Regaining My Religion by Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton

In the early 1990s, teaching a course on the philosophy of music at Boston University, I would make a point of listening to my students’ music, remembering how important it had been for me to put Muddy Waters side by side with Schubert and to take the needle off Ray Charles in order to put it down on Bach. There is no art without judgement, I insisted, and if the stuff that they brought to the classroom could not be listened to, but only heard, then this was one sign that it was merely pretending to be music. Eric Clapton – who had already rescued himself from the heavy metal idiom of Cream and set out to rediscover music – offered the first step on the gradus ad parnassum that led, if I was lucky, to Mendelssohn or Bach. Many songs from my students’ high school days were discarded as they climbed the steps: but one song had a particular meaning for them, and would retain its place in their affections to the very end of the course. It was called ‘Losing my Religion’, and was sung by Michael Stipe, leader of the group REM. Its confused but poignant words engaged with sentiments that were all but universal in adolescents who had come from small-town America to their cynical classes in sin. For this song was the record of a personal loss, although a loss emptied of its tragic overtones. The bottom had not, after all, fallen out of their world, since what they had taken for the bottom was merely a stage phantom, projected by strobe lights on the void. Worlds, the luciferian pop-star says, are bottomless: you are always falling but falling forever. In which case you don’t really fall.

Of course the situation of my students was nothing new. Losing religion has been a regular adventure of the Western mind, since the Enlightenment first announced the need for it. Wave after wave of Romantic and post-Romantic thinkers have looked on the world of faith from a point of view outside it, and listened, with Matthew Arnold, to that

melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Arnold wrote ‘Dover Beach’ in 1867, and his reflections on the dwindling of the Christian faith are marked by a very English melancholy, a not-quite-resigned attempt to fit the world of unbelief and scientific scepticism into the Gothic frame of Anglican culture. Twenty years later Nietzsche, in Human, All-too-human, while ostensibly throwing in his lot with the scientific atheists, espousing exhilarating and debunking explanations of the religious way of life, recognizes the enormous moral trauma that our civilization must undergo, as the Christian faith recedes. Faith is not simply an addition to our repertoire of ordinary opinions. It is a transforming state of mind, a stance towards the world, rooted in our social nature and altering all our perceptions, emotions and beliefs.

The distinction between Arnold and Nietzsche is the distinction between two kinds of loss. Arnold’s loss of faith occurs in a world made by faith, in which all the outer trappings of a religious community remain in place, like the outward signs of holiness in a Gothic Revival church. Nietzsche’s loss of faith is an absolute loss, a loss not only of inward conviction but of the outward symbols that make it possible. Nietzsche is foreseeing a new world, in which human institutions will no longer be shored up by pious habits and holy doctrines, but rebuilt from the raw, untempered fabric of the will to power. Loss of faith for Arnold is a personal tragedy, to be mourned but concealed. Loss of faith for Nietzsche is an existential transfiguration, to be accepted and affirmed, since the world no longer permits an alternative. The contrast between these two attitudes can be witnessed today, with the scientific optimists joining Nietzsche in welcoming our liberation from the chains of faith, and the cultural pessimists joining Arnold in his subdued lamentation.

Whatever our own position, we should acknowledge Arnold’s foresight in predicting something that Nietzsche hid from himself, namely:

a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

That is surely an accurate prophecy of the godless century that was to follow. Nietzsche wrote at a time when doubt and scepticism were still a kind of luxury, and when the rot of unbelief had not spread far beyond the head. In retrospect his adulation of the ‘free spirit’, the Übermensch and the will to power show a blindness to what might happen, should these things begin to attract a politically organized following.

What exactly do we Europeans lose, as the Christian faith recedes from us? Is there any discipline that will compensate for that loss, and grant us consolation in the face of it? This question is not addressed to society as a whole, but to each of us individually. And the fact that the mass of mankind may be unable to live without religion, or may be liable, in the absence of religion, to stray into the terrible nihilism that has twice swept across our continent, is no proof that the loss that we have suffered is for each of us either unbearable or final, or that the loss is not offset by gains. In recent years I have constantly asked myself what I have lost, and whether the loss is irreparable. And by pondering my loss of faith I have steadily regained it, though in a form that stands at a distance from the old religion, endorsing it – but with its own reflected light.

Religion, as Durkheim pointed out in his great study of its elementary forms, is a social fact. A religion is not something that occurs to you; nor does it emerge as the conclusion of an empirical investigation or an intellectual argument. It is something that you join, to which you are converted, or into which you are born. Losing the Christian faith is not merely a matter of doubting the existence of God, or the incarnation, or the redemption purchased on the Cross. It involves falling out of communion, ceasing to be ‘members in Christ’, losing a primary experience of home. All religions are alike in this, and it is why they are so harsh on heretics and unbelievers: for heretics and unbelievers pretend to the benefits of membership, while belonging to other communities in other ways.

