Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Mystery dies when we don’t see ourselves as part of eternity
In the north wall of Durham Cathedral, just above a lovely 12th century arcade of interlocking sandstone arches, is one of the ugliest stained-glass windows you will ever see. It is called “The Daily Bread” and when you get close – which you can’t, except in the guidebooks – you see that it’s a plan-view of the Last Supper.
Nice idea. But from peasant’s-eye all you see is a disgusting mass of colours that are too bright, too big and too many; leery purple, turquoise and red, with blotches of throw-up yellow, like the disembowelling of a Dalek.
The window is obviously modern. You know this from its bland ecumenical name, chosen to suggest some pseudo-food chainstore. (No surprise that the window was donated by Marks and Spencer to mark not the church’s centenary but the brand’s. Nor that it dates from 1984, when Mrs Thatcher’s determined restoration of the merchants to the temple was in full thrust).
But even without its provenance, you’re in no doubt that the excrescent window is modern. Ancient technologies did not allow colours or methods so crude. Moreover, who these days would spend months constructing an artwork of 10,000 pieces, or years – decades, even – acquiring the skill?
For in big, fat, rich modernity, as you know, time is money. We may live twice as long as those mediaevals, but our time cannot be wasted on the merely beautiful or the merely worshipful. This is because we no longer see ourselves as part of eternity but simply as the poor, bare, forked animals that Darwinian modernism bequeathed us. Our allotted span is all we have, so it matters.
Yet even bare and forked, even heathen and unwashed, I love Easter. Everyone’s religious at Easter, right? So while the kids do X-treme chocolate, I do X-treme church, trawling the neighbourhood for that sweet, melt-in-the-mouth venue-liturgy mix that I crave.
It’s easy in Florence or somewhere, where you can have dark, crumbling, candle-smoked, incense-spiced, Latin-Massed church by the pound. But my search here, already disappointed in the overlit, excessively intelligible, Good News and Vatican II-ruined services of the standard denominations, has taken in Greek Orthodox, Assyrian Orthodox, Maronite, Maori-Uniting and Coptic. (I was even prepared to go to Canberra, which has one of the country’s finest, and oldest, churches until revolting children stopped me.)
But even those ornate and exotic palaces with their icons, their cantors and head-dressed, bearded priests have far too many lumens for my taste, making it all too civic; too much self, not enough Other. Not enough – for want of a better word – God.
What I love about Easter is its bizarre blend of the pagan and the pious, the way it melds the druidic celebration of seasonal rebirth with the death and life of the Messiah, having Jesus himself bounce back like a big, toothy Easter bunny.
This is not heresy. The myths are at root identical; the springing of life out of death. Christianity just deepened this with the Old Testament idea of blood sacrifice, the slaughter of the lamb in propitiation of the gods; and heightened it with the blindingly new idea of empathy, or love thy neighbour.
These two ideas – sacrifice (as self betterment) and empathy – are humanity’s two drivers, competition and co-operation. I reckon we have them in roughly equal parts, and their blending has been our species’ secret of success.
Jesus’s genius was to merge the two in a single act, reversing the traditional sacrifice of other for the self, to give sacrifice of self for other.
This was truly inspired. This muscular balance of selfishness and selflessness – the competition-drive giving capitalism, the empathy drive, democracy, and each holding the other in check – is why avowedly Christian societies have been, so far, so fruitful. But when, as now, the balance is upset, things get truly out of whack.
Darwin is often seen as Adam Smith’s scientific descendant, and the two, together, as joint progenitors of the reductive monetarism that gave us Reagan, Thatcher, that stained-glass window and the financial crisis. But Smith was principally a moral philosopher who themed his work around the crucial balancing of self-interest by what he called “fellow-feeling,” or concern for the public good.
It is rather Darwin who, in constantly stressing competition as the fundamental condition of nature but never mentioning empathy or co-operation – and so filtering out half of Smith’s thesis – is more truly our forebear. And although Darwin had no intention of killing Christianity, that has been his effect.
John Quiggin’s book Zombie Economics argues that our devotion to the free-market panacea is a zombie idea that, while clearly dead, still walks among us. But this is just one zombie idea of many. Darwin’s perceived reduction of humanity to primate allowed scientism’s zombie triplets – materialism, egalitarianism, populism – to suck the juice from our lives.
Materialism is not just a metaphysical view, letting us frame emotion, thought, personality and even spirituality in strictly biochemical terms. More destructively still, it has led us into a mindset where only measurable values are deemed to exist, to wit, votes and money – the units of democracy and capitalism, respectively. Egalitarianism began as a product of empathy – do unto others, end slavery, one person one vote, so on. Good stuff. But with human hubris as its emollient, egalitarianism has come to justify the refusal of excellence on the grounds of elitism and the self-absorption that modern Western life enables and demands.
Populism, firmly wedded to each, has sent our culture into a frantic race to the bottom. Hence the idea that people like Donald Trump or Mike Huckabee, who called for Julian Assange to be assassinated, could be taken for serious candidates to lead the “free world”.
Other dead ideas walking include: that climate change is something we can vote in or out of existence, that a “retail-led recovery” is anything other than rampant short-termism, that sprawl is sustainable because we like it, that globalisation is an unmitigated good and that “business as usual” is even an option.
As to church, it makes me weep that it must court popularity by stripping itself of all mystery, depth and texture, installing mammoth plasma-screens in the nave, salesmen in the pulpit and ATMs in the foyer just to get bums on misericords, as yet another casualty of the flat-out zombie race to the bottom.
At this rate it may soon be last supper time for us all. But what’s worse, if we’re reducible to primates, is how hard it is to care.
ILLUSTRATION: EDD ARAGON