Saturday, March 25, 2006

David B. Hart's "Roland Redivivus"

A review of a new translation of Orlando Innamorato.

Orlando (or Roland, as he was originally called), the greatest paladin of the (mythic) court of Charlemagne, once loomed in the consciousness of Western culture at least as large as any of King Arthur’s knights. He began his (extant) literary adventures in perhaps the late tenth century, in the Chanson de Roland, as a gallant, formidable, intrepid, rash, and somewhat foolish chevalier who is betrayed by his stepfather Ganelon and—along with the whole company of the rearguard of Charlemagne’s retreat from Spain—dies in an ambush by Muslim “paynims” in a pass of the Eastern Pyrenees, at Roncevaux (Roncesvalles). Behind that story, it seems, stands a real historical personage: we know that a certain Count Rotholandus was among the courtiers of Charlemagne in the year 772, and in Einhard’s Vita Karoli the story of the death of “Hruolandus” is recounted for the first time. If nothing else, the ambuscade at Roncesvalles—traditionally dated August 15, 778—did take place, though it was perpetrated by Basques, not Moors.

In later chansons de geste, however—such as Les Quatre Filz Aymon, Enfances Roland, and Entrée en Espagne—the details of Roland’s earlier life were filled in, with a variety of fanciful elements becoming ever more prominent features of the narrative, and it was not long before the real Roland (such as he was) had all but disappeared behind the more resplendent figure of the hero of legend. And as the adventures of this hero grew in number and improbability, he was joined along the way by other Carolingian peers who would, in time, acquire legends of their own (Renaus, for instance—or Renaud, Ranaldo, Rinaldo, etc.—ultimately went on to rival Roland not only in martial proficiency but in literary popularity). And Roland and his fellow paladins soon migrated into other tongues: into the German of the Ruolandes Liet, into Spanish tales of the exploits of “Roldan,” into the English of such romances as Sir Ferumbras and Roland and Ferragus, and, most crucially, into Italian.

This last language proved especially hospitable to Orlando (as he was now known); in no other would his fortunes fare quite so magnificently well. Dante, for instance, not only placed Ganelon (or Ganellone) in the lowest circle of hell, but in the Paradiso counted Orlando among eight great warrior martyrs who shine with a ruby incandescence in the firmament of the sphere of Mars. And it was in Italian that Orlando ultimately achieved his apotheosis as the supreme hero of chivalric fiction, in the three greatest Italian romances of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: the Morgante of Luigi Pulci, the Orlando Innamorato of Matteo Boiardo, and the Orlando Furioso of Ludovico Ariosto. In these immense, fantastic, intricate, and bizarre epics, the figure of Orlando came at last to assume literary dimensions such as no other warrior of Christendom could ever hope to equal.

Today, however, Orlando’s fame seems to have sunk to its lowest ebb. Certainly the legends of the Carolingian peers do not continue to generate popular literature and film in the way that the stories of Camelot do. Perhaps this is simply because the court of Charlemagne, even in fable, occupies too specific a place in history. Orlando is, unambiguously, a champion of an imperiled Christendom; his stories certainly cannot be resituated (in the manner of contemporary Arthuriana) in a realm of fatuous New Age pantheism. But, whatever the cause, Orlando—especially in the English-speaking world—is all but forgotten. Of the three great epics, only Ariosto’s tends to enjoy a distinct presence in literate minds, and then usually only as a book lurking unread upon some rarely visited shelf.

It was not ever thus. Once these works were part of the common heritage of European culture and exercised an immense literary influence. Without the great Italian romances, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, for instance, would not have been written. When Milton in Paradise Lost mentions the siege of Albraca—described in the Innamorato—he is not doing so as a display of abstruse erudition. Indeed, it would be difficult to exaggerate how deeply these epics entered into the imaginative world of English literature (especially in the Romantic period). In Bulfinch’s Legends of Charlemagne, published in 1867, the author blandly and uncontentiously numbers these works “among the most cherished creations of human genius,” some knowledge of which “is expected of every well-educated young person.” And yet by 1936 C. S. Lewis could only lament that these “masterpieces” were now so neglected and that all of us had been robbed of the enjoyment of “one of the great trophies of the European genius.”

This, though, may be a propitious moment for a revival of interest in these works, at least among Anglophone readers. For the first time ever, complete translations of all three of the Orlando epics are available, and at reasonable prices. The Furioso has been rendered into English on a number of occasions, but by far the most delightful modern version is that of Barbara Reynolds. The first complete translation of the Morgante, by Joseph Tusiani, appeared in 1998. And now, with this release of Charles Stanley Ross’ translation of the Innamorato (revising an earlier version that appeared in a limited and hideously expensive critical edition), the entire Orlando cycle lies at our fingertips. And, given that the Furioso is the completion of the Innamorato (left unfinished at Boiardo’s death), readers who have not mastered the dialects of Renaissance Italy can now enjoy the whole narrative arc of these two linked epics without resorting to abridgments.

There is something slightly subversive in the title of Boiardo’s epic. The early chansons de geste were works notorious for their martial austerity, and were largely devoid of whimsy, extravagant invention, or any trace of romantic love (as Boiardo at one point coyly notes). Pulci had introduced certain vaguely “Arthurian” elements into the Carolingian mythos; but it was Boiardo who first explicitly united the two streams of lore, importing into his poem not only one of the relics of Merlin and various dimensions of the magical and the “fay,” but an emphasis upon human love.

One’s first encounter with any of these epics can be somewhat jarring; they are far and away the most wildly farraginous and gloriously irresponsible masterpieces in Western literature. They are at once heroic, comic, allegorical, lyrical, satirical, fabulous, and (occasionally) dark; they move with alarming ease between the metaphysical and the ribald, the allegorical and the brutal, the spiritual and the grotesque. The Innamorato might almost seem formless but for the ingenuity with which Boiardo continually weaves the innumerable strands of his story together into ever more diverting designs. At any moment in the story, a paladin might find himself confronted by a giant Saracen astride a galloping giraffe, or trapped in an enchanted castle oblivious of his own name, or beset by an army of demons, or challenged by an ogre, or lost in a fairy otherworld full of the most exquisite enchantments, or at the mercy of a sorcerer. And Boiardo—even more than Ariosto—is so irrepressibly inventive a fabulist that one often has the feeling that, but for the author’s mortality, the story need never come to an end.

There is, however, a larger plot to the poem, wherein all of its disparate elements and wild divarications find their home. It begins at a Pentecost tournament called by Charlemagne, for Christian and Muslim knights alike, which is interrupted by the arrival of Angelica, a woman of astonishing beauty who offers herself as the prize to any knight who can defeat her brother upon the field of battle. (She is, we later learn, the daughter of the King of Cathay and mistress of certain magic arts, sent with the express purpose of bringing ruin upon the emperor’s court.) The assembled warriors are smitten with her at once, none more hopelessly than Orlando, and are willing to venture anything to win her. When she is forced to flee back to Asia, she is followed by Orlando, who is himself followed in turn by other paladins.

An additional comic twist is given to the tale when, wandering in the forest of Arden, Ranaldo—also pursuing Angelica—drinks from Merlin’s well (prepared long ago to chill Tristan’s ardor for Isolde), which turns his love for Angelica to hatred; but then Angelica drinks from the Stream of Love and falls slavishly in love with Ranaldo. Thus, when she has returned home, she contrives to have Ranaldo spirited away to the Far East upon a magic ship. Finally—by way of innumerable detours—a host of players, Christian and “pagan,” are brought together at the city of Albraca, where Angelica is besieged by her jealous suitor Agricane of Tartary, and where Orlando and Ranaldo find themselves fighting on opposite sides.

In the second book of the epic, however, the action shifts back towards the West. Albraca falls and Angelica escapes with Orlando. Meanwhile, the Muslim kings of North Africa launch an assault on Charlemagne’s empire. The earlier comic twist is twisted again when Angelica and Ranaldo drink from (respectively) Merlin’s well and the Stream of Love, and so exchange the spells under which they labor. And the involutions of plot become if anything more elaborate than in the first half of the poem. The Muslim invasion of France and siege of Paris occupy the rest of the epic, and are still in progress when it abruptly terminates. Among the new characters are Rodamonte (“Rodomonte” in Ariosto, whence the word “rodo-montade”), the fierce, godless, and all but invincible Saracen king of Sarza, and Rugiero, the mythical progenitor of the House of Este. The latter is especially important because Boiardo—gentleman of Ferrara—was a beneficiary of the Estensi; and because Ariosto—also dependent on that House’s patronage—would explicitly transform Ruggiero (Ariosto’s spelling) into the Ferraran Aeneas, and Rodomonte into a new Turnus (which gives Rodomonte the privilege of bringing the epic to its sudden conclusion by dying under Ruggiero’s blade).

