G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.” Whoever said it – he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.
The “death of God”, or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church — from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.
It is amazing how many people take that book literally, and think it is true. Admittedly, Dan Brown, its author, has created a legion of zealous followers who believe that Jesus wasn’t crucified: he married Mary Magdalene, became the King of France, and started his own version of the order of Freemasons. Many of the people who now go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown’s book.
The pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked if he believed in God. He said: “No. I don’t believe in God. I believe in something greater.” Our culture suffers from the same inflationary tendency. The existing religions just aren’t big enough: we demand something more from God than the existing depictions in the Christian faith can provide. So we revert to the occult. The so-called occult sciences do not ever reveal any genuine secret: they only promise that there is something secret that explains and justifies everything. The great advantage of this is that it allows each person to fill up the empty secret “container” with his or her own fears and hopes. ~Umberto Eco, The Daily Telegraph
You can leave the rest of Eco’s article and be none the worse for it. What caught my eye here was the curious echo of many of the same concerns expressed by Prof. Chantal Delsol in Icarus Fallen (ISI, 2003). The similarity of some of Eco’s remarks to Delsol’s description of “black market” forms of suppressed or abandoned religion was striking. This was particularly interesting to me, as I happened to finish Icarus Fallen over the weekend, and I intend to post some remarks about it in the coming weeks. For what it is worth, she finds the major religions equally lacking, but for a different reason–it is not simply that they do not seem compelling to many modern men, but that, as Delsol sees it, they cannot possibly convey the absolute. It must follow from Delsol’s treatment of the question that no religion ever can convey “the absolute,” which is to fall back on the sorriest sort of agnosticism.
Of course, it is hardly a new insight that the most preposterous nonsense becomes the latest fashionable spirituality in ages of apostasy and rebellion against traditional spiritual authorities. It is not an accident that the fantasies of Paracelsus flourished in the Renaissance, that, as Lewis noted decades ago, the high-tide of superstition, magic and withcraft was the dawn of the modern age, or that Enlightenment rationalists idealised some very superstitious peoples on account of their chief virtue of being non-Christian. It is not only that periods of tremendous change and upheaval encourage equally startling upheavals in religious life, but that it is foremost in the realm of religious life that modernisers and reformers make their most far-reaching and destructive claims.
Eco’s example of the 19th century materialists is another case of what men will do to find meaning when they have quite consciously abandoned the ship of Faith and are thrown back on their own devices. That is not how Eco sees it, of course–all of it is absurd to him, and I suspect not in the way that Tertullian meant it when he said, “Credo quia absurdum.” It is a peculiarly modern affliction (and Eco confesses his loyalty specifically to the Enlightenment) to imagine that trust in God and His revelations is a submission to the absurd.
Rationalist objections to the “absurdity” of religion, especially Christianity, have for a long time sounded to me like the sorts of objections that frustrated schoolchildren make when they cannot immediately comprehend a difficult concept. They will say, “This subject is useless, it’s stupid, it has no value for me.” What really frustrates them (or anyone who runs up against such difficulties) is that their inability to understand reveals their own deficiencies and failures, which are never pleasant to have revealed. Little wonder that in the era when confessing the Christian Faith became essentially optional many people in what was Christendom opted out all together, chose another religion, or chose the least challenging splinters or corruptions of the Faith.
It is no different in practise from the response of students who are no longer required to study classical languages, or who are allowed to skate through their liberal arts schools with the bare minimum of training in mathematics and science, or who are allowed to ignore most of history outside some minimal requirement because they find it “boring.” When students do this, we do not say that the curriculum isn’t “big enough” for them or that the study of these things is not very important (although some on the curriculum committee may say that), but that the school has lost its nerve and largely succumbed to letting the ignorant students decide what is best for themselves. With respect to Christianity, the West reached a point long ago when it was possible to go through life without ever having to attend any “classes” or demonstrate any understanding.
It is odd that Eco should say that Westerners find that the Christian religion (or any of the others) isn’t “big enough,” when it seems to me that the hope of the rationalist and lumiere has always been to shrink existence down to what is intelligible by unaided reason. The miraculous offends him not because it is insufficient or lacking, but because it cannot be controlled or explained away. With his impoverished sense of rationality, and his diminished understanding of the profundity of human nature, the lumiere assumes that nothing can exist that he is unable to demonstrate or understand with only one of his many faculties. It is as if a man willingly blindfolded himself and chastised everyone else for talking about colour and light. Prophecy offends him not because its message is unfulfilling or untrue, but perhaps because he feels slighted that he, with all his learning and rationality, was not chosen to convey the message.
Christianity has always seemed incredible to the Jews, Greeks and moderns because its claims are, for them, excessive, possibly unseemly, always dangerous. In the lumieres’ very turning away from God, their ridicule and dismissive insults of Christianity, they unwittingly acknowledged the catholicity of the Truth and the boundless majesty of Him Whom they could not possibly approach. What they could not master or surpass, they had to belittle and mock.