The death of the soul

In The Australian this weekend Greg Sheridan, the conservative and perceptive foreign affairs journalist, comments on the decline of religion and its impact on Western liberal mores. He restores Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, who proclaims to an indifferent crowd that God is dead, and then revokes his claim,  but still sees a dark prophecy:

“Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I come too early’, he then said; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!’” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Sheridan’s article, entitled “Is God Dead?”, poses the question of whether that time has indeed now come. He sees the failing vital signs of the Christian God all around him. The last Census in Australia found that only a small majority identified as a Christian, and a third of us professed no religion. Sheridan sees an assault on the Church, brought on by its own weaknesses, including above all its tragic failure to respond to child sexual abuse. But this attack grows ever more shrill, until it chases the Church from the public square, ignorant of the thousand acts of kindness, humility and compassion in hospices, in churches, on the streets that make us a society, not a market. The assault of the progressive world on the institutions of traditional morality has grown more venomous, Sheridan implies, when liberalism or progressive modernity forgets the deep reservoir of holy water from which we all drink. Religion, which once was a spiritual foundation for liberal and progressive beliefs, has become a discriminatory and embarrassing constraint on the dreams of efflorescent identity, beloved by our society of consumption.

Against this forgetting, Sheridan poses the Churches’ long history of charity, of education, of nurturing the very foundations of the culture, which this blog watches mournfully dying in flames. Sheridan refers to the work of Larry Siedentrop, Inventing the individual: the origins of Western liberalism. Siedentrop traces to the monasteries of the Middle Ages a birth of an alternative way of living, or in Sheridan’s words “an early expression of human freedom.” “People chose to be monks,” Sheridan writes “and therefore to have a life beyond that dictated by circumstances of birth and family.” By conserving their symbols, music, texts and religious objects and sacralising their lives in a cherished institution bonded by rules of tradition, they were midwives to a great and vital culture.

Without knowing Siedentrop’s book, the thought resembles my reflection on our impending dark ages, and the reasons for hope in these times:

In the ruins of the crises of the tenth century, Western European culture was born and indeed so was the glory of Kievan Rus. Monasticism, a resurgent faith and a reform of the church, a flowering Renaissance, the emergence of order in modern government, law, conscience, mysticism and on it goes. Who will speak like Abelard and Heloise across the centuries in this new dark age?

Nietzsche’s madman had asked his liberal crowd, thoughtlessly wiping the blood from the dagger plunged in the heart of God:

“What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Festivals of atonement indeed. Is this a way of describing the modern parades of virtue signalling and spasms of shaming of the people who are uncomfortable with ready-to-wear sexual and political identities? And these festivals of atonement have created a new authoritarianism, as we know from the rainbow guards who police sentiment itself in the new politics of identities.

Identity politics troubles Sheridan, as it troubles me, despite being my thoughts made from a different, more secular cloth. Identify politics reflects “a certain moral panic at the existential emptiness of atheism,” and this panic drives the new liberal authoritarianism. “Everyone must genuflect to the same secular pieties.”

“Nothing is more powerful in Western politics now, and in the long run more destructive, than identity politics. This sells itself as a means to empower and to help disadvantaged minorities. But everyone wants a slice of identity politics.” (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

Donald Trump is as much a manifestation of identity politics as the campaign for gay marriage – it is the demand of resentful American whites demanding their identity politics too. The public square has descended into the melee at Charlottesville; one side shouting black lives matter, the other shouting back white lives matter. Neither side speak to each other’s reasons.

The significance of this polarisation of politics to Sheridan’s broader argument is:

The abandonment of the universalism of citizenship, which was the civic expression of the universalism of humanity as understood in Christianity, is a dreadful wrong turn for Western civilisation.”(Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

At its heart is the dissolution of the soul in modern culture.

Of course people can be good and charitable without religious motivation. But even Dawkins admits that without God there is no ultimate way to define good and evil. This leads… ultimately to the perverse worship of power for its own sake. This disability is evident in the unravelling of contemporary liberalism. It is driven insane by contradictory impulses it can no longer control or balance. One is antisocial self-absorption…. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

This leads, I think, to Sheridan’s deepest observation.

But the soul – the embodiment of our deepest sense of integrity and destiny – gave way to the self as the therapeutic age replaced the age of belief. Now, in our postmodern times, even self has been supplanted by brand. Soul to self to brand is a steep decline in what it means to be a human being. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017, my emphasis)

Sheridan, of course, is not the first to see this withering of the soul, this paradoxical abandonment of the depths for the shallow celebration of trinkets and baubles.

“But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?” Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov

We have lived 137 years under the shadow of that question. Perhaps those years are no worse than the millennia before them. Religion has, after all, been an ark of grievance as much as a cowl of faith. Sacred violence lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

But for at least some of those 137 years, the archive of our culture was not burning.

How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts. How do we live well in the face of such losses, we who have never had a religious belief, but have consoled ourselves in the word-hoards of our culture? How do we write the Benedictine rule for our times?

Image credit: A scene from GÖTTER­DÄMMERUNG, Wiener Staatsoper

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