Archive for May, 2022

Karen Armstrong: The Case for God

May 25, 2022

     I do find Karen Armstrong’s writings on religion fascinating and thought-provoking, as you can see; there’s a lifetime of research and exploration there, by someone seeking to understand and explain, as far as this can be done, and I can identify with this in a number of ways.

This book is much more approachable than the previous one. Her starting-point is our changing understanding of what God is, and the problems this presents in our modern and would-be rational age, leading to responses such as fundamentalism and atheism. She outlines how in the ancient world there was no belief in a single supreme being, along with an acceptance of God as something inexpressible and incomprehensible, which we now want to rationalise and tie down and explain…

The ancient Greeks launched the Western pursuit of Reason: there was a rational explanation for everything if it could be found or worked out… and the philosophers’ quest for understanding of the world and the cosmos seems to have been focused on the right way to live. Humans were rational creatures, carrying within them a spark of the divine.

The section on language, and the changing meaning of the word ‘belief’ was fascinating; the Greek and Latin words translated now as ‘belief’ were in earlier times more about a sense of trust and commitment in God, than about unquestioning acceptance and assimilation of a set of dogmas defined by other humans. From about the 4th century onwards, Christianity began its shift towards insistence on doctrinal correctness. And once the idea of creation ex nihilo gained acceptance, then God and the universe were separated… Belief in literal truth of scripture rather than scripture as allegory to help us see, led to the ongoing separation between spirituality and theology. Armstrong explains that we participate in a mystery, whereas we solve a problem: nowadays we try to turn the mystery into a problem which we can then solve.

I decided that, in the end, this book and others by Armstrong are of course yet another 21st century rationalist approach to the exploration of spirituality and religion. Inevitably: this is what we do in our present world and time; there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just our version of the aeons-long human quest. We are necessarily creatures of our own age. So much of the book is about clever people wrestling with the (still!) ungraspable in the attempt to explain and understand, when this seems by definition impossible. Armstrong earns my respect for being engaged for so long, and bringing forth so much enlightenment. For her, religion is a practical discipline, is not easy, and is about living intensely in the her and now. Amen to that.

Karen Armstrong: The Great Transformation

May 15, 2022

    I’ve thought highly of the books of Karen Armstrong over the years; her approach to the study and history of religion and theology I have found very enlightening and thought-provoking. I’d never describe her works as popularising; they are detailed, careful, well-explained and do demand a certain amount of personal sympathy with the subjects she tackles.

This tome – The Great Transformation – however, I found rather different, and I will confess at the start that I skimmed a good deal of it, because there was so little in my existing knowledge that I could use to link in to the incredibly detailed exploration of the worlds of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah over the space of several hundred years. In other words, here is a far less accessible work than any others of hers that I’ve read. The links with Jeremiah, Jewish history and the Hebrew scriptures and Christian Bible I could latch onto, the rest not so much.

So not a book for the general reader, even someone reasonably well-versed in the history of religion as I thought I was; there’s an enormous amount of minutiae here, as well as a great weight of (necessary) speculation, given that so much of what she describes is largely lost in the mists of time. She was interesting on the history of Israel, the territory, its gods (!) over time and the gradual emergence of monotheism and the eventual codifying of the Jewish faith and practice.

I think she is detailing the gradual movement from religion as mere ritual to its eventual emphasis on ethical behaviour, with the internalisation of religion as a crucial development. She also emphasises movement from oral to written tradition in scripture, particularly among the Jewish people. I’ve always had a sense of the Old Testament as a chaotic and repetitive text, and lately read much about its gradual and relatively late development, but from Armstrong I have a picture of its being even more chaotic, of its contradictory content, merged stories with varying and different purposes behind them. It seems even more of a mish-mash than I thought possible.

Equally, I was surprised to discover just how early on the notion of questioning and challenging everything in an effort to understand and get to the bottom of things developed in Greek philosophy, and the fact that it was getting on for two millennia later before the West fully embraced this approach.

