Sometimes there is virtue in reading the newspaper the wrong way round – that is, from the back sections through to the frontal news and comment sections. In an interview with film director Peter Greenaway in yesterday’s Guardian, we are asked to conlcude that “there is nothing more to life than sex and death”. Hardly original thinking, but look at what it is based on.
The opening lines of his interview remarks are as follows:
I don’t know much about you,” says Peter Greenaway, sipping his mint tea, “but I do know two things. You were conceived, two people did fuck, and I’m very sorry but you’re going to die. Everything else about you is negotiable.
He then goes on happily (if ignorantly):
…all religion is about death and art’s about life. Religion is there to say: hey, you don’t have to worry – there’s an afterlife. Culture represents the opposite of that – sex. A very stupid Freudian way of looking at it, but one is positive and one is negative.
He’s a great film maker, but clearly a terrible thinker, albeit with fundamentalist tendencies. The dichotomy he draws between art and religion is mindblowingly weird: religion addresses death – how could it not? – but is not an opiate aimed at consoling people with an after-life. Has he not read the Gospels or wondered why they crucified Jesus of Nazareth?
This might be an inconvenient truth, but Christianity (for certain) is very much about the here-and-now – the Church being called (and frequently failing) to be the people who reflect the character of God in order to change the world and its ways. The after-life will have to look after itself while we Christians give our attention to this world into which God has called us. The Incarnation (however else you construe it) is about God opting into the world, not exempting himself from it (in all its unpredictable and unjust messiness). We left Plato behind a long time ago – even if critics of Christianity find that inconvenient.
Art is very much concerned with death as well as life and tries (it seems to me) to address questions of meaning and purpose even when the artist is setting out from a premise that denies the possibility of intrinsic meaning. You simply can’t separate life (and living) from death, art from religion, morality from assumptions about destiny. Peter Greenway has been satisfied with too narrow a prejudice about both art and religion – especially based on a surprising ignorance of Christianity.
But, I also want to defend him. Looking at the scandals of paedophilia addressed (at last!) by the Pope, it is very tempting to write off any idea of the Church having anything to say about a ‘good life’ in this world. But, Greenway is clearly intelligent enough to recognise that that only begins an argument and certainly doesn’t end it.
However, he could also be a good example of what Oliver Burkeman confronts in a superb article in the G2 section of yesterday’s Guardian (which I read after everything else). Although he is subsequently criticised by Adam Rutherford for being too uncritical about the theories he addresses, he does raise some important questions about the discrepancy between the popular and ‘professional’ scientist understanding of Darwinism.
Burkeman reviews several new books which question popular understandings of the implications of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. I am not competent to address the epigenomic science of it, but I do find the thinking about it interesting. Amongst some evolutionary scientists, questioning Darwin or his fundamental theories is inadmissable: the responses evoke memories of stupid fundamentalists in the church refusing to listen to anything that might question the Bible or six-day creation. All Burkeman was doing was saying that it is worth talking about the ‘naturalness’ of theories of natural selection.
Of course, it is not just biology or genetics that are concerned with the questions thrown up by new research; even questions of theology and philosophy arise uninvited. (For example, how, in the light of this, should Christians address questions of sexuality, social justice or bioethics – to name but three for starters?) And it is in these almost incidental asides that I thought Burkeman’s questioning hit the mark. For example:
Leftwing and feminist critics did frequently misinterpret evolutionary psychology, imagining that when scholars described some trait as adaptive, they meant it was morally justifiable.
This is a common sleight of the philosophical hand today when matters of science and meaning are being considered. A ‘phenomenon’ becomes a ‘virtue’ – without any explanation of how the translation was either made or justified. In other words, the mere fact that some human trait adapts does not and cannot confer upon the adaptation any ‘meaning’ (in the sense of attributing purpose). Yet, even those who claim the inadmissability of intrinsic meaning to human (or any other kind of) life go on to speak of Darwinian ‘progress’ as if it had some incontrovertible and inherent justification to it. Hence, Burkeman is right to question whether ‘survival of the fittest’ actually means ‘survival of the survivors’ and can tell us no more than the simple fact that ‘what is, is’.
He illustrates this as follows:
But that was how many such findings – often better described as speculations – came to be believed. We’re not exactly saying it’s right for, say, men to sleep around, evolutionary psychologists would observe with a knowing sigh, but . . . well, good luck trying to change millennia of evolved behaviour.
Burkeman goes on to question just how helpful the ‘nature-nurture’ debate is when the reality of evolution is clearly more complex than an ‘either-or’ choice allows.
You’ll have to read the articles for themselves – including Rutherford’s rejoinder which raises other questions. But I suspect the really interesting debate won’t be about the content of the disagreement between them, but what the debate itself says about the fundamentalsim that exists in some scientific communities who, when they are questioned by informed popular curiosity, resort to the responses they so rightly abhor when offered by religious authorities: don’t worry your little heads about it, for we experts understadn these things and you’ll just have to trust us. Rutherford concludes:
But without fully understanding the issues at hand, it is easy to fall into the trap of regurgitating self-serving controversies. “To an outsider” says Burkeman “this is mind-blowing”. Unfortunately though, to the knowledgeable, it is a disappointing combination of at best misleading distortion, and at worst plain wrongheadedness. Now we have to clean up the mess.