Thursday, March 1, 2012

Don't call me 'sir' (but do worry about theology)

I've my regular Canberra Times column up today, 'Stop submerging status in the subservience of "sir"'.

I'm discussing the return of 'sir' at caf├ęs and supermarkets, and what it suggests about employment. A sample:
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once noted that the cafe waiter plays at being a waiter. With his clothes, gait, gestures, language, he becomes his role - and nothing else. It is an attempt to give up responsibility for his own identity and take some handy, off-the-shelf persona. And to some extent, customers like this: they don't want a waiter with a rich inner life, but someone to reliably and quickly bring coffee. 
This is even worse for the supermarket, where checkout employees are encouraged to be as efficient as possible: machines for swiping and stacking, not full, free human beings. The use of honorifics like ''sir'' is part of this play: the transformation of people into obvious, straightforward jobs, without all the ambiguity and ambivalence of a free identity.
(Photo: German Federal Archive)

I also have my regular ABC column up today, 'Why worry about theology?'

While theology is a dubious way to gain truth, it is a good brain workout, and exercise for the imagination - like the ambitious fiction it is.  A sample:
perhaps the most powerful, if less commonly recognised, virtue of theology is its contribution to imagination. We read Augustine or Aquinas, not to discover cosmological or even ethical truths, but to have a fuller idea of Augustine, Aquinas and their era. As Ludwig Feuerbach suggested in the 19th century, theology thereby becomes anthropology or psychology: we learn about the strange concepts, complexes, reflexes of the religious psyche.

This is a cognitive labour, of course: the intellectual labours Hume described. But it is also an imaginative work: putting oneself into the mind of another, and trying to properly fathom its murky currents. This is less about pure logic, and more about intelligent fantasy: suspending one's disbelief to better see and feel the fictional creation. Like a good novel, theology is another lesson in the Promethean (sometimes Sisyphean) plasticity of the human psyche.

Of course, there is the danger of dedicating oneself too fully with time and energy – investing in what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in Pascalian Meditations, calls the illusio: committed belief in the social game. At a certain age, it can be too late to turn back: one has comfortable status, income and psychological supports.

Not every student of theology can, like Nietzsche, recognise faith's blind-spots so early on. But for modern thinkers, this generally happens with corporations or secular institutions like political parties or associations, not the church. Most atheists or agnostics can play with Paul Tillich's brilliant ideas without slipping into the habit – or the cassock.

Nietzsche, for all his taunting, did worry about theologians. But only because he read them so carefully.

1 comment:

Elisabeth said...

I read in Eviatar Zerubavel's book The elephant in the room, on conspiracies of silence that this attempt to reduce waiters who serve us in restaurants and employees at supermarkets to subhuman machines at our beck and call is an excellent example of one such conspiracy of silence. It seems we don't want such people to have identities and lives in order for them to become, for a few minutes only, our slaves. I'm with you about the horrible use of the honorific.