Posts Tagged ‘religion’

On reverence

Many people have a very strict definition of reality: only that which exists as a physical entity in the real world may be considered real. Turgenev’s Bazarov may have agreed: twice two is four, and everything else is nonsense, he gleefully proclaimed, though it may be worth asking the Bazarovs of this world (and there are many) if, given that definition, “two” and “four” can themselves be considered real, given that, when not attached to objects – e.g. “two trees” or “four cars” – numbers do not have a physical presence either. But if this is indeed an adequate definition of reality, what are we to make of our emotions – those things we all feel, such as fear, anger, joy, contentment, anxiety, apprehension, delight, and so on? I’m sure that the definition of reality is a complex philosophical issue, and one that I, as a layman, am not qualified to comment upon, but if our definition of reality does not accommodate our emotions, then, it seems to me, such a definition doesn’t come close to describing our real lives as we live them.

So let us grant that, however we choose to define reality, our emotions are “real”. Let us, for convenience if nothing else, cut through the various philosophical subtleties and complexities, and proclaim that what we feel must be real. For, without such an assumption, our thoughts, our actions, our very lives, would be based merely upon illusions.

We may describe most of our emotions by ascribing to them labels: we may label certain emotions as “anger”, or as “fear”, or as “contentment”, and be confident of being understood when we use these terms, since these emotions have been felt, we can be fairly certain, by most, if not all, other humans. There’s no point trying to formulate definitions when a general understanding already exists.

But what about those emotions that one has felt for which there is no handy label, no descriptive term or word? And which we cannot even be sure have been universally experienced? I mean those experiences that, for want of universally understood terms, we tend to refer to as “spiritual”, or as “transcendental”, or something similarly vague. Those experiences that, in Wordsworth’s words, give us a “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. Such emotions may be straying too close for comfort to religious experience, but even diehard atheists often admit to having felt this kind of thing. We may feel these things in the presence of a resplendent sunset, say; or on viewing some majestic vista from atop a mountain; or on viewing the glory of a star-emblazoned sky on a clear and cloudless night.

We may, indeed, describe the experience of these emotions as “sacred”, but here we run into difficulties: the sacred is usually defined as that which is related to divinity; however, though belief in divinity has declined sharply over the last few decades (at least, in the western world), our capacity to experience those feelings that we may describe as “sacred” hasn’t. And neither, I’d argue, has our need to experience them. So, if the concept of the “sacred” continues to hold meaning for us even if we have stopped believing in God, or even if, like myself, we’re agnostic, we must question whether the “sacred” need necessarily be tied to religion. But how can we define “sacred” otherwise? If we decouple the “sacred” from religious experience, and describe it in more secular terms as anything to which we feel we owe reverence, then the concept of the “sacred” loses all objectivity, and, can, indeed, be anything. To Félicité in Flaubert’s story “Un Coeur Simple”, even a stuffed parrot becomes “sacred”.

However, if what may be deemed “sacred” is not purely objective, it is not, I think, purely subjective either. For what gives rise to these feelings are generally not stuffed parrots, but, rather, resplendent sunsets and mountain-top vistas and the like. And, also, certain works of art. This last I know for a fact, because I have felt this emotion myself when I have come into contact with certain music, certain poems, certain paintings. And, if we deem emotions to be real, then this emotion, too, must be real.

And these emotions are, I’d argue, very precious emotions, whether we feel them in the presence of starry skies, of Michelangelo’s Pietà, or even, for that matter, of stuffed parrots. Towards the end of Flaubert’s story, Félicité, her mind never too strong to begin with and now further weakened by age, as she breathes her last, has a resplendent vision of a gigantic parrot hovering above her. It is utterly absurd, yes, but at the same time, this passage has about it a sense of gravity, of solemnity, that, given the ludicrous nature of the image, is hard to account for. I find it hard to tell whether Flaubert intended to debunk the very idea of religious experience, or to elevate Félicité’s absurd vision into something significant, something that gives a meaning to her otherwise meaningless life. Perhaps there are elements of both: literature can signify many things, even contradictory things, simultaneously. But either way, the sense of rapture Félicité feels is real, even if the gigantic parrot hovering above her isn’t. That sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused exists even here, and is precious, even though there is nothing here interfused, far more deeply or otherwise.

