Friday, August 31, 2012

Clear Conscience Atheism.

It is with great sadness that I record the recent death of my brother-in-law Jonathan Benison. His obituary can be found here.

Jonathan had a busy career in teaching but nevertheless had the time to be a caring, sacrificial and successful family man. His commitment to family life extended beyond his nuclear family: I was very impressed when as late as May of this year he made the tedious journey from Paris with his Italian wife Daniela to my son’s wedding in London even though at that stage his health was clearly being impacted by the ravages of cancer.
Jon’s many pupils no doubt benefited from his literary erudition. In fact I myself was inspired by some of his work. I have in my possession three treasured books which would not have been possible without Jon’s input. These books can be seen in the photo below:

These books are:
Imago Mundi:. [1995 Biblos] This is a quality production on the history of cosmology by Francesco Bertola. Jonathan provided the section of this book that contains the English translation from the Italian. It is a good read for those who want a scholarly overview of the history of human perspectives on cosmology. (While we are on the subject of translations from the Italian, see the following blog entries where I provide some of Jon’s translations of the songs of Franscesco Guccini: See below and here  and here. He did these translations in the last two years of his life)
Brave New World: [1991 Cideb Editrice] This book contains Jon’s editorial commentary for English literature students.
The Time Machine: [1994 Cideb Editrice] This is another book containing Jon’s editorial expositions.
As I’m not a literary man I greatly benefited from Jon’s learning. In particular I found his found his exposition of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine extremely illuminating. This was a book that had fascinated me from my youth when I first read it (in 1967). In fact I found Jon’s commentary so inspiring that it prompted to I write a two part essay called “The Riddle of the Sphinx”. I may make those essays available on this blog at some stage, although they are not really recommended reading: Unlike Jon I’m not a fluent writer and I really only write as means of using it to crystalize my thinking and to ward off boredom. (It’s a kind of therapy for me)
Jon was an atheist and knowing him to be a deep and fair thinker he would undoubtedly have had good reasons to be so: I do not accept the common evangelical view that somehow all atheists are knowingly rebelling against God and have bad consciences (Fundamentalists may use their reading of Romans 1 to impeach the consciences of atheists). Amongst other reasons for rejecting religion I know that Jon had seen more than enough of the institutionalized nastiness of authoritarian religion and the conceits and deceits of the fundamentalists; such religion has the finger prints of flawed humanity all over it. In fact I’ve been all but put off Christianity by such people myself, so I’m sure Jon was justified in being repulsed by it all.
Although I'm seriously courting theism I never really had the chance to talk about theism & atheism with Jon. But a few months before his death (and after he had read some of my blog material) he emailed me about the subject and I had the opportunity to put my position before him.
As a theist what can I say about Jon’s atheism? For me a Biblical writer expresses it well:
For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. Romans 2:13-16
If there is a next world and given that the gospel of Christ is about love, justice, sacrifice, mercy and above all grace, then in my opinion someone like Jonathan Benison ought to be well received in that world.
"Letter" by Franscesco Guccini:


The cherry-tree in the garden has come into bloom with the new sunshine
The neighbourhood is soon filled with snow from the poplars and with words.
At one o’clock on the dot the clatter of plates reaches the ears
The TVs’ thunderous rumble meets the unfazed indifference of the cats;
As you can see, everything’s normal in this pointless sarabande
But blowing through this unchanging pattern of life is the whiff of a question,
The prickly presence of an eternal doubt, what’s past seething like an ants’ nest,
Troubling those who leave it till winter to wish it were summer again.

The streets are coming back to life, a perfect finishing touch to the world,
Mother and daughter brazenly parade the same face and round bottom,
Identical in the head, no history, challenging everything, no limits,
Their strutting briefly outdone by the wailing of swallows and children;
As you can see, nothing out of the ordinary in this cumulus of life and death,
But, sobering thought, I’m not unhappy stuck in this rut of wishes and fate,
This over-shiny net, these goals we dream up for ourselves,
This unquenchable thirst, of those who hold back, unwilling to fly.

Slowly the roses wither, clusters of fruit appear on the apple-trees,
High up, clouds pass silently through the strips of cobalt-blue sky;
I lie stretched out on the fantastic green-grass plane of my past
But just-like-that age dispels all I believed and have not been;
As you can tell, everything’s just fine in this world free of worries,
As life skimmed past me, I correctly discussed the set topics,
My enthusiasms never lasted long, lots of philosophising stances,
A life of amusing encounters turned tragic, some too close for comfort, some not close enough.

But the times gone by, who will return them to me? Who’ll give me back the seasons
Of glass and sand, who can bring back rage and gestures, women and songs,
The lost friends, books I devoured, the simple enjoyment of appetites,
The healthy thirst of the parched, the blind faith in poor myths?
As you can see, everything’s as usual, just that time is pressing and the suspicion arises
That it’s not a big deal to be weary and breathless at the end of a race,
To be anxious as people are the day after, or sad at the end of a match,
No big deal the slow aimless unfolding of this thing that you call life.

Translated by Jonathan Benison

No comments: