The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world
Matthew Arnold On Dover Beach
The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote these lines on his honeymoon in Dover. While it might make one wonder about how much fun he was having, and perhaps the wisdom or otherwise of marrying poets, it is a profound illustration of a strong theme in modern culture – that religious faith is being ineluctably swept away by vast impersonal forces. Arnold was unhappy about that. Others, perhaps today’s militant atheists, might be pleased. However, both sides would agree that it was happening.
However, over a hundred and fifty years since its publication, faith has not in fact vanished from the world would. This would, I suspect, have stuck its author as quite surprising. But it can’t be denied that the state of religious faith in the West is not what it was. What exactly it is, is hard to say. But everyone agrees that something has changed.
Charles Taylor, the author of A Secular Age, puts it this way: in 1500 CE, essentially everyone believed in God, and, except for a very few highly educated philosophers, it was impossible to conceive of a world where people did not do so. However, five hundred years later, many people in the West seem perfectly happy not to do so. What happened?
Taylor attempts to explain this change in a (very long) narrative. As part of this he discusses what we might term a modern myth of liberation from the darkness and myth of the past, which he calls the Subtraction Story.
Broadly, the subtraction story works like this. In the “olden days” (or perhaps “days of yore”, which might have come even earlier) humanity laboured under gross superstition. The rise of Christianity might have helped (or, depending on who is telling the story, clearly made everything worse), but certainly by the Middle Ages, where those naughty Catholics persecuted that nice Galileo, Progress was being prevented by the superstitious pieties of Catholicism. Then came the Reformation, helping us escape (yay!), but followed by the wars of religion (boo!). However, this opened the door to the Enlightenment (yay!) where a complete break with the past was finally made (double yay!) All the superstition and bad faith thinking was finally scraped away, and what was left, which had been there all along waiting to be discovered, not unlike gravity, was the Progressive Person, empowered by Reason and Empirical Science and motivated by Rational Self Interest.
It is possible that you have deduced from my tone that I, like Taylor, am not entirely sold on this theory.
However, to understand why it is problematic, it is necessary to take a step back and grasp a few Taylorian concepts.
The first, and possibly the most important, is that of a Social Imaginary. While it is like a worldview, it does not include only what one believes, but the entire psychological / emotional / intellectual / moral field which defines what it is possible to think.
The second is the idea of the Modern Moral Order (MMO). This is the social imaginary of our time. I’m going to struggle to describe it accurately (really you should read the book ) but it includes the primacy of the solitary, reasoning individual. It believes in Science, Progress, Self-Realization. Wellness is one of its expressions.
Here’s the rub. Taylor says that the fundamental question at issue is whether there is anything “beyond” human flourishing. The MMO says no, human flourishing is the ultimate value and justification. Taylor argues that what he terms “transcendent” views, of which Christianity is the example he is primarily interested in, values human flourishing. However, it claims that there is something even more worthwhile. Christians have given it a lot of names – salvation, the Kingdom of Heaven – but it all points to something more than “mere” human flourishing. Taylor refers to it as “Fullness.”
This is all a bit abstract, so here’s a question we asked at Cafechurch the other night: who is the archetype of the “secular good life”? There were a number of different suggestions. George Clooney (beautiful man, beautiful & brilliant wife, fame, fortune, and a social conscience); Shane Warne (ex-professional cricketer, now seems to travel the world playing poker and going on dates with Liz Hurley without any adult responsibilities); Oprah Winfrey (success, wellness, fame, controls her own brand); Michael Mosely (wellness expert devoting his life to spreading the message of health – plus famous and, presumably, rich (well, richer than me anyway).
So if we distil these (and other archetypes that will no doubt occur to you), we get features like: health, beauty, wealth, power, fame. All good things – Nietzsche was right about the perils of resentment – but are they enough?
The Christian archetype of the good life is, of course, Jesus (the other night I wouldn’t let people give him as an example because it was too easy.) He put aside a life as a carpenter and the simple sorts of human flourishing of wife, family, and modest prosperity , in order to lay his life down in the most degrading way to fulfil “the will of the Father”. We could list other examples (St Francis of Assisi, St Ignatius Loyola, St Therese de Lisieux) who went beyond the simple human flourishing that was available because of their desire for… something else.
What that “something else”, which Taylor names as “fullness”, is, is hard to define. It is not the case that the desire for flourishing is wrong – Jesus’ death only makes sense as the sacrifice of something in itself valuable for the sake of something even more valuable. It was not a rejection of human flourishing as worthless. But it does relativize it.
It’s hard to talk about fullness vs flourishing because we have a story in our culture which contrasts modern, life-loving, desire-affirming life up against a constricting, life-hating, self-flagellating search for something that goes against life. Take, for instance, the Celtic saints fondness for standing in the North Sea and reciting all 150 psalms in order to mortify their flesh. It seems inhuman, and the opposite of, say, a Zumba session, or an evening binge watching Netflix with a nice bottle of red. To say there is something “more” or “beyond” flourishing makes the mind immediately leap to weird masochistic practices of the past, and makes us think: no thanks.
This is well illustrated in the clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail above. Our culture’s foundation myth sees the “olden days” as full of pathologically religious people singing dolefully in antique, incomprehensible tongues, while smacking themselves in the face with wooden boards and wading through a sea of excrement. We moderns, of course, know better.
One possible question to bring to On Dover Beach is whether the inexorable retreat of religious faith is a bad thing, as Matthew Arnold thought, or whether you think it’s a fortunate escape from a Pythonesque past of self-flagellation and squalor.
How does the life of Jesus, the fundamental Christian archetype, resonate with you? Do you find yourself profoundly moved by his life of self-giving love, culminating in the ultimate sacrifice? Or do you feel that there is something fundamentally life-denying in the way Jesus lived and died?
This post is part of a series. Read the next one here.
Also, if you’re interested in seeing how this relates to the Cafechurch evening I ran on it, check it out here.