I’ve just finished writing an essay for an upcoming issue of TAC about the Prince of Wales’s cultural conservatism. I’m broadly sympathetic to him, even on those facets of his character and his activism that typically irritate Tories. One thing I did take a dim view of, though, was what I considered to be his squishy ecumenism. Charles once said that when he is king, he intends to be not “Defender of the Faith,” which is one of the British monarch’s titles, but rather “Defender of Faith.” That seemed to me to be a kind of surrender, especially in light of his very public enthusiasm for Islam. Nothing against Islam per se, but he is to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England; shouldn’t we expect more spine?
Researching this piece has led me to modify my views. I still wish Charles had held the line, but I understand better his thinking. I had not fully appreciated the extent to which Charles is a philosophical Traditionalist. That is, he is a follower of a metaphysical school of thought that, broadly speaking, rejects Modernity because, in this view, Modernity has lost sight of the essential unity of all creation, and its rootedness in the Divine. To these Traditionalists, Western civilization definitely took a wrong turn at the Enlightenment, and even earlier; Charles, like the American Richard Weaver in 1948, identifies the demise of Scholasticism as the key turning point for the West. Here is a quote from a speech Charles gave to a Traditionalist gathering in 2006:
However, the teachings of the traditionalists should not, in any sense, be taken to mean that they seek, as it were, to repeat the past – or, indeed, simply to draw a distinction between the present and the past. Their‟s is not a nostalgia for the past, but a yearning for the sacred and, if they defend the past, it is because in the pre-modern world all civilizations were marked by the presence of the sacred. As I understand it, in referring to Tradition they refer to a metaphysical reality and to underlying principles that are timeless – as true now as they have ever been and will be. And, by way of contrast, in referring to Modernism they refer to a particular (though false) definition of reality; a particular (though false) manner of seeing and engaging with the world that, likewise, is distinguished not by time, but by its ideology.
In an article written in 1983 for the traditionalist journal Studies in Comparative Religion, Professor Nasr put it this way:
When we use the term “modern” we mean neither contemporary nor up-to-date… Rather, for us “modern” means that which is cut off from the Transcendent, from the immutable principles which in reality govern all things and which are made known to man through revelation in its most universal sense. Modernism is thus contrasted with tradition…; the latter implies all that which is of Divine Origin along with its manifestations and deployments on the human plane while the former by contrast implies all that is merely human and now ever more increasingly subhuman, and all that is divorced and cut off from the Divine source.
Most especially, therefore, we can see that it is the very timeless quality of these immutable principles of Tradition that makes its teachings so timely. For me, the teachings of Tradition suggest the presence of a reality that can bring about a reality of integration, and it is this reality that can be contrasted with so much of Modernism‟s obsession with dis-integration, dis-connection and de-construction – that which is sometimes termed the “malaise of modernity”. Cut off at the root from the Transcendent, Modernism has become deracinated and has separated itself – and thereby everything that comes within its thrall – from that which integrates; that which enables us to turn towards and reconnect with the Divine.
In this way, the loss of Tradition cuts to the very core of our being since it conditions that which we can “know” and “be”. For Modernism, by its unrelenting emphasis on the quantitative view of reality, limits and distorts the true nature of the Real and our perception of it. Whilst it has enabled us to know much that has been of material benefit, it also prevents us from knowing that which I would like to refer to as the knowledge of the Heart; that which enables us to be fully human.
There is a great deal that traditionalist conservatives — Christian or otherwise — can and should affirm. Anyway, this sort of Traditionalist — as distinct from the way the word is used among Roman Catholics — believes that there is one spiritual truth that expresses itself in an essentially coherent way across a variety of civilizations. Trad followers of Rene Guenon believed that we in the West had gone so far from the Great Tradition that the only way to reconnect with it was through initiation into one of the Eastern religions which preserved it (Guenon left Catholicism and became a Sufi Muslim). Obviously for any Christian trad, there is a danger here of universalism, that is to say, seeing all religions as basically the same. That cannot possibly be reconciled with Christian teaching. On the other hand, historical Christianity (e.g., the Catholic natural law tradition) certainly recognizes that truth can and does exist outside of the Christian church, as the patrimony of the Creator God to His creation. The fullness of that Truth is only found in Christianity, the teaching goes, but that is not to say that non-Christian religious believers are alien to the Truth. C.S. Lewis makes the same point in “The Abolition of Man,” with his appendix titled “Illustrations of the Tao.”
I know from people close to him that the Prince of Wales is a regular communicant of the Church of England, and takes his faith seriously. I do not know the content of that faith. I don’t know whether he endorses a New Age universalism, or whether he believes as Lewis did. In either case, I can see why, from a big-t Traditionalist point of view, it makes sense to think of himself as a Defender of Faith in the current age. To Trads in postmodernity, the loss of religion and a sense of the sacred pervading the cosmos is a far greater threat to the things that make life worth living, and that ought to be conserved, than is competing religious traditions. In other words, the godless City of London banker may well be seen by Charles to be a greater threat to Britain’s future than the pious Muslim shopkeeper in Bradford. In this way, what looks at first like Charles’s squishiness on the question of religion might actually be an expression of a very deep conservatism. Worth considering, anyway.
If you have the time, please do read that 2006 speech. It may tell you some things about the Prince of Wales you probably did not know, and could not have guessed.