Writing in the UK magazine Standpoint, Douglas Murray ruminates on the dark wood:
The problem is one that is easier to notice and feel than it is to prove, but I would suggest that it is something like this: that life in modern liberal democracies is to some extent thin or shallow. I do not mean that our lives are meaningless, nor that the opportunity liberal democracy uniquely gives to pursue our own conception of happiness is remotely misguided. On a day-to-day basis most of us find deep meaning and love from our families and friends and much else. But there are questions which remain, which have always been at the centre of each of us and which liberal democracy on its own not only cannot answer but was never meant to answer.
“What am I doing here? What is my life for? Does it have any purpose beyond itself?” These are questions which human beings have always asked and are still there even though today to even ask such questions is something like bad manners. What is even more, the spaces where such questions might be asked — let alone answered — have shrunk not only in number but in their ambition for answers. And if people no longer seek for answers in churches will they find them in occasional visits to art galleries or book clubs?
Jürgen Habermas addressed an aspect of this in 2007 when he led a discussion at the Jesuit School of Philosophy in Munich titled, “An Awareness of What is Missing”. There he attempted to identify a gap at the centre of our “post-secular age”. In 1991 he had attended a memorial service for a friend at a church in Zürich. The friend had left instructions for the event which were closely followed. The coffin was present and there were speeches by two friends. But there was no priest and no blessing. The ashes were to be “strewn somewhere” and there was to be no “amen”. The friend — who had been an agnostic — had both rejected the religious element and was also publicly demonstrating that non-religious burial had failed. As Habermas interprets his friend, “The enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final rîte de passage which brings life to a close.”
The challenge which Habermas’s friend presented can be quietly heard around us in our daily lives, as can the results of the questions going unanswered. Perhaps we are wary of this discussion simply because we no longer believe in the answers and have decided on some variant of the old adage that if we have nothing nice to say then it is better to say nothing at all. But perhaps there should be a new urgency about asking these questions. After all, all this could very easily change. Having been for some years, as Roger Scruton has put it, downstream from Christianity, there is every possibility that our societies will either become unmoored entirely or be hauled onto a very different shore. Very unsettling questions lie dormant beneath our current culture.
They are questions, Murray says, that our public debates are determined to avoid. One more passage from Murray:
For some years now I have been especially struck by accounts I have heard and read of people who have chosen to convert to Islam. Partly these stories are striking because they are so similar — and not only to each other. They are almost always some variant of a story nearly any young person could tell. They generally go something like this: “I had reached X age (often the twenties or early thirties) and I was in a nightclub and I was drunk and I just thought, ‘Life must be about more than this’.” Almost nothing else in our culture says, “But of course this is not all.” Instead the voice of our culture just says, “repeat, repeat.” In the absence of such a voice they search, and they discover Islam. The fact that they land on Islam is a story in itself. Why do these young men and women (very often women) not reach out and find Christianity? Partly it is because most branches of mainstream Christianity have lost the confidence to proselytise. Partly it is the trickle-down effect of the fact that Islamic traditions have not yet been so affected by historical criticism and scholarship. (I say “yet” because that scholarship is starting. Many Muslims sense it and they are fighting with all they have to hold it back because they know what it is going to do.)
But what is interesting to me is that everything about these accounts is both of our time and runs against the assumptions of our time. The search for meaning is not new. What is new is that almost nothing in our culture applies itself to offering an answer. Nothing says, “Here is an inheritance of thought and culture and philosophy and religion which has nurtured people for thousands of years.” At best the voice says, “Find your meaning where you will.” At worst it is the nihilist’s creed: “All this has no meaning.” Meanwhile politicians — seeking to address the broadest range of people — speak so widely and with such generalities as to mean almost nothing. Almost nowhere is there a vision of what a meaning-filled life might be. The wisdom of our time suggests that education, science and the sheer accessibility of information must surely have knocked such urges out of us. And the divide can be staggering.
Read the whole thing. Murray says that many modern people cannot bring themselves to believe in the faith of our fathers, and know all too well that we cannot simply conjure up a faith from nothing. So what do they do? For people like this, the only hope is in the unexpected revelation. Here’s what he means (Murray is reflecting on the failure of the 19th century to make a substitute religion of art and aesthetic experience):
From Tannhauser right through to Parsifal, Wagner’s ambition and achievement was to create a kind of religion which could stand up on its own and sustain itself. Even this foundered, of course, and those who try to live their lives by the Wagnerian religion tend to find themselves living rather unhappy lives. And as we can learn from Wagner himself, culture on its own cannot make anyone either happy or good.
Perhaps it was the realisation of the partial failure of this mission that persuaded so many contemporary artists to stop aiming to connect to any enduring truths but instead simply to say to the public, “I am down in the mud with you” — a moral replay of the moment when the public’s technical attitude to art moved from pre-Duchamp (“I wish I could do that”) to that of today (“A child could do that”). If you walk through a gallery like Tate Modern in London or Moma in New York the only thing more striking than the lack of technical skill is the lack of ambition. The works may tell us about death, suffering, cruelty or pain but few have anything to say about these subjects. Almost everybody knows these things exist, and if they did not then they will hardly be persuaded in an art gallery, but the art of our time seems to have given up any effort to kindle something else in us. In particular, it has given up that desire to connect us to something like the spirit of religion or that thrill of recognition — what Aristotle termed anagnorisis — which grants you the sense of having just caught up with a truth that was always waiting for you.
