Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Saving the AppearancesI read this book with a Tolkien and the Inklings discussion group I’m part of here in Korea. Owen Barfield was one of the Inklings – the Oxford University literary group that included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. Barfield’s thoughts on semantics and nature apparently influenced his more famous fellows; he also helped develop theosophy and translated Rudolf Steiner. He died relatively recently – 1997 – at the grand old age of 99.

Saving the Appearances starts off pretty innocuously, talking about how perception and reality are necessarily two different things. Barfield uses the example of a rainbow, arguing that the light and the raindrops are not directly perceptible to an observer – they are ‘particles’ or ‘the unrepresented’. He says further that the rainbow doesn’t meaningfully exist without an observer. The emergent phenomenon of the rainbow is a representation – something that can only exist because of the unconscious effect of particles on an observing consciousness.

Anyone who’s ever heard of subatomic particles will immediately understand the logic of this argument. The building blocks of reality are whizzing specks of mostly empty probability and yet we perceive things as solid objects. I couldn’t help thinking that photographic equipment easily proves the existence of rainbow absent a seeing, thinking being (although, of course, someone still needs to look at the resulting photograph).

He goes on to say some interesting things about how the pre-scientific mind may have interacted cognitively with the world. Namely, that, instead of recognising objects, nature itself, as being other entities, it was, to use the cliché, ‘at one with’ nature and things, it saw them as being no different from itself; it was pantheistic. This relationship to the world Barfield names original participation.

From here leads the crux of the book. The rise of Judaeo-Christianity and of science has led humanity to lose all sense of this original participation. Instead of perceiving self and world to be two sides of the same thing, humanity has categorised natural phenomena as other, independent, real, objective. In Barfield’s terms, the representations we perceive have become idols, and we, idolators. The book’s subtitle is A Study in Idolatry.

Original participation is a way of perceiving the world that can never be regained. It would be easy to brand Barfield anti-scientific (and in some senses, he is), but he takes pains to commend much of what science has achieved and he regards the scientific mentality as an inevitable and necessary part of the evolution of human consciousness. The next stage, he argues, is final participation.

I think final participation is not sufficiently explained or explored, but, putting it as best I can, seems to be an imaginitive, creative engagement with phenomena. You might call it a spiritual connection to representations; you might call it a kind of internalised pathetic fallacy.

Towards the end of the book, there’s lots of stuff about Christianity. He appears to regard Jesus as some kind of singularity in history, a fulcrum between original and final participation. Yet the friend who introduced this book to me via the discussion group I mentioned, swears that Barfield is not a Christian, rather a pantheist. Saving the Appearances belies that assertion; he clearly regards Jesus’s life as a divine intervention in history.

Barfield also appears not to believe in prehistory – he continually states that the evolution of consciousness and the evolution of nature have gone hand in hand. The implication being that, in some sense, nature – phenomena – did not exist before there was a consciousness to appreciate it. To put it in a way that I find easier to understand, pre-history is an ineffable wave function that is impossible to collapse without direct observation. Everything we believe about pre-human eras is a model. It’s a useful thing to bear in mind, but the idea that pre-historic plants, animals and geological processes didn’t exist – or can’t be said to have existed – is pretty ludicrous. You might as well say that no one can ever be convicted of a crime unless someone actually observed the perpetrator commit the act.

Owen Barfield

I think there are two main flaws in Barfield’s thinking. One is his anthropocentrism; the previous paragraph highlights this. Nature doesn’t meaningfully exist without people to, effectively, create it by perceiving it. There is some metaphorical truth to this, but accepting this as literally true seems to be far too great a leap of faith away from a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

The idea of final participation, that the best way to see phenomena is creatively, empathetically, is also very self-centred. The corollary of this is that how you feel about something is more important than the way something actually is. It’s quite a dangerous tendency, in fact. The sun, for instance, may be regarded as a god-like, life-giving, friendly, golden orb in the sky – but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a vast, continuous, cancer-causing thermonuclear explosion.

This leads on to the second main flaw, which is that the book basically urges a synthesis of scientific and creative views of the world – without apparently realising that they’re two different things that exist for two different reasons. Science is a careful attempt to explore and explain nature as objectively as possible. Creativity – spirituality, if you like – is a form of therapy – it’s a way of helping humans feel content in and connected to the world; it’s a way of explaining the world in a way that makes sense to limited human mentality. Science cares nothing for human feelings (except as a field of study); nature cares nothing for its own comprehensibility.