I think this accounts for the often quasi-religious zeal many of us feel for the arts: the arts provide, or, at least, are capable of providing, experiences generally considered to belong to the realms of religion. The idea that art can, or should, give rise to such feelings remains, however, hotly disputed. There are those who insist, often quite aggressively, that the arts exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to give pleasure. The arts, we are told, traditionally existed for no other reason, and that we only started to become precious about it in more recent times. For instance, Alan Bissett, in the article linked to above, solemnly tells us:

Stretching back to oral folk culture, stories were democratic in their nature, bonding communities in a shared experience. Everyone had a tale to tell around the fire; the audience could decide for themselves if it was good or not.

Tempting though it may be to picture our distant forefathers seated around a communal fire and entertaining themselves, purely for pleasure, with recitations from The Book of Job, it doesn’t seem to me an image that rings particularly true. From even the earliest of our surviving literature, it is obvious that the creators, even when they set out to entertain, had set out also to achieve more.

Bissett starts his piece by telling us that there is “art appreciation” and “art worship”, and while he allows the former to be acceptable, the latter he doesn’t. Which would be fine if he could at least explain to us what the difference is between the two, but he doesn’t. And since he doesn’t, I can only guess at what he means: I’d guess that what Bissett refers to as “art worship” is the reverence that some of us may feel for a work of art. And that, according to Bissett, is a Bad Thing. For the purpose of art, he solemnly informs us with all the earnestness of a conscientious hedonist, is to provide pleasure. Nothing more.

The claim that there can be no other point to art than to entertain and to provide pleasure, and that, by implication, anyone who claims to have obtained from art anything other than that must either be fooling themselves or are lying, strikes me as, frankly, gratuitously insulting. Even if one does not feel certain things in the presence of art, the contention that no-one else can or should feel these things either, is presumptuous, to say the least. It also strikes me as boorish and ill-mannered.

The idea that the arts can give rise to certain feelings that are close to religious emotions has long, I think, been acknowledged. Religion itself has recognised this: various religious institutions have either outlawed the arts from the act of worship, considering the quasi-religious feelings derived from art as unwanted rivals to true religious feelings; others have done the opposite, and have incorporated the arts into the act of worship, welcoming the quasi-religious as a legitimate means of approaching the religious. And in recent times, with religious beliefs receding in the West, the arts have in many cases become a sort of secular religion in themselves – a replacement for religion, providing experiences that we can no longer obtain from religion, but which we nonetheless require to prevent our lives from sinking into triviality. For a mortality in which there is nothing serious, in which all is but toys, is, we instinctively realise, a sort of hell.

Yet this hell of triviality is what many seem to recommend to us. Here, for instance, is pianist Charlie Albright, who tells us in a well-meaning article that to bring audiences back to classical concerts again, we must make it fun, and take the seriousness out of it.

Breaking down such “classical” rules will kill “classical” music — and thus save it. It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting … It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert.

But could it not be the case, I wonder, that the “seriousness” of classical music may well be the very reason why so many of us are drawn to it in the first place? Albright is not gratuitously offensive, as Bissett is, but interestingly, he too conjures up a picture of music once being fun, until we unnecessarily burdened it with all our deplorable seriousness. But once again, this does not ring true. The oldest music I know of are the choral music of medieval composers such as Josquin des Prez, or Hildegard of Bingen, and I can’t say it is music that makes me want to get up and boogie. Beethoven wrote above the score of Missa Solemnis “From the heart – may it go to the heart”; the piece itself is eighty minutes of very knotty and immensely demanding music. Some may disagree, but I do not get the impression from this that Ludwig had set out to give his audience a bit of fun. What the music does give us, however, is something I do not have the words to describe, and for which I need once again to borrow from Wordsworth – that “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. I feel, indeed, a reverence. And if anyone tells me that I am but fooling myself, and only imagining that I feel this; or even that I shouldn’t feel this; then, frankly,I don’t know that we need take them too seriously.

I do not know how to describe these emotions, but since I can feel them, they are real. If these emotions I feel aren’t real, then no emotion I feel can be real either. And yes, the music – or the painting, or the poem – that can give rise to such emotions is indeed something to which we owe reverence. And if that is a definition of the sacred, then yes, it is sacred, and will continue being so no matter how many Bazarovs there may be in our world telling us that twice two is four, and all else merely nonsense.

