In a short piece titled “God is Dead; So What?”, Richard Ostrofsky, an acquaintance of mine, lays out his overview of the present culture wars from a perhaps characteristically atheist perspective. He cites Matthew Arnold’s poignant 1867 poem ‘Dover Beach’, which I’d not thought about for over 30 years, and happily revisited. But we subtly disagree about the meaning of the cultural impasse this poem intuits, and about exactly what Arnold sensed over 150 years ago, gazing one night out to sea.
[ Richard Ostrofsky ; Seacliffs stretching along Dover Beach in southeast England across the narrow channel from France ; Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) ; Sunset over the white cliffs of Dover ]
Ostrofsky’s essay correctly points to the enmities shouting out from the extremities of the atheism/religion spectrum, recognizing how the resulting storm clouds muddy up the prospects for finding a path forward for Western culture in general at the present moment. This exaggerated idolization of the poles at the expense of the vaster, more fruitful, and more clear-eyed middle is of course an equally prevalent scourge plaguing American politics of late. Too facile mappings drawn between Conservative and Religionist on the one hand and Progressive and Atheist on the other is itself a parody of reality and diminishes instead of helps one’s understanding. Myself, I inhabit neither extreme, considering atheism entirely unpersuasive and actually a disguise for something else, and also being completely non-religious in any usual sense. That said, I want to dispute the essay’s apparent assumption that Arnold had concluded that atheism is the correct insight as a foundation of his poem.
Ignorant Armies Clash by Night
Arnold knew something straightaway while surveying the poignant, murky situation from that coastline, a century and a half ago: that the initial ingredient in any solution must be honesty. “Let us be true to one another!”
Is Dawkins, for example, being honest in his rantings on the virtues of neo-evolutionary theory or on the certainty that any sentient intentional involvement in Creation is ludicrous? I have long not thought so. He quickly abandons his professed ideals of reason, fairness, respectfulness, open-mindedness, and argument exclusively from evidence as soon as his discussions unfold or positions are challenged. The most articulate and sensible unmasking of Dawkins’ thought fabric I’m aware of is given by the witty and insightful British philosopher, Mary Midgley, in her review of his 2007 book “The God Delusion”. It’s devastatingly complete and concise, and was written while in her late 80s to boot, which for my money warrants a serious listening to.
Now I am aware that those who not only identify as ‘atheist’ but do so with some degree of intellectual fervor will not easily wish to relinquish their views that salvation from the current cultural mess lies within the wider adoption of their outlook. But we can start by noticing that I am advocating a more centrist tolerant stance, thereby avoiding both exaggerated poles. In truth, I do not consider it especially interesting whether a person identifies as either avidly atheist or avidly religionist. There is a similarity and an unhelpful fundamentalism within both. I contend that the atheism/God question is nowhere near being as central or culturally critical a social debate as strong adherents on both sides imagine it to be. Just as avid atheists construct a fantasy caricature of religious psychology and then hold it up as the quaint piñata to smash to pieces with their sticks of reason, so too do religious fundamentalists, in varying degrees, prop up their Faith as the antidote to any inconvenient minutae a more intellectualized seeking might uncover.
A clue to the whereabouts of the golden mean pathway lies with Matthew Arnold’s own makeup and biography. Arnold (1822-1888) was an interesting figure because he was equally adept at and committed to essays, social criticism, and poetry. In fact, from the middle of his career on, he was primarily known as a leading figure in Victorian Prose. Arnold put his own poems in perspective in a letter to his mother dated June 5, 1869:
“It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson, and less intellectual vigour and abundance than Browning; yet, because I have perhaps more of a fusion of the two than either of them, and have more regularly applied that fusion to the main line of modern development, I am likely enough to have my turn, as they have had theirs.”
Here I see the Renaissance ideal in microcosm. The Renaissance impulse of firing on all human gaskets, the wedding of lyrical with analytic. Which impulse was waylaid by several centuries of Reason’s dominance and imperialism beginning in the early 17th century. Think Leonardo. It was after two plus centuries of the rationalistic turn that Arnold awoke to the growing chaos in it’s wake. (The picture has only worsened since.) This, I think, is what lies at the roots of his instinct to embody both the poetic and dialectical spirit. Further, I believe that a deeper more mature fusing of these impulses, erroneously thought incompatible, is the mission of our time, to become exemplified within each striving soul. Science must become more artistic, and art must become more precise with an introspective subjective reason.