This is not to say that there is nothing more to religion than the bond of membership. There is also doctrine, ritual, worship and prayer. There is the vision of God the creator, and the search for signs and revelations of the transcendental. There is the sense of the sacred, the sacrosanct, the sacramental and the sacrilegious. All those grow from the experience of social membership and also amend it, so that a religious community furnishes itself with an all-embracing Weltanschauung, together with rituals and ceremonies that affirm its existence as a social organism, and lay claim to its place in the world.

Faith is not therefore content with the cosy customs and necromantic rites of the household gods. It strides out towards a cosmic explanation and a final theodicy. In consequence it suffers challenge from the rival advance of science. Scientific thinking brought Christian doctrine to a sudden check. Although religion is a social fact, therefore, it is exposed to a purely intellectual refutation. And the defeat of the Church’s intellectual claims began the process of secularization, which was to end in the defeat of the Christian community – the final loss of that root experience of membership, which had shaped European civilization for two millennia, and which had caused it to be what it is.

The loss of faith may begin as an intellectual loss. But it does not end there. It is a loss of comfort, membership and home: it involves exile from the community that formed you, and for which you may always secretly yearn. Reading the great Victorian doubters – Matthew Arnold being pre-eminent among them – I am persuaded that they were not ready for this experience. Hence they attempted to patch up the social world while leaving the ecclesiastical crenellations intact on top of it. And the remarkable fact is that they were successful. Their loss of faith occurred against the background of a still perceivable religious community, whose customs they did nothing to disturb. They inhabited the same Lebenswelt as the believer, and saw the world as marked out by institutions and expectations that are the legacy of religion.

We witness this in the writings of nineteenth-century secularists such as John Stuart Mill, Jules Michelet or Henry Thoreau. Their world bears the stamp of a shared religion; the human form for them is still divine; the free individual still shines in their world with a more than earthly illumination, and the hidden goal of all their writings is to ennoble the human condition. Such writers did not experience their loss of faith as a loss, since in a very real sense they hadn’t lost religion. They had rejected various metaphysical ideas and doctrines, but still inhabited the world that faith had made – the world of secure commitments, of marriages, obsequies and christenings, of real presences in ordinary lives and exalted visions in art. Their world was a world where the concepts of the sacred, the sacrilegious and the sacramental were widely recognized and socially endorsed.

This condition found idealized expression in the Gothic Revival, and in the writings of its principal high Victorian advocate, John Ruskin. Nobody knows whether Ruskin was a vestigial Christian believer, a fellow-traveller or an atheist profoundly attached to the medieval vision of a society ordered by faith. His exhortations, however, are phrased in the diction of the Book of Common Prayer; his response to the science and art of his day is penetrated by the spirit of religious inquisition, and his recommendations to the architect are for the building of the Heavenly Jerusalem. The Gothic style, as he described and commended it, was to recapture the sacred for a secular age. It was to offer visions of sacrifice and consecrated labour, and so counter the dispiriting products of the industrial machine. The Gothic would be, in the midst of our utilitarian madness, a window on to the transcendental, where once again we could pause and wonder, and where our souls would be filled with the light of another world. The Gothic Revival – both for Ruskin and for the atheist William Morris – was an attempt to reconsecrate the city as an earthly community united by real presences in sacred precincts.

Loss of faith involves a radical change to the Lebenswelt, as Husserl called it. The most ordinary things take on a new aspect, and concepts that inhabit the soul of believers and shape their most intimate experiences – concepts of the sacred and profane, of the forbidden, the sacramental and the holy – seem to make no contact with the world as it appears to the person who has lost hold of the transcendental. In response to this we might strive as the Victorians did to maintain and repair the faith community, to hope that the process of re-consecration would continue, refurbishing the image of humanity as god-like and redeemed. In short, we could go on stealing from churches. But it doesn’t work – not now. More appropriate to our time is the response of Rilke and Eliot, the two poets over whom I stumbled when first I discovered books. They did not hope for that enduring simulacrum of a religious community, but instead wished to rediscover the real thing, only lying dormant within us. Among the greatest religious poems of the twentieth century we must surely count the Duino Elegies of Rilke, and the Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot. In the first a private religion is created from the fragmentary offerings of intensely subjective experiences, which are gradually elaborated until they seem to contain the intimation of a personal redemption. In the second the poet is living in a world that refuses his religious yearning; he rediscovers, through a lost but imagined religious community, the experience of the sacramental from which he had been cut off. Both poets are restored in imagination to what they had lost in fact. There is a kind of belief there, but it is a belief that recreates the religious community out of memories, intimations and signs.

