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.