“The Girls of Slender Means” by Muriel Spark

Has ever an author been more appropriately named, I wonder? For the novels of Muriel Spark do indeed sparkle. They sparkle and they scintillate with brilliance and high spirits. And yet, neither the brilliance nor the high spirits obscure the very serious nature of her themes. The Girls of Slender Means is, in these respects, very characteristic of Spark. Here, she is writing about very serious themes indeed – about death, about faith and the lack of it, and, I think, about the evil that lurks within the everyday; and yet, none of this diminishes the sheer ebullience of the writing. The characterisations are adroit, the milieu superbly evoked without the need of extended descriptive passages, and the plotline – jumping backwards and forwards in time so insistently that one can never tell whether the scenes set in the past are flashbacks or the scenes set in the future are flash-forwards – is organized and paced to absolute perfection. By the end, one feels like applauding the author for her virtuoso performance. For a Muriel Spark novel is a performance: hers is not an art that hides art, but, rather, an art that draws attention to its own brilliance: display of her novelistic brilliance is, indeed, part of the intended effect. And yet, even given all this, there is something about this novel, something I find difficult to account for, that leaves me vaguely dissatisfied.


There are certain artists whose imaginations are by nature expansive, and there are others whose imaginations contract. As with most such dichotomies, these are not the only possibilities, but, rather, two poles of a spectrum: nonetheless, they can be, I think, useful categories. When it comes to literature, modern taste tends, I think, towards concision: various books, especially those written in ages more leisurely than ours, are castigated for being “too long”, though rarely if ever is any book from any period criticised for being “too short”; and the glib though frequently made criticism “needs a good editor” is based on the hopefully mistaken assumption that a “good editor” always recommends cutting rather than expanding. But whatever modern taste may be on this or on any other matter, each work of art should be judged in terms of the artist’s aesthetics: it is as foolish to criticise a Mahler symphony for being “too long” as it is to criticise a Sibelius symphony for being “too short”.

As a novelist, Muriel Spark is towards’ Sibelius’ end of the spectrum – at least, as far as concision of material is concerned. The one novel of hers amongst those I have read that essays a larger canvas is The Mandelbaum Gate, and this I found her least convincing: having achieved all she can with her characteristic economy, she seems to find vast areas of the canvas that needed still to be filled, and she appears unsure what to fill it with. In consequence, much of the novel is filled with unnecessary and frankly rather tiresome intricacies of plot, equally tiresome knockabout comedy, and depictions of individual psychology that seem, even in a novel that is by the standards of most other writers merely of medium length, over-extended. The characteristic wit and ebullience seem missing, or, at best, diluted.

But here, in The Girls of Slender Means, she is on more familiar ground: the canvas is small, and there is no empty space that requires filling. Most of the action of this novel takes place in London in the summer of 1945, in the months immediately following VE Day. However, given the hithering-and-thithering time scheme, we know almost from the start that one of its central characters, Nicholas Farringdon, later becomes a Catholic missionary and is killed – or “martyred”, as we are told – on some far-flung shore. We see Nicholas Farringdon through most of this novel not as a Catholic missionary, nor even as a particularly religious man: but we know that he will later become a religious man; and we witness the events that change him.

The scene is a boarding house for young ladies in Kensington. The very first sentence tells us that immediately after the war, “all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions”: these were girls of very slender means, but nonetheless maintaining as best they can the gentility of their class. Each of these girls is depicted with but a few of brush-strokes: we are very far here from the intricate probing of characters’ minds that we find in the works of, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton. But these few brush-strokes are all applied with exquisite skill and assurance. And there emerges through all this a picture of evil within the mundane and everyday that is as potent as those which emerges in the much longer works of James or of Wharton – in such works as, say, The Portrait of a Lady, or The House of Mirth.

The novel never loses its lightness of touch and its delicious eccentricity, but none of that prevents the climactic sequence from being truly horrific. An unexploded bomb goes off, and the girls of slender means are trapped inside a dangerously burning building: the only way out is through a very narrow window through which only the girls of extremely physical slender means can escape. Another escape route is found, but for all the girls to escape is a race against time. And it is at this point that Nicholas Farringdon perceives the evil that changes the course of his life.

Both the conception and the execution are beyond reproach: it is not often that such seriousness of matter can be addressed with such unfailing lightness and wit. But there remains something that I continue to find unsatisfactory: why does Nicholas turn to religion after this experience?

