“Trying to staple a jellyfish to wet soap” – that’s a metaphor worth being remembered for. The author is George Owers, writing in The Critic magazine. He’s complaining about a book called Defenders of the Faith, by Catherine Pepinster.
Apparently Pepinster is upset because royal goings on are fixed in a frame that assumes Church of England Christianity is not just important, but the only religion that need concern the British monarchy or government. That worries Owers, and it worries me too. There, our ways part, Pepinster, Owers and me. He thinks we need to stick with the C of E, she thinks we need to include the Catholic Church. Probably, most of the rest of us think no religion should be assumed to be “the one” in a country with such a mixed population. Some of us even think the country would get along a whole lot better without either an established religion or a monarchy.
Owers doesn’t like Pepinster’s Defenders of the Faith – maybe it’s worth reading it to see whether he’s misjudged it. There is also something to be gained from reading Owers’ review. Both would be good practice in a skill our nation seems desperately short of.
Anyone who spends time on social media will, by now, be familiar with the term “echo chamber” and will, by now, have come across the horrors of social media “debate”: the people who simply cannot endure being disagreed with, the minor misunderstandings that become epic wars that just won’t lie down, the kiddies (I hope they’re kiddies) who just join in for the fun of hurling obscenities… For this reason as much as any, I suggest we all go away from time to time to read something we don’t agree with, quietly work out how to question it, and how we might form a counter-argument – and here’s the vital bit – we must do that without flying into a rage or panicking. It’s a rare talent these days. It’s called “critical thinking”, and it’s the main reason I like reading magazines like The Critic.
Fear of the void
In his shrilly indignant review, Owers is worried about what Pepinster might be thinking. He fears “the forces of philistine secularism and constitutional vandalism”. He predicts “outraged, irreverent squawking” from “amassed ranks of secular liberal opinion-formers”. He notes that Pepinster “stops short of advocating disestablishment of the Church of England explicitly” but that (horrors!) “the prospect doesn’t seem to alarm her.”
His jellyfish-and-soap metaphor was about how hard it was to work out which of the ideas discussed in her book Pepinster actually favours, but he suspects it’s something wishy-washy about upholding all beliefs equally. He sees this as a slippery slope, further suspecting Pepinster of a “Blithe acceptance of secularisation.” He knows why this idea carries a certain logic – he says elsewhere that the monarchy has remained Christian “while the body of the people had largely become heathen again.”
He doesn’t mention the fact that in a democracy, that last point, if true, should spell the end of the whole “Defender of the Faith” thing. And that is what Owers fears – he believes that “if Christianity were to vacate the building some other, false religion will fill the void.” For that reason, he believes we must hang on like grim death to our “spiritual and moral traditionalism”.
I have two things to say in reply to all that.
The first is this:
I understand the alarm. I do think that capitalism has raised up a sort of perverse, individualistic self-worship as a replacement for any meaningful philosophy of life, and I do think that is very bad for people. I also understand his dislike of “progressivism” but it only seems like a bad thing because, by some horrendous twistings of logic, some very regressive ideas have managed to come at us under the heading of “progressive”. We could solve both those problems not by throwing religion at them, but by practising and teaching analysis and critical thinking.
The second is Ragnarok
A S Byatt has a rich and satisfying way with a story. The enjoyment and the feeling of “coming home” I had last night when, tired, frayed and worried, I sat down with her Ragnarok is probably as good if not better than whatever it is religious people get when they enter a church for sanctuary and healing. Byatt’s Ragnarok is based on stories that used to be – maybe still are in some places — other people’s religions but the way Byatt presents them might teach people like Owers (if they were to pay attention) that you can gain all the things he hopes religion will provide in the pages of a well-told story. You don’t have to believe it. Byatt’s telling of Ragnarok includes a child reading Asgard and the Gods, and applying what she finds there to help her through the experience of being a wartime evacuee, with all the stresses and problems that package came with for so many children.
Byatt’s telling suggests to me that the Church of England isn’t qualified for the job of keeping the void at bay. I wonder if reading it would persuade Owers there’s no need to fear the void. At one point, the Asgard-reading child goes into the local church and mentally compares the church’s stories with what she’s been reading. The best she can come up with for the church’s offering is that it would be rude not to believe it. I have never seen an analysis of the Church of England placed so neatly in a nutshell. People wear it like a badge of respectability in polite society. It says, “I can be relied upon to tolerate chronic boredom to keep up appearances.”
The child’s heart, however, is in the living, warm-blooded, rich-pelted stories of the Asgard gods. Stories that nowadays, no-one expects you to believe in, you only need to notice how they touch your own thoughts and concerns, illuminating the darkness behind your eyes. Once you know how to read a good story that way, you’ll keep feeling and thinking and learning. That’s how you dissolve the despond of nihilism; it’s far more efficacious than clinging to tradition as though it were a riot-shield.
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