In the Duino Elegies the idea of the transcendental is embodied in the figure of the Angel, summoned into existence by the poet’s need, and representing the triumph of consciousness over the world of fact. In all of us, Rilke believes, there is the deep need to transform fact into thought, object into subject, Earth into the idea of Earth: the Angel is the being in whom this transubstantiation is complete. He is like the soul released into Brahma, who has translated matter to spirit so as to be co-terminous with his world. We emulate this process of translation, but we must begin from the fragments of our earthly experience where the sacred can take root – the places of love, heroism, death and memory, in which Earth beseeches us to take conscious note of her, to ingest her into our own transcendental presence, which is also an absence. For Rilke the experience of the sacred is saturated with the image of community, with the full, conscious rejoicing of the tribe, now dormant in all of us, and resurrected in imagination in the tenderness of sexual love:

Look, we don’t love as flowers love, out of

a single year; there rises in us, when we love,

immemorial sap in the arms. O girl,

This – that we loved in ourselves, not one yet to be, but

the innumerable ferment; not a single child

but the fathers resting like ruined mountains

in our depths –; but the dry river-bed

of former mothers –; but the whole

soundless landscape under its clear

or cloudy destiny –, this, girl, came before you.

In that passage Rilke finds in the intense longing of erotic love the intimations of a religious community – one dedicated to its own reproduction. The transcendental is contained in the moment – the moment of desire that summons past and future generations as witnesses to the present passion. Angels live like this always; we only sometimes, in those moments when we recognize our own mortality and embrace it.

Eliot had another vision, one nearer to that of the Gothic Revival – though his is a Gothic Revival of the imagination, in which the effort of renewal takes place inwardly, in the subjective experience of the suffering poet. His pilgrimage to Little Gidding, once the home of an Anglican community dedicated to the life of prayer, leads him to the following thought:

If you came this way,

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,

At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

This is a very different vision from Rilke’s, of course. Not for Eliot that unvordenklicher Saft in die Arme: the erotic has been banished from his world; or rather, it never intruded there. Instead we have a search for the ‘timeless moment’ – and, stated thus briefly, it sounds like a chocolate-box platitude. But the context clarifies the thought. Eliot has found his way to a sacred place, and imagined himself into the community that made it holy. He is in communion with the dead, has passed over to them from the empirical world, and is kneeling beside them in that transcendental region. He has rediscovered the sacred, in a world that seemed to exclude it from view.

Eliot’s redemption at Little Gidding involves the imagined recovery of the old Christian community. Rilke’s self-made redemption through the society of Angels involves the invention of a community that is not of this world. Both are quintessentially modern responses to the loss of religion – attempts to recuperate the transcendental and the sacred from the raw experience of the solitary self. But they cannot compensate for that other and greater loss, which is that of the religious community itself. For that community contained a vital store of moral knowledge – knowledge collectively generated and collectively deployed.

The moral knowledge that I have in mind is manifest in our response to other people, in our social projects and in our sense of ourselves. It is also manifest in our ability spontaneously to understand and to act upon human realities. Moral knowledge is a practical, not a theoretical acquisition. It does not consist in the knowledge of truths. Nevertheless it may open the way to such knowledge. For there are certain truths about the human condition that are hard to formulate and hard to live up to, and which we therefore have a motive to deny. It may require moral discipline if we are to accept these truths and also to live by them.

For instance, there is the truth that we are self-conscious beings, and that this distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. There is the truth that we are free, accountable and objects of judgement in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. There is the truth that we are motivated not only by desire and appetite, but by a conception of the good. There is the truth that we are not just objects in the world of objects, but also subjects, who relate to each other reciprocally. There are all the other vital truths that I have discovered through growing up with Sam. To the person with religious belief – whether Christian or Muslim, whether monotheist or polytheist, whether a believer in the afterlife or not – those truths are obvious, and their consequences immediately apparent. Religious people may not express the truths as I have done, since I am adopting a secular idiom. Nor will they normally be aware of the philosophical reasoning that would defend those truths against modernist and postmodernist doubt. Nevertheless that is how they see the world. For them the ‘human form divine’, as Blake described it, is set apart from the rest of nature. Our form bears, for them, the marks of its peculiar destiny; it is capable of sanctity and liable to desecration, and in everything it is judged from a perspective that is not of this world. That way of seeing people enshrines the fundamental truth of our condition, as creatures suspended between the empirical and the transcendental, between being and judgement. But it deploys concepts that are given to us through religion, and to be obtained only with the greatest effort without it.

