‘Inventing the Individual’

I remember asking my history teacher at school why the Board of Studies created syllabuses in Ancient and Modern European History but not the period in between.

As an adult I came to understand that the Renaissance was supposed to mark the start of a new era of anti-clericalism, personal freedom and, ultimately, empirical science. Thus the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were a period when Christian theology ‘butted-in’ to the progress in thinking that had shown every sign of flourishing under the Greeks and Romans but wasn’t ‘resumed fully’ until the days of Hume and Kant and Bentham.

In my own home my father held both a high view of the importance of studying the natural world in a systematic manner, but also, of the Christian Church. I was brought up surrounded by aviaries of finches – my father had every species of Australian finch – and looking through books that described in detail the importance of observation and hypothesis making. Whilst my family were members of no church, there was an assumption that there were positive connections between faith, learning and personal freedom . My father spoke of a Bishop of Salisbury in the family tree and of the importance of the Magna Carta.

My own Christian commitment in my teenage years led me to read the Bible voraciously. In Jesus’ direct teachings, in the parables, and in the letters of Paul I found underlying assumptions about the dignity of humanity (we are made in God’s image), our shared humanity (God has gifted us all and He will judge us all justly) and our shared need for God’s grace as found in Jesus. Much that we value in the West regarding personal freedom and moral responsibility seemed to me clearly connected to the New Testament.

My own experience of Church was as a place of great freedom and community. The secondary state school I attended had many students who spoke in derogatory ways about refugees and immigrants, but not my church. There people were looking for ways to be hospitable to the recently arrived from Vietnam.

And yet, both my classmates at school and many peers in my adult life, viewed belief in God with suspicion or skepticism.

In my latter teenage years I read a lot of C S Lewis, including books that provided a much greater insight into the diversity and complexity of the medieval mind. Further reading in my adulthood on the periods of the plagues, witch-hunts and the Spanish Inquisition did not quash a growing belief that the view that the Renaissance marked a clear break with the past did not tell the whole story.

These many years later I have at last read a book that articulates the relationship between Christian faith, the Ancient World, the medieval and Middle Ages extremely effectively. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual is a remarkable piece of scholarship. It links clearly the teachings of the apostle Paul with the modern Western understanding that each of us is individual. My own ‘intuition’ that Christianity has profoundly impacted a great deal of what we value now has a well articulated history to link some of our assumptions to the epistles and gospels. Augustine is given a proper place. Whilst he barely touches on the Reformation, I see how the Reformation itself ties in to earlier attempts at change. And his arguments that secularism is an outworking of the voluntarism that is the basis of Christian faith is very powerful.

Of course there are still questions. I have a higher view of the historicity of the gospels than Siedentop. Yet this is a far more nuanced and reasonable history than that provided by those who wish to depict Christian faith as an interruption to ‘progress’.

I recommend it to you.

I watched a dog run across the road…

Sitting in the car at the corner of Frederick Street and Queen Street Ashfield, I watched a dog run across the road.

I had seen it wriggle free from the lead of the grey haired woman and spill out into the traffic, wildly excited, flitting and scatty between the cars.

It crossed the city bound lane, then darted across the centre line.

I saw the green Holden VF Ute roll it under its front wheels, then its rear wheels. The driver pulled over, his face contorted as he looked back at the scene.

The grey haired woman was already in the middle of the road, picking up her limp puppy. She continued along Frederick Street, walking away from me, ignoring the driver’s apologies as he ran to meet her.

There was a resignation in her walk, a dignified sorrow that this is the way things are: that one can have a puppy, and take it out, and lose it for a moment, and the judgment is severe.

*    *    *

It is not the science that leads people away from a belief in a loving, omnipotent God. It is the incredulity of a lively puppy crossing a road. Granted, we made the road, and the cars, and the woman decided to walk by them. She took the risk.

But God gave us all of these possibilities.

  *    *    *

And so I imagine, what would the universe be like without God? Without a Mind that causes minds to exist.

Suddenly the dog is only its chemical traits, and the woman is as well, and my metacognivity is also an adaptation to help me survive. This very article only exists because the fittest must survive. It represents no possibility of truth about the universe. My notion of pain being an offence is of similar origin and expression. All of the anger of all of the people whom God has disappointed are just expressing an evolutionary adaptation. As are those who hold to their beliefs.

And even if things – like bees in their hives – cooperate, their synergy is of no greater value than the things that are red in tooth and beak and claw.

Materialist reductionism is a terrible tyrant.

There is nothing to be offended by in this event. Lions kill antelope. Ants dissect the caterpillar. The seed falls into the ground and dies.

In A D Hope’s words: And the great earth with neither grief no malice received the tiny burden of her death.

But even Hope’s poetry is an adaptation, as honed as a sharpened claw or an instinct to fight or flee.

The concept of life itself is only an adaptation. The nothingness of the universe only really breeds another form of nothing.

There is nothing

                           to be angry about.

  *    *    *

And yet, my sense of self is extant. The notion that I might feel compassion for the grey haired woman is extant.

The explanation that every single thing in the universe is only an adaptation that enables survival does not actually come to terms with poetry or love or grace.

These notions are profoundly changed by reductive materialists in order to have them fit the model.

God, said Les Murray, is the poetry caught in any religion. Caught, not imprisoned.

Not imprisoned.

Not imprisoned.

The Bible is, in Karl Barth’s words, an ‘otherworldly book’. In it humanity is dignified. Can speak. Can create meaning. Can be angry. Can love.

I do not understand why a loving God would allow such misery. But I do believe that a loving God has created persons who are selves. Who are, as created beings, not imprisoned.

It was the man in Martin Place in Les Murray’s poem An absolutely ordinary rainbow who wept, then finished weeping, and who parted the crowd and walked off down Pitt Street.

It is a religious vision. A Christian vision of an agentive and potentially empathic humanity.

With a dignified sorrow.