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False Gods and similes.

The problems to be resolved in order to forestall further depredations on the environment of our planet are such that, as Stephen Ames says in 'Instruments of Idolatry' (Arena Magazine 92), we are required to turn our lives around. Towards what, he asks, before suggesting towards a moral form of living driven by justice, mercy and kindness--a response imagined in the biblical injunction to love God and one's neighbour. By adopting this way, we will detach ourselves from the 'false gods' commanding those forms of living that have produced the current pressures on climate. False gods enslave and efface so that human persons are no longer present to one another. Only the gods--which he profiles--are in our lines of sight.

Any good metaphor works, it seems to me, if it helps to dramatise and explain to us how we have got to the exigency of this present climate moment, and the metaphor of idolatry is an ancient and efficacious one. Moreover, it works across traditions. It is not particularly surprising, as perhaps Ames would have it, to find talk of idols in Arena. Even in the context of so many contradictions there has ever been room for one more: the gods without voices--the fetishes--have always retained in Arena's pages their signifying delusory presence. It is the God who talks to us who has been unspoken there.

I recognise in the pages of Arena what Ames describes as its 'relational ontology'--the intrinsic value it puts upon persons--and the ground thus formed for the critique Arena proffers (and for the invitation to comment). However, in reminding us of the religious character of talk about idols, and fetishes, I am not sure that in fact he is--as he hopes--signalling the strengthening of 'the possibility of cooperation between the secular and the religious traditions'. It seems to me instead that he may be reminding us of just how unhelpful that embedded dichotomy is as a model of the way things really are.

For one, it does not acknowledge that the familiarity and intelligibility of idol talk--even in the pages of Arena--points to the way the religious suffuses the secular. It does not help us understand how inevitably problematic it must be to shield ourselves from recognising this.

For another, this dichotomy does not represent the reality of the lives lived by religious people who dwell in a secular domain--or the lives of non-religious people who dwell there with them; in other words, everyday Australian reality. In that secular context, religious people act in concert with fellow citizens who may be either non-religious or religious--to campaign for the cutting of green house gases, for judicious use of resources, for greater awareness of the factors creating climate stresses etc. In so doing, they--religious and non-religious people together--constantly recreate the secular domain with all its possibilities for interaction and action. They may each enter that secular domain moved by differently grounded and articulated insights, as well as some shared ones, but its rich, hospitable and enabling character is sustained by both kinds of insights.

The problems raised by proposing implicitly that 'secular' and 'religious' are in some kind of dichotomous relationship are unwittingly pointed to by the invocation of Luther's 95 Theses early in 'Instruments of Idolatory'. (This is courtesy of Tony Juniper, Executive Director of England's Friends of the Earth who urged environmental reformation with 95 Proposals for reducing greenhouse gases.) First, quoting Juniper in calling up this connection or image, Ames risks calling up fractiousness and division alongside the prophetic. As if the climate change debate is not already marked by that sort of thing! Between them, they remind us that history is telling, in ways Juniper cannot have understood. (Or maybe, being English, he thinks the discussion was closed a long time ago.) Otherwise he would not have engaged so partially in such symbol borrowing. Or so uncomprehendingly. Luther's gesture launches the Reformation--and with it the de-sacralising of Creation and the destruction of 'a vast and resonant world of symbols' connecting people to immanent meaning. (You can be grateful for the Enlightenment and acknowledge this at the same time.)

Maybe the lesson is that metaphors are OK, but similes? Beware of them. They do not work to create possibility and insight in quite the way metaphors do. And in this Stephen Ames is right: the metaphor of false gods can help us to useful understanding.
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Author:Coffey, Margaret
Publication:Arena Magazine
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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