It is as well to admit when your enemies are onto something. Today the antagonists of Western culture and civilisation throw many accusations at us — almost all of them untrue. They say that our history has been especially cruel, whereas it has been no crueller than any other and significantly less cruel than most. They claim that we act only for ourselves, whereas it is doubtful if any society in history has been so unwilling to defend its own or more ready to assume the opinions, and fill the pockets, of its detractors.
But on one single thing it is possible that our critics are on to something. They do not identify it well, and when they do identify it they prescribe the worst possible remedies. But it remains a problem worth identifying, not least in order to raise ourselves to answers.
The problem is one that is easier to notice and feel than it is to prove, but I would suggest that it is something like this: that life in modern liberal democracies is to some extent thin or shallow. I do not mean that our lives are meaningless, nor that the opportunity liberal democracy uniquely gives to pursue our own conception of happiness is remotely misguided. On a day-to-day basis most of us find deep meaning and love from our families and friends and much else. But there are questions which remain, which have always been at the centre of each of us and which liberal democracy on its own not only cannot answer but was never meant to answer.
“What am I doing here? What is my life for? Does it have any purpose beyond itself?” These are questions which human beings have always asked and are still there even though today to even ask such questions is something like bad manners. What is even more, the spaces where such questions might be asked — let alone answered — have shrunk not only in number but in their ambition for answers. And if people no longer seek for answers in churches will they find them in occasional visits to art galleries or book clubs?
Jürgen Habermas addressed an aspect of this in 2007 when he led a discussion at the Jesuit School of Philosophy in Munich titled, “An Awareness of What is Missing”. There he attempted to identify a gap at the centre of our “post-secular age”. In 1991 he had attended a memorial service for a friend at a church in Zürich. The friend had left instructions for the event which were closely followed. The coffin was present and there were speeches by two friends. But there was no priest and no blessing. The ashes were to be “strewn somewhere” and there was to be no “amen”. The friend — who had been an agnostic — had both rejected the religious element and was also publicly demonstrating that non-religious burial had failed. As Habermas interprets his friend, “The enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final rîte de passage which brings life to a close.”
The challenge which Habermas’s friend presented can be quietly heard around us in our daily lives, as can the results of the questions going unanswered. Perhaps we are wary of this discussion simply because we no longer believe in the answers and have decided on some variant of the old adage that if we have nothing nice to say then it is better to say nothing at all. But perhaps there should be a new urgency about asking these questions. After all, all this could very easily change. Having been for some years, as Roger Scruton has put it, downstream from Christianity, there is every possibility that our societies will either become unmoored entirely or be hauled onto a very different shore. Very unsettling questions lie dormant beneath our current culture.
There is, for instance, that question which Ernst Wolfgang Böckenförde posed in the 1960s: “Does the free, secularised state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee?” It is rare to hear this question even raised in our societies. Perhaps we sense the answer is “yes” but we do not know what to do if this is the case.
But in fact the wind of opinion in recent years appears to have begun to blow against those who insist that Western liberal societies owe nothing to the religion from which they arose. Partly because the more we become acquainted with other traditions, the harder it becomes to sustain. Indeed, although some people still hold out, it should be evident by now that the culture of human rights has more to do with the creed preached by Moses and Jesus of Nazareth than that of, say, Muhammad. Nevertheless, the question of whether this societal position is sustainable without reference to the beliefs that gave it birth remains deeply pregnant and troubling in the West.
Perhaps we also do not ask these deeper questions not only because we do not believe the answers we used to give but because we sense that we are in some sense in an interim period of our development and that our answers may be about to change. A recent survey by Pew showed that affiliation to Christianity is falling away in Britain faster than in almost any other country. By 2050, the Pew projection suggests, religious affiliation to Christianity will have fallen by a third in the UK from almost two thirds in 2010 and will thus become a minority affiliation for the first time. By the same date, Pew says, Britain will have the third largest Muslim population in Europe, higher than France, Germany or Belgium. All such predictions are of course rife with possible variations. For instance, they assume that Christians will continue to become non-religious while Muslims will not. Which may be the case or may not. In any case, these are movements — like those across Europe and America (where Muslims will by the same date outnumber Jews among the US population) — which cannot fail to have significant repercussions.
Whatever the reasons, it is striking that addressing or even acknowledging questions of meaning has become so uncommon. Despite the unparalleled opportunity, our mass media and multimedia use their power almost solely to purvey distraction and gossip. Meanwhile, the highest ends of our culture say — at best — that the world is complex and that we must simply embrace the complexity and not look for answers. Yet avoiding this discussion is, in the long term, likely to prove a terrible mistake. We live in an age of extraordinary prosperity, but it might not always be like this. Even today, when the sun of economic advantage still shines upon us, there are people who notice a gap in our culture and are finding their own ways to fill it.
