It is bin day in our street and I am prompted to write this little reflection by the recent sight of grossly overloaded recycling bins full of Christmas wrapping paper, cardboard boxes, beer and wine bottles, and other such indicators of our annual binge – both monetary and the other kind. I’m sure the garbos must dread Christmas
In a largely post-Christian society, Christmas has become a great commercial spending frenzy and an outpouring of shallow emotionalism, largely bereft of any real spiritual underpinning – a festival of over-consumption. Outside of the churches, it is considered bad form to display crib scenes, these being an obvious barrier to the achievement of a truly egalitarian society where all religions (and irreligions) are equal, and any creedal preferences in this regard must remain private.
Dover Beach, mid 19th century.
The fact that our whole Western civilisation owes its very existence to Christianity matters but little now. For the Holy Family, there is no room at the inn or any other public place. Indeed, it is probably bad form to use the term “Western civilisation” these days (Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, replied that it sounded like a very good idea! I am beginning to see his point).
Sometimes, I entertain the idea that the various Christian communions in Australia ought to get together and change the celebration of the birth of Christ to a date in the middle of winter, thus leaving the celebration of “Xmas” to the world of commerce. But, of course, that would not work. The retail giants would quickly move in to exploit this new avenue of gift giving. We easily forget that nearly all our “gift days” were either instigated or commandeered by the retail world – Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and so on.
Each year, one of the first items of news immediately after Christmas Day is a report on retail sales. It usually precedes the Christmas messages from the leaders of the various Christian communions. I am writing this piece on January 4 and an item on the television news informs me that some of the retail grocery giants already have hot-cross buns for sale. Here another custom related to the Christian religion has been so debased as to lose all its significance. The Resurrection has been supplanted by the Easter Bunny and the latter is (unfortunately) wholly immune to myxomatosis.
And yet, beneath all the tawdry tinsel and the surfeit of food and drink and present giving, something of the former glory and beauty of Christmas remains. Families unite, and the thinning ranks at the churches experience a brief bolstering of numbers as “submarine” Christians surface for their once-yearly visit. Carols are still sung, though many have little direct reference to the birth of Christ.
One senses that, beneath all the outward trappings of secularised celebration, Christmas still provides some form of spiritual nourishment. There is that vague sense that life consists of something more than mere “getting and spending”, and that it has some sort of purpose and meaning beyond the mere biological processes of our animal natures.
In 1851, English poet Matthew Arnold penned a poem while on his honeymoon at Dover Beach. It is simply entitled Dover Beach. The poem begins with a very beautiful description of a seaside nightscape but then moves to a consideration of weightier things:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
This is probably the most quoted of all poetic excerpts dealing with the general loss of religious faith in the Western world. The irony is that Arnold himself, like so many of his well-educated contemporaries, played no small part in the general attack on traditional Christianity. And yet, there is an obvious note of remorse and sadness in his poem.
Indeed, if you wish to chart the general demise of Christian belief in the West, an obvious place to begin is in the England of the 18th and 19th centuries. And, perhaps, no one has described the whole business better than A.N. Wilson in his 1999 book God’s Funeral. It is a masterly analysis by a man who, himself, had turned away from the religion of his youth and his forebears. And yet, his obvious sympathy with a religious view of the world is everywhere evident. I was therefore not surprised to learn that Wilson returned to his earlier Anglican faith about a decade after the publication of God’s Funeral.
“We are engaged in a battle of ideas” was the oft-repeated maxim of B.A. Santamaria, the founder of this news magazine. Wilson would wholeheartedly agree. What both men realised, in their different ways, was the enormous influence of philosophical ideas on the lives of ordinary people.
We too easily suppose that the world of the philosophers – the “long hairs” – is remote from everyday life and the convictions of the ordinary person in the street. It is not so. Since the 18th century, the gradual extension of public education has meant that all of us are exposed to a range of different philosophies and sociological theories.
True enough, most of the great philosophers were university dons, but they taught students too. And many of those students went on to become teachers themselves. Others became journalists or, in more recent times, radio and television commentators. This is how philosophical ideas are propagated. It is idle to suppose that such people come to their subject matter in a wholly objective way – the thing is simply impossible.
The philosophical ideas that arose in the 18th and 19th centuries were not always promulgated by philosophers. Historians and political theorists had an important part in the process too but, inevitably, one can trace their particular notions back to philosophical assumptions or ideas. In the 18th century, Wilson places particular emphasis on Edward Gibbon and David Hume. Gibbon, of course, was an historian, not a philosopher, but the whole thrust of his famous History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is anti-religious in tone.
I could give dozens of examples, but this, from his account of Antonine Rome, will suffice: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”
But most of his anti-religious venom was reserved for the early Christians, who are repeatedly lambasted in his history. We too easily forget that Gibbon’s account was, for a very long time indeed, the only easily accessible history of the Roman Empire and, indeed, of early Christianity. It influenced huge numbers of people.
The influence of David Hume in this matter of the loss of Christian faith is too well known to require comment here. Suffice to say that, even today, prominent atheists regard him as a sort of secular saint. His attack on the argument from design is trotted out in nearly all undergraduate philosophy courses as some sort of “proof” that religious ideas are a nonsense.
There follows, in Wilson’s account, a great procession of intellectuals, all having their little part to play: George Hegel, Karl Marx, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Herbert Spencer, Beatrice Webb, T.H. Huxley, Charles Darwin and, of course, Matthew Arnold. These are but a few of the names you will encounter in God’s Funeral. Not all of the characters are unbelievers; indeed, Wilson gives some space to those involved in the counter-attack – John Henry Newman, for example.
Readers of the book may be surprised that so little space is devoted to Friedrich Nietzsche. His announcement of “the death of God” is certainly the most quoted, but the flight from belief was already well advanced by the time of Nietzsche’s Üebermensch (“Overman”). In a sense, all that Nietzsche did was to point out the obvious consequences: a move beyond the categories of good and evil and the inevitable deification of pure power.
It seems to me, at any rate, that behind all the bewildering array of anti-Christian philosophies arising over the last two centuries or so, there is one common thread. That common thread is the firm conviction that the human intellect, entirely of its own power, can provide the necessary basis for a stable society and a sense of self-fulfilment and happiness for the individual. This, after all, has always been the great utopian dream of the secular reformers.
Yet, while their great programs of secular reform have, in large part, come to fruition, the results are hardly encouraging. True enough, standards of living have greatly improved, and we live longer and more comfortable lives. But suicide rates continue to climb, and the use of anti-depressant drugs has also risen sharply.
If we are to adopt Aristotle’s idea that the proper “end” of a human life is happiness, then we have reason to be concerned. The theory – popular since the time of Socrates – that better education was the key to overcoming evil in the world, has not delivered on its promise. Indeed, as many previous articles in News Weekly have attested, the very opposite is true in many cases. Malcolm Muggeridge once opined that “we have educated ourselves into imbecility”, and I am inclined to agree.
And so, here we are, after yet another Christmas – a small, increasingly beleaguered band of believers harassed and menaced by the nanny state, ridiculed by our opponents, and ignored by most others. Yet, we know that our position is not new – the faith has been under attack many times before and has emerged victorious.
I very much like the motto adopted by the great Abbey at Montecassino in Italy. It was destroyed by the Lombards circa 585, by the Saracens in 884, by the Normans in 1046, by an earthquake in 1349 and by the Americans in 1944. Each time it has been rebuilt. The motto is Succisa virescit – “Cut down, it grows ever stronger”.
While he was on a speaking tour in England, Mark Twain became ill and was even reported back in America as having died. Reputedly, he sent off a telegram saying: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” So it is with God.