The Last Essay: The Idolatry of Identity.

Jan 1, 2012 by

What a piece of work is a man!  How noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! 1

There may be a sense in which the physical, mental, and mathematical worlds merely reflect individually aspects of a deeper truth about a world of which we have little conception at the present time.2

I imagine that most of us woke up on this Christmas morning warm and secure, looking forward to the pleasures of the day. I wonder how many spared a thought for those who will know nothing like our security, not on this day or any other, because they fear as mothers for their children’s future.

And I wonder too: how many of my old friends, who first encouraged me to try to explain why I taught them as I did, are still reading these essays? Three months of thinking, writing, puzzling, abandoning texts, researching, revising, rewriting. It has been a long haul.

Anyone who has ever tried to transform first mental tensions into thoughts, then thoughts into words, then words which may, as one hopes, make sense to others, will know the determination this requires. Also some pain. I may, in the meantime, have lost you all. If so, entirely thanks to you, I understand our world a little better. This is always hard work.

At first I was mainly addressing the girls, many now mothers, whom I once had the privilege to teach. I realise that it must have been distinctly discouraging when I invited you to take part in ‘the most dangerous game in the world’.

But this is no exaggeration. Young women have long been treated by men, often by their families, as either tradable goods or a burdensome nuisance. Becoming a mother achieves some security, but the labels of mental and moral instability, traditionally imposed on women, make it nearly impossible for them to prevent men from fomenting, preparing, and making war. Given the number of nations now with nuclear weapons and Stone Age ambitions, given a still spiralling world population, our children’s future is more uncertain than at any time in history.

This is our responsibility. We have the tools; we have the voice.

It is a little noticed fact that women achieved national suffrage in the leading industrial countries only after major wars: in Russia, 1917; in Germany, 1918; the United States, 1920; Britain, 1928; France, 1945; Japan, 1945; Israel, in 1948; Iran, in 1963; and, as useful counter-example, in Switzerland, in 1971.

There is also an encouraging precedent in achieving a major change in the way that people understand their spiritual and rational potential: by writing.

When, in 1517, Dr Martin Luther pinned his protests of Papal power to his church’s door in Wittenberg, he had no intention of weakening the source of its power: the terror of Hell.

He only questioned the power of the Church to control this punishment.

Today I suppose it is nearly impossible for us to feel the same degree of terror. In Luther’s time the Church depended on it. In return for its protection, it demanded people’s loyalty and unquestioning obedience. In return, it gave them their identity. And collected its tithes.

What Luther was challenging was neither the wealth of the Church nor the reality of Hell. It was this idolatry of identity. He declared that God can speak to anyone: directly, regardless of their rank, gender or social station; and that priests, in particular, were actually unnecessary.

Almost at once peasants everywhere rose up against their serfdom. Palaces were stormed; libraries burnt. Many died before, with Luther’s help, their rebellion was cruelly put down.

Although clearly never his intention, the long process of establishing the right of people to decide what to believe independent of authority began with Luther’s questions. In my classroom, I now realise, was simply continuing this tradition. One of my friends recently added thoughtfully: ‘And maybe it was because you treated your pupils with respect!”

Atheism is an entirely healthy product of this process. I am a friend of atheism: although I am sure, and I am sure that Luther was sure, that atheism is not the most intelligent alternative to idolatry. The most intelligent alternative is more scepticism. With the realisation, if not it is to fall into idolatry itself, that scepticism has also a source. It, too, can speak to people directly, of all ranks and all social stations. They only need to learn intelligently to listen.

As a first step in learning how to listen, I suggested that new mothers begin to tell their children always to know that they have a right to be honest; and always to know that they have the right to ask questions. This would soon produce a generation of young messiahs.

To my surprise, this modest proposal was furiously denounced both by my pious and my atheist friends. Each accused me of their own kind of impiety.

Fortunately, reality can correct such superstitions.

The huge surge of young people’s protest against corrupt governments and corporations is happening because they have begun to decide that they have the right to be honest and to ask questions. Even more striking is how many young women are prepared to risk beating, imprisonment, rape, disfigurement and death in order to take part.

Essentially they are finally challenging the tradition of Eve’s wicked deceit.

There are many variations of the story. We will find this fact to be significant. In most cultures it is a kind of Disneyland justification of traditional, but continuing, female debasement.

Of course, you may say, it is entirely natural for primitive societies to divide responsibilities this way. The women then benefit from a society’s stability in which to raise children. The men decide how this stability will be sustained. But can the story be read in a different way?

Most recently I showed how we can escape from Wittgenstein’s prison: in which we are obliged to remain silent without words to speak.

The two words we need are admittedly a little clumsy; but one gets used to them. ‘Entropic’ describes the tendency of ordered structures to decay, unless carefully restrained. ‘Anentropic’ describes the fact that ordered structures can become more ordered, ultimately even conscious.

The appearance of life requires a very special kind of anentropic impulse, prompting life to appear by refining material order until consciousness appears, then allowing it to adapt actively to its environment. The mechanism by which the environment selects adaptations is insufficient to explain the vast variety of life. And, further, if such an active impulse acts on Earth, it must act everywhere in the universe. Human exceptionalism is just another idolatry.

By curious incident, when I left the Army, I was offered work by a man who, as I slowly discovered, was a grand-son of Charles Darwin. He was just as cautious. When, later, we were friends, and I might ask him to decide on one truth or another, he would often reply: “Why not a bit of both?”

‘A bit of both’ produces the best modern consensus of evolution. Instead of Intelligent Design there is the Anentropic Impulse.

Similarly, a different way of reading Eve’s story requires no perversity of judgment.

Eve might have kept the apple. Instead she gave it to Adam. It was women, in other words, who first decided that men should be responsible for maintaining social stability. Inevitably, the only order they are able to create is entropic. To prevent disorder from appearing, ever more regulations are required. One can see this in the most modern societies.

The rest is history. Having given over social control to men, women were ever more oppressed. Modern attempts to enfranchise women: in Jordan, in 1974; Qatar, 1997; Saudi Arabia, promised – are evidence that they are now needed to save societies from paralytic decay.

Women, as I once told HH Sheikha Mozah of Qatar, cannot prevent wars, but women can help men to find more fruitful spiritual adventures than wars. This is what education can achieve.

But the mystery remains: what does the Garden of Eden represent?

What did our ancestors lose when they left it?

Only Moses, of Abraham and his followers, saw God face to face. I did not. They felt his physical presence and heard his voice. I did too. They spoke of Heaven as a place where God resides. I think it may be understood as a level of consciousness everyone can achieve.

In the last analysis, the basis of this consciousness is nothing supernatural or esoteric. It is simply honesty. The Sufic tradition approaches it very nearly: but without words to speak, the great Sufi teachers have been obliged to be silent.

Science strives to be honest. Accepting that its striving is also spiritual can save it from the ultimate verdict of triviality.

This is the end of my Facebook essays. I will now retire to my cave to turn them into the book that I have promised. In its final chapter I will explain why I think that heaven – impossibly – may still have a physical existence; and why I cannot think otherwise.

Forty years ago I could never have written these essays. It was not that I was frightened. It was not because I was unsure. It was because I would have been treated as a clown.

Now I have served my time. I have also learnt to speak.

I like to think I am nothing special. We are just pioneers.

Thank you all.



1 Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.2; note ‘the paragon of animals’: in 1599.

2 Penrose, R., Mathematician, 2004

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