BOOKS AND ARTS
16 November 2012, Review by David Leech
Filling the hole in modern life
The Big Questions: GodMark Vernon
Tablet bookshop price £11.70 Tel 01420 592974
Mark Vernon’s two new books cover similar ground but, though there is duplication of treatment, there is little duplication of content. Across both, he ranges widely, addressing all the major world religions and covering topics as diverse as God’s nature and existence, religious violence, morality, religion and science, miracles, religious experience, ecology, eschatology, fundamentalism, enlightenment, suffering and death.
Formerly an Anglican priest, Vernon left as an atheist, but is now an agnostic. As befits an agnostic, his chapters regularly end on a note of “maybe, maybe not”. He often plays the sceptic card, noting that there are reasonable ideas on both sides of the main debates, and it is too early to conclude anything.
Vernon’s own convictions nevertheless show through. In The Big Questions: God he offers the suggestion that contemporary society has a “God-shaped hole”, and supposes that theological language still has the power to speak to us because science has not succeeded in filling it in. He is unsympathetic to fundamentalist, and some aspects of orthodox, religion. Fundamentalism is presented as reductionist, and compared with the reductionism of science. He is impressed by the Humean rebuttal of miracles, and expresses theological hesitations about the idea of miracle – a violation of the laws of nature – which Hume rejected. He is also averse to scriptural inerrantism and he regards petitionary prayer as instrumental and exploitative.
By contrast, he evinces sympathy for the view (defended, for instance, by contemporary philosopher of religion Denys Turner) that reason, used analogically in talking about God, has an important place in religion, while extraordinary religious experiences are of dubious value and should at most bring us back to a sense of the sacredness of the ordinary. Vernon’s distrust of the extraordinary makes itself constantly
On the other hand, the author also consistently eschews scientistic reductionism. He rejects the conflict reading of the science-religion relationship and prefers a complementarity approach. Nirvana and spiritual experience cannot simply be reduced to their neuro-physiological substrate. Atheist construals of Darwinism are overplayed, and our culture is misdirected in its desire to want to explain every aspect of being human (including religiosity) in terms of Darwinian theory.
But notwithstanding his sympathy for some forms of religion, Vernon occupies an agnostic position. The sacred does not disappear with the disappearance of traditional religion: there is still great art and human relationships, and the universe itself is sacred. Prayer doesn’t change God’s will, but can be a form of self-exploration similar to mindfulness meditation. Materialism is a scientific “myth” and it should not be supposed that the view of reality which science has is truer than that of a religious tradition, but rather there should be dialogue.
In his treatment of Confucianism, Vernon shows himself favourable to the “Gaia” hypothesis and he discusses animism sympathetically, apparently treating it as merely different from science rather than in competition with it. He supposes that there can be a natural foundation for morality. He takes the concept of Original Sin seriously, however, and considers the merits of some of its secular equivalents. At times he seems (despite his Humean sympathies) to point vaguely towards a notion of objective good, at least in the case of art and moral heroism, although he also vacillates, saying that it may be harder to be good without God.
Vernon’s search for an agnostic middle position is very similar in God: all that matters. Once again he defends analogical talk about God, justifying the former against accusations that it is a form of “theological bullshit”. He tends to agree with philosopher John Cottingham that suffering may possibly be “uncomfortably defended” within a theistic perspective if it is construed as a result of necessary constraints on God’s creative action. His more settled position seems, however, to be that reflecting on it enables us to deepen our understanding of what it is to be human, which may “offer dignity, if not release”.
He also has a semi-sympathetic consideration of Don Cupitt’s anti-realist treatment of God as a secular moral ideal, but has his (agnostic) reservations: it may in turn offer unwarranted consolation in dogmatically putting our sceptical worries to rest prematurely. There is a sympathetic treatment of Taoist teachings on non-assertive action, and Taoism’s non-anthropomorphic approach (although he might have devoted more space to the comparison with Abrahamic views about stewardship of nature).
He offers an interesting survey of secular “eschatological” views, touching on the “singularity” theory that in the near future a huge computer with God-like intelligence will come into being. He also has a nice account of game-theory-influenced ideas about moral progress (about which he is doubtful): for instance, Martin Seligman’s hope that through the effects of win-win, human evolution will result in greater and greater goodness, producing if not God then “perhaps … a point when all is good”. In the appendix to the book, Vernon has a useful section on relevant books, films, websites and even places to visit.
Sometimes Vernon’s arguments can feel a bit brisk, and it is natural that in such concise but also wide-ranging treatments the author cannot do everything. These two books are, however, very accessible and readable (the tone is conversational), and Vernon has an admirable flair for illustrating his points through references to contemporary popular culture: he can see a popular British TV series as evidence of the God-shaped hole, trace an implicit spirituality in Philip Pullman’s New Statesman articles, and make astute philosophical points about, for instance, the use of the word “spiritual” in the Body Shop’s Body Care Manual. Vernon’s books do as they say – they take religious traditions and practice seriously, confront the central issues that matter most to humans, and nurture searchers, enquirers and the curious in their questioning and contemplation.
THIS WEEK’S BOOKS
God: all that matters
Reviewed by David Leech
Hodder Education, £7.99
Tablet bookshop price £7.20
Unfinished Empire: the global expansion of Britain
Reviewed by David Goodall
Allen Lane, £25
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My Old Man: a personal history of music hall
Reviewed by Julia Langdon
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The Liar’s Gospel
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Slavery Inc.: the untold story of international sex trafficking
Lydia Cacho, trans. Elizabeth Boburg
Reviewed by Lucy Popescu
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Brother Mendel’s Perfect Horse: man and beast in an age of human warfare
Reviewed by Richard Ormrod
Harvill Secker, £16.99
Tablet bookshop price £15.30
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