Saturday 25 February 2017

The Coming Religious Populism

'Only a god can save us now,' said Martin Heidegger in an interview with Der Spiegel in 1966. I'm not a particular devotee of Heidegger, nor indeed a student of Philosophy, yet these words resonate deeply with me, especially now, in February 2017, as fissures widen throughout the West and the centre starts to crumble in politics, culture and society.

What Heidegger means, I think, is that our ongoing fixation with technological innovation and administrative proficiency will make us something less than human in the end - 'a thing with one face' as Louis MacNeice put it in Prayer Before Birth, 'a cog in a machine' ripe for conquest and exploitation. What is required instead is a drastic shake-up in consciousness - a clearing of the ground - a radical reorientation and opening up to the Divine. Only then can the god make his presence felt - restoring our broken hierarchies, reforging the links between Heaven and Earth, and guiding us towards a genuinely human flourishing, both individual and corporate.

It is interesting that Heidegger uses the word 'god' rather than 'God'. The question following from this, to my mind, is 'which god?' My impression, reflecting on our situation today, is that a revival of the pagan pantheons of pre-Christian Europe - dramatic though that might sound - could well be imminent. The wave of populism sweeping the West will sooner or later, I'm sure, find its religious counterpart in a search for the Sacred which will demand a more potent brew than the watered-down liturgies of the mainstream Churches, the choreographed shoutiness of Charismatic Christianity (see William Wildblood's post Evangelical Religion) and the saccharine banalities of the New Age. The Catholic Church (to speak of my own denomination) senses this paradigm shift, I feel - even if only subconsciously - and is at great pains to thwart and divert any potential upsurge in neo-paganism. This is one reason, I believe, why Pope Francis appears so keen at times to encourage the spread of Islam across Europe. His unspoken goal, I would hazard a guess, is an alliance of global monotheisms against the coming religious populism, which - like its political counterpart - will be highly nativist and tribal in tone and outlook.

That is my reading of some of the deeper forces at play in today's world. I hope, however, that my conclusions are in error and my speculations unfounded. Building mutual understanding and respect is always to be applauded, but any kind of alliance or long-term partnership with another religion - or another civilisation, as is also the case with Islam - is fraught with danger, running the risk of inflaming the very populism it sets out to tame.

The Church would be better advised, first and foremost, to invest in the restorative force of her own spiritual tradition. Far be it from me to tell the Pope what to do, but he could do a lot worse, in my view, than than pin this extract from George Mackay Brown's The Tarn and the Rosary to his bedroom wall:

The celebrant entered. Colm had not seen this particular priest before. He looked like an Indo-Chinese. Once again, for the thousandth time, Colm watched the endless beautiful ceremony, the exchange of gifts between earth and heaven, dust and spirit, man and God. The transfigured Bread some momentaritly in the saffron fingers of the celebrant.

Or Alec Guinness's description (in his memoir Blessings in Disguise) of his visit to Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in 1965:

Arriving at the large, draughty, austere, white chapel I was amazed at the sights and sounds that greeted me. The great doors to the East were wide open and the sun, a fiery red ball, was rising over the distant farmland; at each of the dozen or so side-altars a monk, finely-vested but wearing heavy farmer's boots to which cow dung still adhered, was saying his private Mass. Voices were low, almost whispers, but each Mass was at a different stage of development, so that the Sanctus would tinkle from one altar to be followed half a minute later by other tinkles far away. For perhaps five minutes little bells sounded from all over and the sun grew steadily whiter as it rose. There was an awe-inspiring sense of God expanding, as if to fill every corner of the church and the whole world.

Or J.R.R. Tolkien's reflection in his Letters on the power and mystery of the Eucharist: There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth.

What holds true for Catholicism in these examples holds true for every branch of Christianity - 'Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.' With a spirituality such as this, packed with meaning and intensity, there will be no need for Churches to cut contentious deals or for the religiously disenfranchised to seek out strange gods. Those gods will find their rightful place, in fact, in an all-embracing, Christ-centred pattern and harmony, which embraces paradox and reconciles opposites. The decisive role played by the planetary powers of the Graeco-Roman pantheon in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength bears outstanding witness to this. 

