I am parked at Black Mother Gully around 7.30am. A wash of cloud softens the sky, leaving colours muted. Bird call is dominated by magpies.
I am still thinking gods and how our ancestors sensed great Thous in which they were able to discriminate distinct characters. Maybe story-telling made this necessary as the morality of conduct essential to survival made discerning and talking/singing about distinct characters necessary.
But equally, a landscape is full of character. Full of lives. We stop at assigning livingness to rocks and wind and water. Our ancestors did not. We discern some movement because of life and other because of mechanism. Our ancestors did not.
Such a distinction is important to us. But, if we pause with sufficiently open minds, it is hard to understand why.
Iain McGilchrist, in his The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the making of the Western World, thinks in terms of right and left brain. He sees our culture as addicted to abstract categories – left brain dominant. McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, not a new ager. If you are unfamiliar with sensible left/right brain ideas, here’s a quick update.
Our ancestors created categories too – sacred, good to eat, useful – a different consciousness of utility and care. They did not need to think living or not. They had no need of that category.
I am not sure why we have that need. However, our moral make up is relational and categories of being or thing define relationships for us. We create a subject/object duality and thereby define how we may act. Being and thing have distinct moral codes assigned to them.
We needed to be less moral toward things, and we are thus relieved of a burden of relational interaction.
As usual, we assume this duality is true and good, and an absolute reflection of how things are. But, this is a dogma that we believe serves us well, rather than a truth discerned. It is a dogma that is self-creating. We believe that concrete knowledge is a good of itself – and the fact that this is potentially never-ending is a marvel to be explored.
Awareness of the nature of things, in a way that is not constrained by any relational or moral sense, yields knowing that is not associated with any value beyond the knowing itself.
It does not serve our needs, as we define them, to speak of gods, because to do so casts a far greater relational net over what we can see and know. Or so we think.
The values of utility are defined by our moral or relational sense. These define our needs. At core, survival has a particular set of values – the existential necessities of being in the world. But the sacred and the moral have always constrained and shaped the boundaries of utility. They have been part of the necessities of being in the world for our ancestors – and now we imagine them as less and less essential.
The American anthropologist, Robert Redfield, writing in 1953, observed what he called the moral order and the technical order, noting that “The coming of civilizations disturbed, probably forever, the primordial relation between the tendencies.”(the moral and technical). Anthropology of the 1950s is unfashionable these days because of the language used – also because it was more sympathetic to the spiritual than later the theistic and materialistic interpretation of the field. Redfield’s book, The Primitive World and its Transformations, can be found online as a PDF. I prefer a lot of pre-1960s works. I am content to trade off language for insight and sensitivity to spirit.
The one God of our culture’s dominant religion emerged from the ecology of tribal spirits – inflated into being a cosmic progenitor. This was a harmless conceit at first. We like to think ours is the best. And in times of adversity that conceit can be a vital energiser and focus of will. To be chosen of the greatest is a comfort. It is a form of collective self-justification.
We know in ourselves when egocentric self-justification becomes a toxic conceit – because we see it in others. Australians have had a tradition of celebrating mateship as if it were a unique trait not found in the males of other nations. It’s a conceit that seems harmless enough. But we look like fools if we broadcast it to others as if it were objectively unique and true.
As a culture we are still reacting to this conception of the divine. There is an absurdity to it that we seem to sense intuitively, and cling to – if we lack the confidence and imagination to move on. But in moving on we are now in a wilderness with no tracks and few reliable guides.
Later – back home
I have been listening to Don Watson’s remarkable book The Bush. Watson is a wonderful writer, and an historian. This book should be read/listened to by anyone who considers themselves an Australian. It tells the catastrophic tale of the white man coming to Australia with his European sentiments, beliefs, and ignorance. What we gently call ‘settlement’ was more an assault fueled by arrogance, ignorance and brutal desire. This not an account of evil, but of evil consequences wrought by innocent brutality.
The sobering truth of the European mentality is that it was awful in the consequences of its adventures beyond its domain – in Africa, in the Americas, as well as Australia.
Watson is on no moral rampage. He documents the history of what we call ‘the bush’ from settlement to now. He passes no judgements. The people he describes are ‘good people’ – but they handle their new home roughly. What he has written is perhaps the most concise examination of the impact of the European Christian/Materialist mentality upon a landscape and the lives that dwell therein.
I can think of no more telling account of the perils of that mindset – the left brain dominance that McGilchrist writes so compellingly about.