Boiardo has often been dismissed as Ariosto’s inferior, and in many respects he is (though not in fertility of imagination). One charge too often laid against him, though, is that his characters are not consistently developed. It is true that he does not provide much in the way of “psychological” portraiture; but one of the astonishing things about the Innamorato is how clearly his men and women stand forth in one’s imagination. Despite the mythic scale of their prowess, the human dimensions of their personalities are almost always poignantly visible. It is difficult to convey how touching, for instance, the character of Orlando is in some respects: especially his utter naïveté regarding—and childlike faith in—women (the very characteristic that will lead, in Ariosto’s epic, to the madness that gives the poem its title). And certain characters—like Astolfo, the impossibly brave if somewhat inept English paladin, or the “pagan” (later Christian) paramours Brandimarte and Fiordelisa—are rendered as vividly as any figures in epic fiction.

All the Orlando epics are marvelous works, and the whole cycle is like nothing else in the Western canon. Though Ariosto’s poem introduces undeniably tragic themes into the story, and though Pulci retells the story of Roncesvalles, none of these poems is tragic in the classical sense; and they certainly display little of the grave grandeur of classical epic. They are the imaginative product of late Christendom at the threshold of modernity, an exorbitant flourishing of the riches of a fully formed and complex civilization. Like Elizabethan drama, they are so heterogeneous in form as practically to constitute a rebellion against classical restraints; they simply cannot resist mixing intense pathos with high comedy, stateliness with farce, heroic magnificence with nursery fantasy. These are joyous books, festive, pervaded by a spirit of carnival and of rude happiness; they contain no hint of morbid fatalism; they cannot conceal their mirth. (Even the bloodshed is somehow lighthearted.) If Dante’s Commedia is the consummation of the high culture of developed Christ-endom, these works represent the final triumph of the sort of worldly imagination incubated by the Christ-ian order (which is so much more fanciful than the pagan).

Ross’ translation of the Innamorato is not always exemplary. Boiardo was a “rougher” poet than Ariosto, true, but Ross is sometimes far too colloquial; and often the delicate glitter of Boiardo’s genuinely lyric passages is rendered by Ross in a pale gray wash. He confines himself, for some reason, to a tetrametric line that is needlessly curt. But his is a scrupulous and readable translation, and (most importantly) it is complete. For this we must be grateful. Only a sensibility in some part stillborn, it seems to me, could fail to delight in these books. One does not so much read them as feast upon them; and it is our very great good fortune that now, for the first time in the history of our language, the feast has been laid for us in full.

Copyright (c) 2005 First Things 150 (February 2005): 44-48.

David B. Hart, "When the Going was Bad," and Evelyn Waugh

A review of Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writings.

The year 2003
marked the centenary of the birth of Evelyn Waugh, which Knopf has chosen to observe by reissuing all seven of his “travel” books in one handsome, inexpensive Everyman’s Library volume. Most of these titles have been out of print, or only sporadically in print, since they were originally published. Waugh did make a selection from the first four of them in 1945, under the title When the Going Was Good, but that book omits too much material to serve either as a chronicle of the author’s literary development or as a fully satisfying treatment of any of the events he recounts. And so this new collection is a considerable boon to the Waugh enthusiast.

It is not, however, a particularly notable contribution to the cause of travel books considered as a distinct genre. Such books have a rich tradition in Britain, and many occupy an honored place in the nation’s literature. Indeed, many preserve some of the more perdurable specimens of English prose: the dry picaresque of Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel stories, the droll elegance of A. W. Kinglake’s Eothen, the haunting beauty of C. M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, the luminous austerity of Wilfred Thesiger’s books, the crystalline perfection of Norman Douglas’, the fluent, faintly metaphysical lyricism of Freya Stark’s. And, of course, towering above the entire field—serene and monumental—stand the works of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Judged alongside any of these, purely as literary excursions, Waugh’s books fail almost absolutely.

But this is only to say that the pleasure they afford is of another sort. For the most part, Waugh’s books are not really about travel at all. True travel writers work upon the assumption that their task is, primarily, to see and to describe, and where possible to enter into as profound a sympathy for their subjects as they can; Waugh proceeds upon the (subversive) assumption that his business is to evaluate and to comment, and to avoid sympathy as assiduously as circumstances and good taste permit. For all his considerable prowess as a stylist, in these books he rarely troubles to convey any image or experience with appreciable vividness or pungency (except where an opportunity for mockery presents itself). Any reader of his novels knows that he was quite capable of painting pictures with words when necessary; but his genius lay elsewhere. His prose is urbane, unsentimental, and economical, hospitable to moments of purple abandon but at its best when its controlled and even flow allows him to pass from delicacy to savagery and back again without any visible effort. It is, in short, a prose of personality, not of scenery; of irony, not of anecdotes. And so it is in these books.

And both the personality and the irony are ostentatiously those of Evelyn Waugh. The real “topic” of these works is his literary persona, which is an invention elaborate enough to sustain any reader’s interest over long passages of vague description and uneventful narrative. Especially early on in this volume, when Waugh is still the enfant terrible of English letters, it is clear that the lands through which he passes and the peoples among whom he sojourns are largely inconsequential to—except as occasions of—his writing; the more dreary the setting or ghastly the situation, the more he is at play in his native element. Where the surroundings are dull, the amenities frightful, the conversations insufferable, the flora withered, or the meals inedible, he is best able to fill in the portrait he wishes to paint of himself: acidulous, not vicious but mercilessly cognizant of unflattering details; mildly atrabilious but more typically phlegmatic, immune equally to alarm or enchantment, hewing to a fine medium between polished boredom and slightly macabre curiosity; passing overt judgment on nothing, but with such imperturbably sardonic detachment as in fact to pass judgment on everything; sagaciously callow, capable only of pale enthusiasms, already shaped by fixed—but not fanatical—prejudices, and entirely unsentimental regarding indigenous cultures.

The most enjoyable (indeed, hilarious) of these books is the first, Labels (1930). The putative subject of this work is the author’s 1929 travels in the Mediterranean—including European, North African, and Near Eastern ports of call—but apart from exactingly observed instances of the absurd or the grotesque the prose souvenirs of his journey are cursory and gray. I came away from this book with no more vibrant images of Malta, Cairo, Naples, or Constantinople than when I began; but I vividly recalled Waugh’s reflections on the travel snob’s delight in the inconveniences visited on him by foreign customs officials, his proposals for a novel, whose protagonist would be one or another item of women’s clothing, his excursus on celibacy and the erotic reveries induced in affluent middle-aged widows by advertising copy, his distaste for Turkish decorative devices, and his devastatingly ambiguous “celebrations” of the architecture of Gaudi in Barcelona.

Between Labels and his second travel book, Remote People (1931), two immense events somewhat altered the course of Waugh’s life: His first wife’s adultery precipitated the collapse of his marriage; and he was received into the Catholic Church. Of the first, one finds here no clue. For one thing, nowhere in Labels had Waugh even hinted that he had made his tour with his wife; instead he had transferred the travails of their journey (during which she was extremely ill) onto another, fictional English couple. His Catholicism, though, soon begins to make its effect felt. From this point on, a shift in Waugh’s sympathies becomes ever more evident in these books, at least wherever he encounters Catholic piety; and it soon becomes obvious that there is one topic concerning which he is now incapable of jest.

Like its predecessor, however, Remote People is principally a burlesque. It recounts Waugh’s travels in East Africa, first in Ethiopia (where he witnesses the events surrounding Haile Selassie’s coronation) and then in and around the British colonial possessions to the south—Kenya and Tanganyika—and the Belgian Congo. Waugh’s Saxon hauteur before the pomp and pretense of the Ethiopian festivities is often parochial and small; he sees only tawdry vulgarity, casual cruelty, squalor, faded grandeur, and false glory; nothing of the ancient Christian civilization of the Amharic people even excites his attention. Still, his reminiscences are extremely amusing (especially his description of the American professor, an “expert” in Coptic ritual, who is forever losing his place in the Ge’ez liturgies and making authoritative pronouncements that are promptly shown to be entirely wrong). And the hellish narrative of his peregrinations through the colonial interior constitutes perhaps his best sustained assault on one’s expectations of travel literature.

For Waugh’s most irreverent, seditious treatment of the romantic conventions of the genre, however, one must read Ninety-Two Days (1934), which recounts his journeys through—and the very choice of setting bespeaks a certain perversity of temperament—the hinterlands of British Guiana. If there is any more unprepossessing expanse of earth upon the globe, one cannot imagine where. This book is an unremitting account of misery, privation, and pointlessness in a world of dun landscapes, tormenting insects, malnutrition, and cultural stagnancy. What makes it fascinating, though, is the almost demented composure of the author; it demonstrates with remarkable poignancy how, in its way, British equanimity can constitute a kind of emotional extremism. When Waugh describes farine, the practically inedible staple of the indigenous diet (which, in its unrefined form, is in fact toxic), or the nightly labor of extracting djiggas from the soles of his feet before they can lay their septicemial eggs, or his almost constant hunger and thirst, one is left with a sense not only of the sublime callousness of nature, but of the lunacy of choosing to confront it with a good will rather than fleeing from it with or without one’s dignity intact. There are moments of brilliant comic portraiture here—for instance, the description of the mad religious visionary Mr. Christie—but more striking perhaps is how Waugh’s Catholicism comes suddenly and soberly to the fore when he turns to his recollections of the St. Ignatius Mission, or when he ascribes to supernatural assistance a sequence of coincidences that saved him from becoming at one point irretrievably lost in the wilderness.

