The Curmudgeon


Friday, May 29, 2009

Language, Faith and Fiction

There are few better guarantees of a damn silly article than to let a journalist pontificate upon the subject of Rowan Williams. It appears that the Archbishop has decided to draw a line under the question of God's existence since, in the absence of rack, screw and stake, it "has never admitted of a final answer anyway". Instead, claims the Guardian's Mark Vernon, the question should be: "What would it be like to live in a world without God?" This is, of course, an entirely fatuous assertion. If God does not exist, then we already know what it is like to live in a world without God; and if God does exist, then the question is irrelevant, since His will is presumably being done whether we believe in it or not. A more interesting question might be: "What would it be like to live in a world without priestly authority?" or, to put it another way, "What is the point of the Archbishop of Canterbury?"

Vernon refers to the character Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov as an atheist. I am willing to be corrected on this, but I seem to recall Ivan saying something like "It isn't that I don't accept God, Alyosha; I simply return him the ticket." This sounds to me less like an atheist than like a Christian with moral doubts. Anyway, the consequences of Ivan's view, according to Williams as interpreted by Vernon, are dire; namely that "there is no longer any foundation for ethics, because there is no ultimate source of goodness". Evidently a non-ultimate foundation for ethics is beyond conception. This means that "Some people will choose to be good. But others will not; they will choose to be evil", which will be a Bad Thing. The question, therefore, is: "Who is going to decide what is good? Who is going to take responsibility when evil prevails?"

This rather crudely dodges the issues of what specific acts constitute good and evil, and whose ethics are supposed to proceed most authentically from the "ultimate source of goodness". According to Dostoyevsky, evil resides in Catholicism, westernisation, democracy, atheism and being French or Polish. The parable of the Grand Inquisitor is, among more elevated things, a long grumble about how Dostoyevsky's idea of Christ's message has been corrupted and tainted by those Christians with whom Dostoyevsky does not happen to agree. If Williams has a different list of evils from Dostoyevsky's - consumerism, disestablishment, indiscreet gay bishops and the lack of funding for hospital chaplains, perhaps - is that because the God who guides Williams is different to the one that guided Dostoyevsky, or because the God who guides Williams is better, or because either Williams or Dostoyevsky has wax in his ears when the ultimate source of goodness speaks? Is it because Williams is more qualified to speak of good and evil than Dostoyevsky, or because Williams is a professional theologian while Dostoyevsky was only an amateur, or because the doctrine of the Church of England is true and that of the Russian Orthodox church is not true? Or is it because ethics are relative and, like every other human attribute except stupidity, limited by time and circumstance?

The idea that evil things happen because people choose to do evil is also a very odd one. Do Williams or Vernon really believe that those who ran the Nazi camps, or the churchmen who supported them, did so because they believed they were doing evil and really rather liked it? What little evidence I have seen suggests that, on the contrary, they believed they were doing good - that the virtues of duty and patriotism outweighed the virtue of compassion towards those the regime wanted removed. Williams admits that "people will not be taught not to commit stupidities", but Vernon appears to think that this astounding discovery is strictly a post-Enlightenment one. Was the Inquisition an atheistic institution? Were the Crusades undertaken by infidels? Or is the idea supposed to be that Christian stupidities and evils are less deadly than other people's? Would you rather be burned as a witch by Christians or sacrificed to the sun by Aztecs? Is child-beating by Christian Brothers less harmful than child-beating by the non-ordained? Perhaps the schismatics are the problem. Would Tony's bombs have killed fewer Iraqis if he'd been a sincere Anglican rather than a closet Catholic?

The point of all this is not simply to "deliver knock-out blows", as Vernon phrases it. Knock-out blows have little effect on dead wood. I mean merely to point out, once again, that the Christian churches have not only failed to provide answers to those questions which have become relevant over the past couple of millennia, but have failed even to engage very deeply with those issues on which they claim to hold the highest possible human authority. At the end of The Brothers Karamazov, the saintly Alyosha's ultimate response to Ivan's devastating catalogue of tormented and murdered children is to choke back a tear, then go off and play guru to some living children. Christ's answer to the Grand Inquisitor is less insipid and a good deal more artistically successful, but just as futile. Nowadays, Benedict disdains and denounces while Williams flounders and tergiversates. Williams, like Dostoyevsky, tends to equate atheism with a "scientistic conception of human beings as gene-transmitting machines", or with regimes which seek to "turn human beings into automatons"; yet he has not the slightest idea of how to cope with our present ethical morass, beyond "Do as you're told".


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