If you see things in that way you will find it difficult to share the view of Enlightenment thinkers that religious decline is no more than the loss of false beliefs; still less will you be able to accept the postmodernist vision of a world now liberated from absolutes, in which each of us constructs guidelines of his own, and that the only agreement that counts is the agreement to differ. The decline of Christianity, I maintain, involves, for many people, not the freedom from religious need, but the loss of concepts that would enable them to assuage it and, by assuaging it, to open their knowledge and their will to the human reality. For them the loss of religion is an epistemological loss – a loss of knowledge. Losing that knowledge is not a liberation but a fall.

Loss is fundamental to the human condition. But civilizations differ in their way of accommodating it. The Upanishads exhort us to free ourselves of all attachments, to rise to that blissful state in which we can lose nothing because we possess nothing. And flowing from that exhortation is an art and a philosophy that make light of human suffering, and scorn the losses that oppress us in this world.

By contrast, Western civilization has dwelt upon loss and made it the principal theme of its art and literature. Scenes of mourning and sorrow abound in medieval painting and sculpture; our drama is rooted in tragedy and our lyric poetry takes the loss of love and the vanishing of its object as its principal theme. It is not Christianity that gave us this outlook. Virgil’s Aeneid, ostensibly an expression of Aeneas’s hope as he is god-guided to his great and world-transforming goal in Italy, is composed of losses. The terrible sack of Troy, the loss of his wife, the awful tale of Dido, the death of Anchises, the visit to the underworld, the ruinous conflict with Turnus – all these explore the parameters of loss, and show us that our highest hopes and loyalties lead of their own accord to tragedy.

For all that, the Aeneid is just as much a religious text as the Upanishads. The world of Aeneas is a world of rites and rituals, of sacred places and holy times. And Aeneas is judged by the gods, sometimes hounded by them, sometimes sustained, but at every moment accountable to them and aware of their real presence in the empirical world. It is for this reason that Aeneas can look his many losses in the face and also set them at the distance that enables him to gain from them. They come to him not as inexplicable accidents but as trials, ordeals and judgements. He wrestles with them and overcomes them as you might overcome an opponent. And each loss adds to his inner strength, without hardening his heart.

At the risk of sounding somewhat Spenglerian, I would suggest that the questing and self-critical spirit of Western civilization distinguishes it among civilizations and informs both the style of its losses and its way of coping with them. The Western response to loss is not to remove yourself from the world. It is to bear it as a loss, to mourn it, and to strive to overcome it by seeing it as a form of consecrated suffering. Religion lies at the root of that attitude. Religion enables us to bear our losses, not primarily because it promises to offset them with some compensating gain, but because it sees them from a transcendental perspective. Judged from that perspective they appear not as meaningless afflictions but as sacrifices. Loss, conceived as sacrifice, becomes consecrated to something higher than itself: and in this it follows a pattern explored by René Girard in his bold theory of the violent origins of the human disposition to recognize sacred things. [1] I think that is how people can cope with the loss of children – to recognize in this loss a supreme example of the transition to another realm. Your dead child was a sacrificial offering, and is now an angel beckoning from that other sphere, sanctifying the life that you still lead in the material world. This thought is of course very crudely captured by my words. Fortunately, however, three great works of art exist that convey it completely – the medieval poem The Pearl from the Gawain manuscript, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, and Britten’s church parable Curlew River.

In our civilization, therefore, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable. They do not do this in the way of the Upanishads, which exhort us to an immense spiritual labour, whereby we free ourselves from the weight of Dharma and slowly ascend to the blessed state of Brahma. The path of renunciation presupposes, after all, that there is something to renounce. Modern people pursue not penitence but pleasure, in the hope of achieving a condition in which renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness – only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.

Except that the loss need not occur. This is the lesson that I draw from my own experience, and that has caused me to revisit the Christianity of my youth. I was brought up in the England of the fifties, in which it was generally assumed that, with the exception of the Jewish minority, you were either Nonconformist or Church of England. On official documents that required you to state your religion you wrote ‘C of E’ regardless. And you could be confident that God was an Englishman, who had a quiet, dignified, low-key way of visiting the country each weekend while being careful never to outstay his welcome. When Eliot addressed that God – the very God of the Anglican communion – with the cri de coeur of Ash Wednesday and the solemn psalmody of Four Quartets, we were shocked and also moved. Maybe, beneath those formal robes, there beat a real and living heart and one that cared for us! This possibility had not occurred to us before.