For readers who suffer from no excessive passion for completeness, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) is the book in this collection most profitably skipped. Not only is it less diverting than those preceding it; it is an unsavory artifact of Waugh’s mercifully brief infatuation with Mussolini and is altogether deplorable. It recounts Waugh’s impressions of Ethiopia before and during Italy’s brutal invasion, which he sees as a new advance of the Roman eagles into a land desirous (like ancient Britain) of the civilizing power they represent. He stalwartly refuses to believe stories of Italian atrocities. His distaste for Haile Selassie, while not unwarranted, leads him to describe the emperor’s flight into exile but not the emperor’s direct part in the hopeless campaigns of the Ethiopian military against a merciless and contemptible enemy. And his unfavorable comparison of the court ceremony of Ethiopia to that of medieval Europe is cretinous in its poverty of historical perspective.

Happily, Waugh had regained his sanity, and perhaps his soul, by the time he wrote Robbery Under Law (1939). This is not really a travel book (though it concerns a visit to Mexico) but an essay in political and moral philosophy, a meditation on the power of authoritarian ideology to desiccate and destroy even a rich and long-established civilization, and a frequently acute study of the strange liaison between autocracy and anarchy. He sees the Mexico of General Cardenas as a cautionary epitome of the fragility of all civilization, and of the peril that communism, or fascism, or Nazi ideology, or any other movement of “progressive” humanism represents for any people insufficiently jealous of its traditions, culture, and faith. It is also rather touching to find Waugh defending the pieties of Mexican Indians (his fellow Catholics) against the disdain of more “advanced” nations and heaping derision on racialist bigotries.

The final two volumes in this collection, The Holy Places (1952) and A Tourist in Africa (1960), emanate from a later, more fatigued period in Waugh’s life. The former consists simply of two short, devout articles: one on St. Helena (Constantine’s mother and the protagonist of Waugh’s most justly neglected novel) and one on the Holy Land (over which Britain’s cession of authority displeases him mightily). The latter book is a diary of travel through British East Africa, marked by flashes of mordancy and moments of sincere sympathy for his African Christian brethren, but also by a certain intellectual lethargy: here alone in this collection his reliably pellucid prose becomes often flaccid and jejune. Again, he pours scorn on racialist mythology but, in his steadfastly conservative way, refuses to become histrionically sanctimonious on the matter, preferring studied contempt to self-promoting outrage.

This volume is a substantial addition to Waugh’s available literary remains. It begins better than it ends; but so, usually, does life, and this collection spans the entire creative life of its author. For all his well-deserved reputation as a caustic and irascible cynic solicitous only of his prejudices, it is ultimately Waugh’s skepticism towards any claims of cultural superiority on the part of modern civilization that constitutes the most continuous “moral” theme in these works (with one unfortunate interruption). Not that he does not exhibit his fair share of “Anglo-Saxon attitudes” (they are the mainstays of his humor), but when one reads through this volume from beginning to end, it is Waugh’s increasingly Christian sense of a community of faith transcendent of race, culture, class, or country that leaves the most resonant impression. And for me, I must admit, this came as something of a revelation.

David B. Hart, "The Future of the Papacy," and Ecumenism

This was a response to a George Weigel article in First Things about the role of the papacy in Church history.

As John Paul II’s extraordinary pontificate enters its twilight (pray God, a long and golden one), it is well to reflect upon his enormous achievements and celebrate them with the grateful astonishment they merit. But it is also sobering to recall that the one aim that, by his own avowal, has always lain closest to his heart—reconciliation between the Eastern and Roman Churches—has proven to be the source of his gravest disappointment, and probably the only manifest failure that can be placed in the balance over against his innumerable successes. As an Orthodox Christian definitely in the ecumenical “left wing” of my church, I cannot speak for all my co–confessionalists; but I can record my own shame that so few Orthodox hierarchs have even recognized the remarkable gesture made by John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint (1995), in openly soliciting advice on how to understand his office (even indeed the limits of its jurisdiction), or been moved to respond with anything like comparable Christian charity. However, the Pope has perhaps always been somewhat quixotic in his reckoning of the severity of the differences between the communions, and so of the effort required to effect any real reciprocal understanding between them (let alone rapprochement).

Anyone familiar with the Eastern Christian world knows that the Orthodox view of the Catholic Church is often a curious mélange of fact, fantasy, cultural prejudice, sublime theological misunderstanding, resentment, reasonable disagreement, and unreasonable dread: it sees a misty phantasmagoria of crusades, predestination, “modalism,” a God of wrath, flagellants, Grand Inquisitors, and those blasted Borgias. But, still, and from my own perspective ab oriente, I must remark that the greater miscalculation of what divides us is almost inevitably found on the Catholic side, not always entirely free of a certain unreflective condescension. Often Western Christians, justifiably offended by the hostility with which their advances are met by certain Orthodox, assume that the greatest obstacle to reunion is Eastern immaturity and divisiveness. The problem is dismissed as one of “psychology,” and the only counsel offered one of “patience.” Fair enough: decades of Communist tyranny set atop centuries of other, far more invincible tyrannies have effectively shattered the Orthodox world into a contentious confederacy of national churches struggling to preserve their own regional identities against every “alien” influence, and under such conditions only the most obdurate stock survives. But psychology is the least of our problems.

In truth, so vehement is this pope’s love of Eastern Christianity that it has often blinded him to the most inexorable barriers between the churches. As an error of judgment, this is an endearing one, but also one possible only from the Western vantage. Of course a Catholic who looks eastward finds nothing to which he objects, because what he sees is the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (but—here’s the rub—for him, this means the first seven of twenty–one). When an Orthodox turns his eyes westward he sees what appears to him a Church distorted by innovation and error: the filioque clause, the pope’s absolute primatial authority, purgatory, indulgences, priestly celibacy. Our deepest divisions concern theology and doctrine, and this problem admits of no immediately obvious remedy, because both churches are so fearfully burdened by infallibility. The disagreements in theology can be mitigated: Western theologians now freely grant that the Eastern view of original sin is more biblical than certain Latin treatments of the matter; only the most obtusely truculent Orthodox still believe that the huge differences in Trinitarian theology that a previous generation found everywhere in Latin tradition indeed actually exist; etc. But doctrine is more intractable. The Catholic Church might plausibly contemplate the suppression of the filioque, but could it repudiate the claim that the papacy ever possessed the authority to allow such an addition? The Eastern Church believes in sanctification after death, and perhaps the doctrine of purgatory really asserts nothing more; but can Rome ever say that in speaking of it as “temporal punishment,” which the pope may in whole or part remit, it was in error? And so on.

Even if we retreat to the issue of psychology again, here too Catholic ecumenists often misconstrue the nature of the Orthodox distrust of their good will. It is not simply the case that the Orthodox are so fissiparous and jealous of their autonomy that the Petrine office appears to them a dangerous principle of homogeneity, an ordo obedientiae to which their fractious Eastern wills cannot submit. Jurisdictional squabbling aside, the Orthodox world enjoys so profound a unity—of faith, worship, spirituality, and ecclesiology—that the papacy cannot but appear to it as a dangerous principle of plurality. After all, under the capacious canopy of the papal office, so many disparate things find common shelter. Eastern rites huddle alongside liturgical practices (hardly a peripheral issue in the East) disfigured by rebarbative banality, by hymnody both insipid and heterodox, and by a style of worship that looks flippant if not blasphemous. Academic theologians explicitly reject principles of Catholic orthodoxy, but are not (as they would be in the East) excluded from communion. There are three men called Patriarch of Antioch in the Roman communion—Melkite, Maronite, and Latin (I think I have them all)—which suggests that the very title of patriarch, even as regards an apostolic see, is merely honorific, because the only unique patriarchal office is the pope’s. As unfair as it may seem, to Orthodox Christians it often appears as if, from the Catholic side, so long as the pope’s supremacy is acknowledged, all else is irrelevant ornament. Which yields the sad irony that the more the Catholic Church strives to accommodate Orthodox concerns, the more disposed many Orthodox are to see in this merely the advance embassy of an omnivorous ecclesial empire.

All of which sounds rather grim. But having made the necessary qualifications, I can now praise John Paul II for all he has done for the unity of the apostolic Churches. He is, simply stated, a visionary on this matter. True, human beings cannot overcome the obstacles dividing East from West; but the unity of the Church is never—even when it is only two or three gathered in Christ’s name—a human work. Each church is grievously wounded by its separation from the other, and only those who have allowed pride and infantile anger to displace love in their hearts are blind to this.

