Richard Holloway (2004) Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning.

looking into the distance.

Richard Holloway’s Looking in the Distance, predates, his classic autobiographical account, Leaving Alexandria of leaving the Anglican church, where he was a Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity, which is quite a mouthful for an agnostic.  This is a short volume. A working out of ideas, a companion piece to Godless Morality, which I’ve not read and not likely to read. It reminds me a bit of the kind of chapbooks properly brought-up, young, women such as, Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland kept in Northanger Abbey. A personal note of things they should know and others should know that they know. If that sounds old fashioned then Richard Holloway is old fashioned and so am I. My reviews tend to remind me what I’ve read and what I thought of it. I’d forgotten, for example, I’ve read Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. My memory is appalling. I write something down and forget what I’ve written and what I thought of it. There’s a bit of showing off, as well, of course, but since nobody reads my reviews I’m quiet safe. The problem for me is time. If I continually review books and films I’m not writing fiction and that’s what I choose to write. But it’s not that simple. Reading is the engine of writing.

The polymath Umberto Eco tackled the problem of memory in his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The protagonist Yambo has had a stroke and he has to reconstruct himself from the books he’s read and the early films he saw. Memory is who we are, he is told.

Memory can be beautiful…Someone said it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura, it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.

Holloway makes the point that there comes a time when most of our life is behind us. Death is not on the horizon, but waiting to tap us on the shoulder. In the first part of the book he begins with Still Looking and quotes Vasili Rozanov:

All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.

Holloway deserves tremendous respect. Most folk make a ghetto of their lives. To turn aside from a role he has carefully crafted and grafted and  saying,  no, I no longer believe in religion, or god, is courageous. It sets an example. The example of Jesus is one that the moron’s moron, the American President, pays lip service to. In books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the counterweight to capitalism is nationalism and religion based on Calvinism and the gospel of Holy Willie’s Prayer.

O Thou, who in heaven must dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best thysel’.

Send ane to heaven and ten to hell,

A’for thy glory.

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore thee!

I bless and praise thy matchless might,

When thousands thou has left in night,

That I am here afore thy sight,

For gifts and grace,

A burnin’ an’ a shinin’ light,

To a’ this place.’

Robert Burns delighted in undermining class and religion pomposity. It’s not surprise that his poem To a Louse, takes place during a Kirk service, but could just as well have been the inauguration of the 45th American President.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion:

Holloway sees that hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Morality can be complex or it can be a simple precept based on the notion of doing unto others what you would (or would not) do to yourself, which is the footstool of all the major religions. The authority he quotes and the question he asks comes from the Russian novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers and the character Ivan:

Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me, imagine you are charged with building an the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck or creation, the same little child beating his breasts with his little fists, and imagine this edifice to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under these conditions?’

To move away from Holloway’s creed, this is familiar Stephen King territory. Would you, for example, murder Hitler in his crib?

Thomas Piketty Capital  quotes Balzac to suggest inequalities are so entrenched that if in order to move up someone must be harmed or murdered, would you allow it? Eh, aye, probably, is the same answer as those Christian folk that mourn 22 children murdered in Manchester, but Mail-hate cheerleaders are  quite happy for over 200 folks to drown in the Mediterranean in the same week.

Holloway has something to say about fundamentalism and it applies equally to Trump supporters as it does to the Sunni (Saudi sponsored) branch of Islam in which ‘the gates of interpretation is closed’. ‘Immobolism’ Holloway calls it. What he means is Holy Willie is right, to a god given right,  and you are wrong if you believe otherwise. For Holloway there is nothing more dangerous than a fundamentalist. This book was written pre-Trump Presidency. Such an idea then would have been laughable.

Moral relativism. I had to think of an example for this. It comes from another Scottish writer, John Buchan, The Herd of Standlan. The irony here is the author of the First World War bestseller The Thirty Nine Steps later became a Conservative MP, but in this short story a humble Scottish shepherd, has a choice, whether to let go of the hand of Mr Aither and let him drown or hold on, even though he’s got a broken arm and might drown himself. The shepherd does hold on, or there’d be no narrative, but later regrets it, because Mr Aither, goes onto become Lord Brodaker and a prominent Scottish Tory.

‘I did what I thocht my duty at the time and I was rale glad I saved the callant’s life. But now I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guid Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein better if I had just drappit him in.’

Imagine you’re holding onto the hand of a young Donald Trump, he’s at his mother’s old croft, would you drappit him in?

 

Advertisements

Richard Holloway (2012) Leaving Alexandra. A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. Richard Holloway (2016) A Little History of Religion.

I guess I should review these books individually, but it’s my blog, I have god-like powers and can do anything I want. I asked Richard Holloway to sign my book, which is his autobiographical writing, when he visited Dalmuir library. He asked me what I wanted him to write in the flyleaf, I said that book you were talking about earlier, Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just because I wanted to read it. I’m with the Society of Friends on this one, no kowtowing. No bended knee. Books are holy things. But what they mean that’s a mystery. Perhaps a blessed mystery.

