Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The term 'Judeo-Christian' is a gauntlet thrown down that is for liberals to pick up

In this debate we've seen how the term 'Judeo-Christian' is a cultural artifact of recent coinage but the gauntlet thrown down by conservatives requires more than this due to the historical resonances that the term throws up. While it would be fascinating to see the term employed by a writer long dead - from the 16th century, say - the fact is that noone used it because it would have seemed a nonsense. The term has resonances, however, and so it's worth looking back to see just how religion worked as an enabling device in the emergence of modernity, technology, representative government, and the liberal societies we value so much today that we simply take them for granted. I've put up this image of da Vinci's because it says something profound to us about the thing that has come to possess the most value to the world: the notion of the individual.

The image dates from the early 1450s, about a decade after the printing press was invented in Germany, at around the time of the birth of Isabella of Castille, who went on to marry Ferdinand of Aragon. With dynastic influence in mind the two monarchs of what we call Spain sponsored the creation at a university in their country of the first polyglot Bible, which was published around 1520. This was the first Bible to contain the original languages of that book - Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew - and it sparked the interest of scholars elsewhere in Europe to do similar things. Luther had already nailed his manifesto to the church door in 1517, so what we see is a Europe where all the old certitudes were disintegrating. The Humanist scholars were speeding up the process by collecting old manuscripts of classical Roman origin. The rise of the vernacular which had started with Dante in the 1320s and that first took root in the Italian city states was spreading and causing problems. The biggest problems of course were felt by the Catholic Church, which typically for a big organisation under threat reacted violently to suppress the innovations.

In England, Henry VIII started the process of separation of his kingdom from the Catholic Church in the 1530s. One of the results of this cataclysmic change - from the point of view of the English people - was that all boys had to be educated so that they could read the vernacular Bible that was prepared for the use of the people. And so young William Shakespeare, living in rural seclusion in Warwickshire, was taught how to read Latin and how two write English. Because of the printing press, there were more books circulating than ever before, and practically all men could read them. Some even went so far as to publish their own creations. One such man was Michel de Montaigne, a man whose Humanist upbringing led him to produce a new innovation, for in his Essais, instead of talking about God and the relationship of the individual to God, Montaigne merely talked about himself. He turned his eyes from the stars and focused them on what was happening inside his own mind. The book appeared in the 1580s, around the time young Shakespeare reached his majority and decided to join a group of actors.

In Hamlet, which was published in 1603, something equally extraordinary happens because we see for the very first time a fictional character who is a fully-developed individual. The famous soliloquy is so striking and has captured the imaginations of so many for such a long time because it shows a man merely talking to himself. There is no mention - despite the nature of the subject matter, suicide - of God. In fact, there is something distinctly classical about this piece of writing, something downright Roman. And the individual appeared also in Spain around the same time, with the publication in 1605 of Don Quixote, a man in all his splendid oddness. Instead of reproducing the tired trope of the knight errant, Cervantes focuses his attention on the artifice of the traditional narrative, and with gusts of explosive laughter strips away what is false and illogical in it. It is a very Renaissance thing to do: to show the individual unadorned by the worn trappings of religion and heraldry, tilting at windmills.

In 1620 there appeared another seminal text, the Novum Organum of Francis Bacon. Again, Bacon's regard took the reader away from God, not as in Montaigne's case, inward, but outward to the observable world, the world of things. Bacon translated the Humanist project to the realm of the physical sciences by focusing its light on the world of things, and the new philosopy - we recall Dante's manifesto, titled Dolce Stil Novo (the "new, sweet/soft style") - led to what we know today as the hard sciences and their commercial correlates, the applied sciences. Technology, in fact.

In politics the Humanist project also had its victims and its winners, and this happened not long after Bacon's book came out, for in 1649 Charles, the King of England, was beheaded by Parliament. The relationship between the monarch and the elected representatives of the people would never be the same again. Charles' primary sin was trying to raise taxes without the consent of the people. Around 130 years later another English king would try the same thing again, and fail; the result in this second case was the American War of Independence. For Charles the problem lay with religious enthusiasts, men and women, Luther's children, who had been appeased, threatened and suppressed in England by Elizabeth I - a far more canny operator than Charles - but who now took matters into their own hands and created revolution.

All of these things are the seeds from which modern Western civilization is actually built and the thing that needs to be pointed out is that religion in fact was in all of these cases the institution that had to be opposed. Rather than talk about a 'Judeo-Christian' heritage what we need to talk about is the historical phase that came later - that, in fact, was in operation when Australia was first established as a part of the British Empire - and that is the Enlightenment. If this thing can be called anything it must be called a reaction to religion, a turning away - following the lead of the men of the Renaissance - from divine matters and toward material things, toward the world of the men and women who were our ancestors. Their chroniclers - Locke, Darwin, Austen, Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Coleridge, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud - made works that are our distinct and inalienable heritage. In the lees of the Enlightnment and under the influence of the American Revolution occurred the Romantic push for the true recognition of the individual, and it is in the shadows of that time that we still live despite, not because of, religion.

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