26 March 2023

Monotheistic Hinduism and the Clash of Civilizations

The clash of civilizations updated.

Thirty years ago Samuel Huntington predicted that in the post-Cold War world the clash of ideologies would be replaced by a clash of civilizations, the civilizations concerned being based on religion. He got a few things wrong -- he assumed that the fundamental religion of the West would be Roman Catholic, but it has turned out to be Secular Humanism. In most other respects, however, his scenario in The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of world order has played out in subsequent history.

One example of this is the rise of Hindutva in India, which is remolding Hinduism for political purposes: Why Hinduism Is Being Molded Into A Monotheistic Religion Like Islam And Christianity

The political, cultural and religious symbolism of the occasion, as well as its timing in conjunction with the Hindu festival of lights, Deeputsav, were not lost on the people of India. The event was part of an ongoing, all-encompassing effort to craft and sustain a larger Hindu identity across its diverse traditions and forge Hinduism into a structured faith with Ram as its principal divinity.<

Although Ram is one of the most familiar deities in Hinduism, he is not a central figure in all of its various strains, where different deities are worshipped. However, Hindutva — the reigning political ideology of the far-right government led by Modi, which took power in 2014 — has been systematically working to organize Hinduism along the lines of monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hinduism is otherwise more of a diverse way of life than a formal faith.

Another example is the rise of the Russki Mir doctrine in Russia, and Poroshenko's nationalistic Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which are having a similar effect on Orthodox Christianity. These parallel older movements that have a similar relation to other religions -- Zionism in relation to Judaism and Islamism in the case of Islam.

I think it would be a pity in some ways if Hinduism went monotheistic. One of the things that made it interesting has been its polytheism, or at least the polytheism of certain branches of Hinduism; some bracnhes, like Advaita Vedanta, have tended to monism, which I find much lass attractive. But it doesn't seem as though Modi is going for that. 

It's not that I myself want to worship Hindu deities -- that is forbidden to Christians -- but within a Christian worldview such deities can be seen as angels, created gods ontologically different from the creator, but nevertheless among the "things invisible" created  by God.

20 March 2023

Robot Centenary

R.U.R. and The Insect Play

R.U.R. and The Insect Play by Josef Čapek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems appropriate to read R.U.R. on the centenary of its first publication in English, as the literary work which first introduced the word robot to the English language. R.U.R. stands for Rossum's Universal Robots, a firm that produced artificial workers to take care of the drudgery that human workers didn't like doing.

The firm is based on a remote island, from which it exports its products to many parts of the world, and business is booming when governments discover that robots make efficient soldiers too, with the advantage that they have no relatives to mourn their loss. 

The island-factory is visited by Helena Glory, who is concerned about whether the robots may be sentient beings, and therefore might possibly have, or perhaps ought to have, legal rights similar to human rights, and eventually there is a robot revolt.

As a result of the play the word "robot" became part of the English language, at first mainly in science fiction, where is spawned a plethora of stories about artificial workers. I'm not sure when it first began to be used for real-life replacements for human workers, but I suspect that one of the earliest instances was in South Africa, where coloured traffic lights replaced human policemen in controlling the traffic at intersections and so came to be called robots. The electro-mechanical robot replacements initially stood where the human traffic controller had stood, in the middle of the intersection, but later they were moved to poles at the sides or gantries overhead, especially in one-way streets. But quite recently a town in India has even made one that looks like a human traffic cop

And now everyone is talking about artificial text aggregators, like ChatGPT, and several of my friends have been asking them theological questions and compiling long theological essays from the answers to such questions, and I've been looking to see what they get right and what they get wrong. Though people are talking about Artificial Intelligence (AI), I don't think these programs are sentient, and they are a long way from reaching the level of the robots in R.U.R. a century ago. Basically ChatGPT is just a powerful database engine with a very large dataset, and works on the same GiGo (Garbage In, Garbage Out) principle as other database programs, with a more sophisticated reporting system.

The Insect Play, which I found even more interesting from the point of view of history of literature, seemed to be in the same category as the plays of Jean Genet or Samuel Beckett of 20-30 years later. Perhaps they were pioneers of the genre. The Insect Play reminded me of The Balcony by Jean Genet, a kind of precursor of the theatre of the absurd.

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11 March 2023

Woke, wokeness and wokeism

Over the last few years the words "woke", "wokeness" and "wokeism" have become thoroughly skunked. When people use them, one is never sure what they mean by them without further definition.

One can get a vague approximation of meaning if you know that those using the words think they signify something that they approve of, or something that they disapprove of, but even then it is often pretty vague.

I'm going to stick my neck out, and say how I understand them, and try to find out how many people have a similar understanding, in the hope of clarifying the meaning, at least among people that I talk to.

Woke, as I understand it, means being aware of social injustice.