I find something analogous to all this in John Buchan's 1926 novel The Dancing Floor (so, spoiler alert here for those who haven't read the book). When the remote Greek island of Plakos is struck by a series of droughts and bad harvests, the natives slough off their Cristian faith and resurrect an ancient pagan ritual. Their target is the big house by the sea where their former landlord, the decadent, semi-Satanic aesthete Shelley Arabin lived. Since Arabin's death, the house has been occupied by his daughter Koré, and it is Koré who the islanders plan to burn alive on Holy Saturday night to make recompense to the gods for the dark arts practiced by her father.

The idealistic Englishman Vernon Milburne is smuggled in by the household staff to aid their mistress, but time is running short. The multitude begin to gather on the lawn outside (the 'Dancing Floor'). Torches are lit. Brushwood is piled high against the house. Out of the flames, the natives believe, the gods will appear and set their fortunes to rights. Koré and Vernon opt to take a leap of faith and give the islanders what they want - disguising themselves as best they can as gods, breaking out of the house to face the crowd, hoping against hope that the islanders will believe what they see.

Buchan's narrative doesn't fully map on, perhaps, to the 'all-embracing, Christ-centred pattern and harmony' referred to above. There is a disjoint still between pagan and Christian. His story, nonetheless, poses a number of questions which are highly germane to our spiritual and political situation today.  

What exactly is the sleeping volcano that is starting to stir beneath the technocratic sheen of Western civilisation? 'What rough beast,' as W.B. Yeats asked in The Second Coming, 'slouches off towards Bethlehem to be born?' This is the 'Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time' that Lewis shows us in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe - the primal savagery that revels in the slaying of Aslan at the Stone Table. It is in the Gospels too, in the sacrificial blood-lust whipped up amongst the multitude by the Chief Priests on Good Friday morning. But, as readers of the Gospels and The Lion know, there is a 'Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time' - a God behind the gods who breaks the seal of Hades, shatters conventional paradigms, and baptises the hearts of populists and establishment figures alike with that which we all most desire - that high and holy Peace that passes all understanding.

What trials and tribulations - what 'droughts' and 'bad harvests' - will need to come our way before we  are blessed with the imagination to perceive Him and the humility to even admit that we need Him? What changes do we need to effect - spiritually, emotionally, mentally - before the fog of materialism lifts and our God can start to make his healing, restorative presence felt in this fractured, crumbling world?

I have condensed the last chapter of The Dancing Floor into twelve paragraphs to get down to the essence of what the book is about. The tale is recounted (in sizzling prose) by one of Buchan's best-loved narrators, the indefatigable lawyer turned adventurer, Sir Edward Leithen ...

... As I have told you, I had stumbled through the undergrowth with the blazing House making the place an inferno of blood-red aisles and thickets. I was doddering with fatigue, and desperate with
anxiety, and the only notion in my head was to use the dregs of my strength to do something violent. I was utterly in the dark, too. I did not know but that Koré might already be beyond my help, for that crimson grove seemed to reek of death. 

The back part of the House and the outbuildings were by this time one roaring gust of flame, but the front was still untouched, and the fan of fire behind it gave it the concave darkness of a shell - a purple dark which might at any moment burst into light. The glow behind the facade was reflected farther down the avenue, which was as bright as day, but the House end was shadowed, and the two figures which I saw seemed to be emerging from a belt of blackness between two zones of raw gold. I therefore saw them first as two dim white forms, which as they moved, caught tints of flame ...

Put it down to fatigue, if you like, or to natural stupidity, but I did not recognise them. Besides, you see, I knew nothing of Vernon's presence there. My breath stopped, and I felt my heart leap to my throat. What I saw seemed not of the earth - immortals, whether from Heaven or Hell, coming out of the shadows and the fire in white garments, beings that no elements could destroy.

The spell of the waiting people made me turn, as they had turned, to the gap in the wall. Through it, to the point where the glow of the conflagration mingled with the yellow moonlight, came the two figures. I suddenly looked with seeing eyes and I saw Koré. She was dressed in white, the very gown which had roused Vernon's ire at my cousin's dance the summer before. A preposterous garment I had thought it, the vagary of an indecent fashion. But now - ah now! It seemed the fitting robe for youth and innocence - divine youth, heavenly innocence - clothing but scarcely veiling the young Grace who walked like Persephone among the spring meadows. It was not Koré I was looking at but the Koré, the immortal maiden, who brings to the earth its annual redemption.

