Sacred cows and the passage of time

One day, people will wonder why there was any dispute about global warming. [29 April 2014 | Peter Boyer]

The “Life of Brian” television debate, November 1979. (L to R) Mervyn Stockwood, Malcolm Muggeridge, John Cleese and Michael Palin.

Every life has its turning points, events that might not seem important at the time but keep sneaking into your mind years later. One of mine happened in the late 1970s when the Monty Python comedy crew released a movie called Life of Brian.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a dim-witted boy called Brian Cohen whose mother, Mandy, gave birth to him in a cattle stall just down from where, on the same night, Mary gave birth to Jesus.

As a shy young man Brian falls for a lively lass and, keen to impress her, joins her anti-Roman activist group, eventually winding up a fugitive both from crowds of people, who’ve got it into their heads that he’s the Messiah, and from the Romans who want him dead.

Brian’s adventures come to a sticky end when he and other accused miscreants decide they’d rather be crucified than go on a holiday. The movie ends with Brian and the others up on crosses coming together in a rousing chorus of “Always look on the bright side of life”.

Life of Brian was gloriously funny and a box-office success, but it didn’t go down well with some. Two who took special umbrage were Mervyn Stockwood, an Anglican bishop, and writer Malcolm Muggeridge. In October 1979 they got the chance to air their grievances in a debate on the BBC.

In the annals of television, this was as good as it gets. Muggeridge and Stockwood came out swinging in a performance featuring patronising put-downs and finger-wagging. They characterised the film as a “little squalid number” which ridiculed Christianity.

Two of the creators of Life of Brian, John Cleese and Michael Palin, countered that the film made it clear that Brian was not Jesus, and that its main concern was hypocrisy and closed thinking, including the kind shown by Stockwood and Muggeridge.

Seeing the debate now on YouTube is a lesson in how time alters our perceptions. Palin and Cleese seem more-or-less modern, but Muggeridge and Stockwood come across as inquisitors aggressively trying to defend a mindset locked in a fading past.

Life of Brian showed how laughter could derail the purported authority of established religion just as effectively as a more high-minded predecessor, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, had challenged religious teachings in the previous century.

As an Anglican choirboy I listened Sunday after Sunday to the Stockwood brand of sermonising. I was taught to respect “Elizabeth, our Queen and Governor” and to fear the God of our fathers. But my secular education drew me to the likes of Darwin and there was no going back.

We’ve now been able to experience life in the wake of Darwin and all that long list of others who reshaped the thinking of their times, the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, Machiavelli, Newton, Voltaire, Thoreau, Marx, Muir, Pankhurst, Einstein, Keynes, Beauvoir and, yes, Monty Python.

Looking back we see that nearly all these people faced antagonism from established modes of thinking, many suffering public vilification for their thoughts. But in the long run their vision has become acknowledged and valued.

For my part, I’m slow to take up causes. Marx didn’t turn me into a communist any more than Muir made me a greenie. While the God of my youth is no longer in me, I remain an Anglican of sorts: a devotee of church architecture, the King James Bible and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.

Politically I’d call myself conservative, which to me means valuing the central institutions of humanity, especially those of my Tasmanian and Australian communities, and preferring change that is incremental rather than radical.

Which is not the same thing as supporting the so-called “conservative” side of politics. Readers of this column will have noted a tendency toward Green or Labor party positions, but I’m not rusted on to either. I’m guided in all cases by what each party and each candidate has to offer.

I no longer look for meaning outside our Earthly life. While others have God as their anchor, mine is the humanity of which I’m part and the natural world which is our home. I derive from both a deep and profound sense of belonging, and happiness. Call it religion, if you like.

Darwin, Marx, Muir and many others have made a powerful case for us to give a higher value to the non-human part of our world than some religious teachings would seem to allow. Inspired by them I have considered our growing impact on nature, eventually coming to the question of climate.

Our collective journey down the climate road started out as a simple matter of scientific knowledge accumulated since the early 1800s. By the 1990s mainstream science had determined that a rising carbon dioxide level resulting from human activity was warming and destablising our climate.

Things got sticky when this reached the population at large. People came to see that accepting the science of human-induced warming called for profound changes to how we harness and use energy, whereupon some decided that the science must be wrong.

Human-caused climate change is a matter of fact, but we have to accept that it’s also a matter of belief. Individuals and organisations, including many that are wealthy and influential, have come out swinging, much like Muggeridge and Stockwood did all those years ago.

Some religious people see climate science as confirming a sacred trust to care for God’s creation, but others deny it on the basis that God would not allow this to happen. A similar sort of denial happened 150 years ago when the Darwin-Wallace evolutionary theory put humans firmly within the animal kingdom.

Paradigms take time to shift. One day, with global warming glaringly obvious, people will look back and wonder why we spent so much energy arguing about it.

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One Response to Sacred cows and the passage of time

  1. Jeanne Wherrett says:

    I usually buy the Mercury each Tuesday specifically for your column, but this week I felt very sad and disturbed reading it. As a Christian I am one of many who “see climate science as confirming a sacred trust to care for God’s creation”. We continue to work quietly on a personal level with solar panels, building or retrofitting our homes to be energy efficient, growing much of our own food … Some of us are more public in our efforts to bring the climate change issue to the fore.
    Here are two websites/articles that you may find interesting and helpful. They show a groundswell of Christian opinion on environmental issues and our struggles in navigating the way forward.
    http://www.greenchristian.org.uk/
    http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/should-christians-vote-green

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