In the England of today God is a foreigner, an illegal immigrant, with aggressive manners and a violent way of intruding into every gathering, even in the middle of the working week. The Muslims in our midst do not share our impious attitude to absent generations. They come to us from the demographic infernos of North Africa and Pakistan, like Aeneas from the burning ruins of Troy, each with an old man on his shoulders, a child at his feet and his hands full of strange gods. They are manifestly in the business of social, as well as biological, reproduction. They show us what we really stand to lose, if we hold nothing sacred: namely, the future. In the presence of this new religious spirit the voice of the English churches becomes ever weaker, ever more shy of doctrine, ever more conciliatory and ill at ease. The idea that the British should be re-evangelized would be dismissed by most of the official clergy as an act of aggression, even a racist affront to our Muslim minorities. The Church is not there to propagate the Christian faith, but to forgive those who reject it.

Now of course it is one of the great strengths of Christianity that it makes forgiveness a duty and freedom of conscience a religious ideal. But Christians recognize the duty of forgiveness because they seek forgiveness too. Those brought up in our post-religious society do not seek forgiveness, since they are by and large free from the belief that they need it. This does not mean they are happy. But it does mean that they put pleasure before commitment, and can neglect their duties without being crippled by guilt. Since religion is the balm for guilt, those brought up without religion seem, on the surface, to lose the need for it.

But only on the surface. You don’t have to be a believer to be conscious of a great religious deficit in our society. We saw its effect during the strange canonization of Princess Diana, when vast crowds of people congregated in places vaguely associated with the Princess’s name, to deposit wreaths, messages and teddy bears. The very same people whose pitiless prurience had caused Diana’s death now sought absolution from her ghost. Here was beauty, royalty, distinction punished for its fault, to become a sacrificial offering and therefore a saintly intercessor before the mysteries that govern the world. Forget the gruesome kitsch and liturgical vagueness – necessary results, in any case, of the decline of organized religion. We were in the presence of a primordial yearning for the sacred, one reaching back to the very earliest dream-pictures of mankind and recorded in a thousand myths and rituals.

Many religions focus on such episodes of sacrificial offering, often, as in Christianity and Shi’ism, through a re-enacted martyrdom, in a collective ritual that purges the believer of his sins. So widespread is the phenomenon that René Girard has seen it as the fundamental secret of religion. In Girard’s view, the suffering of a victim is necessary if the accumulated violence of society is to be released and abjured. That is why we are moved by the story of Christ’s Passion. It is we ourselves who nailed this man to the Cross, and the compassion that we feel for him is also a purging of our guilt. This guilt arises from the experience of society; it is the residue of the aggressions through which we compete for our thrills. In our post-religious society these aggressions are no longer sublimated through acts of humility and worship. Hence the sadistic forms of entertainment that dominate our media in Europe. But, if we accept Girard’s view – and there is surely a lot to be said for it – we must also accept that Generation X is just as subject to the burden of religious guilt as the rest of us.

And indeed, as soon as we look at religion in that detached, anthropological way, we begin to discern its subterranean presence in European society. Although doctrine has no place in our public life, a fear of heresy is beginning to grip the countries of Europe – not heresy as defined by the Christian churches, but heresy as defined by a form of post-Christian political correctness. A remarkable system of semi-official labels has emerged to prevent the expression of dangerous points of view. And a point of view is identified as dangerous if it belongs to the old Judaeo-Christian culture, thereby reminding us of what we were when we actually believed something. Those who confess to their Christianity are ‘Christian fundamentalists’ or even part of the ‘Christian fundamentalist right’, and therefore a recognized threat to free opinion; those who express concern over national identity are ‘far-right extremists’ – a label attached to Holland’s Pirn Fortuyn, despite his impeccable left-wing credentials; those who question whether it is right to advocate homosexuality to schoolchildren are ‘homophobic’; defenders of the family are ‘right-wing authoritarians’, while a teacher who defends chastity rather than free contraception as the best response to teenage pregnancy, is not just ‘out of touch’ but ‘offensive’ to his pupils. To criticize popular culture, television or contemporary rock music, even to press for the teaching of grammatical English in English schools – all these are proofs of ‘elitism’, whereby a person disqualifies himself from the right to speak. It is as though our society is seeking to define itself as a religious community, whose very lack of faith has become a kind of orthodoxy.

There is nothing new in this. Jacobinism and Communism both began life as anti-religious movements, and both bear the marks of the Enlightenment. But they recruited people in just the way that religions recruit them, offering inviolable orthodoxies, mysterious rituals, witch-hunts and persecutions. And that is why they were successful. Living as we do in an age without certainties, we like to believe that we can finally dispense with the religious instinct and coexist in open dialogue with people who dissent from the premises on which we build our lives. But we too need orthodoxies, we too hunger for rituals, and we too are apt to confront the critic and the dissenter with persecution rather than argument.