Moreover, our need for one another grows greater with the years. It is sometimes suggested that the future of society in the West—and so, perhaps, the world—is open to three “options”: Christianity, Islam, and a consumerism so devoid of transcendent values as to be, inevitably, nothing but a pervasive and pitiless nihilism. The last of these has the singular power of absorbing some of the energies of the other two without at first obviously draining them of their essences; the second enjoys a dogmatic warrant for militancy and a cultural cohesiveness born both of the clarity of its creed and the refining adversities of political and economic misfortune; but the only tools at Christianity’s disposal will be evangelism and unity. The confrontation between the Church and modern consumerism will continue to occur principally in the West, where a fresh infusion of Orthodoxy’s otherworldliness may prove a useful inoculant; but the encounter or confrontation with Islam will be principally, as it long has been, in the East. It is impossible to say what peace will be wrought there or what calamity, but it may well be that the Petrine office, with its unique capacity for “strengthening the brethren” and speaking the truth to the world, will prove indispensable.

The present pope has long been the great, indefatigable voice of Christian conviction in a faithless age. If future popes follow his lead, and speak out forcibly on behalf of the Christians—in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere—who will most acutely suffer the pressure of this difficult future, love will ever more drive out suspicion, and the vision of unity that inspires John Paul II will bear fruit. Sic, at any rate, oremus.

Responses to "Tsunami and Theodicy"

Here is a letter in response to "Tsunami and Theodicy," followed by David B. Hart's response.

David B. Hart has missed the mark with his short apologetic, “Tsunami and Theodicy” (March 2005). Not only does he wash his hands of the offense of evil in this world, but to avoid the implications of Providence, he also skips from answering the problem of evil to eschatological sentiments about Jesus wiping the tears from the eyes of Dostoyevsky’s excrement-eating girl. The effect is unsatisfactory.

“Suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all,” Hart says. But only a Platonist could consider these things “in themselves.” All suffering and death are part of a narrative—in fact, the Narrative. Without the story, they are nothing—like a hole in a shirt, without the shirt to surround it. And although they are in themselves nothing, and as such can benefit no one, when played out in the drama of Creation, Fall, and Redemption, they can facilitate goodness, beauty, and truth. Everywhere Easter emerges from Good Friday.

Hart is skeptical that others will profit from the demise of the tsunami victims. And certainly the benefit of others does not justify the evil of the loss. But won’t others benefit? Aren’t they already? Certainly acts of benevolence are now being visited on countries previously forgotten by the West. Food, shelter, care, medicine, prayer, infrastructure-building, and hope are all being helicoptered into Asia and Africa. A megaphone has sounded for their blessing. No eternal harmony necessitated the tsunami suffering, but God can take the chromatic noise of suffering and make a melody.

And what about us? Hart says, “our position is charity,” which is true. Charity is needed precisely because there is evil in the world. Provision must have been made within fallen Creation for us also to make melodies of the poor scales of suffering: to co-create goodness from them.

Naturally, Hart disagrees with Aquinas that all things will be justified in an ultimate synthesis, yet he never declares what will be done about all this suffering and death. If it has “no ultimate meaning,” then nothing needs to be justified. However, if it has ultimate existential significance, and cannot with a clear conscience be reconciled with a good God, then what could be done? Jesus can take away the girl’s tears, but what about her former suffering? Hart never steps forward to answer this dread question, and neither has any theodicy which I have read. Job is probably the only one who could provide us with an answer.

Jonathan David Price
The Clarion Review
Ashburn, Virginia

David B. Hart replies:

I fear that Mr. Price has failed to follow my argument, which may be my fault; but as he also repeats certain logical errors that I denounced in my piece (as when he confuses the order of ontological priority between charity and evil), I can scarcely concede many of his points. I submit also that he is a bit shaky in his understanding of Platonism.

I never suggested that good will not emerge from evil, or that no good will follow in the aftermath of what happened in the Indian Ocean. I merely pointed out that this good is the result of saving providence, that suffering and death are not necessary conditions of God’s purposes for his creatures but the consequence of sin, and that Christ came to overthrow evil, not to legitimate it. That is to say, I was making a simple and necessary distinction between a Christian doctrine of transcendent providence and any kind of dialectical teleology. It is because he has misunderstood this distinction that Mr. Price mistakenly believes that I disagree with Aquinas rather than with, say, Hegel. Aquinas nowhere speaks of history’s “synthesis,” nor did he have much patience for the notion that God is the true author of evil.

As I was at pains to point out, the final question Mr. Price poses is a “dread question” only if indeed one ascribes the origin of evil to God, as part of His plan for His creatures. Since I for one do not believe this to be the case, the biblical answer to suffering, death, and evil seems to me eminently satisfying: They are to be destroyed as things alien and damnable to God, from which He will—in an act of infinite victory—save His creation, to glorify it with that glory He intended for it from before the foundation of the world.

David B. Hart's "An Orthodox Easter"

A nice piece from the WSJ's taste column.

This is one of those rare years when Christians of the Eastern and Western communions will celebrate Easter on the same Sunday. For those of us who--in quixotic moments--blow upon the gray embers of our hopes for a reunited Church, this is always an especially happy occasion. We may not all be entering into the mysteries of Christ's death and resurrection as one, but at least this year we are doing it at the same time.

After all, one of those tiresome platitudes that hovers over the division between the ancient churches is that, whereas Eastern Orthodox tradition principally emphasizes the resurrection of Christ, Catholic (and Protestant) tradition principally emphasizes his death. The one, it is said, proclaims more a "theology of glory"; the other, more a "theology of the cross."

There may be some truth in this, but not much. The more deeply one ventures into either tradition, the more one grasps the inseparability in both of Christ's passion and glorification, his sacrifice and his victory. And it is in just these rare years when our two Paschal calendars coincide--when we mourn and rejoice together--that this commonality seems especially evident.

One genuinely pronounced difference between East and West does, however, become obvious at these times: that of liturgical sensibility. Nor is this insignificant. How we worship very much determines how we "see" the suffering or risen Christ in our devotions.

To those unfamiliar with Orthodox worship, it is difficult to convey a proper sense of its sheer expressive extravagance--its dramaturgical splendor, its combination of the mystical and the spectacular, its profusion of symbols, poetry and large forceful gestures. The churches are lavishly adorned with icons, the entire liturgy is sung, the services are long and intricate, and everything (if well executed) is utterly absorbing.

And during Holy Week (or Passion Week, as it is called in the East), all this liturgical exorbitance reaches its climax. As the week progresses, worship becomes all but continuous, morning and evening, culminating in three magnificent services in which is concentrated all the dramatic genius of Byzantine liturgy.

On Friday night, the service of Lamentation is celebrated. An image of the dead Christ is laid in his funeral bier (ornately carved, copiously decorated with flowers), and shatteringly powerful hymns of mourning are sung over him. The bier is then borne in procession around the outside of the church; briefly, the church doors become the gates of Hades, upon which the priest beats with the book of the Gospels to announce the arrival of the Lord of Glory, who comes to plunder death of its captives.

The eucharistic liturgy on Saturday morning is an unapologetic exercise in triumphalism. Its governing theme is Christ's conquest of death, sin and the devil, and his harrowing of hell. At one point, in fact, the priest passes through the congregation flinging bay leaves to every side as a symbol of Christ's victory.

And this same triumphalism pervades the Easter Vigil that begins that same night and continues on well into the early hours of Easter morning. At the moment of highest drama, at midnight, all the lights in the church are extinguished, and the faithful wait in total darkness. The priest then bears a lighted candle in through the central door of the great icon screen behind which the altar is hidden, as a symbol of the risen Christ departing from his tomb, and summons the congregation to light the candles they have brought with them from this flame.

Thereafter, the liturgy is all light and joy, punctuated by frequent repetitions of the great Paschal hymn--"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs restoring life!" And (incredibly enough) a feast follows.

As I have said, one must experience such worship to understand its profundity. I can say only that, in my two decades of being Orthodox, the power of these services has not diminished in the least; and every year, at one point or another, I become entirely lost in the glory of the Gospel being announced and portrayed before my eyes.

And as, again, this is one of those years when one can almost deceive oneself that the churches are united, I might finish by recommending an Eastern custom to all Christians, of every communion. For 40 days following Easter, the Orthodox greet one another with the words "Christ is risen!" To which the correct response is "He is risen indeed!"

David B. Hart's "Tremors of Doubt"

This is a popular piece from the Wall Street Journal. A First Things article and a book, The Doors of the Sea, were later based from it.

What kind of God would allow a deadly tsunami?

On Nov. 1, 1755, a great earthquake struck offshore of Lisbon. In that city alone, some 60,000 perished, first from the tremors, then from the massive tsunami that arrived half an hour later. Fires consumed much of what remained of the city. The tidal waves spread death along the coasts of Iberia and North Africa.

Voltaire's "Poëme sur le désastre de Lisbonne" of the following year was an exquisitely savage--though sober--assault upon the theodicies prevalent in his time. For those who would argue that "all is good" and "all is necessary," that the universe is an elaborately calibrated harmony of pain and pleasure, or that this is the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire's scorn was boundless: By what calculus of universal good can one reckon the value of "infants crushed upon their mothers' breasts," the dying "sad inhabitants of desolate shores," the whole "fatal chaos of individual miseries"?