In my youth, an equivalent term was "with it", though it applied to a much wider range of things than social injustice. To be "with it" meant that you were aware of what was happening in a particular field of human activity. It could, for example, be jazz music and musicians. You were with it if you knew and appreciated the music and knew who the musicians were that people were talking about.

Woke means much the same thing, but in the narrower field of social justice. To be woke means to be aware of the kinds of injustice that are endemic and sysyemic in a particular society. There's also an interesting shibboleth here -- people who are not woke, and disapprove of wokeness, usually do not know the difference between the meanings of "systemic" and "systematic" and often confuse them, and think that people who are talking about one are talking about the other.

Wokeness is the state of being woke, it is the awareness of social injustice.

Wokeism, in my understanding, is something different. People who are wokeist are those who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. They tend to major on minors, as some people say. They largely ignore the big issues, and focus attention on mpre trivial ones, and often use big words like "intersectionality" as an excuse for claiming that the smaller issues are just as important as the big ones.

A recent example of this kind of wokeism is the bowdlerisation of Roald Dahl's children's books by the publishers Puffin books. Perhaps the publishers were trying to be woke, but if so, they failed miserably, and were thoroughly dishonest as well, in that they misrepresented Roald Dahl.

In one book Dahl makes the point that reading books can make people aware of different countries and cultures. Kipling, for example, can take a child to India. The Puffin editors substituted Jane Austen. This censorship seems to have been automated on ebook readers like Kindle. This kind of censorship is not "woke", it's the opposite of woke; but it might be wokeism.

And then there is the matter of being anti-woke.

On 20 February 2022 Roman Pope Francis tweeted on Twitter:

#SocialJustice demands that we fight against the causes of poverty: inequality and the lack of labour, land, and lodging; against those who deny social and labour rights; and against the culture that leads to taking away the dignity of others.
Pope Francis (@Pontifex) February 20, 2023

Now that's pretty woke. It is, in fact, the essence of wokeness. But anti-woke crusader and pop psychologist Jordan Peterson responded with:

There is nothing Christian about #SocialJustice . Redemptive salvation is a matter of the individual soul. https://t.co/cKFt3umiAl
Dr Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) March 2, 2023

As one Orthodox deacon (not me!) commented, it's a good thing this pope bloke has Jordan Peterson to tell him what Christianity is. The first sentence in Peterson's tweet is simply a lie. On the contrary, there is nothing Christian about deprtiving people of social and labour rights. The second sentence is a partial truth, taken out of context. Though being woke does not make one a Christian, to be anti-woke is to be anti-Christian.

09 March 2023

Urban Fantasy vs Rural Fantasy in Children's Books

Over the last few years I've taken to writing children's novels that could be broadly categorised as "rural fantasy". I've published three such books, all of them set in the mid-1960s. Two of them are set in apartheid South Africa, while the third has a more international setting.

One of the motivations for writing such stories was a conversation between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in which they concluded that if they wanted to see more of the kind of stories they liked, they should have to write them themselves. I liked some of the stories they had written as a result, and also stories by their fellow Inkling Charles Williams, and ones by Alan Garner.

Alan Garner's first two children's stories, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath were rural fantasy, but his third, Elidor ventured into urban fantasy. They are set in Manchester and neighbouring Cheshire in England. I liked them, but Alan Garner moved on to other things, and Lewis and Tolkien were dead, so I thought I'd have to write some myself.

Another motivation was to give South African children an idea of what life was like under apartheid, and rural fantasy seemed the best vehicle for that. One reason for that is that, by the very nature of apartheid, black children and white children had few opportunities to meet in towns. White children sometimes had opportunities to meet black adults, though mostly as domestic servants and therefore as social inferiors. Black children had even fewer opportunities to meet white adults. So I chose to set my children's stories in rural areas of the southern Drakensberg, where there were white farming families, and also some independent black peasant farmers who were not employed by whites, and therefore not servants, though they were under threat of removal from what the apartheid government had declared as "white areas".

But now I'm trying my hand at urban fantasy, which is a more recognised genre than rural fantasy, but also in some ways more difficult to write. So I wrote about a group of white children, who have few or no opportunities of meeting black children. And in the 1960s the only black people that most urban white children had an opportunity to meet were clergy, and that only if they knew white clergy who would introduce them to black clergy.

I thought I'd try setting my story in Johannesburg, mainly because that was where I happened to be living at that time and so was most familiar with it. But there are also disadvantages. Many urban fantasy novels feature things like underground railways and underground tunnels. and there was a shortage of those in Johannesburg in my period. The only underground tunnels that I was aware of was stormwater drains. And, in the southern parts, mines. I suppose one could make something of those.

Are there any other urban fantasy novels, esecially ones for children, set in Johannesburg? Or indeed in any other South African city? I would like to know how they handled some of these things.


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