Clearly, both ways of understanding the world are very important for humans; life would be meaningless without art – but it would be intolerable without science. The Darwinian in me wants to point out that science is just an incredibly successful way of regarding the world; spirituality didn’t discover penicillin or put a man on the moon or create the internet.

Saving the Appearances, then, is certainly an interesting book, but ultimately not convincing and not more than a footnote in the debate to which it contributes. Finally, this particular edition – from the Wesleyan University Press – alternates between two (albeit very similar) fonts at random points in the text. Bizarre.

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Talk about preaching to the converted. I didn’t read Christopher Hitchens’s polemic for any challenge to the way I think about religion, but rather to see what arguments against belief he might cite that I wasn’t aware of. I suppose I also bought the book because the writer had been in the news recently, having revealed that he had cancer. Then he died, and I decided to read the book.

Over its fifteen or twenty chapters, the book argues mordantly and resolutely that belief in god (and Hitchens consistently gives the word a lower case initial) is a force for evil in the world, a non-sensical idea invented by primitive peoples of the Middle East millennia ago, in the name of which atrocities have been and continue to be committed.

Each chapter is an essay arguing this point in a specific area. Subjects include the monstrousness of the Bible (a quotation show the biblical Moses ordering the slaughter of the wives and sons of defeated soldiers and taking the daughters for slaves); the fear and hatred of religion for sex and the condoning of the genital mutilation of babies; the insipid fear of modern western religions of condemning Islamic totalitarian fiats against free speech in non-Muslim countries (Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses is a friend of Hitchens’s); the speciousness of the argument that some of the worst atrocities of history have been committed in secular regimes (Hitchens argues that the fascists of Europe and Stalin’s Russia were not so much non-religious as quasi-religious; their deifications of their leaders, their extermination of all dissenting views, their use of regime-aggrandising propaganda and imagery were all features adapted from religion); and the human heroism and inspiration of Martin Luther King Jr, a preacher fighting against the biblically ordained separation of the races and supported by many communists and rationalists.

As a read, it’s pretty entertaining. Hitchens’s erudition is impressive and there are various anecdotes from his life as a reporter that show that he is widely travelled and has conversed with people of many faiths and backgrounds. He has a sense of humour that often takes the form of presenting some damning information then saying, ‘I’ll leave the reader to decide for himself …’, which is a tiny bit grating. The chapters are short enough to be read in a single sitting, but long enough to explore the issue in some depth and provide some interesting facts.

God Is Not Great concludes with a rallying call for a new Enlightenment based on science, reason and humanism. This chapter was necessary, but feels like an afterthought, as Hitchens doesn’t spend much time describing how this might be brought about – but that would be another book.

The tone struck throughout the volume under discussion is combative and it focuses on extremes of religiosity – primitive superstitions, Islamic terrorism, exploitation of the gullible, textual uncertainty (the seventy-two virgins promised in the Koran to martyrs may, apparently, really be sweet white raisins), barbarous abuses (like African bishops who tell their flocks that condoms cause AIDS) – that most intelligent, moderate believers in whatever religion would agree with Hitchens on. It doesn’t really address the simple faith in faith that many seem to possess. Thus, God Is Not Great may only serve to sway the opinions of those who are already non-religious.

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If you know nothing about this book – and I didn’t know much about it before reading it, other than the fact that it was famous – here’s the gist: published in 1960, A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo award for best novel in 1961. It’s a novel, but one made out of three short stories, each one set at different points in the future and each concerning the monks of a monastery in the desert of what is now the southern USA.

The first part, ‘Fiat Homo’, is set 600 years after a nuclear apocalypse has all but obliterated modern civilisation. What’s left resembles the Dark Ages of Europe, with only fragmentary knowledge remaining of the earlier time. The monastery is one founded by Beatus Leibowitz, a priest who, it turns out, was a Jewish scientist and who converted to Christianity in order to avoid the Simplification – the surge of destruction and murder of learning and the learned that followed the nuclear war. His monastery is a secret repository of knowledge. Helped by a mysterious pilgrim, the main character, a novice called Francis, discovers a fallout shelter (he believes that ‘Fallout’ was some kind of demon) containing holy relics – some notes and blueprints of once belonging to Leibowitz.

The second part, ‘Fiat Lux’, is set 600 years after that and sees the world having progressed somewhat, but not that much – the equivalent era of past history might be the Renaissance. Leibowitz has been made a saint and his fortified monastery (made from the ruins of the pre-Flame Deluge era) has become known as a repository of knowledge, attracting the attention of scholars and rulers.

