Recently I have come across numerous instances of muslim-baiting. I use that term to describe the practice where somebody that hates Islam talks or writes publicly about obnoxious passages of Muslim scripture – in the Quran or the Hadiths – and imply that Muslims must either agree with them, in which case they are horrible extremists, or reject them, in which case they are ‘not proper Muslims’.
Aggressive anti-muslim advocates like Andrew Bolt and Pauline Hanson sometimes focus on passages in the Quran or the Hadiths that advocate beliefs or describe actions that are considered abhorrent in modern, liberal Western society – things such as demonising gay people, advocating the slaughter of infidels, endorsing wife-beating, and Muhammed allegedly marrying a six-year old girl.
The anti-muslims seek to confront moderate muslims with this and force them to choose between their religion and their acceptance in society. The argument goes that, if the person endorses those passages of scripture they are a menace to society, but if they do not then they are not a proper muslim, and are being dishonest.
I will come shortly to why that tactic is unfair and dishonest. But first let’s look at what it could possibly be aiming to achieve. Presumably, since the provocateur abhors Islam, they do not want to force the person to move towards the radical extreme of Islam. The only plausible aim I can see in the tactic is the hope that the muslim will suddenly realise what a terrible religion Islam is, reject it on the spot and become adopt a secular or Christian worldview.
How many people do you know that have done that?
I know none, and have not heard of any either. In my experience, human nature is such that, if somebody aggressively attacks something that is a key part of your world, be it your religion, your family, your political persuasion or your football club, you will dig your heels in, forget any doubts you may have had about the thing being attacked, and associate even more strongly with it.
If that observation is accurate, then these attacks, by people claiming to be champions of Western or Judeo-Christian Values (both of which I consider to be misnomers, but that’s a different essay), will just entrench the importance of Islam to immigrant populations. Not only that, but by deriding moderate versions of Islam as cognitively dissonant at best and dishonest at worst – ‘not true Islam’ – they put pressure on moderate muslims to become extremists.
In other words, the results of such mean and ham-fisted efforts by the ‘defenders of Western values’ are the exact opposite of what they would say they are aiming for. Dumb tactics indeed! Tactics that would be cheered on enthusiastically by the fundamentalists of Daesh and Al Qaeda, as they drive moderate peace-loving muslims towards the clutching arms of the terrorists.
Now let’s turn to the fairness of such attacks. Are they consistent with how we treat other belief systems? Do we, in particular, aggressively demand that moderate Christians publicly state whether they endorse the Bible’s advocacy of stoning adulterers (Leviticus 20:10) and disobedient children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and executing gay men (Leviticus 20:13)? Or, if we want to be charitable enough to accept the common view that the Old Testament no longer applies, having been superseded by the New, do we ask them whether they support Paul’s invocation ‘slaves, obey your masters’ (Colossians 3:22) and ‘wives, submit to your husbands’ (Ephesians 5:22), and rejoice in the statements attributed to Jesus: ‘I came not to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34) and ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26) and ‘Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’ (the “moral” of the repulsive Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30).
Turning from Christianity generally, to its largest denomination – Roman Catholicism – are RCs asked to choose between agreeing with the church’s campaign against condom use in countries afflicted with AIDS epidemics on the one hand, and complete abandonment of their religion on the other?
The answer, of course, is No. Neither Roman Catholics nor Christians are treated as dangerous subversives in Western cultures. Sure, there are a few over-excited atheist demagogues that might wish they were, but even when their criticisms are perfectly good ones – such as that it is child abuse to teach children they will burn forever in hell if they don’t believe in Jesus – the people making the criticisms are regarded as extremists, rather than those they are criticising.
I know plenty of progressive Christians – you know, the ones that believe the central message of their religion is to love one another, and that anything in the bible or their church’s teaching that can’t be interpreted to be consistent with that should be ignored. They are generally good people. On average they seem to be no worse than those that don’t subscribe to a belief system with dodgy bits in its older scriptures. As long as they don’t claim that the Bible was dictated by God word-for-word to its writers, and transcribed and translated without error, there is no inherent contradiction in that stance. Their religious belief does not entail a need to live in perpetual cognitive dissonance.
It is good that most non-Christians in Western society display this tolerance towards moderate Christians. It is odd and unfortunate then, that the same tolerance is less often extended to moderate muslims. Forcing people whose religion is a crucial part of their life to choose between becoming a violent extremist and abandoning their faith is bad tactics, uncharitable and just stupid, whether the religion is Christianity, Islam or something else. Perhaps if there were a religion whose central tenet was seriously harmful, such an approach might make sense. We might for instance class Nazism in the Third Reich as a state religion, in which the central tenet is the sacredness of the German fatherland and people, whose triumph over all the inferior races must be secured. In such a case it would be reasonable to try by all reasonable means to persuade people to abandon it. But religions like that are very rare. So rare, in fact, that I had to break my own rule of never using Nazis as an example, because in this case it was the only example I could think of (Sorry, Mr Godwin).
The reason I am writing this is that I have recently seen criticism from ‘the right’ of what it alleges to be double standards on ‘the left’ in defending Muslims on the one hand while criticising Christians on the other. They say the left is hypocritical for criticising hard-line Christians that attempt to impose their views about issues like abortion, same sex marriage and assisted dying on society, while sticking up for immigrants that belong to a religion that the critics say has even harder-line views on those issues.
That criticism is based on a mistake, which is understandable, but which would not be made if the critics would only apply the good old Principle of Charity to their opponents’ arguments – ie to consider the range of possible interpretations of the arguments and choosing the most sensible one, rather than the one that is silliest and easiest to knock down (a straw man).
Certainly I criticise hard-line Christians that try to impose their views on society, for doing that. But I do not argue they should be forced into silence, sent back to where they came from (originally Europe, in most cases), or treated as second-class citizens, denied the right to build places of worship. And I don’t criticise moderate Christians at all for their religion. Yet these same critics want to exclude Muslims from our country and control those that are here, without stopping to ask what their beliefs are or to see whether they keep those beliefs to themselves or impose them on wider society. All that I and others ask for is that Muslims be given the same courtesy that Christians are given – of being judged by what they do and say as an individual, rather than simply by their membership of a group out of which a tiny minority has behaved in a nasty manner.
Bondi Junction, July 2019
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
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