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Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Yesterday I took my children to Rickett’s Point Marine Sanctuary in Port Phillip Bay and the day before we rambled through the Australian Garden at Cranbourne Royal Botanical Gardens. It is joyful to explore new places with children, particularly your own, and watch them absorbing the wonders of the world. I am reminded of comments by the philosopher Serres:

The world is divine and full of divine things. This sea, this plain, this river, the ice floe, the tree, light and life. I know it, I see it, I feel it, I am illuminated by it, burning… I find happiness in the divinity of things themselves; they push me toward pantheism.

I wonder for how long my children will experience life as joyful: the boundless upsurge of experience. At what point do they/we become weighed down with the exigencies of life? I already see my six your old becoming encumbered with the demands of education. An inevitable downward spiral from an unfettered connection with the divinity of life towards an overladen consciousness that is barred from such direct experience. There are times when I fall into thinking I should be helping my children get ahead of the pack at this early age by schooling them in a musical instrument, problem solving or some other endeavour. And then I think, why? Why these pressures we formulate for ourselves?

ricketts

A constructed creek and cliff face at Australian Garden in which my children splashed

Can joy generate knowledge, or is it simply an experience that temporarily surges? What of the Aboriginal people’s of the world, now almost completely colonised, did their knowledge surface thorough joy?  Profound knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants and the mythological depths of dreams: I doubt the product of rational processes, but the surging wisdoms of peoples inseparable from the world’s boundless experiential potentials. I’m sure the same ecstasy poured through the veins of our scientists as they attempted to understand the world. But by understanding they crystallised human endeavour in rational forms in which we are now trapped, the immediacy of experiential joy now out of reach. But not so our children, my children, whom seem able to effortlessly dip their hands into the divine pool of the world.

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The rock pools at Rickett’s Point are full of life

And so any chance I have with my children, we explore! New places, natural places, constructed spaces – crawl inside, get dirty, jump in fright, breath in the scents. Is this the best education, the best start? An education in joy! There is plenty of time for them to become weighed down by civilisation – the demands of education, work, travel, family, politics. And the best part is they remind me to still my own frenetic mind into a quiet certainty, losing myself in the waves, the rolling hills, the clouds; the knowledge that the act of existing is the most wonderful, improbable and fantastic experience of all.

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Civilisation is an excessive protrusion from the ground of imagination that appears as advancement and progress. Modernity forms the peak of this protrusion pushing ever outwards, from the inside; so called post-modernity observes from the outside, critiquing the shape and source of the protrusion.

The sun is an appropriate simile for the ground of imagination – a flux of infinite potential, the source of imaginative power from which realities emerge. This ground of imagination suggests that any reality, or truth, is merely one of an infinite number of possibilities. Civilisation(s) can be imagined as a solar flare extending from the sun, rising from the imagiantive flux, appearing as a linearity; with a beginning and an end, a sense of progress as the linearity protrudes ever onwards, and a sense of death as the protrusion falls back, inwards, reabsorbed into the imaginative ground.

solar flare

The linearity of the solar flare is suggestive of the progress of civilisation emerging from the ground of imagination

Modernity, as Deleuze and Guatarri suggested, has an independent dimension capable of spreading everywhere. No individual can escape its grasp. For example, while we (hopefully) feel positive and supportive of the Arab women who fight for equality and freedom, and simultaneously deplore Monsanto’s attempted owernship of agricultural plants, these seemingly disjointed events are related processes: the homogenisation of life experience. Modernity strives for homogeneity, where everyone is treated the same (human rights), everyone eats the same (standardised food stuffs) etc. As such homgenisation is the hand-maiden of progress: a teleology of self-same perfection. There is no better parody of this than the film Starship Troopers in which a future humanity is represented as an internationally homogenised mass of state servient soldiers with undifferentiated social norms.

The question has been asked, are we approaching, or even reached, the end of history? Not in the Fukuyama (victory of Capitalism) or Mayan (victory of nutters) sense(!), but in the sense of the grand narrative of the Enlightenment coming to an end, and the unravelling of assumptions of the importance of human centered theories (science and reason): the solar flare falling back in on itself, to be reabsorbed into the ground of imagination. Unless progress is so successful that a dystopia arises, where humans are replaced by machines, in a network of relations of perfect symmetry where change is unneccesary and any notions of a human soul/spirit have been eradicated, separating forever life from the ground of imagination from which changes and transformations emerge. In this case the tip of the solar flare departs like a pod,  separating from the sun, and existing in stasis; a dim and eternal glow.