We even have gods of a kind, flitting below the surface of our passions. You can glimpse Gaia, the earth goddess, in the crazier rhetoric of the environmentalists; Fox and Deer are totemic spirits for the defenders of animal rights, whose religion was shaped by the kitsch of Walt Disney; the human genome has a mystical standing in the eyes of many medical scientists. We have cults like football, sacrificial offerings like Princess Diana and improvised saints like Linda McCartney.

On the other hand, we have abandoned those aspects of religion that provide genuine guidance in a time of spiritual need. The instinctive awe and respect towards our own being that the Romans called pietas has more or less vanished from the public life of Europe. And nowhere is this more clearly noticeable than in the officially Roman Catholic countries of France and Italy. Now that the Church has ceased to be a public voice in those countries, the culture is being colonized by secular ways of thinking. Discussions of embryo research, cloning, abortion and euthanasia – subjects that go to the heart of the religious conception of our destiny – proceed in once-Catholic Europe as though nothing were at stake beyond the expansion of human choices. Little now remains of the old Christian idea that life, its genesis and its terminus are sacred things, to be meddled with at our peril. The piety and humility that it was once natural to feel before the fact of creation have given way to a pleasure-seeking disregard for absent generations. The people of Europe are living as though the dead and the unborn had no say in their decisions.

The Romans warned against impiety not only because it would bring down judgement from heaven but because it was a repudiation of a fundamental human duty – the duty to ancestors and progeny. The ills of modern civilization have their origins in the loss of piety, and we should take a lesson from the Romans, who had such a clear perception of why piety matters. The important thing, in the ancient world, was not theological belief, which was hidden behind the plethora of gods, but the cult. Religion was first of all a practice, a habit of worship, a humble setting aside of self and a deep genuflection in the presence of the divine – as Apuleius, in The Golden Ass, finally bows down before Isis, and is reborn to the world. Faith may or may not step into the ensuing silence. But it is the silence itself that matters: the silence of the penitent soul. Regaining religion is a matter of preparation, a quiet waiting for grace.

Moving to the country ten years ago I went out of curiosity to our local church, no longer as a thief but as a penitent. And because the little church announced the use of the Book of Common Prayer – in whose idiom my prayers are invariably expressed – I joined the congregation, and volunteered to play the organ. The truth contained in the words of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion is not directly there on the page, but revealed in the silence of the soul that comes from speaking them. It is a truth that reaches beyond words, to the inexpressible end of things.

Perhaps there is no more direct challenge to secular ways of thinking than the famous Hundredth Psalm, the Jubilate Deo, as translated in the Book of Common Prayer. It was by reflecting on this psalm that I came to see how its pure and unsullied idiom contains the answer to the lamentations of Michael Stipe. The psalmist enjoins us to be joyful in the Lord, to serve the Lord with gladness and to come before his presence with a song. It is a notable fact of our modern civilization, in which duties to God are ignored or forgotten, that there is very little gladness and still less singing. ‘Losing my Religion’ is a moan, not a song, and the idiom of heavy metal expressly forbids its followers to ‘join in’ when the music starts.

Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh. The triumphs of science and technology, the vanquishing of disease and the mastery over nature – these things coincide with a general moroseness, the origin of which, I believe, is religious. Someone who turns his back on God cannot receive his gifts with gratitude, but only with a grudging resentment at their insufficiency. No scientific advance will bestow eternal youth, eternal happiness, eternal love or loveliness. Hence no scientific advance can answer to our underlying religious need. Having put our trust in science we can expect only disappointment. And seeing, in the mirror raised by science, our own aggrieved and sullen faces, we are turned to disaffection with our kind. That is why the singing stops.

The psalmist goes on to remind us of the remedy: ‘Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’ This sentence contains all of theology. It is reminding us first that our knowledge of God is a kind of personal acquaintance, summarized in a statement of identity. We know God by knowing that God is the Lord and the Lord is God. Christians believe that they have three ways of knowing God: as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. But they also believe that our knowledge of God is a matter of personal acquaintance, which cannot be conveyed in the language of science.

The psalmist is also reminding us that we did not create ourselves, nor did we create the world in which we live. Such is the presumption of modern science that it strives to deny even this evident truth. Scientists are endeavouring to unravel the secret of creation, so as to take charge of it and to turn it in some new direction. This project – hailed by all forward-looking people as promising the final victory over disease, suffering and even death itself – was foretold and rejected by Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World. Huxley’s message was really a religious one. If human beings ever unlock their own genetic code, he foretold, they will use this knowledge to escape the chains of nature. But having done so, they will bind themselves in chains of their own.