I was a sane man once more, and filled with another kind of exaltation. I have never felt so sharp a sense of joy. God had not failed us. I knew that Koré was now not only safe but triumphant.

And then I recognised Vernon.

I did not trouble to think by what mad chance he had come there. It seemed wholly right that he should be there. He was dressed like the runner of the day before, but at the moment I did not connect the two. What I was looking at was an incarnation of something that mankind has always worshipped - youth rejoicing to run its race, that youth which is the security of this world's continuance and the earnest of Paradise.

I recognised my friends, and yet I did not recognise them, for they were transfigured. In a flash of insight I understood that it was not the Koré and the Vernon that I had known, but new creations. They were not acting a part, but living it. They, too, were believers; they had found their own epiphany, for they had found themselves and each other. Each other! How I knew it I do not know, but I realised it was two lovers that stood on the brink of the Dancing Floor. And I felt a great glow of peace and happiness.

With that I could face the multitude once more. And then I saw the supreme miracle. Over the crowd passed a tremor like a wind in a field of wheat. Instead of a shout of triumph there was a low murmur as of a thousand sighs. And then there came a surge, men and women stumbling in terror. First the fringes opened and thinned, and in another second, as it seemed to me, the whole mass was in precipitate movement. And then it became panic - naked, veritable panic. The silence was broken by hoarse cries of fear. I saw men running like hares on the slopes of the Dancing Floor. I saw women dragging their children as if fleeing from a pestilence... In a twinkling I was looking down on an empty glade with the Spring of the White Cypress black and solitary in the moonlight.

I did not doubt what had happened. The people of Plakos had gone after strange gods, but it was only for a short season that they could shake themselves free from the bonds of a creed which they had held for a thousand years. The resurgence of ancient faiths had obscured but had not destroyed the religion into which they had been born. Their spells had been too successful. They had raised the Devil and now fled from him in their blindest terror. They had sought the outlands, had felt their biting winds, and had a glimpse of their awful denizens, and they longed with the passion of children for their old homely shelters. 

I saw a glow as from torches to the south where the church stood, and a murmur which presently swelled into an excited clamour. Suddenly a bell began to ring, and it seemed as if the noise became antiphonal, voices speaking and others replying. At that distance I could make out nothing, but I knew what the voices said. It was "Christ is risen - He is risen indeed."


Bruce Charlton said...

@John - Some very interesting thoughts provoked here.

My feeling is that there is a direct, easy and pleasant way forward, which is spiritual Christianity; and an indirect, tough and nasty path via pain and suffering, which is via resurgent paganism.

(With all the atavistic dark side of real paganism.)

The historical lesson is that real pagans were easily and willingly converted to Christianity. So we may get there in the end...

Paganism of course contains much that is good - as well as its evils; and is spiritually much *much* better than the secular Leftist inversion/ nihilism/ despair which is prevalent - which is why the global Establishment are so opposed to real paganism; because for their evil agenda it would be a step backwards.

The big question is whether people will choose their destiny *now* - or whether they will need to experience more and yet more self-inflicted suffering before they choose to recognise reality.

Since people cannot be compelled to recognise reality; the situation will never be so bad that (real) Christianity is inevitable - always, humans have agency. But I expect that we will be made to live with the stark and horrible consequences of our expedient hedonic prideful choices, and this escalation of suffering will *tend* to enable people to see-through the lies.

All this is very painful for God to contemplate (he would greatly prefer that his lessons were not harsh) - but kind treatment and comfortable outcomes have been thoroughly tried over the past decades in The West - and we, as a civilization, have thoroughly abused the situation.

William Wildblood said...

A very interesting piece, John. As I see it, false spirituality can be much worse than no spirituality and any religious revival easily co-opted into demon worship, either direct or, more likely, indirect. The only safeguard against that is the proper love and fear of God and the motive behind any religious impulse to be to do God's will, not what you hope to get out of it in the way of religious experience.