For some years now I have been especially struck by accounts I have heard and read of people who have chosen to convert to Islam. Partly these stories are striking because they are so similar — and not only to each other. They are almost always some variant of a story nearly any young person could tell. They generally go something like this: “I had reached X age (often the twenties or early thirties) and I was in a nightclub and I was drunk and I just thought, ‘Life must be about more than this’.” Almost nothing else in our culture says, “But of course this is not all.” Instead the voice of our culture just says, “repeat, repeat.” In the absence of such a voice they search, and they discover Islam. The fact that they land on Islam is a story in itself. Why do these young men and women (very often women) not reach out and find Christianity? Partly it is because most branches of mainstream Christianity have lost the confidence to proselytise. Partly it is the trickle-down effect of the fact that Islamic traditions have not yet been so affected by historical criticism and scholarship. (I say “yet” because that scholarship is starting. Many Muslims sense it and they are fighting with all they have to hold it back because they know what it is going to do.)
But what is interesting to me is that everything about these accounts is both of our time and runs against the assumptions of our time. The search for meaning is not new. What is new is that almost nothing in our culture applies itself to offering an answer. Nothing says, “Here is an inheritance of thought and culture and philosophy and religion which has nurtured people for thousands of years.” At best the voice says, “Find your meaning where you will.” At worst it is the nihilist’s creed: “All this has no meaning.” Meanwhile politicians — seeking to address the broadest range of people — speak so widely and with such generalities as to mean almost nothing. Almost nowhere is there a vision of what a meaning-filled life might be. The wisdom of our time suggests that education, science and the sheer accessibility of information must surely have knocked such urges out of us. And the divide can be staggering.
At the opening of his 1986 work The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins wrote: “This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it.” This passage highlights the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist worldview of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that he has solved our mystery — and although science has indeed solved part of it — the fact is that we do not feel solved. We do not live our lives and experience our lives as solved beings. In the same way, no intelligent person could reject what we know to be our kinship with the animal kingdom. Yet few people would rejoice in being referred to as a mere animal. Being described as “mammalian” may shock and even stimulate for a bit, but to live as though we were animals would be — we know — to degrade ourselves. Whether we are right or wrong in this, we do feel that we are more than this. In the same way, we know we are more than mere consumers. We rebel when we are talked of as mere cogs in some economic wheel, and some people will even vote Green as a result. We rebel not because we are not these things, but because we know that we are not only these things. We know we are something else, even if we do not know what that else is.
I know that non-religious people do not like talk like this. And I know that religious people find it frustrating because for real believers the question will always be, “Why do you not just believe?” Yet this latter question simply ignores the probably irreversible damage that science and historical criticism have done to the literal truth-claims of religion and ignores the fact that people cannot be forced into faith. Meanwhile the non-religious in our culture are deeply fearful of any debate or discussion which they think will make some concession to the religious and so allow faith-based discussion to flood back in to the public space.
This seems to me to be an error, not least because it encourages people to go to war with those who are supported by the same tree. There is no reason why a child of Judaeo-Christian civilisation and Enlightenment Europe should spend much, if any, of their time warring with those who still hold the faith from which many of their beliefs and rights spring. In the same way there is little sense in the products of Judaeo-Christian civilisation and Enlightenment Europe who have managed to come to a different settlement deciding that those who do not literally and actually believe in God are now their enemies. Between us we may yet face far clearer opponents not only of our culture but of our whole way of living.
Unless the non-religious are able to work with, rather than against, the source from which our culture found meaning it is hard to see any way through. It is not as though we are going to be able to invent an entirely new set of beliefs — though at times like these many charlatans will try. But without this it is not just that we lose our ability to talk of truths and meaning, we lose the ability even to speak in metaphor.
Meanwhile, the secular society which believes it has freed itself entirely from its roots resembles nothing so much as the image drawn by Chantal Delsol in Icarus Fallen (ISI, £14.95) — the condition of Icarus had he survived the fall. All of our hopes — every religious and political dream we ever had — came crashing around us. And yet we are still here. So what do we do? There are a number of possibilities including that we might, in time, gird ourselves for another effort at the absolute, perhaps once those with a memory die out. Or perhaps we will just accept that we have landed here, are still alive and decide to give ourselves over solely to lives of pleasure. This is not an uncommon or unprecedented conclusion. It happened to the Soviet leaders when they lost faith in their own utopia. As Delsol observes, “The great collapse of ideals often draws in its wake a kind of cynicism: if all hope is lost, then let us at least have fun!”
Perhaps we are living through something like that cynicism at the moment. And it is not the worst position in the world to find yourself in. When politicians say “spend” and everything in the world around us celebrates our lives as consumers then it certainly suggests that is one position we have come to. But it has the potential to be deadly, not only because it is contagious, but because it has a hole of meaning and purpose at its centre which every society in history has attempted to address and which something else will try to fill if our own societies do not apply themselves. A society that sells itself solely on its pleasures is a society that could swiftly lose its attractions. That post-nightclub convert had the pleasures and knew they were not enough. A society which says we are the bar and the nightclub, the licence and the fun, cannot be said to have deep roots of survival. One which says that our culture is the cathedral and the playhouse, the shopping mall and the library has more than a chance.