The chains of nature are those that God created. They are called reason, freedom, morality and choice. The human chains foretold by Huxley are of a quite different composition: they are made entirely of flesh and the pleasures of the flesh. They bind so tightly that reason, choice and moral judgement can find no chink in which to grow and corrode them. So completely do they encircle the human soul that it shrinks to a tiny dot within the organism. There is no suffering in the Brave New World; no pain or doubt or terror. Nor is there happiness. It is a world of reliable and undemanding pleasures, from which the causes of suffering have been banished, and with them all striving, all hope, and all joy.

But love is a cause of suffering; so too are freedom, judgement and choice. Hence these things too will disappear from the Brave New World. As a result, confronted with the inhabitants of this world, we do not recognize ourselves. We instinctively reject this new form of life as monstrous, inhuman, meaningless. And that is because we seek in vain for God’s image, in a world where man has presumed to be in charge.

Finally, the psalmist says that God created us. For many people this proposition is the sticking point. They can accept that, if there is knowledge of God, then it is a kind of personal knowledge; they can accept that we did not create ourselves and even that the attempt to put ourselves in the position of self-creators is dangerous presumption. But they cannot accept that God created us. They have a better explanation, and that is Darwin’s.

Thanks to the work of scientific popularizers like Richard Dawkins the debate between evolutionism and creationism, which once rocked the schools of theology, is now rocking the world. If we evolved from apes, and if the whole process of evolution is merely an outgrowth of the chemistry of carbon, what place is there for God? Can we not explain everything without that old and stale hypothesis? Such are the questions that animate contemporary discussions; and people seem eager to be taken in by them.

From a philosophical perspective, however, it is very strange that people should think that the psalmist and the scientist are mutually opposed. We are natural beings, part of the biological order. Natural beings exist in time and therefore change over time. That we should evolve is inevitable. If we ask the question how we humans came to be as we are, then any conceivable answer will refer to the unfolding of a process – and processes take time. The surprising fact is not that we should have evolved from the humble chemistry of the oceans but that it should have taken so long to discover this. [2]

Of course, one thing that prevented the discovery was the story of Eden, understood not as a parable but as a literal truth about creation. But the proposition that God created the world and the proposition that we evolved over time are not merely compatible; they arise in response to quite different questions. Evolution tells us how the world is spread out in time, the story of creation tells us why. The best that science can offer is a theory of the how of things; but it is silent about the why. When we ask for the why of the world we are seeking a point of view outside all time and change, from which we can view the world as a whole. Only God can obtain that point of view. Hence it is to him that we must look for an answer. That, surely, is what the psalmist meant when he said that it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.

What follows from this truth, however, and how does it affect our lives? The psalmist goes on at once to tell us, in a beautiful phrase: ‘we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture’. God watches over us, as a shepherd watches over his sheep. And the world in which we live is a pasture. It was natural for the poet, living in a pastoral community, to use this imagery. And it is all the more emotive for us, in that we are conscious of the history that has severed us from the green pastures of our ancestors. We long, in our hearts, to return to a simpler and more pastoral way of life, just as we long to be united with God. Hence the psalmist’s words have a dual function. They remind us that we depend on God’s mercy and power. And they remind us of our fallen state, of our need for safety, and of the long history of human pride and arrogance that has sundered us from nature. Our world was intended as a pasture, and we have turned it into a junkyard.

The psalmist is reminding us, too, of other things. Like sheep we go astray; and like sheep we stray as a crowd. Moreover, sheep that stray from their pasture are making a huge mistake: they are venturing into territory where they are no longer protected. We, who have damaged the natural order, are in a like condition. We have emerged into a world much of the fabric of which has been deflected from its natural condition, so as to depend upon us for its survival. And yet we haven’t the faintest idea how to ensure that this world survives. We improvise from day to day, and each day we become more deeply mired in error.

And the process seems to obey a terrible and inexorable logic. We overcome the danger presented by cars by building better roads, which make the cars go faster, so increasing the danger. We try to rescue our towns from the frenzy with bypasses, and within a year or two they are twice as dangerous, since the bypasses have brought more traffic to the towns. We think we can make the streets safer with street lights, only to discover that we pollute the night sky and shut out the stars, so causing us to lie half-awake at night under a searing light that troubles our body rhythms. Every attempt to correct our mistakes seems merely to add to them. And those who tell us this are greeted with anger and vilification, since the one thing that people wedded to error cannot bear is the truth. Men who tell the truth are dangerous. They should be crucified.