Another book that I cannot recommend to a general reader; I’m glad I dipped into and skimmed it but there was just too much I could not really understand or make sense of from my relatively limited and Western perspective. It’s good to be reminded of one’s own limitations from time to time…

Jan Potocki: Voyages

May 15, 2022

     I bought this because I was planning to re-read his amazing novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and then watch the film; I hadn’t known much about his life or that he was widely travelled, in the years at the end of the eighteenth century when his native Poland was gradually being dismembered and removed from the map of Europe.

Potocki is a careful observer with a good eye for detail and a focus on the exotic (or what would have seemed exotic to a European traveller at the time). The book is extremely well presented with a very detailed commentary and copious annotation, rather like the current Hakluyt Society volumes in the UK. The one thing seriously lacking is maps of any sort, to allow the curious reader to track the traveller’s progress.

It’s a strange mish-mash of places: travel through Holland during a revolution, extensive travels through the then Kingdom of Morocco, travels in Astrakhan, and detailed analysis of why a Russian diplomatic mission to the court of the emperor of China was an utter fiasco. Morocco is closely described, and Potocki seems to avoid Western prejudices against Arabs and Islam. The minutiae of events at a chaotic time in Morocco now seems rather dull and dreary stuff, though.

Descriptions of peoples, places and customs in Astrakhan are rather more interesting; perhaps Potocki was one of the first Westerners to travel there and write a detailed account? He comes over as erudite and a seeker out of knowledge, balanced in his approach, eschewing the racism and bigotry often found in accounts of that time. He’s not only interested in the peoples – and lists and differentiates many of them – but also their languages, and the differences between them: a researcher in the sense we would understand the word.

The piece on the mission to China is fascinating. Potocki is far more aware of the demands of diplomacy, of understanding others and how their approach might differ from his own, of the necessary sensitivities and protocols required in such situations, than are the Russian diplomats he accompanies. They plod woodenly on, it seems, trampling on every sensitivity until the Chinese basically tell them to clear off, that the mission will not be received…

Having said all that, reading the book was something of a chore and I am not going to recommend it to you unless you have similar and quite particular interest as I do. Not a piece of light travel reading for a casual reader.

Reader, I gave up…

May 11, 2022

I’ve just given up on a book for the first time in quite a while, and have found myself wondering what it is that makes me do such a thing. I have a rule for myself that if a book isn’t satisfying me after sixty or so pages, then I stop. Partly it’s about feeling that, at my age, I don’t have what I call ‘eyeball time’ to waste, but there’s more to it than that, I’m sure.

I’m quite careful in my choices, and increasingly I will decide I’m not going to bother starting, especially if it’s a book someone has recommended, or lent me, or is for a book group: ie I haven’t chosen it myself because it fits into my current reading schedule.

I don’t like giving up on a book: partly I’ve already invested a certain amount of time, and so feel I should finish what I started, and partly through an (admittedly naive) belief that if something has reached print, then someone has deemed it worth reading. I often read something, and at the end realise I didn’t like or enjoy it; I don’t mind that as my training in and studies of literature have enabled me to read critically and evaluate.

Moving on to the book in question this time, All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. This was someone’s choice for our book group. I was a tad dubious before beginning, but duty called. And before I got to page 100, I’d asked myself a couple of times, “Can I really be bothered?” The theme of the story is potentially interesting enough, two sisters, one of whom is seriously depressed and suicidal and the other’s attempts to help/save the sister she loves.

But it just didn’t work for me. I realised after a while it was monotonous: there was no change or variation in the tone of the narrative at all. It just went on, page after page, in the same fashion. Nor was there any variation in pace: the whole thing plodded along. No buildup of tension, then climax, then slowing down for a while, or shifting the narrative in another direction. And then I realised that it was pretty much entirely narrated in the present tense, which to me is a very lazy way of writing, extremely common nowadays, and one which primary school children were encouraged to move on from, or at least vary somewhat, in their early attempts at story.