Anagnorisis — I have never heard of that word, but I know the concept well. It’s what I experienced at age 17, walking into the Chartres cathedral and having been struck down by the revelation of the divine within the beauty of the medieval masterpiece. It is what I experienced at 46, reading the Divine Comedy. In both cases, the shock of beauty was an apocalypsis — an unveiling of the presence of God, and the blasting open of a doorway to conversion. Anagnorisis is that moment of recognition, when you come to yourself and realize who you are, who you are not, and what you are supposed to do. You won’t have all the answers, necessarily, but you will have the one answer that you need, and that will put you on the path that will lead you to the others. It’s what happened to Dante when he became self-aware in the dark wood, and realized that he could not carry on like this, and needed help.
Almost by definition, you cannot plan for anagnorisis. It just happens. What you can do, though, is cultivate a stance of openness to the possibility of anagnorisis. A key part of my journey to healing through reading Dante was learning how persisting in my attitudes was closing my eyes to anagnorisis — that is, to the recognition of the beauty and the goodness around me. I was blind, and I was willfully so. From How Dante Can Save Your Life:
If I did not do this, if I did not throw off my pride and bridle my envy, if instead I dwelled on the pain, the rejection, and the sense of injustice I felt, I was going to remain compromised by illness and depression. I was going to continue bringing misery on Julie and our children, and mark myself out as a hypocritical Christian. Indeed, I would become the embittered and envious elder brother of the biblical parable.
And I would miss out on the blessings I had been given in this new life back in my hometown: a renewed relationship with a constellation of cousins I had never known well, a great church where I was growing spiritually as I never had before, warm nights under the stars drinking wine with new friends, the soaring pleasures of a rich writing and reading life, and the joy of watching my children flourish.
In conversation with Dante, Virgil sums up the tragedy of humankind trapped by envy, blind to the blessings of life because they can only see what others unjustly have:
“The heavens call to you and wheel about you, revealing their eternal splendors,
but your eyes are fixed upon the earth.
For that, He, seeing all, does smite you.”
Dante Alighieri did his best work after he accepted that he would probably always be an exile, and after he gave up on the possibility of getting justice in this life. He lifted his eyes from the earth of Florence and Tuscany and set them on the heavens, the abode of God. There was a lesson in that for me.
That tercet from Purgatorio I quote above is all about anagnorisis. God “smites” us in that we refuse to receive His blessing, because we have our eyes focused on the earth below. That is, we close ourselves off to the possibility of seeing the splendors of the heavens, and of hearing their call.
Could it be that the greatest work of evangelism for Christians in the declining West today is to cultivate the potential for anagnorisis in a people who are taught that it cannot happen?
My friend Jake Meador wrote the other day about the Benedict Option, and said, in part:
As I read this list I couldn’t help thinking that you could almost reduce the Benedict Option to basic Christian piety and church life–catechize our young people, embody the truths of the faith in word and deed, hold firm to orthodoxy, take seriously the moral claims of the faith, don’t participate in public institutions that directly undermine the faith. These things all sound quite ordinary when you come right down to it. Indeed, I’m not sure there has been any era in the church’s history when we did not need to do these things.
If anything, all that we’re seeing right now is that the logic of the day, with its emphasis on freedom, self-creation, breaking away from traditional orders now seen as oppressive, and the limitless of human ingenuity never has made much sense when set next to traditional Christian belief and practice. If the bobo establishment is in the process of kicking us out it’s only because Christianity and American boboism never made much sense together in the first place–it’s just taken us a bit of time to realize the fact.
If that is the case, then it’s likely that what is needed right now is less talk about the unique demands of this particular historical moment and attempts to articulate a contextualized response and more focus on classic Christian practice and church life.
Put another way, perhaps the issue isn’t that the culture has moved away from the faith, but that the faith’s adherents have moved away from it along with the culture–and as the culture we’ve attached ourselves to becomes progressively more antagonistic to orthodoxy we are simply becoming aware of the distance that has opened between the faithful and traditional orthodoxy. We’ve been riding along with the culture even when we shouldn’t have (ahem) and we’re just now beginning to realize where that ride has taken us.
He’s saying that what I call the Benedict Option is nothing all that special, but is in fact ordinary, intentional, engaged Christianity. I think Jake is 90 percent correct — but the other 10 percent is what makes it seem so radical. That is, to be an ordinary Christian today in this post-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian culture requires conceiving that mission as something extraordinary. I know so many people who are churchgoers, but who have no sense that being a Christian requires them to do anything unusual, or to live in any meaningful way different from the mainstream of American life. When I was at the Q Ideas conference, I talked to a couple of youth pastors who lamented that the church has lost an entire generation because it — because we — have focused so much on making Jesus cool, and acceptable to modern sensibilities, that we did not teach them and form them as disciples. We told them that they could be good Christians and it wouldn’t cost them much. Now we are reaping a bitter harvest of unbelief.