Perhaps the most disturbing argument against submission to "the will of God" in human suffering--especially the suffering of children--was placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by Dostoyevsky; but the evils Ivan enumerates are all acts of human cruelty, for which one can at least assign a clear culpability. Natural calamities usually seem a greater challenge to the certitudes of believers in a just and beneficent God than the sorrows induced by human iniquity.

Considered dispassionately, though, man is part of the natural order, and his propensity for malice should be no less a scandal to the conscience of the metaphysical optimist than the most violent convulsions of the physical world. The same ancient question is apposite to the horrors of history and nature alike: Whence comes evil? And as Voltaire so elegantly apostrophizes, it is useless to invoke the balances of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in God's hand and he is not enchained.

As a Christian, I cannot imagine any answer to the question of evil likely to satisfy an unbeliever; I can note, though, that--for all its urgency--Voltaire's version of the question is not in any proper sense "theological." The God of Voltaire's poem is a particular kind of "deist" God, who has shaped and ordered the world just as it now is, in accord with his exact intentions, and who presides over all its eventualities austerely attentive to a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Not that reckless Christians have not occasionally spoken in such terms; but this is not the Christian God.

The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to "powers" and "principalities"--spiritual and terrestrial--alien to God. In the Gospel of John, especially, the incarnate God enters a world at once his own and yet hostile to him--"He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not"--and his appearance within "this cosmos" is both an act of judgment and a rescue of the beauties of creation from the torments of fallen nature.

Whatever one makes of this story, it is no bland cosmic optimism. Yes, at the heart of the gospel is an ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the victory over evil and death has been won; but it is also a victory yet to come. As Paul says, all creation groans in anguished anticipation of the day when God's glory will transfigure all things. For now, we live amid a strife of darkness and light.

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering--when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children's--no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God's inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God's good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms--knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against "fate," and that must do so until the end of days.

David B. Hart's "Tsunami and Theodicy"

This is the companion piece to the Wall Street editorial "Tremors of Doubt" and the book "The Doors of the Sea."

No one, no matter how great the scope of his imagination, should be able easily to absorb the immensity of the catastrophe that struck the Asian rim of the Indian Ocean and the coast of Somalia on the second day of Christmas this past year; nor would it be quite human to fail, in its wake, to feel some measure of spontaneous resentment towards God, fate, natura naturans, or whatever other force one imagines governs the intricate web of cosmic causality. But, once one’s indignation at the callousness of the universe begins to subside, it is worth recalling that nothing that occurred that day or in the days that followed told us anything about the nature of finite existence of which we were not already entirely aware.

Not that one should be cavalier in the face of misery on so gigantic a scale, or should dismiss the spiritual perplexity it occasions. But, at least for those of us who are Christians, it is prudent to prepare ourselves as quickly and decorously as we may for the mixed choir of secular moralists whose clamor will soon—inevitably—swell about our ears, gravely informing us that here at last our faith must surely founder upon the rocks of empirical horrors too vast to be reconciled with any system of belief in a God of justice or mercy. It is of course somewhat petty to care overly much about captious atheists at such a time, but it is difficult not to be annoyed when a zealous skeptic, eager to be the first to deliver God His long overdue coup de grâce, begins confidently to speak as if believers have never until this moment considered the problem of evil or confronted despair or suffering or death. Perhaps we did not notice the Black Death, the Great War, the Holocaust, or every instance of famine, pestilence, flood, fire, or earthquake in the whole of the human past; perhaps every Christian who has ever had to bury a child has somehow remained insensible to the depth of his own bereavement.

For sheer fatuity, on this score, it would be difficult to surpass Martin Kettle’s pompous and platitudinous reflections in the Guardian, appearing two days after the earthquake: certainly, he argues, the arbitrariness of the destruction visited upon so many and such diverse victims must pose an insoluble conundrum for “creationists” everywhere—although he wonders, in concluding, whether his contemporaries are “too cowed” even to ask “if the God can exist that can do such things” (as if a public avowal of unbelief required any great reserves of fortitude in modern Britain). It would have at least been courteous, one would think, if he had made more than a perfunctory effort to ascertain what religious persons actually do believe before presuming to instruct them on what they cannot believe.

In truth, though, confronted by such enormous suffering, Christians have less to fear from the piercing dialectic of the village atheist than they do from the earnestness of certain believers, and from the clouds of cloying incense wafting upward from the open thuribles of their hearts. As irksome as Kettle’s argument is, it is merely insipid; more troubling are the attempts of some Christians to rationalize this catastrophe in ways that, however inadvertently, make that argument all at once seem profound. And these attempts can span almost the entire spectrum of religious sensibility: they can be cold with Stoical austerity, moist with lachrymose piety, wanly roseate with sickly metaphysical optimism.

Mildly instructive to me were some remarks sent to Christian websites discussing a Wall Street Journal column of mine from the Friday following the earthquake. A stern if somewhat excitable Calvinist, intoxicated with God’s sovereignty, asserted that in the—let us grant this chimera a moment’s life—“Augustinian-Thomistic-Calvinist tradition,” and particularly in Reformed thought, suffering and death possess “epistemic significance” insofar as they manifest divine attributes that “might not otherwise be displayed.” A scholar whose work I admire contributed an eloquent expostulation invoking the Holy Innocents, praising our glorious privilege (not shared by the angels) of bearing scars like those of Christ, and advancing the venerable homiletic conceit that our salvation from sin will result in a greater good than could have evolved from an innocence untouched by death. A man manifestly intelligent and devout, but with a knack for making providence sound like karma, argued that all are guilty through original sin but some more than others, that our “sense of justice” requires us to believe that “punishments and rewards [are] distributed according to our just desserts,” that God is the “balancer of accounts,” and that we must suppose that the suffering of these innocents will bear “spiritual fruit for themselves and for all mankind.”

All three wished to justify the ways of God to man, to affirm God’s benevolence, to see meaning in the seemingly monstrous randomness of nature’s violence, and to find solace in God’s guiding hand. None seemed to worry that others might think him to be making a fine case for a rejection of God, or of faith in divine goodness. Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel—and none in which we should find more comfort—than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.

The locus classicus of modern disenchantment with “nature’s God” is probably Voltaire’s Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, written in response to the great earthquake that—on All Saints’ Day, 1755—struck just offshore of what was then the resplendent capital of the Portuguese empire. Lisbon was home to a quarter million, at least 60,000 of whom perished, both from the initial tremor (reckoned now, like the Sumatran earthquake, at a Richter force of around 9.0) and from the tsunami that it cast up on shore half an hour later (especially murderous to those who had retreated to boats in the mouth of the river Tagus to escape the destruction on land). An enormous fire soon began to consume the ruined city. Tens of thousands were drowned along the coasts of the Algarve, southern Spain, and Morocco.

For Voltaire, a catastrophe of such indiscriminate vastness was incontrovertible evidence against the bland optimism of popular theodicy. His poem—for all the mellifluousness of its alexandrines—was a lacerating attack upon the proposition that “tout est bien.” Would you dare argue, he asks, that you see the necessary effect of eternal laws decreed by a God both free and just as you contemplate

Ces femmes, ces enfants l’un sur l’autre entassés,
Sous ces marbres rompus ces membres dispersés

“These women, these infants heaped one upon the other, these limbs scattered beneath shattered marbles”? Or would you argue that all of this is but God’s just vengeance upon human iniquity?

Quel crime, quelle faute ont commis ces enfants
Sur le sein maternel écrasés et sanglants?

“What crime and what sin have been committed by these infants crushed and bleeding on their mothers’ breasts?” Or would you comfort those dying in torment on desolate shores by assuring them that others will profit from their demise and that they are discharging the parts assigned them by universal law? Do not, says Voltaire, speak of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in the hand of a God who is Himself enchained by nothing.

For all its power, however, Voltaire’s poem is a very feeble thing compared to the case for “rebellion” against “the will of God” in human suffering placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by that fervently Christian novelist Dostoevsky; for, while the evils Ivan recounts to his brother Alexey are acts not of impersonal nature but of men, Dostoevsky’s treatment of innocent suffering possesses a profundity of which Voltaire was never even remotely capable. Famously, Dostoevsky supplied Ivan with true accounts of children tortured and murdered: Turks tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs, impaling infants on bayonets, firing pistols into their mouths; parents savagely flogging their children; a five-year- old-girl tortured by her mother and father, her mouth filled with excrement, locked at night in an outhouse, weeping her supplications to “dear kind God” in the darkness; an eight-year-old serf child torn to pieces by his master’s dogs for a small accidental transgression.

But what makes Ivan’s argument so disturbing is not that he accuses God of failing to save the innocent; rather, he rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds. He grants that one day there may be an eternal harmony established, one that we will discover somehow necessitated the suffering of children, and perhaps mothers will forgive the murderers of their babies, and all will praise God’s justice; but Ivan wants neither harmony—“for love of man I reject it,” “it is not worth the tears of that one tortured child”—nor forgiveness; and so, not denying there is a God, he simply chooses to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom. After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small child to death, would you think the price acceptable?