Dover Beach does not bewail the passing away of God; that would be an unwarranted and abstract assertion, many steps removed from what we can see in our present predicament. Rather it bemoans the fading adequacy of capital-F faith as mechanism to allay our mass anxiety in the face of rationality’s untempered assault. “The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. / But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating…”. How are we to understand this?
There has always been a resistance to change, or human maturing, even at the soul level, within religious circles. But can it honestly be claimed that the Gospels (or substitute your favorite sacred tradition’s intuitive documents) impose that the spiritual task of mankind remains monolithically the same, dead as slabs of granite, with every passing era? Do we not face different inner hurdles (even if they be conditioned by outer worldly factors — which after all we ourselves have collectively brought about) than the average inhabitant of the time of Abraham or Moses or Augustine or Spinoza, or for that matter Arnold? Whereas throughout the middle ages in Europe an externally supplied and curated creed sufficed to quell the questioning of most hearts, we are now gradually and more insistently called upon to individually supplement our faith with thinking. And these two capacities must color and transform each other.
Had we but known in the beginning,
the tune would twist in our fingers so,
Or drive our feet across the borders,
the way the north wind drives the snow.
This thinking must be individual and independent, taking as it’s grist for contemplation all that lives subjectively within each aspirant. There can be no more commanding. Authority must be regarded as unhelpful, a delaying tactic at best. The divinity within is called upon to rise up and converse with the universal divinity. That is the challenge of the times: responsible, loving, moral autonomy, conscience unconditioned by external voice. This is where Christianity is calling, regardless of the opinions of it’s minders or institutions with vested interest. And this is the thing which oppresses Matthew Arnold at Dover Beach. He is melancholy for the true recognition of it’s weight. (Admittedly I take a little liberty here, since Arnold probably did not articulate this so plainly to himself, but rather intuited it. We, after all, have 160 years of further spiritual evolution on him.) This is a global, universally human concern. It affects each contemporary person in some way, no matter his religious affiliations or lack thereof. And no matter the degree to which he is conscious of it.
There has also always been a hidden, deeper, more esoteric core within serious world religious impulses, which status-quo conscious institutions are loathe to admit or consider. This core is living, accessible to serious motivated seekers. Really the only thing hidden or ‘occult’ about it is the intensity of the inner spiritual striving necessary to obtain an apprehension of it. It has always existed for exceptional persons. The prophet Daniel could see more than the typical Israelite of his day. Rumi could apprehend more than the average 13th century Sufi. Certainly the writer of John’s gospel could see far more than meets the eye. These hidden cores persist to the present day. A common motif expressed within such esoteric circles of the recent centuries is that the spiritual guidance of humanity has in fact been withdrawing in a certain sense. The motivation for this is a call for humans to awaken more deeply into what they are to become: spiritual collaborators. For this, independence is both necessary and sacrosanct. We do not need spiritual robots. It can be terrifying to assume more responsibility along these lines, but the assessment is that the time is ripe.
St. Augustine and Evil
Arnold is not really advocating for atheism, but subconsciously reacting to the effects of the turning away of the stream of divine revelation from humanity, the cutting loose of the strings. He senses the difficulties ahead, for we must all look inward now and discover our own moral authority, the divine trace which has been implanted in the human soul which we are gradually becoming mature enough to detect. Centuries of conflict and growing pains will accompany this transition, and many who have not cultivated the ability to deeply consult their own conscience will falter, become weak, and follow what is convenient.
[ A Catholic St. Augustine icon ; Turkic Manichaen scroll: by the end of the first millenium corrupted forms of Manichaeism had spread as far east as Mongolia ; Scene from Goethe’s Faust after the deal with the devil ; Martin Luther, German theologian and founder of Lutherism (1483-1546) ]
A Rosicrucian source2 discusses the relationships between original Christianity and the Manicheans, a 3rd century mystery sect originating in present day Iraq or Syria. The Manicheans were noteworthy for their novel teachings about the nature of evil, and became deeply misunderstood and castigated by the religious officials in Rome by about 300 A.D. It also tells of Augustine’s role as first a proponent of this movement and then a zealous detractor, and his dialogue with Faustus as the representative of true Manichaeism. Faustus served as the literary model for later conceptions of Doctor Faust by Christopher Marlowe (16th century) and Goethe (18th century). The following excerpted passages from this source depicts in imaginative form the driving forces behind the present world situation, shedding light on the root causes, the chaotic effects of which so troubled Arnold:
Mani is called the ‘Son of the Widow’, and his followers are called the ‘Sons of the Widow’.
