Posts Tagged ‘religion’

On literature and religion

May 27, 2018

I’ve written before about the connections I’ve found when thinking about literature and religion, and also about science fiction and religion (here and here, if not elsewhere!). Recently I found myself back with the theme…

It’s possible to see religion as something human beings have evolved or developed as a way of coming to terms with our own eventual mortality, a knowledge we have because of our powers of perception, reasoning and understanding, and a knowledge which might otherwise blight our existence. We are here, briefly, conscious of what goes on around us, we live, experience, remember things and cannot really understand it all coming to a stop, even though before we existed, everything was going on fine without us…

If there were no god, no heaven, no afterlife, then, nevertheless there are still impulses in us (some of us?) that take us away from the purely material plane onto one which has been called spiritual, acknowledging an aspect of how our minds work. I say some of us, because I know there are people who do not seem to be bothered by thoughts of this kind, or else deal with them in a different way from me, and appear to get on quite happily with their lives… the world is surely large enough for all of us. But some of us do experience a need or a drive to make sense of it all.

So for me, and others like me, religion is a way of addressing those spiritual impulses or leanings; for us there are very real issues that we engage with, that take us onto different levels of awareness or consciousness, that address our existential angst, I suppose.

Then I turned my thoughts to a novel I’ve always rated highly, for lots of different reasons: A for Andromeda, by Ivan Yefremov. It’s a Soviet utopia, set a thousand or so years in the future after the inevitable triumph of socialism has transformed the whole planet, and humans are turned towards the cosmos and other worlds. No religion of any kind is mentioned; clearly it has died out under conditions of actually existing socialism, though it is referred to as an aspect of humankind’s primitive past. Yefremov nevertheless allows his characters to be awed by the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and the natural beauty of the world, too, in ways which today we might call spiritual. But he is the only SF writer I know to have imagined the end of religion.

Olaf Stapledon‘s epic Last and First Men is different altogether. If humans cannot cope with the prospect of disappearance and individual annihilation, we are offered another picture, of our race evolving, mutating and moving to other planets in the solar system over geological time periods, during which we (?) become totally different species. And with a pang we realise that pretty early on in his imagined cycle, our particular humanity and its civilisations and achievements vanish, obliterated by the vastness of time and geological change, with absolutely no trace left behind…not just individual, but collective death.

Many less ambitious writers have written post-apocalyptic novels, and it’s a marvel that one of the few objects that usually survives the cataclysm that starts the novel is a copy of the Bible, so that humanity can safely ‘rediscover’ God, often in an even more warped version than many believers seem to find attractive today. John Wyndham‘s The Chrysalids is a good example: post-disaster mutants are an abomination in His sight and must be hunted down and destroyed. No change there then. But for me the saddest of all is Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, where, after a nuclear holocaust, monks are again the repositories of knowledge and learning, carefully salvaging the knowledge of our past; eventually, thanks to their efforts, ‘civilisation’ re-emerges after hundreds of years, only to travel down exactly the same pathway to another nuclear war…

I’m not really sure where this has led me, sceptical about much religion and the miseries it has caused (though I don’t only blame religion for human misery) and yet, from my own upbringing inevitably drawn to the spiritual that I find in myself and others, and all around me. None of this balances the knowledge that I only have a tiny amount of time to enjoy what our world offers.

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On philosophy

February 7, 2016

When I was a language assistant in France, many years ago, I borrowed a school philosophy textbook and read it. It was an eye-opener, a revelation: sixth-formers were expected to follow a basic outline course in philosophy! The book was a great help with the remainder of my university studies, and I still occasionally go back to the notes I made from it, as a basic starting-point. Why didn’t we get to do this in England?

I’ve never made any systematic study of philosophy; some aspects still give me a headache when I try to think about them. And yet it’s fascinating stuff, and for me it has always, inevitably been linked with a spiritual journey, and has therefore overlapped with a more than passing interest in theology; aspects of theology are also capable of making my brain hurt…

As humans, we are uniquely conscious of our eventual and inevitable mortality; the question of how to face this bravely, with awareness, is surely the key to much of our species’ thinking through the ages. How do we seek to live well, to feel satisfied and even contented in what we do and achieve in our limited allocation of mortal time? How do we accept our approaching end? What is there to think and believe about the nature of the world, the universe and its purpose – if there is one?

My limited acquaintance with various thinkers hasn’t produced any magic answers. The wisdom of different cultures has varied through time: the Greeks and Romans seem to have sought to accept and become resigned to our lot; the Chinese look at how to live a good and virtuous life (which I find helpful most of the time). Christianity and Islam, being more religious than merely philosophical belief systems, urge followers to think of the possible hereafter and its rewards or punishments, and have ended up creating temporal systems with enormous amounts of power over both followers and non-followers. And more recently, as our scientific knowledge has advanced by leaps and bounds (though perhaps further in the minds of non-scientists than with scientists themselves) has emerged a tendency to shrink God and the religious or spiritual, or even to seek to eliminate them completely; science becomes the god instead… and yet, such an approach has just as many limitations as what it seeks to replace, if not more, as well as apparently permitting the pillaging of the planet along the way.

Having long had a very logical and rational streak in me, I have striven to understand a solely material world and failed: there is, for me a higher plane which for need of a better word I call spiritual; there are higher things and more complex questions than our limited intellects can fathom.

Philosophy also posits the possibility of perfectibility, which brings us back to the utopian yearnings I wrote of a few days ago. There is a very powerful drive to individual fulfilment, which is inevitably at cross-purposes with our social nature which seeks to co-operate with our fellow-creatures for our greater good. It appears to me that sometimes Western philosophy is very limited in its outlook, in the sense that it originates from, and reflects that currently very powerful part of the world that calls the shots for everyone on the planet; the individualist strand is justified (justifies itself) and achieves a hegemonic position, as supposedly leading to the greatest wealth and profit, determining the political, social and economic lives of everyone. Where that leaves me is – are we asking ourselves the right questions?

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