Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 16. September 8th 1971
Religion and the Crisis of Culture
Religion and the Crisis of Culture
The slogans 'Away with all religion and superstition', 'Man is at the dawn of a new era', 'Science is our hope' as they were bandied around at the begining of this century are a far cry from our contemporary scene. Indeed, to read a copy of the 'Rationalist' Magazine today gives one the feeling that this style of thinking is more antiquated than the religious superstition it sought to overthrow. For the resurgence of interest in religion would seem to be one of the main features of our contemporary cultural crisis. One finds evidence from this from some seemingly unlikely sources. The February issue of Affairs Magazine, 1971, informs us that when its sample of New Zealand students was asked about what they wanted in the magazine, by far the most popular response was 'religion'. The Pop Music of our day touches upon religious themes with an obvious questing, whether it be from the Zen of John, the Hindu Mysticism of George or the Existentialism of Paul Simon. Drugs and Mysticism are a part of this scene (the relationship being suggested by Aldous Huxley; now advocated by High-Priest Timothy Leary.) It is very interesting too, that perhaps the most ambitious work in Pop Music to date has been the effort of two men, neither claiming to be Christians, to produce a version of the passion of Jesus Christ. Although the general mood that is echoed by those who would seem to be in the vanguard of today's Youth Culture is far from being pious or concerned with individual purity (although it is interesting to note that a recent interview with Marianne Faithful by Nova magazine discloses something of a problem when she says, with reference to the wreck of her personal life, 'I've had so many fuck-ups; but I wish I were clean.') there is at the same time a genuine searching after the all consuming questions of life; Who is man? What is the nature of God? What is justice? Why are things so unjust? What can be done about it? But perhaps most interesting of all within this context, is the fact that the arch-humanist Julian Huxley is now advocating religion - provided that it is scientific, and, in particular, provided it fits into his framework as the organ of the Psycho-Social Evolution of man, and gets rid of those vestigial organs of Theism and Revelation. Meanwhile, within the framework of more traditional religion, as it is found within our established churches one senses very little in the way of genuine spiritual and cultural life; on the contrary, one gains the impression that a large part of it is merely a memory.
One wonders sometimes, too, that if this is the only area in which our present culture is living upon memories. The way many of our political discussions are conducted, and the basis upon which policies are formulated would' lead one to ask the question whether those responsible are merely carrying on a memory which they were brought up to value and even fight for, but somehow the real centre of the thing has been lost, and principles have gegiven way to expediency. (And perhaps some of the really valuable things from the past, as for example, the benefits of our social security system, are being lost.) In artistic spheres too, the lag between contemporary art and the world it presents, and the general public has never been so great as it is today. Indeed, some people would seem to be still living on the culture generated before the turn of the century, and perhaps, too, are still living upon the memory of the world it presents. To live upon memories is a sign of old age, and might it be, culturally speaking, we are dying if not already dead. The only areas in which we seem to be making headway is in that of increased Technological sophistication and possibly Economic Efficiency, but that, too, is becoming doubtful. In any case, these are but the signs of life of a machine, well tuned - for what? Surely, one of the leading themes of the art of today is correct when it points to the death-like absurdity of our present condition, which rather than be described as having come of age, should be that of approaching senility.
Is it surprising then, that many would have us think in terms of two basic alternatives; to align ourselves with the Establishment and the Status Quo. with its lack of real base, except in terms of Technocratic Status-Seeking values or to take up a stance in opposition to it and all it stands for. The ways in which this opposition is exposing itself are essentially two, with major and minor variations. The first is to seek for some Mystical, Mind-expanding or perhaps even Pietistic Experience, which has on the one hand, the effect of filling up the individual's existential vacuum, and on the other can provide a means of relief (even to the extent of copping out) from the ever increasing complexity and apparent futility of modern life. (It is interesting to note the various art-forms that are attempting to povide situations in which this existential vacuum might be filled up by some 'medium is the message' type arrangement. The recent 'Collusion' effort on the University campus might be cited here, as an attempt upon the local scene.) The other direction is the one in which the outward form of the Establishment is to be challenged on more specific social and political issues, and radical activity is seen as the answer to the contemporary crisis. It is interesting of course, that with some this act of demonstration has definite religious connotations as it becomes a means of validating the will, or giving the individual the feeling that something matters after all, even to the point that with some, demonstration becomes a way of life. (I am not disputing the validity of the causes as just of moral causes; but however just or moral a cause may be to turn it into a religion could lead to disastrous results, particularly within a climate that has no real basis for distinguishing real justice from personal or social revenge, as one is confronted, for example, in Bergman's film Virgin Spring.) It would be an important point to note that in which ever direction the protest is made, there are those who would argue that the 'Generation Gap' is not just a slogan but has deep-seated cultural and religious roots. Theodore Roszak in his recent book The Making of a Counterculture, argues with particular reference to the American scene, that it is not just at the level of particular issues be they political, social or religious, that the real protest is being made but a 'Total Rejection' of the system, as it is embodied in Technocratic values and their concrete destruction of human lives and the environment, as well as the dehumanised philosphy it sets forth. Furthermore, he argues that the whole thing is very deeply seated in our current orthodoxy; 'the Scientific World View'.