Voltaire’s poem is not a challenge to Christian faith; it inveighs against a variant of the “deist” God, one who has simply ordered the world exactly as it now is, and who balances out all its eventualities in a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Nowhere does it address the Christian belief in an ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths, and reduced cosmic time to a shadowy remnant of the world God intends, and enslaved creation to spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to God. But Ivan’s rebellion is something altogether different. Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the actual history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoevsky sees—and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his Christian view of reality—that it would be far more terrible if it were.

Christians often find it hard to adopt the spiritual idiom of the New Testament—to think in terms, that is, of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, of Christ’s triumph over the principalities of this world, of the overthrow of hell. All Christians know, of course, that it is through God’s self-outpouring upon the cross that we are saved, and that we are made able by grace to participate in Christ’s suffering; but this should not obscure that other truth revealed at Easter: that the incarnate God enters “this cosmos” not simply to disclose its immanent rationality, but to break the boundaries of fallen nature asunder, and to refashion creation after its ancient beauty—wherein neither sin nor death had any place. Christian thought has traditionally, of necessity, defined evil as a privation of the good, possessing no essence or nature of its own, a purely parasitic corruption of reality; hence it can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil); it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness. Being infinitely sufficient in Himself, God had no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself. This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent—though immeasurably more vile—is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature.

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Hart, Cowling, and "A Most Partial Historian"

A great revew of Maurice Cowling's Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England.

Maurice Cowling (b. 1926) has never gained wide celebrity in Britain and is all but unknown beyond its shores, even though he is arguably among the twentieth century’s most accomplished historians. In part, this is a neglect attributable to something indefinably elliptical in his work—his concern for topics that often excite only other scholars, perhaps, or the simultaneous subtlety and diamantine hardness of his prose—but in far greater part, I suspect, it is attributable to the unfashionable cast of his ideas. His intellectual convictions are conservative and Christian, if idiosyncratically so in both respects, and neither quality endears him to those many British academics and assorted savants to whom this can mean only that he is a dangerous reactionary. Even among the Christian intelligentsia of those isles, his importance may occasionally be acknowledged, but often with more than a little suspicion or even hostility.

I, for one, can attest to the latter reality. I was a postgraduate student at the Divinity School at Cambridge University in the mid-1980s, at some remove from Cowling’s haunts but still within range of many of the ripples that spread from him, and while there I learned how pronounced was the distaste earnest English Christians—students and faculty alike—were capable of feeling towards whatever it was they imagined Cowling represented. Occasionally the rhetoric he inspired was positively frantic, if not slightly lunatic. No one denied his reputation for erudition, clarity of mind, and impatience with vagary—as well as for the profound influence he had on those who chose to expose themselves to his thought—but somehow this reputation was taken as something sinister. In the minds of certain of my colleagues, he seemed a kind of Klingsor in his castle, weaving unwholesome spells with which to ensnare innocent souls (an impression given added strength by the fact of his being a fellow of Peterhouse, of all the colleges the most cordially loathed, regarded by all right-thinking persons as an impregnable citadel of criminal nostalgias).

Not that any of my acquaintances had been Cowling’s student or, as far as I could tell, knew him personally. The real scandal of Cowling for those of my fellow theologians who had any sense of him was not simply that he was in some undefined sense a man of the right, or even that he was by all accounts a rather severe personality, but that—in addition—he presumed to present himself as a Christian thinker. Devout and studious British Christians, after all, are as a rule creatures of the left, and there is rarely any form of social meliorism that the clergy and theologians of England are not eager to embrace, whether or not it has any of the actual effects they desire from it. But Cowling has the temerity to demur from the cozy consensus, to cast a cold eye upon the facile equation of Christian morality with sentimentality, sincerity, or “activism,” and to do so with a power of argument that is disturbingly difficult to resist. And this is one reason, I imagine, for the relative obscurity in which his work languishes.

Which is a pity, most especially for Christian thinkers, who could profit much from an unprejudiced encounter with his work. Were they to grant him more of a hearing, they might find him to be a thinker intelligently and skeptically absorbed in vital questions, and an interpreter of Christian culture who, whatever one makes of his politics, deserves the attention of anyone concerned to understand the fate of faith in the modern age.

If the time for a proper critical appreciation of Cowling’s importance is ever to come, it may as well be now. With the publication in 2001 of the third and final volume of his immense magnum opus, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, Cowling has completed a work of history not only in many ways sui generis, but truly magisterial. Its focus is quite rigorously limited, unquestionably, but its scope is vast: it is an attempt to gain an encompassing perspective on the transition of England’s cultural consensus, over a little more than a century and a half, from that of a Christian country to that of one decidedly post-Christian, and to do so entirely by way of the literary remains of the intellectual classes.

Indeed, this last aspect of the trilogy is in a sense its governing logic and its most significant challenge to historiographical conventions. From the first, Cowling eschews all social or material history, sequesters his study from political, economic, or class theory, refuses every invitation to subordinate ideas to events, and fixes his gaze with almost ascetic intensity on the published beliefs, speculations, fantasies, convictions, and modest proposals of the caste of literati who mold the opinions and prejudices of their times. His interest is, as his title announces, “public doctrine,” by which he means the entire spectrum of orthodoxies and heterodoxies propounded by the literature of popular, literary, and scholarly discourse in the public forum; today, as Cowling remarks, “reading, viewing, and reflecting are more central than prayer or worship,” and so it is exclusively of texts and their authors that he chooses to write.

What this method produces, one must immediately say, is in no sense a work of impartial history. Indeed, Cowling regards such impartiality as a pretense, and views the opinionated historian as the more honest and probative practitioner of the craft. In the trilogy’s first volume—which is something of an intellectual autobiography—he speaks of his desire to “describe the contours of a narrow mind” and in the final volume confesses to being “a cynical conservative who has never had the slightest enthusiasm for the rhetoric of progress, virtue, and improvement.” Not that he needs to inform his readers of these things: his treatment of writers is frequently, as he freely concedes, venomous, and he is not the sort to suffer from any excessive anxiety over the prominence of his own personality within his commentary. While the range of his investigations is huge—making no distinctions among philosophers, psychologists, historians, novelists, or any other tradesmen of the written word—the range of his sympathies most emphatically is not. He is a Christian by intellectual conviction (though not necessarily, he ruefully acknowledges, by virtue of devout observance), and a conservative by philosophy and temperament, and it is only where these two currents fruitfully intersect that he is obviously at peace with his subjects.

That said, no one should mistake Cowling for a rigid dogmatist, much less for an apostle of reaction. There is not even any sense in which he could be said to cling to any particular conservative “theory.” He is, in other words, a pure exemplar of H. Stuart Hughes’ maxim that conservatism is “the negation of ideology.” Not the sort who vests his confidence in any general political or economic principle equally applicable to—and equally abstracted from—all societies, he represents a conservatism of the concrete, historically and socially specific. One is tempted to characterize it simply as an attachment to certain traditions, memories, customs, habits of usage and association, cultural forms, and even perhaps particular landscapes; or as a belief in the organic integrity of civilization, and of the adherences upon which civilization depends, and a stern distaste for the damage done when the coherence of culture is carelessly or callously assailed. He is a royalist, naturally, a believer in the established church, a defender of worthy institutions and traditions, and is unimpressed by those who think in terms of grand designs for refashioning the social order from the top down or bottom up; but it would be imprudent to assay an account of his political “philosophy.”

Most importantly, though, Cowling’s conservatism is Christian—a sober fidelity to English Christian culture. He sees that the decline of Christian belief and the disintegration of the social authority of the state-church accommodation have been ruinous to “the historic English personality” and have “flooded the providential causeway which divides dignity and cosmic confidence from hopelessness, boredom, and despair.” And since this is the moral concern with which his history is engaged, his intellectual alliances and enmities are not necessarily at the beck of his personal loyalties and aversions. When, at the end of his history, he lists the figures he has discussed for whom “the reader will detect anything resembling sympathy,” he does not simply name fellow conservatives. He mentions, for instance, the resolutely socialist theologian John Milbank because Milbank is so blithely uncompromising an enemy of modernity, as unwilling as Cowling to grant secularity any of the intellectual, moral, or historical claims it makes for itself. At the same time Roger Scruton, whom an inattentive reader might expect to appear in the same company, is excluded from it, and is treated earlier in the text as, in some sense, an accomplice of that “post-Christian consensus” upon which Cowling’s trilogy pronounces so damning a verdict.

That verdict, incidentally, is one not so much of apostasy as of heresy. It may be the case, Cowling believes, that the Christian epoch has descended deep into its twilight and that when the sun rises again it will be—at least in England—upon a world evacuated of transcendence, but he refuses to concede that this is a result of natural necessity, advances in cultural rationality, social progress, or (certainly) “enlightenment.” In fact, Cowling treats belief in progress as itself little more than a sordid superstition, and he excels at exposing the secret little fideisms (many of them parasitic on religious habits of speech and thought) that inform the minds of “advanced” thinkers and the rhetoric of triumphalist secularism. Religion cannot be escaped, he argues, even if Christianity is now in retreat, and “whatever post-Christian and anti-Christian thinkers may have thought they were doing, they were in fact contributing to a transformation within religion.”