The collapse of the solar flare, unless one holds on to the ideals of humanism in some forlorn attempt at hope, is inevitable. The rush to destruction is ever accelerating with hyper consumption peaking and the effects of climate change inevitable. But the ground of imagination from which human action draws its power is inextinguishable – potential can’t be destroyed, only realised. It is tempting to think that pre-modern indigenous knowledge existed (and exists) within the ground of imagination, eschewing the temptation for linearity and choosing to understand existence as flux (where dreamings shape the world, not geometry) . As for meditations upon our own receeding civilisation (which must first complete the task of absorbing the world into its domain), it is not a question of pessimism but of excitment for the possiblities of newness which will begin to emerge in the homogeneity of the present. As such the search for newness becomes fruitful, even optimistic.

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A meaningful life, is to create. Simple. Nietzsche suggested something similar when he wrote that the world was a dream of the Gods, and the highest act of human nature is to mimic the Gods by dreaming new world’s ourselves. So what is it to create? This is of course a personal question. It is not just an artist that creates, anybody who makes something creates. The life of children and 9-5 work is a template for creating in so far as the basics can be met – “I have created children, I create something of use everyday”. (Though Nietzsche would be horrified by the correlating of the quotidian with the creative!). To be creative is to bring something new into existence – physical or mental.

The soporific of the everyday is dangerous as it can seem like one is creating and yet one is repeating the same action. Recognition of this (conscious or otherwise) leads to depression, glumness . I need look no further than the faces of peak hour traffic to know this. Equally those that escape work and are free to do nothing are equally depressed and glum. I think of the tattslotto winners! So it is the act of creating that keeps the self buoyant and alive. Why? Existence, all of it, all ways, is in the act of creating. It is as if all existence strives to create the new. Death is only a necessity to make way for the new. Death is the glorious departure of a manifestation of newness. Death is a gracious departure to make room for the new. To create the new – seems to be a fixture of existence. So if existence is the newness of the Gods’ dreamings, then we, the product of their dreams, create, to align our actions with the meaning of our own creation.

Aligning creation with success – now there’s a problem. A problem with humanism, the great philosophical charade in which God is put to death and replaced with a new God – the God of humanism: we are now God! Jealous little Gods who scramble over one another to be the greatest God – the God who creates best, loudest, most audaciously, the most narcissistic. So are we witnessing the death of humanism (hopefully not humanity!). What will it be replaced with? Hopefully something other than ourselves, against which we can measure ourselves. To measure ourselves against ourselves is to turn in on our selves, to destroy one another as we compare our selves to one another – that we are truly the new: my child is cleverer than yours, my artwork is more compelling than yours, my body is sexier than yours..! At least when there were Gods, we could compare ourselves to something outside ourselves.

Escaping success, means escaping comparison with the other human. To instead compare ones creative output with some other drive or destination, or hope, or non-human otherness. How to reach this state? Intangible as it is… I keep creating. And comparing myself to others: can’t help it, still a humanist, hoping for the death of humanism, to make way for the new… the other.

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The wild paths of nature.

The wild paths of nature?

The love of Nature in industralised countries is, looked at historically, a bizarre phenomena. We spent centuries (even millenia) being frightened of nature, wary of it and struggling within it to survive. It was only when we had dominated it, repressed it, that we suddenly came to develop a love affair with it. Once we were safely divorced from nature, and her powers had been tamed to such an extent that we could control our own destiny, did we come to love the concept of ‘nature’.We have been locking tracts of nature up into small parcels called parks dominated by human law (fences, signs, boundaries a.k.a. environmental management) for the last 150 years, about the point that the industrial revolution had succeeded in divorcing us from our natural surrounds and encapsulating us in the mechanical life of the machine.

We use nature for two purposes. Firstly, recreation. For some people this means tearing up the ground with 4WD or deafening birds with the roars of motorbikes or disturbing possums with the riotous thump of a rave party. At the other pole it means days of walking alone absorbing the beauty and stillness of wondrous sites. But most people would not enter a park when it has, for example, been raining. I remember a friend who was going walking in the You-Yangs near Melbourne. It was raining and he received a phone call from the organiser to say the walk was canceled. It caused me to think that the group was going for a walk in a park, not ‘nature’, and only when the weather was right. This is a perfect example of the way we have controlled our relationship with nature. It is only in that control that we become comfortable enough to enter it. In effect we have created parks for our pleasure. The wildness of nature is destroyed or at least pushed away to a safe distance.

