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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Friday, April 06, 2012

Peter Craven on Easter ... and "our Christian cultural bedrock"

Peter Craven is all over the place with this piece. At one stage he starts to put an argument that, on balance, Christianity was good for the world, but then he decides not to press it.

For the record, I don't know whether Christianity was good for the world on balance or not. There are too many imponderables as to how history might have gone in the absence of Christianity. No one knows the answer to that.

To ask a slightly different question, was it an improvement on what went before? In Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, I say what I think is the only sensible thing:
All things considered, the moral ethos of Christianity may or may not have been an improvement on what went before. This is a large and controversial question, and involves difficult value judgments that are far beyond the scope of this book. Classical Roman civilization had its own dark side, which the pagan cults did little or nothing to oppose. From a Christian viewpoint, the cults were implicated in such abhorrent practices as gladiatorial combat, crucifixion of rebels and criminals, and neglect of the poor and diseased.

But whatever can be said in Christianity's favor, its obvious downside was its tendency to intolerance, demonization, persecution, and suppression.

I own a copy of the Geoffrey Blainey book that Craven refers to - as a matter of fact it was a Christmas gift from a friend. I haven't read it yet, mainly because it is a long and daunting volume that needs some time set aside. But I'll do so, and I'm looking forward to it. But even if it could be argued plausibly that the world, considered over historical time, has been a better place on balance because of Christianity, it would by no means follow that Christian morality (or some version of it) has been an unalloyed good, or that it is our best option now.

In any event, as I said, Craven does not press this point. So what is his real argument?

If he simply means that the Easter narrative is culturally important, and that it is meaningful to us as a work of fiction, open to secular interpretations, then I'm fine with it. You could, of course, say the same about the Iliad, or the works of William Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, or J.R.R. Tolkien. Or perhaps - or perhaps especially - the story of the trial and execution of Socrates (where we don't really know quite what happened).

But who is supposed to be denying any of this? I doubt that Richard Dawkins, who has often described himself as a cultural Anglican, would do so. Why take the opportunity for yet another banal complaint about Dawkins, especially when it's not based on his actual position?

Yes, of course the Easter narrative is of cultural importance. Of course it is something that the next generation of Australians should be taught about (but in an academic and critical way, not in a devotional and dogmatic way).

Nothing follows about the narrative actually being true, notwithstanding whatever subjective intuitions Craven is reporting, rather cryptically, near the end of his ruminations.

And nothing follows about the people who place it at the centre of their religious beliefs and rituals possessing any moral authority to tell the rest of us how to live our lives. Indeed, we can be culturally appreciative of the Easter narrative while also being critical of some of the values that it seems to embody - values of suffering, submission, piety, etc. Something similar applies to the Iliad, with its seductive, but also repellent, glorification of military glory and its extreme (by our standards) valorisation of warriors and their martial valour. And of course all these narratives can be read in numerous ways, sometimes even without too much contrivance - thus, the Iliad may be taken as revealing the horrible outcomes when we overvalue military glory and the valour of warriors.

All of this could be discussed and explored in, say, a course on mythic narratives. Meanwhile, perhaps we could appreciate the Easter narrative (or the various inconsistent versions of it in the gospels) somewhat more if it were treated simply as part of our cultural heritage, not as the word of God. An important part of our heritage, yes - much like the Iliad and the story of the trial/execution of Socrates - but only one part.

As for Easter itself, for Australians this has become a kind of neo-pagan festival in which we spend time with our family, swap chocolates, and maybe go on a holiday with the kids (or just hang out for a few days with fewer concerns than usual). At the back of it, I suppose, is a celebration of fertility and life; though if so, even this is very far back in most people's minds in contemporary Australian circumstances.

I have no objection at all to cultural festivals such as Easter and Christmas, and I don't mind that they have mixed origins in pagan practice and Christian tradition. That reflects our history. But it doesn't mean that we need accord implausible ideas (resurrections, substitutionary atonements) any credence. And nor need we accord moral authority to individuals who patently lack it, such as bishops and priests.



Hi Russell,

Nice piece--and it was nice meeting you in Orlando last month. You and Dan Dennett and I should go sailing some time.

Jerry H. Jeffery

drdave said...

Russell, please thank the Aussies and NZ folk for the lamb we consume during this holiday. I use lamb fairly frequently during the year, as I am the chief cook. Cheers.

ColinGavaghan said...

My only problem with Australasian Easter is trying to get my head around a festival of rebirth and renewal, just as the nights are getting darker and the leaves falling. What's that all about?

Russell Blackford said...

Maybe we should shift it until September. Or maybe the chocolates symbolise the coming months of hiding away from the world to have sex ... if you're so lucky.

Hi, Jerry, yes - I remember that conversation with Dan!

Anonymous said...

Christianity is 'just part of the mix' in the Western cultural tradition, so I'd agree, it's probably impossible to determine what role it played in the development of contemporary Western civilisation.

Christians usually minimise the significant influence of Classical civilisation and various 'barbarian' cultures on modern society.

We in the West, escaped from the long night of theocracy and started the journey towards the Enlightenment, thanks to a rather fanatical Christian called Marin Luther.