There is one part of this that is noticeable by its absence. In the 19th century, when the possibilities of literal religious faith began to fade, the idea arose that a cultural renewal could come about by replacing religion with art. Part of that notion was not just that art could pick up where religion had left off, but that it might do even better than religion because it could live without its “encumbrances”. At the start of his 1880 essay “Religion and Art” Wagner argued: “While the priest stakes everything on the religious allegories being accepted as matters of fact, the artist has no concern at all with such a thing, since he freely and openly gives out his work as his own invention.”
Wagner had certainly read his Schopenhauer, and he had also read his Feuerbach, from whom he gained the notion of religion as the expression of our innermost desires. The role of art, he believed, was to “save the spirit of religion”. And what he was attempting to speak to, in his music and essays was the source of that other-worldly, subconscious voice that speaks to us, asks questions and seeks answers. From Tannhauser right through to Parsifal, Wagner’s ambition and achievement was to create a kind of religion which could stand up on its own and sustain itself. Even this foundered, of course, and those who try to live their lives by the Wagnerian religion tend to find themselves living rather unhappy lives. And as we can learn from Wagner himself, culture on its own cannot make anyone either happy or good.
Perhaps it was the realisation of the partial failure of this mission that persuaded so many contemporary artists to stop aiming to connect to any enduring truths but instead simply to say to the public, “I am down in the mud with you” — a moral replay of the moment when the public’s technical attitude to art moved from pre-Duchamp (“I wish I could do that”) to that of today (“A child could do that”). If you walk through a gallery like Tate Modern in London or Moma in New York the only thing more striking than the lack of technical skill is the lack of ambition. The works may tell us about death, suffering, cruelty or pain but few have anything to say about these subjects. Almost everybody knows these things exist, and if they did not then they will hardly be persuaded in an art gallery, but the art of our time seems to have given up any effort to kindle something else in us. In particular, it has given up that desire to connect us to something like the spirit of religion or that thrill of recognition — what Aristotle termed anagnorisis — which grants you the sense of having just caught up with a truth that was always waiting for you.
It may be that this sense only occurs if you tap into a profound truth and that the desire to do so is something of which artists, like almost everyone else, have become suspicious. Go to any of the temples of modern culture and you can see great crowds of people wandering around looking for something, but it is unclear what they are after. But then you can be reminded of something greater. I was once wandering, somewhat aimlessly and underwhelmed, through the Art Gallery of Ontario. I heard the strains of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium in the distance and made my way towards the sound. Suddenly I realised another reason why the earlier galleries had been so depopulated. Everybody had migrated towards the same “sound installation” by Janet Cardiff, consisting of 40 speakers arranged in an oval, each relaying a singer in the choir. In the centre people stood mesmerised. Couples held hands and one pair sat embraced. (This was before Spem in Alium featured in the sadomasochist novels of E.L. James. Who knows what might happen now?)
It was deeply moving, but also striking that people thought that the achievement was Janet Cardiff’s, rather than Thomas Tallis’s. But that was anagnorisis happening right there. I am not certain how many of the crowd knew either the piece that the “sound installation” was taken from, or the text which Tallis worked from. But something strange and out-of-time was occurring. One of the few contemporary works which have a comparable effect is the sculpture by Antony Gormley called Another Place, consisting of 100 cast-iron, life-size human figures looking out to sea on Crosby Beach, near Liverpool. The whole installation — which was made permanent at the request of local residents — is best appreciated at dawn or at sunset, when the tides are in or receding or when the figures are facing into the setting sun. I find this work more moving than almost any work of art since Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27). The reason is partly the same. Here is an image almost of the everyday, seen and experienced in the everyday, which brings the story of resurrection which lies at the heart of our culture to a tangible and experienced form.
Of course it may be that these works are no more than the artistic wing of Böckenförde’s problem. What resonates does so because of something that happened before, not in something intrinsically great about the work. But there is another way of looking at this, which it seems to me may be worth considering: it is that works like this speak to people because they seek to address the same needs that religion seeks to address. Their answers may be more blurred and their confidence more timid than what came before. That is no bad thing. But these are works which try to speak to the same needs and the same truths.
We are not going to find another culture or a better culture. But we are currently doing a very poor job of saying what it is in this culture which has nurtured believers and doubters of previous generations and may nurture believers and doubters in this generation too. There will be big upheavals in the years ahead and it is not enough to face them stripped entirely bare. If the culture which shaped the West has no part in the future then we know that there are others that will step into its place. To reinject our culture with some sense of a deeper purpose need not be a proselytising mission, but an aspiration of which we should be aware. But that aspiration will be impossible to fulfil if the religious think that those who have split off from the same tree are their greatest problem, while those on the secular branch try to saw themselves off from the tree as a whole. People can sense that and the resulting want of meaning which arises from such shallows. A split has occurred in our culture. It should be the work of this generation to mend it.