The other relationship people have with nature is reverential. It has become a kind of religion; ‘she’ is worshiped. Hordes of Green voters plunge through national parks for days on end and come out the other end with a glow you never see in an urban dweller. There is no doubting the power nature has to restore and regenerate those willing to tackle her distances. However this is still a park mentality. We follow paths erected by environmental managers and are safe in the knowledge that several helicopters followed by the media will come to our rescue should any danger befall us. How many people would actually disappear into nature? In the movie ‘Into the Wild‘, based on a true story, we see a man face the reality of living in nature when he truly leaves civilisation behind him. Another rare story is that of the ‘Squatters Arms‘. A couple traveling around Australia on a yacht discovered an isolated part of the bush in the Kimberlys and decided to stay put. They battle with typhoons and hordes of snakes and isolation (and they love it), but these experiences are truly natural, unlike rambling down carved out paths, ready to run back  to the car at the first hint of rain.

In his book ‘The Tuning of the World’, Murray Schafer describes a soundscape survey (conducted in the seventies) where people around the world were asked to respond to different sounds. Here is what he had to say:

As people move away from open-air living into city environments, their attitudes toward natural sounds become benign. Compare Canada, New Zealand and Jamaica. In the two former countries, the sounds of animals were scarcely ever found to be displeasing. But every one of the Jamaicans interviewed disliked one or more animals or birds – particularly at night.

This doesn’t require much explanation. It is suggestive that the further we are from nature the more we romanticise it. Jamaica is now a developed country. I wonder what the survey results would be now?

I love absorbing the power of ‘nature’ and I think it is important lock up tracts of land so other animals have the space to survive and evolve. It is people’s relationship to nature I find fascinating. How can we come to worship something we spent so long escaping from? Or is that we didn’t escape, but were just seduced by a lifestyle that took as further away from the source of our existence? Is our ideation of nature a reflection of our desire to return to it? There are some cultures that remain intact with their natural lifestyles, notably in the Amazon and PNG, but how long can they resist the prying fingers of the Western machine and the allure of the bright lights of civilisation? We had hundreds of years to have our link with nature severed while we got used to locking her wildness away in manageable parks. But true ‘nature’ dwellers who are thrust out of their lives in the modern world have insurmountable challenges to face.

What if civilisation should one day fall, and our buildings crumble and nature slowly swallows our cities? We would be back in nature. Struggling to survive, eking out an existence. There would be little time to walk along paths and gasp at natures beauty then. What would our relationship with nature be like in this scenario?

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Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Is it wrong to be religious? Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would have us believe so. In fact I would say they are anti-religious extremists – and I am positive they would proudly agree with this statement. Its one thing to hear the religious extremists of Christianity and Islam talk firebrand language about the evil of non-believers, but to hear intelligent self-proclaimed atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens wax lyrical about the evils of religion is hard to bear. One would think that such men of science and intellect would know better than to further entrench divisions in an already fractured society. They are effectively shutting down any dialouge between those who believe in religion and those who do not. They are spreading a hatred amongst the population towards those that they accuse of spreading hatred. It is depressing, it is small minded.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Dawkins and Hitchens tell us that religion is the source of all woe in the world. That it is at the heart of pogroms against the Jews, homophobia, misogyny and general intolerance. Both essentially believe that all religion should be eradicated and replaced with a kind of international humanism that will function on a rational and scientific basis. There is merit to this argument. There is no doubt that when religious extremists get into power terrible things can happen. The Taliban in Afghanistan were/are a terrifying example of this. George Bush, a devout Christian, brought the world to a chaotic and war-torn position with his religious mania. But there have also been plenty of non-religious leaders who ruled with cruelty. Stalin was an atheist and he killed 60 million people in his Gulags. Pol Pot was also an atheist and his regime murdered 2 million Cambodians. Perhaps the point is not that religion creates cruelty and terror, but rather the possession of power leads to cruelty and terror.

In the West the State (political-economic system) is considered to be free of the influence of the church and is run on transparent democratic values. Yet the State is responsible for the incarceration of thousands in its cruel prison system. The State controls the military which is responsible for the killing of unknown numbers of people – think Iraq and Afghanistan. Anti-terror laws in Australia allow police to raid anybody’s house without permission, a law that spreads fear and anxiety through the population. All these activities are not religiously motivated –  they are sanctioned by the State. My point is that pointing the finger at religion as the only source of cruelty  is an extremist view that ignores the wider picture. Wouldn’t it be more worthy to ask what it is about human nature that causes such acts of cruelty and hatred in the first place?

