By the waters of Babylon
Preaching at my seminary in 1966 (some years after I had graduated from there), the Reverend Dr Owen Chadwick – then Master of my college, Selwyn, and Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the University of Cambridge – said this:
“It is a strange land in which God’s people live. I must retain my ideals among people who do not share them. I must demand moral principle where voices question the axioms on which my principle rests. … I must sing [the Lord’s song, cf. Psalm 137] though some tell me that is the song of a dreamer … I know that I am a stranger in the land.”
Those words come to us from almost sixty years ago. Five years earlier, Michael Ramsey, at his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “Help one another, serve one another, for the times are urgent, and the days are evil.”
Since then, we have had (in the United Kingdom) the 1968 Abortion Act and (in the United States) the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court. Since then, how many innocent, God-given lives have been denied their births? Eighty million-plus, perhaps? Since then, we have been inundated by the contraceptive tsunami that our government has sought to impose. Western, post-Christian society has enthusiastically embraced barrenness, and it about to reap the demographic whirlwind.
“The times are urgent, and the days are evil.” So said Archbishop Ramsey in 1961. How exponentially more so now!
Aristotle held that “Nature ever seeks an end”, its telos, the reason for which it is, what it is meant to be. And anything that operates contrary to this principle in any given thing is unnatural to that thing. Thus, the Supreme Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges, has given us natural marriage and unnatural marriage.
But Cicero said: “… true law is reason, right and natural, commanding people to fulfill their obligation and prohibiting them and deterring them from doing wrong. Its validity is universal; it is immediate and eternal. Its commands and prohibitions apply effectively to good men, and those uninfluenced by them are bad. Any attempt to supercede this law, to repeal any part of it, is sinful; to cancel it is entirely impossible. Neither the Senate nor the Assembly can exempt us from its demands; we need no interpreter or expounder of it … There will not be one law in Rome, one in Athens, or one now and one later, but all nations will be subject all the time to this one changeless and everlasting law.”
God said [Deuteronomy 30]: “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God … by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and ordinances, then you shall live and multiply … I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, that you and your descendants may live …”
There is frequent, though thus far ineffectual reference to the national debt of 18 trillion dollars. There is concern that this is the heritage we are bequeathing to our children and to our children’s children. But it is as nothing, in terms of its consequences, as compared to the moral bankruptcy they will inherit from us. They will inherit the prospect of doom rather than the Gospel of Life. As Ephraim Radner has said (in “After Obergefell: a First Things Symposium”): “We are heading into a period where human rights of all kinds are likely to be abused, ignored, and disassembled. Children are always the first to go.”
Pope St. John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae, understood that threat within the context of the perennial conflict between life and death which emerged at the very beginning of human history and to which Scripture testifies in the events of Cain, who because of envy “rose up against his brother Abel and killed him”; of the ancient pharaoh who, viewing as a threat the increasing number of the children of Israel, ordered that every newborn male of the Hebrew women should be put to death; or Herod who, out of fear for his throne, “sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem”; and finally of the apocalyptic conflict in which “the dragon stood before the woman … that he might devour her child when she brought it forth”. Human life, the Pope taught, has always been threatened by the forces of evil [my emphasis].
“It is a strange land in which God’s people live” – and more than strange: it is sinister, because it is occupied by the ruthless forces of the Evil One. As in every occupied land, the perilous work of the Resistance is imperative. Tugdual Derville (one of the leaders of the pro-family and pro-life movement in France, and a leader of Manif Pour Tous that has organized massive demonstrations in France over the last couple of years against legislation that would dramatically change the definition of marriage) has said: “ … it is well worth it to sacrifice for the common good … it is important for every citizen to be committed to influencing the course of history.”
We may well feel that this places us in a state of loneliness, not least because so many Christians are too timid to align themselves with any cause against which the New York Times has already pronounced. As Harry Blamires put it, in his book The Christian Mind, “It is not lonely to disagree with other people … But it is desperately lonely to occupy a field of discourse which no one else will enter, even if you are surrounded by people who have reached exactly the same conclusion as yourself.” And he adds that this is a crucial aspect of the thinking Christian’s dilemma in the contemporary world.
