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Barry Jones on epiphanies, our moral challenges and Trump

TMA Editor Roland Ashby talks with national living treasure Barry Jones about faith, art, morality and modern politics

By Roland Ashby

June 15 2017National living treasure and polymath Barry Jones AC describes himself as a “Northern Hemisphere Christian”. “If I go to Europe, almost the first thing I’ll do is make a beeline for a cathedral, particularly if there’s religious music on. I’ve had so many numinous experiences in some of the great European cathedrals that it’s a very special part of fulfilling myself.”

A former minister for science in the Hawke Government, and the only member of all four of Australia’s academies of science, humanities, social science, and technology and engineering, Dr Jones says he is a life-long sufferer of “Stendhal’s Syndrome”, the experience of being completely overwhelmed, physically and emotionally, in the presence of transcendent beauty.

In his memoir, A Thinking Reed, he writes: “I recognise the numinous when I encounter it, responding by a shuddering in my spine, changed breathing, faster heartbeat, heightened emotion, the lightning strike of imagination, an unexpected sense of familiarity with something completely unknown, places, sights and sounds which transcend the normal and quotidian.”

He goes on to describe two powerful numinous experiences or epiphanies he had on his sixtieth birthday. “One was in the great octagonal Palatine Chapel of Aachen Cathedral, consecrated in 805, built for the Emperor Charlemagne in Romanesque style and inspired by his visits to St Vitale in Ravenna, very simple but with some Eastern features, including alternating black and white stones in the arches.

“I felt an overwhelming need to pray, coupled with an out-of-body experience which I cannot rationalise or even explain coherently, except as a brief moment of rapture or possession.”

The second epiphany occurred, he writes, “in the nearby town of Trier, in the Gothic church of St Gangolf in the market square. I walked in to the empty church to hear an organist practising, over and over, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548, one of his supreme achievements. I felt overwhelmed, and the structure, logic and irresistible power of the music compelled a sense of divine order.”

Bach, he told TMA, had an “extraordinary intelligence, operating at a kind of incandescent level. There is something absolutely elemental and universal about him”.

He agrees that something of the same divine order Bach’s music points to can be discerned in the laws of mathematics, citing the book Just Six Numbers, by Martin Rees. “It’s a remarkable book. I don’t think Rees accepts the God hypothesis, but he does say there appear to be immutable laws that are strange. You have to have these very fine tolerances otherwise the system simply doesn’t work. If the force of gravity is too strong or too weak, everything would go wrong. If temperatures are outside a particular kind of tolerable range, life would be impossible.”

In terms of religious belief, among writers, two Frenchmen, Montaigne and Pascal, have been the most influential in his life. Montaigne warned of the dangers of dogmatism and fundamentalism, and Pascal had an intense and life-changing religious experience, which he recorded in a note he sewed into his coat: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars... I will not forget thy word. Amen.”

Pascal also famously said: “All mankind’s unhappiness derives from one thing: his inability to know how to remain in repose in one room.”

Dr Jones agrees that “many people are very uncomfortable with themselves”. “Montaigne puts very heavy emphasis on getting to know yourself and devoting time to yourself. He also memorably said that we all need to maintain ‘a little room at the back of the shop’ where you retreat to and no one else is there.” In other words, a contemplative space, where, Dr Jones says, “you’ve got no iPhone, no computer, no people, but you might have some books. You just develop yourself. It’s very important you find that space.”

Even, I suggest, for Presidents of the United States?

“Don’t get me started on that. One of the most worrying and detestable things about Donald Trump is his complete lack of curiosity. He has no intellectual curiosity at all. He either knows the answer already irrespective of what the question is or he doesn’t need to be told, or he will only look for what reinforces the way he feels and that he, not the subject, is central to everything. It’s how he feels, how he reacts. That really is the mindset of the toddler.”

