Saturday, July 12, 2008

Authors who put the case

Some books do not entertain so much as teach by confronting us with something. Two novels I can think of make for stark reflection, but they may have an important lesson. "Lord Of The Flies" is about a group of school age boys marooned on an island without any adult or cultural supervision or control. "Heart Of Darkness" is about Europeans involved in colonial trade in Africa, during the 1800s. In both scenarios, the people involved lapse into savage and barbaric behaviour. The boys on the island begin quarreling, they divide into two hostile groups and some of them become murderous in their treatment of others. They also invent a god for themselves and a 'beast', an enemy figure they are meant to be united against.
In 'Heart Of Darkness', the Europeans, supposedly a civilizing influence on the Africans, become savage and cruel themselves. The image of the 'whited sepulchre' is an obvious Biblical reference.
It would be a mistake for me to stand here in judgement and make comments as if I was one to talk. So whatever I say is about humans myself included, not my condemnation of others.
The self-preservation instinct is natural to any living thing. It's the only way they will survive sometimes, if we think to keep ourselves safe and get for ourselves the things we need. Problem is, the difference between self-preservation and selfishness is not always easy to decide on. You can look at these two books, or at a situation like the air-crash survivors in the Andes Mountains about whom "Survive" was written (they ate the flesh of their dead friends to avoid starving) and ask yourself, what would you do in the same situation? I would have to admit that I've been inclined to try and get away with things for my own benefit.
That's the problem. The saying goes, "if you don't look after yourself, no-one else will."
Could it be that this is where humans need to turn to something greater than themselves? There are situations and dilemmae they do not have ready or workable answers to, and only a greater power and intelligence can resolve this?
The Humanist view is that humans are naturally good and want to be their best possible selves. That does not explain why given the chance, one human will so often try exploiting another. It can be quite sobering sometimes to find out of someone that they did things you never thought they would. As the comical expression goes, "I didn't think you had it in you." But they did.
Study of the National Socialist era in Germany shows that some of the war criminals, who did the most appalling things, were affable 'normal' people at other times. Even Hitler himself was seen to be kind to children and to love his dog. I've seen a photo of some German army personel who were the staff at a concentration camp,
and who also had a camp orchestra. The picture shows them hamming it up for the camera and looking just like a crowd of good natured friends, ordinary people. Yet when at work, they were engaged in mass murder.
From a Christian perspective, we are told to love people but not to idealize them. History seems to show that human nature is not reliable in keeping itself from cruel or even murderous behaviour. Hence the Christian teaching that we need God to be with and within us. I may never find out what I might have been capable of if put in certain situations. I like to think that there have been times when I could have done something selfish or cruel and chose to do something better. But what seems important to say is, we ought not to fool ourselves that we're better than we are.

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