It could be said that I find myself puzzled by this question because I do not myself adhere to a religious faith, but I don’t think that’ll do. Yes, Nicholas turns to religion because he is affected by what he sees; but, as far as I can see, what he sees could just as well have turned him into an atheist. Different people can, of course, react differently, often radically differently, to the same thing; but whatever it is in Nicholas that makes him react in this particular manner is not, I think, something that can be understood without a painstakingly detailed examination of the kind of person Nicholas was; and Spark’s novelistic aesthetic does not, I think, allow for such painstakingly detailed examination. Her brilliantly concise style and her scintillating wit and sparkle are all qualities that make this novel so wonderful; but it is also these qualities that prevent a question that seems to me to be of central Importance from being answered, or even, for that matter, addressed.

This is a problem I find myself often running into in novels by writers professing religious faith. It is not the faith that I find problematic, but, rather, the frequent reticence on the part of the author in explaining how this faith affects the characters’ thinking and their outlook. Why, for instance, does Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie become a nun? I can accept that she does; but if the author does not explain to me what goes on in her mind that prompts her to make this decision, it is something I am forced to take merely on trust. There is a point where the author seems to say to the reader: “Unless you subscribe to and understand this particular theology, you are not going to understand this.” And for me, this is unsatisfactory: it is the novelist’s job precisely to make us understand, to take us into the minds of others, even others who may be very different from ourselves: if a character subscribes to a specific faith, the novelist must show us what it is like to live with that faith, what it is like to see the world through its lens; and silence on that aspect leaves, for me at least, a great hole in the middle. There is a great deal to enjoy here, much to admire and even to applaud; but in what seems to me to be the central point of the work – not the stimulus that causes Nicholas to become religious, but, rather, how that stimulus works on him to that end – there is a most disconcerting silence.

Turtles all the way down

Bertrand Russell, according to philosophical lore, was once in the course of giving a public lecture on cosmology when he was interrupted by an old lady in the audience. “Everything you have been telling us is rubbish,” the lady vociferously objected. “The world is actually flat, and it is supported by a giant elephant that is standing on the back of a turtle.” Russell, humouring her, asked what might support the turtle. The lady replied, “It’s turtles all the way down!”

– from Why Does the World Exist? By Jim Holt

There are some questions we cannot help asking ourselves, even if we are convinced that there can never be a fully satisfactory answer. “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” is perhaps the most basic question of all. Of course, not everyone thinks the question is unanswerable; and not everyone even thinks the question is valid to begin with. Philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, is particular, is adamant that this question is not even to be asked, as it is meaningless. But, undaunted by this early setback, author Jim Holt sets out to find, if not the answer, at least the various thoughts and ideas that mankind has come up with in relation to this eternal puzzle. He describes his quest, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as an “existential detective story”; and, during the course of his detective work, he interviews some of the foremost intellects of our time – scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, theologians; and even novelist John Updike shortly before his death, to consider the views of a creative artist. And the range of thoughts and ideas they all come out with is as bewildering as it is fascinating. His first interviewee, philosopher Adolf Grünbaum insists with some vehemence that the question itself is meaningless; another eminent philosopher, Richard Swinburne, opines that although the existence of God cannot be confirmed, it is the most probable given the laws of Bayes’ Theorem; a mathematician (Sir Roger Penrose, no less) thinks that the laws of pure mathematics preceded the universe itself, have an objective reality, and are immutable; and that the universe had to come into being to satisfy these laws. And so on.

In between these interviews, Holt explains very clearly and with considerable wit some of the subtlest ideas and concepts from the fields of philosophy, physics and mathematics. I do have something of a background in physics and mathematics, but I was still grateful to have explained the philosophical implications of some of the ideas from these areas; and, not having any background in philosophy at all, I was extremely grateful for Holt’s very lucid and elegantly expressed expositions of various philosophical ideas. The result of all this is both entertaining and fascinating, although if Holt’s quest is indeed a detective story, then it is one of those post-modernist open-ended ones: here, at the end, Poirot does gather all the suspects together in one room to reveal the killer; but, instead of doing so, he merely goes through all his hypotheses, before finally conceding that he does not really know whodunit.

