Oz Blog News Commentary

Guest post from John Burnheim

August 18, 2021 - 00:59 -- Admin

John sent me the text below in response to reading my essay on John Macmurray. As you may know he trained as a priest and after many decades lost his faith. He is now in his nineties and must have things read to him. I presume he dictates his correspondence. I have enjoyed corresponding with him over the last few years and asked if I could reproduce his email on Troppo which I found both moving and characteristically powerful in its analysis.

Hi Nicholas

Macmurray belongs to my clerical days, from 1940 to 1968, in which he figured as a great ally in my squandering every strand of my life to reformulating and defending the validity and supreme importance of Catholic orthodoxy.

I have always rejected suggestions that I should attempt to set out the reasons for my long service to the Church and my disillusion with it. I have always seen that to do that is inevitably to give support to the atheist contrary with its reductionism. What is needed is to get beyond theism etc and the assumptions it shares with atheism.

In traditional metaphysics the core assumption is that what constitutes the workings and meaning of all things is the substances of which they are composed. A substance is a stuff that can exist by itself.  By contrast relations exist only when they are exemplified by substances.

I could write a long treatise and fail to convince anybody that it is more than jargon.

My theory is that the importance attributed to self-sufficiency is due to thinking that it favours power, whereas in fact it is a matter of lack of significance. Things have significance only in relation to webs of other things and these webs are different in flexibility and complexity. The key for understanding what things are lies in getting access to richer levels of complexity. But we lazily and selfishly prefer simplicity.

Love is greatly various and complexly positive. Hatred is simplistic, like its object evil which is often just a poor and uninteresting illusion of power.

The following has been written since I have now been able to access your essay, read to me by my wife since I am separated from my readers by the ravages of the lockdown.

I agree with most of Macmurray and with your appreciation of him. My differences both with him and you might be summarised briefly by saying that you are wrong to see the world of politics and business as full of lies while refusing to recognise that the worst lies in the history of civilization have been the major religions, which have lived on the sort of false beliefs that put politics and greed in the shade.

However, my point is twofold. The adherents of real life religion are not properly called liars any more than Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher, but sincere believers; like all of us driven by a way of looking at the world and deluding themselves about what ought to be the remedy for its ills.

The vice of all the major religions is to set an impossible standard as the core of morality so as to convince the moral agent that they are hopeless and can be saved only by rejecting their nature as soaked in evil.

It is one of the great improvements of our day that morality has come to be based on the sort of rational analysis that the great Scots Hume and Adam Smith advocated and a sense that its role is to bring to all a life of respect of oneself and others. What was sometimes valid in religions was the set of myths that gave a more humane sense of human life. It was not all bad and many of us thought that the authority that promoted them must have a fundamental role in social life.

If I had more steam I could elaborate on this and other sources of self-deception. More constructively I could explain why I think that the most important discovery of the twentieth century is that logic and mathematics are one but infinitely diverse. Different methodologies produce different results each of which has a limited validity in a certain context. However many of the themes that govern our lives are like sports and poetry, inventions to provide activities that acquire meaning quite independently of objective reality.