The structure of Religion and Public Doctrine is elegantly simple, for all the vastness of its exposition; the longueurs are surprisingly few, the narrative rarely flags, and the work as a whole succeeds at being exhaustive without being tedious (though, admittedly, opinions on this last point are likely to vary).

As I have noted, Volume I (Cambridge University Press, 1980) is in a sense autobiographical, though it records few details of Cowling’s life. Rather, it situates his project within the field of intellectual forces that exerted an influence—for good or ill—over the evolution of his opinions. Hence it is governed by no chronology except that of Cowling’s own formation: the first two major treatments in the volume are of Alfred North Whitehead and Arnold Toynbee, but the last drifts well back into the nineteenth century, to Lord Robert Cecil (Salisbury). And, by any standard other than the author’s own peculiar intellectual history, the assortment of subjects is an eccentric one: in addition to the figures just named, it includes the “three Anglican reactionaries” Kenneth Pickthorn, Edward Welbourne, and Charles Smyth, as well as T. S. Eliot, David Knowles (whose works this book, one hopes, will revive), R. G. Collingwood, Herbert Butterfield, Michael Oakeshott, Winston Churchill, Elie Kedourie, and Evelyn Waugh; and, inter alia, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Christopher Hill, Lord Acton, Norman Sykes, Owen Chadwick, and Enoch Powell.

Though it introduces most of the themes that will recur throughout the trilogy, the chief pleasure this volume affords—being more diffusive than its successors—lies in the judgments it renders upon individual authors. Here, as elsewhere, Cowling’s willful defiance of the dull, dry, judicious manner of the modern historian is absolute—as is, in consequence, his critical candor. It would be difficult to find a more pitiless dissection of Whitehead’s “organism,” or of the emptily idealistic optimism that allowed it to float with such beguiling buoyancy above the solid earth of human reality; and there is something at once discomfiting and exhilarating in Cowling’s ruthless exposure of the banality, and of the immense intellectual amorphousness, of Toynbee’s philosophy of history and “resentful, self-destructive, post-Christian liberalism.” And Collingwood, for all his obvious brilliance, comes across as perhaps a mite demented, a sometimes unhealthily self-important scholar who “allowed philosophy and history a quasi-religious authority which no sensible man will allow, except inadvertently, to any academic subject.”

Nor are Cowling’s most penetrating criticisms aimed only à la gauche. It is clear, for instance, that he finds Oakeshott’s thought finally somewhat fruitless. For all the insight it provides into the “practical” ubiquity of religion, and of the irreducible richness of moral intercourse in human society, it cannot provide the thing most needful, and seems fatally contaminated by a powerful current of “Nietzschean or Hobbesian amorality.” And he is unsparingly honest about Churchill, who emerges as a redoubtable champion of civilization, without question, but also as a man whose mind was shaped by materialism, Darwinism, and a semi-pagan and even nihilistic pessimism, to whom “Christian reactions . . . should be . . . mixed.” Eliot’s observations on the decay of Christian culture in England are presented as very accomplished expressions of suspicion, dismay, melancholy, or foreboding, but mostly devoid of concrete content; and even of Eliot’s poetry Cowling predicts that “very little of it will be durable once the generations that have learnt to follow it have passed away. Eliot will not speak directly to the future.”

With Volume II, subtitled Assaults (Cambridge Unversity Press, 1985), Cowling’s project comes into focus, even as the number of subjects expands: Newman, Keble, Pusey, Gladstone, Manning, Ruskin, and Mill; George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, and Leslie Stephen; Gilbert Murray, James Frazer, H. G. Wells, Belloc, Chesterton, and Shaw; W. H. Mallock, Winwood Read, Havelock Ellis, D. H. Lawrence, and Bertrand Russell. (I could go on.) It is in this volume that the case is most strikingly made that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ struggle between Christian and anti-Christian thinkers for the moral and social future of England was not—as might be supposed—a struggle between religious and post-religious thought, but a war of creeds. The story begins with the Christian attack—by high-church Tractarians and reflective Protestants—upon the post-Christian mythologies of the eighteenth century, and its occasionally confused attempt to turn back the tide of unbelief. But the plot becomes most engrossing where Cowling turns to the tradition he calls “ethical earnestness”: that is, the “progressive” assault on Christianity from the time of Mill, Eliot, and Spencer to that of Russell and Lawrence. It is here that Cowling begins, in scrupulous detail, to identify the sources of the religious consciousness of post-Christian England. “Ethical earnestness,” as he recounts its development, consisted in a profound, often inchoate, but semi-mystical devotion to social improvement and rational morality as alternatives to the superstition, obscurantism, and tyranny of the old faith.

It was not, however, in any meaningful sense “post-religious,” as it demanded of its votaries absolute and fervent devotion to a principle—social cohesion, human development, “Life”—that was itself not susceptible of doubt. In a sense, it was a new cosmology allied to a new moral metaphysics, constantly in ferment, producing movements and sects and new beginnings, but never straying beyond the boundaries of the world in which it believed: a universe of Darwinian struggle that, precisely in its savage economy of “nature red in tooth and claw,” demanded of conscience that it assist evolution in its ascent towards higher ethical realizations of the human essence. In Cowling’s account, one comes to see not only the broad unity of the school of “ethical earnestness,” but the final incoherence of its ethos: the closed order of nature is at once merciless chaos and the source of our ethics; morality is both obedience to nature and rebellion against nature’s implacable decrees; progress demands at once universal brotherhood and (especially among socialists) a ruthless eugenic purification of the race. What unifies this farrago into something like a moral vision is its most obviously religious element: complete devotion to the future as an absolute imperative, requiring in consequence a renunciation of all faith in and charity towards the past—or, for that matter, the present.

This is both the most substantial and most diverting section of Religion and Public Doctrine, thronged as it is with sharply drawn portraits and bedizened with flashes of mordant wit. Cowling is extremely good at showing how, say, George Eliot’s anti-Christian misunderstanding of Ruskin could so easily ally itself to her Feuerbachian ethical humanism, emanating its pale Dorotheas and paler creeds. But more enjoyable, and at the same time chilling, are the accounts of figures like Read (with his Malthusian, Darwinian, Comtean ideology and quaint utopianism of electricity, synthetic nutrition, and obedience to nature) or Ellis (with his worship of Art and Life, and his Nietzschean, Freudian, Frazerian dogmatism). Cowling’s account of the turn of “ethical earnestness,” in thinkers like Wells, Shaw, or Lawrence, towards a grimmer social and sexual vision—less hospitable to liberal optimism, more marked by the influences of Schopenhauer, Wagner, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Freud—reminds one that a certain cold, pervasive fanaticism in this tradition might have carried “ethical earnestness” towards a politics considerably less fond and feckless than the wan, sincere, liberal secularism of post-Christian Britain. (Indeed, one finds oneself wondering whether the failure of English progressivism to produce some suitably demonic thinker who could have caused the tradition to precipitate into conscious nihilism can be attributed to anything other than the habitual British aversion to bombast and the cautionary example of Nazi Germany.)

In any event, Volume II concludes with an examination of those Christian apologists who applied themselves to the task of thwarting the march of secularization to ultimate victory: Mallock, Coventry Patmore, Chesterton, Belloc, Christopher Dawson, etc. Sadly, however, Cowling finds little here to encourage or detain him; however sympathetic he may be to one or all of these figures, none of them to his mind provides a very substantial riposte to the forces of modernity. Chesterton, for instance, quickly exhausts Cowling’s patience with his jollity, paradox, and alternating appeals to common sense and to fairyland irrationality. Of the much-revered The Everlasting Man, Cowling concludes that its attempts at a philosophy failed through its author’s incapacity, and that all its virtues taken together “did not stop the structure of the book cracking under the strain of its own weightlessness.”

Thus, if Volume II chronicles the war waged for the future between Christian and post-Christian intellectuals, Volume III, subtitled Accommodations, is a somber survey of the aftermath, and tells of one side’s resigned retreat from the field of battle and of the other’s consequent relaxation from a posture of arrogant triumphalism to one of mere contemptuous complacency. It is an immense volume, which takes a huge variety of figures into its capacious embrace—Carlyle, Kingsley, Burke, Disraeli, Darwin, Matthew Arnold, Dickens, Tennyson, Browning, Pater, Wilde, Macaulay, Acton, Inge, Shaftesbury, Tawney, Gore, Figgis, C. S. Lewis, Alasdair MacIntyre, Aldous Huxley, Elgar, Parry, Keynes, Hayek, Eagleton, Koestler, and George Steiner (to name a few)—but its form is fairly elementary: it addresses, in order, the accommodationism of English Christian latitudinarians, attempting to adjust themselves to the supremacy of secularist public doctrine; the reaction of more traditional Christian thinkers against the innumerable little apostasies and capitulations latitudinarianism entails; and the final victory of the public orthodoxy that now nourishes the imperturbable sanctimony, hectoring moralism, tender authoritarianism, and infinite dreariness of post-Christian Britain.

