Saturday, June 24, 2006

Ghosts at cockcrow

"The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more, and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them . . . The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow."

- G. M. Trevelyan


Anonymous said...


I'm curious.

I happened upon your blog entirely by accident (I won't say providence) purely due to what is seemingly an equal admiration for Trevelyan's insight. It's one of my favourite quotes.

I then went on to read your stated Heroes and Nemeses.

I plead ignorance in the case of Karl Barth and you'll shortly understand why, however, I certainly saw commonality in Jed Bartlet (fictional as he may be.. assuming that there is not an alternative flesh and blood version), misplaced apostrophes, escapist eschatologies, and urban 4WDs.

what I do find curious is I find Trevelyan's observation all the more compelling and relevant (despite the recourse to miracles.. though I hasten to contextualise that it is at least quasi-miraculous) because I am an atheist (BTW, I do not capitalise atheist for a distinct reason) whereas you, it seems, are most certainly not.

I absolutely do not begrudge you your faith despite the fact that I find religion to be harmful, mainly due to my liberal leanings (in the true sense, not the Australian political sense).

You may, in fact, feel that my admiration for Trevelyan's insight somehow betrays some hidden spiritual desire. It does not.

What is quasi-miraculous to me is the quasi-prescient passage of benefit from one generation to the next, as Trevelyan surely assumed from his predecessors, and that this has manifested itself purely and entirely from natural cause, not due to some form of divine intervention which I contend is causually an underlying animistic and very human dependency on fear, and more specifically fear of the unknown. Something which science has proven (if you forgive the pun) eminently capable of casting light on.

Despite that, I found your quote lonely and in need of company. :)

byron smith said...

Jeremy - thanks for your thoughts. I now can't remember where I came across this quote, but I am not particularly familiar with Trevelyan apart from it. Can you recommend anything further to read?

I found the quote a particularly evocative way of expressing the debt each generation owes those who went before and the transience of what can seem at present so permanent. At once it captures both the continuity and discontinuity of history, and identifies this with history's poetry. Such thoughts are in one sense deeply theological, even if we make no explicit reference to a god or gods, since even (and perhaps sometimes especially) the atheist can feel the tragedy of this poetry.

I agree that religion is often harmful, though would also humbly submit that the absence of religion is also often harmful. The question is which type of faith (or its absence) is beneficial?

There is a certain kind of atheism to which I think I am more closely related than you might realise. To make this point, here is a quote from Jürgen Moltmann:

Is not every unbeliever who has a reason for his atheism and his decision not to believe a theologian too? Atheists who have something against God and against faith in God usually know very well whom and what they are rejecting, and have their reasons. Nietzsche’s book The Antichrist has a lot to teach us about true Christianity, and the modern criticism of religion put forward by Feuerbach, Marx and Freud is still theological in its antitheology.

Beyond that, moreover, there is a protest atheism which wrestles with God as Job did, and for the sake of the suffering of created beings which cries out to high heaven denies that there is a just God who rules the world in love. This atheism is profoundly theological, for the theodicy question -- "If there is a good God, why all this evil?" -- is also the fundamental question of every Christian theology which takes seriously the dying Christ’s question to God: "My God, why have you forsaken me?"

(The full text of that essay "Godless theology", can be found here).

I would love to hear any thoughts you have on this piece and whether you recognise anything of your own atheism in it.

BTW, I think there is plenty in Barth that even (and perhaps especially) an atheist might find interesting.

Anonymous said...


Whilst I might consider myself somewhat a self-informed devotee of History, I have not as of yet overly acquainted myself with the works of Trevelyan. The text in question struck a chord. I do, in consuming the work of Historians, have a biased tendency to rely on the work of later historians; perhaps with a misapprehension that such work might capture more relevant and recent discoveries or insights. Alas, I am but an amateur in such fields as I fully recognise that any such work is not necessarily any more valid than those that predate it, subject to the subject in question.

I agree with your observations that Trevelyan's words are evocative and could, in an atheist's mind from a theologian's
perspective, be considered to be theological in nature; but I do not consider them to be so.

I do not think that the harm or otherwise of religion is a matter of its type. I think that anything that unecessarily clouds the rational mind is harmful to reason and therefore is harmful to the human species.

Nor do I think that the human species has any greater right to exist than any other form of life. It is purely by virtue of our evolution that we have assumed a dominant position, at least at this juncture, in the context of our immediate world.

In saying that, however, I absolutely do not contend that humanity should exist in the absence of morality. Morality is a
necessity of human existence (and not one that should somehow be inextricably tied to religious notion) and a function of evolution. Its roots can be found in the tribal behaviour of other animal species where goodwill to others manifests itself in higher rates of survival. We have simply (if you forgive the irony) mixed it with prescience to concoct something that still confounds.

Nor do I think that we should excuse ourselves from questioning events and phenomena around us. To do so would bring an ubrupt end to our development. Mystery, as it were, is an essential ingredient to the curious human mind.

To the words of Moltmann, whilst I can recognise the pitch of the argument, I reject the premise. By personifying God in the context of the argument and then presenting God as an opposing force to the athetist position, Moltmann (and I say this reservedly having not read beyond the context of your quote, the link you've provided notwithstanding - time doesn't allow at present but I will revisit) has elevated God to the realm of the real. By accepting him as the opposite, an atheist is
compelled to acknowledge God's presence in a sense and might as well surrender his or her position (if logic is to ironically rule).

Further to that, I find the phrase "True Christianity" to be oxymoronic. For the same reason I would find "True Islam" oxymoronic. What is "True Christianity"? If it is a moral position, one which promotes good will to all Man then I wholeheartedly agree; but such moral behaviour does not require religion to manifest itself.

As for the theologic question: "If there is a good God, why all this evil" - the context in which "good" and "evil" are referred to here is entirely abstract and supposes that there are definitive concepts of "good" and "evil". "Good" and
"Evil" don't actually exist. There is most certainly right and wrong - conditions which are built on a foundation of genetic, memetic, and cultural values; and this does not make such positions any less valid merely because they aren't visited by some abstract divine sanction.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I do not think that the text "My God, why have you forsaken me?" is consistent or even acknowledged across the numerous incarnations of the Bible according to the various Disciples? One of many examples as to why the Bible should be regarded as questionable and very Human in its makeup.

Signing off, I cannot say that the conceit of religion is not at all tempting. It is manifestly so, which is why it still maintains a strong presence in the modern world. Most assuredly, such ignorance would be bliss (and I hurriedly state that I
state such words from my own perspective, as imperfect as it is - to each his or her own values and beliefs) if I could bring myself to believe it.

BTW, I do not think that the manufacture of all religious inspiration is unworthy. I take pleasure in the artistic expression, in image and word, of those so inspired because it has so often and repeatedly demonstrated the genius of Man. It is to be admired. Nor do I think that it would be healthy for Man to lose his / her sense of mystery and wonder.


byron smith said...

Jeremy - I am not sure why, but I did not receive your second reply via email as I usually do. It seems Blogger can be capricious sometimes, especially with older posts. And so I have only just come across it now. I apologise if my lack of reply gave you the impression that I was not interested or had given up. However, I also recognise that almost two years have passed since our first exchange and that continuing it may or may not be of benefit. I will not be offended if you don't reply, since Blogger might not notify you either! And if it does, I understand if you'd prefer to leave this conversation where it was.