Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pandeism and the world of Sherlock Holmes

What can the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes possibly have to do with the theological theory of Pandeism? Well, really the question is, is this world consistent with Pandeism, and the answer: why wouldn't it be?

Unlike the magical world of Harry Potter and the alien-filled science fiction realms of Star Wars and of Star Trek, the world of Sherlock Holmes is utterly mundane. Like the earlier Scooby-Doomysteries, every mystery has as its resolution purely human activity -- and, indeed, even those cases brought to Holmes under the pretense of supernatural activity -- ghosts, curses, demonic possession -- are inevitably shown up as man-made manipulations of mind and matter. And so, to speak of the theological model underlying that world is to speak of a world with no especial metaphysical activity ongoing. We might just as well be speaking, then, of any such mundane world, of that of adventurers like Tom Sawyer, actioners like James Bond or Jason Bourne, the mundane mysteries of CSI and Law & Order, or any other sort of media in which things simply happen, without second thought, in accordance with the laws of physics and without any appearance of divine intervention or other metaphysical causation (or, at least, without any such appearance not ultimately debunked as being of human manufacture).

This is not to suggest that these sorts of media are absent of displays of religiosity, for they depict the real and present world, and naturally people in this world have religious beliefs, all sorts of them.

Religion, as she is depicted in the stories of Sherlock Holmes:

In the course of the Sherlock Holmes stories, there are references to Jews and Gypsies, Muslims, Hindus, and various denominations of Christians. Perhaps the most famous treatment of religion in the Sherlock Holmes canon is to be found in A Study in Scarlet, one of only four full-length Sherlock Holmes novels (the remainder of the literary contributions being short stories). It is eventually uncovered in the story that the mysterious deaths being investigated are of Mormons against whom the killer was taking revenge, for years before their community had kidnapped his love and murdered her father, forcing her into a marriage which resulted in her own death a short time later (the story attributes the girl's death to a broken heart, but implies that she was ill-treated by her forced husband, who ultimately seemed more interested in inheriting what had previously been her father's land). The treatment of Mormonism generally is of a dangerous cult which exercises rigid control over its members and condones lawlessness against outsiders, who are distrusted. Author Arthur Conan Doyle is claimed to have later privately apologized for this depiction, though this report is itself somewhat dubious.

But the general treatment afforded to religion by Sherlock Holmes and his compatriots is apathy. In one story, Holmes dismissed knowledge of astronomy as useless to his work; doubtless he would have so opined on theological questions. Holmes occasionally uses idioms incorporating religious terminology (as in, "my God" and "for God's sake," or suggesting that a doomed man is bound "to meet his maker"), and one story mentions Holmes as being on his way to a chapel (for reasons not specified). But on no occasion is Holmes shown to attend a purely religious service, utter a prayer, or explicitly voice a belief in any higher power. Indeed, in one of the earliest stories -- The Sign of the Four -- Holmes commends to compatriot John Watson a book titled The Martyrdom of Man by one Winwood Reade, which as it happens incorporates a secularist and materialist antireligious examination of world history, especially in depicting Jesus as delusional. And yet, Holmes calls this work "one of the most remarkable ever penned," which would in that day be tantamount to endorsing atheism, as much as if somebody modernly were to declare Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion to be amongst the finest books ever written.

Sherlock Holmes contemplates the meaning of life:

But even Holmes waxes morosely philosophical from time to time, as depicted in the 1892 story, The Cardboard Box:
"What is the meaning of it, Watson?" said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. "What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever."
Similarly in The Retired Colourman, Holmes decries, "But is not all life pathetic and futile? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow -- misery." And in The Veiled Lodger Holmes declares, "The ways of Fate are indeed hard to understand. If there is not some compensation hereafter then the world is a cruel jest." Such contemplations suggests at the same time a wish to find a larger purpose to our Universe, even while rejecting all the explanations which have been considered up to that time. Holmes is equally dismissive of supernatural explanations for mundane crimes, refusing to contemplate for example the proposition that The Hound of the Baskervilles is anything but a flesh-and-blood beast, rejecting the possibility of unearthly agency again in The Adventure of the Devil's Foot, and commenting in the late-written story, The Sussex Vampire, "But are we to give serious attention to such things? This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. This world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply."

The television and film adaptations of Holmes' stories have tended to remain faithful to general irreligiosity of the character, or more likely to have ignored theological questions altogether. In the first Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes film, Holmes dismisses, and later disproves, an apparent miraculous resurrection from death; in Young Sherlock Holmes mystical explanations are similarly disproved as Holmes discovers hallucinogenic drugs to be responsible for seemingly supernatural experiences (and the villains are attempting to perform an ancient Egyptian ritual to boot); in the modernly-set BBC reimagining Sherlock, the character is if anything more scornful of religious beliefs and explanations.

Could the world of Sherlock Holmes occupy a Pandeistic Universe?

But all of this relates to what Holmes believes, perhaps to what Arthur Conan Doyle believes -- which is, in the larger scheme of no matter. Were Holmes depicted as a devout Christian or a devout Muslim, or a Jew or a Sikh, such depiction would not work to make real the religion believed. There may be a billion devout Christians in the world (Christians will claim there are more, but that requires some sleight of hand with who they would call 'devout') but that has never operated to convince Hindus, Jews, or Mormons of the truth of Christianity; and the same can be claimed of the comparable number of Muslims, or of Hindus, or most any denomination. That it is believed simply proves that it is believed, not even that it is rationally believable, much less true. So, whatever the religion of Sherlock Holmes or James Bond or any other figure existing in a nonsupernatural world, from Robin Hood to Rocky Balboa, the question remains whether the world which they inhabit isconsistent with a pandeistic Universe.

And the answer in all of these cases is indeed that it is. For, although Pandeism fully accounts for miracles and other apparently metaphysical or supernatural events, and so would account for the magic of Harry Potter's world, the Jedi powers exhibited in the world of Star Wars, and the superpowered and telepathic aliens often encountered in Star Trek, none of these sorts of things arerequired in Pandeism. They are simply accounted for, if they exist.

It is entirely possible to conceive of a world -- indeed, of this world -- where no miracles, no telepaths, no supernatural events of any sort exist, where all reports ever made of such are theconsequence of coincidence, mistake, hallucination, imagination, or deception, and yet where the fundamental explanation for the existence of our Universe, at all, is pandeistic Creation. Even if all other religions are disqualified in such a world, where all of their reported miracles and wonders and fancies are by default simply false, Pandeism may yet be true.

In the final analysis (and in the world of Sherlock Holmes, there always is a final analysis), it is even somewhat surprising that Sherlock Holmes, to whatever degree he speculates on religious questions, has not come to contemplate at least Deism (which was well known in his day), if not the more obscure Pandeism, or some comparable variation of Pantheism. But, then, if the orbits of the planets are of no matter to Holmes, perhaps these even greater orbits would be of even less interest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An interesting discussion is worth comment. I think that you should write more on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people are not enough to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers