with soft things, so between the two of us we manage to take care of most feasible mending.
But there is one terrible exception to the portfolio of challenges with which we can cope, and that is the rehabilitation of socks. What I wonder is ‘Why does nobody darn socks any more?’.
Now I am not asking that as a curmudgeon hankering after the days of his youth, when he could barely walk about for risk of getting stuck by the needle of one of the innumerable sock darners with which he was surrounded. No, my youth was in the post-sock-darning era. My mother was an avid mender of all sorts of garments. Some of my school clothes were more patch than original material. But I can’t recall her repairing a sock (Perhaps she did and I have forgotten).
I know there was a sock-darning era, because I have read many times in books of people performing this wondrous act, but it seems to have pre-dated my life.
The art seems to be long gone, yet it seems to be so useful, that one wonders why it has gone.
Let me be perfectly frank about this: I own many, many pairs of socks. So when it comes to things sock-related, I modestly consider myself to be something of an expert. And I have noticed a tendency of some of my socks to develop holes at the end of the big toe. I stubbornly wear those socks for a while, hole and all, but usually end up having to give up and throw them away under the weight of protestations from my family at the shame it brings them to have a father or partner walking around with holes in his socks.
Think how proud they would be instead, if passers-by could all see that my socks had been mended, perhaps with a striking splotch of scarlet thread on the end that darned over the hole. What a grand world that would be, in which people had access to sock darning services, whether from talented friends and family, or from hired artisans.
I don’t know why the art of sock darning disappeared. Some suggest it is that the types of materials used to make modern socks make darning difficult and unreliable. But I blame children’s story books. Let me give one example. Doubtless there are many others.
The other morning I was doing reading assistance with children at the local primary school. The story that my charge chose to read was ‘The Hole in the King’s Socks’. It tells the story of a king that has a hole in the toe of one sock, and gets a cold toe. He seeks advice from all his courtiers as to how he should remedy this, and none of the remedies (eg stuffing it with leaves, as the Royal Gardener suggests) work.
In the end, the Queen suggests to the king that he knit himself some new socks. He rapidly learns to knit, makes some socks, puts them on, and they all live happily ever after, with warm toes.
It is nice that it encourages learning new skills but other than that, this story is wrong on so many levels!
Firstly, why does he need to make two new socks when only one is damaged? We can see from the illustrations that the new socks are identical in colour and pattern to the old, so there is no problem of mismatch (not that that would be sufficient reason to throw away a perfectly good sock anyway).
But more importantly, if he can learn to knit a sock, why can he not learn to darn, and simply darn the hole? That would use only a tiny fraction of the wool needed to make a whole new sock. Yet that option was not even considered. Presumably both the old socks – the pristine one and the only-slightly-damaged one – were consigned to landfill.
I ask you, what sort of message is this sending our children? “If something is faulty, just throw it away and get a new one”. Whether you make it or buy it makes no real difference. The resources used in the manufacture of the old thing are still wasted.
As you would expect, I gave my young, impressionable reader a moving homily on the foolishness of the king in throwing away his socks, and how we should always seek to mend rather than replace. I am not sure if it had any effect. She seemed more interested in trying to balance her pencil on its end while tipping her chair backwards. But one tries to plant the seeds of wisdom, you know. One never knows when they might take root and grow.
In the past couple of decades we have seen a renaissance of previously unfashionable crafts such as knitting, quilting and crochet. Is it too much to hope that the craft of darning socks will also make a comeback? If I can only live long enough to see that, then I think I will truly be able to die happy.
Bondi Junction, July 2014
(Rejoice, for there is no hope!)
As I was coming home from work, I wondered whether my son had been selected to be on a jury. He had been called in to the district court that day for jury duty, but only a minority of those called in end up on a jury (‘Many are called but few are chosen’).
My thought process was something like this:
‘If he gets selected then the trial will clash with some commitments he has in the next few weeks that matter quite a lot to him. So from that point of view it would be better for him not to be selected.
On the other hand, sitting through a long trial and hearing first-hand stories from people who lead far less privileged lives than we do would be a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth for him, albeit maybe somewhat harrowing.
Dear me, what shall I hope for? Shall I hope that he is selected or that he is not?‘
Then that precious thought came to me that has often entered my mind recently:
‘It is not necessary for me to have an opinion on that‘.
Whether he gets selected or not is outside my control. Whichever happens, we shall try to make the best of the situations that arise. There is no need, and no point, in hoping for one outcome or the other.
So I didn’t. I just shut the thought process down and moved on to something else.
I aim these days to completely banish hope from my life.
That may sound bleak. But it isn’t. The apparent bleakness is just an artefact of our peculiar Western culture. We are taught to hope from an early age. The sentence ‘There is no hope‘ is regarded within Western culture as synonymous with despair and misery. Yet there is no reason at all that it should be so. If we can learn to be content with the present moment, what need have we of hope?
This message has a strong presence in many cultures in India and farther East. It is not unknown in Western culture, but its presence is less strong than in the East. In Western thought it is principally manifest in the Ancient Greek philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism.
I blame Saint Paul for the Western preoccupation with Hope. It’s that famous passage in Corinthians where he says that the three greatest virtues are Faith, Hope and Love. I’m not Paul’s biggest fan but, in between the misogyny and the homophobia, he did have his good moments. And I reckon the poor old fellow got unfairly misinterpreted on that epistle. His point wasn’t that faith and hope are particularly great. It was that love is far more important than the other two. Surely that’s something we can agree on. Paul may think faith and hope are pretty good. I think they’re rubbish! But at least we agree that love is much more important. If Paul says that love is what makes the world go around, then I applaud him, even if he wants to spend some of it on his god rather than on his fellow humans and other suffering animals, who need it so much more. Perhaps he finds it hard to love other humans, and loving his god helps him to love others as well. If so then loving God first sounds like a good strategy, for him. For me it actually works the other way around. I find humans more lovable than the idea of God because of their (our!) frailness, limited understanding, cantankerousness and emotional vulnerability. Virtue of the beloved is only very rarely a reason for love. Parents do not love their toddlers because of their great virtue (what virtue?) but because of their vulnerability, because they need us so much.
