In the declining West with its twin maladies of political correctness and the kitsch there is a growing tendency for thinking and sensitive people to look for the Divine and the cultural in Nature. The Church seems to have been captured by those forces people of taste reject – I mean a politically-correct outlook that would replace the reaching out to the sublime with value-neutral and gender-neutral language.
Of course this is depressing and cultural decline in the West is a real phenomenon. I have argued before in this blog that this decline has much to do with the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment, with its attempts to universalise, deny the local and the traditional and move from the Incarnation to Deism or even atheism.
Nietzsche of course recognised the decadence of the West and produced a powerful critique in his writings. He knew that the attempt to explain all by science was a mistake and thought his emphasis on the aesthetic and the subjective Ubermensch was the answer. I think he was wrong in the way he laid the blame for Western decadence at the door of Christianity. The self-loathing of political correctness today has its roots in the decadence Nietzsche perceived, but it is not an evolution of Christianity; rather it is a falling away from Christianity. Christ did not teach us there was no Judgment, only that we were not the judges. Remove God and we are left with a society with no values (something Nietzsche came to embrace of course).
More perceptive than Nietzsche in his definition of this Western decay was Charles Baudelaire, that old sinner. As much as that son of a Lutheran minister Friedrich Nietzsche probably never committed a significant carnal sin in his life, Baudelaire in his seedy, garret existence perceived the Divine still through the murk generated by Western liberal dogma. Rather like the woman washing Christ’s feet grasping the nature of grace better than Simon the Pharisee, so Baudelaire saw that it was a falling away from religion, not religion that brought about decay.
Baudelaire wrote of the liberal French writer, George Sand:
“Consider George Sand. She is, first and last, a prodigious blockhead, but she is possessed. It is the Devil who has persuaded her to trust in her good-nature and common-sense, that she must persuade all other prodigious blockheads to trust in their good-nature and common-sense.”
The blogger considers this to be a devastating definition and categorisation of the liberal do-gooder. Baudelaire saw that these liberals, with their non-judgemental and modern outlook were falling away from Western culture with its concept of sin and redemption. You cannot have the redemption without the sin.
So the argument of this blog is that what repulsed Nietzsche was not Christianity, but a partial picture of Christian values – it was liberalism, spawned by the least traditionalist and most secularist aspects of Enlightenment thinking. The decent and intelligent man attracted to Pantheism should not reject Christianity because liberalism casts pearls before swine. He should first know exactly what it is he is rejecting! He is not rejecting liberalism, he is rejecting what G K Chesterton called “The intolerant Truth”, which is “full of grace and truth.”
Pantheism does indeed identify something very powerful in Nature and the Pantheist is right to feel awe and perceive something revealed of the divine in Nature, just as Job in his revelation saw God in Nature. Job however could tell the difference between the Creator and the creature. The Pantheist has the two confused. The Pantheist sometimes caricatures the Christian as Manichean or Gnostic, but the Church always regarded the hatred of the material world as heresy. Baudelaire pointed out:
“The mystery of Paganism. Mysticism: the common feature of Paganism and Christianity.”
This may seem arcane, but it is surely profound, and the blogger may not have fully understood Baudelaire’s meaning, but no discussion of Christianity can be complete without reference to the Incarnation and is not the Incarnation nothing less than the Divine coming into its creation and thereby sanctifying and redeeming it? So both pagans and Christians see the mystery in the world around us.
If creation is imperfect but beautiful, the Incarnation can make it perfect. We must turn to a far more saintly character than Baudelaire to complete this blog – G K Chesterton. The Roman Catholic Church is currently investigating whether this rotund Englishman of wit and letters was actually a saint.
Chesterton demonstrates in his work, the Everlasting Man that Paganism can only eventually lead to depravity as evidenced by Roman decline into the Circus and perverted emperors. This is of course a reiteration of the first chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In another work, Chesterton defined the problem of paganism in his book on Saint Francis of Assisi:
“What was the matter with the whole heathen civilization was that there was nothing for the mass of men in the way of mysticism, except that concerned with the mystery of the nameless forces of nature, such as sex and growth and death. Thus, the effect of treating sex as the only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex.”
Thus the decline of the classical world. And thus also the need for a redemption from Nature worship. That redemption came through the Divine entering its own creation – Nature - from the outside.
Acknowledging the specific nature of Christ’s incarnation has important practical implications for today however, because if we take the Incarnation completely seriously, we realise that the Universal has become local, the general, specific and the Divine, individual. Thus local tradition and custom in religion become sanctified because they are specific to a certain people. If redemption is achieved by God becoming a real, physical person in a particular place and time in history, so the way we worship and reach out to the universal, which is sublime, must be practised in a customary and traditional way.
We meet the Universal Divine here in this world, in our places of worship with words handed down to us from previous generations. As T S Eliot put it in the Four Quartets:
“Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Forever and always.”
The Book of Common Prayer helps us to reach the sublime because of the beauty of its language and because it is English tradition. New and transitory language is a step away from the Incarnation and towards Deism. It will refer to the Incarnation in words, but the underlying assumption is that the words should be detached from local context and tradition, they should be “modernised” – this is a major intellectual concession to Deism I believe.
And so the belief or rather faith in the Incarnation achieves what both Pantheism and Deism fail to do: it brings us into touch with the Divine where we are now in both our personal lives and in our own culture and traditions. Only the Incarnation can redeem us.