Friday 9 October 2020

Uncompromising Thinking.

Cosmic Contradictions: In New Zealand and across the world, the incidence of what is often referred to as “Manichean” thinking is steadily rising. Manicheans see the world as being locked in a perpetual struggle between the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness, or, more simply, between Good and Evil.

THIS WEEK has been filled with speculation about what Judith Collins might have been saying to God. Many of the suggestions offered will have been neither couth nor kind. Over the past few decades, New Zealanders have become increasingly uncomfortable participants in religious conversations. With less than 40 percent of us now willing to own up to being Christian (2018 Census) that reticence is, perhaps, understandable. The number of people with a working knowledge of Christianity (or any of the other great world religions for that matter) continues its steady decline.

Which is odd, because the incidence of what is referred to as “Manichean” thinking is steadily rising. Manicheans see the world as being locked in a perpetual struggle between the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness, or, more simply, between Good and Evil.

The founder of this dualistic religion, Mani, prophesied that the ultimate outcome of this cosmic struggle would be the emergence of two worlds: one wholly good and the other wholly evil. The world of light and spirit would be ruled by God. The world of darkness and matter by the Devil.

Now, the people described as Manicheans today know nothing of Mani and his Third Century religious movement. But they are very much believers in the idea that there is one body of ideas, principles and values that is “right”, and another body of ideas, principles and values that is “wrong”.

Manichean thinking is on display everywhere. Neoliberals dismiss all those who refuse to accept the supreme efficacy of market forces as Marxists. Ecologists write off all those who refuse to accept the “incontrovertible” evidence of anthropogenic global warming as Climate-Change Deniers. Feminists who refuse to abandon biological science’s division of the human species into “men” and “women” are castigated as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists – TERFs. (J.K. Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, has been branded a TERF and her books burned.) Pakeha who decline to attribute all the ills of contemporary New Zealand society to the impact of colonisation are dismissed as racists.

The key aspect of Manichean thinking is that it eschews absolutely the possibility of compromise. It is simply not possible for the World of Spirit to compromise with the World of Matter; Light with Darkness; Good with Evil. The very idea must, perforce, come from the Devil. (Also known as Capitalism/Communism, Big Oil/Greenpeace, Harvey Weinstein/MeToo, David Seymour/Marama Davidson.)

The apotheosis (an old-fashioned religious term meaning the condition which cannot be exceeded) of Manichean thinking is, of course, the United States of America. Republicans and Democrats confront each other over a seemingly bottomless abyss of mutual mistrust, unable to concede the existence of even the tiniest measure of common ground. The victory of the opposing party simply cannot be countenanced. Any failure to prevail is proof only of the other side’s willingness to “rig” the contest.

Those who call themselves “progressives” and who range themselves unequivocally with the Forces of Light against the dark evils of racism, sexism, transphobia, laissez-faire capitalism and environmental despoilation, would do well to contemplate Mani’s endgame. Because, radical Gnostic that he was, Mani despaired of Good’s capacity to triumph over Evil in the material world. In fact, he saw this world not as God’s creation, but as a place fashioned by the Devil: a realm in which God’s writ does not run.

The Gnostics (from the Ancient Greek word gnosis, meaning knowledge) were Christians of a profoundly heretical stripe, who took as their departure point Jesus’s statement to Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

There’s a profound and tragic wisdom here. For how does light drive out darkness without negating the meaning of light itself? How does spirit overcome matter without partaking of the very qualities that encompass its enemy? How does Good defeat Evil without taking up the weapons responsible for inflicting the wrongs it is seeking to right?

The Ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles, understood this long before Jesus, or Mani. In his tragic play, Antigone, he has the Chorus ask: “Who is the slayer, who the victim? Speak.”

The Ancient Greeks despised the dualistic mindset. They sought always the middle way where values mingle. They knew that the owl, sacred to Athena, goddess of wisdom, shuns alike the uncompromising sun and the all-consuming dark, preferring to fly when neither reigns – at twilight.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 October 2020.


Nick J said...

Timely commentary Chris. Yesterday speaking to my cousins wife in Las Vegas about their election was somewhat disturbing. She, a black lady fervently believes Trump supporters share no common ground with Dems, that they are evil. She found it hard to believe that we in NZ dislike the hard core extremes of Left and Right and share a broad concensus of tolerance.

That said my US based cousin and wife are both facing a Manichean future where both have jobs and future at stake as the US economy and its extreme lack of welfare tumbles. Life becomes black and white, light and dark. They see encroaching darkness of the evening, we in NZ can at least see the dawn.

swordfish said...

Yeah, but I also discern some ruthless self-interest & hunger for power (for its own sake) among the affluent, authoritarian ex-boarding school Woke currently trying to hi-jack the Left. Comandeering traditional Leftist concerns, grossly distorting their meaning & then systematically weaponising them to pursue autocratic power & social control, vanquishing more liberal & democratic voices on the Left, while ensuring that others do all the sacrifice & suffering.

greywarbler said...