Dr Jones, who was at one time a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, says his interest in religion was kindled, not by his parents, who weren’t religious, but by a grandmother who was devout and to whom he was particularly close, and whose father had had a conversion experience. He has read the Bible from cover to cover three times; the Beatitudes and Corinthians 13: 1-13 are among his favourite verses; and he describes Jesus as a “uniquely powerful and charismatic teacher”. “Jesus was open and not dogmatic… But I’m horrified, and I’d like to think he’d be horrified, about how he’s been used as kind of a back-up force for rather authoritarian rigidity: ‘You must believe along these lines and there’s no other way things can be handled.’ I find that very disconcerting.”

Among Christian art the two paintings that have had the most profound impact on him are The Crucifixion from the Issenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, and The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca. (See below and right.)

“I’m not sure you can find adequate words to really explain the Grunewald Crucifixion… But it captures the profundity of what happened to Jesus and the universality of it: the crucifixion of mankind, the cruelty of torture and the destruction of every kind of dignity that we find in repressive regimes all over the world.

“Piero Della Francesca’s Resurrection is also extraordinary, described by some, including Aldous Huxley, as the greatest painting ever made. I was over 80 when I got to see it, but I recommend you see it when you’re young and active because it’s absolutely magical.”

Does he agree with Kevin Rudd that climate change is the great moral issue of our time?

“Yes; that and refugees. In the early period of his prime ministership, I was perhaps closer to Rudd than I am now, but I was eager to encourage him to take action because it was a classic illustration of where you had to act in a way that may inhibit current patterns of consumption, because of the need to conserve the environment and preserve it for a future generation. In the end, the politics just went pear-shaped and he decided nothing could be done about it at that stage. This was a tragedy, for practical purposes. I think the environment has essentially been off the political agenda, it hasn’t been a priority area, for the last decade, and I think we will come to regret that decision bitterly.

“But the treatment of refugees is also appalling. And it’s appalling because in part, you’ve got the fallacy of the false antithesis, that you say, look, there are only two alternatives: they either drown at sea in leaky boats, or we lock them up and make sure the guards bash them up from time to time. They’re the only two alternatives.

“Well they’re not! Part of the problem is the failure of both political parties, I think, to do any kind of comprehensive analysis, a statistical analysis. I mean in Europe they’re dealing with a refugee problem in terms of millions, perhaps tens of millions. We’re dealing with thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands. It is a manageable problem.

“It seems to me absolutely despicable. You see, once you reach bipartisanship, or at least effective bipartisanship, that means there’s no room for debate.

“The public opinion polls have said yes, bashing up refugees is quite popular so why would you challenge that? So I’m just dismayed by the whole political process at the moment over that issue because of the complete lack of ethics and complete lack of empathy.

“It’s partly because the refugees have been thoroughly de-humanised in the way they’ve been dismissed, but also because they are not recognisable as human beings. They are nameless, faceless, they have no identity. They are simply a code number.”

His attraction to the Labor Party, he says, was “partly a factor of my age”. “I’m just old enough to remember the Depression of the 1930s and its horrors”. In A Thinking Reed, he writes, “Even as a child, from my experience of seeing the squalor of Dudley Flats during the Great Depression, I started asking: ‘Why are people living like this? Why are some people so poor and others (like us) not so poor? How can it be fixed?’ Perhaps this ignited my preference for the politics of redistribution.”

Now in his 85th year, with what he describes as “The Enlightenment Project” under threat, he is concerned about the rise of fundamentalism across the world, and that self-interest is increasingly placed before the common good.

He is also saddened, he says, “by the fact that the information revolution, instead of striving to encourage people towards the universal, has in fact emphasised the role of the personal and the immediate”. “And you can see where fake news is important, because if you want to find something that says the earth is flat or vaccination is dangerous, you can find plenty of stuff, and say, ‘There you are, there’s my evidence’. I find that an absolute tragedy, a very limited view of the human capacity.”

Education, he says, must be life-long, encourage creativity and teach us to tackle complexity. “This is something I write about in The Shock of Recognition. The fact is that now there is a kind of cultural attention on the simple. For example, much of the music people are exposed to now is overwhelmingly popular but it is extremely simple… But unless you start to develop a grasp of the complex, you’re going to be permanently stunted.”