The third part, ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’, is set a further 600 years after that and sees mankind having developed nuclear weapons and space-faring technology. With the prospect of a new all-out nuclear war looming, the monks of the monastery send a mission to one of Earth’s colonies in other solar systems in order to preserve the Apostolic succession should the Church be destroyed on Earth.

Each of these three parts started life as a short story, each published separately in magazines. Miller then rewrote them and glued them together to form this novel. This format works with mixed results. On the plus side, it gives you an idea of the grand procession of history and its depressingly cyclical nature. Each is linked not only by location, but by more subtle elements: each part of the book ends with violence, the magnitude of which escalates dramatically: the main character is murdered at the end of the first part, war sweeps across North America at the end of the second part and nuclear holocaust returns at the end of the final part; the abbot in the first part is called Arkos, while the abbot in the last part is called Zerchi, reminiscent of the Christian symbol of the Alpha and Omega and suggesting that the whole story represents everything important in human history.

On the other hand, these separate parts are separate narratives, meaning each one has to establish a new set of characters and a new plot, so the novel feels fractured and incomplete. They also diminish in quality: ‘Fiat Homo’, was the best – perhaps because it was so novel, but also because of its hapless hero; ‘Fiat Lux’ was also good and had an interesting interplay between the abbot and the scholar; ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’ was OK; the return of high technology meant it didn’t have the same appeal as the earlier parts and it had some less interesting discussions – of the rights and wrongs of euthanasia, for instance.

The book contained a number of mysterious elements that were never explained. The prime example being a Jewish hermit who apparently turns up in all three parts and who may be the Wandering Jew or may be Leibowitz himself. A poet with a glass eye, which he takes out and sets on an upturned cup to watch over a meal after he leaves, may have been more than just an eccentric character. And the mutant extra head of a simple tomato-selling woman coming alive when the bombs go off was apparently a miracle, although a very bizarre one.

The writing was pretty good throughout. The novel opens with Francis spotting a wiggling dot in the distance – which turns out to be the mysterious Jew. This was great image, but really one of the few instances of especial poetry. There’s a lot of subtle humour in the book (for instance, Francis makes an illuminated copy of one of Leibowitz’s blueprints; everyone is amazed at the beauty of his work, so he’s sent to New Rome with both as a gift for the Pope; unfortunately he’s ambushed by a bandit who takes the copy believing it to be the original, while the ratty old blueprint is assumed to be Francis’s cack-handed copy), and it moves along at a fair pace – although a lot of what happens is conversation (for instance, while war engulfs the land or the world, the reader never sees it directly, but only through the speech and thoughts of the characters in the monastery).

A Canticle for Leibowitz appears to be a novel with a message – that message being the importance of religion as a preserver of knowledge, culture, tradition and morality. That’s not a message that appeals to me, but the book is undeniably evocative of the monastery as a lonely island of civilisation in a sea of barbarism (as I say, the final segment of the book lacks this feeling). Many of the obvious science fictional elements feel pretty dated – Abbot Zerchi has a translating machine that fills a cabinet, and he tries to fix it by fiddling with its wiring – another reason why the last part is the lesser of this particular trinity. The novel is also full of Latin – which gives it a unique feel of authenticity, but is not so easy to understand.

On the whole, though, definitely an interesting, entertaining and worthwhile read.

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I started a new job at the beginning of October. I now work at a church kindergarten in Bundang. As an atheist and humanist this is not my ideal environment, but the opportunity came along just as I was finishing my previous job – as a part-time temporary replacement at a couple of hagwons in western Seoul – and, with no other offers on the horizon, I felt I couldn’t turn it down.

There are various pros and cons to this. Earlier this year, I collected the requisite documents for getting an E-2 visa, the 12-month visa for English teachers in Korea; this school, for some reason connected to its church status, cannot sponsor visas, so getting these documents was a waste of time. I’m being paid ₩2,200,000 (£1,230) along with a ₩400,000 (£224) housing allowance – in full, in cash – no tax or insurance deductions. The lack of insurance is a bit annoying, as I have ongoing medication for my colitis to buy.

The job is also a fair distance from where Habiba and I live – it’s in an area to the south of Seoul. It takes me about an hour each way, taking an express bus from Seoul (about 35 minutes) and a local bus in Bundang (about 5 minutes). If I’m lucky and both buses come along quickly I can get to work in under 50 minutes. Actually the trip back home takes longer due to traffic. A little while ago I fell asleep on the express bus and missed my stop, which made me about 50 minutes late.