A Little History of Religion has the merit of being little.  There’s not a lot of love there, references to divine love, followed by divine genocide, but the common feature of both books is a movement from faith to doubt. Richard Holloway is a prolific author. He is a former Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity. A theist believes in God. An atheist doesn’t believe in God. And an agnostic believe in both view. I’m a bit like that, only worse, or better, depending on your point of view. Richard Holloway’s autobiography, in particular, is a beautiful book because it is true. True to who he is now and compassionate towards who he was. Wisdom often takes a lifetime. Perhaps it never comes. And some religions that believe in the merits (and demerits) of reincarnation believes it may take lifetimes. I’m in no hurry to find out the truth.

The commonalities of both Holloway’s books are a belief not in doubt but in faith. The most dangerous kind of hate is certainty. The latest example is Trumpism, a back to the wall beleaguered party that triumphs against all the odds. This is combined with revanchist call for revenge against all those against them. Mary Queen of Scots for example had John Knox and his followers singing outside her window and shouting you’re getting it hen, as soon as we’ve got it. And they were right, but it took three blows of the axe, making her suffer first. She was going to hell anyway, or heaven, if you were a good Catholic.  The Plains Indians danced their feet off, but the white man wasn’t covered in ash, although Holloway does acknowledge buffaloes did come back, not so the Indians. Of course, the Palestinians on the West Bank shouldn’t be there because God bequeathed that land to the Israelites and everybody else is an interloper, because God can’t be wrong and no international laws or treaties can make that right. The Promised Land means The Promised Land. Move pal. Or else.  Just the same as Trump can’t be wrong because he is considered so right about making America great again. Anybody that have doubts is getting it. First on the hate list, China, second, Russia, next up the rest of the world. On bended knee we must come and return to a past that never existed to pay homage.

It’s not Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao or indeed Emperor Nero that provides the template for certainty among uncertainty but Nick Bostrom in his book Superintelligence. When the robots or whatever you want to call them figure out –very quickly – that the humans they are ostensibly serving aren’t very smart then they become gods. But even Gods have uncertainties, moments of doubt. These superintelligent robots will use all the earth and its distant stars capacities to reduce uncertainty to a point where it becomes absurd, in human terms, not that there will be any need for humans. But all religions are absurd, but they have a logic to them.

Holloway preaches a message of love. A parable he frequently uses is the parable of the blind man and the elephant. I attributed this to Rumi, but I may be wrong. Each clutches a trunk, an ear, a leg and describes what they feel and what they see. All are telling the truth of what they perceive. But when partial truth become the whole truth each sect goes to war over their vision and allows no dissent. A tusk can never be an ear, because God does not allow such things.

Note the righteousness of religion. It can never be wrong, because God cannot be wrong. A tautology that is rarely taught. Another parable Holloway is fond of is the Good Samaritan.

A man fell among thieves who left him naked and unconscious on a dangerous and deserted road. A priest came along followed by his assistant. They were good men who wanted to help, but their religion prevented it…Next along is a Samaritan, one of the races Jews were forbidden to associate with. His religion has the same prohibitions as theirs.

Both men are religious in their own one, but only one is compassionate as God is compassionate. And it’s a common refrain in Holloway’s writing, ‘the institution that claims to represent God can easily become God’s greatest enemy’. Amen to that.

Another parable Holloway favours is Matthew’s parable of workers in the vineyard all coming at different times and being paid the same rate of pay. God’s like that Holloway is saying and we don’t really understand Him (although He might be a She, but is never an It). If you don’t believe me, he says, read Job. According to scripture God gets into a bet with the devil and lots of bad things happen to Job, including losing his wife and family, all his wealth and suffering from endless and painful diseases. What makes it worse is ‘Job’s comforters’. They seem to have all the answers, but when God appears he’s not happy (God is never happy, or he doesn’t appear) and his standard stick is ‘my wrath is kindled against you and your two friends…’ I guess that means hell and everlasting damnation. But God is good to Job. He stops torturing him. And he gives him a new family and even greater wealth. Holloway is good at this bit. Basically, he’s saying what anyone with common sense would say, ‘fuck off, god, I liked my old family, even the smelly dog.’ And I’m with Holloway with this one if Abraham agreed to sacrifice his son, well, there’s something a bit sick about that.

Holloway’s call for a godless morality might be beyond us, for the very good reason we might not be here much longer. I don’t believe in the rapture. I believe in the apocalypse of greed and gross stupidity. Oh, well, I guess, our parents have been saying the same things for years. Things ain’t the way they used to be. I’m sure I’ll look good as a dead person. Go on, with your god-like powers, use that line from The Life of Brian. ‘We’re all individuals!’

Voice from the back of the crowd, ‘I’m not.’