Kenneth Minogue, writing (back in 2003) about what he termed “Christophobia” (the “rising” and irrational “hatred of Christianity among Western peoples,” especially among the intellectual elite), offered in the process some broader—and, to me, more interesting—reflections on religion and culture.
In particular, this:
The minimal account of religion as a human phenomenon must be that it is a set of stories and beliefs human beings tell themselves to account for what lies behind the manageable world (to the extent that it is manageable) in which we live. In other words, a religion is a response to the mystery of the human condition. The going secularist account of human life is that we are part of an evolving organic life that happened to develop on the edge of a minor planet in a universe of unimaginable vastness. Beyond this, questions of meaning and significance are in scientific terms unanswerable, and we tend to follow Wittgenstein: Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent. We have blocked off religious questions altogether, because they are empirically unanswerable, and people respond in a variety of ways. Some drop the questions and get on with life, others shop for a more exotic set of stories and rituals with which to respond, and many, of course, remain Christian to one degree or another. On the face of it, however, we have a culture which very largely carries on without seriously considering ultimates. We have abandoned the cathedral, and are content to scurry in and out of skyscrapers. So perhaps we are pioneering a new civilizational form in which the issues of human meaning have been recognized as essentially unsolvable, and left to one side. Or, alternatively, we may have transferred the passions appropriate to religion onto beliefs of some other kind.
This strikes me as a fair assessment of modernity; Minogue had it correct, I think, that secular cultures attempt (and for good reasons) to set aside “issues of human meaning”. Whether such a setting aside is possible is, of course, a matter of opinion; as Minogue suggested, it is more likely that the quest for meaning gets displaced onto other things (e.g. politics, work, entertainment, and sex).
And do such substitutes work? Well, sometimes:
We have bought into substitutes. In secular terms, their basic feature must be that they look more like science than religion. Let me suggest that educated Europeans are today united in terms of a project we characterize as the perfecting of the human condition by the power of reason. Devotion to this perfection leads us to scan the news each day in search of signs of the times: we focus on the fate of rights and how they are violated round the world, at the poverty which signals the imperfection of inequality, at peace processes leading us forward and violence and bigotry dragging us backward. The aim is to foster the happiness of mankind, and we are buoyed up when the signs are good and cast down when they are bad. We seek, if we respond to this new form of devotion, to harness human power to control human folly, inspired by our past successes in triumphing over the vagaries of nature. There are many internal disagreements over what this perfection might mean, though currently there is a large measure of agreement that the central problem is war and other forms of human conflict. All of this can be subsumed under the famous slogan that mankind must take its destiny into its own hands. 1
What Minogue described here is essentially the cult of Progress, whose devotees have accomplished much but which has also brought a great deal of destruction (creative and otherwise) upon people who have had the misfortune to stand in its way.
Caught (as we all are) between traditional religion and its myriad secular substitutes, Minogue lamented:
I am a simple child of secular times, and a sceptic, but one impressed by the grandeur and complexity of Christian intellectuality. The Voltairian and the village atheist, seen from this perspective, look a little shallow. In the vast rambling mansion of our civilization, the cobwebbed gothic wing containing our religious imagination is less frequented than previously, but it certainly remains a haunting presence.
That, I submit, is marvelously eloquent.
Minogue had a great deal to say—by and large, he was skeptical about the modern project—and I recommend his article in its entirety: which does not mean I endorse either its assumptions or its conclusions. He ended by warning that, without the solid foundation of Christianity and left to our own devices, we may find ourselves “meandering without a compass in a wonderland of abstractions.”
I don’t know that Mr. Minogue’s warning is accurate, but I do think it’s worth taking seriously.
1 Chris Matthews, whose tiresome banalities MSNBC insists on foisting off on the public, does a commercial in which he solemnly invokes the words of Thomas Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Stirring as that proclamation was (and is), it was (and is) both woefully naive and empirically false.