Again and again, I go back to what the prior of that Benedictine monastery told me last fall when I explained the Benedict Option to him. I told him that I believed Christians today and into the foreseeable future would have to detach ourselves in some clear way from the mainstream, and form ourselves, through disciplined prayer and practice, in both community and joyful contradiction to the way of the world. I told the prior that I wasn’t talking about heading for the hills, but that I was talking about Christians understanding that we do not live in normal times, and that measures that we find extraordinary are going to be required simply to hold our ground through this new dark age. The prior agreed, and said that no family, and no church, that did not live that out would survive what is to come.
I return back to Douglas Murray’s remarks, and his point about how young people who look around the chaos and degradation of our time and ask, “Is this all there is?”, and find that the mainstream culture itself has no answer (or mocks the question), and the Christian churches are too weak to answer affirmatively — so young people turn to Islam. The other day, this blog’s reader “Jones,” who is a Muslim, wrote on a gay marriage thread:
At the outset I wasn’t against, so much as befuddled by why this was thought to be so important, when gay people themselves—hell, leftists in general—ridiculed marriage as an outdated, patriarchal institution. In any case, why the extraordinary fondness for, why the lionization of, the homosexual? On what theory is this the vanguard of human progress?
Any assault on “sexual liberty” is conceived as more important, more invasive, more far-reaching than invasions of traditional liberties because their sexual pleasure is all these people have left. That’s a more negative way of putting it than they would, because they are unaware of the other kinds and sources. They see themselves as merely “liberated” from all sources of meaning that might interfere with the pursuit of hedonic gratification. (I mean, sexual pleasure is not the only kind but it is the most important and powerful form of pleasure, which makes it special.)
Therefore, in this society, to take away someone’s right to sexually gratify themselves (without judgment) really is to take everything away from them. It is unspeakably mean.
By the same token, my culture, where people regularly, habitually deny themselves of such pleasures for the sake of upholding their religious way of life, is beyond comprehension.
I remember being in high school and telling a friend of mine that I was planning to abstain from sex before marriage. He asked if that meant everything, and I said yes. “No blow jobs?” Yes, I said. “You mean you’re not going to experience a blow job – a single blow job – until you get married?” Yes, I told him. He burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it. I think he just thought it wasn’t possible. I think most people can literally no longer imagine a society without premarital sex.
Having finally read Bowers v. Hardwick, I understand the gay rights movement better. I think it is much more sound in its own claims than I realized. Bowers is sort of the turning point where society says: we’ve all accepted the ubiquity of heterosexual sodomy, but homosexual sodomy is where we draw the line.
That is, indeed, a basically irrational line. It’s not entirely irrational, but it’s very close. And there’s no way in hell a society in which heterosexual sodomy is ubiquitous is going to be able to embrace the faint glimmer of rationality in the line, because it is only explicable on the same theories that make heterosexual sodomy a more prevalent, perhaps more grave violation.
Conservatives shrink from the stark reality of this, because it is virtually impossible to imagine getting the horses back in barn. And I think they’re right about that; but they need to start prioritizing internal consistency and fidelity over trying to win back the culture.
Cultures don’t get fixed. They get replaced by other ones.
What a great comment. It reminds me again why, for all the things that separate us, in the West, we orthodox Christians have a lot more in common with believing Muslims than with our own tribe, insofar as we believe in the sovereign God. Anyway, Jones encapsulates the need for and character of the Benedict Option with this:
They need to start prioritizing internal consistency and fidelity over trying to win back the culture. Cultures don’t get fixed. They get replaced by other ones.
I thank my Muslim friend for this insight. “They” refers to conservatives, in his telling, but I’m using it specifically for orthodox Christians (that is, traditional Christians within Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox communions). We are not going to “fix” this post-Christian culture. It is going to be replaced by something. We need to focus on being consistently and faithfully Christian, which requires doing so in stable community — a community that is open to serving others, and is open to others, but which is concerned not with pleasing the world, but with pleasing God. We need to do this first because it is the right thing to do. And if we do this, our descendants may yet win back this lost and decadent culture, if only because when people say, “Is this all there is?”, we will have a plausible and compelling answer for them, not because we offer the best arguments, but because when the moment of anagnorisis comes upon them, they can look at our lives and communities and say, “Yes, that’s the truth, and I want to be part of it, no matter what it costs.”
Maybe instead of being seeker-friendly, we ought to become finder-friendly: give people who find their way into our churches and communities reason to put down roots, and a means to grow in formation.
The world remains, as Russell Kirk said, “sunlit despites its vices.” It is our task to do what we can to capture and store the power of the sun, and to shine it back into the world in the darkness. This doesn’t just happen. It never did.