Wednesday, January 27, 2010

So We're Reading Candide...

Pavement--"Shady Lane (live)" (mp3)

So we're reading Candide and there's a part in the middle where they end up in a place that the Europeans call "El Dorado," a place that's about as close to a perfect society as you're going to find, though admittedly the vision of it is somewhat limited by Voltaire's imagination (for example, even though there is no class structure and no purpose to having a king, he still envisions it as a monarchy because that's all he knows), but he develops something pretty interesting when the question of religion comes up--Candide wants to know if they worship a god (they do), which god it is (they are suprised by this question since there is only one God), do they pray (yes, but their prayers are only focused on thanks and praised, not wants and supplication), where are their priests (they don't have any because there is no need for any)--all of which is to establish an idea that gives the students a lot of trouble, the idea that there really is only one God and because there is only one, there is no need for any of the religious conflicts that have plagued mankind from the beginning, and though the students kind of get it, they don't like it, so I say, "Look, here's how you see it: imagine there is, to simplify things, a Christian god, a Jewish god, a Muslin god, and you all, in your minds, circle one of these three and draw an 'x' through the other two, but the El Doradans, they see it as one God and that the three religions are just different ways of getting at that one God," and when I demonstrate this on the board, I can see the unease, and the arguments begin, most interestingly articulated by a boy who says, "Well, maybe a lukewarm Christian or a lukewarm Jew would see it this way, but if you were really well-versed in the Scriptures and texts then you would know that this can't possibly be so because the three gods are so different," and I, feeling tepid, say, "The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are different, too," and feeling my oats, add that "Maybe it isn't the gods that are different, maybe it's the human perceptions that are different," and I compare God to the Internet--there are different web servers that can get you there, but they all get you to the same Internet, but this probably doesn't make anyone too happy, either, so I retreat a little to a safer Voltarian stance, because regardless of what he may have believed, he is clearly reacting to religious strife, to the sectarian violence, to the Protestant vs. Catholic wars that were plaguing Europe in his day; there are a few kids who get it, not that they have to, since we're just messing with the ideas, and one boy grasps it, saying to his classmates , "What Voltaire means is that the people of Eldorado believe there is only one God, while you believe there is only your God," and I'm thinking, 'Yeah, therein lies the difference' and I look at my drawing of the one god circled and the two next to it with the "x"s drawn through them and, aloud, remind my students that that's the way it was in Voltaire's time and that's the way it still is now and when you see it in those simple terms, it sure looks silly, the implicit and explicit ways that one portion of humanity tells other large portions of humanity that they are wrong, which sure hasn't gotten us very far. Whew.

3 comments:

troutking said...

May I suggest Phish's Heavy Things to accompany this post?

Billy said...

This post reminds me of the young former teacher and alumnus who spoke in Chapel and used the "Blind Men and the Elephant" fable and excoriated it (or, um, attempted to).

Another talk he gave when he was a student concluded with him picking up mud and rubbing it all over himself and his clothes to symbolize how unworthy and unclean he was.

I can't remember a single other person who has spoken in that Chapel who frightened me more, because I saw in him a disturbing similarity to religious extremists who kill for their faith.

Bob said...

I remember that, too. And my student was essentially arguing that the more fervent, committed, even fanatical you are in your religious beliefs, the more right you are. You, of course, point out the potential problem in that perspective. Or as Voltaire has Candide ask, "Have you no monks who teach...and burn people who are not of their opinion?"