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Religion has created men and women of peace. Ghandi was a Hindu. Martin Luther King was a Christian. The Dalai Lama is Buddhist. These men have inspired millions, atheist and non-atheist alike. Nelson Mandela is Christian and he led South Africa into the modern world, with a constitution free of religious interference that Dawkins and Hitchens would approve of. Yet here is what Mandela has to say about religion:

Religion is one of the most important forces in the world. Whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Hindu, religion is a great force, and it can help one have command of one’s own morality, one’s own behavior, and one’s own attitude.

When I was young I read a book by Christopher Hitchens called Letters to a Young Contrarian. It was a book written for young radicals, giving them the courage to stand against popular opinion and to speak against what they did not believe in. Hitchens is no hypocrite when it comes to this matter. He is probably the most well-known contrarian on the planet. But his contrarian views have caused him to contradict himself. Hitchens was unusual in that he was one of the few people from the Left side of politics who supported Bush’s war on terrorism, including the bombing of Sudan. Hitchens supported it for the lofty idea that it was a war defending the humanist ideals of Western civilisation against the dark-age beliefs of Muslim extremists. But of course by giving his support to Bush he covertly gave support to religious extremism, because that was the basis of Bush’s war on terror. He went to war with Iraq because God told him to. How can Hitchens justify this? I’m sure he can easily, he is a clever fellow. But he lost me at this point- his views have become farcical. He also lost some powerful friends from the decision to support the war on terrorism, including Noam Chomsky.

Dawkins comes from a different perspective. He thinks we should all reject religion because science is the only truth. Science is a truth indeed. It has brought us many positive developments, especially knowledge. But it has also brought as the atom bomb, polluting machines, chemicals, refined weapons etc. And science in the past was used to justify Europeans superiority over other cultures which led to genocides around the world. Ironically it was religious missionaries who saved some indigenous cultures from complete annihilation (though arguably, they completed the process culturally by forcing them to convert to Christianity). Even today science has a limited sphere of viewing – it can only answer so many questions. This has already been resolved by the deconstruction of the Western mind by post-modernists such as Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida who (perhaps unintentionally) left the door open to other ways of perceiving and understanding the world including mysticism, shamanism and dare I say it religion. Imperialistic statements that place one world-view above others are nothing but incendiary. Can Dawkins not see that his comments could lead to as much anger, resentment and hatred as any religious leader could invoke?

Of the people in my life, some are atheist and some are religious. And they are all good people. While they don’t agree on everything, they are capable of getting along with one another and accepting that each other has different beliefs. Such people are likely to become uncomfortable with one another and may even become enemies with the rise of vociferous voices like Hitchens and Dawkins who, like any other extremists or propagandists, spread division amongst the population. Religion has the capacity to deal with questions that Science cannot answer as science is limited to the physical domain; however, in the 20th Century science broke beyond the observable into the realm of the mystical. There are plenty of examples of this. Read this quote from physicist Brian Swimme, a scientist who is attempting to bridge the gap between science and religion and offer the world something new, not just promote the same old divisions and hatreds:

While this perspective (quantum physics) is new within the traditions of science, from another point of view we are arriving at an understanding that was deeply appreciated during the classical religious period of humanity. Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart in the Middle Ages of Europe grasped intuitively that emptiness is the source of everything. This realization is echoed in the life and teaching of Buddha, who understood that all put-together things arise from emptiness and exist inseparably with emptiness.

Religion refuses to put humanity at the center of existence. In this way it gives its believers a realistic perspective of their own reality. That they are something small in something vast – a kind of awe and reverence arises from this understanding. Humanism while a worthy political aspiration can never offer the consolations and inner understandings of religion as it places humans at the center of existence which is essentially false. We need to see ourselves in relation to the vastness and mysteriousness of the universe in which we exist. That religion inspires nutters and murderers and intolerance is not necessarily the fault of religion. It is the fault of humanity. It is something in ourselves that we need to understand and overcome. Creating further divisions by dumping people who choose to believe in religion in the ‘bad person’ camp is just plain dumb. We should expect more from our intellectual and cultural (self-proclaimed) leaders. Yes Hitchens and Dawkins, I’m talking about you…

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