Just before the outbreak of World War Two the poet T.S. Eliot (in an appendix to his lectures on The Idea of a Christian Society) wrote that: “We are all dissatisfied with the way in which the world is conducted: … some believe that if we trust ourselves to politics, sociology or economics we shall only shuffle from one makeshift to another. And here is the perpetual message to the Church: to affirm, to teach and to apply, true theology. We cannot be satisfied to be Christians at our devotions and merely secular reformers all the rest of the week, for there is one question that we need to ask ourselves every day and about whatever business. The Church has perpetually to answer this question: to what purpose were we born? What is the end of Man?”
Rod Dreher says that “We live in interesting times”. Interesting? Certainly they are strange times; and we, like Ruth amid the alien corn, are exiles in a strange land. That, in itself, is nothing new. St. Peter told the very first generation of Christians that they were “aliens and exiles”. The writer to the Hebrews told his people that “here we have no abiding city, but we seek the city that is to come”. Owen Chadwick, once more: “Religion, taught Keble, if it be true religion, is never popular … God and the world are sundered far. Face it that the Christians are a protest against the society in which they live. Face it that their kingdom is not of this world … Ye are strangers and pilgrims … You have no long time to stay. … What doth it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
What shall we do? We could wait, perhaps, for God to send us a new St. Francis or a new St. Dominic to convert our hard-hearted, cynical, hedonistic, society with the winsome loveliness of the Gospel of Life. But there is great risk in mere passivity. As Matthew Arnold said of The Scholar Gypsy:
Thou waitest for the spark from heaven to fall; and we,
Light half-believers of our casual creeds,
Who never deeply felt, nor clearly willed ..
Who hesitate and falter life away,
And lose tomorrow the ground won today –
Ah! do not we, wanderer! await it too.”
The study of history provides us with an essential sense of perspective; but it also reminds us of the cataclysms of the past and of how the Catholic Faith has survived them. Rod Dreher suggests, very cogently, that we need a new St. Benedict. There is much about our current culture which should remind us of the collapse and fall of ancient Rome, and it was in those chaotic days, around 500 AD that young Benedict abandoned his studies and left home. He understood the real meaning and worth of the dissolute and licentious lives of his companions. Though he had wealth and the means at his disposal for a career as a Roman noble, he left Rome in order to find some place away from the corrupted and corrupting life of the great city. From that beginning grew the great Benedictine Order. Monasteries were founded, and these kept the light of faith and learning alive through that part of history known as the Dark Ages – so that, in God’s time, civilization was re-founded.
How can we take that Benedictine model and adapt it for use in our exile in the darkness of this strange land and under increasingly hostile conditions? We cannot all become monks and nuns. Very few of us can abandon families, homes, work and careers.
But we have, in fact, a structure immediately to hand. It is the Parish. This is not the moment to set out a precise plan, for that will take prayer, thought and some time. But I do believe that we must immediately consider how we can make our parishes into more intensive and intentional communities, with a much greater degree of common life than we generally experience. As with the Benedictine religious, it will require us to live by Rule and by vows.
Secondly, and at least as important, I do not believe that we can abandon our children to the secular education system as it is currently developing. If we do so, they will be irretrievably corrupted. I do not pretend to know the practicalities of how this may be achieved. But perhaps the provision of Catholic schools should become the very top item in the Church’s budgets and priorities. In addition, we should do every thing possible to encourage home schooling, providing support, infrastructure and curriculum materials.
By such means it may be indeed be yet possible for us to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
Let me end, as I began, with the words of Owen Chadwick: “Despite all that has happened … it is still impossible to doubt God’s reality and God’s power; the Lord is King though the people be impatient; he sitteth between the cherubim, be the earth never so unquiet. God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father. The great Nicene words are as powerful now as long ago. The truths by which we learned to live are truths still.”
Ephraim Radner writes (vide supra) that “the vitality and moral usefulness of the liberal state is increasingly in question: has this form of rule by procedural decision-making served its purpose and collapsed under the weight of its own outsized reach? We are perhaps about to enter times of political revolution and re-inventing government analogous to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”.
It is time to read, or to re-read, Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s magisterial Liberty or Equality.