It is interesting within this context to note that what may be called the defining characteristic of the Secular Theology as it has become known, is the acceptance of the principles of the Scientific World View as defining what is real and knowable. At the same time they radically see its inadequacy with reference to the more central issues of life and endeavour, in their different ways, to say why and to provide some place for Christian terminology accordingly. Professor Geering has spoken about our culture as having Judeo-Christian roots and he has discussed our contemporary crisis in terms of our failure to recognise the current Secular Outlook as the fruit of the Judeo-Christian heritage, and also that we have lost the faith that lay at the roots of this heritage and accordingly has diagnosed our contemporary dilemma: On the one hand there are those committed to a secularism without any long term or Ultimate Concern and on the other hand there are those who are still committed to the particularl kind of Mythological World View of Christian Orthoxody. What is required is a renewal of faith in our culture and that this must take a secular form.
Now while I agree that there is a great void in our culture due to its lack of base, I disagree with the diagnosis and the cure. This is not the place to go into a detailed examination of the Professor's views, but suffice it to say that I would find many difficulties in applying these views. For example, if the criteria for distinguishing between the Christian direction is in terms of a concern for 'history' rather than 'mythology', then how does one decide to act in a revolutionary age? Do we go the whole way with the Radical Priests in France and the Americas, and if not, why not?
Moreover, even if it could be decided that this is the distinguishing feature of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, would there not be a strong case for rejecting it outright - because of the evils of the Technocratic Society, for which this same tradition is presumably responsible? (Of course, these may be attributable to something else, but I have not been able to discern such a possibility from Professor Geering's thought) In any case, if I understand him correctly, 'history' and 'mythology' share the same 'Mythological' Language and, in this sense the way the words 'God' and 'Jesus' are used by Professor Geering amounts to a mysticism of a certain kind, because they are used to express a certain consciousness of faith, and not rooted to any discernable Object of Faith, for all such possible candidates would appear to be deemed idols.
Now, it would seem to me that in understanding Our Cultural Heritage, we should understand that as well as the Judeo-Christian strain, there has been a strong Humanist strain - gaining its inspiration, initially, from Greece and Rome. I would like to suggest that the real problem in all of this is not so much science or even the technical applications of science, but rather the general principles of a World view that are attributable to the Englightenment of the eighteenth century intellectuals who really laid the foundations for our current secular orthodoxy on so many different fronts: including Philosophy, Art, Politics and Theology. Their main source of inspiration was Periclean Anthens, and it might therefore be called a cultural movement with humanist inspiration and objective. In religion. Deism the faith of the eighteenth century intellectuals substituted the far-off God of Reason, for the Judeo-Christian God who had revealed Himself to men in His acts and in His Word. In the principles of what was real and knowable: (i) Reality was divided between Subject and Object (ii) The external object was real, and its reality was known by the subject only in so far as he could perceive it with his senses and give these coherence by the thought processes of his mind The problems upon the subject side have been those with which many thinkers have grappled since the Enlightenment Period - to give significance to the specifically Human Enterprise - as opposed to the Enterprise within the natural arena and in many ways, they still provide the focus of the problem with which we are forced to deal. That the above principles of knowledge are woefully inadequate to deal with the Personal aspects of the universe - namely with the acts and purposes of Persons is the page break main theme of R. Blaikie's book Secular Christianity and the God Who Acts [The fact that we know what these are depends upon the assumption that the other person has them and is able to communicate them to us] There are, of course, many other aspects of the Enlightenment mentality which we could consider, such as the belief in unqualified progress the innate goodness of man; its affirmation that through the application of Science and Technology lays the means of achieving these goals.
Now, it would be important to distinguish the Growth of the Scientific Enterprise from the formulation of these wider Enlightenment Principles, although, of course the two are not unrelated; I would wish to take issue with the view that Science has forced these wider principles upon us. If anything, I think it is the other way round; that the Enlightenment - or a Secularising mentality - imposed the principles of the Scientific World View to such an extent that it now defines with is orthodox, and, of course in the day of the knowledge explosion, this means we all bow down to the expert.
Of course, the Enlightenment thinking has not been without its critics, in particular the twentieth century Existentialists and the nineteenth century Romantics, but their influence was limited only to an intellectual or cultural elite. I would suggest that the constant ebbing away of the secular forces, as these principles increasingly became accepted as defining that which was orthodox, have played a large part in the breakdown of effective life within the Church, and cultural life generally, and has had the effect of bringing the current crisis to a sociological one. For, it is apparent that the view of life as it was defined and worked out on the secular basis of the Enlightenment just cannot bear the load that it was supposed to carry, and it is this fact which lies at the centre of our present cultural crisis.