We must hold onto hope, and hold onto each other who are working to maintain firm standards but not rigid; firm enough to allow for tolerance around the basic rule, with controls to protect that rule so that all does not subside between the competing arguments; the self-centredness and exaggeration of personal need arguing for entitlement to all desires.

We are all individuals and rigid laws cannot allow for the expressions of self, the creativity, the variety of human behaviour, which however because of the way we are drawn to fixations, (such as novel machines and technology) often becomes excessive.

We must all have a hand in our society. People cannot retire completely to gated communities and totally shut themselves away with others on their chosen social strata. All need to be involved with each other in building again and keeping a pretty decent world which allows for fault and for flexibility for high-days and holidays; not to be perfect, according to some abstruse philosophical theory or advantaged society's demand.

We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately. Benjamin Franklin
To John Hancock, at the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776

John Hurley said...

Experts tell Facebook that there is "no meaningful distinction between white supremacy and white nationalism". What's more white nationalism is not a form of ethno-nationalism. When you argue they come up with anecdotes (fallacy of composition). Eric Kaufmann argues that in-group attachment is independent of out-group derogation and uses the term "ethno-tradtional nationalist", which means maintaining a predominance of the dominant ethnic group through slower immigration while not closing the borders completely or excluding minorities from national membership. However if you accept a position like that then you throw in doubt the assumptions behind current multiculturalism and progressivism. "Give nothing to racism" takes on a whole new meaning?

Tom Hunter said...

Guerilla Surgeon... the stage is set for you to comment.

sumsuch said...

All we progressives are going to do is vote to the left of Labour. And every social democrat should so do. In America they have to force Biden down their necks.

It would disappoint me if you voted for Labour. Like you'd been twisted over the disappointing decades to the friends of the rich's purposes.

You used to make cases but now you are as cautious as Labour. Which is the definition of caution.

Mike Grimshaw said...

Three ways to place this in a wider context Chris.
Pop culture has been deeply infused with Manichean dualism since (at least) the emergence of Star Wars. George Lucas deliberately sought to write a mythology for his children and relied heavily on the scholar of religious myth Joseph Campbell who has been accused of anti-semitism and being a romantic fascist.
Secondly, in The American Religion Harold Bloom dissects American religion as a form of gnostisism.
Thirdly, if, as Greil Marcus noted, in the world of popular culture we are all imaginary Americans, then we have insights as to how and why this Manicheanism developed and spread over the past 40 years.

adam said...

Even Christians can't have conversations with other Christians theses days. I had some muppet from a fundamentalist church tell me Saint Helena Augusta was the devil, and her son was the tool of satan.

As you rightly point out Chris, an ugly way of thinking, and one which makes enemies at every turn.

Brendan McNeill said...

"How does Good defeat Evil without taking up the weapons responsible for inflicting the wrongs it is seeking to right?"

Jesus left us his example to follow - the way of the cross, the embrace of suffering. Not hugely popular these days, and unlikely to gain a huge following, but there you have it. It was 'the Way' that defeated the brutal Roman Empire, and in more recent times brought about the collapse of equally brutal Communist rule in the Czech republic through the peaceful dissident Václav Havel and others like him who chose not to live by lies.

That apparently is how it's done. How evil is overcome with good.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Brendan, your knowledge of the Roman Empire is about on a par with your knowledge of:
1. The history of education.
2. The history of poor relief.
If you think the Roman Empire became less cruel under Christianity, you should probably think again. Honestly Brendan you really should stop showing your ignorance, and stick to areas where you might possibly just be theologically qualified.

greywarbler said...

Mike Grimshaw I am interested in how you classify JK Rowling's stories of the kids and Hogwarts. Harry Potter and friends are for the good and combatting a menacing evil it seems to me. They have to keep thinking and working together, and overcoming disagreement, finding out who to trust; in the end being strong, resilient with commitment to each other and the good is everything. Is it as simple as that?

JK Rowling has come out strongly about her feelings that the constant pressure to abandon gender would remove resilience and personal strength.
Having a core belief in the goodness of self might describe it.

Mike Grimshaw said...

From my perspective grey warbler the Harry Potter series are a new manicheanism mythology of anti modern traditionalism
Only if you are in the elect are you ok and safe
Hogwarts is a romantic refuge from everyday suburbia and a a claim of the elect by birth
In the end it is deeply conservative
Rowling's personal views are in conflict with a mythology of discovering your true hidden self...hence the uproar...

John Hurley said...

This is the nail in the coffin for Winston. After last election he was on a high with his anti-immigration stance: then did nothing again. There is a limit to the number of opportunities you get to do nothing.

and (there's more)

Critical Race Theory eats the Jews