I grew up to feel that I ought to hope that certain things would happen and that others wouldn’t. It was almost as though by hoping I increased the likelihood of the desired event happening. Hoping was like a duty, and to fail to hope was somehow remiss.
I don’t know whether I am unusual in that regard or whether it is a common feeling of people in our culture. But in any case, What a lot of nonsense!
My hoping or not hoping has no effect at all on what will happen! What matters is what I do, not what I hope. If I am concerned at the lack of compassion shown to refugees and the lack of action about climate change, I can lobby politically for those causes, express strong views in the public arena, try to personally help refugees and the environment, and donate lavishly to organisations that work towards those ends. Hoping at the same time for success doesn’t seem likely to increase the effectiveness of my actions.
In some ways, hoping may make my actions less effective. If I am constantly longing for success, I may become discouraged and give up acting if the prospect of success does not become progressively stronger. Then the cause will suffer. But if I act not out of hope but out of a belief that the actions are right then the activity is its own reward. If success follows, so much the better, but if not it does not mean that I have failed or that my time was wasted.
Imagine having a family member or close friend with a very serious illness. It seems natural to hope for their recovery, and to hope that they will not deteriorate, suffer and die. But what good does that hope do? What is needed is to do whatever we can to alleviate their suffering, maximise their chances of recovery and let them know that they are loved. If we waste mental energy and thinking time on wishing for a recovery, we will miss the opportunity to fully experience and value the time we have with them now. So let us do what we can to help, focus on valuing our time with them, and leave the things we cannot control to work themselves out, in whatever way they must.
Imagine a damaged passenger aeroplane that is plummeting towards the ground. Should the occupants hope to be saved? Well, the pilots should be focusing on the technical problem of how to regain control of the plane, not on hope. The cabin crew should be focusing on ensuring the passengers are all seated, strapped in, braced and know the emergency procedures, not on hope. The passengers themselves have less to do. But they can comfort one another – speak words of encouragement and love, help calm fears, hold hands, supply and dispose of airsickness bags. Or if seated alone, they can meditate on the inevitability of death – if not now then later – and try to achieve a state of acceptance. Or even sing! The orchestra on the Titanic that played as the ship went down is legendary, not because they brought hope, because there was none, but because they brought relative calm, courage and acceptance.
Let me restate: there is nothing new in this. The message has been preached for thousands of years in Stoicism, Epicureanism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. It is only because our Western culture so often demands that we have hope, that there is any need to remind ourselves of the message.
My reason for discouraging hope is not only that it can distract from practical, helpful action. It is also that it is doomed to fail.
When we hope, we wish our life away. We diminish the importance of the present moment in order to elevate the importance of a potential future state. But if we prioritise the future over the past, what happens? As John Maynard Keynes said ‘In the long run we are all dead‘. Now I have nothing against death. It is a natural part of life, and is only sad when it comes too soon, too painfully, or leaves dependants in desperate circumstances. But while it is not bad, neither is it especially good. It is not something to be aspired to. It is simply blank, neutral (in fact it is, literally, nothing!). So the final consequence of hoping for the future, at the expense of diminishing the present, is to aspire towards the blankness of death, which seems a particularly empty and uninspiring goal.
It may be that in certain extraordinary circumstances hope may be beneficial. Perhaps parents whose child has disappeared, suspected kidnapped, may find that hope is helpful to them. My guess is that, even in those horrible circumstances, time spent thinking about hope may be more upsetting than time spent focusing on the practicalities of doing whatever one can to save the child. But I have no experience of such a situation, so my ideas are mere idle speculation. All I can say is that, although I have often hoped in the past, sometimes being quite obsessed by it, I have never experienced circumstances in which hope was helpful, and I cannot imagine any circumstances where I would expect it to be helpful.
I have one last reason for objecting to hope, and that is when it is used to focus beyond death, on a potential after-life. It is entirely reasonable and understandable that some people want to believe in an after-life. It is only when it starts affecting their actions in this world that it can become a problem. The after-life has been used as an excuse for terrorism (jihadists blowing themselves up in crowded market-places so they can go straight to Paradise where seventy-two virgins await them), for inaction on social justice (the poor will ‘receive their consolation in heaven’), and for inflicting self-misery (Roman Catholics with irretrievably broken marriages denying themselves the possibility of being in love again, because such ‘adultery’ would damn their immortal soul).
Maybe there’s an after-life and maybe there isn’t. But what we can be sure of is that no human knows anything about it. So whatever other humans tell us about it, whether in speech or via books such as the Bible or Quran, is pure speculation. Hence I suggest we treat after-life stories as just one more interesting, unfalsifiable hypothesis, like string theory, and get on with loving and helping one another here and now.
Notwithstanding all that, I still frequently find myself wondering which of two alternative potential events to wish for, when the outcome is entirely outside my control. Which should I hope for? Quick, this is important! Don’t hope for the wrong one! My running partner is five minutes late for our lunchtime jog and I’m tired. I wouldn’t mind giving the jog a miss today. Shall I hope that they don’t turn up so I can give my tired body a rest, or shall I hope they do turn up because I really need to lose that extra smidgeon of weight? What a responsibility! How can I decide? Then the blessed thought returns to save me:
‘It is not necessary for me to have an opinion on that‘.
Bondi Junction, June 2014