To return, however, to the Hundredth Psalm. The right course for those sheep who have strayed into unknown territory is to go back through the hole in the hedge. This is the essence of the religious life: not progress and experiment, but the journey back to the place that protects us. It is a mark of our sinful nature that those who advocate this course are so often sneered at. Yet there is a way back to those cooling streams, which can be rediscovered at any time.

I don’t mean to imply that the conservation of nature is the answer to original sin. But I do mean to suggest that the truth that is being brought home to us in the sphere of ecology applies equally to the rest of human life. The General Confession tells us that ‘we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep’, and thereby implies that the ways to which we are called are part of our nature and our destiny, and not to be improved upon. If you ponder the many ways in which people have recently tried to improve on the human condition – from sexual liberation to modernist architecture, and from television to junk food – you will surely come to see how true is that ancient vision of the sheep-like nature of humanity.

We have made an idol of progress. But ‘progress’ is simply another name for human dreams, human ambitions, human fantasies. By worshipping progress we bow before an altar on which our own sins are exhibited. We kill in ourselves both piety and gratitude, believing that we owe the world nothing, and that the world owes everything to us. That is the real meaning, it seems to me, of the new secular religion of human rights. I call it a religion because it seems to occupy the place vacated by faith. It tells us that we are the centre of the universe, that we are under no call to obedience, but that the world is ordered in accordance with our rights.

The result of this religion of rights is that people feel unendingly hard done by. Every disappointment is met with a lawsuit, in the hope of turning material loss to material gain. And whatever happens to us, we ourselves are never at fault. The triumph of sin thereby comes with our failure to perceive it.

But this world of rights and claims and litigation is a profoundly unhappy one, since it is a world in which no one accepts misfortune, and every reversal is a cause of bitterness, anger and blame. Misfortune becomes an injustice, and a ground for compensation. Hence our world is full of hatred – hatred for the other, who has got what is mine. Look at contemporary art, literature and music and you will find in much of it a singular joylessness, a revulsion towards human life. This revulsion is the inevitable reward of those who think only of what is owed to them, and not of what they owe.

That is why the psalmist enjoins us to direct our thoughts outwards, in praise and gratitude. ‘O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name.’ Once we have made the decision to turn back to the ways of duty, gratitude will flow naturally into us, and – so the psalmist reminds us – gratitude is the precondition of joy. Only those who give thanks are able to rejoice, for only they are conscious that life, freedom and well-being are not rights but gifts.

A gift is a reminder that others care for us. The doctrine of human rights is prompting us to forget that truth. And that is why it is leading to a world without joy. For if the good things of life are mine by right, why should I be grateful for receiving them?

Where there is no gratitude there is no love. Conversely, a world in which there is love is a world in which the good things of life are seen as privileges, not rights. It is a world where you are aware of the good will of others, and where you respond to that good will with a reciprocal bounty, giving what is in your power to give, even if it is only praise.

That is why we should say, even in the midst of suffering, that the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting. After all, we might not have existed; precisely because we are finite, created beings, we endure from moment to moment by God’s grace. It is not through our own efforts that we attain peace but through the great endowment of good will, which lays down for us commands that only a free being can obey. That is what is meant by ‘everlasting mercy’: not the constant forgiveness of sins, but the maintenance of an order in which free choice can guide our conduct, even through suffering and hardship.

However much we study the evolution of the human species, however much we meddle with nature’s secrets, we will not discover the way of freedom, since this is not the way of the flesh. Freedom, love and duty come to us as a vision of eternity, and to know them is to know God. This knowledge breaks through the barrier of time, and places us in contact with the eternal. Hence the psalmist concludes by telling us of God that ‘his truth endureth from generation to generation’.

Discovering this truth, we encounter what is permanent – or rather what is beyond time and change, the eternal peace that serves as the divine template, so to speak, for our brief homecomings here on earth. When we take those tentative backward steps that I mentioned earlier, trying to restore this or that little precinct of our mutilated Eden, we are creating icons of another pasture, outside time and space, where God and the soul exist in dialogue. We are prefiguring our eternal home.

If, therefore, I am called upon to express my much-amended but nevertheless regained religion, it would not be in the penitential words of Little Gidding, nor in the self-centred cries of Rilke to his Angel, but in the tranquil words of the Jubilate Deo:

O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.

Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name.

For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting: and his truth endureth from generation to generation.

Notes

[1] René Girard, La violence et le sacré, Paris, 1972

[2] Though there are hints of Darwinian thinking among the Greeks, especially Anaximander.

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