Cowling’s account of the internecine, twilit struggle between accommodationism and a more defiant Christian orthodoxy begins with a trenchant treatment of Carlyle, makes its way through mires and over ridges of “sweetness and light,” liberal race theory, social theologies, and many other halfway houses between the cultures of faith and of disenchantment, sojourns for a time with the last generation of Christian apologists who had any cause to hope for a public hearing, and concludes with an interlaced treatment of Alasdair MacIntyre’s retrieval of the rationality of “tradition” and the aforementioned Milbank’s militant, quixotic campaign to drive back all of modernity into its lair (except, notes Cowling, for socialism, which “stands out like a sanctified sore thumb”). But the book draws to its conclusion with an account of the concrescence of England’s new religious consensus into its present form: the arrival of Darwinian science, the rise of the “science” of psychology, the ascendancy in literature and the arts of post-Christian theories and practices, the development of macroeconomics, the evolution of British socialism and imbecile academic Marxism, the triumph of analytic philosophy, and many other of the broad currents that have subtly combined to replace faith in Christ with an (equally dogmatic) faith in sincerity, common sense, and social evolution.

It would be dishonest to deny that the great (and palpably wicked) pleasure that Religion and Public Doctrine affords its reader comes from the constantly flowing stream of caustic wit and surgically precise vituperation that runs through the entire work. The commentary rarely takes leave of any subject without leaving saber scars behind. This is, as I have said, part of Cowling’s method; he sees the writing of history not as the impassive recording of neutral facts, but as an act of interpretation that speaks out of the preoccupations and experiences of the present by filtering the past through the prism of the historian’s sensibility and reason. Still, principled method or not, it makes for very entertaining reading.

At times, the invective is bruisingly terse. Macaulay tended “to slobber over Bentham as a legal reformer”; “In his later years [Shaw] became a bore, windbag, and licensed clown”; “Orwell had a nasty mind and, probably, a nasty body”; “[Anthony] Kenny’s philosophy is derivative, middle-rank, and wanting in the higher creative power”; and so on.

At its best, however, it is an invective of anfractuous fullness, which compresses large verdicts into small spaces. For example:

[Raymond] Williams wrote at two levels—colloquially and self-confidently in confirming for audiences of his own persuasion the truths that they shared with him; opaquely and mistily in establishing the truth and coherence of those persuasions.
As a religious thinker, [Matthew] Arnold had an attractive sadness and resignation towards inevitabilities. . . . But there was an unattractive aspect to this as well—a fatalism which made a strategy out of testing the wind and blowing with it, and a bland, accommodating, acquiescent Anglican grandeur which, while regretting the inevitability and lamenting the loss, was perfectly willing to accommodate away its own grandmother.
Or this uncomfortably accurate pastiche:
[C. S.] Lewis bore the marks of Inkling-speak—the language of the pipe-smoking, beer-drinking “jolly middle earth” whose idea it was that Christ had avoided “idealistic gas,” that mankind had got into a “terrible fix,” and that it had to avoid “religious jaw” and “cut out” the “soft soap” which had been “talked about God for the last hundred years.”
Or (one more example) this:
The courtroom scenes [in Forster’s Passage to India] were . . . quintessentially Hollywood. . . . The Indian magistrate was a Hollywood hero, “Esmiss Esmoore’s” memory a Hollywood effect, and Miss Quested’s withdrawal of her allegations a vindication of Hollywood truth and right.

And then there is Cowling’s trick of striking several targets at once. “[Ellis] was a bore, though less of a bore in socio-religious matters than Forster, say, or Auden”; “In reading Collingwood’s later political ravings, one is reminded of Popper’s The Open Society . . . which was written at the same time as The New Leviathan, and was subject to the same sort of hysteria”; and so forth. Allied to this, moreover, is a talent for ambiguous praise: “[Owen Chadwick’s] strength, like that of his brother, Henry, is that combination of blandness, dignity, and learning which have been a special characteristic of the Anglican clergy.”

The great strength of such writing is that it makes light reading out of 1,600 pages of close textual analyses. Its only weakness is that it can produce so dominant an impression in the reader’s mind as to obscure the prudent care and moral seriousness of the argument being advanced. And it is an argument that demands a hearing. Nothing could be more important for an understanding of modernity (even if it is reached through a study only of the intelligentsia of England) than to recognize that we are not living in an age in which religious adherence has simply withered away before the parching wind of Enlightenment reason, but in one in which a new evangel has—over the course of a few centuries—displaced the old, and with it the cultural energy and rationale of Christian Europe: a new religion, whose most devout believers are as zealous, intolerant, and absolutist as any faith has ever produced, and whose vast silent constituency is as unreflective, passive, and pliant as any enfranchised clerisy could desire. It is good for Christians to grasp that, even in this hour, we struggle not simply with disillusion and demystification, but with strange gods.

However, Cowling’s readers might protest, such knowledge is of little use if one does not—as Cowling refuses to do—lay out what the political and economic implications of Christian adherence should be. But, on this, Cowling is clear: he sees no legitimate liaison between Christian culture and a particular ideology. No less than the liberal religion that has captured the high ground of public doctrine, Christianity is a cultural and spiritual ecology, an impulse towards the ideal or ultimate that takes form in the bones and sinews (the cultural grammar) of a civilization, as well as a corporate and private habit of orientations, limits, practices, and possibilities—all of which allow for various social philosophies to arise and flourish, but which cannot be reduced to any of them. And this leads Cowling to make an assertion that, to idealistic Christians, might seem mildly perverse:

A religion ought to be habitual and ought not to involve the self-consciousness inseparable from conversion. What Christianity requires is a second-generation sensibility in which . . . struggle has ceased to be of Christianity’s essence. This is not a situation which can easily be achieved in the contemporary world; indeed, the religions which can most easily avoid self-consciousness in the contemporary world are the secular religions which are absorbed at the mother’s knee or from the mother’s television set.

In one sense, this might seem a counsel of hopelessness. Still, the burden of Cowling’s argument is that, if indeed secularization is not what happens when religion withdraws, but is itself the positive artifact of an irrepressible religious agitation within human culture, then “it would be absurd to assume its permanence,” because “the instinct for religion that lurks beneath the indifference of the public mind may yet surprise by its willingness to be led astray by Christianity.”

Which leaves me, at least, with only one (unexpected) question: whether, despite Cowling’s keen understanding of England’s cultural quandary, his method of writing history has not led him towards something like faint and undue optimism. His only suggestion for how a second-generation Christian cultural sensibility might be recovered, apart from some cultural crisis that would spark a new generation of conversions, is “the slow influence which might be exerted by a Christian literature.” At this point, though, I wonder whether Cowling’s study might not profitably ballast itself with some element of material history. By all means, we should always be guilty of what Marx called ideology, and recognize that ideas shape culture at least as decisively as material conditions shape ideas, but one must ask whether, by confining his work to the rarefied atmosphere of intellectual discourse, Cowling does not allow himself to keep artificially alive debates that history has already decided.

At the level of general culture, England is post-Christian in ways that no one with a finite life should have the patience to enumerate—the deepening coarseness of popular culture, the spreading violence, Britain’s pervasive malice towards its own cultural inheritance, demographic inanition, infantile politics, an almost total desiccation of a hunger for transcendence. While it is commendable that Cowling denies himself the glamor of the unheeded Cassandra, or of the dour encomiast possessed of desolate omniscience, one must observe that an ancient and syphilitic demimondaine is unlikely to revert to virgin purity again. There is a qualitative difference between the savage energy of the pagan heart and the paralytic morbidity of the post-Christian. Each comprises in itself a kind of nihilism, but the former is frequently unconscious of this, moved as it is by the vitality of natural appetites, dreads, and elations that can carry it from the world of the gods into the Kingdom of God; the latter is not only conscious of its nihilism, but proud of it, and easily converts private despair into general resignation, incuriosity, sterility—both animal and spiritual—and the pitiable charade of a kind of wry, disabused urbanity.

And yet, no doubt, Cowling is right. Can these bones live? It would be impious to say they cannot, and Christianity has perhaps triumphed over crueler gods than these. Cowling understands quite well the magnitude of what has been lost to secularization, and the grim prospects for any attempt to rebuild the edifice of Christian culture on English soil. Nonetheless, he also understands that at the heart of secularity are a thousand arbitrary and fanatical cultural decisions masquerading as realism, ethics, or progress; and, by relentlessly exposing their arbitrariness, his history makes conceivable the ultimate collapse of the religion they sustain. Which suggests that—as my divinity school friends of old would never have credited—Cowling’s very aloofness from the political enthusiasms of the moment, and his severe and solvent habit of critical suspicion, allow him to see the cultural situation around him not so much as a wasteland as a, perhaps, fallow field, and so to regard the present and the future with neither pessimism nor optimism, but with something like a wisely diffident charity.

Copyright (c) 2003 First Things 138 (December 2003): 34-41.