I work nine to five. At nine-thirty I have ‘circle time’ with my ‘homeroom class’ (these terms seem very American to me, but it’s been a long time since I attended primary school, so I wouldn’t know for sure). In this half-hour period, the kids – I have nine ‘seven-year-olds’ (this is in scare quotes because Korea convention means that people’s age can be a year or two higher than the number of years since they were born) – the kids have a snack and I’m supposed to play them a piece of classical music, show them a work of art, talk to them about some bible topic (I’ve managed to avoid doing this one so far) or practise the sentence of the week.

Then there are five periods for classes throughout the day. I’m the science teacher and I teacher three or four classes a day. After the kindergarteners finish at 2:30 or so, I have to clean the classroom and, three days a week, teach an after-school class for a small number of elementary school children. There are five classes of kindergarteners, fourteen ‘five-year-olds’, two classes of six-year-olds (eight who studied here last year and 12 newer ones), and two classes of seven-year-olds (ten returnees and nine new kids (my class). There are three classes of older children, of two to six students each.

The first few weeks were pretty hectic, confusing and generally stressful, but now I seem to have settled into the job more. There was a period where we had lots of stuff to do all at the same time – preparing for a father’s night demonstration class, writing student reports, writing and carrying out tests of all the students, and writing and giving out the fortnightly homework.

The job was not made easier by the complexity of the timetable. There are two official timetables: one showing what subjects the five classes have each period every day, and one showing what topic each group has for each subject. I made my own timetables: one with a general overview that doesn’t need to be updated, one that I update every week to show me what to teach.

Additionally, the scheduling of each of my science classes – scheduling that I inherited from the previous teacher – seemed very random; some classes would have a certain topic, and others wouldn’t, or some would have it one week, and others would have it the following week. Once-monthly field trips, occasional mini-field trips and special occasions like the monthly birthday party and Halloween confuse things even further.

The November timetable that I made (more work that I had to complete during the busy week) is more regular – all the children do the same thing each week (at least, that’s my goal), although I need to adjust the topics for the different ages and abilities.

The school gets a monthly box of little science kits for the kids to do. They come in three varieties, ‘Step 1’, ‘Step 2’ and ‘Step 3’, but they’re all fairly similar in difficulty. They’re OK – some can be pretty good – extinguishing a little candle by creating carbon dioxide – or pretty mediocre – pressing a leaf in a piece of paper then pouring a solution on the paper to highlight starch or something (this one didn’t work very well, and, as the instructions are all in Korean, I didn’t really know what was going on).

The people I work with are generally pretty nice. I have a Korean co-teacher/assistant, whose job is to look after the homeroom class, rather than teach. She’s sweet-natured and reasonably competent. There’s a Canadian woman who started at the same as me, three Korean teachers (who teach actual subjects; one of whom – an opera singer in her spare time – also started along with me and the Canadian at the beginning of October), other assistants for the other classes, the principal; in addition, there are a couple of teachers who come in to do ballet and violin classes.

The religious aspect of the schooling is only evident in a couple of areas: the children are supposed to pray before their morning snack and before lunch (if I try to eat something before they’ve done this in the mornings they all say, ‘Teacher, why no play?’); there’s also a weekly mini-sermon that the teachers are supposed to attend, but we don’t have to do anything for it. Oh, and there’s also the fact that the kindergarten is in a huge church building that contains guest rooms, conference halls and I don’t know what.

So far things are going OK. Getting up at about 7:15 every morning has been a challenge, but it hasn’t been as bad as I feared. If I can get to bed at about 11 o’clock the night before, it’s not too bad – unfortunately, this is the real challenge, and one that I don’t do as well with.

As Habiba and I are planning to leave the country at the end of February, I’ll only be working there for five months in total – which I’m sure will be more than enough. With a following wind, I should be able to save enough money to pay for my share of our trip.

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Charlie Brooker on Radio 4’s So Wrong It’s Right.

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From Iain M Banks’s new novel, Surface Detail:

Almost every developing species had a creation myth buried somewhere in its past, even if by the time they’d become space-faring it was no more than a quaint and dusty irrelevance (though, granted, some were downright embarrassing). Talking utter drivel about thunderclouds having sex with the sun, lonely old sadists inventing something to amuse themselves with, a big fish spawning the stars, planets, moons and your own ever-so-special People – or whatever other nonsense had wandered into the most likely feverish mind of the enthusiast who had come up with the idea in the first place – at least showed you were interested in trying [to] provide an explanation for the world around you, and so was generally held to be a promising first step towards coming up with the belief system that provably worked and genuinely did produce miracles: reason, science and technology.

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