The teaching which he proclaimed was opposed in the most vigorous fashion by Augustine after he had gone over to the Catholic Church. Augustine opposed his Catholic views to the Manichean teaching which he saw represented in a personality whom he called Faustus. Faustus is, in Augustine’s conception, the opponent of Christianity. Here lies the origin of Goethe’s Faust, and of his conception of evil. The name ‘Faust’ goes back to this old Augustinian teaching.
The profound thought which lies in this is that the kingdom of darkness has to be overcome by the kingdom of light, not by means of punishment, but through mildness; not by resisting evil, but by uniting with it in order to redeem evil as such. Because a part of the light enters into evil, the evil itself is overcome.
Underlying that is the interpretation of evil which I have often explained… What is evil? Nothing but an ill-timed good… When what is especially good at one time or another strives to be preserved, to become rigid and thus curb the progress of further development, then, without doubt, it becomes evil, because it opposes the good… Thus evil is nothing else than the divine, for, at a previous time, what is evil when it comes at the wrong season, was then an expression of what is perfect, what is divine.
We must interpret the Manichean views in this profound sense, that good and evil are fundamentally the same in their origin and in their ending. If you interpret it in this way you will understand what Mani really intended to bring about. But, on the other hand, we still have to explain why it was that Mani called himself the ‘Son of the Widow’.
The soul was always known as the ‘mother’ in all esoteric (mystical) teachings; the instructor was the ‘father’. Father and mother, Osiris and Isis, those are the two forces present in the soul: the instructor, representing the divine which flows directly into man, Osiris, he that is the father; the soul itself, Isis, the one who conceives, receives the divine, the spiritual into itself, she is the mother… the father withdraws. The soul is widowed. Humanity is thrown back onto itself. It must find the light of truth within its own soul in order to act as its own guide. Everything of a soul nature has always been expressed in terms of the feminine. Therefore the feminine element — which exists only in a germinal state today and will later be fully developed — this self-directing feminine principle which is no longer confronted by the divine fructifier, is called by Mani the ‘Widow’. And therefore he calls himself ‘Son of the Widow’.
Mani is the one who prepares that stage in man’s soul development when he will seek for his own soul-spirit light. Everything which comes from Mani is an appeal to man’s own spirit light of soul, and at the same time is a definite rebellion against anything which does not come out of man’s own soul, out of man’s own observation of his soul. Beautiful words have been handed down from Mani: You must lay aside everything which you have acquired as outer revelation by means of the senses. You must lay aside all things which come to you via outer authority; then you must become ripe to gaze into your own soul.
St. Augustine, on the other hand — in a conversation which made him into an opponent of the Manichean Faust — voiced the opinion: ‘I would not accept the teachings of Christ if they were not founded on the authority of the Church’. The Manichean Faust said, however: ‘You should not accept any teaching on authority; we only wish to accept a doctrine in freedom.’ That illustrates the rebellious self-sufficiency of the spirit light which comes to expression so beautifully in the (Goethe’s) Faust saga.
We meet this confrontation also in later sagas in the Middle Ages: on the one hand the Faust saga, on the other, the Luther saga. Luther carries on the principle of authority. Faust, on the other hand, rebels, he puts his faith in the inner spirit light. We have the saga of Luther; he throws the inkwell at the devil’s head. What appears to him to be evil he thrusts aside. And on the other hand we have Faust’s pact with the devil. A spark from the kingdom of light is sent into the kingdom of darkness, so that when the darkness is penetrated, it redeems itself, evil is overcome by gentleness.
1) A quite beautiful song contains this lyric, and you can hear it’s original studio version here.
2) Lecture #6 from a series of twenty lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in Berlin during the years 1904-05. They were published in English translation with extensive annotations under the title ‘The Temple Legend’ in 1997, with the lecture concerned being titled ‘Manichaeism’. This sixth lecture is available online.
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