Now someone might argue that there were deliberate authorial choices behind decisions to write in this manner. To me, however, it smacks of laziness of the kind that a decent editor should have addressed. Some readers might feel fine with such writing, some may never have remarked on it at all. I felt it was shoddy goods, quite honestly.

The sisters came from a Mennonite community in Canada. This background in itself might have added interest to the story and some insight into the characters, but it felt like just a wee bit of exotica thrown in without much of a thought. What finally ended my reading was realising that I didn’t actually give the proverbial monkey’s about any of the characters or what happened to any of them. Again, this may seem a little harsh given the serious subject-matter of the plot, but neither the characters nor their problems were presented in a convincing manner, to this reader at least. We are told one sister is depressed and suicidal, but I never encountered any real insight into these conditions.

I’m cross, really: misled by a book which I had hoped might be worthwhile, and wondering once again about the nature of modern mass-market fiction, especially that written in English: is there anything worth reading out there? British and American novels – says he, generalising wildly – disappeared up its own fundament long ago; interesting and thought-provoking writing is coming from other parts of the world. I’ve had enough of cheap eyeball candy.

Rant over.

On collective amnesia

May 5, 2022

I haven’t posted much lately because I haven’t been reading much. Escaping the current dire state of the world seems to elude me.

I realise, as I get older, that not everyone remembers as much or as far back as I do; it’s like that strange moment when you eventually realise that policemen are now younger than you, and it didn’t use to be like that. You have to be approaching seventy to have any memory of the Cuban missile crisis. Apart from Biden, no current world leaders hit that.

Back then, NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced each other; two hostile alliances. Now NATO faces Russia alone. Back then, the two alliances faced each other in Europe; there was a buffer of “friendly” states between Russia and the West. Now there isn’t. NATO has always had its missiles in the Russian back yard; the closest Russian missiles get to the US back yard is …. Alaska.

In 1961, world leaders were rather wiser than now, I think; they all knew what the horrors of the world war that had ended less than twenty years previously had been. Today all that is history, rather than memory, for our leaders. And I am horrified by their approach. Correct me if I’m wrong, but EU leaders seem mostly to be being calm and measured, even if they’re getting nowhere. Biden is past it, to be honest: should he have a driving licence at his age, let alone leadership of the “free” world? His public messaging is all over the place.

Britain continues to be a joke. Our PM gives away military secrets during a TV interview. His ministers say outrageous things about Putin publicly; they’re entitled to say what they like in private, but name-calling, doubting the man’s sanity, calling for him to be tried for war crimes when we aren’t at war with the Russians (yet) is barking. I wouldn’t trust the cabinet to run a ‘win a goldfish’ game at a funfair.

Putin, whose actions are evil, does look like a physically ill man. Some call his sanity into account: we don’t actually have access to information to verify that. But if that is the case, then threats and abuse are surely more likely to trigger a more outrageous and over the top response: we should be more measured in our response, without being any less determined.

Meanwhile, consider what is actually going on. Russia, left alone, might well have overwhelmed Ukraine in a matter of days. What they see is the West once again fighting a war by proxy: NATO is providing Ukraine with whatever it needs apart from troops on the ground and planes in the air. Ergo, to them, Russia is fighting NATO.

Here we are again with the Irishman’s reply to the lost traveller: “If I were you, I wouldn’t be starting from here.” Western triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union got us here; a more measured approach to Russian needs for security would have been a good start. We are in a serious mess now.

I have no suggestions for a way out. I do know that war is not good for humans and other living things. And, while Putin threatens rapid, fiery destruction, let us not lose sight of the fact that American capitalism is busy, quietly boiling the frog: big business is burning up the planet in the quest for profit, and social media is constantly stirring the cauldron of hatred. Putin has a hell of a lot to answer for; our side does not have clean hands.

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