Some of the most influential ideas in the realm of general culture have been those which originated with the Dada and Surrealist movements in the early part of this century, and these were understood to be revolutionary movements and one of the central points with which this revolution was concerned was the revolt against that which was rational, and in its place to set up the cult of the irrational, the absurd, the mystical, the surreal, the dream, and the occult. In so doing there is a definite sense in which these cultural innovators were challenging the whole Western Tradition, both Judeo Christian and Humanist, and, of course, the interesting thing is that these ideas have spread through art and religion in all sorts of ways, frequently under the guise of the psychology of Freud, and Jung. There is a definite sense in which the Pop surrealist themes.
Furthermore, the fact that many of the Surrealists, particularly Andre Breton, were active in Communist Party affairs (although they were critical of its bureaucracy) is interesting because it is precisely this seemingly bizarre combination of Religious and Political ideas that is discussed by Theodore Roszak in the context of the Youth Counterculture.
Now, I have already suggested that the Secular Theology, both accelpts the orthodoxy of the Scientific World View, and also senses its accepts the orthodoxy of the Scientific World View, and also senses its the Bible.
The Bible clearly makes the claim, at many points, to speak of things which God has revealed and also claims that God has acted in history. Now, which God has revealed and also claims that God has acted in history. Now, of course, there is undoubtedly cultural features relating to the message and acts involved, and it is important and interesting to know what these were, but to go further and say that the whole idea of an existent God revealing Himself to a particular people in a special way, in order that they may be the vehicle of blessing to all people is simply a cultural way of saying that Israel had faith to move in a direction which would ultimately demythologize the Mythological World View, is to my mind a capitulation to the Enlightenment Principles, and a rejection of the Christian Idea of Revealation. However, the tension I mentioned is expressed by saying that despite all appearances, to the contrary, there was something of real value that was experienced back there and although we don't know what its content was, it was of sufficient value to be rediscovered by means of Existential Faith, and the relationship of this faith to that which is knowable is based upon the person of Jesus Christ. The only trouble is that it is here that the tension is really tell because the Christ of Faith is divorced from the Christ of History. Such is the dilemma to which we are led, if we accept as normative the Englightenment Principles of what is real and knowable.
I would therefore, on these counts suggest that these Principles as they were embodied in the Secular Outlook of the Enlightenment, and have been subsequently worked out in various ways, have been responsible for many of our contemporary problems. Perhaps too, they were not unknown to certain sensitive men of that time. Maybe Goya, with his painting 'The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters' was the first modern prophet.
What is needed I suggest t is a basis upon which the empirical facts of man; his conscience his rationality, his aspirations toward love; meaningful interpersonal communication; freedom; normative morality and justice; the sense of wonder, mystery and the Transcendent, together with empirical facts of the natural aspects of the universe may be held together in a Unity, and I would wish to argue that such a World View is provided by the Bible, understanding it as God's special revealation to man setting out the situation in which a Truly Personal God has created a universe and Man in His own image within this universe with the task of bringing forth culture and understanding and controlling his environment but that this was not in and to man himself but rather to glorify God his creator. (We need not get hung up here upon the precise means etc, would ultimately demythologize the Mythological World View, is to my fforth from both sides are inadequate).
Augustine said that he believed in order that he may understand and it is in this sense that I am endeavouring to set forth these ideas. They provide a basis upon which we may understand ourselves in relation to the total universe, not just to the natural aspects, if they are believed. In this way. I would suggest we have a proper basis for understanding.
|(i)||Man's responsibility toward a Transcendent God|
|(ii)||Man's responsibility toward other men as actual historical situations confront us, dilemma to which we are led if we accept as normative the Enlightenment|
|(iv)||The value of art and culture|
|(v)||In the way we are called to work out history, there are principles and values worth struggling for, and it is important to see justice, freedom and righteousness established|
|(vi)||The Basic Dilemma of Man is not that he does not know, but rather that he tends to suppress even that knowledge of God and of what is right that he does know, and therefore is morally guilty before God and is in need of a restored relationship with God upon that basis.|
I believe that many of these principles once had a consensus in Western Culture, and that they brought forth things for which we can be thankful. (For example, the dignity and value of the individual person; the separation of the Powers of Church and State, neither of which could by the Bible, understanding it as God's special revelation to man; upon the basis of the Fallen Nature of Man, a distinction between justice and personal or social revenge.) I would like to suggest that before we jump blindly off into some form of Eastern Mysticism, take a plunge into Existentialist Faith radically overturn the Establishment, or continue the Rat Race, we at least think carefully about the possibility that the change of thinking during the Enlightenment may have been a wrong move and that may be that in our claiming to be wise we have become fools, and that perhaps we might be looking to Gods that are not, and to answers which are not.