As far as my own limited intellectual abilities go, the question asked in the title is insoluble. If every effect has a cause, as Leibnitz maintained, then we can, in theory at least, trace back the causes of all effects either until we get to the First Cause. We may call this First Cause God, as those do who are religious; or we may call the First Cause the laws of mathematics, as mathematician Roger Penrose does; or we may call it the principle of goodness – as one philosopher, John Leslie, does. There are other possibilities also. Or we may move away entirely from this idea of a First Cause, and say, as certain branches of Hindu cosmology do, that the chain of causality is infinite, and that everything, ourselves included, has always existed. If the former applies – i.e. if there is indeed a First Cause – then this First Cause has to provide an explanation for itself, and that is circular; but if the latter applies – i.e. if there are indeed turtles all the way down – we find ourselves lacking an explanation of the existence of this infinite chain of turtles.

Of course, science has peered deeply into this issue. We now know that the universe started with the Big Bang; but, just as any child in scripture classes when told that God created the world asks “Then who created God?”, the question “Why did the Big Bang occur?” seems to me – pace Grünbaum – a legitimate one. What happened before the Big Bang to make it occur? At this point, we are firmly admonished: there was no time before the Big Bang, we are told, and, hence, to ask what preceded it is as meaningless as it is to ask what lies further north than the North Pole. But this answer does not satisfy. Whether there was time before Big Bang or not, why did it occur? Why is there not nothing?

No doubt, scientists will be able to tell us some day why the Big Bang occurred: we know, for instance, that there is never such a thing as a complete vacuum, as even in nothingness there are quantum fluctuations – random spontaneous creations and annihilations of particles and anti-particles. And even out of this the universe may have emerged. But this seems to me to leave open the question: “If the laws of physics are such that the universe could come into being, then why are the laws such?” If our existence is contingent upon the laws that allow us to exist, then is it not legitimate to ask how these laws had come about? Did someone – God, say – decree them? Or did they appear spontaneously out of nowhere for no apparent reason?

And is it in any case reasonable to view it in this manner? After all, that the laws that describe the universe must necessarily be the laws that caused the universe to come into being is but an unargued assertion. And even if we were to accept this assertion, unargued though it is, and accept that a universe capable of supporting life and consciousness came into being because certain laws allowed it to do so, then we are assuming that the laws came first; and this is surely disputable. Is it not, at least, legitimate to see the laws merely as descriptive of the universe, and, hence, only of consequence when the existence of the universe is already an established fact? Roger Penrose, for one, doesn’t think so. For him, the laws of mathematics have an objective reality, and are eternal. But he doesn’t explain why that should be so. The laws of mathematics are for him what God is to the religious – a brute fact, a point where we must stop and not look for further turtles underneath. But this seems to me merely to shift the mystery back a few links in the chain: the mystery itself is not solved.

Even Steven Weinberg, among the most extraordinary scientific intellects of his or of any other age, feels there can be no answer. Or, at least, that human beings are not capable of comprehending them. But, Weinberg insists, science, although it cannot finally and irrevocably provide a solution, can indeed probe much further, and answer many of the questions that so puzzle us now. However, rather intriguingly, he goes on to say that the more explainable the universe becomes, the more pointless it seems. Not everyone feels this way: Richard Dawkins had famously declared that the more we understand of the universe, the more fascinating it becomes; and, in his characteristically imperious manner, he had insisted that we all should see it in his terms on the pain of being damned as obscurantist. That someone so very distinguished as Steven Weinberg can not see it in such terms indicates the importance of differing individual temperaments in these matters.

And this is what particularly fascinated me – even more perhaps than the ideas expressed. If reason is objective, I wondered, then how is it that so many brilliant minds reason themselves into such diverse positions? And it strikes me that it isn’t really reason that has led these luminaries to their very different conclusions: it’s their temperaments. If these same people had been born with the same powerful intellects but with different temperaments, then their reasons would have led them to very different conclusions.

Inevitably, this leaves me wondering where my own temperament leads me. I do not of course possess anything like the level of intellect of the various people Holt interviews, but nonetheless, like Steven Weinberg, I too cannot help feeling that the more we understand the mechanism of the universe, the more pointless it seems. I do not see the point of offering a defence of such a perspective: it is my own temperament, and no more. Speaking for myself (and, I emphasise, only for myself), if we are to live our lives as fully as we can, we must not see our lives as pointless, as lacking significance. And I find myself actually grateful that the full answer to the question will always elude our human understanding.

In short, for me, it’s turtles all the way down!